Last Updated on January 1, 2023

Some places end up being a total surprise. Like Passau – St. Stephens Cathedral, an art museum, Schaibling Tower, a vibrant college, picturesque rivers. Not that I had expectations before visiting the small German city on the border with Austria.

Passau takes its name from one of the Roman forts that had been built in the region, but it’s also known as the Dreiflüssestadt, which means the “City of Three Rivers.” It is here that the confluence of the Danube, Ilz, and Inn merge into one incredibly picturesque setting. This Bavarian town of 50,000 residents, one of the oldest in the region, is also home to the prestigious University of Passau, giving the town a youthful ambience.

The historic old town is compact and easily walkable. The number of cobblestone streets make flat comfortable non-slip walking shoes a must. My wife and I met up with our guide, a law student at the university, who is also a Passau local and history lover. He provided a great insider’s perspective of this fascinating town during our half-day tour.

Höllgasse Artists Alley

One of the first things we noticed was a colorful cobbled street in the heart of town. Local artists painted a colorful path in the cobblestones leading visitors to the doorsteps of many art galleries, businesses, and workshops. Within their walls, over 40 artist artisans include painters, photographers, and creators of ceramics, jewelry, fashion, graphic arts and even puppet theater characters work diligently.

History of Floods

Views of Passau; photo courtesy of AMA Waterways
Views of Passau; photo courtesy of AMA Waterways

You have to figure that in a city surrounded by water, flooding could be a concern. And it is. Throughout its history, Passau has been ravaged by floods, the last major one in 2013. Our guide pointed out the building markers which displayed the water lines. In 2013, the water level rose to over 10 feet. On the Bank of the Danube, the ground floors of most buildings were submerged under water.

Though flooding has occurred since 2013, it is a testament to the residents of the city including the university students who work together side by side to prepare and recover from these events.

The Immense Beauty of St. Stephen’s Cathedral

We’ve seen many stunning churches and cathedrals throughout our European travels; however, nothing could have prepared us for Passau St. Stephens Cathedral. Constructed in Italian Baroque style in 1688, the east choir section of the cathedral reflects classic Gothic features.

The cathedral is best known for having the largest pipe organ in Europe with 17,774 pipes and 233 registers. The stucco adornment includes 1,000 figures such as prophets and cherubs. The 68.3-meter-tall north tower sports the second largest swinging chimed church bell in Europe. And when those chimes ring out, it’s heavenly music to the ears.

Passau Town Hall

As town halls go, this one is most impressive. The façade and interior of the Neo-Gothic building completed in 1892 are stunning. The Passau Town Hall also known as the Alte Rathaus contains a Gothic staircase dating back to 1446.

The Rathausturm tower of the town hall features the largest carillon (bell) in Bavaria. And inside, the Great Assembly Room has ornate stained windows that depict Passau’s historical events throughout the centuries.

Schaibling Tower

You can’t miss this easily identifiable landmark of Passau. Built as a fortified tower in the 14th century, it was protected against the waves of the harbor, and stored powder and salt for trade. Its crisp white outline is a stark contrast against the blue-green Danube and the bluebird sky on a clear day.

Sadly, the Schaibling Tower was once used by Hitler Youth, and then as a high school and later a home for starving artists. It last underwent renovation in 2004 and again, after the 2013 flood.

The Passau Glass Museum

Though there are other museums in the city worthy of note, the one we were told not to miss was the Passau Glass Museum. The repository houses the largest collection of Bohemian glass in the world. Four floors feature more than 15,000 glass objects from 1700 to 1950 including Baroque, Rococo, Empire, Biedermeier, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco glass styles. It really is an impressive place.

Veste Oberhaus Fortress

Veste Oberhaus Fortress; photo by Michael Kompanik
Veste Oberhaus Fortress; photo by Michael Kompanik

This massive hilltop fortress looming over the city was built in 1219 by Bishop Ulrich, who became the first prince-bishop of Passau. It once served as a military prison during the 19th and early 20th centuries but now houses the largest museum in lower Bavaria.

The museum highlights Passau’s history from its early salt-trading days showcasing many Baroque and Gothic pieces of art. Not only does the citadel offer impressively picturesque views of the city, but from this bastion, the varying colors of the three differently-sourced rivers are strikingly evident.

Whether you have the opportunity to visit Passau St. Stephen’s Cathedral and its other sites as a river cruise stop as we did with AMA Waterways, or backpacking through Europe, the lovely Bavarian town is a not-to-be-missed German destination.

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