Autumn is always a great time to escape to the Continent, but with so many countries cut off by Covid now is the ideal time to explore Germany. It’s easy to get there, easy to get around, and virtually everything is open.
I’ve just got back (my first visit to Germany since lockdown) and I was impressed by how well they’re coping. Lots of places check your temperature (which I find especially reassuring) and so long as you wear a mask indoors there’s not much you can’t do. The bars and cafes are a bit quieter than usual but for visitors that’s no bad thing, and the streets are full of life.
I’ve been to Germany more times than I can count, and each time I go there I discover something new. From windswept beaches in the north to Alpine peaks in the south, the landscape is stunning, and the big cities boast some of the finest museums and galleries in Europe. Sure, it’s got a few rough edges, but for me that’s all part of what makes it so invigorating. Whether you’re into high culture or the great outdoors, you’re sure to find it here.
Admittedly, I’m a bit biased – my father’s family are German - but I’ve been reporting from Germany for 30 years, and it wasn’t always so user-friendly. The mighty Deutschmark made it pretty pricey, the older generation could be pretty grumpy, and travelling to East Germany was a headache. Now the Euro has made holidaying here more affordable, modern Germans are more laid back and travelling around Eastern Germany is a pleasure.
So where to go? Well, here are a few of my favourite destinations, places I’m sure you’ll like, but along the way you’re bound to find plenty of your own. Some of my best times have been way off the tourist trail, in small towns I’ve been passing through on the way to somewhere else. I thought my latest visit would feel very different but actually it seemed much the same. I felt safe and I had lots of fun. I’m going back again next week. I can’t wait.
The Black Forest
If you’ve never been to Germany, the Black Forest is the perfect place to start, a land of dense dark forests which inspired the spooky fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Its wooded hills are intensely atmospheric, and there’s a wide range of walking trails, suitable for all ages and abilities. Serious hikers love it here, but even if you’re only moderately fit it’s still a wonderful place to wander. The region is littered with quaint villages, where you can rest up after a hard day’s hiking and refuel with a well-earned slice of the world’s best Black Forest gateaux. Brugger’s by the Titisee (www.hotel-brugger.de) is a convenient base, a homely lakeside hotel with lovely views across the water. There are woods and trails all around and bustling Freiburg (one of the most attractive cities in Germany) is only 40 minutes away by train.
A frontier and a thoroughfare, the mighty Rhine is one of Germany’s most popular holiday destinations, but what makes it so thrilling is that it’s still a working river. Huge barges chug past, en route to Switzerland and the Netherlands. A battlefield throughout the Middle Ages, its steep banks are littered with ruined castles. You can see why this majestic river inspired Wagner’s operas, why so many legends originated here. Cologne, Bonn and Düsseldorf are all well worth seeing (don’t miss the cathedral in Cologne, Beethoven’s House in Bonn and the modern art museums in Düsseldorf) but the best stretch is between Koblenz and Mainz and the best way to see it is from the water. There are lots of excellent cruise companies to choose from. I had a super trip with Noble Caledonia (www.noble-caledonia.co.uk).
Munich and the Bavarian Alps
Loads of tourists go to Munich for the Oktoberfest (sadly cancelled this year, because of Covid) but most of them rarely stray beyond the city limits. More fool them. Munich is a splendid city, full of parks and palaces and biergartens, but it’s also the gateway to the Bavarian Alps. Two of Bavaria’s prettiest lakes, Amersee and Starnbergersee, are both an easy day trip from the city centre, and a bit further south are the romantic castles built by ‘Mad’ King Ludwig, who ruled Bavaria in the 19th Century. A tour around all four of them makes a fantastic road trip (the Bavarian tourist office, www.bavaria.by, has all the details). Neuschwanstein, which inspired Disneyland, is the most famous, but I prefer Linderhof, his eccentric tribute to the ‘Sun King,’ Louis XIV.
The Baltic Coast
Germany’s Baltic Coast was always popular with East Germans, but for 40 years it was stuck behind the Iron Curtain so hardly anyone else ever went there. It’s still several hours by car or train from the nearest airport (Hamburg or Berlin) but its sandy beaches are well worth the trek. Summers here are short and hot. Winters are cold and clear. If you like bracing walks across windblown dunes, it’s magical at any time of year. Rügen (Germany’s biggest island) is the hotspot, but there are some super resorts all along this rugged shoreline. Heiligendamm is beautiful, a palatial seaside resort built at the end of the 18th Century. Kühlungsborn is more down to earth, ideal for families and oldies – Ostseehotel Travel Charme (www.travelcharme.com), right on the seafront, is one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed.
Berlin and Potsdam
Devastated, ravaged, divided and reunited, Berlin is a metropolis like no other, the crossroads of the 20th Century, the place where east and west collide. There’s loads to see and do (start with a walk along the zigzag route of the Berlin Wall) and if you’re anxious about staying in a big city during these tricky times, check out the hotels on www.boutiquehotels.berlin. Their Clean & Safe policy should give you extra peace of mind. Berlin is also the gateway to Brandenburg, the rump of Bismarck’s Prussian empire. The highlight is Potsdam, Frederick the Great’s answer to Versailles, only half an hour by train from Berlin. The ornate palaces are spectacular, the gardens are sublime, and the surrounding countryside is full of history. Hire a bike and cycle to Cecilienhof, where Churchill met Stalin, Babelsberg (where Polanski shot The Pianist) and Glienicke Brücke (the Bridge of Spies in the Spielberg film).
Dresden and Meissen
Destroyed in 1945 and then marooned behind the Iron Curtain, Dresden is now enjoying an extraordinary renaissance. The city’s baroque Altstadt has been exquisitely restored. The Saxon capital contains one of the world’s finest collections of Renaissance art, and the intricate gallery in which it’s housed, the Zwinger, is an artwork in its own right. Stay at the four star Bülow Residenz (www.buelow-residenz.com), a renovated mansion in the neoclassical Neustadt or, if you’re feeling really flush, in the five-star Taschenbergpalais (www.kempinski.com), the flamboyant palace where Dresden’s randy ruler, Augustus The Strong, housed his favourite mistress. The best excursions are by steam train to Moritzburg, by paddle steamer to Pillnitz, or by boat or train to Meissen, 20 miles away along the River Elbe. Visit the factory where they make the eponymous porcelain, or hunt for cheap seconds in the antique shops in the cobbled streets around the castle.
For more information, visit www.germany.travel