Coming to Germany for the first time? Consider a journey of the best the country has to offer: stunning landscapes, charming medieval towns, and cosmopolitan capital cities. Make the most of your time by taking the train between stops. You’ll eliminate the hassles of parking and the high cost of gasoline. Best of all, you’ll take in the views—in complete relaxation—as they roll by your window.
Kick off your circle tour of quintessential Germany in Bavaria’s capital city. Get your bearings by standing in the center of Munich’s Marienplatz, and watch the charming, twirling figures of the Glockenspiel in the tower of the Rathaus (town hall). Visit the world-class art museums, then wander through the Englischer Garten (English Garden) to the beer garden for a cool beer and pretzel.
Take a day trip to visit Germany’s highest mountain peak (9,731 feet), the Zugspitze. You’ll take in astounding views of the mountains and breathe the bracing Alpine air. Have lunch at one of two restaurants on the peak, then bask in the sun like the Germans on the expansive terrace. If you’re feeling sporty, hundreds of kilometers of trails offer some of Germany’s best hiking across blooming mountain meadows and along steep mountain gorges. Otherwise take the cable car up and down and savor the dramatic vistas.
In the late morning, arrive in Freiburg, one of Germany’s most beautiful historic cities. Damaged during the war, it’s been meticulously rebuilt to preserve its delightful medieval character. Residents love to boast that Freiburg is the country’s sunniest city, which is true according to meteorological reports. Freiburg’s cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, built over three centuries. Explore on foot, or by bike, and look out for the Bächle, or little brooks, that run for kilometers through Freiburg.
Freiburg puts you at the perfect point from which to explore the spruce-covered low-lying mountains of the Black Forest. Set out for Titisee, a placid glacial lake, visiting dramatic gorges along the way. Or, head toward the northern Black Forest to visit tony Baden-Baden. Then spend the afternoon relaxing in the curative waters at one of the famous spas.
This gorgeous city sits on the Main River, and as you look out onto the hills that surround the city, you’ll see that lush vineyards encircle the valley. Würzburg’s two must-see attractions are the massive Festung Marienburg (Marienburg Fortress) and the Residenz an awe-inspiring baroque palace. The palace is considered to be one of Europe’s most luxurious. The best way to sample the local wine is to go straight to the source: the vineyards. In the afternoon, follow the Stein-Wein-Pfad, a pathway that takes you straight to the local vintners, and try their wines while also drinking in incredible views of the city below.
In the morning, arrive in Bamberg, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list. The town is remarkable for not having sustained damage during World War II, and for looking much as it has for hundreds of years. Narrow cobblestone streets lead you to Bamberg’s heart, a small island ringed by the Regnitz River. Bamberg has almost a dozen breweries—try the Rauchbier, a dark beer with a smoky flavor.
Hamburg is one of Germany’s wealthiest cities. It’s also an important port, and served as a leader of the medieval Hanseatic League. If you’re in Hamburg on Sunday, visit the open-air Fischmarkt (fish market) early in the morning. Then, take a cruise through the city’s canals to see the historic warehouse district. Exploring the harbor you’ll see the enormous ocean liners that stop in Hamburg before crossing the Atlantic. The city offers exclusive shopping along the Junfernstieg, a lakeside promenade.
Berlin is Germany’s dynamic capital, a sprawling and green city. No matter where you go, it’s hard to escape Berlin’s recent history as a divided city. You’re brought face-to-face with the legacy of World War II, and contrast of East and West. Walk from the Brandenburg Gate to the famous Museum Island and visit the Pergamon Alter. In the afternoon, visit KaDeWe, Europe’s largest department store, and walk along the Kurfürstendamm, the posh shopping boulevard. Spend the next morning in Potsdam, touring the opulent palaces and manicured gardens. Return to the city to explore its neighborhoods, like Turkish Kreuzberg or hip Prenzlauer Berg.
Though it is a wealthy city with Wittelsbach palaces, great art collections, and a technology museum holding trains, planes, and even an imitation coal mine, what really distinguishes Munich from other state capitals are its beer halls, beer gardens, and proud identity: even designer-conscious Müncheners wear traditional dirndls and hunter-green jackets for special occasions. Stroll the streets of the Altstadt (Old City), visit the Frauenkirche, choose a museum (the best ones will occupy you for at least three hours), and save the Hofbräuhaus or any other teeming brew house for last. Munich might be touristy, but hordes of German tourists love it as well.
From Munich it's an easy day trip to Germany's fairy-tale castle in Schwangau. Though the 19th-century castle's fantastic silhouette has made it famous, this creation of King Ludwig II is more opera set than piece of history—the interior was never even completed. A tour reveals why the romantic king earned the nickname "Mad" King Ludwig. Across the narrow wooded valley from Schloss Neuschwanstein is the ancient castle of the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty, Schloss Hohenschwangau, also open for tours.
That Saxony's capital, Dresden, is the pinnacle of European baroque is obvious in its courtyards, newly rebuilt Frauenkirche, and terrace over the Elbe River. The city was largely shaped by Augustus the Strong, who in 1730 kindly invited the public to view the works crafted from precious stones in his Green Vault. Many of Dresden's art treasures lie within the Zwinger, a baroque showpiece. Spend the evening at the neo-Renaissance Semper Opera, where Wagner premiered his works, and drink Radeberger Pilsner at intermission. It's the country's oldest pilsner.
Spend the morning touring some of Dresden's rich museums before boarding a train to Berlin. Germany's capital is not only unique for its division between 1949 and 1989, but is unlike any other German city in its physical expanse and diversity. Attractions that don't close until 10 pm or later are Sir Norman Foster's glass dome on the Reichstag, the TV tower at Alexanderplatz, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
Begin your first Berlin morning on a walk with one of the city's excellent tour companies. They'll connect the broadly spaced dots for you and make the events of Berlin's turbulent 20th century clear. Berlin is a fascinating city in and of itself, so you don't have to feel guilty if you don't get to many museums. Since the mid-1990s, world-renowned architects have changed the city's face. You'll find the best nightlife in hip neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, or Mitte. Berlin is a surprisingly inexpensive city, so you can treat yourself to more here than in Munich.
On your last day, have breakfast with the morning shoppers at the open-air Viktualienmarkt. Try to find Weisswurst, a mild, boiled sausage normally eaten before noon with sweet mustard, a pretzel—and beer!
Start your tour in Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers. Once you have arrived in the historic downtown area, head straight for the charming little Hotel Zum weissen Schwanen, a half-timber inn and mill since 1693. Explore the city on the west bank of the Rhine River and then head to Europe's biggest fortress, the impressive Festung Ehrenbreitstein on the opposite riverbank.
Get up early and drive along the most spectacular and historic section of "Vater Rhein." Stay on the left riverbank and you'll pass many mysterious landmarks on the way, including Burg Stolzenfels, and later the Loreley rock, a 430-foot slate cliff named after a legendary, beautiful, blonde nymph. Stay the night at St. Goar or St. Goarshausen, both lovely river villages.
The former Cistercian monastery Kloster Eberbach, in Eltville, is one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cloisters. Parts of the film The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco's novel and starring Sean Connery, were filmed here. If you're interested in wine, spend the night at the historic wine estate Schloss Reinhartshausen. This is a great opportunity to sample the fantastic wines of the region.
On Day 4, start driving early so you can spend a full day in Heidelberg (the drive from Eltville takes about an hour). No other city symbolizes German spirit and history better than this meticulously restored, historic town. Do not miss the impressive Schloss, one of Europe's greatest Gothic-Renaissance fortresses. Most of the many pubs and restaurants here are touristy, overpriced, and of poor quality—so don't waste your time at them. Instead, head for the Romantik Hotel zum Ritter St. Georg, a charming 16th-century inn with a great traditional German restaurant.
Superb food and wine can be enjoyed in the quaint little villages in the Neckar Valley just east of Heidelberg—the predominant grapes here are Riesling (white) and Spätburgunder (red). Try to sample wines from small, private wineries—they tend to have higher-quality vintages. Sightseeing is equally stunning, with a string of castles and ruins along the famous Burgenstrasse (Castle Road). Since you have two days for this area, take your time and follow B-37 to Eberbach and its romantic Zwingenberg castle, tucked away in the deep forest just outside the village. In the afternoon, continue on to Burg Hornberg at Neckarzimmern, the home to the legendary German knight Götz von Berlichingen. Stay the night here, in the former castle stables.
The next morning, continue farther to Bad Wimpfen, the most charming valley town at the confluence of the Neckar and Jagst rivers. Spend half a day in the historic city center and tour the Staufer Pfalz (royal palace). Soaring high above the city, the palace was built in 1182, and emperor Barbarossa liked to stay here.
Devote your last day to the German Wine Route, which winds its way through one of the most pleasant German landscapes, the gentle slopes and vineyards of the Pfalz. The starting point for the route is Bad Dürkheim, a spa town proud to have the world's largest wine cask, holding 1.7 million liters (450,000 gallons). You can enjoy wine with some lunch in the many Weinstuben here or wait until you reach Neustadt farther south, Germany's largest wine-making community. Thirty of the vintages grown here can be sampled (and purchased) at the downtown Haus des Weines. If time permits, try to visit one of the three major castles along the route in the afternoon: Burg Trifels near Annweiler is a magnificent Hohenzollern residence, perched dramatically on three sandstone cliffs, the very image of a medieval castle in wine country.