The Best Cities to Visit in Germany

The city skyline at Marienplatz new town hall in Munich, Germany.
The city skyline at Marienplatz new town hall in Munich, Germany. | © Noppasin Wongchum / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Marion Kutter
5 April 2021

From the Berlin Wall and Cologne Cathedral to Oktoberfest and sailing regattas, here’s our guide to the best cities in Germany to enjoy open-air festivals, listen to street music or just sample some local beer.

Germany is a country with a rich history, remarkable cities and beautiful landscapes, from huge forests to alpine lakes. Famous for its cathedrals as much as for its fairytale castles and uninhibited nightlife, it is also the seventh most visited country in the world. Here, Culture Trip guides you towards the highlights.

Heidelberg: the city of Mark Twain

Architectural Landmark
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View over Heidelberg old town, the castle, church and bridge.
View over Heidelberg old town, the castle, church and bridge. | © Anna Stowe Travel / Alamy Stock Photo

Heidelberg in southwest Germany is considered to be one of the most magical destinations in Europe. A source of inspiration for some of the most famous poets, painters, philosophers and writers, Heidelberg was an important centre for German Romanticism in the 18th century. Walking around its cobblestoned roads is the best way to experience the idyllic atmosphere that inspired Mark Twain. The writer spent a big part of his life in the city, where he finished writing the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The internationally known University of Heidelberg was the first to be built in Germany and today is ranked among the top universities in the world. The historical Alte Brücke bridge connects the two sides of the river Neckar that runs through Heidelberg, and used to be the main entrance to the city. A 2km (1.3mi) path starts from Neuenheim, the old town, crosses Alte Brücke and ends on the other side of the river. Here you can enjoy a magnificent view of the city. This route is known as “the road of the philosophers”, a path said to have been walked, at least once, by every single philosopher and professor from the University of Heidelberg.

Freiburg: a sunlit porch in the south of Germany

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There’s a riddle spoken about Freiburg and it goes like this: “Are the citizens of Freiburg so content because the sun shines above their city more than in any other place in Germany; or have they been granted the gift of abundant sunlight because of their kindness?” Who knows? The sure thing is that Freiburg is one of the most wonderful places to visit in Germany, even on those rare occasions when the sun doesn’t shine. Freiburg is one the country’s oldest cities, too, and has a rich culture, filled with cafes, breweries and restaurants where you can enjoy the traditional cuisine. The vibrant, historical city centre manages to stand out thanks to the 116m (380ft) gothic tower of its cathedral. The cathedral’s square is also the largest in the city, and where the weekly market takes place. The farmers’ stands line the northern side while the merchants’ stalls line the southern side. Last but not least, the city offers a huge variety of festivals, which take place all year round, from January’s Internationalen Kulturbörse (the international culture exchange) to December’s extravagant Christmas market.

Hamburg: gateway to the world

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Famous Speicherstadt warehouse district with blue sky and clouds in Hamburg, Germany
Famous Speicherstadt warehouse district with blue sky and clouds in Hamburg, Germany | © Scott Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo

Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany and the third biggest port in Europe. Its story begins with the Romans; luckily we can still admire a big part of its original architecture, as the city managed to preserve its history during the raids of World War II. Today, it is a rapidly developing hub that has attracted the greats of the naval and aerospace industry, as well as publishing and communication companies. The City Hall (Rathaus), is the only palace in the city, a neoclassical building whose internal decoration reflects the pride of the city’s 19th-century middle classes. Walking through the open-air market and the elegant alleyways around the City Hall, you will come to the Binnenalster, the huge lake in the middle of the city that connects the port with the sea. Hamburg’s miniature museum, Miniatur Wunderland, is one of the most interesting and original the city has to offer and it hosts the most impressive model figure exhibition in Europe. The last stop on a night out in Hamburg should be the renowned fish market at the port, which opens its doors in the early hours of Sunday. Indie bands entertain the public there, so you can finish your night with a freshly cooked breakfast and live music.

Potsdam: a kingdom of palaces and gardens

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New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany. | © velislava-germany / Alamy Stock Photo

Potsdam is the capital of the state of Brandenburg and is most famous as the historical seat of the Prussian government. The Prussian kings created a baroque dream, while their successors added neoclassical monuments. Since 1990, the cultural treasure of Potsdam, including the palaces of Sanssouci, Neuer Garten, Babelsberg, Glienicke and Pfaueninsel island, along with their palaces, have been recognized as Unesco World Heritage sites. You could begin your tour of central Potsdam at the Old Market, the main square of the city, where the church of St Nikolai, the Lustgarten and the City Hall form an aristocratic complex. The neighbouring Luisenplatz square connects the baroque Brandenburger Strasse to the tree-lined entrance of Sanssouci park and palace. Friedrich the Great designed his summer palace himself and it is today a perfect example of rococo architecture. He used to retreat to its premises to escape his worries, hence the palace’s name sans souci (without worry).

Cologne: the imposing beauty

Architectural Landmark
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Cologne Cathedral and Hohenzollern Bridge, Cologne (Koln), North Rhine Westphalia, Germany, Europe
Cologne Cathedral and Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne. | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Even if you are not a religious person, and no matter how many pictures of it you may have seen, the first time you lay eyes on the cathedral of Cologne, with its 157m (515ft) towers reaching for the clouds, you can’t help but stare up in awe. It’s part of what makes Cologne one of the most impressive cities to visit in Germany. It took more than 600 years for the church to be completed, and walking its perimeter can feel like it’s taking a similar period of time. The biggest gothic church in northern Europe, it survived 14 different bombings during World War II. And it is here where the bones of the three kings are kept – yes, those bearing the gifts for the newborn Jesus Christ. The old town spreads around the cathedral to the west shores of the river Rhine. It is perfect for endless strolls in the narrow, cobblestoned alleyways, the petite squares, the impressive, vividly coloured houses of the 19th century and the lively bars and restaurants that serve the fresh, local kölsch beer.

Kiel: the capital of sailing

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Kiel is the capital of the Schleswig-Holstein state, and a key waterway linking Germany with the Baltic. Its strategic position on the Bay of Kiel allowed it to become the centre of shipbuilding and navigation during the 19th century. Today, the city is known as the Capital of Sailing and it is the proud host of the Kiel Regatta, the greatest sailing event in the world and the largest summer festival in northern Europe. The focus of the events is the Gorch Fock, the legendary training ship and one of Kiel’s main attractions. The Laboe Naval Memorial, standing between Kiel and the neighbouring town of Laboe is a magnificent dedication to sailors in the world wars. The view from the top is worthwhile, since the landscape of Kiel is relatively flat. Even though maritime tradition seems to dominate the stage, the city has much more to offer. This includes the historical Eggerstedtstrasse, which has undergone serious reconstruction since the war, the square of the Old Market, the posh “Danish” shopping street and the beautiful neighbourhood of Marinenviertel next to the port. There, you can try Kiel’s local specialty, kieler sprotte, smoked fish that is meant to be eaten whole, until the last bone.

Munich: the village of the world

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Munich is the Bavarian capital built on the shores of Isar, the biggest tributary river of the Danube. The first inhabitants of the city were Benedictine monks, after whom the city is named. The Oktoberfest celebrations and the gigantic brezels may be what immediately springs to mind, but for some this is the least appealing side of the city, as the prices rocket and more than three million tourists swarm the streets looking for beer-tasting experiences. Munich is one of the best cities to visit in Germany and is generally quiet, with a history that goes back to the 12th century. Since then, it has managed to develop a multicultural personality and become a “village of the world”. It has wonderful parks and gardens, great museums and a big selection of cuisines and markets, varying from massive department stores to tiny flea markets. Unfortunately, the historical centre was badly damaged during the war, but it was reconstructed to be remarkably similar to the original. Characteristic examples are the Frauenkirche and the City Hall with the famous Glockenspiel, a clock with statues that come to life each hour.

Dresden: the treasure chest of Germany

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The Zwinger palace, Dresden, Saxony, Germany
The Zwinger palace, Dresden, Saxony, Germany | © Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

The distribution of artistic treasures amongst Germany’s cities wasn’t particularly fair – Dresden seems to have gathered the majority of them. The capital of the free state of Saxony charms its visitors with a mixture of tradition and scenic landscapes. A walk through the dreamy city centre, which used to be the seat of the rulers and kings of Saxony, reveals the beauty of Dresden, often characterized as the Florence of the Elbe. The architectural styles vary from Renaissance to baroque and neoclassical. The Frauenkirche, a pink and white church, the Zwinger Palace, and the Semperoper opera along with the city of gardens, Hellerau, are only some of the sights that demand attention. Picnics on the grass with a view of the palace and the cathedral, historical steamboats with Dixieland jazz music, castles that look on to the city from above and open-air breweries help make Dresden one of the best places to visit in Germany. The river landscape creates the perfect setting for many open-air activities, such as movie nights on the river bank, the open-air Elbhangfest and concerts in the romantic parks of the river castles.

Bremen: a Grimm tale

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Bremen Market Square situated in the center of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, Germany and is one of the oldest public squares .
Bremen Market Square in the center of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, and one of the oldest public squares. | © Shahid Khan / Alamy Stock Photo

“I tell you what,” said the donkey, “I am going to Bremen, and shall be town musician there. Go with me and engage yourself also as a musician. I will play the lute, and you shall beat the kettle drum.” A Brothers Grimm fairytale, the Town Musicians of Bremen is set in the city and makes the street musicians its trademark. Bremen is relatively small and easily explored, with the majority of the tourist attractions located in the Old Town. Approximately 2,000 steel and copper nails mark the route from the Liebfrauen Kirche, the town’s oldest church, to the main square and further on to Bottcherstrasse, once the street of craftsmen. The glorious City Hall with its Renaissance architecture still remains today the main landmark of the city, as well as a tribute to Roland, protector of the Trade and the city’s founder. Here also stands the statue representing the animals from the Town Musicians of Bremen fairytale (a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster).

Berlin – the laid-back metropolis

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The capital city of Germany is Berlin. Upon arrival, visitors have to forget anything they knew about a typical German city. Berlin is an assemblage of peoples and cultures, a historical and at the same time modern city. It also contains some of the finest examples of contemporary architecture in the country. The story of a whole nation is captured in the landmarks of Berlin, from the grandiose Brandenburg Gate to the 368m (1,200ft) TV tower at Alexanderplatz, offering one of the best views in the city. Also notable is the magnificent Reichstag, the German parliament with its glass dome, which is open to the public for free. Berlin creates the latest trends in lifestyle, music and art, attracting creatives from all over the world and offering the largest independent music and theatre scene in Europe. A night out in Berlin is a must, as the city nights are long throughout the week, with a huge selection of cosy bars, clubs and live stages, especially around the areas of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Don’t miss out on a walk around the East Side Gallery, the longest preserved part of the inner Berlin Wall, covered with contemporary, and old, graffiti art.

These recommendations were updated on April 5, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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