Like many people, before my first river cruise I was a little hesitant about the experience. I wasn’t sure if it was the right option for me, a fiercely independent traveler. Several years and cruises with Viking River later, I look back and can’t believe I ever feel that way. I love the freedom and convenience of river cruises, along with the comfort and ease they provide. While there are many places around Europe touched by the river cruise phenomenon, for many cruisers Germany plays a feature role in their river experiences. Thanks to its location in the heart of Europe, its size and the number of rivers that cross it, Germany is the perfect river cruise destination. Since I’ve sailed around the country a few times now, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite stops in one of my favorite countries and I hope in the process that you’ll be inspired to undertake your own river-based explorations.
Located in Lower Bavaria, Passau 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 a year-round snack, but of course takes on special significance around the holidays.
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 my first visit. 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.
A very popular river cruise stop, 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.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
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.
Home to what is arguably the most famous Christmas market in the world, it’s also one of the busiest with more than 2 million people visiting every year. What makes this market so special is the keen attention to detail. Officials forbid any modern items to be sold – all crafts and even foods must be traditional. Thanks to those rules, the Nuremberg Christmas Market is the prototypical Christmas market against which all others are judged. Although it was packed with people when I visited, I still had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the famous Nuremberg sausage sandwiches along with a glass of glühwein to wash it down. One of the most popular desserts and gifts is the city’s Lebkuchen or gingerbread, available in all shapes and sizes. While not as intimate as some other Christmas markets, a visit to the massive one in Nuremberg should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
My partner is a transportation aficionado, so whenever we’re in a city with a transportation museum, we almost invariably pay a visit. Luckily I’m just as interested in the history of transportation, from trains to planes, and was thrilled when I discovered what is the best transpiration museum I’ve ever visited, tucked away in the small town of Speyer. Incorporating areas both inside and out, this massive complex would take an entire day to see fully and includes more than 2,000 exhibits. The star for me was the outside exhibition featuring a variety of aircraft from the early commercial planes to much more recent technological marvels. More than just looking at them though, the Speyer Transportation Museum is unique in that guests can feel and touch many of the exhibits. Lufthansa donated a Boeing 747-200, which visitors can explore inside and out, even walking out on the wing. I enjoyed seeing all of Speyer, but for me the unsung hero really is this expertly curated museum.
Of Heidelberg, Mark Twain once wrote, “A ruin must be rightly situated to be effective. This one could not have been better placed.” Just as these famous castle ruins were important in Twain’s day, they’re still at the heart of the tourist experience in Heidelberg today and with good reason. Perched high on top of a mountain overlooking the city itself, the castle is a massive complex that was at the center of regional politics and intrigue. Expanded over the centuries and at one time a royal residence, Heidelberg Castle was destroyed in the 17th century and has been in ruin ever since. It’s a curious example of a ruined building being so popular, but its size and amazing views of the valley below ensure that this is a must-visit site for anyone passing through the bustling university town.
Germany’s oldest city, Trier has been settled since Roman times. That, along with many other reasons make this a fun place to visit any time of year but Trier takes Christmas seriously. The main market is located in the middle of Trier’s medieval center, a colorful square that I imagine must be beautiful year-round, but at Christmas it makes for the perfect festival backdrop. Spilling over into the square near the cathedral, the colorful market features a large Christmas Pyramid, dozens of food and drink stalls and naturally plenty of potential-gifts for purchase. One drink in particular is famous in Trier, a sour apple cider that when warmed is the perfect antidote to a chilly December’s afternoon. Trier is also where I discovered flammkuchen, which is common throughout Germany but which actually started along the Moselle River near Trier. The two together aren’t just delicious, but a nice way to get to know the city a little better.
Immediately I knew that another visit to Wurzburg would be necessary, but that didn’t mean I failed to make the most of my nighttime visit. A large city of more than 125,000 people, there’s a lot to love about Wurzburg, from the UNESCO recognized palace to the beautiful churches and vibrant student culture. There’s so much more to love about the city though than a single UNESCO World Heritage Site and hours could be spent meandering around the town, peeking around corners to discover what other surprises lie in wait. If you’re there in December, then in you’re for a special treat with one of the largest and best Christmas Markets I’ve experienced calling Wurzburg home.
Maybe it was the bright sunshiny day, or maybe it was the city’s famous smoked beer, but whatever did it, I totally and completely fell in love with Bamberg. It probably sounds repetitive, but Bamberg too has an ancient history, and it too is recognized by UNESCO for its beauty and incredibly intact medieval old town. It’s also so colorful, much more so than I would have thought and with picture-perfect views along the river it was an afternoon I know I’ll never forget. The city’s Christmas markets of course only add to this festive feeling, from smaller ones around town to the massive central Christmas market in Maximiliansplatz.