Large enough to feel cosmopolitan but small enough to feel friendly, Schwäbisch Hall, an hour northeast of Stuttgart, is a real charmer. Strolling through its heart is like walking through a pop-up history book for children. There are brightly-painted half-timbered houses; forbidding gates on the medieval town walls; an elegant Gothic church; a fine Baroque town hall. Wooden covered bridges straddle the River Kocher; stone stairs, called Stäffele, climb the hills.
Right on the main square is St Michael's Church, which dates back to the 12th century. But it is the 500-year-old, wide stone steps up to the entrance that produce the oh-wow effect. There are 53 of them and, spreading out like a fan, they provide a stage for Freilichtspiele, the popular summertime, open-air productions, such as Saturday Night Fever. (Climbing up the church tower means climbing 160 more stairs – but the views are worth it.)
Then and now, history and art
The story of Schwäbisch Hall is told in the Hällisch-Fränkisches Museum, which covers seven historic buildings. Children go back in time as they work the tread wheel on the replica medieval crane. Other displays range from salt-making to an 1882 penny farthing bicycle. Across the river are two art museums. In the Johanniterkirche, an ancient church, the religious art includes The Virgin of Mercy by Hans Holbein the Younger. Contemporary art is the focus of Kunsthalle Würth, whose collection includes works by Henry Moore and David Hockney. On the edge of town, the Hohenloher Freilandmuseum, an open air living history museum, recreates everyday rural life in days of old, with blacksmiths, cheese making and more.
Schwäbisch Hall at a glance
- Where: An hour northeast of Stuttgart; in the River Kocher valley
- Population: 40,000
- Climate: Warm summers, sunny autumns
- Landmarks: Market square, St Michael’s Church and steps, Kunsthalle Würth and Hallisch-Frankisches Museum
- Weekly Market: Wednesday and Saturday mornings, 33 stalls offering the best of the region
See the sights
The best way to get around is on foot. Borrow an audio guide at the Tourist Office (9 Am Markt/the market square) and off you go. In ancient times, salt production filled the coffers of this riverside community; in the Middle Ages, it was the minting of coins. Today’s town has a comfortable feel, with museums and one-of-a-kind shops, cafés, traditional taverns and trendy bars. In summer, with all the outdoor terraces, there is a Mediterranean feel.
Shopping with Living history
In an impressive medieval building on the market square is Löwen Apoteke, the 450-year-old pharmacy (3 Am Markt). Still in use is the 300-year-old cabinet, whose 400 drawers stored medicines and herbs. For foodies, the Markthalle Kornhausscheunen, the farmers’ market (6 Kornhausstrasse) is a big draw. Eat in the café or make up a picnic with ham, salami and cheese at the butcher/delicatessen, whose counter stretches for 22.5 m/75 ft.
The fun never stops
But this atmospheric town also has a thriving cultural scene, which makes it feel bang up to date. Another performance venue is the Globe Theatre, a theatre-in-the-round, on an island in the River Kocher. The town is known for the sheer variety of its festivals, from international jazz (March) to the quirky Kuchen-und Brunnenfest, Cake and Fountain Festival, which commemorates a bakery fire in 1316 and now involves loads of cake (Whitsun). With a funfair and craft fair, the 800-year-old Jakobimarkt lasts for 4 days (late July); the Sommernachtsfest marks the end of summer with music and light (late August). Unique is October’s Tag des Salzes (Salt Day) featuring traditional salt making demonstrations; of course, there is a Christmas Market (Nov/Dec). And note that locals often drop the ‘Schwäbisch’ and refer to the town as just ‘Hall’.