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The hip German city you'd never thought to visit

Paul Clements
Mannheim was an unparalleled beauty, to which its statue-laden squares and art nouveau parks with their dancing fountains still attest - GETTY

Let’s be honest, Mannheim is on no one’s list of must-visit European cities – but it has all the key ingredients of a gemütlich weekend break: a slowly expanding selection of boutique hotels, Instagrammable sights, a hipster neighbourhood, and – the clincher – a jaw-dropping new look for the Kunsthalle. Its century-old gallery of modern and contemporary art occupies an entire block and last summer was given a major overhaul. 

Sure, the city lost its looks during the war. Time was when Mannheim, a youthful and multicultural university town in south-western Germany, was an unparalleled beauty, to which its statue-laden squares and art nouveau parks with their dancing fountains still attest. Now its renowned baroque “chessboard” grid has been filled in with steel and smoked glass. But at least it’s compact and walkable, the city has an impressive musical pedigree, and its National Theatre puts on occasional productions in English.

Fly to Frankfurt am Main (FRA) – with Lufthansa (lufthansa.com), British Airways (ba.com) or Ryanair (ryanair.com) from London Stansted and Manchester – then take the train from the airport to Mannheim central station (30 minutes).

Inside the new Kunsthalle Credit: GETTY

Stay here

Set in a converted red stone mansion block, Syte (sytehotel.de) is Mannheim’s most in-vogue address. Up in the rooms, it’s all moodily modern, with shades of grey, spotless parquet, giant lean-to mirrors and monsoon showers. Doubles from €89 (£79) a night. For something lower-key, try the family-run Kleiner Rosengarten (en.kleiner-rosengarten.com): as well as cool contemporary rooms, its highly regarded Italian restaurant is considered locally as something of a destination. Doubles from €155 a night.

Walk here

Do a lap of Friedrichsplatz, the parade around the ornamental park that’s home to plashing fountains and the city’s landmark water tower. At dusk, the Jugendstil streetlamps are even more alluring. 

The city’s landmark water tower Credit: GETTY

On Sunday morning, join the sedate stampede to Luisenpark (luisenpark.de), the city’s green lung in an upmarket neighbourhood that’s a 25-minute walk from the centre, where beds bursting with colour wend past sculpture-filled lawns, themed gardens and hothouses. At the boating lake, surrounded by rhododendron and flamingos, take a spin in a gondoletta. Entry €8 (no credit cards). 

Shop here

Mannheim is a surprisingly decent place to shop, with Marktplatz full of arcaded passageways and upmarket boutiques said to rival Berlin. Planken, the modernised, kilometre-long high street is the local answer to Fifth Avenue. If you’re looking for local wines, try Südlandhaus (suedlandhaus.de), a Riesling specialist with giftable truffled breadsticks, crackers and Konfitüre. 

See this

After marvelling at the new filigreed exterior of the Kunsthalle (kuma.art/en, €10 entry), head inside for contemporary installations over several floors. The biggest draws are Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and one of Bacon’s “Screaming Popes”.

Try this

Hire a street bike from Germany’s biggest rental scheme: VRNnextbike has hundreds of stands around Mannheim. Download the app (vrnnextbike.de/en/mannheim), set up an account online (at least four days before you arrive), and then use your phone to pluck a set of wheels on demand. €1 for 30 minutes.

The university town suits hipsters, with a cycle hire scheme, craft beer bars and vegan restaurants Credit: getty

Drink here

The hipsterish Jungbusch district casts itself as “Klein-Berlin”. Start with a craft beer at Taproom (Beilstraße 4) and be sure to end up at Hagestolz (Jungbuschstraße 26, hagestolzbar.de), where you can take in sets from bands studying at the local “Popakademie”. 

Eat here

As a university town, Mannheim is in the grip of the meatless revolution: for inexpensive vegan dining, try Kombüse Mannheim (kombuese-ma.de). More upmarket is Luxx (luxx-mannheim.de), the gallery restaurant where dishes from 12 countries are served by genial, but almost comically clueless young staff. Dolce Amaro (dolceamaro.de) does indulgent brunches, involving cocktails and taster plates, to take your time over. 

Heidelberg is just 11 minutes away by train Credit: GETTY

Off the map

Don’t miss Heidelberg, just 11 minutes away by train, where the renaissance castle rises majestically over the roofs of the old town. Another 11-minute ride away is Schwetzingen, with its 18th-century palace and baroque garden that includes an artificial Roman aqueduct, an Apollo temple and a mosque with oriental gardens which was used a nightclub by American solders during the war.