These 5 Spots in Germany Are the Perfect Combination of City Break and Nature Escape

by  Andrew Eames | Dec 4, 2023
Sponsored by  The German National Tourist Board

The gateways to Germany are inevitably going to be its cities (especially with more non-stop Lufthansa flights from the U.S. to Germany than ever, with new routes launching in the spring/summer of 2024, including Seattle to Munich, Minneapolis to Frankfurt, and Raleigh-Durham to Frankfurt), but we suggest going deeper for a true insight into the destination. Soak up the history, art, and architecture of Germany’s metropolises before delving into the country’s incredible mountains, gorgeous lakes, charming medieval villages, and sandy beaches.

Ahead, find five of the most memorable pairings of key German cities with their adjacent magical slices of nature.

Munich and the Alps

©DZT/Dietmar Scherf

Munich, the vibrant capital of Bavaria, regularly tops lists of Germany’s — and the world’s — most liveable cities. Its location in the southern part of the country means that it both basks in the summer sun and has easy access to the snow-capped Alps, visible on the horizon on clear days.

Munich effortlessly combines rich history with modern flair to captivate visitors from around the globe. Its cultural quarter, the Kunstareal, is the location of over a dozen museums and exhibition halls where visitors can experience 5,000 years of art and culture, from historic treasures to modern masterpieces at world-famous institutions like Lenbachhaus or ‘Alte und Neue Pinakothek.’ Nearby, find one of the city's most iconic green spaces, the English Garden, an expansive parkland that has a lazy river meandering through it (did you know that Munich’s English Garden is one of the largest inner-city parks in the world — even larger than New York City’s Central Park?).

Munich is easily worth spending a few days exploring, and if your trip doesn’t coincide with the famous Oktoberfest festival, enjoy year-round beer halls such as the iconic Hofbräuhaus, where an oompahing band creates an unforgettable atmosphere.

DZT/Florian Trykowski

The alpine foothills begin just south of town, cupping the likes of the stunningly blue Lake Starnberg. Further south, Füssen is where Neuschwanstein, Germany’s most famous castle, rears up out of the rocks and the mountains proper begin. Either here or winter sports capital Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which is in the lee of Germany’s highest point (Zugspitze, 9,718 feet) are good hubs for spending a couple of days amongst the majestic mountain peaks, alpine meadows, and hiking trails. 

All these destinations are linked by rail. For an economical way to explore them, opt for the Bayern-Ticket (Bavarian Card), which offers unlimited day trips within the state.

Cologne and the Rhine Valley

Getty Images/Matthias Haker Photography

Apart from the Dom — Cologne's soaring sculpture-encrusted cathedral — the city’s downtown is mainly low-rise blocks from the 1960s and ‘70s. For a sense of the pre-war city, head down to the Rhine riverbanks, where the Buttermarkt’s overhangs and cobblestones are lively in the evening. Just south is a little riverside peninsula called the Rheinauhafen, a wonderful example of the city’s ability to reinvent itself as you’ll find former harbor buildings re-imagined into the Chocolate Museum. Meanwhile, just inland, there are traditional inns that often brew its own straw-colored Kölsch beer, a beer that’s particular to Cologne. 

Overall, this is an unconventional, open-minded city, and easily worth a couple of days. It has a large gay community and hosts a wild Carnival parade every February. It is also a major transport hub, with international trains arriving from countries to the west, and day- or week-long cruises setting out along the Rhine.

©DZT/Michael Neumann

The river here is busy, then beyond Koblenz, the river accelerates and the banks rise up, cloaked in vineyards and bristling with castles. This 40-mile-long Rhine Gorge is dotted with half-timbered riverside towns and rich in legends of Rhine Maidens (water nymphs) luring unsuspecting ship captains onto the rocks.   

Count on at least three days exploring the Gorge, based in the likes of Bacharach or Sankt Goar, using day cruises to saunter back and forth. The long-distance hiking trail up on the east bank has wonderful views, and some of its rest huts even have honesty boxes where you can buy a bottle of the local wine for immediate consumption, although that may, of course, slow you down. 

Stuttgart and the Black Forest

©Stuttgart-Marketing GmbH (SMG) /Jean-Claude Winkler

Stuttgart is a city of vineyards and fine automobiles, with the rolling hills of the Black Forest just around the corner. 

Some of the city’s pre-war pomp is still visible in and around Schlossplatz, where old and new palaces gather around a square often busy with live music. This is also the starting point for Königstrasse, Stuttgart’s long pedestrianized shopping street.

The city’s modern palaces are the Porsche and Mercedes Benz museums. The invention of the first motorcar, by Carl Benz, is celebrated at Mercedes, while Porsche tends to focus more on high-performance machines. While here, visitors should also explore the Renaissance architecture of the Esslingen suburb, as well as the many vineyards lining the Neckar riverbanks between there and the city center, each featuring plenty of walking trails.

DZT/Francesco Carovillano

It is an hour’s drive southwest from Stuttgart to the fringes of the Black Forest’s rolling hills, only partly forested, despite the name. Visitors come for the pretty half-timbered villages, for the fashionable spa town of Baden-Baden, and for scenic drives such as the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse, a spectacular ridgeline route from Baden-Baden along the Freudenstadt that boasts views that stretch to Alsace and the Vosges in France.

There’s village-to-village hiking all over the Black Forest, skiing in winter, and top-quality gastronomy, particularly in and around the village of Baiersbronn, whose restaurants hold several Michelin stars. 

Allow a couple of days for Stuttgart, but a longer stay for the Black Forest, depending on how keen you are to sample its drives, hikes, and namesake cakes. 

Berlin and the Spreewald

Getty Images/Tomas Sereda

The German capital needs little introduction: Home of the Reichstag parliament, the Brandenburg Gate, a clutch of great galleries and museums, and locals with a freewheeling alternative-thinking mindset. Must-sees are the Museum Island, the graffiti art of the East West Gallery on what remains of the Berlin Wall, and, of course, Checkpoint Charlie, where spies and divided families crossed between East and West, right up until 1989. 

Here, the adjacent Documentation Center delves back into Nazism’s impact on daily life, whilst the retro U-Bahn lines that run across the rooftops between Zoologischer Garten (former West) and Alexanderplatz (former East) still have some of the flavor of the Cold War.

You could easily spend a week in Berlin and only scratch the surface, but sooner or later it’s good to escape to somewhere completely different — the Spreewald — just an hour by train southeast. That proximity makes it visitable on a day trip, although to truly absorb the peace of this watery mosaic of channels, lakes, meadows, and forests fed by the river Spree you’ll need to spend at least one night in or around the main town of Lübbenau. 

©DZT/Florian Trykowski

Today, the Spreewald is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and a lot of local commutes are still by boat. It is also the homeland of one of Germany’s most distinctive ethnic minorities, the Sorbs, who have their own schools and traditions.

Visitors come here for both people and landscape — as well as the world-famous Spreewald gherkins, EU-protected pickled cucumbers that are at once sweet, salty, and sour, and one of the Brandenburg state’s biggest exports. Boat rides through the channels are popular, as are cycle routes through woodlands of pine and alder, busy with storks and cranes, and carpeted with buttercups and marsh marigolds.

Flensburg and the beaches of Sylt

©DZT/Francesco Carovillano

The port town of Flensburg sits at the tip of a sheltered inlet from the Baltic, just south of Germany’s border with Denmark. Some of its buildings are painted the typical Scandinavian rusty red, and its narrow cobbled lanes are lined with storybook half-timbered fishermen’s cottages. Amongst its landmarks are the gabled city gate Nordertor, built around 1595, and boutiquey and trendy Rote Strasse, a street popular for shopping and eating. At the harbor, the Flensburger Schifffahrtsmuseum chronicles the town's seafaring past. 

Overall it's an intimate place, worth an overnight stay before moving across the neck of Schleswig-Holstein to a celebrated splat of sand off the other shore.

This is Sylt, a chic, low-slung island retreat that looks on the map like a glider trying to fly toward England. A succession of sandy beaches with exotic names like Samoa and Sansibar run the length of its wingspan, and its main town — Westerland — is connected to the mainland by a causeway bearing a railway track.

©DZT/Dietmar Scherf

The island is gorgeous, boasting atmospheric sand dunes, ancient lighthouses, and reed-thatched cottages that also house designer boutiques.

Villages such as Kampen and Keitum attract a well-heeled crowd who believe that soft sea air is better for the skin than any face creams, and are exhilarating places to spend at least a few days.

Want to experience Germany's rich culture and breathtaking landscapes for yourself? German airline Lufthansa is adding new flights and new cities to its already robust lineup of international destinations. Next spring/summer, for example, new Seattle to Munich, Raleigh-Durham to Frankfurt, and Minneapolis to Frankfurt routes mean more non-stop Lufthansa flights from the U.S. to Germany than ever before.

Andrew Eames is a travel writer and author who runs a website about Germany. His most recent book, “Blue River Black Sea,” traces the course of the Danube from its source in the Black Forest.

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