1. Hamburg’s harbour city
Hamburg has always been a city on the water. The web of streets and docks between the banks of the Elbe and the Alster lakes is lined with Hanseatic warehouses such as the Speicherstadt, two UNESCO-registered rows of brick-built storage separated by a ribbon of water. Beyond the warehouses are reconfigured quays, particularly Sandtorkai and Grasbrookkai, with restaurants and waterside bars. Dominating this whole dockscape is the €800 million Elbphilharmonie, or Elphi for short. Built of glass to look like a giant wave, it sits atop an original tobacco warehouse, and it has an organically-shaped concert hall at its heart. Positioned at the point of a quay, with magnificent port views, Elphi has its feet in the water and its head in the clouds.
2. Grimm’s fairytale places
Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who were born in Frankfurt, spent much of their lives collating household stories from northern Germany’s mostly rural communities. Today, some of those communities are connected by the Fairytale Road, which zigzags northwards up through Kassel, Hamelin and eventually Bremen, unlocking a world of frog princes and sword-fighting cats. Along its route, you can stay in the room from which Rapunzel supposedly let down her hair, and visit the tower where Sleeping Beauty may or may not have pricked her finger, in Dornröschenschloss Sababurg. All along the way are villages of fetchingly-pretty half-timbered houses, sagging a little at the knees. They include Hamelin, of Pied Piper fame, whose colourfully-painted Weser-Renaissance architecture still holds sway. Every summer Sunday an official Pied Piper leads a procession of children through town, just as he did in the story.
3. Berlin’s Museum Island
As befits a capital city, Berlin has a fantastic array of museums, and five of the best are conveniently assembled on a large downtown island in the river Spree. These institutions were purpose-built at the height of the Prussian empire, and chief amongst them are the Pergamon, the Bode, and the Alte Nationalgalerie. The Pergamon’s specialisation is Greek and Roman art, plus masterpieces of the Near East, including the towering Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The Bode, meanwhile, homes in on sculpture, from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, including works from Donatello and Bernini. And the Alte Nationalgalerie, built to imitate a Greek temple, showcases Impressionist and Romantic paintings and sculptures, with names like Caspar David Friedrich, Manet, Renoir and Rodin. Rounding up the five are the Altes Museum (royal collections of classical antiquity) and the Neues Museum (Egyptian treasures including the world-famous bust of Nefertiti).
4. The revitalised Ruhr
Once upon a time the coal-rich Ruhr region of North-Rhine Westphalia was the engine of Germany’s wirtschaftswunder, its miraculous post-war economic revival. Since then, though, the coal mines have closed, as have many of the associated industrial plants. But instead of letting these heavy metal dinosaurs rot away, the Ruhr has engineered another revival, transforming them into cultural attractions. Thus the former blast furnace at Duisburg-Nord has become an adventure park with climbing walls and bike trails. But the most dramatic of the conversions is Essen’s UNESCO-listed Zeche Zollverein, once the world’s largest coal mine, and now subtitled the ‘world’s prettiest’ thanks partly to its Bauhaus inspired brickwork. It has a design museum in its former boiler house, a swimming pool in its coke oven and a gastronomic restaurant in its power plant.
5. The Ore’s woodcarver workshops
Most visitors know that Germany is the spiritual home of Christmas, but few will make it to a distant hilltop community where real-life Santa’s workshops work all year round to produce favourite seasonal figures and ornaments. There are more than 130 of these workshops in and around the village of Seiffen, in the Ore mountains south of Dresden. Until the early 19th century this was a mining community, chasing out seams of gold and silver underground, but the last of Seiffen’s mines closed in 1849 and now villagers spend their days sandpapering angel’s wings and putting moustaches on wooden policemen. Today, up to 800 different products are made locally, with nutcracker figures a local speciality, as are angels, rotating pyramids, candle arches, and smoking men.
6. The Wartburg Castle
Given that the nation of Germany was only relatively recently formed out of a patchwork of principalities and electorates, it’s no surprise that it is so rich in castles, each with its own dynasty. But there’s one particular fortification which stands out for its over-riding spiritual significance for the nation: the Wartburg castle, near Eisenach in the former east.
The Wartburg’s main building is the best preserved piece of Romanesque architecture in Middle Europe. It rises massively out of the Thuringian Forest, where misty feather boas of cloud cling to its walls, and over the centuries it has inspired all Germany’s big creative talents, from Wagner to Goethe. It was here in 1521 that Martin Luther went to ground, pursued as a heretic by the church authorities. A sympathetic local aristocrat hid the monk in a wood-pannelled room for ten months, where he used the time valuably in translating the New Testament into language that ordinary Germans could understand.
7. Imperial Bamberg
Although it is well known now for its independent breweries, the Franconian city of Bamberg is actually a perfect slice of the 17th century, with some 2,500 protected medieval buildings still standing. This is a cobblestoned, half-timbered Germany where the medieval and the baroque live cheek by jowl, where not a lot has changed since the days when the Holy Roman Emperor would settle in for the season. His Imperial Residence, the 12th century Cathedral and the district of the nobility are up on a hill overlooking a large island between two arms of the river Regnitz. From here, he would gaze out across the rooftops towards the impoverished dwellings situated on that island, where fishermens’ houses still line the water’s edge. The river crossing between the imperial and the plebeian remains the most attractive bit of Bamberg. The Old Town Hall straddles the crossing, on its own little island, frilly with rococo balconies and blushing with frescos.
8. Oberammergau’s Passion
Every ten years (including 2022, postponed from 2020), the inhabitants of an immaculate village of balconied and frescoed houses in the foothills of the Ammergau Alps in southern Bavaria gear themselves up for one of Germany’s most famous cultural events: the Oberammergau Passion Play. The play is a five-hour spectacular put on by some 2,000 inhabitants and their animals. Its origins lie in a promise made by village elders during the Black Death, and its international success has preserved the spiritual traditions of this part of Bavaria. Even outside Play years, this is a region rich in woodcarvers, and in fabulous baroque church interiors such as at the Wieskirche, a UNESCO-listed pilgrimage church in the middle of fields to the northwest of Oberammergau. Inside, it's all cherubs and sumptuous curlicues, full of gesticulating figures in white and gold.
9. Dresden’s masterpieces
Tucked away on the nation’s southeastern hip, the riverside city of Dresden is known as the Florence of the Elbe thanks to a series of paintings by Italian artist Canaletto, which are on display in the city’s Old Masters gallery. The gallery is one of three museums in the Zwinger, a fabulous baroque palace to rival Versailles, and a regular venue for concerts. There are plenty more artistic treasures in Dresden, particularly over at the New Masters gallery housed in the riverside Albertinum, whose collection includes works from Otto Dix, Vincent van Gogh and German Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich. Climb its dome to get a wonderful view of the city of Canaletto, and watch the city’s ancient fleet of paddlesteamers flap their way upstream.
10. King Ludwig’s palaces
The castle of Neuschwanstein is the most famous of Germany’s heritage buildings, a salvo of turrets and towers that has launched a billion postcards and provided the blueprint for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. It sits astride a giant rock half way up a forest-cloaked mountainside just outside the town of Füssen. Its creator, Bavaria’s King Ludwig II, was an eccentric character who much preferred building fantasy castles to the boring affairs of state. Neuschwanstein is one of five he commissioned, but he spent barely any nights within its walls. Instead he preferred his jewel-like palace of Linderhof, some 20 miles east as the crow flies. Here, a telling detail of his fragile state of mind is the dining room, whose table is designed for just one person, and can be cranked up through the floor fully laden, thus avoiding the need for any servants to be present while he ate.