Germany lies in the heart of Europe, bordered by Switzerland and Austria to the south; France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands to the west; Denmark to the north; and Poland and the Czech Republic to the east. The country encompasses 356,216 sq. km (137,535 sq. miles).
Berlin & Potsdam
Berlin is Germany's capital and cultural center. It beckons visitors with glorious museums, wonderful cultural offerings, and cutting-edge nightlife. Southwest of Berlin is Potsdam, with its famous palace and elegant gardens and parks, set in an idyllic landscape along the Havel River.
Thuringia, with its untouched villages, churches, and medieval fortress ruins, has long been popular with tourists. Here you can still see the small towns once known to Luther, Bach, and Wagner. The region's densely forested mountains are prime hiking country. The cultural center, with many attractions, is the city of Weimar, once the bastion of such greats as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Liszt, Goethe, and Schiller.
Saxony: Leipzig & Dresden
Known for its annual trade fair that draws participants from around the world, Leipzig is the most important industrial center in the east after Berlin. But this city, once the home of Bach, is also a cultural treasure, with museums, old churches, and Thomanerchor (the famous boys' choir). For those who find Berlin too overwhelming, Leipzig is an excellent alternative.
However, if it's a choice between Leipzig and Dresden, make it Dresden, still one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, though 80% of its center was destroyed in an infamous 1945 Allied air raid. Today, Dresden is bouncing back fast, particularly in light of the reopening of the Frauenkirche in 2005.
Franconia & the German Danube
Some of Germany's greatest medieval and Renaissance treasures came from this region, which gave the world such artists as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Come here to visit some of the most beautiful and historical towns in Germany, notably Regensburg, Bamberg, Nürnberg, and Bayreuth, where Wagner built his theater and created Festspiele, the famous opera festival. Though tourists often pass it by, Regensburg, about 100km (60 miles) southeast of Nürnberg, is well worth a visit. It suffered no major bombings in World War II and so remains one of the best-preserved cities in Germany. Nürnberg, although it holds much interest today with its many preserved art treasures, was heavily bombed and had to be virtually rebuilt. The Danube, which flows through this region, isn't blue and doesn't have the allure, dramatic scenery, or castles of the Rhine, but it's worth exploring for its own quiet charm.
The Romantic Road
One of the most scenically beautiful (but overrun) attractions in Germany, the Romantische Strasse winds south from Würzburg to the little town of Füssen at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. Don't miss Würzburg, Germany's baroque city on the banks of the Main River. This glorious old city is overlooked by a fortified castle. Along the way, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the most splendidly preserved medieval towns in Europe. The road comes to an end at "Mad" King Ludwig's most fantastic creation: Neuschwanstein Castle. The Romantic Road, originally a bit of PR hype to promote the area, was launched in 1950. It was such a success that the road is now clogged with traffic in summer, so the trip is best made in spring or autumn, before the tour buses arrive. (For an admittedly less scenic, but still charming, "romantic road," try the Fairy-Tale Road in Lower Saxony and North Hesse.) The region of the Romantic Road is known for its folk traditions, old-world charm, and unspoiled medieval towns still surrounded by their original walls. Despite its drawbacks, the road remains one of the most beautiful and interesting trails in Europe.
Munich & the Bavarian Alps
Rebuilt from the rubble of World War II, Munich is one of the most visited cities of Europe and probably the best place in Germany for old-fashioned fun. It should be included even on the briefest of itineraries. As chic and cosmopolitan as Frankfurt or Berlin, Munich is also kitschy in the best sense of Bavarian tradition. A night at the Hofbräuhaus or Augustiner Bierstuben with its liter mugs and oom-pah bands, will get you into the spirit of Munich life. After strolling through the Englischer Garten and having a glass of Bavarian wine in Schwabing (the legendary artists' district), you can tackle Munich's vast array of museums and palaces. Save time for the Deutsches Museum, one of the largest technological museums in the world. Munich also lies at the gateway to the Bavarian Alps. Shimmering Alpine lakes, half-timbered houses frescoed with paintings, and picture-postcard towns like Mittenwald and Oberammergau are all here, plus hiking, nature, wildlife, and Alpine-ski trails in winter.
Lake Constance (Bodensee)
The 260km (160-mile) coastline of the Bodensee is shared with Austria and Switzerland, but Germany got the best part, the lake's beautiful northern rim. A boat trip on the Bodensee, while not comparable to a Rhine cruise, is a major attraction. The tour takes in castles and towns built on islands near the shoreline. The best place to be based is Lindau, at the southeastern part, near the Austrian border. Reached by a causeway, this island town has the most luxuriant flowers and shrubs of any resort along the lake. But Konstanz, the largest city on the lake, also merits a visit because it's one of the best-preserved major medieval cities in Germany.
The Black Forest (Schwarzwald)
This dense fir forest, filled with beauty, charm, and myth, actually receives more sunshine than most other forests in Germany. The major center of the region is Freiburg, but the most visited city is the elegant Baden-Baden resort. Black Forest cake and smoked ham may be reason enough to visit the area, but other draws include casino gambling, great spas, hiking, bicycling, and cross-country skiing. Freiburg im Breisgau remains one of the most beautiful and historic towns in Germany and makes the best center for exploring the region. If you want a Black Forest cuckoo clock -- just as good as those sold in Switzerland -- head for Triberg.
Heidelberg & the Neckar Valley
Except for the Bavarian Alps, there is no more tranquil and scenic part of Germany than the Neckar Valley. The area's Burgenstrasse (Castle Road) has more castles than any comparable stretch along the mighty Rhine, and the Neckar River Valley is just as romantically charming as the more overrun Romantic Road. Allow time to take detours into hidden side valleys to see sleepy little towns, most often with a protective castle hovering over them. Heidelberg, the apotheosis of romantic Germany, needs no selling. This famous medieval university town, with its historic castle, perfectly captures the spirit of south Germany and has attracted poets and composers over the decades. Goethe and hard-to-impress Mark Twain both fell in love here—Goethe with a woman of striking beauty, and the more cynical Twain with Heidelberg itself. Unfortunately, Heidelberg suffers from overcrowding, especially in July and August, when tourists descend by the bus load.
Stuttgart & Tübingen
The capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart is an industrial giant, headquarters of both Mercedes and Porsche. It's also a city of world-class museums and home to the acclaimed Stuttgart Ballet and Stuttgart State Opera. The town's setting, surrounded by green hills with vineyards and orchards, is attractive, but Stuttgart isn't a serious contender for visitors when compared to Berlin or Munich. If you can give Stuttgart a day, fine. If not, head at once to nearby Tübingen, the ancient university city on the upper Neckar that has been compared favorably to Heidelberg. It doesn't have Heidelberg's grandeur (or its hordes of visitors), but we prefer its youthful air, its tranquillity, and the quiet beauty of its half-timbered houses and alleyways. Don't worry about rushing around to see a lot of attractions—just soak up the old-time atmosphere.
Frankfurt is vibrant, dynamic, and flashy, earning it the dubious distinction of the most Americanized city in Germany, maybe in Europe. Come here for the glitz and excitement of a major world player on the financial scene and its thriving, modern, and international feeling, not for Romantic Road architecture. Our recommendation is to treat it as a center worthy of at least 2 days of your time (it has any number of attractions), rather than as a transit hub. For many visitors, Frankfurt is their introduction to Germany, in the way that New York is the entry to America for thousands. Like New York, Frankfurt is hardly typical of the country in which it sits, but that doesn't mean you can't have a good time here. It's very civilized and filled with artistic treasures -- in fact, the metropolis spends more per year on the arts than any other city in Europe. When not attending the ballet, a Frankfurter may be found slugging down a few jugs of apple wine in the open-air taverns of Sachsenhausen on the city's Left Bank.
After the Rhine's beginnings, in the mountains of Switzerland, as a narrow stream, this mighty river of legend flows for some 1,370km (850 miles) through one of the most picturesque and industrialized regions of Europe. For 2,000 years, it has been a major trade route. Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Koblenz all lie on its banks. For most visitors, the number-one attraction is a romantic cruise down the Rhine, through gorges and past ancient castles, vineyards, and the fabled Lorelei. The most panoramic stretch is between Rüdesheim and Koblenz. Start your Rhine cruise at Rüdesheim, Germany's favorite wine village, about 72km (45 miles) west of Frankfurt. If you have time for only one Rhineland city, make it Cologne rather than the more commercialized Düsseldorf. Cologne is dominated by its famous cathedral, the largest in Germany, but this ancient city is also filled with dozens of other attractions, including restored Romanesque churches, striking Roman ruins, and the best modern-art galleries in the country.
The Mosel Valley
Known as La Moselle in nearby France, the Mosel River weaves a snakelike path through the mountains west of the Rhineland. The Mosel doesn't have the Rhine's dramatic scenery, but we somehow prefer it, with its vineyards, castles, and fortresses that attract far fewer visitors. The swift-moving Rhine is filled with commercial traffic, but the Mosel is slow-moving, tranquil, and inviting, dotted with sleepy wine towns where you can sample some of the world's greatest vintages. Trains rumble all night along the Rhine, but not on the Mosel. (The inevitable tour buses do get through, however.) The best time to visit is during the annual fall grape harvest, centering in Cochem or Bernkastel-Kues. We've saved the best of this area for last: Near the Luxembourg border lies Trier, one of Europe's most fascinating antiques and the oldest city in Germany; it existed 1,300 years before Rome. Trier is a virtual theme park of Roman culture and architecture.
Lower Saxony & North Hesse: The Fairy-Tale Road
Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, the Pied Piper, and even Cinderella list their addresses as "the Fairy-Tale Road." Frankly, the Fairy-Tale Road isn't as architecturally splendid as the Romantic Road, but it's also not as crowded, and it does have a wealth of treasures for visitors interested in German lore and legend or lovers of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, who lived and worked here. The road begins at Hanau, just east of Frankfurt, and stretches for 600km (370 miles) north, coming to an end in Bremen. The trail passes through colorful towns with half-timbered buildings and past plenty of castles. Naturally, it's haunted by witches, goblins, and memories of the Pied Piper of Hameln.
The port city of Hamburg is exhilarating. The Germans often go to Frankfurt "for the banking," but to Hamburg "to have a good time." This Hanseatic city along the Elbe River has been beautifully rebuilt after the devastation caused by bombers in World War II, especially the night of July 28, 1943. A city of lakes, parks, and tree-lined canals, it is more famous for the tall tales of its red-light district. But these steamy after-dark diversions are only a small part of what Hamburg is. Restored architectural masterpieces and historic churches give this industrial city prestige and allure. The city is also concerned with its environment, historical preservation, and art and intellectual pursuits. If you can, spend at least 2 days here.
This northwestern corridor of Germany, sandwiched between the North Sea and the Baltic, evokes bucolic Denmark, to which it was linked before Bismarck's defeat of that Scandinavian country in 1867.
Germany's northernmost province is one of our favorites because of its offshore vacation islands and the chance it offers to escape from the industrialization of northern Germany into acres upon acres of rolling green fields used for agriculture. Large areas are still forested, and there is enough moorland to delight a native of Yorkshire, England. Most interesting historically is the ancient merchant city of Lübeck, former capital of the Hanseatic League and the hometown of Thomas Mann, the great German writer. Although heavily restored after World War II, Lübeck is loaded with attractions, and its Altstadt (Old Town) has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The province is also home to Germany's most sophisticated seaside resort and its northernmost point, the island of Sylt, famed for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its celebrities, and its climate of iodine-rich air and lots of rain. The port city of Kiel is short on charm because it was severely bombed in World War II, but the ancient stronghold of Schleswig invites wandering, exploring, and dreaming of the golden age of the Vikings.
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