Prepare for a roller-coaster ride of feasts, treats and temptations when you experience the soul-stirring scenery, beautiful big cities, romantic palaces and half-timbered towns of Germany.
You'll encounter history in towns where streets were laid out long before Columbus set sail, and in castles that loom above age-old villages where flower boxes billow with crimson geraniums. The great cities – including Berlin, Munich and Hamburg – will wow you with a cultural kaleidoscope that spans the arc from art museums and high-brow opera to naughty cabaret and underground clubs. Wherever you go, Romanesque, Gothic and baroque classics rub rafters with architectural creations from modern masters.
These are the top places to visit on your trip to Germany.
Berlin's alternative edge, exciting food scene, palpable history and urban glamour never fail to enthrall and enchant. More than a quarter century after the Berlin Wall’s collapse, the German capital has grown up without relinquishing its indie spirit and penchant for creative improvisation. There’s haute cuisine in a former brewery, all-night parties in power stations and world-class art in a WWII bunker. Visit major historical sights – including the Reichstag, Brandenburger Tor and Checkpoint Charlie – then feast on a smorgasbord of culture in myriad museums.
If you are looking for Alpine clichés, Munich will hand them to you in one chic and compact package. But the Bavarian capital also has plenty of unexpected trump cards under its often bright-blue skies. Here, folklore and age-old traditions exist side by side with sleek BMWs, designer boutiques and high-powered industry. The city's museums showcase everything from artistic masterpieces to technological treasures and Oktoberfest history, while its music and cultural scenes are second only to those found in Berlin.
3. Schloss Neuschwanstein
Commissioned by Bavaria’s most celebrated (and eccentric) 19th-century monarch, King Ludwig II, Schloss Neuschwanstein rises from the mysterious Alpine forests like a bedtime-storybook illustration. Inside, the make-believe continues, with chambers and halls reflecting Ludwig’s obsession with the mythical Teutonic past and his admiration of composer Wagner in a confection that puts even the flashiest oligarch’s palazzo in the shade. This sugary folly is said to have inspired Walt’s castle at Disney World; now it inspires tourist masses to make the pilgrimage along the Romantic Road, which culminates at its gates.
4. Black Forest
Mist, snow or shine, the deep, dark Black Forest is just beautiful. If it's back-to-nature moments you're after, this sylvan slice of southwestern Germany is the place to linger. Every valley reveals new surprises: half-timbered villages looking every inch the fairy-tale fantasy, thunderous waterfalls, cuckoo clocks the size of houses. Breathe in the fresh air, drive roller-coaster roads to middle-of-nowhere lakes, have a slice of the Black Forest's famous cake, walk it off on a gorgeously wooded trail and then hide away in a heavy-lidded farmhouse. Hear that? Silence. What a wonderful thing.
5. Rhine Valley
As the mighty Rhine flows from Rüdesheim to Koblenz, the landscape's unique face-off between rock and water creates a magical mix of the wild (churning whirlpools, dramatic cliffs), the agricultural (near-vertical vineyards), the medieval (hilltop castles, half-timbered hamlets), and the modern (in the 19th-century sense: barges, ferries, passenger steamers and trains) in the Rhine Valley. From every riverside village, trails take you through vineyards and forests, up to panoramic viewpoints and massive stone fortresses, and back to a romantic evening spent sampling the local wines.
The 19th-century romantics found sublime beauty and spiritual inspiration in Heidelberg, Germany's oldest university town, and so, in his way, did Mark Twain, who was beguiled by the ruins of the hillside castle. Generations of students have attended lectures, sung lustily with beer steins in hand, carved their names into tavern tables and, occasionally, been sent to the student jail. All of this has left its mark on the modern-day city, where age-old traditions endure alongside world-class research, innovative cultural events and a sometimes raucous nightlife scene.
The apocalypse came on a cold February night in 1945 – hours of carpet-bombing reduced Dresden, nicknamed Germany's "Florence on the Elbe," to a smouldering pile of bricks. The dead Dresden's comeback is nothing short of a miracle. Reconstructed architectural jewels pair with stunning art collections that justify the city's place in the pantheon of European cultural capitals. Add to that a contagiously energetic pub quarter, Daniel Libeskind's dramatically redesigned Military History Museum and a tiara of villas and palaces lining up along the river and you've got one enticing package of discovery.
There was a time when Trier was the capital of Western Europe. Okay, that time was 2000 years ago, when Emperor Constantine ruled the fading Roman Empire from here. Nowhere else in Germany has the Roman legacy survived as beautifully and tangibly as in this charming town with its ancient amphitheater, thermal baths and Porta Nigra city gate – Unesco noticed, designating nine World Heritage sites. Today, Germany's oldest city is as unhurried as the Moselle River it sits on, within a grape toss of the country's finest – and steepest – vineyards.
Capital of Franconia, an independent region until 1806, Nuremberg may conjure visions of Nazi rallies and grisly war trials, but there’s so much more to this energetic city. German painter Albrecht Dürer hailed from the Altstadt, his house now a museum. Germany’s first railway trundled from here to neighboring Fürth, leaving a trail of train heritage. Germany’s toy capital has heaps of things for kids to enjoy. When you’re done with sightseeing, the local beer is as dark as the coffee and best employed to chase down Nuremberg’s delicious finger-sized bratwurst.
At unexpected moments you see it: Cologne's cathedral, the city's twin-towered icon, looming over an urban vista and the timeless course of the Rhine. You can feel the echoes of the passage of time as you sit in its soaring stained-glass-lit and artwork-filled interior. Led by its famous cathedral, Cologne offers a mother lode of attractions. The city’s museum landscape is especially strong when it comes to art but also has something in store for fans of chocolate, sports and even Roman history. Cologne is like a living textbook on history and architecture: drifting about town you’ll stumble upon an ancient Roman wall, medieval churches galore, nondescript postwar buildings, avant-garde structures and a new postmodern quarter right on the Rhine.
11. Saxon Switzerland
Isn’t nature incredible? This is the first thought that springs to mind when you clap eyes on the sandstone wonderland of Saxon Switzerland, just south of Dresden. A bizarre rockscape of pinnacles, buttresses, mesas and spires, this national park – a favorite of 19th-century Romantic artists – is arrestingly beautiful. Its beauty, some say, is best appreciated by hitting one of the many hiking trails leading deep into thick forest or to medieval castle ruins. Free climbers are in their element in these rugged heights.
We can pretty much guarantee that your camera will have a love affair with Potsdam's marvelous palaces, idyllic parks, stunning views, inspired architecture and tantalizing Cold War sites. Just across the Glienicke "spy bridge" from Berlin, the state capital of Brandenburg was catapulted to prominence by King Frederick the Great. His giddily rococo Sanssouci Palace is the glorious crown of this Unesco-recognized cultural tapestry that synthesizes 18th-century artistic trends from around Europe in one stupendous masterpiece. A day spent here is sure to charm and enlighten you.
Anyone who thinks Germany doesn't have around-the-clock delights hasn't been to Hamburg. This ancient, wealthy city on the Elbe traces it roots back to the Hanseatic League, a federation of cities and towns formed in the 12th century, and beyond. By day you can tour its magnificent port, explore its history in restored quarters and discover shops selling goods you didn't think were sold. By night, some of Europe's best music clubs pull in visitors, and diversions for virtually every other taste are plentiful as well. And then, another Hamburg day begins.
Often overlooked by travelers but actually one of Germany’s most attractive towns, Bamberg is a medieval and baroque masterwork chock-full of Unesco-listed townhouses that were mercifully spared the destruction of World War II. Half of the Altstadt’s beauty comes from its location straddling two waterways, the River Regnitz and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. Away from the urban eye candy, lower-brow entertainment is provided by Bamberg’s numerous brewpubs, which cook up the town’s unique Rauchbier (smoked beer) – some say it tastes a bit like bacon.
15. Rothenburg ob der Tauber
With its jumble of neatly restored half-timbered houses enclosed by sturdy ramparts, Rothenburg ob der Tauber lays on the medieval cuteness with a trowel. One might even say it's too cute for its own good, if the deluges of day trippers are any indication. The trick is to experience this historical wonderland at its most magical: early or late in the day, when the last buses have hit the road and you can soak up the romance all by yourself on gentle strolls along moonlit cobbled lanes.
Germany's financial capital, Frankfurt may first appear all buttoned up, but behind the corporate demeanor lurks a city brimming with cultural, culinary and shopping diversions. The best way to discover the city's soul is to head away from the high-rises. It's easy to join Frisbee-tossing locals in the grassy parkland along the Main River, grab an espresso at an old-time cafe, go museum-hopping along the riverbank and sip tart Ebbelwei (apple cider) while tucking into hearty local fare at a wood-paneled tavern.
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