Germany Is So Much More Than Oktoberfest and Berghain
The views in Saxony > the beers in Munich (almost).
Many first-time travelers to Germany start in heavy hitters like Munich, where the beer flows freely every September for Oktoberfest, or Berlin, the chilled-out culture capital. But as excellent as both are, they reflect such a limited part of Germany—a country that’s about the size (in square kilometers) of Montana or New Mexico, two of America’s largest states.
So once you've got the country’s greatest hits under your belt, hop a train and head to one of Germany’s lesser-known cities, where you can wander through art museums and medieval towns, taste beer brewed in ancient styles, pour one out for Beethoven, and take advantage of some of the best hiking Germany has to offer. Here are the best and most underrated destinations to throw on your itinerary.
Slurp ramen and down rare brews in Düsseldorf
Art, fashion, architecture, and industry all converge in Düsseldorf, which dates back to about the 8th Century. The city’s old town, Altstadt—largely devastated during WWII but rebuilt to reflect its historic past—is often referred to as "the longest bar in the world,” packing 300+ bars into a one-square-kilometer district. Here, you’ll drink altbier, a rare, top-fermented style beer that’s unique to Düsseldorf; check out the Altbier-Safari, which goes to each of the main altbier breweries in Altstadt, and a currywurst-and-cheesy food tour of Carlsplatz Market.
Düsseldorf is also home to one of the largest Japanese communities in Europe. Just a 10-minute walk from the Altstadt, check out the “Little Tokyo on the Rhine” neighborhood. It’s a small area along the Immermannstrasse, and Japanese grocers, sushi bars, and shops line adjacent streets. Slurp down some ramen at Takumi, or a round of sashimi at Nagomi.
Raise a Kölsch to the good (extra) old days in Cologne
From Düsseldorf, it’s just a 25-minute train ride to Cologne, one of Germany’s oldest cities. Sitting on the banks of the Rhine, the city’s most prominent feature is the Gothic spirals of Cologne Cathedral, one of the world’s tallest twin-spired churches whose towers rise more than 500 feet into the air.
Like Düsseldorf, Cologne is proud of its beer traditions; and what altbier is to Düsseldorf, the refreshing and light Kölsch is to Cologne. While in town, down a pint at Früh, located near the cathedral, Gaffel am Dom, and Peters Brauhaus. Also make time to swing through one of Cologne’s many museums, such as the Museum Ludwig, a modern art museum that’s kept works by Picasso, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, and the Cologne Chocolate Museum, which chronicles the history of chocolate worldwide.
Get cultured in Ruhrgebiet, a former industrial town turned art hub
In Ruhrgebiet, you’ll find a former coal-mining region that’s been reinvigorated into a hotbed for art and culture: Old furnaces, mines, and winding towers still dot the landscape, many of which have been converted into art spaces and music venues. There are 20 museums spread across the metropolitan area, including the Museum Folkwang in Essen, housing works by legendary European artists like Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Rodin.
You’ve also got to visit the UNESCO-approved Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in the town of Essen. Often dubbed “the most beautiful coal mine in the world,” the rusty but iconic piece of Bauhaus-style steel architecture offers a museum, a free swimming pool, an open-air cinema that screens movies all summer, and an ice skating rink in the winter.
Pay your respects to Ludwig in Bonn
Straddling the Rhine just southeast of Cologne is Bonn. You can visit the literal spot where Beethoven was born, which today is a museum housing the largest Beethoven collection in the world, including his manuscripts for Moonlight Sonata and his last grand piano. There’s also the Bonn Museum Mile, where you’ll find hits like the Kunstmuseum for contemporary art and the Museum Koenig natural history museum.
Bonn is also your jumping-off point for the 125-mile Nature Sieg Trail, which winds through rolling hills, by the Sieg River, around lakes, and even past ruins from World War II. Every stage sits conveniently near a rail station for those who only want a half- or one-day trek, but there are also cute towns nearby with accommodations for more ambitious hikers who want to do the full multi-day hike.
Dive into Rothenburg's medieval past
Full name Rothenburg ob der Tauber, this is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. Situated along Germany’s Romantic Road—a 290-mile stretch that’ll bring you through the Tauber Valley’s vineyards, past historic cities, and eventually to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle—many of the towers, walls, and buildings in Rothenburg date back as far as the 12th century.
A city that’s stood this long has its fair share of history lessons: Amidst the colorful, latticed architecture, you’ll find stories of religious turmoil, feuding kingdoms, and near-destruction in the aftermath of World War II. Walk along the old town walls to take it all in from above, or dive directly into its past on a tour. Plus, in more recent history, Rothenburg has a solid grip on fans of fantasy: It inspired the setting for Disney’s Pinocchio, and parts of the final two Harry Potter films were filmed here, too.
Party like a college kid in Leipzig
So you didn’t get into Berghain nightclub, and you’re thinking of leaving Berlin behind completely for greener (or perhaps less-gatekeepy) pastures. That’s where Leipzig steps in.This city just two hours southeast of the German capital has been occasionally dubbed “the better Berlin.” Home to one of the world’s oldest universities at the University of Leipzig (founded in 1409!), it’s got all the same creative energy and freak-flag diversity and comes stacked with classic culture and history.
For the best of the city’s subcultures, check out Plagwitz, where factories are regenerated as galleries; the punk stronghold of Connewitz; and the city’s music scene, including the techno temples at Institut fuer Zukunft and Distillery, and June’s Wave Gotik, one of the world’s largest goth music fests.
Soak up the architecture in Dresden
You probably know Dresden because their Christmas market goes all out, but Baroque architecture is the real name of the game here. After being virtually bombed to smithereens during World War II, painstaking efforts were put in place to resurrect the city’s historic landmarks—and boy, are there a lot of them to see. The Dresden Royal Palace, home to the Green Vault (which houses the largest treasure trove in Europe); the Theaterplatz District, where you’ll find architectural masterpieces like Zwinger Palace; Frauenkirche, an 11th-century church that’s been torn down and rebuilt about 1,000 times in as many years. That’s just naming a few highlights!
And although everything looks antique and elegant at first blush—which it is—Dresden after dark takes it from an old-world city to a modern nightlife hub. Head to the unusual, colorful streets of the Neustadt neighborhood and find out for yourself.
Let Frankfurt stoke your literary fire
Frankfurt might be known for its towering banks, but this modern city has a lot more to offer—its eponymous sausages, for one. Frankfurt am Main, as its formerly called, highlights the river that runs through the city, which you can admire from the famous Eiserner Steg, a green steel footbridge built in 1869.
Writer Johan Wolfgang von Goethe was born here, and you can visit his former home at the Goethe House Museum. For a bit of art, head to the Städel museum, which houses impressive works from a number of old masters, like Monet, Botticelli, and Vermeer. When the weather cools down, the Alstadt (Old Town) is the place to be, with an annual Christmas market taking place in Römerberg square. Don’t leave without trying a jug of the ultra-sour apfelwein, a regional cider.