A historic university city, Münster is the capital of Westphalia and has a skyline shaped by the Romanesque and Gothic towers of its medieval churches. For hundreds of years up to 1801 the city was ruled by a Catholic Prince-Bishopric. This dominion was only briefly interrupted by an Anabaptist rebellion, which was crushed in brutal fashion by a siege and grisly execution of its leaders who were left to rot in cages over the Prinzipalmarkt square.
The Old Town suffered during the Second World War, but its limestone Renaissance and Gothic facades were meticulously reconstructed afterwards. Many of these buildings resonate with world-changing history, like the Historical City Hall where the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, redrawing the map of Western Europe.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Münster:
1. Münster Cathedral
The city’s emblem is a stirring medieval cathedral from the 12th and 13th centuries.
The oldest architecture is the monumental pair of Romanesque towers that forms the westwork from the 1100s.
Give yourself plenty of time to investigate the cathedral as there’s a lot to discover.
On the south side of west transept is the “Paradise” narthex, a hall lined with larger than life-sized statues of Jesus and the 12 Apostles.
Also see the Astronomical Clock, dating from the 1540s and considered one of the finest in the German-speaking world.
In a southern chapel in the apse is the tomb of Clemens August Graf von Galen who died in 1946 and was beatified in 2005 for the stance he took against Nazi policies during the Second World War.
2. Historical City Hall
On the east side of Prinzipalmarkt, the Historical City Hall is another symbol for Münster and one of the finest examples of secular Gothic architecture anywhere.
The facade is jaw-dropping, and requires a few minutes for its tiers of traceried windows, ogival arches, gables and pinnacles.
This all dates from the end of the 14th century, and reflects the confidence that Münster’s citizens had in their episcopal landowners.
The Peace Hall inside is as old as the 1100s and is clad with wooden panels carved in 1577. The hall was where one of European history’s most important treaties was signed.
In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War and gave birth to the Netherlands as a nation after it broke from the Holy Roman Empire.
3. Westphalian State Museum of Art and Cultural History
On Domplatz a few paces from the cathedral is the state museum, blessed with art from the Middle Ages to the present.
Much of this has religious origins, like the fragment of the Liesborner Altar, which is the pinnacle of Westphalian Late Gothic art and was painted in the last third of the 15th century.
There are also six panels from the Marienfelder Altar, painted in the middle of the 15th century for the nearby Harsewinkel’s Cistercian monastery.
Another masterpiece is the Family Portrait of Count Johann II von Rietberg, by Hermann tom Ring in 1562. And that is barely an introduction, as there’s Gothic and Renaissance liturgical sculpture, Romanesque stained glass, furniture from all eras, goldsmithery and a lot more art from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Expressionists like August Macke.
The square around the City Hall can tell you all you need to know about Münster’s prestige in Medieval and Renaissance times.
On the west side there’s a continuous row of gabled Renaissance houses made from Münster’s characteristic limestone and footed by arcades.
These belonged to wealthy merchants, and if you pay close attention to the gables you’ll see that no two are the same: Square, curved or triangular, each is a slight variation on its neighbour.
Prinzipalmarkt is also one of the city’s favourite shopping destinations.
Hiding under those arcades are upmarket retailers (local businesses have priority here), cafes and restaurants.
5. St. Lamberti
A shining example of Late Gothic design, the Church of St. Lamberti was built through the 14th and 15th centuries and forms the northern boundary of the Prinzipalmarkt.
All eyes will be on the tower, not least for the hollow tracery on the spire but also for the grim sight of the iron cages above the clock.
These are from the 1530s and once held the remains of the leaders of Münster’s Anabaptist rebellion during the Reformation.
The tower also has a night watchman, a tradition that goes back more than 630 years.
At the moment this role is filled by Martje Saljé, the first female “watchman” in the building’s history.
Every weekday evening apart from Tuesday she marks the stroke of the half hour and hour between 21:00 and 00:00 with a blast from a copper horn.
6. Picasso Museum
This specialised art museum has more than 800 lithographs by Pablo Picasso, making up almost the entirety of his printed oeuvre.
These were mostly collected by the Münster native Gert Huizinga, who forged a friendship with the artist’s ex-lover Marie-Thérèse Walter.
The galleries are in two historic buildings, one of which is the Druffel’sche Hof from the 1780s and regarded as Münster’s best example of Neoclassical architecture.
The exhibition studies Picasso’s working relationship with the Paris printer Fernand Mourlot, which allowed him to revisit his cuts and tweak them over the course of years.
There are also more than 137 prints by Marc Chagall, 208 by Georges Braque and a collection of French artist’s books by Matisse, Picasso and Aristide Maillol.
7. Burg Hülshoff
Ten kilometres from Münster’s Altstadt is a picturesque Renaissance castle that was the birthplace of the poet and author Annette von Droste-Hülshoff in 1797. The property is a quintessential Westphalian “Wasserburg” (moated castle), and has been turned into a museum that you’ll visit on a audio guided tour.
The interior is a glimpse of the lifestyle of Münster’s merchant nobility when Classicism and then Romanticism were in fashion at the start of the 18th century.
There are original portraits of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, personal belongings and a richly stocked library.
Burg Hülshoff is also renowned for its large and well-kept park, benefiting from the moats and awash with rhododendrons that burst into flower in May.
Hardly ten minutes on foot from Prinzipalmarkt, Aasee is a 40-hectare man-made lake beginning on cusp of the old town and continuing southwest for over two kilometres.
The lakefront is cushioned by a broad band of inviting parkland, laid with lawns, trees and public art, and travelled by cyclists, joggers and strolling families.
There are restaurants and cafes at regular intervals and a raised terrace in the modern complex on the north shore, where you can also hire a pedal boat for self-navigated trip around the lake.
At this spot you’ll find the jetty for SOLAARIS, a solar-powered boat that ferries people from the city centre to the Allwetterzoo on the west shore.
9. Allwetterzoo Münster
The zoo is almost a continuation of Aasee’s green shores and has around 3,000 animals from 300 species.
The name comes from its system of covered walkways that offer shelter in all conditions.
These are complemented by indoor attractions like BioCity, a conservation centre for turtles, research laboratory and an interactive exhibition on biodiversity.
Allwetterzoo prides itself on how close you can get to its inhabitants, like in the smartly designed Africaneum, has large panes granting a privileged glimpse at gorillas and other ape species.
And like the best zoos, there’s ample green space for picnics and a large children’s area that has pony and donkey enclosures, playgrounds and a petting zoo with guinea pigs, lambs, dwarf goats and chickens.
10. Stadtmuseum Münster
On Salzstraße the city’s museum leads you through Münster’s long past from its foundation at the turn of the 9th century to the present.
Across 33 “cabinets” you’ll be introduced to the Prince-Bishops who ruled Münster for 700 years and get the inside story of the 16th-century Münster Rebellion and the Peace of Westphalia.
There are reconstructed rooms from the 1950s and a merchant’s house from 16th century, as well as reproductions of the cages used to display the bodies of John of Leiden and the other Anabaptists at St. Lamberti.
The museum also has a trove of paintings by the 17th-century master Johann Bockhorst who was close friends with Rubens and van Dyck.
11. Westfälisches Museum für Naturkunde
If the weather suddenly goes south, you’ve always got this wonderful science museum as a backup.
The exhibitions cover a host of scientific fields, like palaeontology, biology, geology, anthropology, geology, physics and astronomy to name just a handful.
You can get within touching distance of dinosaur fossils, find out how Westphalia has changed since the last Ice Age, learn about the Native Americans of America’s Great Plains and see how a changing climate is affecting Westphalia’s biodiversity.
There are also special annual exhibitions going deeper on specific topics like whales, the water cycle and bionics.
In 2010 the museum’s planetarium was installed with a “360° Fulldome” projection system and is claimed to be one of the best in Europe.
12. Muhlenhof Freilichtmuseum
Münsterland’s rural history comes alive at an outdoor museum where some 30 historical buildings from around the region have been relocated and preserved.
The museum opened in 1961 when a windmill from Emsland was moved to this site on the west shore of the Aasee, and was soon joined by other village amenities.
There’s a 19th-century chapel, a blacksmith’s forge, a rural school, an apiary, a village shops and a variety of other workshops where you can watch old trades in action.
The buildings’ interiors have been meticulously furnished.
Between the old structures are vegetable and medicinal gardens, and even a garden growing pigments that dyers would have used to colour their fabrics.
13. Botanischer Garten
The University of Münster is in charge of the botanical garden, not far west of the Altstadt.
The environment is special as the gardens are in what used to be the city’s fortress, and it’s easy to see the star-shaped outline left by the moats.
The garden was begun as a teaching and research centre as early as 1803 and its first greenhouses arrived a year later.
After 200 years of ups and downs, through the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War, the garden today has 8,000 plant species, 10 greenhouses and graceful orangery.
Among the various indoor and outdoor areas are an authentic Münsterland farm garden, an arboretum with oak and beech forest, a tropical house containing rainforest, a greenhouse with giant Victoria lilies, a nursery and a zone for plants from Oceania.
There are half a million bicycles in Münster, which is twice the number of residents! And the city has encouraged people to cycle, setting up three stations for safe parking.
The station at the Hauptbahnhof is Germany’s largest, and offers cycle rental as well as a washing and repair service.
There are cycle paths throughout the city, so people tend not to worry about protective gear.
And maybe the most scenic ride can be had along the promenade, which traces Münster’s former ring of defensive walls.
A network of signposted trails has also been set up so you can ride out into the countryside to visit castles and forests on day trips.
15. Wochenmarkt Münster
On Wednesdays and Saturdays the cobblestones of Domplatz are decked with about 150 stalls for a twice-weekly institution that attracts people to Münster from far and wide.
Saturday is maybe the livelier day of the two but on either day you can call in for bread, fruit, vegetables, honey, cold-cuts, cheese, pastries, confectionery, seafood, oils and spices.
There are also handicrafts for sale like wickerwork, and accessories and clothes.
And if the sight of that produce gives you an appetite you can get hold of a freshly grilled bratwurst or regional potato fritters (Reibekuchen).