Just a thirty minute drive away from Frankfurt, the financial capital of Germany, where the hustle and bustle of live can sometimes be overwhelming, you can escape to a fairy-tale town deep in the heart of the Taunus Valley lined with colorful half-timbered houses, winding cobbled-stoned streets and leaning buildings. As per usual, I was a’scrollin’ through Pinterest, when I stumbled upon this beauty and knew I had to visit!
As it has a perfectly preserved Altstadt (city center), the town is listed along the Deutsches Fackwerkstrasse (German Timber-framed Road), and with roughly 15,000 inhabitants, the town is still very peaceful and quaint, give or take a few roaming cats. Throughout the town, you’ll find little plaques on the buildings giving you some history of the town’s past, but only in German.
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It recently dawned on me HOW much I love half-timbered towns and WHY. You might have already learned from my previous post, that it was a Christmas childhood decoration that got me hooked. But even more, it’s my imagination that runs wild with stories of the history, the people and the buildings, which help to bring alive these sleepy little towns.
I also highly enjoy visiting these idyllic half-timbered towns because here you’ll find nothing but authenticity. The real German history and culture, none of this big-city, flashy culture trying to make a buck from you. No, here, you’ll find sweet cafes selling ice cream, little old ladies taking leisurely walks and old men sitting on a bench, smoking a pipe and watching the children play hopscotch. Time mores slower here and people enjoy their lives just a little bit more, without the stress.
The first place you should always start is in the heart and soul of the town, the main market. Here, you’ll always find the city hall, a few cafes and restaurants and a place where the townsfolk gather. The buildings encircling the main square here date back to between the 15th and 17th centuries.
There’s so much just in this one square, it’s hardly imaginable! To take it all in, I’ll break it down for ya!
As you walk into the square, you’ll likely notice the Killingerhaus first, as it’s one of the more vibrant and dominating among the three houses lines up here, with lots of carvings and its stunning façade with bay windows protruding outwards. Here, you’ll also find the tourist center, where you can learn some extra information about the town. It is considered one of Germany’s most important half-timbered buildings for history and art. There is speculation that the original owner of the house moved the house from Strasbourg to Idstein when he moved to the town.
Just two buildings over, you’ll find the best cafe in town, and the oldest, dating back to around 1350. Cafe zum Löwen has some of the best ice cream ever! We had the Schwarzwalderkirsche (Black Forest Cherry Cake Ice Cream!) and it was pure heaven and the view from the balcony had a direct view of the entire square and the building which was the reason I wanted to visit.
Directly opposite the cafe, you’ll find several buildings to admire. Firstly, you’ll find a rather particular building called “Das Schiefe Haus” (the Crooked House) rightly named. This was the true reason why I wanted to explore Idstein, because how often do you find crooked houses anymore? This whimsical building with two relatively high gabled lucarnes, with its deep blue and façade and yellow window frames is just screaming to be seen.
Radical changes were made to the building in the 18th century caused the the building to lean to the left due to the loss of the diagonal bracings. Some people can see it, some can’t. Or maybe it’s just playing tricks on all of us!
Next to the Crooked House is the massive Kanzleitor castle, easily reachable by climbing the steps in front of the Red Town Hall, which slightly looks out of place. As you walk up to the castle, you’ll pass through a gate which has had an interesting history as it has been used as a prison, torture chamber and grain storage, but is today used as the registry office. When the royal line of Nassau-Idstein died out in 1721, the palace lost its role as residence of the sovereign and seat of the government.
Once you walk through the castle gate, you’ll be in the former castle grounds which will extend out in front of you. Just a bit further up, you’ll notice a plaque on the wall, commemorating those who lost their lives when the town purged those suspected of witch craft by burning them. A total of 35 women and 8 men were accused of witchcraft and executed. Idstein was quite notorious in 1676 for their witch trials, almost 20 years before Massachusetts had their Salem witch trials!
Just above the plaque, stretching up into the sky is the Witches’ Tower, but actually has nothing to do with the 17th century witch trials in Idstein. No witches or warlocks were ever held prisoner here. It is, however, the oldest building in the town dating back to around 1170 and therefore, is the symbol of the town. If you are interested in climbing the tower, ask at the tourism office for the medieval key to the tower!
- Special Event: Every other year, in the Spring, the town holds the Idsteiner Hexenmarkt (Witches’ Market) in the castle and palace area with medieval crafts and entertainment.
Just a bit further beyond is the Residenz (Idstein Palace) dating back to 1614 and has seen many lives. It was once an the Nassau central archive office, a convalescent home, a military hospital for reservists, military barracks, a country hostel, a teachers training college and again a military hospital. Since 1946 however, it has been the Pestalozzi Grammar School.
Head back into town for more picturesque alleys and streets. Head back in the direction of the Killingerhaus and go straight. You’ll come to a fork in the road, for which you’ll need to decide to either go down Kaffeegasse or up Obergasse. As my husband is a big coffeeaholic, we chose the former.
Then we headed up towards Obergasse via Schäfegasse, where you’ll find Höerhof – a four star restaurant and hotel. The building was given to Henrich Heer, the architect of the Idstein Palace by Count Ludwig II as a present in 1620.
While walking through the town though, keep your eyes open for “Envy Heads” or “Grudger Heads”, which are face protruding from the façades of the buildings, sometimes sticking out a tongue. These are symbols to protect against envy and jealousy and ward off any hatred and “evil eyes”. You may even find a few “Fright Heads” which are supposed to protect the inhabitants from demons and ghosts and other forms of evil.
Coming down Obergasse, you’ll enjoy a wonderful view of the half-timbered houses lined up along the lane with the Witches’ Tower off in the distance.
As you make your way back to the main market, you’ll pass Union Church, a rather plain-looking church on the outside but magnificent on the inside with Bible illustrations on the ceilings. Sadly, we discovered it’s beauty inside AFTER we got home and are wondering how we allowed ourselves to leave without going in! We always go in!
And in case you haven’t had your fill yet of Idstein’s colorful half-timbered houses, then continue on to stroll down Weiherwiese, a long, straight row of one half-timbered house after another, one more beautiful than the next. I just happened to find myself sitting on a bench, admiring the houses. Don’t mind if I do…
Once you reach the end of Weiherwiese, turn left and be magically transported to the most romantic quarter of the town by walking down Kreuzgasse. Here, you’ll find a plethora of colorful houses, with front doors decorated in cute seasonal decor adding to the tranquility of this street.
Eventually, you’ll circle back around to Weiherwiese as Kreuzgasse merges into this little pocket of the town. Sometimes, you can’t help but pass the same buildings over and over again when you’re in such small towns, but it gives you the opportunity for a second glance.
While walking around, I became a little obsessed with the front doors and couldn’t stop taking pictures. Each one was so colorful and unique, adding to the charm of the town.
We were quite surprised at how quiet certain streets were and how lively the main square was. It was definitely a destination for people out for a leisurely bike and motor ride, and surprisingly, there was a lot of English being spoken. It was a wonderful town and we were so excited to see it and check off another adorable location from my half-timbered bucket list. Yes, I have one. A LONG one!
And surprisingly, we had stopped in this town once before for some gas, but at that time, I hadn’t heard of Idstein, so I was kicking myself for not having known about it sooner! But it made for some good exclamations as we drove through town to the parking garage, realizing we had driven through there before.
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