Germany has a touch of everything: the majestic Alps, glorious miles of river and forest, fairytale castles, rejuvenating spas. Its cities are filled with art treasures as well as fine dining and irresistible shops. The exquisite wines are rivaled only by some of the world’s best beers. It’s no wonder Germany is such a popular destination.
However, the most rewarding trips go beyond the big-name sights to discover the Germany only the locals know, the hidden treasures to be found even in the most visited regions. For instance, did you know you can find the world’s largest cuckoo clock in the Black Forest? And that you can rent your own chalet in the Alps? You can leave the busy beer halls for a mountain monastery that makes some of Bavaria’s best brews, and skip the cruise traffic on the Rhine River to travel the peaceful Elbe, leading to remarkable East German towns that the average traveler overlooks. And instead of standing in the crowds gazing at the Berlin Wall, why not follow a scenic bicycle trail that takes in the wall and many other Cold War landmarks?
These are just a few of the experiences that await on your journey to Germany. Whether this is your first trip or the 10th, we’re here to help you make the most of it.
Bask on a Baltic Beach
Beaches may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Germany, but the sea coast to the north is a popular mecca for Germans in summer and a pleasant change of pace for visitors. Along with hundreds of miles of white beaches, you’ll find offshore islands that are nonpareils. Rugen is known for its dramatic white chalk cliffs, part of Jasmund National Park. The park is also known for its ancient beech forests.
The charming island of Sylt is a step back in time, with its quaint stone cottages topped by sloping grass roofs. The long strands of beach are part of Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park. Sylt is popular with sailors and surfers and also offers spa resorts.
For more information on beaches and parks, see Germany.travel.
Bike the Berlin Wall
Germany has many scenic bike tours, but none more unusual or interesting than a guided tour of the Berlin Wall and other Cold War landmarks in the former East Berlin. You’ll see and learn about the East Side Gallery, a 0.8-mile stretch of the Wall that’s still standing. Famous for its graffiti as well as its checkpoints, the Gallery is a blend of sobering watchtowers, modern street art and communist propaganda still lining various buildings. Some bike tours include a stop at the impressive Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park.
Companies offering tours include Fat Tire Bike Tours and Berlin on Bike. You can also book bike tours through Viator. To learn more about the city, see our Berlin Travel Guide.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
“In Berlin: Walk the Unter Den Linden (the east) and Ku’Damm (the west) streets. They are the main thoroughfares of the city and just give you the vibe of Berlin. Top sites: the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Pergamon Museum and Holocaust Memorial. You could spend weeks in Berlin and never see it all.” Read more!
Raise Your Glass in Wine Country
Beer is not the only beverage of note in Germany. The vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel Valleys produce world-class white wines, especially Rieslings, both sweet and dry. The region is picturesque year-round but particularly spectacular in the fall, when the grapes are ripe and the trees are in their best autumn hues. Many of the vineyards are on castle estates and welcome visits. You can plan your own vineyard tour or join a guided tour, which may offer cooking lessons in addition to wine tastings.
The Wines of Germany website, GermanWineUSA.org, is a great source to find information about German wine regions. For tours, check out WineToursoftheWorld.com.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
“The morning we sailed through the dramatic Rhine Gorge, home to many castles perched atop hills above small villages, that was perhaps the most romantic of all. That day was overcast and a little misty, which added to the mystique. The cruise director kept pointing the castles out, mile by mile, and told stories about their legends. It was the best sightseeing of the trip.” Read more!
Visit the World’s Biggest Little Museum
Hamburg’s most unique museum is the Miniatur Wunderland, or Miniature Wonderland, spanning two vast floors of what was once a brick maritime warehouse. The largest model railway layout in the world is just one of the marvelous theme worlds here, which also include mini-reproductions of Hamburg, Germany’s Harz Mountains, and parts of Scandinavia, Switzerland and the United States. Watch the lights go on at night in Las Vegas; see a cable car ascend the Alps; watch a plane taxi and take off; check out miniature firefighters dousing a blaze. With the push of a button you can see performers go into action at a rock concert, a ropeway ascend at a ski resort or a soccer game go under way. More than 385,000 lights, 260,000 figurines, 900 trains and 10,000 cars bring all of this to life, and the exhibits are still growing.
For current hours and information, see Miniatur-Wunderland.com.
“As to Hamburg generally, I was there for business, but I was (positively) shocked at how fresh and vibrant the city has become. Lots of renovated buildings and cultural and shopping opportunities. I had an excellent four-course meal at a one-star Michelin restaurant close to the train station for 60 euros.” Read more!
Paddle Your Way Around Spreewald
This verdant nature area, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has an amazing 40 lakes and ponds and more than 170 miles of waterways to be explored by kayak, canoe or excursion boat. Spreewald is famous for its gardens, as well as wildlife, which includes some 500 strutting storks. The area was formed millions of years ago when glaciers leveled the land so much that the Spree River overflowed its banks.
An excellent place for a few days of relaxation, the area has hotels, campgrounds and a number of farms that take guests. For information, see Spreewald.de.
Count the (Michelin) Stars in Baiersbronn
Baiersbronn, population 16,000, may well be Europe’s most unexpected dining mecca. This unheralded town hidden away in the Black Forest has not one but two small restaurants with rare three-star Michelin ratings — as many winners as London! Harald Wohlfahrt, chef of the Schwarzwaldstube restaurant at the Hotel Traube Tonbach, was a pioneer in upgrading German cuisine to Continental levels, and has maintained his three-star rating for two decades. George Clooney, the Clintons and the Dalai Lama are among those who have made pilgrimages to Baiersbronn to taste his menus. His fellow chef Claus-Peter Lumpp, at the Bareiss restaurant, won his third star in 2008, leading to a delicious rivalry. There’s a two-star restaurant in town to consider as well (the Schlossberg at the Hotel Sackmann). A half-hour drive away is a two-star winner, Le Pavillon at the Hotel Dollenberg in Bad Peterstal-Griesbach, adding up to an amazing 10 Michelin stars in the vicinity.
If you’re inspired, you can sign up for cooking lessons at the Hotel Traube Tonbach, learning to make classic German dishes such as chanterelles in cream sauce with dumplings or Black Forest tortes. For restaurant menus and cooking schedules, see Traube-Tonbach.de. For Bareiss menus and information, see Bareiss.com.
Find a Fairy Tale Grotto in Saalfeld
The Guinness Book of World Records calls the Saalfeld underground grotto caves near Weimar the most multi-colored grottos in the world. Tour the tunnels of a former mine, leading to amazing chambers with fanciful names such as Fairy Tale Cathedral and Holy Grail Castle. Guides will introduce you to the story of the mines and the magical world of Thuringian fairytales and folklore.
For site information, see Feengrotten.de. For area information, see Visit-Thuringia.com.
Rent Your Own Chalet in the Alps
You don’t have to be a celebrity to savor the scenery from your own windows and terrace in the Alps. Many agencies handle rentals for a week or a few days’ stay. Aim for the area around Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the heart of the Alps and home to its highest peak, the Zugspitze. You can get to the top views painlessly via cable car or cog railway. Try to do some easy Alpine walks as well; from a home base, you may find many less crowded trails.
Check with agencies like HomeAway.com, TripAdvisor.com/Rentals or Airbnb.com for current rental possibilities.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
“Most of my time in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (GAP) was spent walking and enjoying the area — didn’t cost me a dime. I did pay to go to one place, though, which I want to alert potential travelers to in order to make the experience better than I had. Partnach Gorge is on all the travel brochures. It’s an awesome and naturally wild place.” Read more!
Discover Germany’s Other Great River
Germany’s Elbe River isn’t as well known or traveled as the Rhine, but an Elbe cruise is a fascinating look into the history and unexpected offerings of East Germany.
Port calls often include a stop in Dresden, whose stunning Baroque domes and spires were literally raised from the ashes after being destroyed in World War II. The Semper Opera House here is one of the most beautiful in the world, and the Green Vault of Dresden’s Royal Palace holds an eye-popping collection of jewels and treasures. Elsewhere on the Elbe, World War II buffs will be fascinated by a small museum displaying rare photos and films from that era in Torgau, the town where Russian and Allied troops first met and merged. In Meissen, you can watch artisans creating the hand-painted porcelain that has been made here since 1710. You’ll find the church where Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses in Wittenberg.
Because the Elbe River is shallow, only small ships can sail it. Viking River Cruises, CroisiEurope and Grand Circle Travel are among the lines offering this route.
Get Your BA (Beer Aficionado) Degree
All of Germany loves beer, but Munich can rightfully claim to be the home of foam. After you sample the famous Hofbrauhaus and Hirschgarten Biergarten in town, make a pilgrimage to the true beer lover’s destination, the mountaintop Andechs Monastery. Benedictine monks have been making beer here for centuries; by now they know what they’re doing. Have a seat in the beer hall (or the garden if the weather is fine) to sample what brew mavens consider to be some of the best. Admire the view and the exquisite Baroque church on the property; religious pilgrims have been coming here for centuries to see the relics on display — including, reputedly, a piece of Jesus’ crown of thorns.
You can get to Andechs in a little more than an hour from Munich by public transportation, using the S-Bahn (45 minutes) plus a 10-minute bus ride from Herrsching station. If you prefer guided tours, check BeerTrips.com or Viator.com.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
“Final destination was Munich, with much bustle going on, in preparation for their world-famous Oktoberfest. We dined and roamed, and took a day trip down into the beginning of the Bavarian Alps. The reward was the magnificent Neuschwanstein Castle. It was a climb to get there, but well worth it.” Read more!
Share a Secret in Saxony
Germans love it, but few visitors know about the spectacular scenery of the Saxon Switzerland National Park near Dresden in East Germany. The park is a fantasy land of tall limestone needles in myriad colors including the Bastei, towering 636 feet above the Elbe River. The otherworldly cliff faces are carpeted with twisted evergreens and primordial beech forests. Below the cliffs are forests, meadows and fields, a landscape unique in central Europe. Hundreds of miles of trails accommodate every ability from hikes to strolls. Those who come just to gaze and take endless photos are happy as well.
The park can be reached via bus or train. For information, see the website Nationalpark-Saechsische-Schweiz.de.
Go Cuckoo in the Black Forest
Far from being black, Germany’s Black Forest is lush and green, perfect for walks and for exploring the region’s claim to fame as the birthplace of the cuckoo clock. Villingen-Schwenningen (at the source of the Neckar River) was once the world’s largest clock-making town, and has two museums to prove it. The Uhrenindustriemuseum, housed in a former factory, demonstrates the production side while the Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum) has typical examples of Black Forest workmanship. From Villingen-Schwenningen you can set out on the “Clockmakers Trail,” on foot or by car, finding many shops where these fanciful clocks are still made by hand, and discovering two little villages, Triberg and Schonach, that each claim to house the world’s largest cuckoo clock.
For details of the Clockmakers Trail, see Black-Forest.org. For walking tours, see Walking-in-Germany.co.uk. For Black Forest tours and excursions, see Viator.com.
Best Time to Go to Germany
Travelers seeking sunny skies and balmy weather should head to Germany between May and September, which is high season for tourism to the country. Fall and spring are Germany’s shoulder seasons, during which crowds aren’t as thick as those during summer. Keep in mind, however, that German festivals like Oktoberfest or the Frankfurt Book Fair draw hordes of travelers. Winter’s cold temperatures make outdoor pursuits, like Black Forest hikes or Rhine Valley bike tours, less pleasant, but the coldest season in Germany is a boon to winter-sports enthusiasts and to travelers seeking holiday cheer and handmade gifts at German Christmas markets.
Germany on a Budget
To grab the lowest prices on accommodations and airfare, head to Germany during winter. Or try a shoulder-season trip; during this time, plane tickets and hotel rooms aren’t exactly going for rock-bottom prices, but you’ll still see better rates during fall and spring than during summer. Germany hosts a number of popular festivals such as Oktoberfest, during which rates at hotels tend to climb. To keep costs down, avoid traveling to destinations in Germany when big festivals are taking place.
–written by Eleanor Berman
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