Around 120,000 people live in WOLFSBURG, but make no mistake, this is Volkswagen's town. The village of the mid-1930s was reinvented almost overnight when Hitler's Ford-inspired dream of a Volkswagen (literally "people's car") was made actual in 1937 when a sprawling factory began churning out the "Beetles" of Ferdinand Porsche. Aided by the economic pick-me-up of a postwar British military contract, an exception to enforced de-industrialization elsewhere, Volkswagen thrived, a fairy godmother of the economy's rags-to-riches Cinderella story. Such was the bad press that met a threat to slim down operations at the world headquarters, Volkswagen was forced to shelve the plan.
All of which makes Autostadt (daily 9am–6pm; 15 or 23 with phaeno; Web: www.autostadt.de ), behind the train station, reached by a footbridge over a canal, a rev-head's paradise. VW's intended car collection centre has morphed into a futuristic theme park of museums, rides and a 360-degree cinema. The five-storey ZeitHaus salutes pioneers of automotive history (Karl Benz's 1886 tricycle, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Auto Union "Silver Arrow" racing cars) and also its icons (the millionth Mini, John Lennon's Beetle featured on the cover of Abbey Road, and a gorgeous 1930 Cadillac convertible). In architectural pavilions behind, Volkswagen indulges in entertaining self-promotion for its brands: Bentley's craftsmanship; Lamborghini's oomph; reliable Skoda; futuristic Audi; and the quality and safety of Volkswagen. However, Autostadt's star attraction is the factory itself, which at 8.4 square kilometres is four times larger than Monaco; only from a footbridge before Autostadt do you sense its scale. The most popular tours (daily 10.15am–4.15pm; every 45min; 2hr; 11) are made by mini-train around a few sections. Others ascend the company's landmark cylindrical glass tower ( 8) in which shiny cars await collection. Hands-on attractions such as a 4WD terrain course (GeländeParcours; 25) are provided as "training" activities. Should you need another motor fix – unlikely – more classic VWs are in the AutoMuseum Volkswagen ten minutes' walk southwest (Dieselstrasse 35; daily 10am–5pm; 6).
Wolfsburg isn't all motor-mad. To promote an image as a city of science, it commissioned the phaeno museum (Tues– Fri 9am–5pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6pm; 12; Web: www.phaeno.com ), beside the Hauptbahnhof, which is unmissable thanks to its building by architect Zaha Hadid – a sort of futuristic take on Corbusier's modernism. Beneath its steel-girdered roof lies a playground of 250 interactive scientific experiments, zoned into themes such as wind and water, biology, technology or energy. Forty were designed by artists, making for exhibits that are often as aesthetic as they are educational – the Feuertornado (fire tornado) which creates a 7m flaming whirlwind is particularly impressive.
Wolfsburg's centre south of here would be spectacularly dull without the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg (Tues 11am–8pm, Wed– Sun 11am–6pm; 6; Web: www.kunstmuseum-wolfsburg.de ), which lies two uninspiring kilometres down pedestrianized Porschestrasse, its cool glass-and-steel structure not unlike Autostadt. Its focus is contemporary art: changing displays of a permanent collection that includes big names such as Warhol, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Gilbert and George, plus big-name temporary exhibitions.
Wolfsburg's central Hauptbahnhof is on the Hannover and Braunschweig lines, and it is best treated as a day-trip