From chilling in the beach bars of Frankfurt to taking a paddle steamer on the Elbe, Germany has plenty to explore:
Leipzig’s cutting-edge arts
Leipzig is fast catching Berlin as a setting for innovative arts, particularly the city’s Baumwollspinnerei, a former factory that now hosts dozens of eclectic galleries and artists’ studios. The Spinnerei is the venue for British artist Jim Whiting’s Bimbotown Parties, a mix of music, theatre and lots of crazy stuff by artists from all over Europe. Tickets are sought after but some can usually be bought on the door. The cafe at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst is redesigned every two years by artists and called Kafic in its current version after a makeover by artist-architects Apolonija Sustersic and Meike Schalk.
Hamburg’s city orchard
The largest fruit orchard in northern Europe is in the outskirts of Hamburg, and reachable through the city’s S-Bahn system. And yet Altes Land, as the name suggests, is still a deeply traditional place, and it is particularly spectacular at blossom time. The landscape is carefully preserved and comes complete with some of the finest half-timbered farmhouses in north Germany.
Spin round the Nürburgring
Put your pedal to the metal on Germany’s original grand prix track, the Nürburgring (nurburgring.de), a looping circuit through the forested Eifel hills. The 14-mile Nordschleife includes 73 right-angle bends and was used as a Formula One circuit until the cars simply became too fast for it. When Niki Lauda was badly injured in 1976 the drivers refused to compete there again, with Jackie Stewart christening it “green hell”. These days you can drive around it yourself in your own car and see whether you agree, but just don’t get distracted by the scenery.
Live it up on the lakes
The Mecklenburg lake district is a region of a thousand lakes and watercourses about 70km north of Berlin, and is pillowed in soft woodland and rolling agricultural land. These living waterways have long been a mecca for German boating holidays, homemade boathouses line the shores, and youngsters still set off on motorised rafts for watery adventures, like something out of Huckleberry Finn. You can rent sophisticated cabin cruisers here too.
Channel-surf in Spreewald
The Sorbs are Germany’s most enduring ethnic minority, and they’ve lived in a crescent of land in modern Brandenburg since the sixth century. Here, the Spreewald is a watery mosaic of channels, meadows, fields and forests fed by the river Spree, and easily accessible from Berlin. Key towns are Lübben and Lehde, where a lot of travel (including tours) is still by boat. Gherkins are a big industry for Sorb farmers, and every April the region hosts a unique Spreewald marathon, which involves running, cycling, walking, and paddling. The starting command? “Auf die Gurke, fertig, los” (gherkin, steady, go!) – not something you’re likely to hear at the 2012 Olympics.
Frankfurt’s beach life
“Bankfurt” is not all about gleaming capitalism, for Frankfurt’s Main river undergoes a bank-side transformation in summertime to become a large outdoor bar. Favorites such as the Maincafé, with its deckchairs and beach vibe, (between Untermainbrücke und Holbeinsteg) attract a relaxed crowd. Hafenbar (near Alte Brücke on the north bank of the river) is the beach bar outpost of the Stereobar club, where visitors can bring their own food. And the city’s famous King Kamehameha gets down to the river as well in summer with its King Kamehameha Beach Club.
A view to a thrill
X marks the spot where the AlpspiX viewing platform hangs out over a thousand-metre void in the lee of the 2,962-metre Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, in southern Bavaria. Two metal walkways cross arms as they reach out into giddy nothingness, and you need to keep your nerve if you intend to walk the full 42 feet to the end of each, especially when it wobbles. The AlpspiX is reached via the Alpspitze cable car from the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
A paddle down the Elbe
Paddle steamers were once the monarchs of the European river systems, but these days they are rare. Except, of course, if you’re in Dresden that reconstructed jewel of an imperial city, because a whole fleet of old beauties operates from this Florence of the Elbe. Decks quivering, funnels billowing, paddles kiss-kissing the water, they thump upriver to the castle at Pillnitz, and then onwards into mountainous Saxon Switzerland. From their final destination at Bad Schandau, it is only 45 minutes back to Dresden by train.
King Ludwig’s hilltop hideaway
Everyone knows Neuschwanstein, the fairytale Bavarian Schloss that inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, but millions queue for its (perfunctory) tour every year. Far better to take a hike up Schachen to the King’s House an extraordinary mountain-top retreat also built by castle-obsessed King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and have its bizarre Turkish-themed salon to yourself. It’s a four-hour walk up from the car park at Elmau, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and you can overnight for as little as €10 in the next door Schachenhaus, which also serves hot food and cold beer.
Michelin stars in the Forest
Baiersbronn, this small rural community in the Black Forest is a gourmet valley of international repute. Its nine small villages can boast seven Michelin stars, divided between three chefs. They are Harald Wohlfahrt, Claus-Peter Lumpp and Jörg Sackmann. If you don’t feel like joining the queue for a reservation, Baiersbronn is also a prime hiking destination and ramblers can roam the forests on walks guided by a local chef, who’ll reveal nature at its tastiest.
A grape escape
The Palatinate region, up against the border with France, is where Germany gets super-excited about food and wine. The German Wine Route runs here, with lots of tastings and good little restaurants. In March, the Mandelblüte (almond blossom) makes the hills blush. The Ketschauer Hof in Deidesheim is a stylish conversion of a winemaker’s old manor house. In nearby Speyer, more than 1,500 years old and home of the Unesco-recognised Speyerer Dom (imperial cathedral), visitors can explore the city’s rich history on a culinary walking tour, stopping off at different restaurants for each course of their three-course meal.
Who needs the Alps?
Germany may not be a first-choice destination for ardent skiers, but you can’t fault the ambition, and the accessibility, of one of its (almost unknown) ski regions. Sauerland, a hilly area east of Düsseldorf, describes itself as the “largest snow paradise north of the Alps”, despite its comparatively low peaks and patchy snowfall. There are more than 120 ski lifts and a lively après-ski, and it is good for beginners and intermediates. There’s lots of entertainment for no-snow days, such as riding the Taxi-Bob, a bobsleigh run that can reach speeds of 80mph.
Up the garden path
Schleswig-Holstein’s “Garden trails between the seas” (the North Sea and the Baltic Sea) is a selection of nine routes that can be covered by bike or car. Each route takes in 10 different gardens and parks plus stopovers in tree nurseries or garden cafes. It’s a fantastic way to explore the region and discover northern German garden culture.