For many of us, Karlsruhe is a mostly just a familiar name on a blue Autobahn sign. From Kaiserslautern, we zoom past it heading south to the Alps. From Stuttgart, we wave hello while heading north to Heidelberg. Here’s a secret, though: even though Karlsruhe is not a city designed to attract tourists, it is a fantastic place to visit. Because in Karsruhe, you’ll find kind strangers, green space, and a lot of cool things to do.
Though Karlsruhe is a good-sized city (around 300,000 people), it doesn’t have many quaint little center-city streets or half-timbered buildings. This is because most of the inner city was reduced to rubble during World War II. Fortunately, rebuilding was done with great care.
If you’re considering a trip, here are five places to start.
Not just any old zoo
The Karlsruhe zoo is more than just a zoo. Officially called the ‘Zoological City Gardens,’ the place is an oasis in the middle of the city. The animals are well-cared for, and fascinating: you can find elephants, birds, reptiles, and snow leopards.
The best part, though? There are so many other things to do a the Zoological City Gardens. There are playgrounds and eateries. And there are gardens. The park is the biggest one in Karlsruhe, and boasts hundreds of different types of trees. It even has a highly regarded Japanese Garden.
For families, the Zoological City Gardens are a perfect place for a day trip. You can arrive, get overstimulated, find your happy place again, and then head back home.
Even though Karlsruhe might not be a typical tourist destination, it does have one seriously cool touristy thing: the Karlsruhe Palace. The building itself is excellent – 18th century stately architecture, a distinctive color of yellow, home to the lovely Baden State Museum.
It’s the building’s location, however, that is so interesting. The palace is the epicenter of the city, almost literally. It sits at the hub of 32 different avenues that come toward it. Seen from above (or on a map), the castle gardens fan out behind the palace like, well, a giant fan. It’s almost not a joke to say that all roads in Karlsruhe lead to the palace.
ZKM Center for Art and Media
Karlsruhe’s Center for Art and Media (or ZKM – Zentrum für Kunst und Medien) is brilliant. First of all, it’s very German, in that it does a fabulous job of blending both the old and the new. The fantastically modern-in-an-antique-context museum building attests to this.
The exhibitions themselves are also spot-on. The ZKM does a fantastic job of incorporating film, photography, motion, and digital media into an experience that also includes painting and sculpture.
Well worth a visit, the ZKM is open Wednesday through Sunday.
Karlsruhe Botanical Garden
Karslruhe’s bonafides as a green city are well established. It has hundreds of acres of green space and dozens of parks. If you’re looking for the best patch of green in the city, though, the Karlsruhe Botanical Garden might just be it.
Naturally, the garden is filled with plants, trees, fountains, and stately buildings that date from its founding in the 18th century. The overall experience is both energizing and relaxing. Sometimes, it’s the little things at the botanical garden that are the most amazing: for instance, the place has a palm tree that’s over 300 years old (it’s a big deal to be an old tropical tree in Germany!) and a chestnut tree with a fascinating history of surviving WWII.
Pools, saunas, and thermal baths
Karlsruhe is also a city that believes in the power of getting in the water (which isn’t surprising, considering that Baden Baden is just down the road). If you like to swim or soak, Karlsruhe has you covered.
There are several swimming pools that are perfect for families, including the wonderful Europabad. The city also offers the famous Vierordtbad Baths, which have been around for more than a century. It’s a classic European spa, in the best sense.
By car, Karlsruhe is 1 hour and 15 minutes from Kaiserslautern, 1.5 hours from Wiesbaden, and an hour from Stuttgart. Check with Deutsche Bahn for train information.