The essence of vacationing in Germany is perhaps best described by history, culture, and natural beauty. Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a unique place to visit, with its many historic cities and small towns, along with an abundance of forests and mountains. Metropolitan areas such as Munich, Frankfurt, or Hamburg should be visited by those who want to visit or experience the arts, while those looking for recreational activities should visit places such as the Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest, or the Rhine Valley.
Lovely old cathedrals and grand palaces are everywhere and many centuries-old traditions, including traditional Christmas markets, festivals, and fairs, continue to this day in the smaller cities and villages – some with their original medieval Old Towns still intact. The capital, Berlin, is at the cultural heart of Germany, home to many fine museums and galleries, while nature lovers will find a world of possibilities in the great outdoors of Germany. For ideas to help plan your travels, read our list of the top tourist attractions in Germany.
1. Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate
The monumental sandstone Brandenburg Gate in Berlin’s Mitte district, modeled on the Acropolis in Athens and built in 1791 for King Frederick William II, was the first Neoclassical structure in the city. Measuring an incredible 26 meters in height – including the Quadriga, a spectacular four-horse wagon holding the goddess of victory perched on top – its six enormous columns form five impressive passages on either side of the structure: four were used for daily traffic, while the middle was reserved for royal wagons. The two buildings on each side of the gate, once used by toll collectors and guards, are also decorated with huge Doric columns.
Undoubtedly the most iconic structure of Berlin, it’s hard to believe that during WWII, the majestic structure you see today was severely damaged and was once part of the infamous Berlin Wall and symbolic of the division of Berlin into East and West for a few decades.
2. Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)
Situated on the banks of the Rhine, the towering Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) – the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Mary – is arguably Cologne’s most impressive landmark. This masterpiece of High Gothic architecture, one of Europe’s largest cathedrals, was begun in 1248 and was the Middle Ages’ most ambitious construction project.
Its majestic interior, as imposing as its façade, covers an area of 6,166 square meters and boasts 56 massive pillars. The Reliquary of the Three Kings is above the high altar, a 12th-century gold work of art designed by Nicholas of Verdun to house the relics of the Three Kings brought here from Milan.
Other highlights include the panoramic views from the South Towers, the stained glass in the Three Kings Chapel from the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Treasury with its many precious items, all of which survived after WWII relatively intact. For some of the best views of the city and the water, ascend the 533 steps to the viewing platform. in the South Tower. (A small entrance fee is required.)
3. The Black Forest
With its dark, densely-wooded hills, the majestic Black Forest is one of the most visited uplands in all of Europe. Located in the southwest corner of Germany and stretching 160 kilometers from Pforzheim in the north to Waldshut in the south on the High Rhine, it’s a paradise for hikers.
It descends steeply to the Rhine on the west side, crossed by lush valleys, while it slopes more gently down to the upper Neckar and Danube valleys on the east side.
The oldest ski area in Germany at Todtnau, the splendid spa facilities in Baden-Baden, and the attractive resort of Bad Liebenzell are popular spots.
Other highlights include the spectacular Triberg-centered Black Forest Railway with its famous falls and Triberg itself, home of the Open Air Museum of the Black Forest. The safest way to capture all of them? Take a map of the Panoramic Black Forest Road, a 70-kilometer driving tour with the best views of the area, along with its top historical attractions, including stunning castles and numerous medieval towns and villages.
4. The Ultimate Fairytale Castle: Neuschwanstein
Located between the Ammergau and Allgäu Alps and a renowned alpine resort and winter sports center, the quaint old town of Füssen is a good base from which to explore nearby Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the most famous (and picturesque) royal castles in Europe.
This many-towered and battle-covered fantasy fortress – the inspiration for Walt Disney’s iconic theme park castles – was designed by King Ludwig II of Bavaria from 1869-86.
There are a number of tour options, including guided tours of the sumptuous interior of the Throne Room, the Singers’ Hall… And some of the most spectacular views in the world.
5. Miniatur Wunderland and the Historic Port of Hamburg
The magnificent Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway, is an attraction in the heart of the historic Port of Hamburg that appeals equally to young and old alike. This massive scale model, boasting over 12,000 meters of track, includes sections dedicated to the USA, England, and Scandinavia (as well as Hamburg) and includes 890 trains, more than 300,000 lights, and over 200,000 human figures.
With its remarkably detailed miniature airports (and planes that actually take off), crowded towns, quaint rural scenes, and bustling harbors, it is not unheard of for guests to spend many hours exploring this fascinating world. Book one of the behind-the-scenes tours, an especially fun thing to do at night, for a memorable experience.
Speaking of harbors, while you’re there, be sure to explore the massive Hamburg Terminal. This massive tidal harbor, one of the world’s largest cruise ship ports, and regarded as the Gateway to Germany, spans 100 square kilometers.
6. The Rhine Valley
Not only is the Rhine the most important waterway in Europe, but it’s also the most stunning. With a total length of 1.320 kilometers, this majestic river extends all the way to the Netherlands from Switzerland via Germany.
The beautiful Upper Middle Rhine Valley portion – declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is possibly the most common place for tourists to visit, although there are many places in Germany to enjoy this magnificent river. Here, there are more than 40 castles and some 60 picturesque medieval cities on this sometimes dramatic 65-kilometer stretch of river, all waiting to be explored either by river cruise or by car.
Looking for a great place to begin your Rhine Valley adventure? A good place to start is the historic town of Bingen, where the river passes through a deep gorge before entering the Bacharach valley.
7. Berlin’s Museum Island
Between the River Spree and the Kupfergraben – a 400-meter-long canal off the river – Berlin’s world-famous Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, contains many of the city’s oldest and most important museums.
The heart of this pedestrian-friendly district is the Old Museum, designed as a place to view royal jewels in 1830. The land behind the museum was soon after set aside for art and “knowledge of antiquity.”
The New Museum took shape between 1843-55, and the National Gallery, along with the Bode Museum, established in 1904 and home to antique collections, was added in 1876. Pergamon, with its recreated historical buildings from the Middle East, is another highlight of a walking tour of these impressive points of interest. But be warned: among these impressive museums, there is so much to see that you can’t possibly pack it all into a single day.
8. Bamberg and the Bürgerstadt
Bamberg, the former imperial city and the most important city in Upper Franconia, is one of the best preserved of the many charming old towns in Germany and one of the best to explore on foot, situated in the valley of the Regnitz, where the river splits into two arms.
In your old episcopal quarter, home to the 13th-century cathedral and the old Benedictine abbey of Michaelsberg, your walking tour should start. You’ll find the beautiful Bürgerstadt between the two river branches, a small borough of Bamberg that includes the Grüner Markt, an excellent pedestrian zone that is home to the 17th-century Baroque St. Martin’s Church and, to the north, the Modern Town Hall, or Neues Rathaus, built in 1736. Perhaps the town’s most significant building, however is the Old Town Hall, built on top of the Obere Brücke (Upper Bridge).
9. Zugspitze Massif
Part of the Wetterstein mountain range, the Zugspitze massif straddles the border between Germany and Austria and is surrounded by steep valleys. At 2962 meters, the eastern summit is surmounted by a gilded cross and can be reached by the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn, the cog railway or by cable car.
The Tiroler Zugspitzbahn, a railway that runs 2,805 meters to the Zugspitzkamm station, is another great way to enjoy this area of outstanding natural beauty. The journey can be continued from here by cable car to Zugspitz-Westgipfel Station at an altitude of 2,950 meters (be sure to sample a meal at the excellent panoramic restaurant located here).
The opportunity to walk through an 800-meter-long tunnel, complete with viewing windows, to the Schneefernerhaus station at the top of the Bavarian cog railway, from where you can climb the eastern summit with its viewing platforms, is a highlight of the trip. And, thanks to the many nearby ski resorts, Zugspitze is a wonderful German destination.
10. The Island of Rügen
Rügen is the largest and most beautiful of the German Baltic Islands, isolated by Strelasund from the rest of Germany and linked by a waterway to the mainland town of Stralsund. The beauty of the island stems from its landscape diversity, including everything from flat farmland and forest-covered hills to vast sandy beaches, lagoons, and scenic peninsulas.
For outdoor enthusiasts in particular, a fun thing to do here is to pay a visit to the Jasmund Peninsula, which reaches heights of 161 meters in places. Here you will find Jasmund National Park, famous for its abundance of wildlife among nature lovers, with notable species, including rare white-tailed eagles, found here.
A highlight of the journey is the chance to walk through an 800-meter-long tunnel, complete with viewing windows, to the Schneefernerhaus station at the top of the Bavarian cog railroad, from where you can ascend the eastern summit with its viewing platforms. And, thanks to the many ski resorts located nearby, Zugspitze is a wonderful German destination to visit in winter.
11. Königssee (King’s Lake)
One of the great beauty spots of the area of Germany known as Berchtesgadener Land is the lovely Bavarian Lake Königssee. Also known as King’s Lake, thanks to its extensive network of trails, this area near Salzburg is a hiking (and biking) paradise.
The attractive footpath situated along the east side of the Königssee to the Malerwinkel, or Painters’ Corner, is one of the most famous things to do, noted for its spectacular views of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
Another equally enticing sightseeing choice is to take a boat ride to the St. Bartholomew pilgrimage chapel of the 17th century, at the south end of the lake, and to walk to the Obersee from here. Maybe the best known tourist town and one of the most popular mountain resorts in the Bavarian Alps is Berchtesgaden, at the end of the Deutsche Alpenstrasse.
Berchtesgaden National Park, a place of outstanding natural beauty that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, is also noteworthy here.
12. Rothenburg ob der Tauber
On the steep banks of the picturesque River Tauber lies the old Franconian imperial city of Rothenburg, one of the most attractive places on Germany’s popular Romantic Road tourist route. This fully preserved, picture-perfect medieval town offers endless charm with its walls and towers unchanged since the Thirty Years War of 1618. Joining a walking tour (or doing it yourself) is one of the most common things to do here; get started by picking up a map from one of the town’s tourism offices.
There are no end of opportunities to explore, with the imposing 13th-century Town Hall (Rathaus) being individual buildings of note; the wonderful Ratstrinkstube, or Council Tavern, built in 1466 with its interesting clock; the St.-Georgs-Brunnen Fountain, built in 1608 near the end of Herrngasse; the Church of St. James with its fine high altar dating from 1466; and the Museum of the Imperial City.
Simply walking the old streets past these beautiful buildings is a timeless experience, especially if it involves the Plönlein, one of the town’s most picturesque spots. And after all that adventure, end your visit at one of the many fine restaurants dotted around the town. If traveling in winter, be sure to include a stop here for the traditional Christmas Market, which draws crowds from across the country (and even farther afield).