Rain or shine, Germany's outdoors is nothing short of extraordinary – whether you're hiking in dark forests ripe for a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, diving into a gem-coloured Alpine lake, cycling along mighty rivers and lake shores, or schussing down slopes backed by mountains of myth.
Strap on your helmet! Germany is superb cycling territory, whether you’re off on a leisurely spin along the beach, a downhill ride in the Alps or a multiday freewheeling adventure. In East Frisia, there are 'Paddle & Pedal' stations, allowing you to canoe along canals before cycling back. Local tourist offices can give you advice on day trips and you can rent city, mountain and electro-bikes in most towns. Ever the eco-exponent, Germany is making tracks at the moment with a growing network of bike-sharing schemes, including those run by VRNnextbike.
The country is criss-crossed by more than 200 well-signposted long-distance trails covering 70,000km – ideal for Radwandern (bike touring). Routes combine lightly travelled back roads, forestry tracks and paved highways with dedicated bike lanes. Many traverse nature reserves, meander along rivers or venture into steep mountain terrain.
The national cycling organisation Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad Club (www.adfc.de) produces the best maps for on-the-road navigation. These indicate inclines, track conditions, repair shops and UTM grid coordinates for GPS users. The ADFC also offers a useful directory called Bett & Bike (www.bettundbike.de; available online or in bookshops) that lists bicycle-friendly hotels, inns and hostels.
Hiking & Mountaineering
Wanderlust? Germans coined the word. And their passion for Wandern (walking) is unrivalled. High-altitude treks in the Bavarian Alps, Black Forest hikes over wooded hill and dale, Rhineland vineyard strolls – this country will soon have you itching to grab your boots and stride its 200,000km of well-signposted trails, some traversing national and nature parks or biosphere reserves.
Local tourist offices can help you find a route to match your fitness and time frame, and can supply you with maps and tips. Many offer multiday ‘hiking without luggage’ packages that include accommodation and luggage transfers between hotels.
The Bavarian Alps are Germany’s mountaineering and rock-climbing heartland, whether for challenging ascents, day treks or multiday hut-to-hut hikes. Before heading out, seek local advice and instruction on routes, equipment and weather, as trails can be narrow, steep and have icy patches, even in summer.
The Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV; www.alpenverein.de) climbing association is a goldmine of information and maintains hundreds of Alpine huts, where you can spend the night and get a meal. Local DAV chapters also organise courses and guided treks. Membership can yield a 30% to 50% discount on huts, and other benefits.
Clambering around steep rock faces is popular in the crag-riddled heights of central and southern Germany. Rock hounds test their mettle on limestone cliffs in Bavaria’s Altmühltal Nature Park, with climbs from grades 1 to 10. Another klettern (climbing) hotspot, particularly among free climbers, is Saxon Switzerland, with 1100 climbing peaks, routes graded 1 to 12, and exhilarating views over bizarre sandstone rock formations. Most towns have climbing walls where you can limber up. For information see www.dav-felsinfo.de, www.klettern.de or www.climbing.de.
Feature: Responsible Hiking
Follow these tips to tread lightly and minimise your impact in the Alps and other fragile natural environments.
- Stick to existing tracks and avoid short cuts that bypass a switchback. If you blaze a new trail straight down a slope, it will turn into a watercourse with the next heavy rainfall.
- Avoid removing the plant life that keeps topsoil in place.
Human Waste Disposal
- Make an effort to use toilets in huts and refuges where provided.
- Where there is none, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm deep and at least 100m from any watercourse. Cover the waste with soil and a rock. Use toilet paper sparingly and bury that, too. In snow, dig down beneath the soil.
- Carry out all rubbish (including cigarette butts, tin foil, plastic wrappers and sanitary pads).
- Burying rubbish disturbs soil and ground cover and encourages erosion. It may be dug up by animals (potentially harming them).
- Take reusable containers or stuff sacks. Avoid plastic bags and bottles.
- German National Tourist Office (www.germany.travel) Inspiration on walking and cycling throughout Germany.
- Kompass (www.kompass.de) A reliable series of 1:25,000 scale walking maps and information on trails.
- Tourentipp (www.tourentipp.de) Weather forecasts, hut info and walks organised by region.
- Wanderbares Deutschland (www.wanderbares-deutschland.de) Dozens of walking trails, with a handy interactive map.
- Wandern ohne Gepäck (www.wandern-ohne-gepaeck-deutschland.de) The ‘hiking without luggage’ specialists.
Water Sports & Riverboats
Germany’s lakes, rivers, canals and coasts offer plenty of water-based action, though the swimming season is relatively short (June to September) and water temperatures rarely climb above 21°C.
Slip into a canoe or kayak to absorb the natural rhythm of the waterways threading through the lushly wooded Spreewald and Bavaria’s Altmühltal Nature Park. The lake-dotted wilderness of the Müritz National Park is great for paddle-and-camp trips. Or paddle across Lake Constance to Switzerland and Austria with the Alps on the horizon. The season runs from around April to October and a one-/two-person canoe or kayak costs around €25/30 per day.
Stiff breezes and big waves draw sailors, surfers, windsurfers and kitesurfers to the North Sea and Baltic coasts. Sylt on the North Sea and Rügen on the Baltic have some of the country's top conditions and schools for water-based activities.
If you'd rather let someone else do the hard work, put your feet up and watch the great outdoors drift past on a riverboat cruise along some of Germany's greatest rivers (from Easter to October).
High on the list is the Romantic Rhine, where boats drift past vine-covered hills, cliffs crowned with robber-knight castles and picturesque villages. Or combine wine-tasting with a mini-cruise along the Moselle between Koblenz and Trier, each bend in the river revealing vine-draped loveliness.
In Berlin you can mix sightseeing with a meander along the Spree, in Hamburg the Elbe, in Passau the Danube, and in Stuttgart the Neckar. For a taste of history, hop aboard a paddle-wheel steam boat in Dresden or a punt in Tübingen.
Modern lifts, primed ski runs from easy-peasy blues to death-wish blacks, cross-country trails through untouched nature, log huts, steaming mulled wine, hearty dinners by crackling fires: these are the hallmarks of a German skiing holiday.
The Bavarian Alps, only an hour’s drive south of Munich, offer the best downhill slopes and most reliable snow conditions. The most famous and ritzy resort is Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which hosted the FIS Alpine Skiing World Championships in 2011 and is just a snowball’s throw from Zugspitze. It has 60km of slopes, mostly geared towards intermediates. Picture-book-pretty Oberstdorf in the Allgäu Alps forms the heart of the Oberstdorf-Kleinwalsertal ski region, which has 130km of slopes. It’s good for boarders, with snow parks and a half-pipe to play on, and cross-country skiers come to glide along 75km of classic tracks and 55km of skating tracks. For low-key skiing and stunning scenery, there is Berchtesgaden and Mittenwald, presided over by the jagged Karwendel range. Can’t or won't ski? All resorts offer snowy fun from tobogganing and ice skating to snowshoeing and winter walking.
Elsewhere in the country, the mountains may not soar as high, but prices are cheaper and the atmosphere is less frenetic. The Bavarian Forest and the Black Forest have the most reliable snow levels, with moderate downhill action on the Grosser Arber and Feldberg mountains, as well as abundant Langlaufloipen (cross-country trails) where you can shuffle through frozen woods in quiet exhilaration.
At higher elevations, the season generally runs from late November or early December to March. Rates for skis, boots and poles cost around €25/15 for downhill/cross-country gear hire and group ski/snowboard lessons cost around €45 per day.