Smiling Woman Holding a German Flag

Your Destination Germany

For many, Germany is the land of fairy tales. It is the birth place of Märchen authors the Brothers Grimm and home to landscapes and castles capable of enchanting visitors at first glance.
by Nicolette Stewart

But here the modern also mingles with the historical, and even a modern fairy tale of sorts can be lived out between Germany’s borders: fast cars, trendy cities, friendly people, and a princely selection of beer, wine, and cuisine to accompany them.

As far as public perception goes, Germany has a winning image. For the last several years, a BBC survey has ranked Germany as the “most positively viewed country.” Another recent survey, done by the American-run company FutureBrand, ranked Germany ninth overall out of 100 countries and first in the categories “Uncomplicated Travel” and “Standard of Living.” Let’s take a look at some of the classic attractions that have helped earn Germany this prestigious status.

Thirty-three reasons to visit Germany: The UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites

UNESCO World Heritage Sites include many of the world’s wonders: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Pyramids of Egypt. Being named to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is considered an honor and a sign of a place’s cultural and historical value. In order to be named to the list, “sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” Of the almost 900 properties listed, 33 are located in Germany.

The first German site to be named to the UNESCO World Heritage list was the Aachen Cathedral, which was added in 1978. Construction of the cathedral was commissioned by Charlemagne circa 790 AD, and when he died in 814, he was buried there. For 600 years it served as the church of coronation and saw the crowning of 30 German kings and 12 queens.

The remaining 32 German entries include castles and palaces, cities and industrial parks. In the late 18th century, for example, Bamberg was the center of enlightenment in southern Germany, a fact that eventually earned the city a place among Germany’s cultural bests. The Cologne Cathedral – long a favorite tourist attraction – was built over seven centuries and, as well as housing many artistic masterpieces, is seen as a monument to European Christianity itself.

The most recent German addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List is the Wadden Sea, a tidal flat which stretches from the Netherlands, through Germany, and to the Danish coast. The area is home to incredible ecological and biological diversity: Each year 10 to 12 million migrating birds make Wadden Sea their home, and 10,000 plants and animals reside there all year round. Formed in the post-glacial period about 7,000 years ago, the Wadden Sea is constantly changing – a living example of how landscapes developed and changed in the glacial period. 

A complete list of Germany’s cultural heritage sites
A map of German UNESCO World Heritage Sites

A tale of four cities

Germany's four urban gems-Hamburg and Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt-are each uniquely magnetic, combining the country's historical draw with the fast-paced modernity of city life.

The capital city, and the center point of intense political tumult, Berlin has long been number one on visitors' lists of must-sees, not only in Germany, but throughout Europe.  Perhaps it is just this historical tumult (and, of course, the low rent) that draws the young and creative there, continuously building upon its vibrant diversity.  And with a population of over 3 million, it is also Germany's biggest city.

If it is the historical that interests you, Berlin boasts a large offering: remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Jewish Museum, and Museum Island are just a handful of the city's many attractions.  Contemporary art thrives in the galleries that can be found sprinkled across the city.  Or if it is a good night out on the town that interests you, Berlin has 300 clubs and 7,000 bars and restaurants to choose from.

Hamburg's charm, on the other hand, stems largely from its geographical location: situated approximately 100 kilometers from where the Elbe River joins the North Sea, it is the second largest container terminal in Europe.  Also known as Hafencity (port city), locations such as the legendary Fischmarkt-where visitors arrive before sunset to buy fish, produce, and have a classic Hamburger breakfast-as well as museums and restaurants aboard various ships are popular stops for visitors hoping to get a glimpse of the city's personality.

After the port itself, Hamburg's second-largest attraction is the Reeperbahn-a theater and red-light entertainment district in St. Pauli that grew around the port as an attraction for docked sailors and a way to cordon off the city's illicit activities from the more sober business and residential districts.  At night, the Reeperbahn is packed, and theaters, restaurants, and entertainment, both tawdry and tame, offer amusement of all kinds to passersby.

Though stereotypically known for Oktoberfest and beer gardens, Munich is also prized for its parks, palaces, opera house, modern art museums, and, last but not least, its soccer team.  "Munich nestles between art and beer like a village between hills," said Heinrich Heine of Bavaria's capital almost 150 years ago.  And it still holds true today.

Monocle Magazine has named Munich "Most Livable City."  BMW, a large international airport, and a large helping of modern art all factor into Monocle's high rating.  And, perhaps most fantastically, Munich is the "German capital of river surfing."

Frankfurt am Main, as many locals see it, is the German version of New York, an impression which has earned the city the nickname "Mainhattan."  That is, Manhattan on the Main River.  The comparison comes from the fact that Frankfurt is the country's financial center: both the stock market and the headquarters of many large banks are located in Frankfurt.  And it is the only German city with a significant number of skyscrapers.

During working hours, Frankfurt's population doubles as commuters pour in from the surrounding area.  At night, the city slows down as people gather in restaurants and pubs to enjoy the regions specialties: apple wine, grüne Soße (green sauce),  and Handkäs mit Musik (hand cheese with music) or to join friends on the river bank.  If you like to shop, the Zeil, always bustling with activity and the sounds of street musicians, is home to every major department store and has the highest turnover of any shopping mile in Europe.

A fairy-tale king and a fairy-tale castle: Neuschwanstein

Perched atop a mountain in Schwangau, Bavaria, Neuschwanstein Castle overlooks serene lakes, dramatic mountains, orange-roofed towns, and Hohenschwangau Castle, the birth-place of Neuschwanstein's fairy-tale king, Ludwig II.

Romantic in the extreme, the castle contains elaborately decorated rooms; just the bedroom, comprised of intricately carved wood furniture and paneling, took four and a half years to complete.  So romantic, so reminiscent of the haunts of fairy tale princes and princesses is Neuschwanstein, that the Disney corporation chose it as the model on which to base the construction of the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland.

Neuschwanstein was built by King Ludwig II in the late 1860s as a refuge from public life, and in part, it is his history that has made it one of the most popular castles in Europe.  Each year, 1.3 million visitors pour through the castle gates and up the steep entrance road to see the rooms and grounds where Ludwig, called "Crazy King Ludwig" by his detractors and the "Fairy Tale King" by his supporters, spent his days.

Obsessed with the operas of Richard Wagner-especially Wagner's swan knight Lohengrin-Ludwig commissioned artists to fill the castle with scenes from Wagner's operas and had a small grotto built between the drawing room and the conservatory where opera singers would perform for him while he rowed past the artificial waterfall in a shell-shaped boat.

A known eccentric and recluse, Ludwig was rumored to have once invited his horse to dine with him.  His behavior did not sit well with many government officials, and though he was loved by the Bavarian people, his cabinet eventually decided to conspire against him, hiring doctors who had never met or examined the king to declare him insane and therefore incompetent to continue his rule.

Several days after Ludwig's removal from office-and he did not go quietly-Ludwig and one of the doctor's who had declared him insane were found dead in a shallow lake.  The cause of death remains to this day a mystery; it is alleged that no water was found in Ludwig's lungs and no wounds upon his body.  The castle was opened to the public for viewing just weeks after his death.

For more information on the sights and sounds of Germany, visit Germany's official tourism websiteSchöne Reise!

by Nicolette Stewart