History, culture, and natural beauty perhaps best describe the essence of vacationing in Germany. With its historic cities and small towns, along with an abundance of forests and mountains, visitors are spoiled for choice. Those wanting to sightsee or experience the arts should head to the metropolitan areas, while those looking to engage in recreational activities should visit places such as the Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest, or the Mosel Valley. Lovely old cathedrals and grand palaces are everywhere, and in the smaller towns and villages, many centuries-old traditions continue. At the cultural heart of Germany is the capital, Berlin, home to many fine museums and galleries, while nature lovers will find a world of possibilities in Germany's great outdoors.
1 Editor's Pick Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Modeled on the Acropolis in Athens and built for King Frederick William II in 1791, the monumental sandstone Brandenburg Gate in Berlin's Mitte district was the city's first Neoclassical structure. Measuring an impressive 26-meters in height - including the spectacular four-horse chariot perched atop - its six huge columns on each side of the structure form five impressive passages: four were used by regular traffic, while the center was reserved for the royal carriages. Huge Doric columns also decorate the two buildings at each side of the Gate, once used by toll-collectors and guards. Undoubtedly Berlin's most iconic structure, it was also once part of the infamous Berlin Wall and for a few decades was symbolic of the division of Berlin into East and West.
2 Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)
The towering Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Mary, Kölner Dom, on the banks of the Rhine is Cologne's most impressive landmark. This masterpiece of High Gothic architecture, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, was begun in 1248 and was the most ambitious building project of the Middle Ages. As imposing as its façade, its magnificent interior covers an area of 6,166 square meters and boasts 56 huge pillars. Above the high altar is the Reliquary of the Three Kings, a 12th-century work of art in gold designed by Nicholas of Verdun to house the relics of the Three Kings brought here from Milan. Other highlights include the panoramic views from the South Towers, the 12th- and 13th-century stained glass in the Three Kings Chapel, and the Treasury with its many precious objects.
3 The Black Forest
4 The Ultimate Fairytale Castle: Neuschwanstein
The old town of Füssen, between the Ammergau and Allgäu Alps, a popular alpine resort and winter sports center, is a good base from which to explore nearby Neuschwanstein Castle, one of Europe's most famous royal castles. From 1869-86, King Ludwig II of Bavaria built this many-towered and battlement-covered fantasy fortress - the inspiration for Walt Disney's famous theme park castles. A variety of tour options are offered, including guided tours of the sumptuous interior taking in the Throne Room, the Singers' Hall, and some of the country's most spectacular views.
5 Miniatur Wunderland and the Historic Port of Hamburg
In the heart of the historic Port of Hamburg, the magnificent Miniatur Wunderland, the world's largest model railway, is an attraction that appeals equally to young and old alike. Boasting more than 12,000 meters of track, this massive scale model includes sections dedicated to the USA and Scandinavia (as well as Hamburg) and incorporates 890 trains, more than 300,000 lights and in excess of 200,000 human figures. It's not unheard of for guests to spend many hours exploring this fascinating world with its remarkably detailed miniature airports (and planes that actually take off!), crowded cities, quaint rural scenes, and bustling harbors. Speaking of harbors, be sure to explore the vast Port of Hamburg while you're there. Covering 100 square kilometers, this huge tidal harbor known as the Gateway to Germany is best explored by boat. Afterwards, visit the harborside promenade, a lovely pedestrian route, and the Warehouse District with its continuous lines of tall brick-built warehouses.
6 The Rhine Valley
The Rhine is Europe's most important waterway, and its most beautiful. With a total length of 1,320 kilometers, this magnificent river stretches from Switzerland through Germany all the way to the Netherlands. While there are many places in Germany to enjoy this majestic river, the lovely Upper Middle Rhine Valley section is probably the best place to see it. Here, this often-dramatic 65-kilometer stretch of river boasts more than 40 castles and some 60 picturesque medieval towns all just waiting to be explored either by river cruise or by car. Bingen, where the river cuts through a deep gorge before entering the Bacharach valley, is a good place to start .
7 Museum Island in Berlin
World-famous Museumsinsel, or Museum Island, lies between the River Spree and the Kupfergraben - a 400-meter-long canal off the river - and includes many of Berlin's oldest and most important museums. The heart of this pedestrian-friendly district is the Old Museum, constructed in 1830 as a place to exhibit the royal treasures. Soon after, the land behind the museum was set aside for art and the "knowledge of antiquity." Between 1843-55 the New Museum took shape, and the National Gallery was added in 1876, along with the Bode Museum, built in 1904 and home to collections of antiquities. Another highlight of a walking tour of these spectacular museums is the Pergamon with its recreated historic buildings from the Middle East. But be warned: there's so much to see among these amazing museums that you can't possibly cram it all into a single day.
8 Bamberg and the Bürgerstadt
In the valley of the Regnitz where the river divides into two arms, Bamberg, the old imperial city and the most important town in Upper Franconia, is one of the best preserved of Germany's many charming old towns. Its old episcopal quarter is home to the 13th-century cathedral and the old Benedictine abbey of Michaelsberg. It's between the two river branches that you'll find spectacular Bürgerstadt, a small borough of Bamberg that contains the Grüner Markt, an excellent pedestrian zone that's home to the 17th-century Baroque church of St. Martin and, to the north, the New Town Hall, or Neues Rathaus, built in 1736. Perhaps the town's most important structure, however, is the Old Town Hall, built on top of the Obere Brücke (Upper Bridge).
9 Zugspitze Massif
Part of the Wetterstein mountain range, the Zugspitze massif straddles the frontier between Germany and Austria and is surrounded by steep valleys. The eastern summit, at 2,962 meters, is crowned by a gilded cross and can be reached by the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn, a cog railway, or by cable car. Another great way to enjoy this area of outstanding natural beauty is aboard the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn, a railway that runs to the Zugspitzkamm station at 2,805 meters. From here, the journey can be continued via a cable car to Zugspitz-Westgipfel Station at 2,950 meters with its excellent panoramic restaurant. A highlight of the journey is the chance to walk through an 800-meter-long tunnel, complete with viewing windows, to the Schneefernerhaus station at the top of the Bavarian cog railroad, from where you can ascend the eastern summit with its viewing platforms.
10 The Island of Rügen
Rügen is the largest and most beautiful of the German Baltic islands, separated from the mainland by the Strelasund and linked to the mainland town of Stralsund by a causeway. The island's beauty stems from its diversity of landscape, including everything from flat farmland and forest-covered hills to expansive sandy beaches, lagoons, and lovely peninsulas. Highlights of a visit include the Jasmund Peninsula, reaching heights of 161 meters, and the beautiful Stubnitz beech forests, which come to a dramatic end on the Königsstuhl where a sheer chalk cliff plunges down to the sea from a height of 117 meters. Another must see is the little old resort town of Putbus, seat of the Princes of Putbus and with numerous Neoclassical buildings and parks.
11 Königssee (King's Lake)
This lovely Bavarian lake is one of the great beauty spots of the region known as Berchtesgadener Land. Also known as the King's Lake, this area near Salzburg is a walker's paradise. One of the most popular routes is the attractive footpath along the east side of the Königssee to the Malerwinkel, or Painters' Corner, with its superb views of the lake and the mountains. Another equally attractive sightseeing option is a boat trip to the 17th-century Pilgrimage Chapel of St. Bartholomew at the south end of the lake, and to walk from there to the Obersee. Berchtesgaden, at the end of the Deutsche Alpenstrasse, is perhaps the best-known tourist town and one of the most popular mountain resorts in the Bavarian Alps.
12 Rothenburg ob der Tauber
The old Franconian imperial city of Rothenburg, one of the most attractive places on Germany's famous Romantic Road tourist route, lies on the steep banks of the picturesque River Tauber. With its walls and towers untouched since the Thirty Years War of 1618, this completely preserved picture-perfect medieval town offers endless charm. Individual buildings of note include the imposing 13th-century Town Hall (Rathaus); the wonderful Ratstrinkstube, or Council Tavern, built in 1466 with its interesting clock; St.-Georgs-Brunnen fountain, built in 1608 near the end of Herrngasse; St. James's Church with its fine high altar dating from 1466; and the Imperial City Museum. Simply walking the old streets past these beautiful buildings is a timeless experience, especially if it involves the Plönlein, one of the town's most picturesque spots.
13 Sanssouci Park and Palace, Potsdam
14 Insel Mainau: the Flower Island of Lake Constance
Insel Mainau, the spectacular Flower Island on beautiful Lake Constance, covers an area of 110 acres and attracts many visitors with its beautiful parks and gardens, luxuriant with semitropical and tropical vegetation. Access to the island is by boat, or via a pedestrian bridge connecting it to the mainland, so be sure to allow a little extra travel time in addition to the two or more hours needed to properly explore this stunning property. Another highlight is the 18th-century Schloss, notable for its lovely White Hall, the old defensive tower, and the gatehouse.
15 The Berlin Wall