Hidden Germany: where to stay and what to do off the beaten track | Germany holidays
Although Germany is still taking the pandemic a little more seriously than much of Europe (masks are still required on public transport in many places, for example), the country is fully open to visitors after two years of on-and-off restrictions. Though often overlooked in favour of the savoir vivre of France or the dolce vita of Italy, this vast country has plenty of first-class holiday options, from island-hopping or beach-bumming along the Baltic coast, to hiking or cycling the Alps and visiting lakes, castles, national parks and buzzing cities.
The German part of the Mosel River runs for 150 miles from Perl, on the border with France and Luxembourg, to Koblenz, passing steep, vine-covered hillsides, medieval villages, fairytale hilltop castles and the odd art nouveau villa. The climate is sunny, not far off Mediterranean, and some of the country’s best wines, especially rieslings, have been grown here for centuries by Weingüter, many of whom still use the labour-intensive methods of their forefathers.
Trails explore the steep riverbanks, including Europe’s steepest vineyard, the Bremmer Calmont. Hikes range from a riverbank saunter to hard slogs through terraced vineyards. The Mosel Cycle Path runs from Perl to Koblenz – it can also be picked up at Trier for a shorter ride. Many Mosel Valley boat tours start and end at lovely towns and villages such as Cochem, Bernkastel-Kues, Trier and Traben-Trarbach.
Near the Luxembourg border, Trier is Germany’s oldest city – founded in 17BC – and it has a treasure trove of Roman buildings, including the vast Porta Nigra gate, the Basilica of Constantine and the Cathedral of Saint Peter. Cochem also dates from late Roman and Celtic times, has an impressive castle, and is surrounded by some of the country’s best vineyards. One of Germany’s most beautiful castles, Burg Eltz, is a 30-minute drive from Cochem. A short drive to the east is the Geierlay footbridge, one of the country’s longest suspension bridges (360 metres long, 100 metres high). It forms part of the 400km Saar-Hunsrück-Steig hiking route between Trier and Boppard. Wine aficionados could explore a new project called Via Mosel, which maps out the valley’s most interesting wine estates and villages; the region is alive with wine festivals in summer and early autumn.
Where to stay
In Trier, art nouveau Hotel Villa Hügel (doubles from €200 B&B), built for a winemaking family in 1914, has a restaurant as well as outdoor and indoor pools and saunas. Hotel Karl Noss in Cochem (hotel-noss-cochem.de, rooms from €134 B&B) has rooms with views over the Mosel and vineyards, plus a restaurant and cafe-bar. Straußwirtschaft taverns, set up by winemakers in homes and cellars, offer their own wines as well as regional dishes: Daniel Bach in Cochem is a good example.
The Harz region, called “the heart of Germany” for its central location, straddles several states: Lower Saxony to the north, Sachsen-Anhalt to the east, and Thuringia in the south. It’s a popular hiking destination, thanks to its mix of nature reserves (including the Harz national park) and forested hills. The region is crisscrossed with almost 5,000 miles of well-signposted trails – some named after poets such as Goethe and Heinrich Heine, who roamed the region centuries ago – that range from short, scenic loops to the 37-mile Harz Witches’ Trail.
Many climb the area’s largest mountain, the Brocken; a surreal place with fabulous views, a hotel and weather station, and a museum about the division of Germany. The mountaintop once had a Stasi listening post for spying on West German politicians. As well as walking, the Harz offers skiing (downhill and cross-country) and sledging in winter – at its best around Braunlage and Hahnenklee – plus rock-climbing and 1,000 miles of mountain biking routes, from cross-country to free-ride.
Most Harz towns are absurdly quaint, with half-timbered houses, and centuries-old churches and town halls. Pretty Goslar is a showcase for the region’s former wealth and importance: the nearby Rammelsberg ore mine, today a Unesco world heritage site, used to provide silver for the Holy Roman Empire, and now has a dedicated museum and guided tours. Quedlinburg has an imposing abbey and charming Christmas markets. Wernigerode makes a great base too, especially if you want to ride the Brockenbahn – a steam train that has been puffing around the area for 120 years. Some operators have started to offer walking tours with baggage transport (wandern-im-harz.de).
Where to stay
Close to the castle in Wernigerode, Hotel Erbprinzenpalais (doubles from €112 B&B) offers simple but comfortable rooms. In Goslar, the Alte Münze (doubles from €117 B&B) has upmarket rooms and suites, plus a bar and restaurant, a 10-minute walk from the 11th-century Imperial Palace. Brauhaus Lüdde in Quedlinburg offers decent food and craft beer, as does the Brauhaus gastropub in Goslar.
Germany’s north coast stretches for about 1,500 miles between the Netherlands and Poland and hosts a wealth of attractions – fishing villages, historic Hanseatic towns, national parks, spa resorts – that are barely visited by international tourists.
East of Lübeck, the Baltic coast (Ostsee in German), is in the state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern – Meck-Pomm to locals – and although not as sun-drenched as the Med, is pleasantly warm in summer, with long, sandy beaches, clear water, and stately resort architecture that includes handsome 19th-century promenades and piers.
A great way to explore is to pick up the (family-friendly) Baltic Sea Cycle Route from Unesco heritage town Wismar, which runs through charming seaside villages such as Kühlungsborn and Heiligendamm, to Warnemünde, which has a sweeping beach, delicious fish sandwiches and soft ice-cream, and proximity to the Hanseatic city of Rostock. From here, there’s access to the remote Fischland-Darß-Zingst peninsula and Western Pomerania lagoon area national park – a picturesque landscape of cliffs, dunes, spits and lagoons. The coastal islands are also beguiling: peaceful, car-free Hiddensee, for example, or the more classic seaside resorts of Rügen – Binz and Sellin – with footpaths along the striking chalk cliffs of Jasmund national park (which will get a new skywalk and multimedia exhibition this year); or the resorts on Usedom – Heringsdorf and Ahlbeck.
There’s plenty inland to explore too, from the two former ducal residences of Ludwigslust and Schwerin, to the Müritz national park further south, which overlaps with the Mecklenburg Lake District – the largest landlocked lake district in Europe. With more than 1,000 lakes, it’s a veritable paradise for water sports enthusiasts.
Where to stay
Meer Zeit (doubles from €100 B&B) is a family-run bed and breakfast in rural Poel with tastefully furnished rooms that have views of the sea or the garden, a breakfast room with a fireplace and yoga classes. Hotel Villa Belvedere in Binz (from €210 B&B) has 22 comfortable rooms and suites as well as flats in a neighbouring beach house. For dinner, Zum Skipper in Sellin, on Rügen, has locally sourced fish and seafood dishes and a terrace. Or for something a bit more special, Kosi has regional cuisine, fine wines and a terrace in the woods of Heiligendamm.
This eastern state may be known these days as the heartland of the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party and abundant coronavirus-denying Querdenkers but there’s no denying Saxony’s natural beauty and historic panache. From picturesque hilltop castles and state capital Dresden to the “Saxon Switzerland” mountains and the winding Elbe river, the state has a lot to offer.
There’s plenty beyond the main sights to explore, including pretty Leipzig, which offers cutting-edge art (see the transformed industrial complex Baumwollspinnerei) and clubs as well as oodles of tradition. The Ore Mountain range (Erzgebirge) by the Czech border is a ski region in winter and now also a mountain biking mecca.
Then there are Instagram hotspots such as the town of Görlitz, whose medieval charm and architectural landmarks have featured in a slew of films (Grand Budapest Hotel, The Reader, Inglourious Basterds), and Kromlau Park, with its landscaped gardens and the Rakotzbrücke, or devil’s bridge, whose reflection in the lake below creates a perfect circle.
An ideal base for the region is Dresden, the “Florence of the North”, whose postwar rebuild has resulted in a baroque cityscape brimming with historic landmarks and a wealth of art and culture. Must-sees include the Zwinger palace, the equally baroque Frauenkirche and the Old Masters Picture Gallery, with its outstanding collection of European art from the 15th to 18th centuries. From here, it’s less than an hour to the wonderland of rock formations, valleys and waterfalls – famously depicted by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich – of the Sächsische Schweiz, with its array of hiking trails and climbing routes.
Where to stay
Dresden’s Limehome (doubles from €72, ) is a sleek apart-hotel with designer furnishings that is convenient for many of the sights. In Leipzig, Fregehaus (doubles from €90 room-only) is a charming boutique hotel in a 16th-century house. Bio Village Schmilka (doubles from €144 B&B) is a village of sustainably built hotels and eco-restaurants on the edge of the Saxon Switzerland national park.
Western Germany’s Ruhr region is the largest urban area in the country, and primarily known for its industrial heritage. That may not sound ideal for a family holiday, but in recent decades some of its infrastructure has been creatively (and expensively) transformed into new and unusual attractions. Visitors can go mountain biking on spoil tips, water skiing on quarry ponds, climb in former blastfurnaces, and enjoy a dip in a former coking plant.
The largest such project is the Zollverein, a Unesco world heritage site near Essen that was once the largest coalmine in the world – it closed in 1986 – and is now a symbol of the Ruhr’s regeneration. Today there are woodlands and exotic plants, the Red Dot design museum, swimming pools and ice rinks, and the Casino Zollverein, which offers regional cuisine with a contemporary twist in a suitably industrial setting.
A half-hour drive away, the 180-hectare (450-acre) Duisburg-Nord landscape park, originally an ironworks, has undergone a similar revamp and now offers panoramic views and walkways between blastfurnaces; the largest outdoor climbing garden in Germany; and Europe’s largest indoor diving pool, inside a former gasometer. For children, two adjacent amusement parks in nearby Bottrop (a 30-minute drive) provide additional thrills. Schloß Beck is good for younger children, with creative play zones as well as amusement rides, while Movie Park Germany is more action-packed, with rollercoasters and regular movie-themed shows.
For an overview of the region, hike, cycle or drive the 250-mile Industrial Heritage Trail, which takes in former industrial sites, panoramic views, and company towns, and can also be split into themed sub-routes (miners, beer brewing, allotments). The Ruhr Topcard is worth considering as it gives free entries to more than 90 places, and other discounts.
Where to stay
The Zollverein has its own place to stay, Hotel Friends Zeche-Zollverein Essen (doubles from €120 room-only), a trendy and convivial spot with dapper rooms and a 24-hour lounge with terrace. Essen, with its contemporary art galleries and interesting architecture is a good base. Alte Lohnhalle (doubles from €100 room-only) is in attractive former colliery offices and has industrial-chic interiors, a bar and casual restaurant.
Although Bavaria is one of Germany’s better-known destinations, not many travellers are aware that the northern part is a distinctive sub-region known as Franconia (Franken in German), with its own cultural and linguistic heritage – indeed, East Franconian is one of the German dialects with the highest number of speakers.
The region spills out of Bavaria into parts of Baden-Württemberg, south Thuringia and Hesse, and almost half of its territory – about 6,000 square miles – is composed of nature parks, historic cities and Unesco heritage spots. These include Bamberg’s old city, Bayreuth’s Margravial Opera House, Bad Kissingen (one of Unesco’s “great spa towns of Europe”), Würzburg’s Residenz palace, and the Limes, the ancient wall marking the border of the Roman empire. To get off the beaten track and experience the region’s abundant natural charms, hire a bike and hop on to the Tauber Cycle Path, one of the few five-star biking routes in Germany, running along the Tauber Valley between Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Wertheim, taking in vineyards, forests and meadows.
There are also canoe trips along the Altmühl, the slowest river in Bavaria, which meanders for 160km through the nature park of the same name – one of the largest in Germany, with activities galore as well as castles, palaces, churches, abbeys … and Archaeopteryx bird fossils. Hikers and rock climbers will enjoy the Spessart and Frankenwald forests, and the Fichtelgebirge and Hassberge mountains, as well as the “Franconian Switzerland” (Fränkische Schweiz) – a fairytale sub-region with otherworldly rock formations, dramatic castles and charming cities (Bamberg, Nuremberg, Bayreuth). Local culinary delights range from top-notch Franconian wines and beers (smoked beer is a speciality) to venison hunted from local forests, line-caught carp and asparagus in season.
Where to stay
Gasthof Drei Linden in Bamberg (doubles from €80) has a restaurant with local and international dishes, friendly service and cosy rooms. Five Reasons in Nuremberg (doubles from €90, two-night minimum) has bright private rooms with oak floors, plus a sleek bar-lounge and communal kitchen. Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s Villa Mittermeier (doubles from €111) is a stylish option for sleeping as well as dining, thanks to its chic restaurant and wine cellar.