From the soupy mud-flats of the North Sea to the Alps in southern Bavaria there’s a lot to enjoy in Germany’s great outdoors. And such is the variety of the country’s landscapes you can participate in a huge array of activities – there’s even a hardcore crew of dedicated German surfers. However, the most popular activity of all – even if only followed from a bar stool – is football. Matches of the Bundesliga are cheaper than for the UK’s Premier League and attract a passionate following.
Without question Germany’s number-one spectator sport, ever since Fussball was imported by an English expat to Dresden in 1874. The national team lifted the 1954 World Cup even before Germany had a professional national league. Fast-forward a few decades and the team cemented its reputation for invincibility with a style that emphasized hard work over individual flair. Not only has Germany won three World Cups and three European championships, it has not lost a penalty shoot-out since 1976, as millions of England fans rue.
Club matches of the Bundesliga (bundesliga.de), the German premier league since 1963, can be something of a disappointment after such a build-up – many of the most talented homegrown players are lured abroad to leagues in England and Italy. Nevertheless, a Budesliga match is a must for any true football fan, not least because facilities in club stadiums are superb after renovations to host the 2006 World Cup. The most successful club is Bayern Munich, regulars in the European Champions League with a record twenty-two league cups in its trophy cabinet. Other big names include Borussia Mönchengladbach, with five titles; Borussia Dortmund, whose 79,000 average attendance rivals that of FC Barcelona – the largest in Europe; Werder Bremen; and Hamburger SV, the only team never to have been relegated.
The league runs from mid-August to the end of May, and tickets for games, generally played on Saturday, can be bought at stadium gates on matchday or at ticket shops – often a dedicated fan shop – in the preceding week for all but the biggest games. The league website lists fixtures, grounds and links to online ticket sales. Expect to pay from €10–15 for the cheapest seats and around €50 for the best. Some fans may be fairly lumpen – with much boozed-up bellowing of club anthems – but generally nonviolent.
Germany has an abundance of scenic walks and long-distance hikes, and no matter where you go there’ll be a well-marked trail or short stroll. In the past decade the country has developed a taste for so-called Nordic walking, a fitness pursuit whose participants stride purposefully with ski poles.
Popular areas include the Harz, the Black Forest, the Bavarian Alps, Saxon Switzerland and the Thuringian Forest, though many trails in any of these areas travel through thick forest, so views can be limited. The latter two are home respectively to arguably Germany’s most scenic long-distance walk, the 112km Malerweg, and its most popular, the Rennsteig (168km). Details are in relevant chapters. A useful source of walking information is Wanderbares Deutschland (wanderbares-deutschland.de), a marketing body whose German-language website provides details of walks nationwide, including information of trail lengths and marks, plus links to their websites where relevant. Along many of these you’ll find hotels and inns that provide specialized accommodation for hikers. Kompass publishes hiking maps of popular walking areas. Bookshops stock any number of walking guides (Wanderführer).
Simply a joy. Over two hundred long-distance cycle routes across the country provide 42,000km of excellent touring. Dedicated cycle-paths off the main road typically follow river valleys – the classic is the Elberadweg (Elbe Cycle Route; elberadweg.de), which follows the river for 860km as it slices northwest from Schöna in Saxon Switzerland to Cuxhaven on the North Sea. However, there is an abundance of marked cross-country routes to choose from – pootling through the little-known water-world of the Mecklenburg Lakes Cycle Route, for example, or bowling along the Baltic coast, even exploring the Ruhrgebiet’s industrial heart. Mountain biking is also good thanks to legions of dedicated forest trails, such as the Mountain Bike Rennsteig, which tracks through the Thuringian Forest parallel to Germany’s most popular footpath.
The national tourist board has a good section on its website that provides a heads-up on many of the most popular touring routes, while the key contact is the Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club (ADFC; adfc.de), a national cycling federation that grades long-distance trails with one to five stars. It also publishes a handy brochure of five thousand cyclist-friendly accommodation options, Bett & Bike (bettundbike.de), available at bookshops. Cycle maps are widely available through local tourist offices. For details of taking a bike on the train, see By bike.
The German ski holiday is characterized by first-class facilities, low prices and a charmingly low-key après-ski with hearty German food in a country Gaststätte. The premier resorts lie in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich, centred on Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a former Olympic town with a lively après-ski whose facilities were upgraded for the 2011 Alpine World Ski Championship. The pistes lie above on Germany’s highest mountain, Zugspitze (2964m), on the Austrian border – with some 20km of pistes ranging from 700m to 3km and a snowboard park, as well as 40km of cross-country trails. But nearby ski village Oberammergau has the finest cross-country skiing in Germany – all 90km of it – as well as steep pistes on the Laber hills (1683m). Steeper still is the Dammkar-tunnel near Mittenwald on the other side of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, its forty-percent-incline hill one of the most challenging in Germany. The Allgäu area in southwest Bavaria offers the largest continuous ski area in Germany, with 500km of downhill slopes, including some deep-snow off-piste skiing, and 200 ski lifts. Outside of Bavaria, the Black Forest offers good downhill skiing; the low-lying Harz and the Sauerland regions focus more on cross-country skiing; weather permitting; and there are lesser scenes in the Thuringian Forest highlands around Oberhof and on the Czech border in south Saxony. The season begins in mid-November in Bavaria (usually Dec elsewhere) and runs to around February – sometimes March in a good year.
Ski rental and lessons are widely available at the resorts, either at ski shops or at ski schools, often located on the pistes themselves. Costs are around €20 per day for a set of boots, poles and skis or snowboard; €25–30 for a day’s lift-pass.
Riddled by waterways, dotted with lakes and lapped by seas, Germany is good for many watersports. Even in major cities, boat rental is available by the hour on most lakes and waterways, generally from April to September, sometimes to October.
Canoeing and river kayaking are also popular on most major rivers. The overlooked River Oder on the border of Poland appeals for its lack of development. Arguably the most appealing multi-day canoeing in Germany is in the Müritz National Park in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where you can canoe-and-camp through a mosaic of lakes. Similar experiences are available in the Spreewald south of Berlin, and in the Schleswig-Holstein lakes from Eutin to Kiel. Rental is best sourced through local tourist-information centres – if you are renting equipment for river trips, try to find one that offers transport, thereby allowing a one-way trip. If your German is up to it, browse the websites of the Federal Association of Canoeing Tourism (Bundesvereinigung Kanutouristik; kanutouristik.de) or whitewater-orientated Kajak Channel (kajak-channel.de).
Motor- or houseboat holidays are popular on Lake Mürtitz, Germany’s second-largest lake, and in the waterways of Brandenburg, north of Berlin. Rental of leisure craft, which typically sleep up to eight people, is usually by the week; no licences are required for most waterways for craft under 13m. The regional tourist office website (vorpommern.de/en/) is useful as is motor organization ADAC, which has a German-only section on watersports at adac.de/reise_freizeit/wassersport.
The coasts are playgrounds for sailing, windsurfing and kitesurfing – holiday resorts on Rügen and Sylt offer rental outfits, the latter a stop on the Windsurf World Cup tour. As a rule of thumb, you’ll find flat water in the Baltic off Rügen and waves in the more challenging conditions of the North Sea off Sylt. Consequently, the latter is also home to Germany’s surfing scene – generally wind-slop but which has its days when the weather allows. Again, rental is available locally.