You have a taste for history, cities, and the great outdoors, so you’ve made the wise decision to visit Germany. There are plenty of resources out there to help you plan for your trip to Germany, but all the focus seems to be on the big cities of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. To be fair, they are all fantastic cities and you should visit them.
That said, there’s more to this country than these cities. Luckily, this is a big chunk of land, so there is no shortage of things to do in Germany, and although the country in and of itself is not necessarily off the beaten path, getting away from the cacophony of clicking cameras can still be done. So, when compiling this off-the-beaten-path travel guide for Germany, I used a few self-imposed barometers.
- Do Germans instantly speak English even when I speak German?
- Is there evidence that Germans themselves like these destinations?
- Would the average North American not know of this place?
Obviously, everything here is relatively, but on the whole, I think you’ll find that these recommendations will yield more unique experiences than, say, shuffling through Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin or the beer gardens in Munich. Even better, I still have plenty of traveling to do within Germany and will update this guide accordingly.
Now let’s get to it. These are the 21 places to visit in Germany off the beaten path.
Tip: Looking for more Germany? Check out my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots––There Must Be Order.
21 Places to Visit in Germany Off the Beaten Path
Few places have impressed me in Germany quite like the Ahrtal (Ahr River Valley). Here you get the scenery and wine culture of both the Rhineland and Mosel River (both covered below) without any of the overtourism. (At least, that was my experience over a couple of summer visits.)
On my first visit, I ended up in tiny Walporzheim right off the connecting train from Bonn. My wife and I stayed in a rented apartment right off the Ahrsteig hiking trail and enjoyed impressive, scenic hikes to nearby Kreuzberg and Ahrweiler Markt with vineyards and castles along the way.
Timing was on our side with a wine festival taking place in Ahrweiler Markt, one of the more impeccably maintained old towns I’ve seen in Germany. We kept asking ourselves how we haven’t heard about this town or region before. Of course there were German travelers, but we didn’t hear a drop of English almost the entire trip. Even when hiking up to Kloster Marienthal, a former convent converted into a winery, drinkers and revelers seemed to stick to a local crowd. I can’t help but wonder how long that will remain the case. It felt like we were drinking wine in Provence without the crowds or blown-up expectations that come with travel almost anywhere in France.
A second visit a few months later confirmed our love for the Ahrtal. This time we ended up in Altenahr for a trail race that climbed familiar hills along the Ahrsteig with views of the Mayschoß Castle we’d visited on our first trip. Although this list is organized alphabetically, the Ahrtal certainly ranks at or near the top of my favorite off the beaten path destinations in Germany.
The Black Forest is certainly not off the beaten path, but it’s some of the best hiking in Germany and in one of the sunniest corners of a country that has an otherwise gray reputation. The heart of this region is Freiburg. In Baden-Baden, on the other hand, you can still get a sense of what it’s like to be a local there. I spent mornings heading to the bakery, speaking German, and hearing exclusively German. There is a good chance that most Germans I saw walking around the pedestrian plazas were themselves tourists. After all, “baden” is the verb “to bathe,” so Baden-Baden is incredibly popular for the thermal baths.
You’ll eat well in Baden-Baden, too, and there’s actually a bit of culinary diversity for such a small town. I grabbed a drink at Badener Weinkeller at the edge of the town center while waiting for the AirBnB host. Badener Weinkeller had a great, welcoming atmosphere and a charming patio to enjoy with your beverage.
Weinstube im Baldreit feels hidden off a couple of cobbled side streets with little fuss trying to get your attention. It’s also one of the highest user-reviewed restaurants in town — for good reason. But be sure to make a reservation.
Cafe Beek is a great spot for grabbing an afternoon jolt of caffeine. And though I didn’t have a chance to experience it myself, sources tell me it has the best Kuchen in Germany. When you’re really looking to relax, Caracalla Therme is right around the corner with very clear barriers for those of us looking to go au natural and the rest who prefer to leave a little to the imagination.
Now about the hiking. It’s everywhere around the Black Forest. I did a couple of treks heading south and north of the city to the old castle. You can consult the tourist bureau for more specific instructions, but you can see what I did by clicking here and here.
Whatever you do, plan substantial time to get into that forest. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
Few cities in Germany have surprised me quite like Bonn. Even amongst Germans, people aren’t really talking about Bonn — but they should. The Rhineland city was the capital of post-war West Germany until reunification saw the capital move back to Berlin. But during its time as the Hauptstadt of Germany, Bonn made a name for itself as the UN City with dignitaries from all over the world spending time in the strategic city. All of this is covered at the Haus Der Geschichte museum on Bonn’s UN Campus, an easy tram-ride south of the city center.
These days Bonn is better known as the birthplace of Beethoven (the composer, not the enormous dog of cinematic fame), the Rheinsteig hiking trail, and the annual cherry blossom in the spring adding a fresh coat of pink to the Altstadt. Beethoven fans will be pleased to know they can even step into his home (where he lived for the first four years of his life) and take a tour. Even better, you can drink like Beethoven by heading down the street to Marktplatz where Em Höttche sits next to the Rathaus (City Hall). Legend has it that Beethoven imbibed (and danced) here in the late 18th Century, and indeed, his statue and mug are staples of the bar. Enjoy a beer or hearty German fare on the patio or step inside for a bit of a time trek into the 14th and 15th Century (the building is said to date back to 1389).
Bonn is not a large city, making it easy to cover a majority of the sights in a day. You can grab a quick coffee at Galestro just around the corner from Münster Platz before heading south down green Poppelsdorfer Alle. The road ends at the Poppelsdorfer Schloss, surrounded by the University of Bonn’s botanical garden. (Bonn is obviously a university town with its historic buildings and visibly younger residents.) If you head east around the garden and back towards the river, you can see some of the most beautiful, intact homes in urban Germany. Then at the Rhine, walk along the promenade to the Alter Zoll with a vibrant beer garden to cement the perfectly German vibe.
Brandenburg is one of Germany’s 16 states, so I’m cheating a little bit here. But it’s a lesser-traveled state in Germany, though popular with Berliners looking for a quick city escape alongside a lake. I’ll be the first to admit that I had other destinations in mind when I first moved to Berlin. However, the restrictions of the pandemic forced me to look more closely at what’s in my own backyard––and it was truly a blessing in disguise.
First I visited Fürstenberg an der Havel to run a bit of the Märkischer Landweg––a 217-kilometer trail that stretches across Brandenburg all the way to the Polish border. I was impressed by the look of Fürstenberg with its stocky, old homes and cobblestone streets. You can read more about my visit there here. In short, it left me excited to return to Brandenburg as soon as possible, which I did two more times––Bückow and most recently for a three-day running trip from Templin to Angermünde before finishing in Warnitz. (Video above).
Now I’m singing Brandenburg’s praises. And the thing is, I haven’t even visited the Spreewald yet––arguably the most popular destination in Brandenburg (outside of the capital Potsdam) with its canals cutting through the forest. Trust that I’ll be heading there sooner rather than later.
Detmold and the Teutoburg Wald
Teutoburger Wald, a stretch of forest running through Germany’s Lippe district, had been on my list for a while when I finally made it over to Bielefeld and Detmold (separate trips) for some hiking. Detmold is especially known in tourist circles for its statue, Hermannsdenkmal, celebrating the ancient Germanic victory over invading Roman forces. But there’s more to Detmold than just visiting the statue and hiking Hermannahoehen. It’s also home to Brauerei Strate, a traditional German brewery that expertly brews classic recipes, like Pilsner and Bock, while experimenting to keep up with the craft beer boom.
Dresden is a popular destination for World War II history, the Christmas markets (the longest-running in Europe, they say), and to see the reconstructed old town. That said, it’s generally not at the top of any North America’s list for a trip to Germany — though it should be. If you travel during the holiday season, you should, indeed, check out the Christmas markets. The Dresdner Striezelmarkt is the main one you’ll find in the Old Town area, though there are several throughout the city. None of this feels particularly off the beaten path, but this is a firmly German thing to do. I don’t think I heard a lick of English during my time in Dresden and walking around the Christmas markets.
If you want to do something especially unique to Dresden, hook up with Danilo for his Kurt Vonnegut and Neustadt art tours. Literary types might already know that Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was greatly inspired by the author surviving the infamous firebombing of Dresden. Although the book isn’t known by German audiences (why would it be?), Danilo has latched onto it and his tour makes for something unique to anything else in Germany. He also runs an art and neighborhood tour of Neustadt, the hipster slice of town just north of the Alt Stadt (Old Town).
See more photos of Dresden
I couldn’t get through this off the beaten path Germany travel guide and not talk about my new home — Düsseldorf. Personal bias aside, it really does feel off the beaten path, save German tourists in the summer strolling around the city’s Altstadt. There’s a good amount of spoken English here, too, but some German language skills will still go a long way here, whereas you don’t need to speak a lick of the language traveling in nearby Cologne or Berlin.
Düsseldorf gets its international fame for its fashion industry and its consistent ranking as one of the most liveable cities in the world. Even if you’re like me and look at such rankings with suspicion, I can at least anecdotally offer that Düsseldorf, indeed, is a great place to live. I could go on and on with suggestions on what to do, but I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite recommendations.
Walk south through the Rheinpark toward Altstadt in the morning. You’ll know you’re there once the footpaths turn to cobbles and things look a bit older as most everything else in Düsseldorf has that rather generic, modern look. The Altstadt isn’t huge, so don’t worry about getting lost or turning down any street that speaks to you. But do make a point to eventually end up on Carlsplatz where on Saturday mornings you’ll find people in market-mode. Grab a coffee at Kaffe Reich and continue wandering around to your heart’s content. You’ve got Bob & Mary (burgers!) and Hausmann’s just around the corner if you start to get hungry.
Come back to the Altstadt at night to try out some of the historic breweries. (This is, after all, with the “längste Theke der Welt” — longest bar in the world.) My favorite is Füchsen on Rattingerstraße. This is essentially the exterior of Altstadt where a local once told me that it’s where the “real Düsseldorfers” hang out. Nowadays you’ve also got a craft beer bar nearby in Holy Craft, which itself is right next to Vente where you can get German cuisine with a modern touch, blended with the city’s primary immigrant cultures — Japanese, Italian and Arabic. (Speaking of Japanese, Düsseldorf has the largest Japanese immigrant population in the world. That means good Japanese eats, like at Na Ni Wa.)
Looking around the city, I have a sentimental place in my heart for Schwan. This place feels like a cozy local restaurant back in the States, but it’s also where I spent many days during my first weeks in Düsseldorf ordering currywurst and Kaffee und Kuchen while using their Internet. The Schwan on Frankenplatz is my spot and you’ve also got VIVU for some modern Asian fusion just down the square. Oh, since we’re here, I have to mention Bellisima for a down-to-Earth, charming Italian family experience.
I better end it there for now — wait! 485Grad has some of the best pizza that has ever touched my lips and burnt the roof of my mouth. Get “El Diablo” for chorizo pizza that will set your heart back, but shoot your level of happiness through the roof.
We’re staying in Thuringia with a look at Erfurt, the state capital. Erfurt makes for an idyllic urban base to explore this often overlooked German state. In Erfurt, you get all the comforts you’d want in traveling to a German city — namely excellent train services to some of the nearby areas that you might want to dive deeper into, especially if you’re a history nerd and want to retrace Martin Luther’s steps from Eisenach to Wittenberg.
The Krämerbrücke (Merchant’s Bridge) is the most popular sight in town — and rightfully so. The medieval bridge (yes, it survived WWII) dates back to the 15th Century and remains a treat to walk around or view from the north. I lucked out by staying at a hotel just steps away from the bridge, so it was easy to get there early in the morning and see it while it was empty save the occasional local passerby.
Another personal favorite was walking by the Domplatz, past the towering Catholic church and up to Glashütte Petersberg for some original Thüringen Bratwurst (the stuff we generally call bratwurst in the States) and evening views overlooking the city. I felt as if I blended right in the locals with everyone from cyclists to canoodling couples enjoying themselves (but not too much) on the edge of the overlook.
See more photos of Thuringia
Hainich National Park
Hainich National Park is right smack dab in the middle of Germany in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen auf Deutsch). What used to be a military training ground for the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) is now 29 square miles of pristine green space, harboring a primeval beech forest. If you’re not a tree-nerd, there’s still plenty of good times to be had in Hainich National Park. I for one opted for a bike ride after getting a unique view of the area via the park’s canopy walk. The walkway itself was built around the natural growth of the beech forest, so your environmentalist heart can rest easy knowing you’re truly there just to admire. (Interestingly, the canopy serves scientific purposes, too, as it allows scientists and researchers access to the treetops and the animals that naturally live there.)
The Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps get most of the love when it comes to admiring Germany’s natural surroundings. There’s good reason for that, but the Harz Mountains and Harz National Park deserve just as much celebration. It’s long been a favorite of literary wanderers looking for both inspiration and a pleasant, sometimes challenging jaunt in the refreshing isolation of a thick forest.
Heinrich Heine and Goethe are among Harz’s most famous hikers with the latter drawing on the region’s witch mythology for his classic work, Faust. It’s a connection the region has embraced, celebrating Walpurgisnacht (the eve of May 1st) on the Brocken mountain where legend says witches celebrate the coming of spring. You can envelop yourself in the history and legends by hiking the Harzer-Hexen-Stieg––a 94-kilometer (58-mile) trail stretching from Osterode to Thale, reaching the top of the Brocken in the middle of the hike. You can read all about the five-day hike in my feature with DW Travel.
Landschaftspark | Duisburg
A number of cities along the German Rhine are closely associated with the country’s industrial past. Germany was not immune to the technological revolution of the late 20th Century that’s still going on to this day and a number of old plants shuttered their doors. Rather than let the old coal and steel production site rot over time, a man by the name of Peter Latz came up with a design that would turn the property into a public park unlike anything the area had seen before. Indeed, it’s unlike anything I had ever seen before. I couldn’t help but imagine what if other cities around the world took on a similar effort because Landschaftspark had clearly become a draw for Germans near and far. On a clear weekend afternoon, you’ll find hikers, cyclists, and even beer drinkers relaxing at one of the restaurants on the outskirts of the industrial site.
See more photos of Landschaftspark
Mittenwald | Bavaria
When people talk about traveling to the Bavarian mountains, they’re generally looking at Garmisch-Partenkirchen and working their way up the Zugspitze. That’s all well and good, but Garmisch-Partenkirchen has, over the years, become an exceptionally popular tourist destination, especially with Americans. When you travel to a foreign country, isn’t part of the point to be surrounded by people who actually live there? For that, you want to head to Mittenwald — just 100 minutes south on the train from Munich. (You even go through Garmisch-Partenkirchen if you feel so inclined to make a stop.)
In Mittenwald you’re enveloped in Bavarian culture — the homes painted with biblical figures, Weißwurst, and perhaps most importantly, the mountains with an absurd array of hiking trails at your disposal. You can take the Karwendelbahn (gondola) up to the Austrian border to hike around, wander around the Kranzberg ski area and work your way down to the neighboring Ferchen and Lauter lakes (lunch lakeside at Gasthaus Ferchensee), and take a jaunt alongside the rock cliff at the Geisterklamm where a hanging, man-made path escorts you over the Leutscher Valley in Austria. (Mittenwald is just a few kilometers from the Austrian border and you can easily hike across, so do take a moment to appreciate the border-free Europe of the 21st Century.)
Mittenwald’s true claim to fame, though, is its violins. Matthias Klotz brought the art to the region in 1685 and the practice has since flourished to the present. (You’ll notice signs throughout town to the workshops of various violin builders who’ve achieved “Geigenbaumeister” status.) The story most locals like to share is that Mozart played a violin with “Made in Mittenwald” etched into the body. Even today a Mittenwalder violin remains a prized possession, like the Gucci of musical instruments. If history is your thing, you can get more of it (in English) at the Geigenbaumuseum.
Schnitzel isn’t a Bavarian invention, but the best damn take on it I’ve had is at Mittenwald’s Gasthaus Römerschanz. Their Blaumantel Lieblingsschnitzel comes baked in a thick layer of cheese with blueberries on top. You might not think it a natural combination, but holy hell, it sure works. Keep it all local by washing down the meal with a Mittenwald beer either at Römerschanz or by heading across the street over to the brewery (I recommend the Jager Dunkel).
Mosel River | Burg Eltz, Beilstein, Ediger-Eller
The Mosel River itself isn’t off the beaten path. That’s made abundantly clear when you reach Cochem and see throngs of tourists––German and international alike––fighting their way through the crowds to take pictures of the storybook old town and walk up to the castle hovering above town. The region’s wine culture has also long been a draw for travelers.
That said, it’s easy to escape the crowds and find off the beaten path destinations along the river. After all, the Mosel River stretches over 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Koblenz to Trier within Germany. Overtourism is certainly a problem, but they’re not crowding up the entire length of the river.
The best time to travel to avoid crowds is late fall just as tourist season is coming to an end. (Note that bus schedules generally change with the start of November.). Moselkern, for example, was pleasantly quiet despite being a healthy hike away from the Instagram-favorite, Burg Eltz. Travel during the late fall and arrive early in the morning for some tourists-free shots of the fairytale castle.
From there, check out tiny Beilstein. I took the train from Moselkern to Cochem where I then boarded a ship for Beilstein. (You could also take a bus.) Beilstein is tiny. You can basically see it all within 30 minutes of walking, but damn if it isn’t an adorable little town. Here you can drink Mosel wine, enjoy the views from lesser-traveled Metternich Castle, and get your Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) fix at Klosterrestaurant & Cafe, a former cathedral converted into a cafe.
After Beilstein, I took the bus a short journey over to Ediger-Eller––a town recommended to me for its wine shops and taverns. And in that regard, it did not disappoint. Check out Weinprobierstube E. Andre and Gutshof Zenz if you want a couple of recommendations so you don’t have to research or think. But there’s plenty more in town and the surrounding area you can easily reach by foot.
Speaking of reaching things by foot, this entire area is connected by the Moselsteig. Twenty-four stages cover the region from Koblenz right to the German border with Luxembourg and France. In fact, hiking from Beilstein to Cochem (and taking the bus back) remains one of my favorite hikes in Germany––wandering through vineyards and forests with elevated views of the surrounding, gorgeous Mosel valley. You also hop on the Moselsteig when hiking from Moselkern to Burg Eltz.
Between the towns mentioned above and hopping on the Moselsteig, you’re bound to find plenty of off-the-beaten-path fun along the Mosel River.
Read more about traveling along the Mosel River.
Monschau — Eifel National Park
Germany has what’s referred to as “premium hiking trails.” These trails are all over the country and are multi-day hikes with plenty of holiday apartments and towns along the way to catch some Zs. The Eifelsteig is one such example with a stop at Stage 3 in Monschau near the Belgian border. I arrived into Monschau by way of the second stage of the Eifelsteig, starting in even smaller Roetgen and hiking the Eifelsteig in and out of Belgium some 17 kilometers to arrive in Monschau.
Trotting over the cobbled streets in between those colorful timber houses, my first thought was that I had never seen a city like this in Germany. Monschau quickly became my favorite small town escape in Europe. It has everything I look for. It’s walkable as a city and has fantastic access to hiking trails. You can hike the next stage of the Eifelsteig over to Einruhr, but if like me you find you’d rather spend more time in Monschau, there are a number of loops that take you from Monschau and into Eifel National Park and back into town. You can find all the hikes you’d possibly need at the city’s tourism website. I for one look forward to returning for the city’s classical music festival, Christmas market, and cycling in addition to more hiking.
Some other recommendations I can put out there include staying at Villadelux where you’re just outside of the town’s central plaza. Villadelux includes a number of apartment buildings, so if you’re lucky, you’ll get one across the street from the main building where you climb a few flights of stairs to get a nice view of the town right outside of your window. The owner also takes the reverse (yet still appreciated) approach to eating recommendations by telling you where not to go. There are a couple of places to avoid on the main square, but “everything else is good.” Indeed, I enjoyed everywhere I ate, including Alter Markt and Mon-Bistro. Get the Reibekuchen (potato pancakes) with smoked salmon at the latter.
See more photos of Monschau and Eifel National Park
Cycling fans might recognize this small valley outside of Düsseldorf from the 2017 Tour de France. Stage 2 took cyclists around the rolling valley and past the Neanderthal Museum before turning back toward Düsseldorf and out of the country. As the name of the region hints at, our Neanderthal ancestors used to roam around this region. While most scientists believe that our first ancestors came from Africa, it was near the site of the museum (some 160 years ago) that the first Neanderthal remains were found.
Now I’m not typically a museum guy (I feel like I’m exhausted as soon as I walk in), but the museum is worth a visit while you’re out there. Then you have a number of hiking trail options right across the street from the museum to take you around the region. Bring a map and you can easily connect these trails with nearby towns and hop on the train to head back wherever you started. Better yet, make like a cyclist in the Tour de France and do a loop around the region.
See more photos of the Neanderthal Valley
Neckarsteig and the Castle Road
Two things Germany does better than most any other country are castles, and hiking. Why not combine the two with a hike along the Neckarsteig and the Castle Road? The two are technically separate but they complement one another beautifully. You can give yourself a physical challenge and hike the Neckarsteig from castle-to-castle or roll from town-to-town by bike. You’ve also got trains running alongside the Neckar River, connecting the various towns of the region in just a few minutes between stops.
The Castle Road starts off in Mannheim and runs all the way out to Bayreuth in eastern Germany. I started off in Heidelberg because it’s also the first stage of the Neckarsteig and it’s where Mark Twain stays for a few months in A Tramp Abroad. Now, Heidelberg itself is not off the beaten path with its university roots. You’ll hear plenty of English — American English, even — on the streets as well as Spanish and a dash of French. Still, it serves as an ideal gateway into the Neckarsteig and the Castle Road in the German state of Baden-Württemberg.
After starting off with a detour along the Philosophensweg, I picked up the Neckarsteig trailhead alongside the gardens of Heidelberg Castle. If you’re traveling for castles, you won’t want to miss this mix of ruins and refurbished grandeur. But again, you’re going to be surrounded by tourists from all over the world. They open up at 8 a.m. most days, so go early before the crowds come in. Then, you can start hiking toward Neckargemünd, which itself starts off with a challenging, steep hike straight up a kilometer-long set of stone steps that cut through the forest up to the Königstuhl viewpoint.
Like the Rheinsteig, each stage begins in a town on the river and starts with a fairly significant incline into the woods. This was the case in the following stages from Neckargemäund to Neckarsteinach and Neckarsteinach to Hirschhorn. The first two proved ultimately shorted and more challenging than the longer, easier third stage. You can read more about the stages at the trail’s official site (in German) and the corresponding castles at the Burgenstrasse website (in English). Ultimately I found that the Rheinsteig has more tourism infrastructure, namely cafes and restaurants along the trail, whereas the Neckarsteig is lesser-traveled and offers a bit more solitude.
Since we started on the premium trails, we’ll keep going with a shout out for the Rheinsteig. I still have plenty of premium-trail-hiking to do in the Deutschland, but few multi-day hikes hold a candle to the Rheinsteig. The Rheinsteig stretches over 300 kilometers between Wiesbaden and Bonn, and as of this writing, I’ve done just 5 of the 21 stages. Whereas the Eifelsteig goes through a national park, the Rheinsteig trail goes up and down from town to town along the Rhine river. Almost every stage starts with a steep incline out of town and ends with a decline into your next overnight stop. This means plenty of great, elevated views of the towns along the river as you hike the trail.
In my admittedly limited experience, I can recommend staying in Königswinter where you have the Drachenburg (Dragon Castle!) hovering over you in the hills of Siebengebirge. Kaub with a hotel stay at Hotel Zum Turm before heading to the twin towns of St. Goarhausen and St. Goar also worked out quite nicely.
There are some towns along the trail that have a bit less going on, but you can get a sense of that during your hotel search and/or by consulting with the Rheinsteig tourist board. Fancying something a bit, well, fancier? There’s a Steigenberger property (a renowned German hotel chain) on Petersberg along the trail. If you’re coming from the south, as I did, there are local trails that allow you to skip the descent into Königswinter and continue onward to Petersberg.
Note that both the Rheinsteig and Eifelsteig are in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, so it’s possible to fit either one into a trip through Western Germany that might have you flying in and out of Frankfurt.
See more photos of the Rheinsteig
Saxony Switzerland National Park
Saxony Switzerland National Park is hardly off the beaten path for German travelers but it’s always something of a surprise for overseas travelers and other non-Germans living in the country. From Berlin, you can get a direct connection to Bad Schandau right on the Elbe River and be in between the ever-popular Bastei Bridge (pictured above) and the thick of Saxony Switzerland National Park.
What’s most surprising is the dramatic landscape. I always describe it as something of a mix of Utah’s Martian landscape and the greenery of the Pacific Northwest. It’s incredible to me just how close this is to pancake-flat Berlin.
I’ve visited the region on two separate occasions, both times staying in Bad Schandau. The first time I did some trail running and hiking around the park, including a long run that ended in Schmilka right on the Czech border. If you like beer, do check out Bio-Braumanufaktur. They also have a vegetarian lasagne that just nails the spot after a long day in the forest.
It’s a cliché expression, but there really is no shortage of trails in Saxony Switzerland National Park. If you’re looking to follow something well-marked, then check out the Malerweg (Painter’s Trail). When I did my long run through the park to Schmilka, I was following two stages of the Malerweg.
Schmalkalden is half-timbered town wedged into central Germany. They call it the Fachwerkhäuserstadt (half-timbered town) for good reason. I mean, look at it. This is what you expect to see when you visit a medieval German city. The view from Wilhelmsburg Castle says it all.
But there’s more to Schmalkalden than just a pretty postcard view. You can eat well at Restaurant Grünes Tor Zum Hopfengarten (which doubles as a hotel) and get a tasty Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at Cafe Liebaug next door after spending a day in the woods. Speaking of the woods, Schmalkalden is also enveloped by the Thüringer Wald (forest) with plenty of hiking trails to meander around on. In the video above, you can see some of the trails I hiked and ran north of Schmalkalden and along the fourth stage of the Lutherweg.
Triberg | Eastern Black Forest
Triberg is a Black Forest village wedged firmly into the eastern edge of the region. The Triberg Waterfalls are the main attraction here with paved trails connecting walkers to Germany’s highest waterfalls right from the town center, but it’s also a connecting point for hiking trails, like the long-distance Wasserweltensteig. (That’s “Water World Trail.”)
On my visit, I used it as a base for running up to Mount Kandel––the second largest in the region. But the town itself served as a relaxing, quiet getaway. Though you best like German food if you’re heading to Triberg. There’s not a ton of options in town beyond traditional German eats, which are good (like at Landgasthof Zur Lilie) but heavy at the same time. It seems Triberg may have seen better times when you walk north back toward the train station with storefronts sitting empty. But there is a large grocery store in town, so if you’re staying at an apartment with a kitchen and you’re looking for some fresh air, Triberg is a great place to kick back for a few days and hit the trails.
I won’t pretend that I knew what or where Usedom was when my friend and food writer, Christie Dietz at A Sausage Has Two, first told me about it, but this island in the Baltic Sea shared with Poland is as popular of a beach travel spot for Germans in the summer as any. But my having been or your lack of knowledge about Usedom isn’t reason enough to go. You go for the Strandkorbs (distinctly German beach seating), seafood, and coastal hiking.
Standing over the Ahlbeck coastline, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re looking out onto an ocean’s horizon with the soft, white sand dusted immaculately as far as you can see. You can hike, paddle in the water, but most importantly, you can eat some of the best fresh fish in Europe. Make a special point to stop by Uwe’s Fischerhütte whose crew was kind enough to let us tag along with their 4 a.m. haul. (Uwe is one of the last of the Strandfischerei (beach fishery) tradition. Stay tuned for a short video featuring Uwe’s story and watch as fish turns to food.)
My visit was provided by Usedom.de. As always, all opinions are my own.
Transportation in Germany
Germans like to complain about public transportation and that time the Deutsche Bahn (the primary national train service) was late, but the fact of the matter is that Germany has some of the best public transportation in the world. A British expatriate told me in Eisenach that it’s in the German constitution that everyone has access to public transportation. After traveling extensively around the country, I believe it. On the whole, trains are fast and punctual. The long-distance, high-speed ICE trains can be pricey if you wait until the last minute. If you know your plans well in advance, search the “Sparpreis” options at Deutsche Bahn’s website. I bought a ticket for as low as €20 from Düsseldorf to Munich planning several months in advance. There are also a number of passes you can sign up for to cover group and tourist travel.
My other suggestion? Go cycling. Eurovelo routes spread across Germany, most cities have some form of bikeshare, and it’s quite simply one of the safest countries to cycle in. It’s far from perfect — any place in the world with cars is — but drivers on average are much more accustomed to cyclists on the road and are more respectful of their presence. Given the time, you’d be smart to plan a multi-day bike trip across a section of the country.
Before You Go To Germany
Do brush up (or start working on) your German language skills if you plan on going outside of the major cities. Germans are just as complicit as North Americans in perpetrating this myth that you don’t need to speak German when you travel Germany. You don’t need to be able to speak German in the sense that you don’t necessarily need to speak Arabic to get around in Jordan, but it will both enhance your trip and make it more enjoyable.
English will be easy in the likes of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, but if you decide to go on a long multi-day hike along something like the Rheinsteig — which you absolutely should — you might come across a hotel that doesn’t speak English. You’ll almost certainly find menus without an English translation, so even being able to recognize some foods will be helpful and make the language barrier less frustrating to deal with. Obviously, you’re not going to gain fluency before heading over to Germany, so I do recommend downloading the Dictionary app, which has just about every German phrase I’ve ever had to look up.
Language aside, I do have a few reading recommendations. Beer fans will enjoy Horst Dornbusch’s Prost! The Story of German Beer and history buffs can take on the massive, but incredibly interesting, Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor. For a more travelogue-esque take on the country, I’m currently working my way through Simon Winder’s Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History, which still operates as a historic and cultural look on Germany as well.
When it comes to cinema, I can’t recommend enough Er Ist Wieder Da or He’s Back! This film is based off a satirical novel of the same time and imagines what if Hitler reappeared in modern European society. It’s a mixture of scripted satire and documentary as Hitler interacts with real Germans. The film very much walks the line of “this is okay” and “this is definitely not okay,” quite possibly crossing it for many viewers.
Tschick is another film I’d recommend that has absolutely nothing to do with World War II and the Nazis. It’s essentially a German take on the “often told coming of age story,” but it’s done quite well.
Last but not least, music. Truthfully, I need to dive deeper into this myself, but I’m thinking of two bands/artists off the top of my head — Silbermond and Anna Depenbusch. Silbermond will delight any lover of 90s rock whereas Anna Depenbusch has this charming, occasionally jazzy vibe that I just can’t get enough of. Listen to “Kopf Frei” off her latest album, “Das Alphabet der Anna Depenbusch” and get ready to feel the compulsive urge to whimsically spring about whatever room you’re in.
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