When you think about planning future trips, you’ll find many reasons to consider a visit to Germany. A mix of the historic and the modern, German cities delight people in so many ways. If you are dreaming of travel to Europe, Germany can make your dreams come true. Here are a few of my favorite things to do in this diverse country, with examples of each. These are highlights of the enjoyable times I’ve been able to spend in this country.
Enjoy the Fairytale Architecture
The half-timbered style, often described as “fairytale,” started in Northern Europe. Germany can boast of many beautiful examples of fairytale towns. The old town of Rothenburg is a prime example. As you walk through the Medieval town gate, you step out of the present and enter the world of centuries ago. Buildings line a maze of cobblestone lanes encircled by a high stone wall. You can easily imagine folks meeting at the bustling market square and then enjoying a stein of their favorite beer with friends.
The stone wall around Rothenburg offers a view of the town. Enter through one of the gates and climb into the wall. You can walk a section or two or all the way around. Look down below at the variety of colors of the shops and homes.
Historic, enchanting and unchanged throughout the centuries, Rothenburg just might be the most beautiful Medieval town in Germany.
Explore Historic Castles
The first time I cruised along the Rhine River in a small boat, I expected to see a castle or two. Instead, every few minutes, around the bend, another town and another castle came into view. I learned to my surprise that castles are easy to find in Germany. The country has so many that no one knows for sure the actual count. Estimates range from 20,000 to 25,000. Some are in ruins, some are restored, and some are open as hotels.
The Middle Rhine is a prime area for spotting castles. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where about 40 castles once stood, and at least the ruins of many of them are still here. A cruise of a few hours will allow you to take in a good amount of the tiny, colorful medieval towns that line the river and the castles that stood guard along the way. Green vineyards line the terraced hills. It is truly breathtaking. Even more fun than seeing the castles from a distance is tromping around and exploring them. Here are 3 of my recommendations with a bit of information to help you decide where you want to go.
Rheinfels Castle. For centuries, Rheinfels Castle was the region’s largest, most important fortress. Now the imposing castle—one of many along the UNESCO-listed Upper Middle Rhine Valley—is in ruins. The castle, located on a hill along the Rhine’s left bank above the town of St. Goar, dates to the 13th century. You can scramble over the rubble, walk through its subterranean galleries and tunnels, and visit the museum.
Nuremberg Castle. This castle was built in sections from the year 1037 on. German kings traveled from castle to castle, having no permanent residence, so for centuries this castle housed royalty. It sits along the Medieval wall that’s still intact around the city. Much of the castle fell victim to WWII bombs, but it has been rebuilt in the original style. Some of the artwork survived and can be viewed in the museum.
You can climb the tower, ascending the winding staircase. The views from the top are worth the effort.
Heidelberg Castle. Heidelberg Castle stands watch above Old Heidelberg, as it has since the 13th century. Today it is a ruin distinctive in its red sandstone set against the green forest that covers the hills. Views of the Neckar River and valley will include this ancient castle sitting serenely above the town. And you can tour it, wandering through the roofless walls and the gardens and enjoying the few areas that are restored to earlier splendor.
The castle withstood battles and tumultuous times. Finally, in 1689, the towers and walls that had survived waves of destruction were blown up with mines by the French. Only one building is restored to its former glory. The Fredrich Building shows what the castle enjoyed when life here was elegant. An Apothecary Museum in the castle displays medicines used through the centuries. You can easily spend a morning enjoying this large castle.
Marvel at the Quirky and Unusual
You may find quirky museums and displays wherever your travels take you, but I found Germany to feature more of these than other countries. Here are a few that stand out in my memories.
DDR Museum, Berlin. While world famous, large museums occupy Museum Island in Berlin, you can also choose the smaller, kitschy DDR Museum. This one gives you a picture of life in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) from the end of World War II to the fall of the Wall in 1989. This dark, crowded museum presents how strange life could be in East Germany. You can sit in a prison cell. See a full-size Trabant, the only car manufactured in East Germany. Learn that preschoolers went potty in long rows of wooden benches with holes, apparently on cue. It’s as if the displays call for you to marvel and be aghast at the same time.
The Art Bunker, Nuremberg. The bunker is in a tunnel system under the castle that was originally built to make beer. The beer cellar here became a hiding place for art during World War II. Hitler and just a few of his trusted men knew about it. Paintings, jewels, and other treasures remained hidden here until the end of the war. Some of it went back into place in Nuremberg, and other items were sent by the Allies to different countries. A tour guide takes you through the warren of pathways and tells about life underground when guards lived here 24/7.
Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg. If you go to Rothenburg, I highly recommend you visit this museum. Billed as “Europe’s most important museum for jurisprudence,” it showcases means of torture and punishment through the centuries. The official brochure recommends the museum for those “of a bloodthirsty disposition,” but I think anyone will find fascinating objects and history here.
Heidelberg University Student Prison. This small detention building at the esteemed university housed students who had committed minor crimes. Infractions included insulting authorities or playing jokes on them and participating in duels. From 1778 to 1914, bored and creative jailed students decorated the walls and ceilings with colorful art. The prison is preserved and open to the public.
Stroll Across Old Bridges
The Old Bridge, Heidelberg. While you will find countless rivers and bridges during a visit to Germany, I think that none will compare to this lovely bridge. It’s graceful arches cover the Neckar River at the foot of Heidelberg’s Old Town.
The current bridge is the ninth on this site. It was built in 1788 of sandstone and is sturdier than earlier wooden versions. Tall, distinctive white ramparts on the city side date from a Medieval iteration of the bridge.
Pay Respects at Places of Remembrance
Germany played a central role in both World War I and World War II. While much of Germany’s war history was destroyed or built over, you can still find places that are a memorial to those who suffered. Here are 2 examples.
Documentation Center and Rally Grounds, Nuremberg. The building is what Adolf Hitler designed, and the rally grounds attached are where he spoke to thousands. The entire area is now a museum to document what took place here. The hope is that such a horror would never happen again. As you tour the Documentation Center and Rally Grounds, you learn about the holocaust and the trials of Nazi leaders that took place in Nuremberg after the war. It’s apparent that, as dark as that time was, goodness finally overcame the evil.
Flossenburg Concentration Camp. This was one of the hundreds of camps run by the Nazis during World War II. Flossenburg sits in the lovely forested land of eastern Germany, just a few miles from the Czech Republic. The attraction for the German war machine was the large granite quarry here. As the war went on, more and more prisoners from virtually every country in the European theater of the war were sent here to wrest granite slabs from the earth. Today, the quarry still produces granite, while the camp has become a peaceful memorial to those who died here.
The main building survived and now houses a team of researchers and administrators. They are involved in actively finding and naming prisoners and survivors.
See Famous Landmarks
Berlin, heavily bombed and damaged during World War II, has been rebuilt in contemporary styles. Not everything prewar is gone, though. Here are 3 landmarks that survived and are thrilling to see.
The Brandenburg Gate. The Brandenburg Gate towers above the center of Berlin. When you think of this city, this is likely the image that comes to mind. It dates from 1791 and was modeled on the Acropolis in Athens. In recent history, the gate was damaged during World War II, then caught in no man’s land when the Berlin Wall went up. The wall was literally a few feet behind the gate, blocking passage. For years, the historic gate stood visible but abandoned. Now it’s repaired and open once again to the public. You can walk back and forth between its pillars, taking in the beauty and symbolism of this monument.
The Reichstag. The Reichstag in Berlin is a fascinating pairing of the old and the modern, with layers of history, much like the city itself. Completed in 1894, it housed the government for decades. In 1933, a famous fire destroyed part of the building shortly after Hitler became Chancellor. He blamed others for the fire and closed the building, insisting this entitled him to grab more power for himself. Perhaps he actually engineered the fire. No one knows.
When Berlin was liberated in 1945, Russian troops rushed into the Reichstag, as it symbolized Germany. The building, damaged from WWII, wasn’t repaired by the Soviet occupiers. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Wall and the Communists left the city that the new, unified German government moved into the Reichstag and the interior of the building was modernized and a glass dome added.
The Berlin Cathedral. The impressive Berlin Cathedral, with its magnificent dome, is a landmark in central Berlin. The church sits among the stately museums on Museum Island, with the Spree River flowing nearby. The Berlin Cathedral is the largest Protestant church in the area and is well worth a tour.
A church was first built on this site in the fifteenth century. This was the court church to the Hohenzollern dynasty, the Prussian rulers, and then the German Emperors. Due to fires and restorations that destroyed earlier churches, the baroque-style Berlin Cathedral on the island today dates from 1905. Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to build a cathedral to rival St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. And he did.
Is Germany calling to you? It’s never too early to gather information and consider what you most want to see. Getting around in Germany is easier than in many other places I’ve visited, due to the superb train system that covers about 22,000 miles. And it’s true that in Germany, the trains run on time. If you prefer, rent a car and drive (fast!) on the autobahn.