Plan Your Best First Trip to Germany
A trip to Germany often gets combined with other countries. Just look at its nine picturesque neighbors – Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland.
As the European country with the most neighbors, it’s no wonder Germany’s borders tempt one to contemplate side trips.
Once we pulled out a map and began counting the possibilities within this country, our German interests quickly outnumbered our days.
With two weeks to explore, we devoted every single day to Germany and still felt like there was so much more to see.
With much consideration and help from fellow travelers' suggestions (thank you!), the itinerary we landed on gave us our fill of history, fairytale castles, romance, thrill rides and festive celebrations.
- Berlin for four nights
- Munich for five nights
- Füssen for two nights
- Rothenburg ob der Tauber for two nights
- Kronberg (conveniently located near the Frankfurt Airport) for one night
Our trip included planes, trains, automobiles and bikes.
We flew into Berlin, took a train from Berlin to Munich, and rented a car for the final leg of our trip, leaving Munich to drive in the slow and fast lanes of the Romantic Road and Autobahn, respectively. We flew back to the United States out of Frankfurt.
Throughout the trip, we used bikes to help us navigate Berlin, Munich and Füssen. These relatively flat and bike-friendly cities make cycling an easy, stress-free mode of transportation. To fill in the gaps, Uber worked beautifully in Germany’s larger cities.
Where to stay
The Hotel Adlon Kempinski in Berlin marked our favorite stay of the trip in terms of old-world poshness.
The Kempinski’s gorgeous lobby wooed us from the start. The service sealed the deal.
Hearty and elegant breakfasts – buffet-style, off the menu or both – got every day off on the right foot.
The hotel’s location just outside the Brandenburg Gate, where East met West in the Cold War era, provided the perfect springboard from which to explore the city.
The Mandarin Oriental served as our home base in Munich. It felt more like a boutique hotel in terms of its smaller size and quieter vibe.
It excelled in making our Oktoberfest experience extra special.
Upon arrival, we were offered beer and German treats from the dirndl- and lederhosen-donned staff. More beer, commemorative steins, candied apples, chocolate-covered pretzels and decorated gingerbread-cookie necklaces awaited us in our room. It was just the hype we needed to get into the Oktoberfest mood.
Romantic Road Stopovers
Along the Romantic Road, our favorite stays included the Herrnschlosschen in Rothenburg ob der Tauber and the Schlosshotel in Kronberg.
With only eight cozy and unique rooms, a 1,000-year-old history and a prosecco greeting, the Herrnschlosschen quickly won my heart.
Our bedroom at the Herrnschlosschen.
It’s hard to resist a fairytale-castle ending, especially one as stately as the Schlosshotel Kronberg with its fine halls, ambling grounds and dining rooms.
Thumbs up to all of these hotels.
Where to dine
For fine dining in Berlin, go directly to Tim Raue for an Asian-inspired dining experience you’ll continue to crave long after you’ve left the country.
We also loved our meals for the classic-yet-creative food and fun atmospheres at Ottenthal, Lokal and Katz Orange.
We sampled a variety of dishes at Katz Orange.
For an amazing pastrami and deli experience, go to Mogg & Melzer for lunch.
Best. Reuben. Ever.
I could have repeated our first night’s meal in Munich several times at what is claimed to be the city’s oldest wine house, dating back to 1641. Romantic, delicious and friendly, we found some of our favorite German food at Weinhaus Neuner.
Wienerschnitzel and potatoes ... it doesn't get much more German than that.
When we’d had our fill of German fare, we dined at a fantastic Italian restaurant called Hippocampus. The in-season porcini mushroom salad and pastas were as good as it gets outside of Italy.
While our stay was just OK, the food and ambience of Hotel Hirsch’s restaurant and beer garden were excellent.
Hotel Hirsch's beer garden
Il Pescatore is another great choice for homemade Italian pasta when you can no longer eat another wienerschnitzel. Hard to believe at first bite, but the time will come when the last thing you can stomach is another schnitzel.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
If it had been open, we would have eaten at the highly recommended restaurant in our hotel, Herrnschlosschen. It gets rave reviews.
Instead, we enjoyed the casual Reichsküchenmeister Restaurant and more elegant Restaurant Eisenhut.
When you stay in a castle, you must eat there, too. The finery and white-glove service surrounding dinner at Schlosshotel Kronberg made our last night along the Romantic Road memorable. There’s no better way to recount a trip then by candlelight in the castle’s grand dining room. Prost to Germany!
What to do
We always favor quality over quantity when it comes to sightseeing. More time at each sight always yields a better time vs. a fly-by experience.
By no way exhaustive, this list of things to do represents our favorites.
Go deeper with a visit to the Information Center of the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. The exterior memorial consists of 2,711 gray tombstone-looking concrete blocks organized in a grid. As you walk through the rectangular blocks of varying heights and sizes, you are visually sucked into its mass and weight.
We came back on another day to see the Information Center, which is a powerful and emotional account of the genocide of 6 million Jews across Europe.
A darkened room displays personal testimonials of the atrocities from a lighted floor and counts of Jewish victims by country along the top of its walls. The effect is overwhelming as you pivot from shocking numbers to personal stories.
To put the numbers in perspective, a continuously running soundtrack in another room recites the names of each victim. We were told it would take more than six and a half years to get through all of the names.
See the Berlin Wall Memorial. Cold War history comes to life at the Berlin Wall Memorial. Meander through the grounds, get an even better understanding of its history at the Documentation Center and reflect at the Chapel of Reconciliation. Tip: Your first stop should be the Berlin Wall Memorial Visitor Center, which offers a great introductory film on the wall’s history and another one shows computer graphics to give a 3-D recreation of the wall and surrounding “death strip.” These films set the stage for what you’re about to see.
Behold the magnificent Ishtar Gates at the Pergamon Museum. The museum’s namesake Pergamon Altar is off limits until its renovation is complete in 2025, but the stunning Babylonian Processional Way and Ishtar Gate covered in stunning blue tiles is a colorful and transporting step back into the 6th century B.C.
This museum has one of the best-housed collections of massive to-scale antiquities I have ever seen and probably ever will see. Tip: As it goes with most museums, order tickets online so you can bypass the line.
Get an inside look at Reichstag. Historic-looking on the outside and gleamingly sleek on the inside, Germany’s parliament shouldn’t be missed. The building was constructed in 1894, burned in 1933 and rebuilt after the Cold War with a glass cupola from which to peer down into parliament. Tip: We were unable to get tickets to see the dome during our stay, but we were able to book the dome’s café for coffee and dessert in the late afternoon, which also scored us admittance into the dome.
Experience Oktoberfest. Contrary to the name, you’ll catch most of Oktoberfest in late September. We had no idea of the sheer mass of people and state fair-like quality of the event. With 14 beer tents hosting thousands of guests wearing the latest dirndl and lederhosen fashions, Oktoberfest is one of the most exciting festivals we’ve experienced. It’s really a state fair on steroids with a lot of beer. About 5 to 7 million people attend each year.
So how did this 185-year-old festival get started? We have King Ludwig I to thank. In 1812, the then crown prince and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen invited all of Munich’s citizens to join in their marriage celebration.
Tip: You’ll need to book your tent well in advance. Even better, arrange your tickets through your hotel’s concierge like we did. The Mandarin Oriental had a regular table in one of the large tents. The package included transportation in a vintage yellow bus with pretzels as big as our faces and, of course, plenty of beer.
Catch the waves and hear an oompah band in one of Munich’s largest beer garden in the English Garden (aka, Englischer Garten). Europe’s largest urban park, the English Garden deserves ample time to explore. To make the best use of your time, rent a bike to see it.
Be sure to check out the bridge near the edge of the park where surfers line up throughout the season to ride the waves created in this section of the river.
Then follow your ears to the oompah music at the Chinese Tower beer garden.
Experience an open-air concert in Hofgarten. Near the English Garden, we followed our ears once again to the pavilion in Hofgarten, where two flutists played soulful tunes. Munich is filled with beautiful green spaces even outside its major garden.
Hammer time at the Glockenspiel. Join the hundreds of other tourists to see the ornamental clock in the heart of Munich’s main square, Marienplatz, at the top of the hour during certain times. No, you won’t be alone. Yes, it is still worthwhile.
Feel regal by touring The Residenz. Bavarian royalty comes to life at the Residenz, where the Wittelsbach family lived. World War II destroyed the Rococo palace, but it has since been beautifully restored.
Take in the art at the Alte Pinakothek Museum. If you love grand European art, this is your place. European masterpieces from the 14th to 19th centuries reign.
Take a walking tour of the city. We followed the Rick Steves’ tour, which was excellent. We were lucky to enjoy church bells as we strolled the grounds of the city cemetery, watch fly fisherman casting along the Lech River running through the town center, and see the impressive lute and violin collection at the Füssen Heritage Museum.
Walking the rampart walls is a great way to take in Germany's best-preserved wall city.
See the iconic castles – both of them. We made Füssen our home base to explore the primary reason for our Romatic Road visit – seeing the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. The less-known but visit-worthy Hohenschwangau is King Ludwig’s boyhood home. Walt Disney’s inspiration – and King Ludwig’s passion and legacy – is Neuschwanstein.
View on the way up to see Neuschwanstein
Neuschwanstein provides a great overlook to Hohenschwangau.
Ludwig spent 17 years building his dreamy Neuschwanstein castle, but only lived there 172 days before his mysterious death. After being declared unfit to rule Bavaria, he was found dead in the lake below his castle. Murder or suicide? We’ll never know.
Tip: Order your museum and castle tickets ahead of time to miss the lines. While you have to check in early to claim your tickets, you will avoid a line if you reserve the tickets in advance online. Plus, they can sell out. Also plan to do some walking. There are buses and carriage rides to save some time, but both castles require some walking.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Hear ye, hear ye from the Night Watchman. Rain or shine, prioritize the Night Watchman’s Tour. It was one of the most memorable and humorous tours I’ve taken in a long time.
The nightwatchman generously poses for photos before his tour begins.
See one of the most impressive wood-carvings of your life. Go to St. Jakob’s Church, a beauty in its own right, and head upstairs to see a 500-year-old altarpiece carved out of limewood that depicts various bible scenes including the last supper.
Tilman Riemenschneider created the Altar of the Holy Blood between 1499 and 1505. The altarpiece is said to contain a drop of Christ’s blood set in a crystal capsule in its cross.
More sights along the Romantic Road worth a stop
With added time, we would have stopped at more of the quaint towns along the Romantic Road. However, we were on a schedule. Two required stops are Wieskirche and Wurzburg.
On the way to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the beautiful Wieskirche is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. This pilgrimage church is a rococo gem at the foothills of the Alps.
It was built in the 1750s to house a wooden figure, the Scourged Savior, that was said to produce real tears. As a result, it drew people to pray in front of it for its miracle-producing powers. They decided to upgrade the figure’s home, a small nondescript chapel nearby, with Wieskirche.
A cloudy day prevented us from seeing it in all its glory. I can just imagine the scene when light pours through its windows.
This 18th century residence of prince-bishops is said to marry the architectural styles of German baroque, French chateau and Vienna’s imperial baroque. While its exterior is gorgeous, the interiors stun. Tip: plan your trip around taking one of the residence’s excellent tours. Also plan around a lunch at its delicious café.
With limited time, we just spent our afternoon strolling the grounds of the castle and nearby rose garden. At the end of a touring trip, the slower pace of the castle was just the fix for a weary traveler.
What we learned
Order the local house wine. We were pretty clueless when it came to ordering German wine. When in doubt, trust the locals and choose the house wine. We were never disappointed when we did. When we paid more for a wine-list selection, it was hit and miss.
Flammkuchen (aka, tarte flambée) paired with a glass of Franconian white wine
Ditch the GPS. GPS isn’t very romantic – at least when it comes to following Germany’s Romantic Road. It much preferred the speed of the Autobahn. Instead, pull out your map and follow the brown signs from town to town. Ditching the electronics adds to the romance.
Just bike it. In most cases, we found the best way to see Germany was on bike. Never once did we feel uncomfortable navigating traffic in the bigger cities thanks to plentiful biking lanes.
Save luggage space or pack a tote for your return trip. Germany offers a great selection of high-quality, unique crafts. These aren’t the type of crafts you’ll find everywhere. Each markets seems to have something unique to its areas. Just check out the town’s maypole, which illustrates the local crafts and industry in the area.
A final note
As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s tempting to try to pack in a lot of side-country trips, but your stein will runneth over with plenty to see and do in Germany. Drink up all Germany has to offer. Likely, you’ll be plotting your return trip before you leave.
What other tips would you give travelers for an upcoming trip to Germany? Which cities and sights would you recommend?