As someone who is constantly looking for new places to explore, I’m excited to share this guest post on the 15 best cities in Southern Germany today.
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Guest post by Lorelei from California Globetrotter
It comes as no surprise, that when planning a trip to Germany, most often head to the southern states of Germany for it’s unbelievably beautiful landscape, culture and traditions as well as some of the most romantic towns and castles in the country. Everyone clearly wants to experience the romance of fairy tale half-timbered towns and castles, even if it only means pretending to be a princess for a day. But, if you could spend two weeks in southern Germany, you could feel the magic of a time long gone for more than one day in 15 of the top destinations to visit in southern Germany!
While there is no clear line separating north and south Germany from one another, there is, however, a distinct difference between the two regions. Northern Germany tends to be predominantly Protestant and quite liberal while southern Germany is hard core Catholic traditionalists, but both however, tend to mistrust the other’s food, politics and dialects. But we’re not here to talk about that. Despite the differences, the southern region is renowned for being home to the Black Forest, the Danube River and Rhine River as well as the Bavarian Alps. From romantic Heidelberg to the hustle and bustle of Munich to charming medieval towns like Regensburg, these are the best cities to visit in southern Germany!
The two largest states in Germany are Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria which is home to roughly a fourth of the population of the country. But you’ll also be passing through the states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland which is one of the warmest regions in Germany with vineyards scattering the rolling landscape.
Where should you begin your journey through the south?
Quite honestly, you could either fly into Frankfurt Airport or Munich Airport and still continue in a circular journey. However, flying into Frankfurt Airport is often much cheaper, yet a bit more chaotic while flying into Munich Airport would be way less stressful and you would simply breeze right through as it is only a fraction of the size of Frankfurt. Once you have landed, you should rent a car as that is the easiest and fastest way to get around Germany, however, is you’re willing to ride the rails, then you can simply purchase the Bayern-Ticket (Bavaria-Ticket) or the Baden-Württemberg-Ticket each day which allows you to simply come and go as you please one day at a time with up to 5 people on one ticket. But, you would need to buy this ticket every day you plan to take the train.
Best Cities in Southern Germany: Hesse
Frankfurt am Main
For those flying into Frankfurt Airport, Frankfurt is often where visitors get their first taste of Germany. It’s here that you can truly see a blend of historic architecture and modern high rise buildings. If you’re looking for that big-city buzz, then Frankfurt is your scene. With eye-catching skyscrapers, Frankfurt actually feels more like New York than a German city and is often nicknamed “Mainhatten”. Why might that be? Because after WWII, the allies divided Germany into four sections and Frankfurt fell into the American zone. While it might look all business on one side, the other is remnants of historical sites like the Römerberg offering a glimpse into the past.
Best Cities in Southern Germany: Rhineland-Palatinate & Saarland
The Rhine Valley (Rüdesheim am Rhine, Bacharach and the Loreley)
Just a smidge over the border from Hesse is the picturesque Rhine Valley. While still incredibly rural, the three main waterways, the Rhine, Mosel and Saar have played a vital role in shaping the region and is bustling with life, capped off by a plethora of ruinous and rebuilt castles. Spend a few hours in Rüdesheim am Rhine, an adorably quaint little half-timbered town at the foothills of vineyards before driving along the Romantic Rhine in the direction of Bacharach, another charming half-timbered town with cobbled-stoned alleys where you can even enjoy a Riesling flavored ice cream! Then head to St. Goarhausen where you’ll find the alluring siren, the Loreley, who sits at the end of a sliver of island marking the giant rock outcrop that is most dangerous to sailors. She sits combing her beautiful locks of blonde hair, bewitching sailors with her unparalleled beauty, luring them to their deaths with her song. Yes, this is my namesake, but hopefully only because I have unparalleled beauty!
Perched along the left bank of the Mosel River is a castle few have heard of. The Reichsburg Castle towers over the whimsical town of Cochem, with a mixture of half-timbered houses and simpler facades. The castle itself was destroyed by the army of the French King, Louis XIV and would sit in ruins for over 180 years before a wealthy businessman took it upon himself to restore it to its original Romanesque beauty. Cochem is one of the most scenic destinations in southern Germany still quite under the radar but definitely worth a visit!
Best Cities in Southern Germany: Baden-Württemberg
Heidelberg sticks out as not only being one of the most romantic cities in southern Germany, but also as one of the top university cities in the country. Having personally studied here, I can affirm the romance that the city is so renowned for as you stroll through the Altstadt (City Center), across the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge), along the Neckar River and with a visit to one of the most picturesque ruinous castles, the Heidelberg Castle. But that beauty and romance comes with a price, as Heidelberg is among the most touristy destinations in southern Germany as visitors flock here to follow in the footsteps of Mark Twain. Visiting during the Christmas Market season only enhances its exceeding loveliness!
Skip the Crowds: Not far off is another equally charming university city, Tübingen with winding alleys and cobble-stoned alleys leading you past a plethora of half-timbered towns.
Esslingen am Neckar
Just a short 20 minute drive from Stuttgart, is the practically perfect half-timbered town of Esslingen am Neckar which escaped the disaster of the Second World War. At the heart of the town, is the stark red Renaissance City Hall while each new alley leads you to yet another beautiful cobble-stoned alley or church. What makes Esslingen so incredibly picturesque are the vineyards on the surrounding hills and a walk up to the Dicke Turm which offers breathtaking views over the picture perfect town. While here, be sure to try to sparkling wine which the region has been famous for since monks started producing it in the 19th century!
Triberg im Schwarzwald (the Black Forest)
If there is anything that people seem to associate the most with Germany, it would be the iconic Cuckoo clocks which originate from the Black Forest in the southwestern portion of Baden-Württemberg. The Black Forest is the alluring setting of many of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, while the exquisite woodwork for making clocks is renowned worldwide. Of interest here, is Triberg which is home to Germany’s longest waterfall which falls over a series of smaller falls. It’s only fitting that not just one, but two of the world’s largest cuckoo clocks can be found near Triberg and you can go inside to see how a cuckoo clock functions. But, there is no better time to visit than during when the forest has been turned into a winter wonderland!
Just barely on the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria is Ulm, a city quite often left off of the typical tourist’s itinerary for southern Germany, but which is worth a peak as it is home to the tallest church in the world, the Ulm Münster (until the completion of Barcelona’s Familia Sagrada). Tucked away in a snug riverside district in the city is the Fischerviertel is a picturesque neighborhood of medieval homes, including the Schiefes Haus (Leaning House). If you have more time, head just a few minutes out of town to the Wiblingen Monastery where you’ll find one of the loveliest libraries in Germany.
Best Cities in Southern Germany: Bavaria
Most tourists who think of Munich (München), their first and only thought is usually beer and Oktoberfest, but there is so much more to the capital of Bavaria than that. This Millionendorf (a village of a million inhabitants) was once the former seat of the Kingdom of Bavaria and therefore, visiting The Munich Residenz and the Nymphenburg Palace are both major attractions to visit. Other main sites include the impressive Flemish-influenced Altes Rathaus (Old City Hall) whose Glockenspiele carillon and dancing figurines attracts snap happy visitors. During the summer months, biergartens are an endowed right of all to enjoy and therefore, there are a plethora scattered throughout the city, but none perhaps more famous than the English Garden’s Chinese Tower (Chinesischer Turm).
No where in Germany, especially southern Germany is more iconic than the turreted Neuschwanstein Castle perched high on a rocky bluff overlooking the Schwangau valley. Set among breathtaking Alpine beauty, this was the romantic brainchild of King Ludwig II of Bavaria who was a bit of an obsessive patron of Richard Wagner’s fantastical operas. He dedicated his time and money on not just Schloss Neuschwanstein but several other costly but fabulous castles in Bavaria. While Schloss Neuschwanstein might be the epitome of all castles, and even influenced Walt Disney, another castle, Schloss Hohenschwangau, is both figuratively and literally overshadowed by is more famous counterpart but is still worth taking a peak at.
Skip the Crowds: Schloss Neuschwanstein is without a doubt the most famous castle built by King Ludwig II, but you could easily visit Herrnchiemsee Palace or Linderhof Palace which are equally stunning. Linderhof Palace is actually the only castle he lived to see completed.
Snuggled up against the Austrian border, Passau is an extraordinarily beautiful town few venture to see unless they are on a Danube cruise tour. What makes Passau so incredibly unique is the fact that it’s located on a small strip of land between the convergence of three rivers, therefore, taking a walk along the banks of the town is a must! While there might not be so much to do here, it is home to the world’s largest cathedral organ at St. Stephan’s Cathedral. While there, I highly recommend enjoying a 30 minute organ concert to feel the power and softness of such an impressive instrument! After you’ve seen the Altes Rathaus (City Hall), catch a mini-bus up to Veste Oberhaus, one of the largest remaining fortress complexes in Europe. While up there, climb a tower or enjoy the views from Das Oberhaus Restaurant!
My personal favorite, but then again, I’m biased because Regensburg is where I call home! A medieval historical city center loaded with small alleys that wind hither and tither through the city, but no matter where you go, you can always catch a glimpse of the Regensburg Cathedral spires. The entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site and Roman ruins can be found scattered throughout the city. The Steinener Brücke (Stone Bridge) is the oldest bridge in Germany that has never been destroyed and the Teutonic Knights once galloped over it to cross the Donau (Danube) River. Plus, we’re quite renowned in Bavaria for having our own “Oktoberfest” TWICE a year called Dult! Regensburg is just simply one of the most beautiful places in Bavaria!
In northern Bavaria, you’ll come to the the capital of Middle Franconia, a region that is and never has been truly Bavarian as it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Bavaria by Napoleon. Nuremberg (Nürnberg) was once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and a vital trading center, whose wealth can be seen with the splendid medieval structures that managed to survive the destruction of WWII, such as the Kaiserburg towering over the city. Otherwise, you can easily admire the soft pink stone structures like the Frauenkirche or even learn about the dark past of the Nazi Reich by exploring the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds or check out where the Nuremberg Trials were held which sentenced top Nazi officials for crimes against humanity.
(Read more about our quick trip to the Nuremberg Christmas Market and more.)
A beautifully overlooked city by many tourists would be a complete and utter crime for that to continue. History has been kind to Bamberg and has been sparred twice from devastating wars, therefore, preserving its medieval city center. Scattered over several hills, the town offers a variety of amazing views from different vantage points, especially from the Bamberg Cathedral or the Baroque Residenz. But what draws people here, besides the Rauchbier (Smoked beer) is the stunning Altes Rathaus (City Hall) on a small island in the middle of the river with the River Regnitz flowing around it. It’s honestly one of the best places to visit in southern Germany!
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
If there was one town which looks straight out of a pop-up fairy tale book, it would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It’s medieval appearance is the result of careful reconstruction after being devastated during WWII, but its charming size is due to the results after the Thirty Years’ War which significantly dwindled the town’s importance. Scattered with timbered houses in every color of the rainbow, a medieval wall with watch towers which still completely encircles the town and small alleys to get lost in, it is the epitome of every Disney movie. But that beauty comes with a hefty price as it is easily one of the most visited towns in Bavaria. Guess everyone wants to experience that Disney fairy tale!
Skip the Crowds: I would also recommend visiting Dinkelsbühl or Nördlingen, but of which are equally charming and still surrounded by medieval city walls.
If beer ain’t your thing, then Würzburg could be right up your alley as vineyards cover every spare inch of land surrounding the entire city. Wine festivals can be found in the city center throughout the summer months where you can try a variety of locally produced wines. Overlooking the town is the Marienberg Fortress which offers some of the most classic views over the historic city center which has been rebuilt to its former glory after the devastation of WWII. Dominating the east side of town, you can find the Residenz which was the former prince-bishop’s residence. Today, you enjoy the world’s largest ceiling fresco.
After your two weeks in southern Germany, you’ll have seen half of Germany and experienced the different dialects, cuisine and hopefully caught a few traditions. You’ll have seen a huge chunk of the best cities in southern Germany that I felt were the must-see destinations! Perhaps you’ll have fallen so much in love that you’d return for a northern Germany road trip too.
Lorelei is an American expat who moved to Germany in 2012 and is the author of California Globetrotter. Since then, she has been traveling around Germany discovering the best kept secrets. She has a serious addiction to adorable half-timbered towns and castles beyond the typical touristy destinations. For more on these charming, wanderlusty towns, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest!