Main photo credit: ©Visit Berlin/Dagmar Schwelle
From medieval magic to thriving ports, there are lots of towns and cities dotted around Germany that make for the perfect short escape. One thing’s guaranteed, they’ll each deliver history, culture and food in spades – here are our top 12…
Once proclaimed as Germany’s answer to Florence, the baroque architecture you see today is a reconstruction of the city's former glory and has been rebuilt brick by brick, with its iconic domed Frauenkirche the final piece of the puzzle. But Dresden is a city of two halves: separated by the Elbe River, the bustling shops and trendy nightlife scene of its Neustadt perfectly complement its classic Altstadt skyline. Both are well worth exploring so you can understand Dresden’s past and present.
With its moniker as the ‘Gateway to the World’, Hamburg has drawn travellers, merchants and sailors for nearly 1,000 years. Ever since it became a founding member of the Hanseatic League, the city’s maritime prowess has not only delivered wealth but also a cosmopolitan mix of neighbourhoods comprising those who’ve settled over the centuries. The port isn’t just a functional cog; boat tours around it make it a key attraction in itself. But it’s just as impressive to see everything the port has paid for, including the red-brick warehouses of the Speicherstadt district to the ultra-modern architecture of HafenCity, as well as a lively nightlife scene awaiting you after dark.
Such is the immaculate nature of Bamberg’s Old Town, a wander through its labyrinthine lanes is akin to a medieval history lesson. Built over seven hills and webbed with rivers and canals, these buildings have been through it all: from regional battles to the Black Plague, they have been weathered without even a scratch. The UNESCO-listed architecture ranges from the half-timbered houses from the Middle Ages to grand baroque creations but the most striking revelation of any stroll in Bamberg is the refreshing absence of modern builds. After a walk around its cobbles, pay a visit to one of the town’s ten breweries for a glass of its popular smoked beer.
Proud of its status as one of the founding fathers of the Hanseatic League, every merchant who has docked in Lübeck has enjoyed the same welcome: the soot-black twin towers of the Holstentor city gate. It’s an eye-catching first impression but explore the Old Town and you’ll realise it’s just a taster: medieval architecture and patina green church spires make up 1,000-plus UNESCO-protected historic buildings. What those early sailors missed out on though was marzipan, said to have been invented within Lübeck’s red-brick walls and now there’s no shortage of confectioners for you to get your sweet fix.
5. Rüdesheim am Rhein
Hugging the banks of the Rhein, Rüdesheim’s Instagram-friendly medieval core – in particular the time-frozen street Drosselgasse – is what adorns postcards and social media feeds. Aside from its history, it’s actually Rüdesheim’s location that’s its major drawcard. Flanked by vineyards flowing down the hills either side, this has been a prime winemaking region for 1,000 years and you could easily lose hours visiting nearby wineries or going on organised vineyard rambles. For an epic panorama of the surrounding leafy Rhine Valley, take the cable car up to the Niederwald Monument.
Nowhere quite blurs the boundaries between the traditional and the modern like Munich. On the one hand, it’s a forward-thinking city home to many blue-chip companies, but its folk-town mentality means you could easily see a local walk past dressed in traditional lederhosen. There are medieval churches rubbing shoulders with glitzy nightclubs and then there are its famous beerhalls and breweries, some of which have been brewing for 700 years. But Munich thrives on its contradictions and so will you as soon as you begin exploring Germany’s most liveable city.
Situated at the confluence of the Main and Rhine, Mainz’s strategic position saw it start life as a Roman citadel. Now, it’s a lively university town whose cobbled core is a delight to wander; its huge Romanesque cathedral is Mainz’s rust-red icon, the final resting place for many princes and archbishops. Spy the many tombs that lie within, before heading for one of the many wine taverns to try the region’s signature Riesling. But a short break in Mainz wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Gutenberg Museum, a homage to Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press in the 15th century. Well, this is a city well worth writing home about after all.
Never mind a short break, you could spend a week in Berlin and barely scratch the surface. The German capital is overflowing with top-tier sights, including the glass-domed Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island. But its neighbourhoods are just as beguiling, whether you’re swept up by the dynamism of Kreuzberg or enjoying a slow crawl along the indie boutiques of Friedrichshain. Tangible history confronts you around every corner – crumbling parts of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie or the powerful Holocaust Memorial – but while that’s very much present, Berlin’s hip nightlife, trendy restaurants and ever-evolving culture prove it’s a city that knows how to enjoy itself.
Pitted right in the heart of Germany, Erfurt was an important outpost for the woad trade in medieval Europe, a crossroads serving Paris and Russia from west to east and the Baltics and Italy from north to south. While it’s a little sleepier these days, its historic core remains. Such is its well-kept nature, every street is worth exploring for their half-timbered homes, church spires and quaint squares. Prosperous merchants founded a university here in the 14th century and it’s the student population today which gives Erfurt a youthful undercurrent.
Seemingly forever in the shadow of its larger coastal neighbour, Hamburg, Bremen thrives on flying a little under the radar. Its medieval Altstadt is the city’s beating heart, an atmospheric mixture of winding alleyways and gothic and renaissance architecture. Its two most striking buildings, Bremen Cathedral and the Rathaus, are well worth a visit. So too is the Böttcherstrasse, a medieval coopers lane that was transformed in the 1920s by coffee magnate Ludwig Roselius. Now, its expressionist architecture and red-brick buildings house a number of museums and artisanal boutiques.
History seeps from many of Germany’s cities, but arguably Nuremberg is the most well-stocked of all. Its importance can be charted through the centuries: it was once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and was also the residence for several German kings. Well-preserved Altstadt aside, Nuremberg isn’t just a destination for history buffs – foodies can find their fix, too. It’s home to the oldest bratwurst restaurant in the world, Zum Gulden Stern, while its iconic annual Christmas market is the best time to pick up its sweet speciality – lebkuchen gingerbread.
Rarely registering on the radars of those who visit Bavaria, Regensburg is undoubtedly the region’s hidden jewel. Escaping the damage suffered by many of its peers, Regensburg boasts perfectly conserved architectural relics dating back to the Roman Empire. Its former role as a prosperous trading hub – it had links stretching as far as the Silk Road – not only meant it became Bavaria’s first capital, but the Italian-influenced buildings have led to its nickname as Italy’s northernmost city. The medieval streets you’ll wander today are the very same ones treaded by wealthy 14th-century merchants but nowadays, the city’s student population have injected a peppy vibe.