Germany has often been criminally underrated as a tourist destination. It’s typically seen as lacking romance, good food, and the kind of beaches many Brits enjoy on their holidays. This, as we shall see, is false. In reality, Germany is a country of remarkable diversity and dynamism, from the shores of the Baltic Sea, through the great cities of the Rhineland, to the forests and mountains of the country’s south.
If you think Germany doesn’t have any beaches, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, Germany has some excellent seaside spots; some of the best – and most exclusive – are on the tiny North Sea island of Sylt. Rather than flocking abroad to warmer climates, Sylt attracts an annual migration of German celebrities, who take advantage of the beautiful 40km stretch of sandy beach, as well as the seaside resorts of Westerland and Kampen. For such a small island, there’s a lot happening on Sylt. Aside from the beaches, there is kitesurfing, golfing, sailing and horse-riding on offer, as well as an excellent burgeoning culinary scene. The island’s stunning landscape is great for walking, and the natural beauty of the Wadden Sea is a sight to behold. Sylt is part of the region of Frisia, so it’s home to some unique local traditions, from typical thatched houses, to delicious raisin-filled Frisian cakes.
Compared to the metropolises of Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, Bremen might seem almost low key, or even parochial. But this city has a rich heritage and a strong, independent culture that makes it a city worth celebrating. As a medieval Hanseatic trading port, Bremen grew wealthy, and this is reflected in the grand historic buildings, including the 1,200-year old cathedral, the town hall, and the large statue of the hero Roland in the town square. One of the most iconic symbols of Bremen’s identity is Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Town Musicians of Bremen), a statue depicting a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster standing on top of one another, named for the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Popular legend has it that touching the donkey’s hooves – now shiny with wear – makes wishes come true. While you’re in Bremen, make sure to try a kluten, a traditional peppermint sweet unique to the area, and a Beck’s beer, which has its brewery in the city.
Many countries are defined by the rivers that run through them: Egypt has the Nile; China has the Yellow and the Yangtze; and Germany has the Rhine. This mighty river reveals the country’s secrets as it winds its way from the Swiss border in the south to the Netherlands in the north, past ruined riverside castles, steep hills covered by vineyards (the Rhine Valley produces some excellent German wine), and picturesque scenery and villages. As you travel further, you’ll come across handsome towns and cities, like historic Mannheim, the spa town of Wiesbaden, dynamic and modern Bonn, and the mighty cathedral city of Cologne. It’s far too diverse a region to explore in such a short guide; if possible, the perfect way to visit it is by river cruise, stopping off and staying at the various locations on the way.
Frankfurt is usually thought of as little more than a financial capital, so it comes as no surprise that it’s overlooked as a tourist destination. Far from being simply a city of banks and skyscrapers, Frankfurt is actually a very diverse city with a host of cultural attractions on offer. So, turn away from the ominous twin towers of Deutsche Bank and take a trip into Frankfurt’s restored city centre. There you’ll find the Römer – the iconic town hall – the Imperial Cathedral, where the Holy Roman Emperors were once crowned, and St. Paul’s Church, which has been hugely significant in the city’s modern history. Something quite unique to Frankfurt – apart from the sausages – is Eppelwoi, a locally-brewed apple wine. One of the best places to try it is in the labyrinth of lanes in Sachsenhausen, on the south bank of the River Main.
Black Forest, Baden-Württemberg
This famous region of hills and forests is best known for its eponymous gateau, but there’s a lot more than just cake on offer from the Black Forest. Unsurprisingly, its hiking opportunities are particularly good. There’s an impressive variety of trails winding their way through these mountains: some are relatively easy, while others, such as the Westweg, are steep and challenging. Rail enthusiasts might find the surviving heritage rails an easier way to find their way around the region. Although quieter and relatively rural, there are still a handful of interesting towns and cities, particularly handsome Freiburg and the 19th-century spa resort of Baden-Baden (so good they named it twice). The latter is best known for its thermal springs (Baden is German for ‘bathing’), dating back 2,000 years to the Roman era. The ruins of the ancient baths can still be visited. The oldest of the modern era is the Friedrichsbad, at around 135 years old.
Everyone knows about the Swiss, French, and Austrian Alps: they evoke images of cuckoo clocks, ski slopes, and little wooden alpine chalets. Though not as celebrated, the Bavarian Alps are just as stunning, providing a magnificent backdrop of craggy peaks, tree-clad slopes and, in the winter, fabulous ski slopes in places like Garmisch Partenkirchen and by the Tegernsee. It’s also a land of stereotypes: amid these shimmering mountains the Germany of lederhosen and dirndl emerges. Hiking is the perfect pastime in the summer months; you can even take a stroll into Austria, thanks to the open borders. Head towards the village of Hohenschwangau in the southwest of the state, and you’ll spot the picturesque fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein, perched in the hills. Built in late 19th century by Ludwig II of Bavaria, this castle has served as backdrop for countless films, and as the inspiration for Disneyland’s famous castle.
Germany is a patchwork of different regions and cultures that doesn’t always correspond to the boundaries of the states, or Länder. Augsburg is an example of this, belonging to the cultural region of Swabia rather than Bavaria. As a result it has its own unique dialect and set of traditions. Augsburg’s history, unlike most of the country, starts with the Romans, whose legacy is explored by the Römisches Museum. It continues with the Fuggers, a patrician family that once effectively ruled the city, and whose ‘The Fuggerei’, a walled complex of social housing – the world’s oldest – is still inhabited to this day. Rent, as it was in 1516, is one Rheinischer Gulden per year, roughly equivalent to €0.88. It’s a far cry from the Fugger’s own homes, including the grand Stadtpalast. A more modern attraction is the Augsburger Puppenkiste, an iconic marionette theatre producing theatrical adaptations of fairy tales – perfect for family outings.
Halle (Saale), Saxony-Anhalt
Halle is probably not a city you’ve heard of. There’s no shame there: it has neither the profile of its larger neighbours, nor the historical significance, even when architect of the Reformation Martin Luther himself was preaching from the pulpit of the Martktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen, which also contains his death mask. Aside from a pleasant city centre with the typical churches, markets and restored buildings, Halle has got a few interesting and unusual things to see. There’s the Museum of Pre-history, with its enormous woolly mammoth (unfortunately not living); the Beatles Museum, featuring the world’s largest collection of fan-owned Beatles memorabilia; and the Chocolate Museum, which is housed in Germany’s oldest chocolate factory. There are a couple of castles, theatres and parks, and a taste of the communist heritage of East Germany at the Halle-Neustadt model city. It’s a pleasant place to visit, relatively untouched by heavy tourism despite its closeness to Berlin and Leipzig.
Despite being next-door neighbours, there is a world of difference between Potsdam and Berlin. Unlike the capital, Potsdam is very low key, filled with greenery and historic buildings. But because it operates on the same public transport system as Berlin, Potsdam is the perfect location for a day trip from the capital, as well a longer stay. Its focal point is Sanssouci Park, home to the eponymous Palace, built for Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1744 as a place he could live sans souci (without worries). Potsdam is actually chock full of palaces and royal buildings: there’s the Orangery Palace, the New Palace, the Charlottenhof Palace, the Roman Baths, and the Chinese Tea House, all built in the 18th and 19th centuries as part of the park complex. The city and park are immensely walkable, making Potsdam the perfect quiet retreat from the more rigorous Berlin.
People familiar with the southeast coast of England recognise something about Rügen. The same forces that created the White Cliffs of Dover helped shape this island, and its own chalk cliffs are a similarly majestic sight to behold. Like Sylt, Rügen is a fantastic place for beaches, scenery, kitesurfing and windsurfing. Its holidaying credentials go way back, and wandering the island you’ll come across grand 19th-century hotels, resorts, and spas. A particularly unique – and somewhat grim – part of this heritage is the Prora. This colossal Nazi-era hotel complex, built in the 1930s, was once intended to be the world’s most gigantic resort. Now a heritage site, the Prora lies empty and derelict, having never been used, but it’s worth a wander round if only to look on in awe at the sheer size and power of this fascinating monstrosity.