The great heartland of Central Europe, Germany rolls from the icy waves of the North Sea to the foothills of the Alps and the lakes of Switzerland. Between its borders, travelers will discover throbbing cityscapes steeped in history, mythical forests, wineries, glorious Baroque districts and some of the world’s most breathtaking castles for sure. Just check out this list of the country’s top 15 destinations…
Cool, sophisticated, cutting-edge and packed to the very tip of its iconic TV tower with culture, history and character, Berlin is one of Europe’s undisputed bucket-list capitals. At its very heart, the famed Museum Island oozes with everything from classical antiquities plucked from Babylon to Troy, while the darker tales of the 20th century can be uncovered at spots like Checkpoint Charlie, the crumbling remnants of the Berlin Wall and the striking Jewish Memorial by Peter Eisenman. Then there’s the boho centre of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, awash with cafes and cool jazz joints, ad hoc craft studios and artsy galleries, all of which is neatly balanced with the straight-laced Reichstag, The Brandenburg Gate and summertime picnics in the Tiergarten.
2. Neuschwanstein Castle
The great Romantic legacy of Bavarian king Ludwig II still stands tall on the precipitous ridges of the German Alps; a testimony to the fairy-tale, ethereal nature of the glacier-topped, craggy landscape in which it sits. Hailed by many as the single most breathtaking castle structure on the planet, Neuschwanstein can be found perched above the small and charming town of Hohenschwangau. Its countless turrets and keeps, flying buttresses and creaking drawbridges make it easy to see why the complex inspired both Walt Disney and J K Rowling, while inside it’s possible to uncover a glimpse of the opulence and extravagance enjoyed by arguably Bavaria’s most famous monarch.
Beer-mad, leather-loving, mountain-shrouded Munich is a fast-paced metropolis deep in the German south. The regional capital of the state of Bavaria, the character and people here are fiercely independent to the rest of Germany. In these climes it’s all about frothy wiessbier brewed to ancient Bavarian recipes, smoky bratwurst and balancing an often troubled (it was here that Hitler attempted the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923) and otherwise rich (Munich enjoyed a golden age during the height of the Bavarian kings) history. The town itself is a medley of the medieval, the gorgeous baroque and green parkland, headed up by the beautiful Englischer Garten, sprawling Marienplatz and the bob-topped domes of the Frauenkirche. Awesome to say the least!
Razed to oblivion during World War II, Dresden is the great phoenix city of Germany – but you wouldn’t believe it. No sir, not with that resplendent outline of the Frauenkirche, the impeccable neoclassicism of the Zwinger Palace and the pristine faces of the great Semper Oper adorning the town centre here, all clustering neatly along the meanders of the River Elbe as if they had been untouched for centuries. Indeed, arguably Europe’s most elaborate urban post-war reconstruction project (sorry Warsaw!) has been kind to Dresden, helping to return this once formidable Saxon stronghold to the jewel of the German east it once was.
Weimar literally bursts with the ghosts of geniuses, such is the lingering intellectual prowess of this city in the central state of Thuringia. Travelers who come will soon find themselves lost between glorious statues of Goethe, effigies of the great philosopher Schiller, rooms where Liszt, Hummel and Bach alike would have practiced and composed, where Nietzsche would have roamed – the list goes on. Spots like the Wiemar Market Square showcase the town’s so-called Golden Age boom that came with so many great minds; rows of 16th and 17th-century mansions and gloriously adorned facades. There are parks too (perfect for flicking through the pages of German philosophers), along with spots relevant to the establishment of the Weimar Republic back in 1918.
6. The Rhineland
A mythic place that clings to the meandering channels of the River Rhine as it carves its way through the West German hills northwards from Lake Constance, this wonderful swathe of deep-cut valleys is home to some of the country’s most breathtaking castles and cultural landscapes. Along its course, travelers can spot out historic towns like Boppard, the legendary rocks of Loreley, two-millennium-old Koblenz and the fairy-tale turret tops of Eltz Castle. However, there’s one thing the Rhineland certainly trumps the rest of Germany in: wine. Yes sir, the cascading vineyards of Riesling and Spatburgunder that flow from the hilltops to the riverbanks of the Mosel and Rhine here represent some of the finest sweet whites and reds in Europe – or so they say!
Perched beautifully on the plateaus of the Bavarian mountains, just a stone’s throw from the Austrian border, the peaceful Alpine enclave of Berchtesgaden is a real beauty – even as the invariably irresistible hill towns in these parts go! Carved wooden balconies blooming with bougainvillea cascade over half-timbered homes in the town centre, frescoed facades adorn the central square and the mirror-like waters of the Konigssee shimmer and shine in the distance. Up above the gingerbread-type town is where travelers can spy out Berchtesgaden’s somewhat darker past, between the sturdy corridors of the so-called Eagle’s Nest – Hitler’s onetime mountain retreat that commands sweeping views of the Watzmann and pine-clad southern Bavaria alike.
Clustering around the pretty River Neckar valley as it cuts through the forested hills at the heart of Baden-Württemberg, Heidelberg is a chocolate box of a town that’s sits crowned by the crumbling remnants of one glorious medieval castle. The citadel rises high above the red-tiled roofs and warren-hole streets of the city Altstadt (Old Town), a romantic district of buzzing student bars and lively music holes, and is served by the Heidelberger Bergbahn funicular. The occasional honorific statue to Goethe and other German poets pepper the centre, while a charming church spire and arched bridges make this forest-shrouded city one that’s simply not to be missed!
Half a million strong and growing, Leipzig is hailed as Germany’s most happening city. It vies with Berlin in terms of art and history, with sights like the sprawling Renaissance Old Town Hall (the largest in the country), countless hotspots showcasing the great German masters Goethe and Schiller, and one pulsating underground scene that’s lead by artsy, boho types who’ve fled the inflating prices of the capital. That means studios and galleries abound between the elegant baroque opera houses and Bach’s revered sepulchre in the Thomaskirche, while clubs and pubs and old Saxon taverns pepper the fringes of sleepless Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse – the place to come for a beer!
Dominated on all sides by the soaring Gothicism of the mighty Kolner Dom (a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right!), liberal Cologne is unquestionably one of Germany’s must-see metropolises. It can be found on the northern edges of the German Rhineland, where the post-industrial towns of Aachen and Bonn meet on the Rhine-Ruhr. The city’s history goes all the way back to the Romans, while its heritage-packed centre comes peppered with gorgeous Romanesque churches. But the touristy cobbled streets and half-timbered historic buildings of the Old Town are only half the story here. Venture across the Rhine to neighbourhoods like Früh em Veedel to discover the locals sipping their trademark Kolsch beers, or head for the Agnesviertel for the ubiquitous German hipster bars and bohemian drinking dives.
The perfect base point for travelers eager to explore the northern reaches of Bavaria, the historic city of Nuremberg vies with Munich for the top hotspot in the state. And boy does it have some tricks up its sleeve. The onetime epicentre of the Holy Roman Empire, this student-packed town comes crowned with the formidable bulwarks and keeps of the Nuremberg Castle, and is known widely as one of the hubs of Nazi Germany (and also the place of the post-war Nuremberg trials). The centre retains a beautiful historic edge too, with half-timbered facades and tree-dotted cobbled squares, while the beer is top-notch – famed across Germany for its brooding, dark colour and powerful flavours.
12. Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Ye Olde Worlde charm abounds at Rothenburg ob der Tauber; the jewel in the crown of the so-called Romantic Road that runs down from Wurzburg to the depths of Bavaria in a medley of crumbling castles and medieval towns. The piece de resistance here is the Altstadt area, which comes complete with a maze of cobbled lanes and half-timbered Bavarian homes, overhanging lampposts, blooming pots of bougainvillea by summer, arched gateways and some of Europe’s most awesome 14th-century fortification walls. In the midst of it all sits one picture-perfect Marketplace square, bounded by the bulbous domes of the town hall and alive with local cafes and taverns to boot.
13. The Black Forest
The stomping ground of the Brothers Grimm and their haunting, timeless fairy-tale creations – Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel et al – the Black Forest dominates the south-western corner of Germany, on the tri-country join with France and Switzerland. Together with its unique position and mythical heritage, the region’s powerful allure emanates from its gorgeous backcountry. This undulates between granite peaks and river-carved valleys, seas of oak and Scots pine, beech and Douglas firs, wild groves of ancient tree trunks and leaf-strewn hiking paths as it runs outwards from the Rhine. And then there’s Baden-Baden – a charming, loveable spa town with plenty of room for relaxation.
Hamburg pulses. Its docks and harbours – the largest in the country – have imbued it with the honorific epithet of ‘Germany’s gateway to the world’, not to mention one enthralling multi-cultural vibe and moneyed backbone. The centre glows with masterful creations like the Hamburg Rathaus, while the infamous streets and shadowy alleyways of Reeperbahn in Sankt Pauli are famed for their gaudy strip joints and burlesque edginess. Meanwhile, the district of Schanzenviertel beats with a student energy; Parisian-style coffee joints, African world music, Chicagoan jazz and vegan kitchens all coalescing amidst its vibrant squares. Yes sir, Hamburg really does live up to its place as Germany’s second city!
Beautiful Bavarian Bamberg is a beer-lover’s dream-come-true, and a veritable postcard-perfect example of a preserved medieval German town besides. Hailed by many as the single prettiest place in the country, the Old Town area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot) comes bisected by the dual channels and canals of the Regnitz and the Main. This charming area conceals elegant cathedrals and the opulent Alte Hofhaltung, however many visitors come just for the breweries, with the pungent and unmistakable aromas of Bamberg’s trademark smoked beer fuelling the student chatter and tourist crowds in the bars.