The Land of Baden-Württemberg is the result of combining the states of Baden, Hohenzollern and Württemberg after World War II, but feels coherent thanks to the strong Swabian identity of most of its people. In the rest of Germany Swabians are caricatured as hardworking, frugal and rather boring, yet their industriousness and inventiveness has made their region one of Europe’s wealthiest. This industrial prowess makes up a big part of the Swabian identity, as does its regional food – a pasta-based cuisine that famously includes Spätzle; a love of good local wine; and a quirky regional accent. Baden-Württemberg is also influenced by its proximity to Switzerland and France, with which it shares much history.
Stuttgart and its environs are the industrial heartland of an otherwise fairly rural Baden-Württemberg. As the headquarters of industrial heavyweights that include Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and electronics giant Bosch, Stuttgart predictably oozes self-confidence and reeks of wealth. However, surprises lurk here too, in the form of an attractive setting between a series of hills, down which vineyards run right to the city’s edges. Abundant city parks, thermal baths and Renaissance palaces all help make the compact, business-orientated town a likeable destination for a weekend or so. The car industry museums are particularly good and the city also has the region’s best restaurant and nightlife scene.
As a significant regional transport hub it’s also a good place from which to launch day-trips. The most obvious being Ludwigsburg, with its excessive Baroque palace and, at the other end of the hedonism scale, the old monastery at Maulbronn, whose buildings tell a story of a simple, long-forgotten monastic life. Both are brilliant, well-preserved and very different snapshots of Germany’s past. Stuttgart’s also well-connected to the thriving nearby university town of Tübingen and the upbeat city of Ulm with its giant minster. Both interesting cities lie at the foot of an upland plateau known as the Swabian Alb. This thinly-populated agricultural region with its strong local dialect and identity rises as a steep escarpment some 50km south of Stuttgart, and runs southwest to all but join the southern Black Forest. Its wonderful limestone scenery offers interesting hiking and a rash of romantic castles built at strategic overlooks make equally good day-trips. A short journey south of the Swabian Alb lies the vast Bodensee, where a huge body of water and Germany’s best weather combine to form a popular holiday destination. Konstanz is the largest and most engaging of several attractive lakeside settlements. West of here the hills rise and darken with the Black Forest, Baden-Württemberg’s most famous asset.
Meanwhile, in the far north of the state, the towns of Heidelberg and Karlsruhe stick out as two lively university cities that offer appealing stopoffs for visitors travelling between the Rhineland and the Black Forest. Though known for, and centred around, a palace, the Rhine-side location has given Karlsruhe an industrial base and a modern dynamism reflected in its world-class contemporary art and technology museum, the ZKM. Heidelberg is more removed from modernity and a major tourist honeypot, thanks to an attractive valley setting and a mighty ruined castle. It’s particularly popular with Americans who like to follow in the steps of Mark Twain’s own enchantment with the city. A short hop distant, the workaday town of Mannheim is worth visiting for its Jugendstil architecture, if you have time.
Stuttgart is the main regional transport hub, but the whole state – with the exception of the Swabian Alb – is easy to navigate by public transport. Getting to remote places is of course easiest with your own wheels – and given the importance of the motor industry in the state, this is a part of Germany where roads are kept in premium condition, and you can really let rip on the Autobahn.