The open landscapes along the North Sea coast and the deep green beech forests inland are just two of the best nature areas in Germany. Several other World Heritage sites in spectacular natural settings allow you to combine culture with a taste of the great outdoors.
For centuries, the spectacular 65-km long Rhine Gorge between Bingen and Koblenz has inspired writers, composers and artists with its dramatic landscapes, forty hilltop castles and dozens of historic towns. The area heralds some of the best-known scenery in Germany.
Despite being a major European transport artery for both shipping and rail, it's easy to slow down, learn about the traditional way of life and get lost in the legends that surround the valley and in the forests and thousand-year-old Riesling vineyards overlooking the river. Especially the Loreley, where the mighty Rhine narrows to just 130 metres, has inspired romantic myths that in turn influenced the rebuilding of ruined castles.
Beside the Loreley viewpoint, highlights of the Rhine valley include the half-timbered towns of Bacharach, the castles at Burg Katz, Stolzenfels and Marksburg and Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, in the middle of the river at Kaub. The valley is easily explored by bicycle or on one of the many boats plying the river. Local and IC trains run along the valley with great views of the castles.
The shallow sea between the German coast and its charming necklace of islands is the largest system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world, and the best place for observing coastal nature in Germany. Stretching from the Netherlands to Denmark, this million-hectare area partially falls dry every low tide, with the Watt, exposed sandbanks, providing ideal conditions for wildlife to flourish.
Deep channels and fast rising tides make venturing out alone very dangerous, but guided Wattlaufen trips are possible in many places along the coast, taking you out across the dunes and salt marshes onto the seabed, possibly to one of the islands. In season, you can observe some of the twelve million birds that pass along the Wadden Sea each year, and if you're lucky you'll spot seals or even porpoise. Come dressed for windy weather, and wear high-top sneakers to prevent losing your shoes in the mud.
Man's mastery over nature is clearly the theme at the fascinating Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, where beautiful 18th-century landscaping and clever hydrotechnology are combined to impress visitors with a dramatic show. The towering three hundred-year-old Hercules monument at the top of the park is where the "water games" kick off.
Twice a week, 750,000 litres of water is released and allowed to flow downhill, activating the acoustic fountains of the Octagon before running down a grand Baroque cascade, across the romantic Steinhöfer waterfalls and gushing below the Teufelsbrücke "devil's bridge". It thunders off a ruined aqueduct before powering the 50-metre-high Great Fountain – the tallest in the world when it was built in 1767 – in front of the Neoclassical Wilhelmshöhe Palace.
The best way to visit the Bergpark is to take a bus up to the visitor centre behind the Hercules statue at the top of the hill, timing your arrival for the scheduled water displays if possible, so you can take in the sights as you amble down.
Kassel Wilhelmshöhe station is on the ICE rail line between Hanover (1 hour) and Frankfurt (1.5 hours).
The low-lying island of Reichenau on Lake Constance, 5 kilometres long and connected to mainland by a dam, has three churches that are outstanding examples of early medieval monastic architecture. The 1200-year-old St Mary and Marcus basilica was part of a large monastery which wielded great influence in Europe and had a Roman-style heating system.
The St Peter and St Paul church has incrediblewall paintings dating from 1105, while the scenic late-10th-century paintings in St George's church are the largest and oldest north of the Alps. The island is also a natural paradise – you can walk along a lovely path following the north shore of the island, or look for birdlife among the reeds in the nature reserve to the east.
Reichenau Island is 10 kilometres west of Konstanz, and easily reached by boat, or by bus from Reichenau station on the mainland.
Around 40,000 years ago humans arrived in what is now the Swabian Jura area of Baden-Württemberg. Excavations in a series of caves in the forested valleys of the Ach and Lone rivers have uncovered some of the oldest figurative art in the world. The mammoth ivory Venus is the oldest female figurine ever found, while the Lion-man is a figure linked to mythical beliefs.
Other finds include carved mammoths, horses, cows, fish and several bird-bone flutes – the first-known musical instruments. These caves, the finds and their natural surroundings are World Heritage sites, illuminating the origins of human artistic development. The 50-metre long Vogelherd Cave can be accessed from the Archäopark Vogelherd visitor centre, which also has an original mammoth figurine on display.
The Lonetal valley with the sites of two other caves makes for a lovely 2-3-hour hike. Three further caves are partially accessible to hikers just south of Blaubeuren, where a museum displays the Venus figurine and some bone flutes. The Lion-man can be viewed at the Museum Ulm.
The Vogelherd cave and visitor centre are 30km north of Ulm; Blaubeuren is 20km to the west.
Germany's lowland beech forests are unique in the world, and have inspired generations of romantic painters and nature enthusiasts. Beech has successfully spread all over northern Europe ever since the ice age, yet most forests have been decimated by logging.
The survival of five beautiful beech forests in Germany has led to these being added to the World Heritage List along with forests in eleven other countries. Spread over several German national parks, these forests can be found along the seaside cliffs and inland lakes of the Jasmund and Müritz national parks in the north, in the Grumsiner Forest north of Berlin, along the former GDR border zone in Hainich National Park and on the steep slopes of the Kellerwald-Edersee National Park.
In all cases, difficult access, hunting requirements or military restrictions prevented their destruction by Big Wood. Now protected, they offer fantastic hiking along well-maintained trails, and support some of the best nature in Germany.
Beautiful nature in Germany is never far away, whether you visit one of the German national parks, wander through a cultural landscape or explore the caves that reveal clues about humankind's earliest artworks. For more outdoor inspiration see 10 reasons why Saxony in Germany should be on your travel list.
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.