Germany, western Europe’s largest country, is a boundless feast for travelers. Its endless variety of historic cities, dark, romantic forests and contemporary cultural riches can leave visitors bewildered. But, while you can never hope to see all this fascinating country’s highlights, you can cut to the chase with our guide to eight of the very best places to visit in Germany.
Best city for nightlife
It’s an obvious inclusion, but no list of German highlights would be complete without the country’s capital and dynamic cultural engine room. Germany’s most populous city, Berlin is a bountiful beast of a place, offering some of the country’s definitive museums, dining, art and, perhaps above all, nightlife.
Boisterous Berlin has long had a bohemian streak. While you should definitely make time to for cultural highlights like the van der Rohe designed Neue Nationalgalerie and the treasure trove that is Museumsinsel (Museum Island), those seeking a party will surely find it in iconic venues like Berghain and Pratergarten, where beer and bonhomie have flowed together since 1837.
Planning tip: Get yourself a Berlin Welcome Card online, before you hit town. A six-day, all-inclusive ticket (adults €169; children aged 3-14 €85) gives you unlimited public transport, free entry to more than 30 top attractions, up to 50% discount on over 150 more, plus other benefits.
Best city for history
Cologne (Köln) is known for its liberal climate and its wealth of historic sights. Taking its name from the Romans, who founded it in the first century CE as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, it’s been a major center of German history ever since.
The most tangible symbol of Cologne’s importance, and its essential sight, is its magnificent 13th-century cathedral, the Kölner Dom. Germany’s largest church, it was also Europe’s highest building until eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower. Other must-see historical and cultural attractions include the Römisch-Germanisches (Romano-Germanic) Museum and the sublime collection of 13th- to the 19th-century European art at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud.
Planning tip: Head to the Cologne Tourist Board office, adjacent to the cathedral, or to any KVB or DB public transport ticket machines, and grab a KölnCard. A 24-hour individual ticket (€9) gets you unlimited public travel and up to 50% off at many cultural attractions, restaurants and shops.
3. The Middle Rhine Valley (the Rhine Gorge)
Best for castles and vineyards
As the Rhine, Germany’s second-longest river, processes grandly south from Koblenz it cuts a gorge through a gasp-inducing landscape of vineyards and castles. The stretch between Koblenz and Rüdesheim, known as the Oberes Mittelrheintal (Upper Middle Rhine Valley) is so special it won Unesco World Heritage listing in 2002.
4. Munich & the Bavarian Alps
Best for traditional German culture
Munich (München), the capital of the Free State of Bavaria (Freistaat Bayern) is the city most visitors associate with "classic" German culture. While Germany is in fact a patchwork of cultures and dialects, it’s often the Bavarian model of bierkellers, bratwurst and lederhosen that outsiders have in mind. Munich is no cliche, though – Germany’s third-largest city is a center of high-tech manufacturing and cutting-edge culture, as well as the gateway to the magnificent Bavarian Alps.
Essential sights and experiences include the Residenzmuseum, the former palace of Bavaria’s ruling Wittelsbach dynasty, the museum-packed Kunstareal district and the ornate, 17th-century Schloss Nymphenburg. An easy drive south of Munich lie the forested mountains, photogenic villages and ski- and spa-resorts of the beautiful Bavarian Alps.
Planning tip: Oktoberfest, synonymous with Munich, is also the busiest and most expensive time to visit. Accommodation is booked solid long in advance.
5. The Black Forest
Best for German wilderness
Bordering France and Switzerland, the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) is a forest fastness of more than 6000 sq km. From its spruce-swaddled slopes to deep valleys broken by silvery lakes and traditional villages and farmsteads, it’s a diverse rural playground just begging to be explored by car, cycle or foot.
If you’re pressed for time, a drive along the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse (Black Forest High Road) from Baden-Baden to Freudenstadt unfurls a series of gorgeous vistas. However, if you have more leisure, consider hiking the 40km Panoramaweg or the 12km Feldberg–Steig to the Forest’s highest peak. Population centers you should definitely include on your visit include Triberg, with its waterfall and cuckoo clocks; the laidback university town of Freiburg; and Alpirsbach, with its 11th-century Benedictine monastery.
Planning tip: While travelers are naturally drawn to the Black Forest’s great outdoors, it would be a mistake to overlook the region’s excellent cuisine. There’s Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest gateau), of course, but lesser-known specialities include venison Baden-Baden, smoked Schwartzwalder Schinken (ham) and skinless lange rote (long red) sausages from Freiburg.
Best for German culture
The proximate central-German cities of Erfurt and Weimar represent a ridiculous wealth of cultural achievement and historic significance. Erfurt, capital of Thuringia, has one of Germany’s loveliest medieval centers, while Weimar stands tall as the capital of the eponymous 20th-century Republic and the home to cultural luminaries such as Bach, Goethe, Schiller and Nietzsche.
Erfurt’s essential sights include its cathedral, where Martin Luther was ordained, and the vast, baroque Zitadelle Petersberg. In Weimar you’ll have to find time for the Goethe-Nationalmuseum, set in the author’s home of 50 years, the Unesco-listed Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek and the modernist treasures of the Bauhaus Museum.
7. Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Best for traditional German charm
Perhaps the most enchanting village along the entire 400km of The Romantic Road, Rothenburg ob der Tauber (meaning ‘above the Tauber river’) is a wonderfully preserved example of a medieval German village. Strict heritage protection ensures that every turn reveals meandering cobbled lanes, glimpses of the intact city walls and venerable churches. Make time to see the local treasures collected in the Reichsstadtmuseum, housed in a former Dominican convent, and the Alt-Rothenburger Handwerkerhaus, where weavers, potters and other craftspeople ply their trade as they have done for over seven centuries.
8. The Baltic Coast
Best for German coastline
Northern Germany’s Baltic Coast represents a side of the country not many visitors anticipate. The indented southern coast of the Baltic Sea hides great swathes of pure sand, susurrating pines and pristine nature sanctuaries. Highlights include: the former Hanseatic power Stralsund, a classic of red-brick Gothic gabled architecture; the sheer cliffs of Jasmund National Park; and the birdlife and beauty of the Darss-Zingst Peninsula.