For travelers seeking a rich and compelling culture, diverse cities and classic mountains landscapes, look no further than Germany, says David Whitley
‘Surprisingly’ is a word that comes up time and time again with Germany. Surprisingly beautiful. Surprisingly multicultural. Surprisingly historical. Surprisingly affordable. It’s a European destination that rarely conjures up the UK’s sense of heritage, Italy’s sense of style or France’s sense of romance. But trying to find someone who came back from there disappointed is an extraordinarily difficult task.
As a tourist destination, Germany puts quality and substance above hype and big promises that can’t be kept. Product standards are exceptionally high — whether you’re interested in historical walking tours, Alpine cable car adventures, or palace and countryside day trips — while prices tend to be considerably lower than in many other European countries.
Variety is a key aspect of Germany’s appeal. The mountains, beer halls and castles of Bavaria are the traditional draws — around a third of American travelers to Germany visit Bavaria. But one of the best transportation networks in the world, both in terms of rail and road, makes the rest of the country easily accessible. And from urban cool in the likes of Cologne, Frankfurt and Dresden to rural wineries and riverboats, there’s a lot to enjoy beyond the more obvious attractions.
Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager for Tauck, suggests travelers to Germany often want to go beyond tickbox photo stops. “Our guests tend to be experienced travelers. They’re looking for destinations with a rich and compelling culture, and they’re looking for insider access to authentic experiences that reveal that culture.
“Although our bookings are up across the board in Germany, it’s our river cruises that are seeing the most dramatic growth.”
Jeffrey Bershaw, director of marketing for Avanti Destinations, adds: “The greatest growth markets are found in the smaller cities, like Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Heidelberg, which have seen strong 30-40% growth over the past few years and are still growing in popularity, especially for the independent traveler market.”
As cruises to the North and Baltic Seas are seeing a growth in demand, a major trend is for passengers to tag a few days on to either end of the cruise to explore other aspects of the country. With English widely spoken, manageable distances and excellent infrastructure, Germany is an easy place for combining a few days of independent travel with an organized escorted tour or cruise.
It’s a country that does virtually everything — food, scenery, heritage, nightlife, culture, you name it — better than most people give it credit for. And, whatever their specific interests, it’s very rare for visitors to come back not having thoroughly enjoyed themselves. From Berlin to Bavaria, and the Rhine to the Romantic Road, we take a look at some of the country’s essential experiences…
Admire Berlin’s Brilliance
A strong contender for the title of Europe’s coolest city, Berlin has seen arty hipsters, creative types and technology start-ups move in from around the world. To dig into the cool side of the city, bar-hopping around the eclectic Kreuzberg area on the River Spree in the east is a good way to take the pulse, while Alternative Berlin Tours (www.alternativeberlin) offers knowledgeable jaunts around the city’s flourishing street art scene — including have-a-go workshops at the end.
But even for those not interested in the city’s edgy side, Berlin still packs a remarkable amount in. Berlin Walks (www.berlinwalks.de) offers highly informative walking tours, covering subjects such as key Third Reich sites and the Cold War division of the city. For anyone with even the faintest interest in Berlin’s modern history, it’s worth taking in the remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall, and the Topography of Terror Documentation Center as well.
Throw in the world-class museums on Museum Island and boat tours down the River Spree, and you’ll struggle to find a better bet for a cultured European city break.
Cruise the Rhine
Often starting in the Netherlands and finishing in Switzerland, Rhine cruises tend to spend the majority of their time in Germany. Cologne is the first major German city encountered — climbing to the top of the 515ft-high gothic cathedral is a rite of passage here. But the most fabled stretch of the river is the 41-mile gorge known as the Romantic Rhine. This is a world of pretty wooden villages, imposing hilltop castles and steep rocky walls.
A little further south, the city of Mainz is the birthplace of printing — and the Gutenberg Museum there celebrates the hometown hero who revolutionized the world.
Many Rhine cruise itineraries also include excursions to the pretty university city of Heidelberg in the Rhine Rift Valley, and the spa town of Baden-Badenin in Southern Germany. Detours into the Black Forest for traditional woodworking demonstrations and shameless cake consumption are also staples.
And in the winter months, special cruises tend to focus on hopping between Christmas markets — the gluhwein, candles and craft-fuelled icons of festive shopping schmaltz.
Overindulgence at Oktoberfest
The world’s greatest celebration of beer kicked off as a glorified wedding reception back in 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. It’s since morphed into a 16-day party, where people from around the world gather around communal benches in massive tents to drink terrifying amounts of beer.
Oktoberfest is held in late September each year in the Theresienwiese, a large meadow to the south west of Munich’s city center. But it’d be a mistake to think Munich is teetotal for the rest of the year. The city’s beer halls pull off much the same atmosphere — oompah bands and bonhom — year-round. The Hofbrauhaus is the most famous, although the Augustinerkeller’s vast garden is better in the sun.
Munich is often used as a base for exploring Bavaria, but has plenty to offer itself — the Residenz and Schloss Nymphenburg provide the palace and castle fix, the gigantic Englischer Garten is one of the largest urban parks on earth and it’s possible to climb all over the top of the 1972 Olympic Stadium.
City-hop in Bavaria
Munich is Bavaria’s largest city, but the state’s smaller cities all have their own lure. Nuremburg was once the closest thing the Holy Roman Empire had to a capital — the medieval Old Town is one of the most impressive in the world. The WWII history here is bleak, but sensitively handled in a series of museums and memorials. Regensburg on the River Danube is smaller, but has managed to keep the medieval look — the churches and town hall are the highlights of a remarkably uniform townscape.
Bamberg, meanwhile, has done a remarkable job of escaping war damage throughout history too, and its numerous architectural styles are picturesquely preserved. The Audi factory tour in Ingolstadt and Augsburg’s Renaissance town hall are also popular.
Action in the Alps
The ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is Germany’s winter hotspot, but there’s also lots there for non-skiers. Hikers have hundreds of miles of trails, allowing for treks of varying length and difficulty in the shadow of Zugspitze — at 9,717ft, Germany’s highest mountain.
In summer, it’s possible to tackle tougher, higher-altitude walks, served by cable cars and mountain huts for those wanting to stay overnight. Further east, Berchtesgaden is an alternative Alpine hub. Popular with Nordic skiers in the winter, it’s best tackled by hikers in summer. The town is home to the catacomb-like 496-year-old Berchtesgaden Salt Mine, which can be explored on an entertaining tour involving rafting on an underground lake, novelty trains and slides.
Nearby, tours can be taken to Eagle’s Nest — a secret Nazi mountaintop base, which was regularly used as an out-of-Berlin command center.
Drive the Romantic Road
Many of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg’s prettiest towns and villages are joined together in the 220-mile Romantic Road touring route between Wurzburg and Fussen. It’s a quintessentially German drive — all cutely old-fashioned hospitality, rococo churches and archetypal castles. Of the latter, Neuschwanstein is arguably the most famous in the world — its Disney-esque turrets and mountain setting make it one of Germany’s most visited attractions. The frescoes and gaudy ultra-decoration of the nearby Wieskirche, plus the medieval walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber are also justifiably praised. Wine-lovers should set aside a little extra time to explore the vineyards around Wurzburg — tasting tours that take in the best of them are an excellent diversion.
… Or the German Fairy Tale Route
The northern alternative to the Romantic Road is the German Fairy Tale Route, covering 370 miles between Hanau and Bremen.
The route is loosely themed around the life and stories of the Brothers Grimm, comprising everything from Steinau (where their childhood home is found) to the somewhat rat-obsessed town of Hamelin, where they bring to life the tale of the Pied Piper.
The spa town of Bad Wildungen is ‘home’ to Snow White’s village, Alsfeld has the Fairytale House linked to Red Riding Hood and Sababurg Castle has been co-opted as the spot where Sleeping Beauty rested her head for so long. The literary connections might be a little tenuous but the real joy of the route is in stringing together some of Germany’s less-heralded small towns.
Hit the Industrial Heritage Trail
Hamburg has a reputation among Germans as a good-time city. The Beatles learned their craft playing in the bars and clubs around the notoriously raucous Reeperbahn, and the city is Germany’s musical theater capital.
But it’s also a major port city, and the boat tours around the harbor unveil the epic scale of operations. The Speicherstadt district of giant brick warehouses is also a fabulous spectacle from the water, although many of the warehouses have now become museums and tourist attractions. It’s part of the new Hafencity neighborhood, crowned by the new, and architecturally stunning, Elbphilharmonie opera house.
Germany’s industrial heritage is best explored on the Ruhr in North Rhine-Westphalia, however. The conurbation is home to bold projects such as Oberhausen’s 383ft-high Gasometer, which has been turned into an exhibition space for enormous 360-degree artworks. The real star, however, is the coal mine complex in Essen, where the coking plants, boiler house and more have been turned into curious-looking cultural attractions, including the Sir Norman Foster-designed Red Dot Design Museum.
Published in the Winter 2013/14 issue of ASTAnetwork