The city that Luther, Bach and Goethe all shared

Tranquil Weimar was the hub of Germany’s most crucial artistic and intellectual movements – a past that still lives on in Unesco-rated buildings, palaces and parks.

Wandering through Weimar’s cobbled backstreets in the monochrome hush of a winter day, it seems strange that this small-scale city once played a pivotal role in shaping German literature, art and architecture. After all, Weimar has neither the urban edge of Berlin nor the self-assured swagger of Munich. Yet for centuries, the creative forces of the country – its most notable poets, thinkers, writers, artists and musicians – converged here, in the spiritual and geographical heart of Germany.

Unesco has recognised the relaxed city's rich cache of cultural treasures, awarding World Heritage status in 1998 to Classical Weimar – 13 buildings, palaces and parks. A trio of Modernist Bauhaus edifices were given the same recognition in 1996. The literary estate of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including a number of his handwritten manuscripts, also is inscribed on the Unesco Memory of the World Register since 2001.

One appropriate place to begin a cultural Weimar tour is at the square of Theaterplatz. High on a pedestal before the Neoclassical theatre stand statues of Goethe (1749 to 1832) and of poet, philosopher and dramatist Friedrich Von Schiller (1759 to 1805). Close friends, the pair were the key exponents of Weimar Classicism, a movement from about 1788 to 1805 that embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and German Romanticism. Together they lifted the city from intellectual obscurity and propelled it onto the world stage in the 18th Century. In the years that followed, thanks largely to Goethe and Schiller’s influence, Weimar attracted intellectuals including philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and Bauhaus founding father Walter Gropius.

Around the corner from Theaterplatz is the butter-yellow Schiller Residence, which displays the desk where Schiller penned his magnum opus, the play William Tell; it premiered at the Weimar court theatre in 1804, which was under the direction of Goethe at the time. Close by is the Goethe National Museum, lodged in the house where the writer lived from 1775 to 1832. It was here that Goethe poured his tortured soul into his tragedy Faust (1808), revered as one of the greatest German plays ever written.

North of the Markt, a handsome square lined with gabled houses in pastel colours, is Herderplatz square and the late Gothic Stadtkirche St Peter und Paul. The church's focal point is a three-winged altarpiece that vividly depicts the crucifixion, painted by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son in 1555. The church echoes with the greatness of its past: 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther once preached at its pulpit, and the baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach gave regular performances here during his time as organist at the ducal court, from 1708 to 1718. Every spring, the city celebrates Bach's music with concerts at Bachfest Weimar (in 2014, held from 30 April to 4 May).

A narrow lane links the church to the Schlossmuseum, once the palace of the dukes of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and now a vast repository for treasures including Lucas Cranach the Elder's masterful allegorical works, portraits by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer and the soothing, subtly lit landscapes of Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. An architecturally minded Goethe helped rebuild the castle from the ashes of a devastating fire in 1774. The result is a fanciful palace that incorporates Baroque and Neoclassical styles, complete with ionic columns, frescoes and sculptures.

Named after its poetically inclined patron, the nearby Duchess Anna Amalia Library was built between 1761 and 1766 to house the courtly book collection. It now shelters one million literary works, including priceless medieval manuscripts and the world's largest collections of both Faust manuscripts (14,000 volumes) and original Lutheran Bibles (about 30). The library’s exquisite centrepiece is the oval Rococo hall, embellished with gilt and stucco. Numerous bookmarks are tucked into the leather-bound books lining the shelves; they indicate the hundreds of works read by a knowledge-thirsty Goethe, who was library director from 1797 to 1832.

The library borders Weimar's Park an der Ilm, where trails meander through meadows, woodlands and along the banks of River Ilm. Passionate about nature, Goethe felt at home in this park, even living here from 1776 to 1783 in his Garden House. A keen gardener, botanist and natural scientist, he found the space and calm he needed to write at this cottage, between tending to his orchard and vegetable patch and collecting and studying 18,000 minerals and rock samples. Inspired by his travels in Italy, Goethe also had a hand in designing the park's temple-like Roman House for Duke Carl August in 1797.

Opposite the colonnaded Roman House is its architectural antithesis – the cubic and steel Haus am Horn, designed for the city’s 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar in 1919, and called upon avant-garde artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to be part of this modernist movement, uniting art, architecture, crafts and design. Back on Theaterplatz, the Bauhaus Museum showcases furniture, ceramics and art that bear the starkly simple, utilitarian hallmark of Bauhaus, which was underpinned by the philosophy that form follows function.

Weimar has enough outstanding museums, galleries and palaces to keep any visitor occupied for days, but those who venture further to explore the state of Thuringia are rewarded. I made the 90km journey east to Hainich National Park, which forms part of the Unesco-listed Ancient Beech Forests of Germany. A piercingly blue sky spread across the forest, which looks like something out of a Grimm fairy-tale, with beech trees stretching as far as the eye can see, frosted white and glittering with snow crystals. The views were at their most captivating 40m in the air on the Canopy Walk, a 530m-long trail that zigzags above the treetops. At ground level, nature has been left to its own devices; the park is a safe haven for woodpeckers, wildcats, wild boar and red deer.

Hainich National Park can easily be combined with a visit to one of Germany's most extraordinary medieval castles and another Unesco World Heritage site, Wartburg, 22km further southwest. Clinging to a rocky precipice, the castle was the vision of Ludwig der Springer (Ludwig the Jumper), the ruling count of Thuringia, who built it in 1067.

If the castle impresses with its picture-book looks, it enthrals with its history. In a rustic, wood-panelled chamber is a whale vertebra that once served as a footstool for Martin Luther. After he was excommunicated and placed under papal ban in 1521, Luther went into hiding here under the pseudonym Junker Jörg, growing long hair and a beard to disguise his identity. During the 10 months he spent at the castle, he busied himself translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

Martin Luther wasn't the only one to find respite and inspiration at Wartburg. Richard Wagner, one of Germany's greatest 19th-century composers and conductors, based his opera Tannhäuser on a minstrels' contest held at the castle in 1206. In 1777, the castle enticed Goethe away from Weimar for five weeks; its dramatic location and natural surrounds appealing to his romantic soul.

As the light began to fade, I walked among the ghosts of Germany's intellectual greats, their spirits free to roam here for all eternity.