Prepare for a roller-coaster ride of feasts, treats and temptations experiencing Germany's soul-stirring scenery, spirit-lifting culture, big-city beauties, romantic palaces and half-timbered towns.
There's something undeniably artistic in the way Germany's scenery unfolds; the corrugated, dune-fringed coasts of the north; the moody forests, romantic river valleys and vast vineyards of the centre; and the off-the-charts splendour of the Alps, carved into rugged glory by glaciers and the elements. All of these are integral parts of a magical natural matrix that's bound to give your camera batteries a good workout. Get off the highway and into the great outdoors to soak up the epic landscapes that make each delicious, slow, winding mile so precious.
Pleasures of Civilisation
You'll encounter history in towns where streets were laid out long before Columbus set sail, and in castles that loom above prim, half-timbered villages where flower boxes billow with crimson geraniums. The great cities – including Berlin, Munich and Hamburg – come in more flavours than a jar of jelly beans but all will wow you with a cultural kaleidoscope that spans the arc from art museums and high-brow opera to naughty cabaret and underground clubs. And wherever you go, Romanesque, Gothic and baroque classics rub rafters with architectural creations from modern masters such as Daniel Libeskind, David Chipperfield and Frank Gehry.
Experiencing Germany through its food and drink will add a rich layer to your memories (and possibly to your belly!). You'll quickly discover that the local food is so much more than sausages and pretzels, schnitzel and roast pork accompanied by big mugs of foamy beer. Beyond the clichés awaits a cornucopia of regional and seasonal palate-teasers. Share the German people's obsession with white asparagus in springtime, chanterelle mushrooms in summer and game in autumn. Sample not only the famous beer but also world-class wines, most notably the noble Riesling.
High on History
Few countries have had as much impact on the world as Germany, which has given us the Hanseatic League, the Reformation and, yes, Hitler and the Holocaust, but also the printing press, the automobile, aspirin and MP3 technology. It's the birthplace of Martin Luther, Albert Einstein and Karl Marx, of Goethe, Beethoven, the Brothers Grimm and other heavyweights who have left their mark on human history. You can stand in a Roman amphitheatre, sleep in a medieval castle and walk along remnants of the Berlin Wall – in Germany the past is very much present wherever you go.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Germany.
Walk through ancient Babylon, meet an Egyptian queen, clamber up a Greek altar or be mesmerized by Monet's ethereal landscapes. Welcome to Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a one-of-a-kind collection of five grand museums capturing diverse cultures and historical periods through rare artifacts. Museumsinsel is situated on the northern half of Spreeinsel, a small island in the River Spree, where Berlin's settlement began in the 13th century. Spread across five buildings constructed under Prussian rulers, Berlin's most important treasure trove spans 6000 years’ worth of art, artifacts, sculpture and architecture from Europe and beyond. The first facility to open was the Altes Museum, which presents Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities. Behind it, the Neues Museum showcases the Egyptian collection, most famously the Nefertiti Bust, and also houses the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Pre- and Early History). The temple-like Alte Nationalgalerie focuses on 19th-century European art, while the island's top drawcard, the Pergamonmuseum, displays monumental architecture from ancient worlds, including the stunning Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Last but not least, the Bode-Museum, at the island's northern tip, is famous for its medieval sculptures. In addition to the museums, Museumsinsel is also home to the lovely Lustgarten park and Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). The Neues Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie, Museumsinsel, Berlin © mkrberlin / Shutterstock The history of Museumsinsel Each of Museumsinsel’s five buildings were designed by different architects, who were commissioned by a succession of Prussian kings between 1830 and 1930. The Altes Museum (originally known as the Königliches Museum) was the first cultural facility to open on Museumsinsel in 1830. It is considered the most mature work by Prussia’s most important architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Dedicated to Enlightenment ideals of furthering art and science, the museum made significant historical collections and artworks – including Old Masters paintings, prints and drawings – publicly accessible for the very first time. The Neues Museum (New Museum) was conceived as an extension for the overflowing Königliches Museum, which was struggling to display its growing number of artifacts. It was designed in neoclassical and Renaissance Revival styles and opened in 1855. As a consequence, the existing Königliches Museum was eventually renamed to the Altes Museum (Old Museum). By 1876, the Alte-National Galerie, which takes the form of a traditional Greek temple, opened its doors to display paintings and sculptures donated by a prominent banker. This was followed by the opening of the neo-baroque Kaiser Friedrich Museum, today’s Bode-Museum, in 1904, and the Pergamonmuseum in 1930. Exactly 100 years after construction began on the original museum, Museumsinsel was finally complete. World War II, however, brought a turbulent period to the Museumsinsel. Bombings destroyed entire sections of buildings and bullet holes pockmarked facades. The worst hit was the Neues Museum, which, as a consequence, was disused until the 2000s. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Altes Museum and Alte-Nationalgalerie were renovated and reopened, along with the Pergamonmuseum in 1959 (although a thorough restoration only began in 2013 and remains ongoing). However, in a divided city, the museum complex fell on the East Berlin side of the wall, making the facilities difficult to access for those in West Berlin during the years following the war. Visitors inside the Pergamonmuseum, Museumsinsel © Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock In the direct aftermath of the fighting, items from the museums were also taken as war trophies, notably by USSR forces. Most items have since been returned, but some still remain outside Germany. The Trojan Gold (a collection of gold from ancient Troy), for example, remains on display to this day at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, it was decided that the complex should be restored and renovated for contemporary times. In 1999, the government developed what was termed the “master plan” – a decade-long, billion-euro project to transform Museumsinsel into the modern spectacle that greets visitors today. That same year, Museumsinsel was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. Besides overall restoration work, the master plan included the reopening of the Neues Museum (which had remained closed since the war) in 2009, with a brand-new visitor center and art gallery – both designs were spearheaded by British “starchitect” David Chipperfield. More recently, the Humboldt Forum, encompassing the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art, opened in late 2020 in the Berlin Palace opposite the Lustgarten park. Like many large historical museums in major European cities, the facilities on Museumsinsel face a growing backlash over displaying ancient artifacts taken from other countries following historical wars, expeditions and invasions. To aid in addressing this issue, a handful of items, including the 3000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa from Turkey (formerly on display in the Pergamonmuseum), have been returned to their country of origin. In addition, in 2021 a new government initiative, MuseumsLab, was launched, with an aim of decolonizing Germany’s museums and “fostering international cooperation”. A passenger ferry passes Museumsinsel, Berlin © Boris Stroujko / Shutterstock Plan your visit Museumsinsel is one of Berlin’s busiest areas. The grounds, indoors and outdoors, are always bustling with school children, buskers and tour groups. As such, use common sense and be aware of potential pickpockets. The most budget-friendly way to visit the different museums is by getting the WelcomeCard for Museum Island. For one price, it grants access to the island’s five museums as well as free public transport in central Berlin over three consecutive days. Alternatively, the Museum Pass Berlin offers entry into Musueminsel and some 30 other museums such as the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) and Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum). Getting there Museumsinsel is easily accessible by public transport. The U5 line stops right outside at Unter den Linden station. Museumsinsel is also a short walking distance from the S-Bahn stations Friedrichstraße and Hackescher Markt. Trams M1 and 12 will take you to nearby Kupfergraben, while buses 100 and 200 stop at the Lustgarten on Unter den Linden.
For over 60 years, not a soul was able to visit Berlin’s Neues Museum – in fact, it sat in ruins. But today it’s one of the city’s most celebrated attractions thanks to an extraordinary architectural design blending past and present with ancient historic collections. After decades of disuse, an extreme makeover for the bombed-out Neues Museum was unveiled in 2009. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, British starchitect David Chipperfield's design incorporates every original shard, scrap and brick that could be found into this dynamic space. Massive stairwells, intimate domed rooms, mural walls and airy, high-ceilinged halls are juxtaposed with modern concrete elements and gray scars on damaged friezes – bringing the neoclassical building’s past into a future that remembers. The Ägyptisches Museum (Egyptian Museum) is a part of the permanent collection © Jaroslav Moravcik / Shutterstock The collection The collection itself showcases ancestral histories from world cultures. With 8000 sq m over four separate levels, the Neues Museum displays around 9000 historical exhibits spanning the weird, wild and wonderful. There are two permanent collections: the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection) spanning four millennia’s worth of ancient Egyptian and Nubian artifacts, while the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Pre- and Early History) journeys across Europe and the Middle East from the Stone Ages to the Middle Ages. Among all these artifacts, is Berlin’s most coveted – the Nefertiti Bust, which has come to be a cultural symbol for the city over the years. Beyond the Queen’s showstopping likeness, the Egyptian Museum also features mummies, sculptures and sarcophagi. Trojan and Neanderthal relics are placed around the building’s massive stairwells and echoey rooms. One highlight from the Late Egyptian Period (around 400 BCE) is the sculpture of a priest's head carved from a smooth green stone known as the “Berlin Green Head“. Meanwhile, pride of place at the Museum of Pre- and Early History (in the same building) goes to Trojan antiquities, a Neanderthal skull and the 3000-year-old “Berlin Gold Hat", an elaborate headdress made from thin, delicate gold leaf. The 3000-year-old “Berlin Gold Hat" is made of gold leaf © Jaroslav Moravcik / Shutterstock The history of the Neues Museum The Neues Museum was commissioned by King Frederick William IV of Prussia as an extension for the overflowing Altes Museum. Construction for Museuminsel ’s second building started in 1843 with a design in neoclassical and Renaissance Revival styles by architect Friedrich August Stuler. The Neues Museum opened in 1855 to much fanfare, with its main artifact being Nefertiti's Bust – part of the treasure trove unearthed by a Berlin expedition of archaeologists around 1912 while sifting through the sands of Armana, the royal city built by Nefertiti’s husband, Akhenaten (r 1353–1336 BCE). The museum was closed at the start of WWII in 1939. During the bombings of Berlin, it sustained considerable damage. Airstrikes on November 23, 1943 destroyed the central stairway, frescos and many artifacts. Two years later, in February 1945, Allied bombs destroyed several wings as well as a connecting walkway to the Altes Museum. Post-war, the Neues Museum sat in ruins for decades in former East Berlin. Lesser damaged areas were used for storage by the other buildings on Museuminsel. In 1986, the East German government began restorative work to bring the Neues Museum to its original design, but plans were halted after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Architect David Chipperfield was responsible for the Neues Museum's redesign © Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock The museum's redesign After German reunification, the museum’s redesign was launched as a competition. Renowned architects applied with their ideas, but the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Berlin Senate weren’t keen on any of the proposals. A so-called “closed competition” followed with contracted architectural firms. David Chipperfield, who had already gained a reputation for designs elsewhere in Germany, was officially appointed to take over the project in 1997. Chipperfield’s proposed design conceived the Neues Museum as a blend of old and new. The building’s restoration and repair would be influenced by the preservation of the original structure. New elements would compliment and acknowledge what was lost without an heir of replication. It was important for Chipperfield that traces of WWII damage not be glazed over but respected within a modern context – for example, restoring the original sequence of rooms with the addition of new building sections. It was an architectural plan that was considered controversial by traditionalists who wanted the building restored to its original state, but nevertheless, the reconstruction began in 2003 and the Neues Museum reopened to the public in October 2009. The bust of Queen Nefertiti is one of the main attractions at the Neues Museum © Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock Plan your visit The Neues Museum is one of Berlin’s busiest museums, so be sure to skip the queue by buying your timed ticket online. The main attraction, the sculpture of Queen Nefertiti’s head, is displayed alone in the domed hall in the north of the building near the end. The museum is closed on Mondays. Getting there The Neues Museum is located on Museumsinsel and is easily accessible by public transport. The U5 line stops right outside Museuminsel at Unter den Linden station. The museum is also a short walking distance from the S-Bahn stations Friedrichstraße and Hackescher Markt. Trams M1 and 12 will take you to nearby Kupfergraben, while buses 100 and 200 stop at Lustgarten on Unter den Linden.
The Pergamonmuseum is one of Berlin’s most visited historical gems and perhaps also its most controversial. This museum offers an archaeological time-warp back to the ancient worlds of Babylon, Greece, Rome and beyond – and some argue that its artifacts should be returned to where they were found. One of the world’s largest museums, welcoming around 800,000 visitors annually, the Pergamon is a palatial three-wing complex uniting classical sculpture, monumental architecture and excavated treasures in dainty glass cases. It comprises three major collections, the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities), the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art) and the Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East). Key exhibits include an excavated reconstruction of the radiant-blue Ishtar Gate from Babylon, which more than 2600 years ago served as the ancient city’s Processional Way. Also impressive is the giant Market Gate of Miletus linking up Asia and Europe for Roman patrons and the Pergamon Altar, an ancient Greek victory monument now considered the zenith of Hellenic art. Since 2013, the Pergamon has been undergoing an extensive renovation to the tune of €477 million (about $560 million). Currently, the Pergamon’s central building (where the Pergamon Altar as well as several other rooms are located) is off-limits and will reopen in 2025 at the earliest. In the meantime, visitors can see a temporary 360º panorama exhibition of how Pergamon and its altar would have looked in 129 BC. The display, which also includes sculptures and other works from the museum, was created by renowned Berlin artist Yadegar Asisi. The central building where the Pergamon Altar is located will reopen in 2025 at the earliest © Getty Images History The Pergamonmuseum was founded against the backdrop of Germany’s 19th-century archaeological digs. In 1871, Germany, spurred by the discovery of Troy by a German archaeologist and the excavation activities of other colonial powers, began digging where the ancient kingdoms of Pergamon (modern-day Turkey), Babylon (modern-day Iraq) and Egypt once stood. Under special permissions from the Ottoman Empire that dictated the sharing of items, Germany successfully exported many artifacts to Berlin. The findings were displayed in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum on the Museumsinsel (today’s Bode-Museum), but eventually space ran out. In 1910, the construction of a new building began per order of Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm II. The Pergamon, the youngest of the five museums on Museumsinsel, opened in 1930 to much fanfare. The Ishtar Gate and Pergamon Altar, modern architectural and archaeological marvels reconstructed from excavation pieces and modern materials, were the starring attractions. At the end of the Second World War, the museum was severely damaged during an airstrike. While most main displays and large exhibitions were walled in for protection, smaller items were destroyed or stolen. The Red Army in particular collected a wealth of items as Berlin burned to the ground. By 1958, most objects had been returned by the USSR to East Germany, but a few significant items of the Pergamon’s original collection remain in Russia’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Russia, due to its restitution laws, has no plans to return items to Germany or elsewhere. Meanwhile, the legitimacy of Pergamon’s overall acquisition has long been debated. In 2011, at least one artifact, the 3000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa, was returned to Turkey after being on display at the museum since 1934. Avoid crowds by visit the Pergamonmuseum on weekday mornings © Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock Plan your visit The Pergamonmuseum is typically full of student groups, so the best time to visit is on weekday mornings. The Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art remain open while the Collection of Classical Antiquities is closed for renovations until 2025. Currently, the temporary entrance first leads you into the Museum of the Ancient Near East, where the Ishtar Gate and Market Gate of Miletus are located. Upstairs, grandiose works from the Islamic world include the caliph’s palace and the 17th-century Aleppo Room from the house of a Christian merchant in Syria. Set aside at least two hours for the museum and be sure to use the free and excellent audio guide. Getting there The Pergamonmuseum is on Museumsinsel and is easily accessible by public transportation. The U5 line stops right outside Museumsinsel at Unter den Linden station. The museum is also a short walking distance from the S-Bahn stations Friedrichstraße and Hackescher Markt. Trams M1 and 12 will take you to nearby Kupfergraben, while buses 100 and 200 stop at Lustgarten on Unter den Linden.
The East Side Gallery is the embodiment of Berlin ’s grit and guts. It’s a symbol of hope, creativity and resilience – for Berliners, but also the rest of the world. In 1989, the Berlin Wall, a grey and grisly divider of humanity, was finally torn down after 28 years. Today its longest surviving stretch forms the world’s largest permanent open-air art gallery, known as the East Side Gallery. The nearly mile-long (1.3 km) section of wall, located along the Spree river and Mühlenstrasse, showcases more than 100 murals. Dozens of international artists have translated the Cold War era’s global euphoria and optimism into a mix of political statements, psychedelic-induced musings and manifold artistic visions. These days, graffiti tagging forms a good part of the artwork, though strictly frowned upon as great measures have been taken to preserve and even reproduce some of the Gallery’s most iconic paintings like Dmitri Vrubel’s so-called Fraternal Kiss and Thierry Noir’s cartoon faces. Nowadays, you’ll often see the East Side Gallery covered in groups of shutterbugs – the city estimates over three million visitors come here annually – as well as ample, unsightly fences warding off vandalism. On its backside, carousers drink beer and play techno from boomboxes along the banks of the Spree, while, on the other side of the wall, Mühlenstrasse has turned into the kind of dry, characterless commercial development that makes the locals moan. But, despite such a touristy backdrop, just ask your average Berliner – there will always be a kind of magic about the East Side Gallery. Driving past after a serious night of clubbing or a biking adventure through the city will always provide a little burst of pride and excitement, like watching a film strip of history unfold. After all, this relic is proof of just how far Berlin has come. People walk past the My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love artwork on the East Side Gallery in Berlin © LordRunar / Getty Images The history of the East Side Gallery During the Cold War, the part of the wall where the East Side Gallery is now situated was a border crossing to East Germany accessible to West Germans only. Essentially, it was an interior wall acting as an extra barrier to stop fleeing East Germans before reaching the infamous "death strip" (a no man’s land between the East and West sides where guards shot on sight). Following the Peaceful Revolution in 1989, most of the Berlin Wall was dismantled – except for this stretch. One year later, over 100 artists from 21 countries staged a now legendary painting session here on the eastern side of the Wall. The East Side Gallery was eventually declared a monument by local authorities. Some of the most famous murals have forever found their places on the pages of history and pop culture. For example, Birgit Kinder’s Test the Rest, showing a Trabi bursting through the Berlin Wall, Dmitri Vrubel’s My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love (also known as Fraternal Kiss), depicting East German leader Erich Honecker and high-ranking Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev locking lips, and East German artist Thomas Klingenstein’s Detour to the Japanese Sector, a vivid depiction of the Japanese landscape (Japan was one of the countries East German citizens were prohibited from traveling to). In 2009, the gallery underwent a controversial restoration due to the wall’s decay from atmospheric conditions and tourist graffiti. Several murals were erased and, in many cases, artists were asked to take part in repainting. Birgit Kinder’s Test the Rest, showing a car bursting through the wall © Tupungato / Shutterstock Some refused and even took legal action, disputing that they had not received adequate revenue from the monument and arguing that the restoration had destroyed the authenticity of the works. Others, including Vrubel who recreated Fraternal Kiss, obliged, albeit with a heavy heart. Today, the East Side Gallery is a symbol of an older period of Berlin – the Cold War, but also the early years of German reunification when the city was as gritty and hard-boiled as ever. Opposite the wall, on the other side of Mühlenstrasse, lies a newer Berlin – high-rise condo buildings, a concert arena and, further beyond, a new shopping mall that’s often been described as an eyesore. The East Side Gallery too remains an area of interest to investors. In 2013, part of the monument was scheduled to be destroyed to build deluxe apartments. Protests from Berliners – and even an appearance from David Hasselhoff himself – eventually led to the murals being moved across the street and preserved. Plan your visit The East Side Gallery is located on a main thoroughfare of downtown, straddling the Kreuzberg (former West), Mitte and Friedrichshain (former East) neighborhoods. It lies between landmarks such as the Oberbaumbrücke bridge and Ostbahnhof train station, and is within walking distance of several nightclubs including Watergate and Club der Visionäre. As such, this area is quite busy at all times of day. However, you will likely get the best views of the East Side Gallery earlier in the morning. A path along the Spree river banks (the opposite side of the wall) is popular amongst morning joggers. The East Side Gallery is a hive of activity at most times of day © hanohiki / Shutterstock Getting there The East Side Gallery can be accessed by public transit. It is most easily reached by the U-bahn line U1 to Warschauer Straße or Schlesisches Tor station, or S-bahn line S5, S7, or S9 to Warschauer Straße or Ostbahnhof station. Did you know? Painted sections of the Berlin Wall exist not only at the East Side Gallery, but all over the world. These remnants have been delivered to several countries such as Iceland, South Korea and Estonia, among others, as symbolic gifts of freedom and solidarity. In Brussels, a large section bearing the image of former US President John F. Kennedy is located in front of the European Commission headquarters. Another section can be found in the gardens of the United Nations in New York.
Cologne’s geographical and spiritual heart – and its single-biggest tourist draw – is the magnificent Kölner Dom. With its soaring twin spires, this is the Mt Everest of cathedrals, jam-packed with art and treasures. For an exercise fix, climb the 533 steps up the Dom’s south tower to the base of the steeple that dwarfed all buildings in Europe until Gustave Eiffel built a certain tower in Paris. The Domforum visitor centre is a good source of info and tickets. The Dom is Germany’s largest cathedral and must be circled from the outside to truly appreciate its dimensions. Note how its lacy spires and flying buttresses create a sensation of lightness and fragility despite its mass and height. This feeling of airiness continues inside, where a phalanx of pillars and arches supports the lofty nave. Soft light filters through the medieval stained-glass windows, as well as a much-lauded recent window by contemporary artist Gerhard Richter in the right transept. A kaleidoscope of 11,500 squares in 72 colours, Richter’s abstract design has been called a ‘symphony of light’; in the afternoon especially, when the sun hits it just so, it’s easy to understand why. The pièce de résistance among the cathedral’s bevy of treasures is the Shrine of the Three Kings behind the main altar, a richly bejewelled and gilded sarcophagus said to hold the remains of the kings who followed the star to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The bones were spirited out of Milan in 1164 as spoils of war by Emperor Barbarossa’s chancellor and instantly turned Cologne into a major pilgrimage site. Other highlights include the Gero Crucifix (970), notable for its monumental size and an emotional intensity rarely achieved in those early medieval days; the choir stalls from 1310, richly carved from oak; and the altar painting (c 1450) by Cologne artist Stephan Lochner. During your climb up to the 95m-high viewing platform on the south tower, take a breather and admire the 24-tonne Peter Bell (1923), the largest free-swinging working bell in the world. To get more out of your visit, invest €1 in the information pamphlet or join a guided tour.
Between 1937 and 1945, hidden from Weimarers and surrounding villagers, 250,000 men, women and children were incarcerated here, some 56,500 of whom were murdered. Buchenwald ('Beech Forest') has been preserved almost untouched as a memorial, with visitors encouraged to wander quietly and freely around the numerous structures, including the crematorium. Tours, pamphlets and books in English are available, as are excellent multilanguage audio guides (€3, or €5 with images). Last admission is 30 minutes before closing. The camp's prisoners included Jews and homosexuals from 18 nations, German anti-fascists, prominent German thinkers and social democrats, and Soviet and Polish prisoners of war. Many prominent German communists and social democrats, Ernst Thälmann and Rudolf Breitscheid among them, were murdered in Buchenwald. After 1943, prisoners were exploited in the production of weapons, and many were disfigured and killed in grotesque rimentation. Shortly before the end of the war, some 28,000 prisoners were sent on death marches. Between 1937 and 1945, more than one-fifth of the 250,000 people incarcerated here died. On 11 April 1945, as US troops approached and the SS guards fled, the emaciated prisoners rebelled, overwhelming the remaining guards and liberating themselves. The clock tower above the entrance still shows the precise time of the rebellion – 3.15pm. Before you enter the main compound, you'll notice an enormous monument to your left, which you can walk right up to. The monument is perched atop a small mountain with remarkable views; publications from the museum store explain the symbolic significance of its many elements. After the war, the Soviet victors established Special Camp No 2 here, in which 7000 so-called anticommunists and ex-Nazis were literally worked to death. Their bodies were found after the Wende in mass graves north of the camp and near the Hauptbahnhof. The camp and memorial are 10km northwest of Weimar. To get here, take bus 6 (direction Buchenwald) from Goetheplatz in Weimar. By car, head north on Ettersburger Strasse from Weimar station and turn left onto Blutstrasse (Blood Road).
It’s impossible to overestimate the significance of Aachen’s magnificent cathedral. The burial place of Charlemagne, it’s where more than 30 German kings were crowned and where pilgrims have flocked since the 12th century. Before entering the church, stop by Dom Information for info and tickets for tours and the cathedral treasury. English tours run daily at 2pm. The oldest and most impressive section is Charlemagne’s palace chapel, the Pfalzkapelle, an outstanding example of Carolingian architecture. Completed in 800, the year of the emperor’s coronation, it’s an octagonal dome encircled by a 16-sided ambulatory supported by antique Italian pillars. The colossal brass chandelier was a gift from Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, during whose reign Charlemagne was canonised in 1165. Pilgrims have poured into town ever since that time, drawn as much by the cult surrounding Charlemagne as by its prized relics: Christ’s loincloth from when he was crucified, Mary’s cloak, the cloth that John the Baptist's decapitated head was wrapped in, and swaddling clothes from when Jesus was an infant. These are displayed once every seven years (next in 2021) and draw 100,000 or more of the faithful. To accommodate these regular floods of visitors, a Gothic choir was docked to the chapel in 1414 and filled with such treasures as the Pala d’oro – a gold-plated altar-front depicting Christ’s Passion – and the jewel-encrusted gilded copper pulpit, both fashioned in the 11th century. At the far end is the gilded shrine of Charlemagne that has held the emperor’s remains since 1215. In front, the equally fanciful shrine of St Mary shelters the four above-mentioned relics. Unless you join a guided tour, you'll barely get a glimpse of the white marble of Charlemagne’s imperial throne in the upstairs gallery. Reached via six steps – just like King Solomon’s throne – it served as the coronation throne of 30 German kings between 936 and 1531.
A pocket-sized trove of weird treasures, Schloss Linderhof was Ludwig II’s smallest but most sumptuous palace, and the only one he lived to see fully completed. Finished in 1878, the palace hugs a steep hillside in a fantasy landscape of French gardens, fountains and follies. The reclusive king used the palace as a retreat and hardly ever received visitors here. Linderhof was inspired by Versailles and dedicated to Louis XIV, the French ‘Sun King’. Linderhof’s myth-laden, jewel-encrusted rooms are a monument to the king’s excesses that so unsettled the governors in Munich. The private bedroom is the largest, heavily ornamented and anchored by an enormous 108-candle crystal chandelier weighing 500kg. An artificial waterfall, built to cool the room in summer, cascades just outside the window. The dining room reflects the king’s fetish for privacy and inventions. The king ate from a mechanised dining board, whimsically labelled ‘Table, Lay Yourself’, that sank through the floor so that his servants could replenish it without being seen. Created by the famous court gardener Carl von Effner, the gardens and outbuildings, open April to October, are as fascinating as the castle itself. The highlight is the oriental-style Moorish Kiosk, where Ludwig, dressed in oriental garb, would preside over nightly entertainment from a peacock throne. Underwater light dances on the stalactites at the Venus Grotto, an artificial cave inspired by a stage set for Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Now sadly empty, Ludwig’s fantastic conch-shaped boat is moored by the shore. Linderhof is about 13km west of Oberammergau and 26km northwest of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Bus 9622 travels to Linderhof from Oberammergau nine times a day. If coming from Garmisch-Partenkirchen change in Ettal or Oberammergau. The last service from Linderhof is just before 6pm but, if you miss it, the 13km vista-rich hike back to Oberammergau is an easygoing amble along the valley floor through shady woodland.
Appearing through the mountaintops like a mirage, Schloss Neuschwanstein was the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. King Ludwig II planned this fairy-tale pile himself, with the help of a stage designer rather than an architect. He envisioned it as a giant stage on which to recreate the world of Germanic mythology, inspired by the operatic works of his friend Richard Wagner. The most impressive room is the Sängersaal (Minstrels’ Hall), whose frescos depict scenes from the opera Tannhäuser. Built as a romantic medieval castle, work started in 1869 and, like so many of Ludwig’s grand schemes, was never finished. For all the coffer-depleting sums spent on it, the king spent just over 170 days in residence. Completed sections include Ludwig’s Tristan and Isolde–themed bedroom, dominated by a huge Gothic-style bed crowned with intricately carved cathedral-like spires; a gaudy artificial grotto (another allusion to Tannhäuser); and the Byzantine-style Thronsaal (Throne Room) with an incredible mosaic floor containing over two million stones. The painting opposite the (throneless) throne platform depicts another castle dreamed up by Ludwig that was never built (he planned many more). Almost every window provides tour-halting views across the plain below. The tour ends with a 20-minute film on the castle and its creator, and there's a reasonably priced cafe and the inevitable gift shops. For the postcard view of Neuschwanstein and the plains beyond, walk 10 minutes up to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), which spans the spectacular Pöllat Gorge over a waterfall just above the castle. It’s said Ludwig enjoyed coming up here after dark to watch the candlelight radiating from the Sängersaal.
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