For decades, Germany suffered an undeserved reputation as Europe’s rather workmanlike, dour tourist destination, repeatedly overlooked in favor of the more alluring France and Italy. Following unification, however, the country has reminded those visitors who do take the plunge that it is a charming, diverse nation of 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, stunning natural scenery and hip, energetic cities. Fittingly, the nation that gave the world Romanticism has revealed that beneath the exterior of efficiency and economic success, there lurks a warm heart.
Neuschwanstein Castle was named number one out of 100 attractions by the German National Tourist Board. The ultimate fairytale castle, perched on a hillside in Bavaria, was built for Ludwig II, who then died a few days after it was finished in 1886.
Aachen Cathedral on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands was the first cathedral in northern Europe and the place where German kings were crowned. Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO site that dates back to 1248, is one of the best examples of high-Gothic architecture in Europe.
With its magnificent façade, Würzburg Residence Palace in southern Germany is a masterpiece of baroque opulence, while Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, dubbed the German Versailles, was a former residence of Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great.
Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is an iconic symbol of German imperial power. Built between 1788 and 1791, the monument was impassable for 28 years, 1961 to 1989, during the existence of the Berlin Wall. With its six columns and crowned by a quadriga, or chariot drawn by four horses, which bears the Roman goddess Victoria, the monument is one of unified Germany’s most potent symbols.
The Berlin Wall, or what remains of it, divided the city from 1961 until its dramatic breach in 1989. Although President Reagan famously implored President Gorbachov to “tear down this wall,” the task fell to enterprising businessmen who sold parts of it to tourists. Little remains, but a Berlin Wall Trail follows the original wall and tells its story.
The Rhine is an almost mythical natural feature, best viewed from the UNESCO heritage site at Loreley Rock, a 636-foot-high granite outcropping overlooking the narrows at St. Goarshausen. The so-called “Romantic Rhine,” on the other hand, runs between the steep hillside vineyards between Koblenz and Bingen.
The Black Forest covers 2,876 square miles and is one of the largest nature reserves in Germany. Noted for its pine trees, maids, farms, gateaux and cuckoo clocks, the forest covers Germany’s highest hills and the medieval towns of Baden-Baden and Freiburg.
Oktoberfest in Munich is an event rather than an attraction, drawing a staggering (literally) 6 million visitors a year, but the Hofbräuhaus beer hall where the steins go down is as authentically Bavarian as lederhosen and a beer belly. The largest beer hall in the world, the structure can cope with 30,000 drinkers a day.
The holiday resort of Lake Constance, with shores in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, includes the Flower Island of Mainau and the monastic Island of Reichenau. The former is a temperate climate paradise of gardens and parkland, while the latter, a UNESCO site, is a haven of Romanesque churches and contemplation.
In a country obsessed with soccer, the Allianz Arena is home to Germany’s most successful team, Bayern Munich. The pulsing, illuminated stadium is an architectural marvel in itself, courtesy of Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron.