Germany is a deceptively large country. I don’t mean just in terms of its geographic boundaries, but just how very much is packed inside of those borders. A lifetime could be spent exploring the cities, towns and hamlets of Germany without repeating yourself or getting bored. So for the casual tourist it can be a daunting challenge to figure out where to go and what to see when visiting this great European country. While I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of traveling around the country, I did want to share a few towns that aren’t just great places to visit, but which are not to miss German cities.
Passau sits on three rivers, including the Danube, which is how I found myself there. It was a stop on the Viking River Christmas market cruise I took and quickly became a favorite port of call. Located in Lower Bavaria, the city is known for its university and student life; in fact about a fifth of the town’s 50,000 residents are students. But it’s as far away from being a traditional college town as you can get. Beautiful alleyways and side streets, they all seem to lead up away from the river. And with good reason, the Danube has caused serious flooding in the city over the centuries including in 2013, one of the worst Passau has ever seen. Passau is also easy to reach if you’re not taking a river cruise, especially by train and many folks include the town in their explorations of Bavaria. I loved just wandering through the maze of streets that comprise the old town; wandering from one place to the next. But I also loved learning more about one of the city’s proudest traditions – gingerbread. Well, we call it gingerbread but a great German Lebkuchen is unlike anything I’ve tasted before, made from a variety of different ingredients including honey, spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, or candied fruit. It’s delicious and an important part of the Christmas holidays in Passau. You can find some of the best in the country at Café Simon, whose bakers have been creating these yuletide treats for generations.
More than once I caught myself wondering why more people don’t know about this town not too far from the Swiss border and maybe they do, but I certainly didn’t know a lot about it before I showed up on an early summer day. Like many who have visited before me, I began to fall in love with the city and by the time I left, it had quickly risen in the ranks of one of my favorite towns anywhere in the world, not just Germany. So what makes it so great? A lot of things actually, but as any German will tell you, Freiburg is best known for its warm and sunny weather – the best in the country. One of its most famous features are the small canals that run through the old town. The Freiburg Bächle were once common sights in many European cities during the Middle Ages, but only a few are left and Freiburg has one of the most complete systems in the world. They were originally used to fight fires, provide water and to cool off the city in those famously warm summers. Today of course they’re just for show, a pretty reminder of the past and a feature that locals and tourists alike have come to love.
Also a stop on the Christmas Market cruise I took, Regensburg impressed me almost immediately with the brightly colored homes and businesses that line the river and dot the old historic core. While people have lived along the banks of the Danube here since well before the last Ice Age, it wasn’t until Medieval times and the construction of a stone bridge linking Europe with the east that the town really came into its own. That was 1,000 years ago and the bridge is still there, ushering in visitors and locals alike. And it’s thanks to that bridge that one of the city’s oldest businesses came about, and is still there today making some of the best sausages in Germany. Every German city prides itself on their sausages, but in Regensburg they really are something special. When that old stone bridge I mentioned opened and the influx of people started to trickle into town, small businesses erupted around it, including an old sausage shop that has been serving delicious Regensburg sausages for as long as the bridge itself has been around. The kitchen is still in operation today and the only item on the menu are those famous sausages, smaller than you might expect and served three to a bun along with the shop’s special sweet mustard. There’s nothing better than chowing down on these hot, delicious bites on a cold winter’s day, just like folks have been doing for an astonishing 900 years.
Located a short train ride from the bustling city of Stuttgart is a smaller, quieter place – Esslingen. There are a few towns and cities in Germany that managed to escape the ravages of war for one reason or another, that allow us to see what life was really like in the Middle Ages, and Esslingen is one of the best examples of a very well-preserved medieval city you’ll find anywhere in Europe. A major reason why many people visit this small town is due to its architecture. Esslingen is home to more than 200 half-timbered houses, the classic German design that many of us consider to define the architecture of the country. The oldest inhabited house in Germany as well as the oldest neighborhood can both be found in Esslingen, the bright colors and intricate design still showing off the wealth of its owners. While originally used thanks to its practicality, the half-timbered house in Germany is now considered to be an important part of German traditional heritage and luckily they have been preserved not only in Esslingen, but around the country. Of course there’s a lot more to do and see in this near-perfect community, and no matter what your interests I think everyone will enjoy spending a few days in this classic German town.
If you want to walk through the set of a fairy tale, then this is the city for you. Spared total destruction during WWII, much of the original Medieval town, walls and ramparts are still intact and along with the incredible brightly colored buildings found everywhere, Rothenburg really is a fantastical place. Walking into town it all seemed a little too unbelievable. It all looked too good, too colorful and too much like a scene out of a Disney movie. But that’s why so many people visit, to wander these streets and to admire not just the distinctive architecture, but to discover what life was like hundreds of years ago and to learn more about the fascinating history of the region. The best place for me to start was at the top of the City Hall tower. It takes 241 steps to reach the summit of the 165-foot 13th century tower in the middle of town, but the views are well worth climbing those steep stairs. Bird’s eye view doesn’t do it justice, I felt like I was in a glider soaring high above the town. It’s the perfect vantage point to not just see and enjoy the city views, but to see the nearby countryside and understand the placement of the city walls, gates and towers. For a different point of view, also be sure to take one of the night tours that shares aspects of the city you won’t find during the day.
These are just a few of the many cities, towns and villages in Germany that I love to visit and I’m sure as I see and do more in the country, this list will continue to grow. But more than anything, I wanted to share some places that may not be known to many travelers outside of Germany and to encourage you all to add them to your own personal travel bucket lists.
What are some other great towns in Germany?