Colorful and enchanting, no other country does fairy-tale fantasy towns quite like Germany.
From the hedonism of Berlin’s 24-hour clubs to Frankfurt’s gleaming skyscrapers, the cities of modern Germany are as vibrant as anywhere on Earth. But while their relentless 21st-century outlook can be intoxicating, a trip into the countryside can reward visitors with some of the most evocative scenes Europe has to offer. Read on and head into a world of cobblestoned streets, soaring spires, and historic town squares.
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Straddling the Polish border on the banks of the Lusatian Neisse River in Germany’s far east, Görlitz may not be hugely well known but its charms have been on the radars of film directors for many years. The fact that Wes Anderson chose Görlitz as the setting for The Grand Budapest Hotel should be reason enough to spend some time meandering through its elaborate streets and romantic squares.
While exploring this picturesque town you can feast your eyes on architecture styles ranging from Gothic and Renaissance all the way to Art Nouveau.
Lakeside settings are never a bad thing. Throw in some snow-capped alpine views and a historic town center and it’s easy to see why Lindau is such an alluring destination. Connected to the mainland by a road bridge, the old town juts out on a 0.26 square mile island into Lake Constance, making it even more unique.
If you choose to take a boat ride around the lake, then you may have the pleasure of passing through the famous harbor entrance featuring a dramatic lion sculpture on one side and Bavaria’s only lighthouse on the other.
Although primarily associated with the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials, Bavaria’s second-largest city is surprisingly beautiful considering the devastation wrought during the conflict. With vast areas lovingly rebuilt, Nuremberg is a charming bastion of Bavarian culture full of handsome half-timbered houses, lively beer halls, and all the bratwurst you’ll ever need.
Be sure to visit in December for one of Europe’s most magical Christmas markets.
Such were the charms of Bayreuth that legendary composer Robert Wagner built a theater here and even set up his own opera festival. That attraction may have been due to the presence of the absurdly ornate Margravial Opera House, a lavish theater dating back to the mid-18th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stroll through the colorful streets and admire the Baroque architecture of this handsome Bavarian town.
INSIDER TIPHead to the roof terrace of the rather dour and innocuous new town hall in the summer for superb vistas across Bayreuth.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
You could make a case this is the town that Instagram was invented for. Exploding with color and charm from almost every angle, the cobbled streets and timber houses of Rothenburg’s medieval old town are a photographer’s dream. Understandably crowded in the summer, visiting out of season is ideal for exploring this famous stop on the popular “Romantic Road” through Southern Germany.
When ambling through the majestic streets, don’t forget to pick up a few schneeballen—spherical sugared pastries unique to Rothenburg.
Gently sprawled out along the River Neckar, Heidelberg was an important city during the Middle Ages and, by the 19th century, its beauty had started to attract authors, painters, and poets. The seductive old town is still a patchwork of elegant streets and delightful cafes.
Take the funicular railway up to the stunning castle (Schloss Heidelberg) before heading all the way up to the top of the Königstuhl (King’s Chair) Mountain, where you’ll be treated to gorgeous panoramas from 1,300 feet above the Neckar valley.
Though it gazes out onto the large Lake Schwerin, the unique geography of Schwerin city means that it’s also surrounded by several smaller lakes. But the man-made structures here are just as impressive, and its gorgeous old town stayed largely intact during WWII, suffering little damage and retaining its authenticity.
Straddling a tree-filled island all by itself, the stunning Schwerin Castle is unmissable from all angles and looks over the city with stately elegance.
The turbulent history of Weimar has taken it from periods of enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries through to the uncertainty of the Weimar Republic in the 20th century’s inter-war years. The 21st century, however, celebrates the enlightenment era in the form of several fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites dotted around town, including the home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the castle of Schloss Weimar.
The twisting lanes of the historic center are filled with interesting cafes and museums, including one dedicated entirely to the Bauhaus movement, which was founded in Weimar.
WHERE: Upper Franconia
Bamburg’s old town, with its arched stone bridges, dreaming spires, and half-timber houses, is so pretty it looks almost cliched. And while invariably attracting plenty of tourists to immerse themselves in those classical fairy-tale scenes, there’s plenty of individuality to Bamberg that separates it from Bavaria’s other charming country towns.
One of those being Rauchbier, Bamberg’s famous smoked beer with its dark and aromatic flavor crafted by drying malted barley over an open flame. Head to the historic brewpub Schlenkerla to get an authentic taste.
One of the most distinct towns on this list, Cochem sits on the snaking river Moselle and is dominated by the 11th-century hilltop Imperial Castle looking out over the expansive landscape below. Reachable by chairlift, its panoramas are stunning, but there’s still plenty to recommend seeing on the ground below, including a sweet taste of the region’s famous Riesling wine.
Stroll down the pleasant riverfront and, if you have time, take a boat trip to the equally enchanting town of Beilstein.
While Füssen will always be in the remarkable shadow of nearby Disney movie-esque Neuschwanstein Castle, the town is well worth spending some time in. Just a stone’s throw from the Austrian border, Füssen is surrounded by the Bavarian alps and is a perfect jump-off point for some spectacular hiking routes and wonderful panoramas.
Down on the ground, the Benedictine monastery of St. Mang contains one of the oldest frescos in Germany, thought to date to around 980 AD.
WHERE: North Rhine-Westphalia
Known primarily as the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven and also as the capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990, Bonn is at the southernmost end of the densely populated Rhine-Ruhr region. And while it’s slightly larger than some of the towns on this list, Bonn has a timeless grandeur and its picturesque streets and jovial beer gardens are a pleasure to explore, especially during summer.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Bonn during spring, then make sure you head to the Nordstadt neighborhood where the sublime streets are flanked by rows of pretty pink cherry blossoms for a few weeks in April.
All of these are beautiful towns and deserve to be on this list. Here are a few others, some well known, others nor so well, that could be added: Bacharach on the Rhine, Marburg, Goslar, Quedlinburg, Lemgo, Regensburg, Rottweil, Tubingen, Freiburg I. Breisgau, Meersburg, Alsfeld, Ahrweiler, Heppenheim, Nordlingen, Dinkelsbuhl. I'v spent time in all of these so I can vouch for their fairy tale qualities but I know I have left off many of your favorites.