Travelling Germany, the best way, by Train
While Germany is well-known for its hearty food and beer, fairy-tale castles, and gorgeously preserved medieval towns, the country offers so much more than clichés. In addition to some of Europe’s most distinctive cities - Berlin, Munich, and Cologne, to name a few - Germany features diverse natural scenery (scenic lakes, mystical forests, soaring Alps), cutting-edge architecture, and celebrated contemporary art and let’s forget all that history (some not so nice, but it’s there, it happened and we must not forget).
These are some of our favorite cities and the route recently taken on a week travelling around Germany on the Germany Rail Pass/Deutsche Bahn. We started our adventure thanks to Thai Airways who flew us directly into Munich. With no time to waste, bags dropped off and straight to Oktoberfest festivities (Yes that’s right after a 24 hour journey from Australia), where locals and travelers flock to in order to enjoy an infinite amount of beer, thrilling fairground rides, currywurst, and to dance to old-fashioned Bavarian music - Lederhosen, optional.
If your ever in Munich do yourself a favor and hunt down the address for The Residenz. Originally built as a city castle in 1385 and eventually turned into the royal residence for the Wittelsbach family (The family of King Ludwig II of Bavaria who built Schloss Neuschwanstein), as well as a government seat from 1508 – 1918. During WWII, much of the Residenz was heavily damaged, but thankfully many of the priceless masterpieces were moved to safety. Reconstruction and restoration began immediately in 1945 and finished in 2003. Today, it’s one of the top tourist attractions in Munich and now I can see why!
A day trip from the city we ventured to Neuschwanstein Castle. Southern Germany is home to some of Europe’s most ethereal castles as well as Alpine forests ideal for hikes. Neuschwanstein castle was built by the Mad King Ludwig II in the 19th century.
It took 17 years to build, all his own dollars spent on the construction. In today's money, the price tag would come in at nearly $250 million and he only got to reside inside for 172 days (that’s a very expensive per night rate) after being declared mad and unfit to rule. He was banished and there are many theories out there but the most obvious was he was murdered alongside with his psychiatrist 2 days later. In terms of massive Disney-style castles it doesn’t get much better than this. Neuschwanstein was the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle and attracts more than a million visitors a year.
All aboard. Our first train journey was Munich – Cologne on the Deutsch Bahn. The train journey takes just under 5 hours and serves (as told by my currywurst connoisseur travelling buddy) some of the best she tasted on her whole trip in Germany!
Let me introduce Cologne, if it's arts and history you're looking for, then 2000-year-old medieval Cologne offers this up on a platter (with a side of sausages, obviously).
You've got a mixture of French and German culture, a bustling arts scene - the Ludwig Museum showcases Picasso, and some impressive feats of architecture. The landmark of the city is the gothic cathedral, which is the world's largest, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site - it only took a mere 632 years to complete! Cologne was flattened (as many Germany cities were) during the WWII BUT after 14 aerial bombs the cathedral did not collapse and remained standing!
There is so much more to Cologne than just its number one tourist attraction. For me the biggest attraction is the food and beer culture. Cologne is famous for Kölsch: A style of pale ale, low in carbonation and typically served in a small glass (The opposite to the massive steins that were consumed in Munich), that is native to and beloved by Cologne. This city charms you. It takes you in. It makes you feel welcome.
Next stop on the itinerary we went from Cologne – Dresden. An almost 7-hour train journey through the heart of the country passing many quaint, colorful little German reminiscent of gingerbread towns. It’s impossible to speak about Dresden without mentioning the atrocities that occurred in the 2nd World War. Much of the city was demolished in one day of air raids. Sadly, one of Germany’s most cultural, fairy-tale cities was reduced to rubble. The city you see in front of your eyes is a complete reconstruction. One of the highlights of the walk around the Aldstadt is a stroll up Augustusstrasse to admire the ‘Furstenzug’: the world’s largest porcelain mural. Created by alchemist, Johann Friedrich Bottger, the mural depicts the 35 princes, counts and kings from the House of Wettin. Dresden Neustadt is actually the oldest part of Dresden and is more than 800 years old. It has a very cool, grungy and alternative feel to it. Tons of character, interesting shops and cool bars make this one of my favorite neighborhoods in Germany. The highlight for me was Pfunds Molkerei aka Mendls bakery in the Grand Budapest hotel by Wes Anderson. Not a bakery yet a cheese shop. The walls are decorated with hand painted Villeroy & Boch tiles and there are ornate details everywhere. Enjoy a cheese platter and a glass of Saxony wine, you can thank me later!
The last and final stop on the itinerary Dresden – Berlin. Just under 2 hours of Deutsch Bahn comfort. Shaking off its stormy past, Berlin is now seen as one of the coolest cities in Europe, with quirky urban spaces, street art filled streets, underground music scenes, vibrant nightlife and tons of art galleries and museums to get lost in. See the mighty Brandenburg Gate or go to the East Side Gallery - the largest remaining evidence of the city’s historical division where you’ll find an open-air exhibition of art painted directly on the last existing portions of the Berlin wall. This year marks the 30th year anniversary since the fall of the wall. For 28 years the Berlin Wall stood between the city as a divider of people, tearing apart German families, causing unnecessary casualties and stripping away human liberties. Now, three decades after coming down, the Berlin Wall stands metaphorically as a deep reminder of how quickly political polarity can threaten simple freedoms. For your trip, consider buying the Berlin Welcome Card giving you unlimited rides on the metro system plus discounts at allot of tourist attractions, day trips and even hotels.
The German Rail network is the biggest rail network in Europe - it has over 5000 stations and over 41,000 km of train tracks, so you can easily reach any part of the country quickly and efficiently. The Germans are notorious for being punctual and on time!
To make the most out of your visit, grab the German Rail Pass that will cover all your trips within the country and beyond.