Leipzig, just an hour from Berlin by train and near enough to Dresden, Erfurt and Görlitz to make it worth staying a while. What was once the most productive manufacturing hub in the GDR has since morphed into the place all the youth want to move to. Check out the Nikolaikirche, home of the Peaceful Revolution; Thomaskirche, the only place to go for a serious JS Bach pilgrimage; and Plotzweg, the former cotton spinning works that is now the hippest collection of entrepreneurs and artists in all of Germany.
This tiny town (pronounced with a soft, throatal ‘khh’) has been around since the Celts were exploring the Moselle some couple of thousand years ago. In addition to the dozens of historical buildings nestled on a bend in the Moselle river, Cochem has the distinct advantage of being right in the middle of white wine country. The steep hills right at the river’s edge made excellent terraces, which in turn make Riesling worth the hike.
Kiel has a long maritime history, but as with most stories involving the sea, it’s not always been smooth sailing. Trading made Kiel rich, but in 1518, the city was kicked out of the Hanseatic League after 400 years of membership, for harbouring pirates, of all things. Fewer pirates are seen in the in town these days, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had, particularly during Kieler Woche, the massive three-week salute to all things nautical.
The old town in the middle-German city of Erfurt is one of the most well-preserved in the country. Though it is worth a visit at any time, 2017 will host special events to celebrate famous inhabitant Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If religious history isn’t quite the stuff of holiday dreams, then ignore the 25 churches in the city centre and have a walk to take in the beauty of the many examples of medieval, neoclassical and GDR architecture that surround it instead.
Across the river from Poland, Germany’s easternmost city is one of its most beautiful and, historically, one of its most wealthy. Civic money means lots of quality building and fantastic examples of renaissance, baroque, late gothic and art nouveau architecture remain. Over the last millennium, Görlitz has been Polish, Hungarian, Czech and German – this, combined with the architecture and forgotten outpost vibe make the city well worth the drive.
Cologne is known in Germany as the place where people work to live. Pretty much all problems in a Cologner’s life can be solved by sitting down for a beer and a laugh. In the week before Ash Wednesday, the city grinds to a halt for Carnival – just like the one in Rio, only with fewer bikinis. The rest of the time, the people enjoy life. It’s no surprise Cologne has more pubs per capita than any other place in the country.
With tourists spending most of their time in Berlin, Munich, Cologne or Hamburg, Lübeck doesn’t get much of a look-in. The city was once an important part of the Hanseatic League, which meant it was able to trade freely and earn money without paying many taxes. Some of this extra cash went into magnificent civic buildings in the brick gothic style – while common in Northern Europe, this style is rare in Germany. The warm glow of the red buildings at sunset is a sight to behold.
The capital of Saxony, formerly home to a series of Electors (sort of duke/princes) with a pile of money and keen interest in the arts, is absolutely packed full of treasures. Architecture varies from renaissance to neoclassical – the Frauenkirche and Semperoper are particular gems – and museums and castles abound, but it’s not all high art. Steamboats on the Elbe waft Dixieland music into the summer air, and movies are regularly shown on the riverbank.
Trier is the oldest city in Germany, dating back to the first century BC, and its position right up against the Luxembourg border makes it the largest German city off the beaten path. The trip is especially rewarding for those who love Roman history, as Trier has the best preserved city gate north of the Alps, three Roman bath ruins, an original Roman court and a 2nd-century Roman bridge.
Sure, it has an 800-year-old port and long history of making piles of money in shipping and then spending it lavishly on stupendous public buildings, but the once tight-laced Hamburg is now home to some of the best nightlife in the country. There’s the Reeperbahn in St. Pauli, where the Beatles got their start, but the Sternschanze is where all the kids hung out before it was cool. The new Elbphilharmonie is worth a visit even if classical music is not your thing – the views of the harbour and the building itself are marvels.