The word is out and maybe you’ve heard it: Germany is one of Europe’s great travel destinations. Every year, more and more visitors from around the globe are discovering the pleasures to be found in Germany’s cities, towns, and countryside. Tourist numbers have risen steadily in the years since the country’s dramatic reunification in 1989–1990 and show no sign of slowing down.
Germany’s appeal is really no great mystery. Moody forests, jagged Alpine peaks, and miles of neatly tended vineyards are not just scenic but the stuff of legend, places that have inspired fairy tales and where much of Western history has been played out. The Germans more than anyone appreciate the soothing tonic of a hike in the Black Forest or a stroll on North Sea dunes, and just seeing these storied lands from a train window can be good for the soul. The cities are treasure-troves—not just of great art and history but of culture, sophisticated lifestyles, and, from ever-changing Berlin to old-world Baden-Baden, cutting-edge architecture. Food—well, don’t write off the cuisine as just a lot of heaping plates of wurst and sauerkraut and schnitzel with noodles. For one thing, these traditional dishes are delicious, and one of the pleasures of traveling in Germany is discovering time-honored regional favorites.
In 2014, Berlin marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a momentous occasion, full of symbolism and emotion for those who had lived with the gruesome concrete barrier that kept Berlin—and, symbolically, all of Germany—divided for more than 40 years. In the quarter-century-plus since the Wall came tumbling down, Berlin has re-established itself as Germany’s capital and gone through an urban and social transformation that has made it, once again, one of the most exciting cities in Europe (many would say, the most exciting). Superlative museums, grand (and grandiose) monuments, a nightlife that’s both glamorous and gritty, a performing arts scene that has no equal in Germany, fascinating neighborhoods to explore, fabulous parks and green spaces to enjoy, cafes, beer gardens, shopping, elegant restaurants and on-the-go street food—Berlin truly does have something for everyone. And although Berlin is a fast-paced, forward-looking city, it is also a city full of memorials and reminders of its haunted and harrowing Nazi and Communist past. Berlin has seen it all and lived to tell the tale—a tale that makes this city perpetually fascinating and endlessly exciting as it reinvents itself again and again.
No other city in Germany can match Berlin for the sheer number of attractions and diversions it offers. The city is particularly rich in museums (170 of them at last count) and you could build your entire trip around visiting them. But Berlin the living city is fascinating wherever you go, filled with historic monuments, gut-wrenching memorials, picturesque parks and lakes, famous avenues and riverside promenades, and lots of new architecture. In fact, Berlin has more new buildings than any other city in Europe.
Munich (München, pronounced Mewn-shin, in German), the capital of Bavaria, is a town that likes to party. Walk through the Altstadt (Old City) on a sunny day or a balmy evening and you’ll see people sitting outside, in every square, drinking, eating, and enjoying life. And there is a lot of life to enjoy in this attractive city, which seems to epitomize a certain beer-drinking, oom-pah-pah image many people still have of Germany (an image, by the way, that makes most Germans laugh or cringe). The beer and oom-pah-pah is definitely here—you’ll find it at the famous Hofbräuhaus and other beer halls—but suds and songs sung in swaying unison are only one part of Munich. The other part is rich, cultured and sophisticated, with a kind of proud, purring prosperity that supports the arts on a grand scale and appreciates the finer things in life (such as the BMWs that are produced here). In addition to having several world-class museums, it can lay claim to having the richest cultural, gastronomic and retail life in southern Germany. It’s softer and not as gritty as Berlin or Hamburg, at least not in its lovely and lively inner core, where church bells chime and the streets are paved for people, not cars.
Hamburg’s is a tale of two cities…or three, or four. Germany’s second largest city, after Berlin, and Europe’s second-largest port, after Rotterdam, has so many facets that visitors stumble into one fascinating cityscape after another. The copper-roofed tower of old baroque Hauptkirche St. Michael’s rises next to glass and steel office buildings. The port, with its wharfs, cranes, dry docks, and a flotilla of ships coming and going day and night rambles along the banks of the Elbe River as far as the eye can see. A maze of canals laces through the old city, lined with sturdy brick warehouses where Hamburg merchants once stashed carpets, tea, and the other lucre of trade. These days boldly designed high-rise corporate headquarters—Hamburg is a media capital and industrial center—are the powerhouses of wealth and influence. Elegant 19th-century facades along the shores of the Alster, the shimmering lake at Hamburg’s center, and Jugenstil (art nouveau) villas scream bourgeois comforts; smart-phone-toting Armani clad execs carry on the legacy of well-fed Middle Age burghers who made fortunes after Frederich Barbarossa declared the city a free port in 1193. Then there’s Hamburg’s underbelly—the infamous Reeperbahn, the sleazy avenue where “Hiya sailor” is the anthem of easy virtue. The stag partiers and other denizens of the night who dip into this slice of lowlife are onto something—Hamburg might be business-minded, even stuffy in places, but it can also be a lot of fun, whatever your notion of a good time is. That might also mean gazing at an Expressionist canvas in the Kunsthalle, or watching Hamburgers haggle over the price of cod at the Fischmarkt, or cruising past architectural stunners in HafenCity, a brand new waterfront quarter. As you get to know Hamburg, you will be surprised at just how easy it is to succumb to this city’s charms and how many there are.
As with just about every city in Germany, you have to figure World War II into the equation of modern-day Frankfurt-am-Main. After major destruction in World War II, Frankfurt was rebuilt in a way that salvaged a small portion of its once-extensive Altstadt (Old Town), but otherwise turned, in architectural terms, to the future instead of the past. Visitors looking for a romantic or atmospheric piece of Old Germany will not find it in this fast-paced and cosmopolitan metropolis. Instead, Frankfurt is a city representative of modern, business-oriented Germany. It has been a major banking city since the Rothschilds opened their first bank here more than 200 years ago and has long been the financial center not only of Germany but also of the entire European Union, home of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, and the Central Bank of the EU. More banks maintain headquarters here than anywhere else in German city, a fact that helps account for all those designer skyscrapers (including the Commerzbank Tower, once the tallest building in western Europe) with their somewhat bland and anonymous corporate facades. The huge € sign that stands on Willy-Brandt-Platz in front of the opera house can be regarded as the city’s logo. Visitors will find several excellent museums in Frankfurt, but if your time in Germany is limited, you may want to hop on a fast train right below the airport and head to Cologne instead.
It’s difficult not to like Cologne. Visitors to this lively metropolis on the Rhine, Germany’s fourth-largest and oldest city, are immediately struck by Cologne’s cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of the very old with the very new. You can see Roman ruins in an underground parking garage, a dizzyingly ornate Gothic cathedral beside a modern museum complex, and a humble Romanesque church wedged in among luxury shops. On a 10-minute walk in Cologne, you can traverse 2,000 years of history.
Cologne—spelled Köln in Germany and pronounced koeln—offers far more than Germany’s largest cathedral, although that is spectacular and reason enough to visit. The range of Cologne’s museums and the quality of their collections make Cologne one of the outstanding museum cities of Germany. Music, whether it’s a symphony concert in the modern philharmonic hall, an opera at the highly regarded opera house, or a boisterous outdoor concert in the Rheinpark, is likewise a vital component of life here. The city also is famous as the birthplace of eau de Cologne.