My home country of Germany is just a touch smaller than the state of California, and its 83 million inhabitants live in a country that seems to be on the doorstep of it all: There are two coastlines, one on the North Sea and one on the Baltic, with several islands on either side; and, bordering nine countries, it is a perfect base from where to travel around Europe. But equally, there is so much to see within Germany that it is worth an extended vacation itself.
Split into 16 states, it can be difficult for visitors to choose what to see and where to travel first. So here, I’ll give a short description of each state, listing them in alphabetical order for ease, and provide what I think are their most important experiences — more in some, less in others.
Baden-Württemberg lies in the southwest corner of Germany, bordering Switzerland to the south, and France — and the Rhine River, popular for river cruises — to the west. Porsche and Mercedes Benz have their headquarters here, plus there are vineyards and the Black Forest.
The Black Forest
The Black Forest region is known for its gateau (a rich cake), its cuckoo clocks, and the many hiking trails that stud this vast 2,320-square-mile area. TravelAwaits has more on the Black Forest here.
The Pretty Cities
There are various castles in this state, but the most important is Hohenzollern Castle in the heart of the state, looking like it’s from a fairy tale.
Bavaria is the state which, in foreigners’ minds, is practically interchangeable with Germany, even if it is not. This is where you find the mountains, castles, the Oktoberfest, and men wearing Lederhosen.
The city of Munich is certainly worth a trip with its superb museums, the English Garden, the markets, and, yes, the Oktoberfest.
The Romantic Road
With the Alps so close, head to Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain. You reach the top by cable car, which provides fabulous views across Austria and Germany.
The capital of Germany, Berlin hardly needs an introduction. This vibrant city (which is also a state) is full of history but has a hip and young vibe. It’s a city not to miss out on.
Berlin has an intriguing mix of old and new, best seen in the iconic Reichstag building. You should also check out the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra and the New National Gallery, a modern art museum.
Museum Island is exactly what it claims to be: an island in the river Spree, filled with five impressive museums. Looking for the 3,000-year-old bust of Nefertiti? That one stands in the Neues Museum.
The Berlin Wall is still a haunting main sight in the city, as is the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Checkpoint Charlie tells of the war, as do the Palace of Tears and the iconic ruined Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin, is one of the least populated but is full of natural beauty.
Germany’s answer to Versailles, Sanssouci Palace (or “the Palace without Worries”), is simply stunning.
Canal Boat Trip
The canals and rivers of Brandenburg invite you to hop on a boat and explore the vastness of the landscapes.
Sanssouci is Germany’s Versailles, and Babelsberg Studios is Germany’s Hollywood. Many major films — including, during their rule, many Nazi propaganda films — were filmed here, and it still operates today. The studios are now open to tour in groups of 5 to 25.
Bremen is an odd state, being a city-state with two cities, incorporating Bremen and its port, Bremerhaven. The smallest and least populous state, it offers plenty of charm.
Bremen is a Hansestadt — a city that was part of the trade union the Hanseatic League between the 13th and 15th centuries. Many grand buildings remain from those prosperous times and are worth seeing.
The Bremer Stadtmusikanten
Bremer Stadtmusikanten (or “Town Musicians of Bremen”) is a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm involving a singing group made up of a donkey, dog, cat, and cockerel. You’ll find the famous statue of them in the city center.
The Schnoor Quarter
The Schnoor Quarter is the most scenic of neighborhoods with half-timbered houses, cobbled lanes, and plenty of cafes and little shops.
Another city-state, and another Hansestadt — this time, my hometown of Hamburg. With more bridges than Venice, Stockholm, and Amsterdam combined, Germany’s second-largest city is dominated by water and wonderful architecture.
The area around the port is lined with worthwhile sights, from the old tunnel below the Elbe river to the modern concert hall, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg; from the UNESCO-listed Speicherstadt district with its old warehouses to the fun harbor cruises.
The Alster Lakes
Two lakes dominate the center of Hamburg. Around the smaller one, Binnenalster, you’ll find the best shopping. The larger one, Außenalster, is perfect for sailing and paddle boarding, and you will also find dreamy real estate.
The Reeperbahn is the redlight district of Hamburg, and while no locals venture there except for visiting the theater at one end, no tourist ever goes without having a look at the seedy bars and clubs. Go for a beer and keep an open mind.
Hesse is the state which most visitors abroad pass through without even knowing it, as it is home to Frankfurt and Germany’s largest airport.
Frankfurt Am Main
The Manhattan of Germany, with its skyscrapers and many international companies, Frankfurt (officially named Frankfurt am Main) is the financial hub of the country, with a historic center and many museums — and bars! — along the river Main.
A superb example of a fort-cum-castle, Braunfels Castle has a history going back some 800 years and is surrounded by the quaint, historic village of Braunfels.
Kellerwald-Edersee National Park
Kellerwald-Edersee National Park, with its UNESCO-recognized beech forest, is perfect for going on long forest hikes, taking to the lake for water sports, and enjoying the local wildlife. It is a haven for nature lovers.
8. Lower Saxony
One of the largest states in Germany, Lower Saxony incorporates mountainous regions, reaches the North Sea coast, and borders more states than any other.
The North Sea
The Lower Saxony North Sea coast is studded with many gorgeous islands that simply cry out for a longer stay. I’ve written more about the islands along the North Sea coast here.
This lovely old town is crammed full of Gothic buildings and lies in the heart of the Lüneburg Heath area, with stunning countryside all around.
A state that was long unreachable, lying in former East Germany, it is now one of the most visited states by Germans looking to enjoy the unspoiled Baltic coastline.
Stretching 1,200 miles along the entire northeastern coastline of Germany, up to the border with Poland, the Baltic coast includes the gorgeous island of Rugen, with its white cliffs and endless beaches.
The Coastal Cities
Beautiful harbors and glamorous, old-fashioned resort towns line the coast. Don’t miss out on beauties such as Rostock, Wismar, and Stralsund.
Dating back to 1558, this Renaissance Palace is one of the finest in Germany, and today it is a museum and cultural center.
10. North Rhine-Westphalia
Once home to Germany’s coal and steel industry, this central state bordering the Netherlands and Belgium offers great cities and historic sights.
Aachen was once the residence of Emperor Charlemagne and the coronation site for Holy Roman emperors. It has plenty of history, plenty of spas due to its warm mineral springs, plus the famous Printen, a unique-to-Aachen gingerbread.
The Rhine runs through here, and many river cruises set off from Cologne or Dusseldorf, with the amazing scenery and many castles along the route.
This state, just south of North Rhine-Westphalia, is Germany’s best wine-producing state, and is also known for its river cruises and historic cities.
With Rhineland-Palatinate harvesting two-thirds of all the grapes grown in Germany, a tour or two through its vineyards is a must.
This is a state traversed by many rivers, but the two best known rivers are the Rhine and the Moselle, both of which are famous for their cruises and wine-tasting tours.
The Roman History
Trier is not only said to be Germany’s oldest city, but also includes Porta Nigra, one of the best preserved Roman monuments in existence.
Bordering Luxembourg and France, the state of Saarland has swapped between being French or German an incredible eight times, making for a great melange of traditions and cultures. A tiny, forested state, there is not much in the way of grand sights, but instead, a lovely natural landscape that is worth exploring via its many hiking routes.
To get a great view across the forest and the river Saar, looping just there, climb up to the fun treetop walk near the Luxembourg border.
Leipzig is becoming hipper by the minute, ranking close behind Berlin. Known for the Leipzig Book Fair, it is also home to countless art galleries, concert halls, and cultural events.
Dresden is a Baroque architectural marvel, even if most of it had to be rebuilt after World War II. But they did it so well, it’s simply stunning.
The Natural Wonders
From the otherworldly Ore Mountains famous for their traditional Christmas ornaments to the Saxon Switzerland National Park, this state is best explored on a road trip.
This state lies northwest of Saxony and next to Lower Saxony, and it is home to Germany’s highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Harz Mountains
Harz National Park is riddled with myths and legends, such as the witches meeting on the Brocken Mountain for Walpurgis Night each year. A snow paradise in winter, it is home to one of the best medieval German towns, Quedlinburg — one of Saxony-Anhalt’s many UNESCO sites.
The state capital houses an emperor’s burial ground as well as modern delights, such as the Green Citadel, designed by quirky artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Germany’s northernmost state, bordering Denmark, is the visual opposite to Bavaria with its flat landscape, reed-decked houses (most of which seem to have a stork’s nest on the chimney), two coastlines, and many quaint towns dotted throughout. A region long disputed between Denmark and Germany, it is full of Nordic influences.
History And Nature
Lubeck is a lovely old Hanseatic city in Schleswig-Holstein, famous for its marzipan and sturdy city gate. It sits by the Baltic coast.
Sixty miles from Lubeck, along the Kiel Canal, lies the North Sea. There, you’ll find the gorgeous island of Sylt and the must-visit seal sanctuary, Seehundstation Friedrichskoog.
Last alphabetically, but at the geographical center of Germany, Thuringia is a small and often overlooked state. Its gorgeous landscapes are dotted with ancient, picturesque towns, such as Erfurt, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany. Castles, such as the truly spectacular Wartburg Castle, are plentiful, and the countryside and forests ask to be explored on foot.