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Pile Dwelling Open Air Museum on Lake Constance

Pile Dwelling Open Air Museum on Lake Constance

The day we visited the Pfahlbau Museum Bodensee, or Pile Dwelling Museum on Lake Constance, it was absolutely pouring. It was in the shoulder season, so there was only one tour that day, and we all crowded under the eaves of the information centre waiting for our guide, while getting pounded by the rain. It seemed a fitting kind of day to explore these examples of prehistoric pile dwellings found around the Alps. 

I love a good open-air museum

If you’ve ever watched those shows where people attempt to recreate life from another time period, you’ll remember how devastating heavy rain can be. If you’re wearing wool, it could be days before you’d dry out. Looking out at the houses on stilts over the lake, connected by slippery wood walkways, I could only imagine how long you’d have to stay inside, huddled together, waiting for storms to pass before you could do anything. Well, for us, even if not all of the tour group was appropriately dressed, we stamped out in the rain to investigate the villages regardless.

What is there to see at the Pile Dwelling Museum?

There are 20 buildings in all, arranged in small clusters. These buildings are, of course, recreations of structures from the Neolithic and Bronze Age (4000 – 850 BCE), based on extensive archeological evidence. But you might be surprised to learn that two of them are 100 years old themselves. In 1922, an open-air museum society built two pole dwellings, and they have been refurbished and repaired over the years, probably much like the originals were. Evidence of prehistoric pile dwellings like these have been found in lakes across this region, in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and France, and this museum, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It seems counter-intuitive, but these pile dwellings by their location have left much for archeologists to find. Bogs and marshy lakebeds are terrific preservers of wood – whole sections of floor, piles, roof pieces, and walls have all been found, even pieces of furniture. 

But why did they build their houses on poles?

The lakes near mountains, while incredibly rich in flora and fauna (ie food), and water to drink, are also prone to major flooding when the spring comes. Lake Constance, for instance, can rise up to three meters in the spring, and very quickly. Presumably from experience, our ancestors figured out that having their houses up on stilts meant they wouldn’t be washed away each year. 

Visiting the Pile Dwelling village

In the off and shoulder seasons, there is one tour a day, and the guide takes you around the little village clusters, and brings you inside several of the buildings to look at the dioramas set up with realistic looking mannequins using period tools. The tour is in German, but you are provided with some documentation in English. In the spring and summer months, guides are waiting in the buildings to explain things, but you are free to wander about. Even at the end of our tour, we were left to explore the houses on land near the information centre on our own for awhile. The tour is quite leisurely, and we didn’t feel rushed at all.

My favourite part of a good open-air museum visit are the moments you can feel what it might be like to live there. To listen to the wooden joists groan and creak in the wind, the water slap at the poles underneath you, and wonder whether the house can stand up to the storm raging outside! But stepping out on a walkway afterwards, watching the clouds race away across the lake, that also must have been satisfying. Unlike most of the other open-air museums I’ve visited that focus on the middle ages and a bit later, this life is so far removed from our own, it’s quite fascinating to experience. There’s so much we don’t know about these people, and even what some of the artefacts the archeologists have found might have meant to them. I think the museum has made a good attempt to fitting it together, but as the guides will tell you, sometimes they’re just not sure. 

Visiting the Pile Dwelling Village with kids

While we went in shoulder season, it would be easier for non-German speakers to visit in the summer so you can take your time exploring with the English brochures the museum has available at the ticket counter. Kids are encouraged to explore, and like other open-air museums, it’s quite easy for them to grasp some of the history just by standing in the houses or walking along the walkways. If you have an under-6 who likes to run, this may be a bit of a challenge as the walkways do go over the lake quite a long way. If you’re doing the self-guided visit, you’ll be fine, but the tour takes an hour and that might be too long to stay focussed for the littlest among us. Definitely check their website for the details of their tours and opening times. 

Getting there

To get to the museum, you can walk from the Uhldingen-Mühlhofen station (Oberuhldingen), it takes about 25 minutes, or take a taxi from the station. There is a wharf right next to the museum, so your best bet is to take a ferry from Konstanz or another stop along the lake – you can see the ferry routes and timetables here. The stop for the Pile Dwelling Museum is Unteruhldingen, and it’s a pleasant walk through the park to the museum itself. You could always combine your trip to a visit to Mainau, the garden island, as well. Do check for combination tickets, someone at the ferry ticket desk can help with this. For shoulder and off-season visits, do check the schedule well ahead of time as the ferries don’t run as often or stop everywhere.


The Black Forest Open Air Museum

The Black Forest Open Air Museum

The Black Forest Open Air Museum or Schwarzenwälder Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof (sometimes pops up as the Vogtsbauernhof Museum) is well worth a visit. Deep in the Black Forest, it’s one of the rare museums we’ve been back to four or five times now, and enjoyed every visit. We regularly take visitors, and it never fails to impress. If you’d like a taste of the history of the region, this is the place. Family visitors and adults-only groups will both enjoy this extensive open-air museum.

The dining room of the oldest farmhouse at the Black Forest Open-Air Museum
The dining room of the oldest farmhouse at the Black Forest Open-Air Museum

What you will see at the Black Forest Open Air Museum

The museum itself is a collection of farmhouses ranging from 16th to the 18th centuries. There was one house originally on the site, and the others were painstakingly disassembled and moved to preserve this picture of the past for future generations. Each house focuses on different aspects of farm life, or a different generation. The largest (pictured above and below) is such a trip through time – even the kitchen still smells like smoke. The audio guide explains what each room was used for, and it’s been so well set up with period furniture and textiles, that it’s impossible not to feel like you’ve stepped into the past when you duck your head through the door. Fascinatingly, you get a glimpse into how life in these farmhouses changed over time too. The one pictured above was originally home to one large family, but as time moved on, they took in others as boarders, and had to share their dining room amongst three or four different families. Each one of them had a corner to sit in. One of the little elements I loved was how families would hang their washing to dry under the eaves upstairs out on the balcony – it’s out of the rain but still has the benefit of not taking up space outside. My own balcony in our turn-of-the-century house has hooks to hang a washing line for the very same reason.

The outside of the oldest farmhouse at the Black Forest Open Air Museum. Note the beehives on the ledge!
The outside of the oldest farmhouse at the Black Forest Open Air Museum. Note the beehives on the ledge!

Great for family visits

It’s a brilliant place to bring small children as kids can run around and touch most things. There are horses and chickens to look at, and an open-air bakery was operating the day we were there, turning out Flammkuchen and loaves of bread. Every day during high season there’s someone demonstrating elements of traditional farm life. We had the good fortune to see a woman hand-weaving amazing ribbons (pictured below, and the fruits of her labour below that). Check the website for details on what’s on the day of your visit.

There’s a whole woodworking workshop full to the rafters with beautiful wooden toys to buy for ridiculously reasonable prices (this is a common theme in Germany). You can watch craftspeople making the toys right there behind the counter as well. If you buy a duck whistle, make sure to hide it until you leave – children aren’t supposed to blow them in the park!

More gorgeous farmhouses in the museum area.
More gorgeous farmhouses in the museum area.

Specific kid-friendly areas to explore

Upstairs from the woodworking shop is an incredible play area built to resemble an attic full of discarded furniture, old toys, and other detritus from earlier centuries – though you need to access it from outside. There are paths through the piled bits, just the right size for smaller people, and the dim lighting makes it the perfect amount of exciting but not too scary. There is a little puppet stage to play with, and lots of secrets spots to discover. Additionally there is another more open play area within one of the farthest houses, with a beautiful space designed to look like the forest. On top of all that, there is an extensive outdoor play area with wooden structures, play houses, a water feature, and a natural rock slide. This is all right next to the outdoor cafe that serves schnitzel, french fries, wurst, beer, wine and ice cream, with plenty of picnic tables with easy sightlines to the playground.

Woman weaving very detailed ribbons.
Woman weaving very detailed ribbons.
Incredibly detailed ribbons, woven by local craftspeople.
Incredibly detailed ribbons, woven by local craftspeople.

Even if you’re not with kids

The museum is fascinating if you’re not traveling family style too. The audio guide is very detailed, with options to learn more at many spots, so you can take in the whole place or dive deep into a few of the houses at your own speed. There are at least two houses I haven’t even managed to explore yet, despite four visits under our belt. There’s a lovely sit-down restaurant serving more complete meals, as well as the traditional and regional Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, or Black Forest Cake. In fact, on display is one of the first known printed recipes for this regional specialty. The terrace is beautiful in the summer, with views over the rolling greens hills, forests, and picturesque farm houses, with horses wandering in front. If you’re lucky, you will spot some museum staff members in the traditional local costume, which includes the cherry-inspired headgear (pictured below). Unmarried women wore red pom-poms on their hats, and married women had black ones.

Museum staff members in the traditional Black Forest dress
Another shot of the gorgeous old farmhouse, with a buggy parked outside.
Another shot of the gorgeous old farmhouse

Getting to the Black Forest Open Air Museum, opening hours, and ticket prices

It’s worth noting the museum is only open from March to November, except a short period in December for their Christmas market. Do check their site for the exact dates each year. They are open from 9am-7pm, with a last entry at 5pm.

Ticket prices

Adults 10€

Children 6-17 years old 5.50€ (children under 5 are free)

Family prices vary on how many children you have but for two parents and one child 23€

For two parents and two children 28€

For two parents and three children or more 32€

Getting to the museum

By car, you want to put in 77793 Gutach, and make sure you use the post code, because there is another Gutach, and it isn’t particularly close by!

By train, there is a regional branch line station directly outside the museum. Search for ‘Gutach Freilichtmuseum’, and there is a train that stops there every hour while the museum is open. You can get a reduction of 1€ each on your museum entrance tickets by showing your train ticket too, including Baden-Württemberg day tickets. From Stuttgart, it’s about two and a half hours by train. From Frankfurt, about two hours. It’s a beautiful journey, however!

Schwarzenwälder Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof

77793 Gutach (Schwarzwaldbahn) , 0 78 31-93560