As soon as I first learned about the German Fairy Tale driving route, I knew it was something I had to try for myself. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015, this 370-mile route starts in Hanau and ends in Bremen, featuring the cities, natural landscapes and landmarks that both celebrate the Brothers Grimm as well as inspired them. I think it’s this intertwining of history, culture and exploration that interested me the most. In the collection of great drives around the world it’s a fairly unique combination, highlighting much of what makes Germany so uniquely fun to explore. It’s also a very long route with lots to see and do along the way and since I didn’t feel like burdening you all with a 5,000 word essay detailing the intricacies of the drive, I thought instead I would share some of the important moments along the way, in addition to what it’s really like to drive this long stretch of winding road through Germany.
Learn to appreciate the drive itself
I’ve done a lot of road trips in my life and lately it’s been my preferred mode of travel. There’s nothing quite so liberating as having a car at your disposal and the open road waiting to be explored. It’s an exciting way to travel, beholden to no one else’s schedule, not dependent on planes or trains instead your own intuition and curiosity are firmly in charge. But it takes a little getting used to, especially the many hours spent in the car, with nothing to occupy your time except your own thoughts. Aside from having my road trip playlist, this solitude is one reason why I enjoy road trips in places where the stops are frequent and the sights plentiful. The German Fairy Tale Route fulfills both of those needs and while I made many stops during my week of driving, I could have made even more. There’s a lot to see and do along this route, much more than I had time to fully explore. In addition to those stops though, I really enjoyed seeing the more rural areas of Germany. Farms and small communities tucked away and isolated, a far cry from the large cities I normally visit. When you plan your own trip, the best thing to do is to take out an old-fashioned map and identify those towns and sights that mean the most to you, and then plan your drive accordingly. But definitely plan for at least a week, preferably more, to really do justice to this fun drive.
Small towns and castles
One of the best parts of driving the German Fairy Tale Route are the many small towns and communities where the spirit of the Brothers Grimm is alive and well. These towns are important stops along the drive, but aside from their Grimm connections they’re also lovely towns to explore in their own right. The German Fairy Tale Route also closely mirrors another great German drive, the Half-Timbered Houses Route. That means that many of the towns you visit all have that classic, gingerbread house look that many of us associate with traditional Germany and add color and interest to an already great driving experience.
One of my favorite small towns along the route is Alsfeld, one of the region’s most important medieval cities. It’s a town where I think everyone should spend at least a few hours exploring, admiring not only the architecture but the great spirit still found around town today. This is also Little Red Riding Hood country, her clothes likely influenced by the unique regional traditional dress some women still wear today. Be sure to enjoy lunch at the local favorite Gasthaus Kartoffelsack, where the potato is glorified in every possible way and manner of preparation.
Castles are also easy to find not only along the Fairy Tale Route, but throughout Germany really. My favorite one to explore is the so-called Rapunzel Castle, otherwise known as Trendelburg Castle. Today a restaurant and hotel, the central high tower may have served as the inspiration for the original fairy tale, or not. Regardless of the truth of the legend, the castle is beautifully restored and sits in a region so uniquely picturesque, that it looks as if it leapt off the pages of those fairy tales we all know and love. It was one of my favorite stops along the way and a fun one too.
Just as important as small communities are to the German Fairy Tale Route, so are the natural elements found in every Brothers Grimm story. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected their stories, but they added their own elements to them as well, usually drawing inspiration from areas with which they were already familiar. When it came time to illustrate these tales, those artists also were inspired by what they knew, namely the regions where they lived. What that means for us is that many of the fixtures important in the fairy tales are real life places you can see, touch and experience. It really is like living in a fairy tale and is a special part of the experience along the German Fairy Tale Route. Some of the most iconic natural retreats featured in the stories are the beautiful forests and ponds near the small town of Hess. Lichtenau – the birthplace of the popular Frau Holle story. While not very well known in the English-speaking world, the story of Frau Holle is arguably one of the most important fairy tales within Germany itself. It’s also a very old tale, taking inspiration from pagan mythology and even the oldest worship of the Mother goddess that was common amongst the original Europeans thousands of years ago. Perhaps that’s why the outdoor elements are so critical to the story, and you can visit them in the forests of the High Meissner Mountain, where the pond of Frau Holle is still honored even today. Long believed to be the source of the tale, evidence has been found of ancient ceremonies taking place here, celebrating the new seasons and the bounty of the earth. It’s an important connection to our earliest ancestors and a fascinating continuation of millennia of thought and belief.
Great hotels and food
Of course, if you’re going to spend a week or more driving the long route, where you spend the night and the cuisine you experience are just as important as those castles and forests. Since the route goes through small communities, some of the accommodations are smaller, but that doesn’t mean they lack in amenities. My first night I stayed in a 400-year old half-timbered building in the middle of the very small town of Steinau. While it wasn’t the Ritz, it was a wonderful experience because it brought me into the middle of life in this small town. I felt as if I was a part of the community, and staying in my own gingerbread house was the perfect first introduction to the driving route. There are also several castle-hotels along the way if you really want to feel like you’re a character in a fairy tale, all ancient buildings that have been lovingly converted into modern hotels. Sababurg near Kassel and the Schlosshotel Münchhausen near Hameln are fantastic, but so is the mysterious Castle Berlepsch in Witzenhausen. This imposing castle has been in the same family for 19 generations spanning over 700 years and today it’s open to guests. While there are only two suites available at any one time, this was one of the most relaxing and interesting experiences during my time driving through Germany.
Food naturally is at the heart of any travel experience in Germany, no matter where in the country you are. Along the way from Steinau to Bremen, I noticed a lot of familiar meals, from the southern inspired schnitzel to more modern cuisine prepared with care and finesse. It was in Bremen though where I was introduced to a regional classic that while heavy, was also tasty – knipp. Like most local delicacies, knipp has very humble beginnings, a way to use leftover meats from other meals. Over time, this concoction made of an assortment of meats, oats, seasonings and other bits has turned into a wintertime tradition in Bremen, usually served with applesauce, potatoes, pickles and of course bread.
The German Fairy Tale Route isn’t all cute small towns and castles though, several larger cities figure prominently in the story of the Brothers Grimm, most notably Kassel. It was actually my visit to Kassel in 2015 that inspired my 2016 drive, and I returned there again to see the newest addition to the city, the Brothers Grimm World. This large interactive museum shares the story of the Brothers Grimm, their lives and their impressive body of work in as modern a way as I’ve ever seen. Also presented are those famous fairy tales, although in ways you’ve never before seen. Aside from the Grimm heritage, Kassel itself has a lot to offer and is a fun city to explore. Hameln, while not huge, is another one of the larger cities on the route. Of course we all know it best for the Pied Piper, which was based on a real event, but I was immediately impressed by the city itself. Lively and colorful, it’s a city where I could spend several days, just enjoying the experience of being there and learning more about its impressive history. By far the largest city on the driving route though is the Hanseatic city of Bremen. Always an important place for trade and shipping, that legacy is alive and well today and the city honestly needs several days to see and explore everything it has to offer. Aside from the associated fairy tale, it’s also home to a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site, the gorgeous town hall and nearby statue of Roland. My favorite moment in the city though was enjoying a leisurely dinner along the river where dozens of biergartens had sprung up to take advantage of the warm summer days. It was a perfect way to finish my long drive and a great meal as well.
While the German Fairy Tale Route is a tourism construct, it serves a very real and tangible purpose. It introduces visitors to the beautiful legacy of those classic tales, the very real places throughout Germany that inspired some of the most important and well-known stories in the world. We all want to escape a little when we travel, pretend we’re someone else in a land far and away and here, on this drive it’s possible in a way that’s hard to find. It’s also just a lot of fun, following your nose as you explore small little pockets of the country and figuring out for yourself what your own personal version of the German Fairy Tale Route looks like. There’s nothing better than a great road trip and without a doubt, the German Fairy Tale Route is one of the best in the world.