What’s New in Germany, Vienna, and Prague for 2017
The burgeoning HafenCity district and its spectacular new Elbphilharmonie concert hall are revitalizing Hamburg's riverfront. (photo: Rick Steves)
The big event in Germany this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther, a priest and professor of theology, wrote and published his 95 theses, questioning the corrupt ways of the Catholic Church. Throughout Germany, visitors will find events and exhibits honoring this anniversary, highlighted by three special exhibitions that will be on display from April until November in three visit-worthy cities.
In Berlin, the "Luther Effect" exhibit, presented by the German History Museum and on display at the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition space, will examine the global effect of the Reformation, including in the United States. At the Lutherhaus museum in Wittenberg, where he lived and preached, the exhibit will focus on the early days of Luther and the Reformation, highlighted by some of his writing and his personal Bible with handwritten notes. The third exhibit, covering Luther's effect on five centuries of German culture and history, will be at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, where Luther hid for 10 months after refusing to disavow his statements. He spent that time translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German, thereby bringing the Bible to the masses. And, throughout 2017, my one-hour "Rick Steves' Luther and the Reformation" special will air on public television throughout the US.
Outside of the many Luther commemorations, visitors will also find a number of German cities and sights in the midst of redevelopment and renovation projects. In Munich, a futuristic overhaul of the main train station is set to start this year. Major renovations are also taking place at the main branch of the Deutsches Museum, Germany's version of the Smithsonian; during this time, a number of exhibits will be tucked away out of sight.
Better late than never, Hamburg's striking (and strikingly over budget) Elbphilharmonie, the centerpiece of its HafenCity harbor redevelopment, has finally been completed and is open to visitors. The building houses a concert hall, viewing plaza, and hotel. Visitors can ride a 270-foot-long escalator called "the Tube" to the plaza level, which features an outdoor promenade and grand harbor views.
In Frankfurt, the Museum Judengasse, located at the city's Holocaust Memorial, has reopened and now covers Jewish history in the city before 1800. (When the Jewish Museum near the river reopens in 2018, it will cover the period from 1800 to the present.)
At Frederick the Great's New Palace in Potsdam, two showstopper rooms have reopened after an extensive renovation: the Marble Hall, with its dramatic 52-foot high ceiling, and the Grotto Hall, featuring marble walls encrusted with thousands of seashells, semiprecious stones, and fossils. The observation tower and platform at another palace building — the Italian-style Orangery — is closed for renovation until 2018.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Austria and Czech Republic, the capital cities of Vienna and Prague continue to modernize and evolve.
Vienna's impressive new Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is now the hub of most train departures and offers plenty of ways to kill time in its many shops and restaurants. For sightseers, the new Vienna Pass, available for one, two, or three days, covers entry to the top 60 sights in the city. Even if planning to visit just a fraction of those sights, the pass can be worthwhile for its line-skipping privileges and unlimited access to Vienna Sightseeing's hop-on, hop-off tour buses.
Karlsplatz, a long-neglected square kist southeast of Vienna's Ringstrasse, is now more inviting thanks to a new playground, skateboard park, open-air summer cinema, cocktail bar (in what looks like a shipping container), and a pond meant to lend the square a beachy vibe, with music festivals hosted on a "lake stage." Also slated for improvement is the fascinating Wien Museum Karlsplatz, which covers the city's history, but will close for several years starting in 2018 as it awaits a new building on the same site.
The big news in Prague is the absence of Alfons Mucha's Slav Epic masterpiece. This series of 20 giant canvases, depicting the story of the Slavic people, is booked on a world tour for about two years. It has not been determined where it will be displayed upon its return to the Czech Republic.
In this region, so rich in history, to get the most out of your travels, you'll want to be sure to bone up in advance on the great events being remembered and take full advantage of some of the best infrastructure for travel anywhere in Europe.