Welterbe Grube Messel - Messel Pit Fossil Site (Hessen - Germany)

This article first appeared in My Travelogue by Bhushavali

Prehistoric Sites always fascinate me. That's no news for my regular readers. While pre-historic sites with early human interactions are my favorite (like Hal Safleni Hypogeum or Anegundi, because I imagine our ancestors walking those very places), places earlier than that..... have a..... different feel!

Ultimate Guide to visit

Welterbe Grube Messel
Wearing Dino fossil tee while going to Messel Pit Fossil Site is important (though no Dino fossils were excavated here)!

Welterbe Grube Messel - Messel Pit Fossil Site

Grube Messel Besucherzentrum Visitors Centre

Grube Messel Besucherzentrum Visitors Centre

The history of Messel pit dates back to 47 million years ago (Eocene era). Quite interestingly, the Messel pit was formed by an volcanic eruption. The eruption caused a 700m wide by 1000m long crater which then got filled with water creating Lake Messel. The freshwater sediments were then layered with mineral deposits in course of time. It has to be understood that, in this era, the climatic conditions here was almost tropical! As time went by, there were several alternating layers of organic fresh water sediments (algae etc) and inorganic mineral deposits, creating the very rich Oil Shale that we see today. 
Unfortunately by mid 1800s, the oil-shales attracted people to quarry this site, which, in course of time stopped but by late 1900s, after the wars, this became a dump site. Fortunately with the interference of scientists, the site was saved and conserved. In 1995, Messel Pit Fossil Site became Germany's first Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site -  Welternaturbe Grube Messel.

There are 3 major sections in Welterbe Grube Messel - The visitors' centre, the view points & the pit. 
The visitors' centre is vast and needs quite sometime to see & understand. It begins with a small movie about the history of the site - more like an actual movie with people re-enacting actual historical events - how the site was discovered and was almost converted to a dump site and then conserved. Then there are a few displays and then a 360° video, that's more like a documentary of the work that the scientists do here. Further ahead are the most important part of the museum - the impressions of all the fossils excavated here, a couple of recreated skeletons and a couple of re-imagined sculptures of animals! 
There are a few view points that lend a great view of the open-mine and then ofcourse there's a proper walk down into the mineWhen I first read about the 'hike' into the 'mine', I assumed it was a cave and something like Palvolgyi Cave, Budapest or Neolithic Flint mines of Spiennes. But no, it is an open-mine, meaning it is just like a very wide pit and 'mine-hike' only means walking down this pit, on a dirt-track. It is more like trail-walking than hiking! There descent is shallow and there are no sudden drops or climbs. It is an easy walk and infact, it is even possible to take a sturdy stroller on this terrain! However people with reduced mobility may find it a bit difficult.
Ideally you'd need 3 hours at Welterbe Grube Messel - Messel Pit Fossil Site: 1 hour at the visitor's centre and 1.5 to 2 hours at the pit itself. While seeing the visitors centre can be self-guided (though guided tour is also available), visiting the pit is possible only by guided tour. 

Welterbe Grube Messel Entdeckertour

Messel Pi Fossil Site Lake Water

Grube Messel Oil Shales

UNESCO Messel Pit Oil Shales

There are different types of tours. Some take you only to the half level, till the viewpoints, some do not include the entrance to the visitors' centre etc. We chose the Discovery tour (Entdeckertour) which includes the hike till the depths of the mine, as well as entry to the visitors centre. We began with the short walk-through of the visitors' centre and by then it was already time for our tour to start.
The tour begins with a short intro and then a walk down to the pit. The first stop is a view point to see the pit from atop. The next stop is a water pump. Remember this place was created by a volcanic pit? So the underground water here tastes metallic (more of iron) and smells of Sulphur. The next stop was at the current excavation site. Obviously the site itself is blocked for about a 100 meters. But the best thing, the highlight of Messel Pit is right here - we are given pieces of oil shale to not only touch & feel, but also to break and try to find fossils in it! That is most definitely the most hands-on experience I've had with actual fossilized animals! One of persons in our tour group, managed to find fossilized crocodile poop (that's found in abundance!) and another found a very tiny mollusk. 
Our next stop was to see the actual fossils in display, that were excavated here in various stages of preservation - Some fossils were open, like the very many crocodile poop, and botanical fossils (plants & leaves). Some which are replicated fossils made of resin like a fish & a tortoise. Some which are submerged in water to prevent degeneration. Some, ofcourse, stored in glycerin. Ofcourse there was the life-size sculpture of the re-imagined primitive horse, Hallensia Matthesi. More about the fossils coming up below.
The tour gets over close to the parking lot where there's a fantastic view point. The walk to this is on an easy black-topped road. After the tour we managed to watch the movie at the visitors' centre which  we had missed earlier.  

There have been very many fossils found in this site giving an incredible insight into Germany's pre-historic past. There are many leaves & flower fossils. Since it was waterbody there are many water plants & animals. There is a fossilized coniferous plant's cone (Doliostrobus) and a waterlily (Nymphaeaceae) complete with their textures intact. There are some extinct plants that we come to know today with the fossils incl. a tropical walnut whose winged fruit is fossilized. 

Grube Messel Pit Fossils Crocodile poop
Crocodile Poop Fossil!

Grube Messel Pit Fossilized Leaf

Grube Messel Pit Fossils Waterlily Beetle
Pic Courtesy: Waterlily & Beetle with Flower remnants - ©Senckenberg gesellschaft für naturforschung

Fossils of Grube Messel Pit Hoopoe Turtle
Pic Courtesy: Messel Hoopoe - ©Hessisches Landesmuseum HLMD-Be-178; Soft Shelled Turtle - ©Senckenberg gesellschaft für naturforschung

There are several insects in the Messel pit, and many of them are beetles. Quite amusingly, some of the insects have been preserved with their colors & wings intact, which is very unusual. Colors of a gorgeous blue-green jewel beetle (Buprestidae) & golden-green darkling beetle (Tenebrionidae) are just exquisite. But the most striking is the beetle with a flower embedded on it!  

Being a lake, obviously it was rich with both fishes & amphibians like frogs, tortoises, turtles & crocodiles. The fishes have been preserved with scales intact and are approximately 20-29cm long. One of the impressive fossil is of an almost completely intact soft-shelled turtle (Palaeoamyda messeliana). Messel pit was the home to several crocodiles, belonging to 2 different species. The intriguing one is Pristichampsus, an extinct variety, which is quite different from the present crocs - with hoof like claws, teeth with flattened serrated edges (unlike the conical teeth these days), which were primarily land dwellers. There are also some fossils of lizards, monitor lizards & snakes as well.   

Like insects, birds too have been fossilized with their colors & patterns of their wings intact. One stunning example is Messel Hoopoe, whose tail patterns looks very similar to modern Hoopoe.  

The reason for the awesomeness of Messel is its abundance of early mammal vertebrates. The most fascinating of them all are the various species of primitive horses. There's a fossil of Eurohippus Parvulus Messelensis, a mare (female horse), which  was pregnant, complete with the fossilized in-utero baby! How often have you come across a pregnant fossil??? Another species is Hallensia Matthesi - an primitive horse species that's in the size of a dog! There's also a re-imagined sculpture of how this would have looked like! This is the star of Messel Pit Fossil Site.  

There are very few original fossils here in the visitors centre. So, where are the Messel fossils and where can you see the Messel fossils? Major Messel fossils are in display at Seckenberg Museum in Frankfurt & Hessesches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt. There is also a small Messel Fossil & Local History Museum located 4km away in the Messel village that has few of the fossils.

Hallensia Matthesi Primitive Horse Messel
Hallensia Matthesi - the primitive horse!

Grube Messel - Daytrip from Frankfurt

Welterbe Grube Messel - Messel Pit Fossil Site

Grube Messel - UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Germany

Nearest city and railway station: Darmstadt HBF.
Nearest Bus stop: Messel Grube Messel Besucherzentrum
How to reach Messel Pit from Darmstadt HBF: Bus Line F/U from Darmstadt Hauptbahnhof Platform 22 (located on West side (westseite)).
Bus line F/U schedule & frequency - Runs twice every hour all day long on weekdays and once every hour on weekends. Journey time is about 25 minutes. Bus Schedule via Dadina (opens/saves as PDF). 

RheinMainCard & HessenTicket: RheinMainCard is a 2 day ticket and Hessen Ticket (€35) is a daypass. While RheinMainCard can be individual (€29) or upto 5 persons (€46), Hessen Tickets is automatically upto 5 persons. Both can be used on all local transport incl. certain trains. The region it covers is almost similar with Hessenticket being a bit more extensive. RheinMainCard however comes with offers on tickets to attractions incl. 20% on Grube Messel tickets. While these can be bought in the ticket machine, the easy way is to use the RMV app (Android, Appstore).

Only Visitors' Centre: €10 
Trial Tour - Schnuppertour (walk till viewpoint; excl. visitors' centre): €7 - 2 tours everyday in winter; 4 tours everyday otherwise
Mine Hike- Grubenwanderung (walk till excavation point; excl. visitors' centre): €9 - 1 tour a day on Sat, Sun only
Discovery Tour - Entdeckertour (walk till excavation point; incl. visitors' centre): €15 - 2 tours everyday Wed-Fri; 1 tour on Sat, Sun.

Make sure to book your tickets as early as possible because only 9 people are allowed per tour. Esp., there are very limited number of Mine Hike and Discovery Tours that happen, so they tend to sell out several weeks in advance.
It is also important to mail them in advance if you don't know German. The tours are essentially only in German but mostly the tour guides do manage English too. However, it is better to inform them of the language barrier before-hand.

Senckenberg Natural History Museum, Frankfurt
     How to reach Senckenberg Museum: On Google Maps
     Nearest metro: Bockenheimer Warte on U Bahn (close to Frankfurt West)
     Naturmuseum Senckenberg Tickets: €6
     Naturmuseum Senckenberg Timings: 9:00AM to 5:00PM on weekdays (till 8:00PM on Wednesdays) and till 6:00PM on weekends

Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt
     How to reach Hessisches LandesmuseumOn Google Maps (2km from Darmstadt HBF) 
     Hessisches Landesmuseum Tickets: €2.5
   Hessisches Landesmuseum Timings: 10:00AM to 5:00PM on Thu-Sat (till 8:00PM on Wednesdays); 11:00AM to 5:00PM on Sundays

Messel Fossil & Local History Museum
     How to reach: On Google Maps (4km from Messel pit)
      Messel Fossil & Local History Museum Tickets: Free
     Messel Fossil & Local History Museum Timings: Sat-Sun only 11:00AM to 5:00PM

Darmstadt City itself has quite a few places to visit. While Welterbe Grube Messel would take half a day by itself, the rest of the day can be used to explore Darmstadt city. Other things to do and places to see in Darmstadt in one day incl. Burg Frankenstein (hilltop castle in the middle of the city), Hessisches Landesmuseum (the main museum of Darmstadt which also is the home to many of the fossils of Messel Pit Fossil Site), Waldspirale (an unusual, colorful building), Vivarium Darmstadt, Rosenhohe Park etc  

CologneAachen, Dusseldorf, Upper Middle Rhine Valley (Koblenz to Bingen/Rudesheim), Roman Limes (Idstein, Saalburg etc), Lorsch Abbey, Geopark BergstrasseOdenwald, Speyer cathedral

Messel is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forests. We visited Messel as one of our day-trips from Frankfurt. Here's my review of Hilton Frankfurt City Centre where we stayed. The nearest city to Messel for hotels is Darmstadt which has hotels at all price points incl. Best Western Plus Hotel Darmstadt, Best Western Hotel Darmstadt, Intercityhotel Darmstadt, Holiday Inn Express Darmstadt, Ibis Budget Darmstadt City etc. 

P.S: I was invited by Hessen Tourism to experience the region for review purposes, however the opinions are my own and this post does not to advertise the product/service.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Germany Messel Pit Fossil Site Pinterest  Messel Pit Fossils Jewel Beetle Hoopoe Pinterest

 Oil shales Fossils of Welternaturebe Grube Messel  Welternaturebe Grube Messel Hallensia Matthesi Prehistoric Horse


An ardent traveler by passion. Being an ex - Art History Teacher, my area of interest especially lies in Nature and Heritage. Visited 85 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of June 2022. I've been listed among the Top 7 Women Travel Bloggers of India, Top 50 in UK. I have been interviewed in a couple of TV Shows, Radio Channels and Events as well. Read more about me and read the testimonials of different brands


  1. Prehistoric Sites always fascinate me, so I'm so glad that I read your post. I haven't heard that the Messel Pit Fossil site became Germany's first Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site - Welternaturbe Grube Messel. So, I add it to my list. It's a great idea for a weekend trip! I think the Discovery tour should be perfect for me if it includes the hike until the mine's depths and entry to the visitors center.

  2. I've been to many prehistoric sites in the US but hadn't come aross any yet in Europe. There is so much to learn from a site like this - even the bits of recent history and the misuse of the site as a dump ground. The fossils themselves are unsuaul, really enjoyed reading about the plants and the makeup of the water based pit.

  3. How funny that the Messel Pit was more of a light stroll rather than a strenous hike down into a cave. I would have thought the same as you! Glad to hear that it is child friendly and easily accessible for families. The Messsel Pit Fossil Site sounds like such a unique experience.

  4. It's cool that they start with a movie about the history of the site. In this way, you are able to appreciate what you see. I have never visited an open-mine and I am happy to know that it's an easy walk. Would love to visit someday and to see these fossils especially the leaves and flower fossils.

  5. That's amazing that you found this place. I have not heard of it so far. Hearing that its a light walk and not a strenous hike appeals to me. It must be a unique feeling to see these fossils that were there since long long ago. I would like to see the crocodile and the poop .

  6. I also love to visit prehistoric sites and always curious to know how was the lifestyle of our ancestors. The history of Messel looks interesting and I have never read about it before. Those flower and leaf fossils look really cute. Even I can see whole impression of leaf on that rock. Even those insects fossils look very realistic and not distorted too. I have seen fossils but not so much clarity in them like here in Messel fil fossil site.

  7. This is so cool! Fossils have ALWAYS intrigued me. They are such fun glimpses into the past - especially if the plants/animals are extinct. The tour sounds like fun, too. What a great thing for a child to experience. So fun!

  8. I have never been to any prehistoric sites. But after reading this, it's encouraging me to visit. Amazing place to explore and would love to know about the previous lifestyle. Thanks for sharing this guide!

  9. Historic sites are always interesting to explore. This post is very informative and the tour would lead to great learning of the site. Disheartening to know that it was misused but thanks to the interference of scientists that today such a discovery is possible. I can imagine how interesting it would be to watch the documentary in the beginning. The metallic water, museum, there is so much to this 3 hour tour. Hope can make it someday.

  10. I like that the site is an open pit vs a dark enclosed mine. I’m shocked that you actually get to search for fossils. Would love to see the Eurohippus Parvulus Messelensis, such a unique experience


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