Seven Fairytale Destinations to Visit in Germany

With two-way quarantine-free travel now possible between Singapore and Germany for the fully vaccinated, a long-haul vacation in Europe is no longer a pipe dream. Here, we highlight a number of beautiful places less than three hours by road or rail from either Frankfurt or Munich, both of which are served with nonstop flights from Singapore Airlines.

The 18th-century Old Bridge spanning the Neckar River in Heidelberg. (Photo: RudyBalasko/iStock)

Heidelberg

54 minutes by high-speed ICE train from Frankfurt

Home to Germany’s oldest institute of higher learning (founded in 1386), this postcard-perfect university town on the Neckar River has been a tourist destination since the late 19th century. It’s easy to see why literary titan Mark Twain gushed about the place, or why he extended what was meant to be an overnight stay into a three-month sojourn. “One thinks Heidelberg by day — with its surroundings — is the last possibility of the beautiful,” Twain wrote in his semi-autobiographical book A Tramp Abroad. “But when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict.”

Modern-day travelers will encounter the same charm while wandering the narrow cobblestone streets and market squares of the Altstadt, or Old Town, which is overlooked by a ruined castle on the slopes of the Königstuhl. This partially rebuilt Renaissance landmark is a must-see (look out for the world’s largest wine barrel), as are the small museum and restored assembly hall at Heidelberg University. Don’t leave without crossing the Old Bridge and ascending through the hillside vineyards for a stroll along the Philosophers’ Way, where generations of professors, philosophers, and literary figures (including Goethe and Twain) have found inspiration while taking in the sweeping views of Heidelberg and its red sandstone castle.

 

Where to Stay: When it comes to local five-star lodgings, few have the pedigree of the 118-room Hotel Europäischer Hof Heidelberg (doubles from US$269). The property, which is positioned right on the edge of the Old Town, has been run by the same family since its opening in 1865. Rooms are done up in a classic style, and recreational facilities here include a modern spa, pool, and gym, plus a roof terrace with sun loungers. Travelers wanting a bit more flexibility can look to Boutique Suites Heidelberg Alte Zigarrenmanufaktur (suites from US$354). Located in close proximity to Heidelberg’s central train station and a 20-minute walk from the Altstadt, the apartment-style hotel has just 17 individually designed suites and lofts inside a remodeled cigar factory, each one equipped with a kitchen and washing machine. There’s also a guests-only fir-clad sauna that affords views over the nearby rooftops.

Where to Eat: Café Knösel, a mid-19th-century coffeehouse steps away from the landmark Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), is Heidelberg’s oldest, and a great place to sample southern German dishes and desserts in a cozy environment. Try the flammkuchen, a pizza-like Alsatian specialty, or go for the platter of sheep’s cheese, tuna, olives, and cherry tomatoes drizzled in garlic sauce and served in a cast-iron skillet. Another option is the (much newer) riverside venue Hemingway’s, where patrons feast on Spanish tapas, burgers, flammkuchen, and hearty salads washed down with cocktails or German beer and wines, best enjoyed on the outdoor terrace when the weather is warm.

 

On the grounds of the UNESCO-listed Würzburg Residenz. (Photo: Peter H/Pixabay)

Würzburg

1 hour 7 minutes by ICE train from Frankfurt

A city of roughly 130,000 people in the Lower Franconia region, Würzburg marks the northern end of the popular Romantic Road, a popular tourist route linking nearly three dozen picturesque towns and castles. Tragically, more than 80 percent of Würzburg was destroyed in a single World War II bombing raid; buildings of historical importance were painstakingly reconstructed over the subsequent decades, and the lively squares and pedestrianized streets of the Old Town are now a joy to wander on foot.

Chief among the city’s sightseeing spots is the sprawling UNESCO-listed Würzburg Residenz, an 18th-century palace complex built as the home of the local prince-bishops. This masterpiece of German high baroque is a fanciful blend of Viennese, French, and northern Italian styles; 40 of the most elaborately decorated rooms are open to visitors. Don’t miss the astonishing Treppenhaus (grand staircase) with ceiling frescoes by Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo overhead, the Imperial Hall, court chapel, and the Mirror Hall. Clad in painted mirror-like glass, the latter is only accessible on an hourlong guided tour. Also worth seeing are the manicured Court Gardens dotted with whimsical sculptures.

Würzburg lies at the center of one of Germany’s most important wine regions, and oenophiles visiting its biggest attraction don’t have to go very far to sample the local vino. Right beneath the Residenz, you’ll find an atmospheric wine cellar run by Staatlicher Hofkeller Würzburg, which has been producing whites since 1128. Tours here include a tasting, and those who wish to bring a bottle home can always browse the winery’s vinotheque on the palace square.

Another draw is the Alte Mainbrücke, the 16th-century bridge spanning the Main River. It’s perhaps most beautiful at twilight, when the statues of saints on both sides are illuminated, along with the Altstadt’s church spires and the clock tower of the Old Town Hall. From the western end of the bridge, you can either embark on an invigorating uphill walk or hop into a taxi for a short ride to the imposing Marienberg Fortress, which was the seat of Würzburg’s prince-bishops before the construction of the Residenz. Its massive ramparts were built after Swedish troops sacked the citadel during the Thirty Years’ War, and modern-day visitors will find two informative museums — one of which takes you through 1,200 years of Würzburg’s fascinating history.

 

Where to Stay: Located within the Altstadt, and just a six-minute walk from the city’s main railway station, Hotel Würzburger Hof (doubles from US$147) is a charming four-star property with 34 rooms and suites. The lobby and breakfast room nod to the rococo style of the nearby Residenz, while guest quarters are furnished with an eclectic combination of antique pieces, designer fittings, and artworks from different periods. If you’re not considering a suite, Room 414 has a bonus feature: its own spacious roof terrace.

Where to Eat: Immensely popular for its traditional Franconian food served in generous quantities, decades-old Backöfele offers local specialties like pike perch in an herb-and-potato crust and schäufele — slow-roasted pork shoulder served with dark beer sauce, hand-rolled potato dumplings, and sauerkraut. The building it occupies dates to 1580, and the rustic main dining room will make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Also in the Old Town, Bürgerspital Weinstuben offers Franconian fare with a modern twist. The restaurant was founded in 1873 and takes up part of a former retirement home for wealthy citizens (outdoor tables are set up on the beautiful arcaded courtyard during the summer). Several must-tries are mostsuppe, a light wine soup; the meatloaf dish leberkäs; and blaue zipfel (sausages boiled in seasoned stock). These should be paired with local wines such as Silvaner and Riesling, all produced with grapes from the 700-year-old Bürgerspital estate.

 

The 180-year-old Trinkhalle, or Pump Room, at Baden-Baden. (Photo: JWackenhut/iStock)

Baden-Baden

1 hour 26 minutes by ICE train from Frankfurt

Billed as “Europe’s summer capital” in the mid-19th-century, when royals from across the continent flocked here to partake in the area’s mineral-rich thermal waters, Baden-Baden pairs German fairytale charm with a cosmopolitan outlook. This fashionable destination on the fringes of the Black Forest was declared part of a transnational UNESCO World Heritage site this summer, alongside 10 other spa towns around Europe.

The curative qualities of Baden-Baden’s hot springs have been understood since Roman times. Emperor Caracalla visited to ease his arthritic pains, and he eventually gave his name to the modern bathing complex Caracalle Therme, one of the two largest attractions in the Bäderviertel, or bathing quarter. The other is the palatial Friedrichsbad, a neo-Renaissance temple to wellness that was built atop the ruins of the Roman baths in 1877. Beneath its vaulted ceilings, visitors go au naturel (this being Germany, genders mix freely on most days of the week) in a 17-step ritual that incorporates hot and cold pools, steam rooms, showers, a body scrub, and an optional massage. A highlight is the thermal pool in the skylit 17-meter-high central dome.

Of course, thermal baths aren’t the only draw in Baden-Baden. Museum Frieder Burda takes up a geometric building by Richard Meier, and houses an outstanding collection of modern and contemporary art with pieces by masters such as Picasso and Miró. Meanwhile, the Fabergé Museum opened only in 2009 to showcase an astonishing array of creations by its namesake Russian jewelry firm. Those wishing to spend more time outdoors should amble through Lichtentaler Allee, a linear riverside park and arboretum, or hike in the wooded hills around town.

 

Where to Stay: Backing directly onto Lichtentaler Allee, the grande dame of Baden-Baden’s hospitality scene is undoubtedly Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa (doubles from US$697), which has been welcoming guests for nearly 150 years. This is the flagship of the locally based and ultra-luxury Oetker Collection, a classic choice for dignitaries expecting old-world luxury in a garden setting. There are three excellent restaurants, along with a recently added five-floor spa building complete with an indoor pool, gym, hammam, and medical wellness facilities. Also notable is Hotel Belle Epoque (doubles from US$223), a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World that occupies a restored 19th-century villa nearby. Here, the 20 high-ceilinged rooms and suites come adorned with antique furnishings, while the chandelier-lit public spaces have an even more extravagant feel. Breakfast and afternoon tea are both included in the nightly rate.

Where to Eat: Reservations are essential if you want to dine at Nigrum, a cozy, glamorous venue with just eight tables. Chefs here harness seasonal ingredients in multicourse tasting menus that scour the globe for inspiration: think flame-grilled salmon with incense cream and kimchi or teriyaki pork belly with octopus and sauerkraut gel. Fancy some dessert? To enjoy the German afternoon ritual of kaffee und kuchen, you’ll want to head over to local institution Café König, a 250-plus-year-old coffee house known for its traditional pastries and real-deal Black Forest gateau.

 

The Church of St. Dionysus in Esslingen am Neckar. (Photo: Klaus-Peter Huschka/Pixabay)

Esslingen am Neckar

1 hour 51 minutes by train from Frankfurt, via Stuttgart / 2 hours 18 minutes from Munich

Despite Esslingen am Neckar’s accessibility — being a mere 15-minute drive or train ride from the major city of Stuttgart — the Swabian town remains overlooked by almost all the major guidebooks. Its enchanting medieval heart escaped World War II unscathed, and the winding cobbled streets of the Altstadt are lined with more than 200 half-timbered houses. Some date all the way back to the second half of the 13th century, making them among the oldest in all of Germany.

The main shopping street leads onto Innere Brücke, a 750-year-old bridge with a tiny chapel and several small stores built directly onto the hefty stone piers. Its spans are best admired from the lawns of Maille Park, wedged between two canals flowing through the heart of town. Esslingen’s skyline is dominated by the Parish Church of St. Dionysius: its original stained-glass windows in the soaring gothic choir are a glorious testament to 14th-century artistry, while an unusual feature is the connecting bridge between the two towers, added in the 1600s to provide extra structural support. Inside a tall half-timbered building directly behind St. Dionysius, Kessler Karrée is the place to sample sekt (German sparkling wine) made by Kessler, the country’s oldest producer of bubbly. Visitors can learn about the production process, including how sekt is matured in the vaulted cellar below.

A few paces away lies Marktplatz, the main market square. This space and the adjoining Rathausplatz, lorded over by the Renaissance facade of the Old Town Hall, host Esslingen’s Medieval and Christmas Market in December, when more than 200 stalls are manned by vendors dressed in period costume. To get an elevated view of the Altstadt, you’ll want to head uphill to the covered walkway atop the 13th-century fortifications known as Esslingen Burg (Esslingen Castle). Also noteworthy is the Weinerlebnispfad, an educational hiking trail that begins outside Esslingen’s Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and brings walkers through a medieval gateway into a landscape of terraced vineyards. Signboards spaced at regular intervals explain the local viticulture and history of Esslingen wine, which was delivered as far away as Italy during the Middle Ages. The endpoint, about a half-hour stroll along the hillside, is an open area called Staffelsteiger-Plätzle; vistas here stretch down the Neckar Valley toward Stuttgart.

 

Where to Stay: A few minutes’ walk from the market square, and easily accessible from the railway station, Hotel am Schelztor (doubles from US$158) is an intimate family-run affair with just 33 rooms. There’s on-site parking, a Finnish sauna, and a small gym, though a small fee is required to use those facilities. Another reliable choice is three-star EcoInn Hotel am Campus (doubles from US$116), which has 59 soundproofed, hypoallergenic rooms. An organic breakfast buffet is included in the nightly rate. As its name suggests, EcoInn prides itself on following sustainable practices: the property is powered entirely by a hydroelectric turbine in the old canal next door.

Where to Eat: Palmscher Bau, located just up the street from Innere Brücke, has a homey interior and a beautiful canal-side beer garden shaded by mature chestnut trees. Glasses of local wine or traditional beer are de rigueur, but the main attraction is the home-style Swabian cuisine. Favorites include ravioli-like maultaschen, a hefty wurst salad, and indulgent käsespätzle, or local egg noodles baked in a creamy cheese sauce. Outside the Old Town, Michelin Plate–awarded restaurant Posthörnle has a completely different character. Patrons in the minimalistic dining room enjoy seasonal cuisine made with fresh ingredients from the surrounding region — the multicourse menus might include dishes like venison rissoles with mustard; smoked eggplant with a hummus of local Alb-Leisa lentils and sheep’s-milk yoghurt; or veal carpaccio with fennel, capers, and cacao.

 

The Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) in Bamberg. (Photo: Scanrail/iStock)

Bamberg

2 hours 11 minutes by train from Frankfurt / 2 hours 32 minutes from Munich

Most visitors tend to explore Bamberg on a day trip from Nuremberg, but it pays to linger for a night or two. This jewel of a city in Upper Franconia has a remarkably well-preserved Old Town with more than 1,300 listed buildings spanning various historical periods. It’s no wonder the place has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being an “outstanding and representative example of an early medieval town in central Europe, both in its plan and its surviving ecclesiastical and secular buildings.”

One of Bamberg’s most emblematic structures is the mid-15th-century Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), whose frescoed facade and unique location on an artificial island in the Regnitz River set it apart from those of other German cities. Visitors also flock to the former fishermen’s settlement nicknamed Klein Venedig (Little Venice), which bears little resemblance to the Italian city but is nonetheless a beautiful sight: the name describes a quaint row of half-timbered houses fronted by tiny riverside gardens. Crowning one of Bamberg’s seven hills is the millennia-old Imperial Cathedral built from local sandstone in a mixture of Romanesque and early gothic style; lunchtime organ concerts are held each Saturday from May to October. The Diocesan Museum next door showcases artifacts from the cathedral’s treasury, including precious medieval textiles.

Heritage buffs will want to check out the Museum of History inside the former royal residence known as the Alte Hofhaltung (Old Court), where a permanent exhibition on Jewish life in Bamberg through the ages was recently added. Directly across Cathedral Square is the Neue Residenz, which served as the palace of the local prince-bishops until 1802. Tours of the magnificent baroque interior are only conducted in German, although the royal apartments and Imperial Hall can still be visited without a guide. Don’t miss the Rose Garden for its blooms at summertime and jaw-dropping views over the Old Town.

No visit to Bamberg is complete without trying the traditional smoked beer at Schlenkerla, situated just down the hill from the cathedral. The six-century-old tavern and brewery is popular for good reason: Schlenkerla’s prized lager gets its distinct flavor from an ancient technique by which malt is smoked over an open beech-wood fire. Waitstaff pour the signature Rauchbier straight from the cask, and visitors often savor it with a hearty meal in the beer hall, a classic expression of gemütlich (German coziness).

 

Where to Stay: With just 23 rooms spread between a sensitively restored medieval building on an islet in the Regnitz and a modern annex, Hotel Nepomuk (doubles from US$162) puts guests right in the heart of the Old Town. Views of the water are a given from the rooms in Superior categories and above, while the duplex suite features a whirlpool bath. The in-house Eckerts restaurant is highly rated for its local cuisine. Farther west along the river, and an easy stroll from the historic center, Welcome Hotel Residenzschloss Bamberg (doubles from US$134) is housed in an 18th-century hospital with a baroque chapel. The four-star property features 184 rooms and suites, two restaurants (including Mediterranean venue Orangerie, where breakfast is served each morning), plus underground parking facilities.

Where to Eat: Franconian sausage is the specialty of Zum Sternla, a local institution dating back to 1380. Hungry diners feast on bratwurst salad (going halb und halb lets you sample pickled cheese as well) or other specialties such as liver dumplings with sauerkraut. About a 10-minute drive from the Old Town, Restaurant Altenburg is the main draw of its namesake castle crowning Bamberg’s highest hill. Locals and tourists alike come to enjoy the baronial atmosphere and Bavarian food with a modern twist. A beer garden operates on the castle terrace in the summer months.

 

Looking toward the Markus Tower in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. (Photo: Roman Kraft/Unsplash)

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

2 hours 44 minutes by train from Frankfurt / 2 hours 56 minutes from Munich

A highlight of the Romantic Road, and famed internationally for its storybook appeal, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is considered one of the best-preserved medieval towns in all of Europe. It’s also one of only three in the Germany that still have completely intact city walls (the others are Nördlingen and Dinkelsbühl, both less than 90 minutes away by car). The name translates to “Red castle above the Tauber”, alluding to its position on high ground overlooking the river. Rothenburg contains a wealth of historical sights despite its small size; its most-photographed spot is the Plönlein, a Y-shaped intersection of two cobblestone streets in the Spital quarter, where a pair of 13th-century watchtowers stand amid the half-timbered houses. It’s possible to complete a circuit on the old city wall in two hours, before taking a break at the Burggarten on the site of a long-destroyed castle. This inviting park features a baroque-style garden studded with statues, shaded lawns, and observation platforms with sweeping views of Rothenburg’s jumble of red-tiled roofs.

Right on the central market square, the monumental Old Town Hall is a gothic and Renaissance beauty – an oversize landmark for a settlement of just 11,000 residents. Pre-Covid, visitors were able to climb the Town Hall tower for panoramic views over Rothenburg. The cobbled square is also the starting point of the Night Watchman’s Tour, an entertaining, 45-minute walk led by legendary guide Hans Georg Baumgartner (the English-language version begins at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). During the daytime, travelers can also gain a deeper understanding of local history through a visit to the Rothenburg Museum. Housed in a former Dominican convent, its collection includes late-15th-century religious panels, a hunting rifle and sword that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and the oldest surviving monastery kitchen in the country. Meanwhile, the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum makes for an eye-opening introduction to old-school torture implements and “shame masks,” as well as the evolution of law and punishment in Germany over the past 1,000 years. A more uplifting alternative is the German Christmas Museum, located within Käthe Wohlfahr (an indoor “Christmas Village” that’s open all year round). Rothenburg is famed for its romantic Christmas Market, which takes over the main square during the Advent period.

 

Where to Stay: Occupying a 12th-century structure built into the city wall, family-owned Burg-Hotel (doubles from US$182) features guest quarters done up in a classic style with large, updated bathrooms. The hotel restaurant opens onto a rose garden and terrace, and the breakfast room affords lovely views from its perch 80 meters above the Tauber River. Daily parking is provided at an extra charge. Another notable option is Wildbad Tagungsort Rothenburg ob der Tauber (doubles from US$138), which takes up a restored 19th-century sanatorium on a sloping, forested site beside the Tauber. Its high-ceilinged rooms are cozy and bright, while some of the public areas come adorned with stained-glass windows. The castle-like property might feel far removed from the hubbub of the Old Town, but Rothenburg’s southern gate, Spitaltor, is a short distance away via a steep set of stairs.

Where to Eat: Generously portioned local classics and seasonal specials are on the menu at Zur Höll (“To Hell”), a charming medieval wine tavern inside one of Rothenburg’s oldest buildings. If it’s available, a recommended choice is the hearty deer platter featuring venison goulash, braised tenderloin medallions, and homemade venison sausage. You’ll want to pair your chosen dishes with Franconian wines; reservations are recommended. Just a few paces from Galgentor (Gallows Gate) and beyond the city walls, Mittermeier is a casual yet elegant Michelin Plate restaurant that dishes out contemporary fare unlike anything else in town. Set menus here showcase a creative interplay of regional and global ingredients (think veal’s head and parsley with Bavarian shrimp, apple, and wasabi), and there’s also an excellent list of local wines to boot.

 

Nuremberg’s Altstadt, or Old Town, at sunset. (Photo: RudyBalasko/iStock)

Nuremburg

1 hour 2 minutes by ICE train from Munich / 2 hours 3 minutes from Frankfurt

Bavaria’s second-largest city might be associated with the darkest chapter of Germany’s 20th-century history — thanks in no small part to the monumental Nazi Party rally grounds and the Nuremberg trials — but its beauty draws visitors from far and wide. The medieval Altstadt was carefully rebuilt after 90 percent of its buildings were destroyed during World War II, and contains a wealth of attractions for the history buff. At the top of the list is Nuremberg Castle, also known as the Kaiserberg, which was once an important residence for the Holy Roman Emperors. Make sure you take the time to explore the interior and climb the winding staircase up the Sinwell Tower for panoramic views over the Old Town.

A short walk from the Kaiserberg, the cobbled square known as Tiergärtnerplatz is flanked by several charming bars, cafés, and the 16th-century Albrecht Dürer’s House — where the foremost German artist of the Renaissance lived and worked during the final two decades of his life. These days, it’s a museum that holds valuable copies of Dürer’s paintings and showcases works from the municipal art collection. To the southwest, stroll along the Weißgerbergasse to admire the original half-timbered houses; this part of the Old Town was mostly untouched by Allied bombing in World War II. Any visit to the Altstadt is not complete without stepping into the landmark Frauenkirche, a 14th-century gothic church fronting the Hauptmarkt. Each winter, this outdoor space plays host to Germany’s most famous Christmas Market, where shoppers can warm up with glühwein (mulled wine) and sample local specialties like Nuremburger sausage and lebkuchen.

Nuremberg’s Old Town is bisected by the Pegnitz River; the stretch around the Henkersteg, a rustic covered wooden bridge that links both sides with a small riverine island, is particularly scenic. The south bank functions as the city’s main shopping district, and rising at the junction of several pedestrian streets are the twin towers of Lorenzkirche, or St. Lawrence’s Church. The gothic sanctuary is well worth a visit for its stained glass and intricately carved stonework: look out for the soaring tabernacle by 15th-century sculptor Adam Kraft. For something different, have your fill of contemporary art and design at the Neues Museum, whose curving glass facade provides a stark contrast to a surviving section of the old city walls.

 

Where to Stay: Situated in the castle district of the Old Town, and run by four successive generations of the same family, Hotel Elch Boutique (doubles from US$117) occupies a half-timbered inn dating to the 14th century. The bright communal spaces have been sensitively updated while showing off the original timber beams and other architectural elements. Accommodation here ranges from standard rooms with a historic feel to contemporary 40-square-meter apartments. If classic luxury is what you’re after, the 190-room Le Méridien Grand Hotel Nuremberg (doubles from US$180) takes up a late-19th-century building right across from the central train station. A sophisticated brasserie beside the marbled lobby serves German and international fare, while the guest quarters upstairs are fitted with modern furniture and art nouveau–style bathrooms.

Where to Eat: Hearty, down-to-earth Franconian cuisine is the hallmark of Albrecht-Dürer-Stube, a cozy family-run restaurant in the Old Town that has been operating since 1951. Behind the half-timbered facade and leaded window panes, patrons feast on specialties like venison stew with red cabbage, cranberries, and potato dumplings, or catfish filet in horseradish sauce with herbed potatoes. Expect beer to be served by the half-liter and generous pours of Franconian wines. Not in the mood for German cuisine? Mevlana Restaurant, situated just outside the Altstadt on the south bank, is considered one of the best Turkish dining venues in town. The pide and flaky borek pastries are freshly baked in a wood-fired oven, and the spiced lamb-and-vegetable dish saç kavurma makes for a satisfying meal no matter the season.

Share this Article