First-time visitors to Germany often flock to Munich or Berlin, and tend to miss out on the country’s rural enclaves. From the southern Alps to the Rhine River valley and Baltic Sea, the country is filled with plenty of charming small towns -- and thanks to an extensive public transport system, most can be reached from Germany’s main cities. While there are too many worthy contenders to include in just one story, here are 12 of our favorites.
1. Goslar, Lower Saxony
Goslar has remained popular for centuries due to its outstanding architecture and charm, earning it UNESCO World Heritage status. The Rammelsberg mine also holds UNESCO status, with guided tours bringing visitors into the subterranean tunnels and offering them a chance to ride in an old miner’s train. However, most of Goslar’s allure lies above ground — notably the spectacular city gates and walls, the Imperial Palace, and nearly 50 church spires rising beyond the skyline of timbered homes. The surprisingly windy and narrow streets in Old Town bring visitors past many of these historical wonders, but the view is best taken in from the hilltop location on the Imperial Palace grounds. Hiking options abound, thanks to its location in the foothills of the Harz mountains. For a short jaunt with beer waiting on the other end, head to the Maltermeister Tower, which has been renovated from its mining days into an excellent restaurant. Further afield, Harz National Park has trails for all skill levels and ski slopes in the winter.
Nestled in the Rhine Valley, Rüdesheim am Rhein exudes charm. The town sits along a section of the Rhine Gorge, which has been distinguished as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its collection of castles, historic towns, vineyards, and striking natural landscape. In the heart of its Old Town, Drosselgasse pedestrian lane is lined with wine taverns, featuring street-side tables and open-air gardens. In the summer months, live bands play on Drosselgasse late into the night. The summer also sees the annual Weinfest in August, as well as the Rheingau Music Festival, which is held in the Eibingen Abbey and St. Jakobus church. Outside of the historic center, the ruined sites of Ehrenfels Castle and Brömserburg Castle are worth a visit. Numerous hiking trails lead out of town into the surrounding countryside — notably the Riesling Route, which follows the Rhine River east through vineyards to the city of Wiesbaden.
Rothenburg is touted as one of Germany’s most gorgeous towns, with the accompanying crowds to back up that claim. Rothenburg even served as Walt Disney’s inspiration for “Pinocchio.” The historic homes seem perfectly intact, though roughly 40 percent of the town was heavily damaged during World War II. Fortunately, the industrious local population quickly restored Rothenberg to its former splendor. The town is still encircled by the original 14th-century fortifications, which can be walked on a self-guided tour. The wall is intersected with several gates, taking visitors into the old town’s narrow streets that are home to the Market Square, Town Hall Tower, St. Jakobskirche (a historic Lutheran church), and a memory card’s worth of other architectural gems. Due to its popularity, it’s advisable to visit Rothenburg outside the summer months, or before or after the daytime bus tours.
Located right on the Belgian border, Monschau has something special on offer year-round. Summer brings the Monschau Festival, an outdoor music festival that draws spectators and performers from across Europe. The 2018 festival, which takes place in August, will feature a performance by world-renowned singer Nana Mouskouri in front of the Monschau Castle. The summer months also see Monschau’s local eateries extending out to gardens and street-side tables, adding life to the historic town. By late November, Monschau transforms into a fairytale winter scene, with the epicenter being the Christmas market. Cozy wooden huts sell local delicacies and handmade crafts. To top it off, scheduled concerts and other cultural events are on offer during the season.
Dinkelsbühl is often overlooked by tourists for nearby Rothenburg, meaning that the gorgeous medieval town is left unspoiled. The town is situated on the Wornitz River in Central Franconia, with doable public transit connections to Nuremberg. The impressively preserved town features rows of colorful half-timbered homes, a fortress from the 10th century, a wine market, St. George’s Minster, and the Castle of the Teutonic Order. An afternoon spent exploring the historic streets should definitely include a walk around the city’s fortifications, which wrap around the entire town. Dinkelsbühl is considered part of the Romantic Road, a one-time trade route that is now touted for tourism. Beyond Dinkelsbühl and Rothenburg, the route passes the famous Neuschwanstein Castle and dozens of other attractive towns and villages.
6. Cochem, Rhineland-Palatinate
Cochem’s location in the heart of Moselle Valley has the dual benefit of an ample supply of wine and views of the surrounding vineyards. Local cellars, such as Walter J. Oster and J. Koll & Cie, offer tastings of some of the region’s finest vintages, many of which are grown on nearby family-run wineries. The area is renowned for its Rieslings in particular. In town, Cochem’s main square features half-timbered homes, showcasing the charm that has drawn tourists for centuries. Perched on a hillside above town, Cochem Castle’s Gothic magnificence adds to the spectacular views. After exploring the winding lanes and the town’s historical treasures, consider cycling out to the countryside to discover the surrounding villages and wineries.
Situated in the Franconian hills along the confluence of the Main and Regnitz rivers, Bamberg’s location is only surpassed by its historic architecture. Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, evaded the destruction of World War I and II, allowing residents and visitors to immerse themselves in thousands of years of culture and history. Numerous cathedrals can be found throughout town, though the Bamberger Dom stands out for its rebuilt Gothic structure that houses numerous carvings and relics. More works of art can be seen at the hilltop Altenburg Castle, which houses a gallery featuring modern works. Superb views over the town are also on display. Another must-see is the Altes Rathaus, a unique structure jutting out over the Regnitz River. Being in Germany, the local beer comes highly recommended. Head to local brewers like Schlenkerla or Spezial for Bamberg’s specialty: Rauchbier (smoked beer).
8. Wernigerode, Saxony-Anhalt
This medieval town sits just 22 miles east of Goslar, and possesses plenty of historical charm and quirks of its own. Reaching the Wernigerode Castle will require a bit of a climb, but the interior museum and views from Agnesberg hill are well worth the effort. Wernigerode’s other famous site is its Town Hall, which dates back to 1277. The timber-framed architecture can be seen throughout the network of cobblestone streets, including in the ‘leaning house,’ the Krummel House restaurant, and many private residences. Wernigerode’s location in the foothills north of Harz National Park also makes it an ideal base to explore the park’s rugged wilderness. Steam trains depart from Wernigerode along the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway, bringing passengers to Brocken mountain (the highest in the park), and through other scenic valleys and peaks.
9. Quedlinburg, Saxony-Anhalt
Quedlinburg, located in the northern foothills of the Harz mountains, is perfect for history buffs and nature lovers. The town’s medieval buildings were largely untouched by World War II, and were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1994. The town center is dominated by timber-framed homes dating back to the 1500’s. These can easily be seen in an afternoon of strolling the cobblestone lanes through town. Many of these structures house independent stores and galleries. To learn more about the historical architecture, head to the Fachwerkmuseum im Ständerbau. For excellent views and a dose of history, hike up to Quedlinburg Abbey, which dates back to 936.
Situated on the Elbe, just outside of Dresden, Meissen is one of Saxony’s oldest towns. The town boasts a massive medieval cathedral and castle, but the main draw is its porcelain. The porcelain factory functions as a museum, offering guided tours and workshops to visitors. Beyond the porcelain, Meissen’s understated atmosphere and proximity to Dresden make it an easy day trip. Saxony’s capital, Dresden, is packed with historical attractions and a lively nightlife scene.
11. Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Schwerin serves as the capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in northeastern Germany, but as the smallest German state capital (approximately 95,000 people), it has the atmosphere of a large town. The most iconic landmark, Schwerin Castle, sits on an island in Lake Schwerin. Today, the castle features an impressive art museum and surrounding garden. Downtown shares the castle’s historic atmosphere, though it lacks a bit of the cultural dynamics of other German towns and cities with lively university populations. Schwerin is ideally located for exploring the surrounding area, including the Baltic Sea coast and loads of lakes.
12. Eutin, Schleswig-Holstein
Central Germany and Bavaria are often praised for their quintessential German architecture and charm, but consider heading to the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein for another side of German culture. The town of Eutin lies about 30 miles north of Lübeck and is the gateway to the Holsteinische Schweiz lake region. Eutin Castle, formerly the home of Lübeck’s prince-bishops, is the town’s main attraction. Visitors can explore the interior and garden — one of the most impressive English-style gardens in Germany. Neighboring Lübeck has also been gaining attention among foreign travelers. The city boasts UNESCO status for its brick Gothic architecture and arguably the best-preserved old town in northern Germany.
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