It’s almost impossible to sum up six weeks of life in Mannheim in a single blog post, but I’m going to try. You can chalk that up to the fact that I was too busy living it to stop for pictures or words at the time. But it almost doesn’t matter; my memories of Mannheim are far more than flashing moments. The whole experience is summed by feelings poets would find difficult to express.
The number one question on everyone’s lips – yours as you read this, friends in South Africa and certainly everyone in Germany – was why Mannheim?
If you don’t have a handle on German geography, it’s because you’ve never really heard of it. Germans, on the other hand, can’t fathom the choice of Mannheim over Berlin, München or Hamburg, because they assume Mannheim looks like this.
And it does. Well, parts of it. Indeed, this was the corner I rounded every morning on my way to class. Renovations and public transport route reconstruction, not to mention newer, utilitarian buildings are just part and parcel of life in Mannheim.
But, you’re also going to find views around corners that surprise and delight you. Or, at least the sudden emergence of church towers behind trees and similar scenes validated my belief in the city.
But the story is much longer and painfully boring for most.
At some point, I decided I was definitely going to study German in Germany for a few weeks. As I was studying with the Goethe Institut in Johannesburg at the time, I naturally assumed I would enroll in one of their German branches. In typical Katie fashion, I made a list of every location, whether they offered accommodation and then mapped my options.
Mannheim made the short list. In fact, it was the short list. A small university town in an industrial area meant less expensive living. Easy train connections everywhere I planned to visit (Berlin, München, Basel and Geneva) sealed the deal.
And, in the end, I chose to study German through the courses offered by the Service and Marketing Department of Universität Mannheim.
Really, I spent hours and months making the decision to learn German in Mannheim. Deep loving feelings for the city live with me now, but the decision was entirely practical at the time.
And, enormous weight was settled on the Mannheim Hauptbahnhof at the time. But, with the food trucks in front of the train station, my classroom in the building on the right and my flat just a walk away, life became more about Mannheim than its connections.
Where to stay in Mannheim
Mannheim city is a Quadrate. There aren’t street names in this area; it’s all L1 or F5 and you work out where you’re going by learning where the letters and numbers start.
If you think that’s confusing, it isn’t. And, if you think that makes navigation a breeze, you’re wrong. It’s logical, but the Quadrate doesn’t start with A1 in one corner and radiate outwards. A little time looking at the map will explain this much better than I ever could.
And, I chose not to stay in the quadrate. After carefully considering just about every AirBNB option in Mannheim, creating tables and lists and maps, then whittling down my choices, I ended up just outside the Quadrate. My AirBNB rental was on Schwetzingerstraße, in this lovely building.
Without understanding the city at all, I accidentally stumbled on perfection. It all had to do with the proximity to the train station and cost. But, this side of the city, where the Wasserturm, Art Museum and plenty of leafy parks lie, is wonderfully quiet and accessible.
If you’re planning a visit to Mannheim, and you want a little more space and flexibility than the Quadrate offers (and, mostly, less expensive rents too), it’s definitely worth checking out this side of town.
This Spielplatz is just one of many, almost littering this side of Mannheim. It’s a declaration of just how residential the area is.
A few years prior, when the boys were younger, they became obsessed with finding and visiting every Spielplatz we could while in Berlin and Frankfurt. I think it was the word as much as an excuse to play. And that memory clearly lives with me, as I have a small fortune of Mannheim Spielplatz photos, even though I never made use of one.
Though I’m a big fan of the leafy-green, near-city suburbs, it must be said that it doesn’t mean all the buildings take on the appearance of the one lived in.
As much as I love the trees extending their branches over the buildings, neither they nor the paint do much to disguise the plain monotony of these flats.
True, I have no idea what’s behind these walls. And these days, I’d give up a lot to make Mannheim home again. But, you get where the Germans are coming from on this, right?
If you are hoping to stay this side of Mannheim, but you’re more of a hotel person, might I suggest staying at this Best Western Delta Park Hotel?
To be fair, I never set foot inside this hotel, but I passed it daily. And, every day, I was touched to see a sign reading Delta Park as it reminded me of home.
In any case, the location is simply excellent for getting around the city and I did read good things about the restaurant – though my obsession with rooting out vegan options mixed with my budget meant I never made it. Maybe one day.
Schwetzingerstraße offers a few restaurants, and I quickly found myself addicted to the Chinese takeaway a few doors down. It started with the spring rolls and then I couldn’t stop myself. But, you’ll find Indian, Thai and more along the street, not to mention several grocery stores on or very near Schwetzingerstraße. Basically, I couldn’t have asked for more.
You can't miss the Mannheim Wasserturm
If you perform a cursory search on Mannheim, the first thing you’ll stumble upon is the Wasserturm. It’s just a fancy old water tower with a few fountains and a park. Most visitors could tick this off their list within half an hour in the city.
I spent a month adoring it.
If you’ve got time while changing trains in Mannheim, walk out the front of the station and continue straight for just a few blocks. The Wasserturm will emerge on your right. Walk up the stairs and around for a lovely view of the Schwetzinger side of town, along with the lawns and rose gardens.
The other side faces one of the main boulevards of the Quadrate. Only it’s not called a boulevard; its name is O7/P7 which is about as unromantic as it gets. Yet, still I’m in love.
You’ll find just about everything you need just following this street into the middle of the Quadrate. And, just wandering around is one of the best ways to just stumble on memorable finds in the city.
I walked this very route on my first day “out” in the city – which consisted of picking up a short-sleeve shirt from H&M because the weather was unseasonably hot, figuring out where to go for my language entrance exam and trying (very unsuccessfully) not to appear too giddy with glee every time I passed someone.
If you need something traditionally German...
A good half of Mannheim was destroyed during the war. While some of it was rebuilt, you’re not going to find many buildings like the town hall. It’s just not going to happen.
There is, of course, the palace, which isn’t pictured here for a couple of reasons. First, my camera just couldn’t fit enough of it in to do it any justice. Second, there was – you guessed it – some construction happening – which means I was always going to be better off finding professional photos online.
But, you should visit the palace (if only to visit the University bookshop – as it’s still used as part of the university today) – and you should swing past the town hall. I would definitely check it out on market day to sample some local produce. Or, if you’re just passing through, pick up some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor; they’re simply delicious and vegan friendly to boot.
While you’re at it, poke around places like Paradeplatz with this wonderfully ornate fountain. Across the street, you’ll find the best Rewe grocery store in town, in case you’re wondering.
Truthfully, you’re going to find some traditional German gems all over this city. You just need to look for them. Or rather, you just need to be on the lookout for them.
And, if you’ve decided to stay for a few weeks to learn German, you’ll find it’s really easy to get to know the city. As a bonus, most Germans in Mannheim don’t automatically switch to English when you speak German; they’re more than happy to give you the practice you need.
Falling in love with Mannheim
Before I even stepped foot off the train in Mannheim (this time around; I’d changed trains here once before, but that’s another story), I knew I was going to fall in love with it – even if it is an ugly duckling of sorts.
And, it was walking past streets like this that simply cemented it for me. Mannheim has its own peaceful beauty. It’s orderly and calm and just big enough that you could justify jumping on a tram to explore other parts of the city. It’s just so, well, home.
Now, when daydreaming about travelling to new places, I think about the morning sun over the Wasserturm Park and consider Mannheim a destination – not a transit point. Booking flights through Frankfurt will be a priority in the future, mostly because it’s not far from this part of my heart.