Things To Do In Germany Off The Beaten Path
You have a taste for history, cities, and the great outdoors, so you’ve made the wise decision to visit Germany. There are plenty of resources out there to help you plan for your trip to Germany, but all the focus seems to be on the big cities of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. To be fair, they are all fantastic cities and you should visit them.
That said, there’s more to this country than these cities. Luckily, this is a big chunk of land, so there is no shortage of things to do in Germany, and although the country in and of itself is not necessarily off the beaten path, getting away from the cacophony of clicking cameras can still be done. So, when compiling this off the beaten path travel guide for Germany, I used a few self-imposed barometers.
- Do Germans instantly speak English even when I speak German?
- Is there evidence that Germans themselves like these destinations?
- Would the average North American not know of this place?
Obviously everything here is relatively, but on the whole, I think you’ll find that these recommendations will yield more unique experiences than, say, shuffling through Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin or the beer gardens in Munich. Even better, I still have plenty of traveling to do within Germany and will update this guide accordingly.
Now let’s get to it. These are the best towns, parks, and cities in Germany for off the beaten path travel.
Monschau — Eifel National Park
Germany has what’s referred to as “premium hiking trails.” These trails are all over the country and are multi-day hikes with plenty of holiday apartments and towns along the way to catch some Zs. The Eifelsteig is one such example with a stop at Stage 3 in Monschau near the Belgian border. I arrived into Monschau by way of the second stage of the Eifelsteig, starting in even smaller Roetgen and hiking the Eifelsteig in and out of Belgium some 17 kilometers to arrive in Monschau.
Trotting over the cobbled streets in between those colorful timber houses, my first thought was that I had never seen a city like this in Germany. Monschau quickly became my favorite small town escape in Europe. It has everything I look for. It’s walkable as a city and has fantastic access to hiking trails. You can hike the next stage of the Eifelsteig over to Einruhr, but if like me you find you’d rather spend more time in Monschau, there are a number of loops that take you from Monschau and into Eifel National Park and back into town. You can find all the hikes you’d possibly need at the city’s tourism website. I for one look forward to returning for the city’s classical music festival, Christmas market, and cycling in addition to more hiking.
Some other recommendations I can put out there include staying at Villadelux where you’re just outside of the town’s central plaza. Villadelux includes a number of apartment buildings, so if you’re lucky, you’ll get one across the street from the main building where you climb a few flights of stairs to get a nice view of the town right outside of your window. The owner also takes the reverse (yet still appreciated) approach to eating recommendations by telling you where not to go. There are a couple of places to avoid on the main square, but “everything else is good.” Indeed, I enjoyed everywhere I ate, including Alter Markt and Mon-Bistro. Get the Reibekuchen (potato pancakes) with smoked salmon at the latter.
See more photos of Monschau and Eifel National Park
Since we started on the premium trails, we’ll keep going with a shout out for the Rheinsteig. I still have plenty of premium-trail-hiking to do in the Deutschland, but few multi-day hikes hold a candle to the Rheinsteig. The Rheinsteig stretches over 300 kilometers between Wiesbaden and Bonn, and as of this writing, I’ve done just 5 of the 21 stages. Whereas the Eifelsteig goes through a national park, the Rheinsteig trail goes up and down from town to town along the Rhine river. Almost every stage starts with a steep incline out of town and ends with a decline into your next overnight stop. This means plenty of great, elevated views of the towns along the river as you hike the trail.
In my admittedly limited experience, I can recommend staying in Königswinter where you have the Drachenburg (Dragon Castle!) hovering over you in the hills of Siebengebirge. Kaub with a hotel stay at Hotel Zum Turm before heading to the twin towns of St. Goarhausen and St. Goar also worked out quite nicely.
There are some towns along the trail that have a bit less going on, but you can get a sense of that during your hotel search and/or by consulting with the Rheinsteig tourist board. Fancying something a bit, well, fancier? There’s a Steigenberger property (a renowned German hotel chain) on Petersberg along the trail. If you’re coming from the south, as I did, there are local trails that allow you to skip the descent into Königswinter and continue onward to Petersberg.
Note that both the Rheinsteig and Eifelsteig are in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, so it’s possible to fit either one into a trip through Western Germany that might have you flying in and out of Frankfurt.
See more photos of the Rheinsteig
Dresden is a popular destination for World War II history, the Christmas markets (the longest running in Europe, they say), and to see the reconstructed old town. That said, it’s generally not at the top of any North America’s list for a trip to Germany — though it should be. If you travel during the holiday season, you should, indeed, check out the Christmas markets. The Dresdner Striezelmarkt is the main one you’ll find in the Old Town area, though there are several throughout the city. None of this feels particularly off the beaten path, but this is a firmly German thing to do. I don’t think I heard a lick of English during my time in Dresden and walking around the Christmas markets.
If you want to do something especially unique to Dresden, hook up with Danilo for his Kurt Vonnegut and Neustadt art tours. Literary types might already know that Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was greatly inspired by the author surviving the infamous firebombing of Dresden. Although the book isn’t known by German audiences (why would it be?), Danilo has latched onto it and his tour makes for something unique to anything else in Germany. He also runs an art and neighborhood tour of Neustadt, the hipster slice of town just north of the Alt Stadt (Old Town).
See more photos of Dresden
The Black Forest is certainly not off the beaten path, but it’s some of the best hiking in Germany and in one of the sunniest corners of a country that has an otherwise gray reputation. The heart of this region is Freiburg. In Baden-Baden, on the other hand, you can still get a sense of what it’s like to be a local there. I spent mornings heading to the bakery, speaking German, and hearing exclusively German. There is a good chance that most Germans I saw walking around the pedestrian plazas were themselves tourists. After all, “baden” is the verb “to bathe,” so Baden-Baden is incredibly popular for the thermal baths.
You’ll eat well in Baden-Baden, too, and there’s actually a bit of culinary diversity for such a small town. I grabbed a drink at Badener Weinkeller at the edge of the town center while waiting for the AirBnB host. Badener Weinkeller had a great, welcoming atmosphere and a charming patio to enjoy with your beverage.
Weinstube im Baldreit feels hidden off a couple of cobbled side streets with little fuss trying to get your attention. It’s also one of the highest user-reviewed restaurants in town — for good reason. But be sure to make a reservation.
Cafe Beek is a great spot for grabbing an afternoon jolt of caffeine. And though I didn’t have a chance to experience it myself, sources tell me it has the best Kuchen in Germany. When you’re really looking to relax, Caracalla Therme is right around the corner with very clear barriers for those of us looking to go au natural and the rest who prefer to leave a little to the imagination.
Now about the hiking. It’s everywhere around the Black Forest. I did a couple of treks heading south and north of the city to the old castle. You can consult the tourist bureau for more specific instructions, but you can see what I did by clicking here and here.
Whatever you do, plan substantial time to get into that forest. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
Cycling fans might recognize this small valley outside of Düsseldorf from the 2017 Tour de France. Stage 2 took cyclists around the rolling valley and past the Neanderthal Museum before turning back toward Düsseldorf and out of the country. As the name of the region hints at, our Neanderthal ancestors used to roam around this region. While most scientists believe that our first ancestors came from Africa, it was near the site of the museum (some 160 years ago) that the first Neanderthal remains were found.
Now I’m not typically a museum guy (I feel like I’m exhausted as soon as I walk in), but the museum is worth a visit while you’re out there. Then you have a number of hiking trail options right across the street from the museum to take you around the region. Bring a map and you can easily connect these trails with nearby towns and hop on the train to head back wherever you started. Better yet, make like a cyclist in the Tour de France and do a loop around the region.
See more photos of the Neaderthal Valley
Hainich National Park
Hainich National Park is right smack dab in the middle of Germany in the state of Thuringia (Thüringen auf Deutsch). What used to be a military training ground for the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) is now 29 square miles of pristine green space, harboring a primeval beech forest. If you’re not a tree-nerd, there’s still plenty of good times to be had in Hainich National Park. I for one opted for a bike ride after getting a unique view of the area via the park’s canopy walk. The walkway itself was built around the natural growth of the beech forest, so your environmentalist heart can rest easy knowing you’re truly there just to admire. (Interestingly, the canopy serves scientific purposes, too, as it allows scientists and researchers access to the treetops and the animals that naturally live there.)
We’re staying in Thuringia with a look at Erfurt, the state capital. Erfurt makes for an idyllic urban base to explore this often overlooked German state. In Erfurt, you get all the comforts you’d want in traveling to a German city — namely excellent train services to some of the nearby areas that you might want to dive deeper into, especially if you’re a history nerd and want to retrace Martin Luther’s steps from Eisenach to Wittenberg.
The Krämerbrücke (Merchant’s Bridge) is the most popular sight in town — and rightfully so. The medieval bridge (yes, it survived WWII) dates back to the 15th Century and remains a treat to walk around or view from the north. I lucked out by staying at a hotel just steps away from the bridge, so it was easy to get there early in the morning and see it while it was empty save the occasional local passerby.
Another personal favorite was walking by the Domplatz, past the towering Catholic church and up to Glashütte Petersberg for some original Thüringen Bratwurst (the stuff we generally call bratwurst in the States) and evening views overlooking the city. I felt as if I blended right in the locals with everyone from cyclists to canoodling couples enjoying themselves (but not too much) on the edge of the overlook.
See more photos of Thuringia
Landschaftspark — Duisburg
A number of cities along the German Rhine are closely associated with the country’s industrial past. Germany was not immune to the technological revolution of the late 20th Century that’s still going on to this day and a number of old plants shuttered their doors. Rather than let the old coal and steel production site rot over time, a man by the name of Peter Latz came up with a design that would turn the property into a public park unlike anything the area had seen before. Indeed, it’s unlike anything I had ever seen before. I couldn’t help but imagine what if other cities around the world took on a similar effort because Landschaftspark had clearly become a draw for Germans near and far. On a clear weekend afternoon, you’ll find hikers, cyclists, and even beer drinkers relaxing at one of the restaurants on the outskirts of the industrial site.
See more photos of Landschaftspark
I couldn’t get through this off the beaten path Germany travel guide and not talk about my new home — Düsseldorf. Personal bias aside, it really does feel off the beaten path, save German tourists in the summer strolling around the city’s Altstadt. There’s a good amount of spoken English here, too, but some German language skills will still go a long way here, whereas you don’t need to speak a lick of the language traveling in nearby Cologne or Berlin.
Düsseldorf gets its international fame for its fashion industry and its consistent ranking as one of the most liveable cities in the world. Even if you’re like me and look at such rankings with suspicion, I can at least anecdotally offer that Düsseldorf, indeed, is a great place to live. I could go on and on with suggestions on what to do, but I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite recommendations.
Walk south through the Rheinpark toward Altstadt in the morning. You’ll know you’re there once the footpaths turn to cobbles and things look a bit older as most everything else in Düsseldorf has that rather generic, modern look. The Altstadt isn’t huge, so don’t worry about getting lost or turning down any street that speaks to you. But do make a point to eventually end up on Carlsplatz where on Saturday mornings you’ll find people in market-mode. Grab a coffee at Kaffe Reich and continue wandering around to your heart’s content. You’ve got Bob & Mary (burgers!) and Hausmann’s just around the corner if you start to get hungry.
Come back to the Altstadt at night to try out some of the historic breweries. (This is, after all, with the “längste Theke der Welt” — longest bar in the world.) My favorite is Füchsen on Rattingerstraße. This is essentially the exterior of Altstadt where a local once told me that it’s where the “real Düsseldorfers” hang out. Nowadays you’ve also got a craft beer bar nearby in Holy Craft, which itself is right next to Vente where you can get German cuisine with a modern touch, blended with the city’s primary immigrant cultures — Japanese, Italian and Arabic. (Speaking of Japanese, Düsseldorf has the largest Japanese immigrant population in the world. That means good Japanese eats, like at Na Ni Wa.)
Looking around the city, I have a sentimental place in my heart for Schwan. This place feels like a cozy local restaurant back in the States, but it’s also where I spent many days during my first weeks in Düsseldorf ordering currywurst and Kaffee und Kuchen while using their Internet. The Schwan on Frankenplatz is my spot and you’ve also got VIVU for some modern Asian fusion just down the square. Oh, since we’re here, I have to mention Bellisima for a down-to-Earth, charming Italian family experience.
I better end it there for now — wait! 485Grad has some of the best pizza that has ever touched my lips and burnt the roof of my mouth. Get “El Diablo” for chorizo pizza that will set your heart back, but shoot your level of happiness through the roof.
Transportation in Germany
Germans like to complain about public transportation and that time the Deutsche Bahn (the primary national train service) was late, but the fact of the matter is that Germany has some of the best public transportation in the world. A British expatriate told me in Eisenach that it’s in the German constitution that everyone has access to public transportation. After traveling extensively around the country, I believe it. On the whole, trains are fast and punctual. The long-distance, high-speed ICE trains can be pricey if you wait until the last minute. If you know your plans well in advance, search the “Sparpreis” options at Deutsche Bahn’s website. I bought a ticket for as low as €20 from Düsseldorf to Munich planning several months in advance. There are also a number of passes you can sign up for to cover group and tourist travel.
My other suggestion? Go cycling. Eurovelo routes spread across Germany, most cities have some form of bikeshare, and it’s quite simply one of the safest countries to cycle in. It’s far from perfect — any place in the world with cars is — but drivers on average are much more accustomed to cyclists on the road and are more respectful of their presence. Given the time, you’d be smart to plan a multi-day bike trip across a section of the country.
Germany Wish List
This list could be absurdly long, but I’ll keep it to the things that stick out at the top of my head. First and foremost, I’d like to get to any one of the car-free islands in the North Sea. I’ve also heard excellent things about Quedlinburg — that it has that same charming appeal that drew me to Monschau. Rumor also has it that some of the best towns in Germany are in Bavaria. Perhaps this is a rumor started by Bavarians, but nevertheless, I’d like to have a closer look at the area while making my way to the German Alps. And while there isn’t a national park in Germany that I don’t want to visit, I have an especially strong desire to visit Saxon Switzerland National Park outside of Dresden on the Czech border.
Before You Go To Germany
Do brush up (or start working on) your German language skills if you plan on going outside of the major cities. Germans are just as complicit as North Americans in perpetrating this myth that you don’t need to speak German when you travel Germany. You don’t need to be able to speak German in the sense that you don’t necessarily need to speak Arabic to get around in Jordan, but it will both enhance your trip and make it more enjoyable.
English will be easy in the likes of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, but if you decide to go on a long multi-day hike along something like the Rheinsteig — which you absolutely should — you might come across a hotel that doesn’t speak English. You’ll almost certainly find menus without an English translation, so even being able to recognize some foods will be helpful and make the language barrier less frustrating to deal with. Obviously, you’re not going to gain fluency before heading over to Germany, so I do recommend downloading the Dictionary app, which has just about every German phrase I’ve ever had to look up.
Language aside, I do have a few reading recommendations. Beer fans will enjoy Horst Dornbusch’s Prost! The Story of German Beer and history buffs can take on the massive, but incredibly interesting, Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor. For a more travelogue-esque take on the country, I’m currently working my way through Simon Winder’s Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History, which still operates as a historic and cultural look on Germany as well.
When it comes to cinema, I can’t recommend enough Er Ist Wieder Da or He’s Back! This film is based off a satirical novel of the same time and imagines what if Hitler reappeared in modern European society. It’s a mixture of scripted satire and documentary as Hitler interacts with real Germans. The film very much walks the line of “this is okay” and “this is definitely not okay,” quite possibly crossing it for many viewers.
Tschick is another film I’d recommend that has absolutely nothing to do with World War II and the Nazis. It’s essentially a German take on the “often told coming of age story,” but it’s done quite well.
Last but not least, music. Truthfully, I need to dive deeper into this myself, but I’m thinking of two bands/artists off the top of my head — Silbermond and Anna Depenbusch. Silbermond will delight any lover of 90s rock whereas Anna Depenbusch has this charming, occasionally jazzy vibe that I just can’t get enough of. Listen to “Kopf Frei” off her latest album, “Das Alphabet der Anna Depenbusch” and get ready to feel the compulsive urge to whimsically spring about whatever room you’re in.
See more photos of Germany