From the wind-swept beaches along the North Sea to the imposing Bavarian Alps, Mother Nature has blessed Germany with stunning natural wonders in all its four corners. Though famed locations, such as the Rhine and Black Forest, lure millions each year, journey off the beaten track to explore the unique landscapes of this beautiful country in the heart of Europe.
This striking landscape near the German-Czech border south of Dresden is heaven for the rock climbers who flock to scale its jagged sandstone columns—1,100 in all. Although the Swiss border is about 680 miles away from Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz in German), the word Schweiz itself refers to a mountainous area. Hence the name of this region in the eastern state of Saxony.
Another noteworthy highlight here is the Bastei, a 19th-century stone bridge that extends to a pinnacle where a castle, known as the Felsenburg Rathen, once crowned the top from the mid-13th century to 1469. Today, only its foundation remains visible. The lofty lookout point 650 feet above the valley also affords a spectacular panorama of the serpentine Elbe River coursing its way below.
The receding tides of Germany’s North Sea coastline reveal a vastness of mudflats—the largest of its kind in the world—that extend from Den Helder, the Netherlands, to Esbjerg in southwestern Denmark. A five-mile guided trek between the North Frisian islands of Föhr and Amrum, for example, leads visitors through a living ecosystem of crabs, mollusks and sand worms. Although a large portion of the area between these two islands was once dry land in the Middle Ages, it’s a ferry ride back to the starting point at the end of the journey, as the sea takes back what belongs to it now.
The Caves of the Swabian Alps
The GeoPark covers an extensive area in southwestern Germany and about 200 million years of geological history of a region that was once a tropical sea. The park boasts a network of 12 different caves, including the famed Wimsen Cave (Wimsener Höhle), the only water one of its kind in the country. Located 229 feet underground, the cave is 2,378 feet long and formed a mere 125 million years ago. The area also comprises volcanic vents, a meteor crater and fossil sites remeniscent of a watery world.
For sheer remoteness look no further than Helgoland. Germany acquired this craggy, red sandstone outcrop in the North Sea from Great Britain when it exchanged Zanzibar for it in 1891. The island’s notable feature is the free-standing Natthuurn Stak, nicknamed Lange Anna (Long Anna), which rises 154 feet at its southwestern tip. Barely a mile offshore, the tiny island of Düne, popular for its white sand beaches, became separated from Helgoland during a storm surge on New Year’s Eve in 1721.
Despite the distance from mainland Germany (about 70 minutes by ship from Cuxhaven), evidence of tools made of the red flint found on Düne illustrates that people inhabited Helgoland in the Neolithic Age. Today, jewelers fashion the stone into fine pieces that gleam in shop windows.
The White Cliffs of Rügen
Immortalized in the paintings by 19th-century artist Casper David Friedrich, the steep chalk cliffs in the Jasmund National Park on Rügen’s Baltic coast are the distinguished features of Germany’s largest island. Though visitors make a beeline to the cliff known as the Königsstuhl (King’s Chair)–the highest point is 387 feet—Victoria’s View nearby offers the best lookout of the famous peak.
Legend has it that the Königsstuhl received its namesake while King Charles XII of Sweden watched a sea battle against the Danes in 1715 from this vantage point. However, the mentioning of it dates as far back as the late 16th century.
The Iron Curtain once sliced through this 62-mile-long mountain range in central Germany during the Cold War. At 4,074 feet, the Brocken, a result of two plates colliding 320 million years go, is the highest peak of the Hartz Mountains and the centerpiece of this region in the state of Saxony Anhalt. The best way to reach the summit is by steam train on the narrow-gauge railway known as the Brockenbahn. To admire the mountain from a distance, take the funicular to the top of the Wurmberg, the Harz’s second highest mountain, which rises above the town of Braunlage in the neighboring state of Lower Saxony.
A visit to the Harz wouldn’t be complete without strolling the cobblestone lanes with half-timbered houses in quaint medieval towns, such as Goslar, Quedlinburg, and Wernigerode.
A trip along the German Volcanic Route in the Eifel region in western Germany will introduce visitors to the country’s volcanic past. The route traverses 173 miles of rolling hills punctuated by volcanic lakes, cinder cones and walls of volcanic tuff and pumice. Don’t miss out on the world’s highest, cold-water geyser located in the town of Andernach. It can shoot 197 feet into the air and last eight minutes.
Another route to follow in the Eifel is the Red Wine Hiking Trail, or Rotweinwanderweg, between the towns of Altenahr and Bad Bodendorf. A string of wineries leads through one of Germany’s few red-wine regions that produce, in particular, Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder). After a day of hiking and wine tasting one’s way along the picturesque Ahr River Valley, it’s a train ride back to the hotel.
Müritz National Park
Wetlands, bogs and 107 lakes fill this 186,000-square-mile national park in the Mecklenburg Lake Plains in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It’s also an idyllic location for birdwatchers to observe cranes, white-tailed eagles and ospreys that call this paradise home. The region also beckons nature enthusiasts to explore the miles of waterways by canoe or kayak and then camp under a star-studded night sky.
The outlook point in Cloef provides an unparalleled vista of this hairpin loop in the Saar River in the small state of Saarland, in western Germany. Alternatively, to experience this unique turn on the meandering river, hop on a leisurely 1 ½-hour cruise from the nearby town of Mettlach.
Though settlements in this region date as far back as the Roman era, the ruins of the 15th century Montclair Castle stand in the heart of the thick forest near the Saarschleife. Six families ruled from this third and last fortress to rise from the mountain crest starting in the 10th century. Though it never witnessed any major battles in the Middle Ages, it did suffer damage in late World War II. After decades of neglect, the castle underwent a restoration project in the early 1990s.
Fields of heather cover a vast heath between the medieval towns of Lüneburg and Celle in central Lower Saxony. The Lüneburger Heide Nature Park (56,834 acres) is the largest heathland in Central Europe, and the best way to explore it is either by foot or, the most popular way, by bike. A visit between August and September rewards visitors with swathes of mauve-colored heather in full bloom amid juniper bushes and pine trees.
The undulating landscape of southern Germany’s Allgäu (pron. ahl-goy) region flows seamlessly into the foothills and soaring, snow-capped Bavarian Alps. The area is a hiker’s wonderland with 7,000 trails of various degrees to experience the pristine scenery. Moreover, for those who need to get away from it all for a few days, serviced alpine huts in the mid- and high altitudes provide the accommodations along the miles of trails.
A hike through the Upper Allgäu also leads to alpine dairies, which continue the long tradition of producing cheese and other dairy products by hand. One kilo (2 lbs.) of cheese with 48% fat requires at least 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of milk. Fortunately, 30,000 beefy bovines feasting on the lush greenery in the mid-altitudes are on hand with the main ingredient.
The ceremonial Almabtrieb is the autumn tradition of driving cows from their summer alpine meadows to the valleys below. Once they arrive, farmers sort the herds and return individuals to their rightful owners. The cows return to the mountain slopes in spring, but without the pomp and circumstance.