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Big Blimpin': That Time We Flew to Germany Just to Visit the Zeppelin Museum

April 18, 2014 at 2:36 PM | by | ()

Would you travel half-way around the world to visit a museum? If you've answered "yes" or "maybe," then we like you already, and perhaps you'll enjoy this first-person tale of a trip for exactly that purpose.

Part 1: Checking off the Zeppelin Museum
Part 2: Heading into the Zeppelin HQ and hangar
Part 3: Maybe never leaving?

In April 2011, Retronaut posted a series of vintage color photographs of the infamous Hindenburg airship. In mid 2012, I discovered there was an entire museum dedicated to it. Needing only one good reason to justify any of my travels, it was only a few months later I walked through the doors of the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany and climbed into the belly of a 1:1 scale model of the LZ 129 "Hindenburg" Zeppelin.

You may remember the Hindenburg from the tragedy of May 6, 1937, the one which forever impressed the phrase "Oh, the humanity" on, well, humanity. For all intents and purposes, that is the day the Zeppelin died, as flames engulfed the airship while docking at NJ's Lakehurst Naval Air Station and squelched any hope of a future for airships as reliable commercial transportation.

For a time, these hydrogen-filled, diesel-powered balloons were, nonetheless, the wave of the future...above the waves. They had novelty and stability on their side; whereas an ocean crossing could be a prescription for one week of mal de mer, a Zeppelin sailed along smoothly at a few thousand feet up, free from the motion of the ocean.

Of course there was also the speed; ships competing with each other for the Blue Riband trophy for fastest transatlantic crossing could only muster a record of four days under full steam from Europe to the US, but the Zeppelins advertised three days from Germany all the way to Rio de Janeiro.

Below: The main exhibit in the Zeppelin Museum is this 1:1 portion of the Hindenburg, through which visitors may tour

So how much did all this cost? Trips on one of the two massive Zeppelins ("Graf von Zeppelin" and "Hindenburg") were strictly for the rich and famous. A one-way ticket averaged $400 per person and it was not an all-inclusive voyage. Adjusted for inflation, that's nearly $7,000 today. Articles like original menus are on display within the Zeppelin Museum, hence my note that a single whisky sour at the onboard bar in 1936 would cost $30 today. Then again, it's not like an airship over the Equator can just pull over at the next gas station to restock the liquor shelf.

Below: A special menu for a dinner while overflying the Equator. Items include a "Mermaid" cocktail, truffled shark fin, and colorfully named dishes like "Aeolus rings in seaweed" and "baked coral."

It's the heyday of the Zeppelin—not to mention the future, as the Zeppelin Reederei still exists in Friedrichshafen and produces new, albeit far smaller, airships for customers like the Goodyear Blimp—which the Zeppelin Museum celebrates. Exhibits beyond the 1:1 model include pieces of original china, historical documents, ephemera from past passengers, and some of the most dramatic travel art and propaganda produced by a country on the brink of world war.

How to visit the Zeppelin Museum:

Entrance is 8 EUR per adult. View the official website.

The energy around Lake Constance (also known as the Bodensee) is excellent in all seasons, but particularly so in the summer, when cyclists circle the shores, swimmers and sailboats splash the surface, and vacationers cross in ferries to visit multiple towns in multiple countries (Germany, Switzerland and Austria all border it, and Liechtenstein is in the neighborhood).

· If you have 1-2 days:
Friedrichshafen and the Zeppelin Museum can be done in a day trip, if you plan it out. Just know that such a short visit likely means no time to also stop at the Zeppelin Hangar and restaurant, or the Dornier Aviation and Aerospace Museum. You will at least have time for the museum, a meal in town, and hopefully a climb up the harbor's scenic viewing platform (free entry).

· If you have 3 or more days:
The possibilities are nearly limitless for further explorations around Friedrichshafen and the Bodensee, but be sure to squeeze in the aforementioned highlights of the Zeppelin Hangar, Dornier Museum, and perhaps a side trip to Konstanz, Liechtenstein, or the Leibinger Bräustüble in Ravensburg, home of Zeppelin Bier. Friedrichshafen is very well connected by air, with a friendly little airport and international nonstop routes, even on low-coat airlines. There's really no reason not to visit.

How I visited Friedrichshafen:

After flying into Frankfurt on a Lufthansa A380, I hopped a DeutscheBahn ICE (Inter-City Express) train from Frankfurt-Hbf to Ulm-Hbf, and connected to the Ulm-Hbf to Friedrichshafen-Stadt IRE (Interregio-Express) train. Advance purchase online was 75 Euro one-way (though it can be had for less if you don't mind slower trains or more connections), and the excellent DB app meant I had only flash my mobile boarding pass to the conductors.

In town, almost everything is walking distance. Bikes are easily rented, and a rather comprehensive and easy-to-use metro rail and bus system fill in any gaps. You'll need the latter to reach the Zeppelin Reederei, Friedrichshafen Airport, and the Dornier Museum.

I couldn't have asked for better accommodations; my room was an AirBnb score of $40 per night in the company of local college students. After crossing off everything on my "must-do" list and still extending my stay, I awoke one morning and decided to take the short ferry across the lake to Konstanz, an adorable town at the confluence of the Rhine River and Bodensee. It was fall, hence the affordable off-season AirBnb pricing, and the first, early winter snow flurries appeared as I crunched through still-vibrant autumn leaves, while walking back across the Swiss border after lunching in Kreuzlingen.

Part 1: Checking off the Zeppelin Museum
Part 2: Heading into the Zeppelin HQ and hangar
Part 3: Maybe never leaving?

[Photos: Cynthia Drescher]

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