Is Bonn Germany’s best-kept secret?

The Rhine has always been a favourite destination for British cruise travellers. Having been lucky enough to sail along it many times, I find it easy to see why. This mighty river passes through some spectacular scenery, and there are lots of attractive historic towns along the way.

However there’s one place travellers tend to bypass, and I think they’re mad to miss it. Yes, Cologne is imposing, and Koblenz is charming, but for me the most interesting place to stop off on the Rhine is Bonn.

During the Cold War Bonn was a bizarre place, the capital of West Germany, one of the key countries in the western alliance, incongruously located in a quaint provincial town. For the West German government, this incongruity was no accident. It was a signal to their allies that they were no longer interested in world domination. On the west bank of the Rhine, surrounded by sunny vineyards, it was a deliberate contrast to bombastic Berlin.

For 40 years as Europe’s most unlikely capital, Bonn presided over a discreet renaissance. In 1949, when Bonn became the capital of the new German Bundesrepublik, Germany was disgraced, devastated and divided. By 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the Bundesrepublik had become one of the most prosperous and respected nations in the world.

During those Cold War years, Bonn was an intriguing place to visit – surreal and slightly sinister, like the setting for a film noir. No wonder John Le Carré set one of his spy novels, A Small Town in Germany, here. When Germany was reunited, and the capital returned to Berlin, I wasn’t the only one who thought that Bonn would now become a quiet backwater. Instead, during the last 30 years, something strange and surprising has happened. No longer the state capital, it’s become a cultural capital instead.

however far you stray in Bonn, you’re never far from the Rhine


Bonn is renowned in Germany as Beethoven’s birthplace. He lived here until he was 21, before moving to Vienna. He gave his first recitals and wrote his first compositions here. The house where he was born is now an intimate museum. The Beethoven Haus boasts a superb array of his manuscripts – the biggest Beethoven collection in the world.

The church where Beethoven played the organ as a teenager is just around the corner. His grumpy statue (unveiled by Queen Victoria) stands outside the ornate post office, on one of Bonn’s pretty cobbled squares. Bonn came through the war relatively unscathed, and the Altstadt (Old Town) still looks much the same as it did in Beethoven’s day.

Bonn’s 40 years as Bundeshauptstadt (federal capital) has left it with several other excellent museums, the sort of places you’d usually expect to find in a far bigger city. The Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik (House of the History of the Federal Republic) is a fascinating time tunnel through the last 75 years of German history, from 1945 until today. Roman ruins in the basement remind you that Bonn goes a long way back.

My favourite museum in Bonn is the atmospheric August-Macke-Haus, where one of Germany’s finest modern artists lived before the First World War. Macke died in action on the Western Front in September 1914, aged 27. During his short life he painted some beautiful, colourful pictures, so full of youthful joie de vivre.

‘Bonn used to be dismissed as humdrum, but the term that I prefer is modest’


But the best way to get a sense of Bonn is simply to wander around the city. The Altstadt is full of friendly bars and cafés – great places to stop off for a coffee or a beer. Bonn is home to one of Germany’s top universities, partly housed in the old palace where Beethoven was employed as a teenage musician in the court orchestra. These college buildings still look palatial, and a big student population gives the town a lively, youthful buzz.

And however far you stray in Bonn, you’re never far from the Rhine. It’s this moody, majestic river which gives Bonn its distinctive personality. Joggers slog along its banks by day. Lovers stroll along its banks at night. Bonn used to be dismissed as humdrum, but the term that I prefer is modest. And as it proved during its 40 successful years as West Germany’s “capital village” (as Le Carré put it) modesty can sometimes yield astonishing results.

Fred Olsen Cruises and A-Rosa both operate cruises that stop off in Bonn. For more information, visit

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