For many visitors, one of Germany’s cities will be where to go first. Berlin is genuinely exciting – a metropolis on fast-forward, growing into its rediscovered role as the nation’s capital yet preserving evidence of its sometimes unhappy role in European history. Many other cities have proud histories as independent city-states or as capitals in their own right: thus, there’s nothing remotely “provincial” about ancient, liberal Cologne, Dresden’s restored Baroque splendour or the proud Bavarian metropolis of Munich. The financial capital, Frankfurt, impresses with its dynamism and international spirit, while Bonn, the former West German capital, charms with its scenic setting and excellent museums. Elsewhere, chic Düsseldorf and laidback Stuttgart embody aspects of the German economic miracle, while the eastern city of Leipzig fizzes with fresh energy. Mercantile Hamburg looks askance at the rest of the country, maintaining the worldliness of a great port, while Nuremberg evokes the triumphs and tragedies of Germany’s past.
Cultural attractions of capital city-quality are not limited to the bigger cities, and many of the most rewarding places are quite small: the cathedral cities of Bamberg and Regensburg; the Hanseatic ports of Lübeck, Stralsund and Wismar; the “Prussian Versailles” of Potsdam; and micro-capitals like Weimar, Schwerin and Eichstätt. Germany has university towns as evocative as any: Heidelberg is the most famous, but Freiburg, Marburg and Tübingen are just as charming. As for the spa towns, at their best – in Baden-Baden, Bad Homburg or Wiesbaden – they combine health benefits with turn-of-the-century elegance and lovely natural settings. For a potted digest of Germany’s cultural riches the Romantic Road is deservedly popular, a road journey linking Rococo churches with medieval cities and eccentric royal castles. Other themed “roads” are devoted to fairy tales, half-timbering or wine. Often, the most magical places – a fortress on a crag, a placid village rising above vineyards, an ancient market square of improbable quaintness – await discovery on such routes. Nor should Germany’s undeniable natural beauty be overlooked. The Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest and the valleys of the Rhine and Mosel have long been celebrated, but the talcum-powder softness of Rügen’s beaches, the smart resorts of Sylt and the lonely splendour of Mecklenburg’s lakes have yet to make it onto the international agenda: the world’s loss is, for the time being, the independent traveller’s gain.