The city of Bielefeld is in the Ostwestfalen-Lippe, a region powered by high-tech manufacturing and where multinational corporations have their headquarters. One company most people will know is Dr. Oetker, which was founded in Bielefeld and has a museum all about the brand.
Although Bielefeld isn’t on many tourist maps there’s still plenty to uncover in the city. Sparrenburg on the first ridge of the Tutoburg Forest, is a fearsome castle with underground tunnels and a keep to discover in summer. The three main medieval churches in the city centre have valuable Gothic and Renaissance art, while the gabled 16th-century Burgher houses around Alter Markt set an idyllic scene for the Christmas market.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bielefeld:
Bielefeld’s top historical monument is a castle rising over the south side of the city from the Sparrenberg hill.
The castle is on the eastern limit of the massive Tutoburg Forest, which goes on for miles to the west and south of the city.
Sparrenburg’s origins go back to the 13th century and during the 30 Years’ War in the 1600s it was coveted by Dutch, Spanish, Swedish and Hessian forces.
You can walk up to savour the views from the walls at any time of year.
The keep and a 300-metre system of subterranean passages are open from April to October, and the scenery from the top of the tower is worth the admission.
If you’re around on the last weekend of July the Sparrenburg fest rekindles the castle’s medieval atmosphere with a market and re-enactments.
2. Kunsthalle Bielefeld
The city’s fine arts museum is in a building designed by feted American architect Philip Johnson in the 1960s, and has galleries for art from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Some of the earliest works here are by Der Blaue Reiter, the Munich-based Expressionist group, and the Bauhaus artists Oskar Schlemmer and László Moholy-Nagy.
There are also pieces by Pablo Picasso and Max Beckmann, and a sculpture garden with works by Henry Moore, Rodin and Olafur Eliasson.
But the museum really shines for its short-term exhibitions, staging three or four a year.
At the time of writing there were three concurrent shows for contemporary artists Renata Szszlak, Thomas Kieswetter and the acclaimed minimalist sculptor Ulrich Rückriem.
3. Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall)
On Rathausplatz the old town hall holds the offices of Bielefeld’s mayor, while the remainder of the city’s administration has been moved to the modern extension the Neues Rathaus, built in the 1980s.
The original building was finished in 1903 in a blend of Gothic Revival and Neo-Renaissance.
Standing in front, get a good look at the main gable, which bears the city’s coat of arms above a loggia and clock.
You can go into the lobby to see a scale model of Bielefeld in 1650. And between the old and new buildings there’s a sculpture by the Italian Transvanguardia artist Sandro Chia.
Next to the Altes Rathaus and built around the same time, the Stadttheater is an Art Nouveau opera house with solemn Baroque influences.
The building came through a refit in 2006 to keep it in line with international opera standards and is the largest theatre in the East-Westphalia region.
There are around 500 opera, theatre and ballet performances at the Stadttheater each year, and it’s the home of the 72-piece Bielefeld Philharmonic Orchestra.
The venue has made a name for giving German premieres to innovative international operas like Nixon in China by John Adams.
So if your tastes run to high brow culture with an independent twist, find out what’s on before you come to Bielefeld.
5. Dr. Oetker Welt
Bielefeld is the home of the international food processing company, Dr. Oetker.
It all began at the end of the 19th century when the original Dr. Oetker developed a raising agent people could use for home baking.
Five generations later, the brand’s museum at a former custard factory is open for tours.
Over nine exhibitions you can learn how raw materials are turned into finished products, getting “How it’s Made”-style insights into modern factory production.
On the first floor is the Dr. Oetker testing kitchen, where new recipes are developed behind a glass screen so visitors can watch.
The top floor has curiosities from the archives like vintage service vehicles.
6. Ravensberger Spinnerei
In the Mitte district the Ravensberger Spinnerei was at one point the largest flax spinning mill in Europe, with 20,000 spindles whizzing during the peak of production.
Bed linen, shirts and tablecloths were among the textiles produced here.
The complex was built in the 1850s in a Romantic, castle-like style with crenellated walls.
That main facade, fronting Rochdale Park merits a detour alone.
But the mill is now an extensive cultural park comprising a performing arts venue, the Bielefeld Historical Museum, the Huelsmann art museum, which is in the refined manager’s villa, a cinema and a restaurant in the old carding house.
7. Heimat-Tierpark Olderdissen
In the Teutoburg Forest, the Heimat-Tierpark Olderdissen is a zoo for European species, and a favourite day out for families.
The outdoor enclosures, couched in woodland, have been brought up to modern husbandry standards and contain Alpine marmots, brown bears, beavers, wild boars, lynxes, wild cats, highland cattle, mouflons, bison and chamois.
Thanks to the sheltered location many wild animals have chosen the animal park for their habitat, so bird species like herons can be observed as you wander around the enclosures.
The Heimat-Tierpark Olderdissen is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and is free to enter.
8. Alter Markt
Maybe the most picturesque spot in central Bielefeld is where the city’s market traded until 1903. This compact square is framed by lovingly restored Renaissance gabled houses, once owned by Burghers.
The prettiest of all, and one of the symbols of the city is the Late Gothic Crüwell-Haus from 1530. On Piggenstraße you can set foot inside the lobby of this building, which has a staircase clad with about 7,000 tiles from Delft with scenes from Bielefeld’s past.
And as for the former town hall, this took damage in the war and was reborn as the Theater am Markt in the 1950s.
9. Altstädter Nicolaikirche
Right by the Alter Markt is Bielefeld’s oldest city church.
The Altstädter Nicolaikirche got its present Gothic design in the 14th century but dates back 100 years before that.
In 1944 it was hit by a bomb, which destroyed everything except the lower walls.
Most of the Gothic architecture was revived, except on the 81.5-metre tower, which has a concrete clock face and spire designed in the 1950s.
The absolute must see inside is the precious Schnitzaltar, crafted by Antwerp’s Guild of Saint Luke in 1524. This unbelievably intricate altarpiece has 250 small carved figures in panels evoking scenes from the bible.
10. Botanischer Garten
On the Kahlenberg hill to the southwest of the centre, the Botanischer Garten celebrated its centenary in 2012. The park has lots to delight horticulture enthusiasts, but for everyone else is a great pick for a calming stroll.
Planted across four hectares are 2,500 species, which are organised according to their natural environements: There’s an alpine garden, a rockery, medicinal garden, a meadow for wildflowers and a spice garden.
If there’s a best time to come it has to be May and June when the many rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom.
11. Neustädter Marienkirche
This 13th-century church and its pair of towers is one of the defining elements of the Bielefeld cityscape.
The Neustädter Marienkirche was founded as a collegiate church, and its most striking feature is an unusually long, three-storey-high choir from the 14th century.
Those famous towers were damaged in the war, and their 18th-century Baroque domes were replaced with Gothic spires in the 50s.
There’s another stunning altar at this church, the Marienaltar, which is a Gothic triptych of 30 small scenes around a central painting of Mary with Child, all dating to the end of the 14th century.
The largest square in Bielefeld is to the northeast of the Innenstadt, and for most of the city’s history was a parade ground on the edge of countryside.
But during industrialisation the square was enveloped by the city, and was a rather nondescript place until a big makeover in 2013. Kesselbrink now has the largest urban skate park in Germany, a miniature city of ramps and obstacles.
There are ample lawns, a large fountain, and the square is at its most vibrant on market days, which fall on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
13. St. Jodokus
On Kolsterplatz in the Innenstadt, St. Jodokus is a Late Gothic former Franciscan monastery from the early 1500s.
The church and its monastic buildings form a historic ensemble on the square, all in a discreet style in line with the Franciscan’s austere ideals.
in the church you can view what is believed to be the oldest work of art in Bielefeld: The Black Madonna is a Romanesque carving of Mary with Child from 1220. Also historic is the church’s shrine, which has polychrome figures of Mary and St Michael and was sculpted in the early 1500s, around the same time the monastery was consecrated.
14. Museum Wäschefabrik
There’s a time capsule of 20th-century industrial history in a former tablecloth and bed linen factory on Viktoriastraße.
The facility was in business from the beginning of the 1900s to 1980, and what’s so enthralling about this place is that its equipment hardly changed.
The original sewing machines were built to last, and were constantly repaired rather than being replaced, so the oldest machine on show is more than a century old.
When the factory closed, everything stayed exactly where it was.
Since the 90s it has become a museum, although not in the traditional sense, as the attraction hasn’t been curated or altered; just preserved.
Everything you see was used in everyday production, and additional information is provided by placards.
15. Christmas Market
From 21 November Bielefeld’s Christmas Market sweeps across the pedestrian squares and streets of the Innenstadt.
Jahnplatz is overrun by dozens of little red huts under a beautiful canopy of lights, while the city’s tree stands at the historic setting of the Alter Markt in the middle of yet more stalls.
There are 120 traders in all at this time of year, selling handicrafts and classic German Christmas treats like Lebkuchen (gingerbread). Something very special that you have to try is Feurzangenbowle, in which sugarloaf is soaked in rum and then set alight and allowed to drip into mulled wine infused with cinnamon, orange peel, cloves and star anise.