For anyone interested in architecture, St Gallen deserves at least a couple of days, with its old town and the cathedral with its magnificent library, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The capital of the eponymous canton, its name is derived from the Irish monk Gall or Gallus, a pioneer of Christianity in Switzerland, who built a hermitage in the Steinach valley. Between 719 and 752, an abbey was built on the site of his cell and flourished to become one of the most important religious communities in the area.
What to see and do in St Gallen
Leaving the station by the main columned exit, go straight ahead across the square to the tourist office on the corner of Bahnhofplatz and St Leonhardstrasse. To reach the old town and cathedral, turn left out of the tourist office along St Leonhardstrasse towards the Broderbrunnen monument (1894). Beside it, turn right along Oberer Graben and almost immediately left into Webergasse to enter the largely pedestrianised quarter of the old town in Multergasse, straight ahead.
Several architects had a hand in designing the abbey in St Gallen, which was built between 1755 and 1769, one of the last monumental buildings of the late Baroque. The long nave and central rotunda were designed by Peter Thumb, and the imposing twin-towered east front was a collaboration between J M Beer, Brother Gabriel Loser and J F Feuchtmayer, who also designed the confessionals.
With no stained glass and columns in off-white, the interior has a light, open feeling. The paintings in the rotunda depicting the advent of Christ in the presence of the blessed and those representing the monastery’s patron saints in the domes of the nave bays are by Joseph Wannenmacher.
The elaborate pulpit is decorated with four figures, while each wooden pew end has a different carved decoration. The intricate gilt wrought-iron choir screen was made in 1771 by J Mayer.
The interior of the adjacent Collegiate Library has been described as the country’s most beautiful secular Rococo interior. It describes itself, in Greek lettering above the entrance, as an ‘apothecary for the soul’. The ceiling of the two-storey room was again decorated by Joseph Wannenmacher.
Built between 1758 and 1767 following designs by Peter Thumb, the library contains one of the most important collections in Europe; particularly rare among the 130,000 volumes, 2,000 illuminated manuscripts and 1,650 early printed works are some 7th–12th-century Irish manuscripts, early scores of Gregorian chant and an 8th-century Virgil manuscript. Most of the buildings in the monastery precincts were built between the 17th century and the first half of the 19th century.
The old town
The old town is a warren of narrow streets whose dominant feature is the profusion of glorious oriel windows – 111 of them – in a most public-spirited display of one-upmanship. A rewarding hour or two can be spent ambling through these streets, in which there are plenty of cafés and restaurants.
On the northeast side of the old town, on a broad street named Bohl, is the Waaghaus, a merchants’ hall dating from 1584. From the adjacent Markt-Platz, Goliathgasse leads to the Reformed parish church of St Mangen, founded in 898 and rebuilt in 1100. Its Gothic tower dates from 1505.
Among the town’s museums is the Historical Museum which contains models of the town, paintings, reassembled rooms, furniture, sculpture, arms and armour, musical instruments and stamps, as well as a section for children.
The Kunstmuseum contains works by Teniers, Delacroix, Millet, Monet, Corot, Courbet, Pissarro and Sisley, and by eminent Swiss artists such as Angelica Kauffmann, Hodler and Boecklin, as well as naïve paintings by local artists.
The Natural History Museum has an exhibition of indigenous mammals and birds, living wood ants, dinosaurs, geology and mineralogy. At Vadianstrasse 2, off Oberer Graben and 5–10 minutes from the station, is the Textile Museum, devoted to lace, embroidery and linen from the Middle Ages to the present.
The town’s opera is highly regarded in Switzerland, performing in the Stadttheater on Museumstrasse, built in 1968. The municipal orchestra plays in the Art Nouveau Music Hall (Tonhalle) opposite. Close to the station, the old locomotive three-quarter roundhouse of 1903–11 has been converted into a cultural centre with restaurant for concerts, plays, films and dance.