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From chocolate-box houses to towering cathedral spires, Hanseatic glories to Gothic splendour, Germany has a wealth of historic town centres just waiting to be explored. And there’s no better way to discover these gorgeous German towns than on your own two feet, wandering down alleyways to soak up the history and architecture. Just don’t forget to look up.
Bamberg Old Town
Bamberg has a delightfully romantic air to it, what with its timber-framed buildings, stone arch bridge and splashes of colourful flowers. Situated amid picturesque countryside and spanning seven hills, Bamberg retains old-world charm with plentiful attractions for visitors to enjoy.
Its wealth of medieval and baroque architecture make it a place well worth lingering in, and the city’s layout is a prime example of how most Central European towns were designed in the early Middle Ages. Bamberg’s Old Town consists of three World Heritage districts: the episcopal town, the island town and the market gardener’s town.
Forming the town’s layout are five churches, with many other buildings dating as far back as the 11th century. There’s a range of more “recent” additions up until the 18th century. With over 1200 monuments to take in, one of the stand-outs that you should certainly make time for is the four-towered St Peter and St George Cathedral, also referred to as Bamberg Cathedral, for its stone sculptures and notable tombs. Positioned on the tallest hill in Bamberg, make sure you look back over the sweeping views of the town below.
Cathedral aside, other sights to see include the baroque, wide-stretching New Palace, which looks like you’re facing a section of Versailles from the outside and, with its ornate decor, on the inside, too. The low-roofed, timber-framed-clad Alte Hofhaltung Palace or Old Court borders Domplatz (Cathedral Square), which now contains a museum. Don’t miss the tanners’ cottage, situated by the old canal; the genteel mill district; and the fisherman’s village, which is often regarded as Germany’s “Little Venice” with its steady stream of barge-like fishing boats.
Another of Bamberg’s highlights isn’t a historic palace, quaint town or striking cathedral, although they are impressive in their own rights. Bamberg’s Rauch beer is enjoyed all over, its smoked taste making it a distinct brew from others. The best way to sample this delicious flavour? Book onto a special beer-tasting tour, where your guide will lead the way around some of the best bars and breweries in Bamberg where you can sample one of Bamberg’s tastiest accolades. Prost!
- Best for: Romantics, history buffs
- Nearest major city: Bamberg
- Nearest airport: Frankfurt
- Website: en.bamberg.info
Collegiate Church, Castle and Old Town of Quedlinburg
The medieval town of Quedlinburg is striking, well-preserved and fairytale-esque. Located in the Harz region of Saxony-Anhalt, Quedlinburg was a town of royal and imperial prominence during the Middle Ages. It isn’t hard to believe it was once such a significant site, given the beauty of the place.
Start your visit to Quedlinburg at the Collegiate Church of St Servatius. Positioned on a low wooded hillside, it overlooks the surrounding area – with stellar views. Its exterior demands attention, with its triple-naved basilica, tall stone walls and terracotta roofs.
Back on ground level, the rest of Quedlinburg is filled with a whopping 2069 timber-framed houses, set in a medieval landscape. Stroll around the market square, where you can marvel at the colourful architecture, and take in the town hall in all its Renaissance glory. There is also an old stone statue of Roland, which traditionally symbolized the city’s prominence.
Wind your way to Munzenberg hill, where the houses become square-shaped and terraced, and past the Romanesque Church of St Mary. Pass through the abbey’s garden and up into Brühl Park, where you can enjoy the views of the Church ahead as you stroll along one of its flatter paths. These are all Quedlinburg’s top attractions in their own right and form part of its World Heritage Site.
Of course, you can enjoy Quedlinburg at any time of year; the blossoming flowers in spring, the balmy evenings in summer, the orange and green hues in autumn. But Quedlinburg really comes into its own during winter, with brilliant white snow covering rooftops, dusting the market square and the sharp sun casting an amber shadow onto the buildings. There’s also an excellent Christmas market, erected right in front of the Rathaus, selling a tempting selection of festive goodies. With the inner courtyards opened up – the only time during the year for them to do so – it lends a Christmas fairyland feel to the town.
Once you’ve seen everything Quedlinburg has to offer, take an excursion to the beautiful Mount Brocken or the small town of Wernigerode, both of which are accessible by Harz’s narrow-gauge railway.
- Best for: Fairytale dreamers, fans of timber-framed medieval city design
- Nearest major city: Leipzig
- Nearest airport: Hanover
- Website: www.quedlinburg-info.de (German only)
Hanseatic Town of Lübeck
The needle-like spires, grand patrician townhouses and tall-masted ships reflect onto the wide-set Trave river in Lübeck. This genteel Hanseatic town was dubbed the “first western town on the Baltic coast”, and was a prominent site of international trading for many years. Founded in 1143, Lübeck’s medieval layout is one of its most charming features, with Renaissance, Gothic, Classical and Baroque architecture, narrow lanes and craftsmen’s yards, evocative merchant’s houses… the list goes on.
The Old Town is surrounded by water and constitutes a protected World Heritage Site, so a great way to explore is by harbour tour. Whether you choose to see the Old Town by water or dry land, you won’t be disappointed: the Old Town spans one thousand years of history, from its numerous churches and 13th-century monastery to the brown-stone salt warehouses that line the Trave river. But one of the most stand-out, landmark sites in Lübeck is its Holsten Gate, which marks the entrance to the Old Town, despite it being flanked by two main roads today. From the outside, you can take in its wide, conical twin spires, intricate red brickwork and arched windows, but venture inside where you can make the most of an interactive museum for a deeper insight into the Hanseatic age. Delve further into Lübeck’s history by paying a visit to its other museums.
Lübeck doesn’t just boast an impressive history and marvellous architecture, though – it’s played home to plenty of notable figures, too. The town has hosted no fewer than three Nobel Prize laureates, and each has their own museum: the unassuming Gunter Grass-House, the petite palatial-like Willy-Brandt-House and the 18th-century Baroque Buddenbrook House, dedicated to Thomas Mann.
As marvellous as Lübeck itself is, there’s plenty in the surrounding area to explore, too. Take a trip to the nearby seaside resort of Travemünde and rest up on the long golden-sand beach or nab a spot at a beachside bar. Take in the view of the swanky yachts and big ships that are moored here, and cast your gaze across the Baltic Sea. There’s no missing the impressive Passat, a four-masted Baroque ship, which reminds you of the town’s illustrious maritime past.
- Best for: Brick Gothic lovers, marzipan addicts
- Nearest major city: Lübeck
- Nearest airport: Hamburg
- Website: www.visit-lubeck.com
Historic Centres of Stralsund and Wismar
The two north-coast port towns of Wismar and Stralsund look across the Baltic Sea towards Denmark. Wismar is a well-preserved Hanseatic town, whose harbour portrays the significance of this once-mighty trading centre. Slightly inland sits the Alte Schwede, the town’s oldest mercantile – and perhaps most striking – house, with its step-by-step roof facade. Today, it’s home to a popular restaurant of the same name.
There are also brick parish churches dating back to the late Middle Ages, which display Gothic architecture. In the Wismar Church of St Mary, there’s an exhibition that explores the techniques of Gothic brick building and medieval craftsmanship, allowing visitors to gain a real insight into the creative drive of the town.
In neighbouring Stralsund, which also sits on the southern Baltic coast, you’ll find similar tales of grandiose architecture and vivid heritage spots. The two towns are charming places that have largely unchanged medieval layouts, brick parish churches and quaint harbourside pubs. In fact, both Wismar and Stralsund were under Swedish rule between the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors can find out more about the two town’s modern “ancestors” from a few key clues – the stories are always hidden in the details. There is a large Swedish crest positioned at the top of the former Swedish government palace in Strasland; in Wismar, meanwhile, there are two statues of Swedish guards outside of harbourside Baumhaus.
Each of the two historic towns are suitable for a day trip, and both offer a fascinating insight into the 14th-century Hanseatic League through their little-changed layouts and structures.
Recent history aside, there are other, more modern sights worth checking out. Stralsund is the setting for the Ozeaneum Aquarium, where you can learn about the marine creatures of the Baltic, North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Housed in a modern white, curved building, it’s a striking sight set against the medieval splendour of the rest of the town. Visitors can continue the animal theme in Wismar at the popular zoo, which is home to a range of animals of all shapes and sizes, from blue peacocks and alpacas to lynx and red deer.
- Best for: Fans of incredibly pretty medieval fishing towns
- Nearest major city: Rostock
- Nearest airport: Hamburg, Berlin
- Website: www.stralsundtourismus.de/en/
Old Town of Regensburg and Stadtamhof
The Bavarian town of Regensburg is the best-preserved medieval city in Germany, with its two-thousand-year history, 1500 listed buildings – some of which form the “Old Town with Stadtamhof” – and strollable market squares.
Standing at 105m tall, Regensburg Cathedral is the symbol of the town, with its French Gothic architecture, fine medieval stained-glass windows and light and airy ambience. Its Treasury Museum (the Domschatzmuseum) displays various religious relics, from golden crucifixes to elaborately decorated chalices.
Regensburg’s collection of squares and markets range from the Alter Kornmarkt (Old Corn market), with its old, wide-set buildings painted in licks of green, pink and yellow, which today serve as bustling restaurants and cafes; the Kohlenmarkt (coal market), with slightly more grandiose buildings lining the market square, offering a livelier atmosphere with numerous restaurants and bars with outdoor seating; and the likes of Dachauplatz, Haidplatz and Rathausplatz. While you’re here, there’s definitely no missing the Porta Praetoria: dating back to roughly 179 AD, this is Germany’s most ancient stone building, with giant slabs of stone that once formed a Roman military camp gatehouse.
To get a real feel for the town’s buildings and history, head to the World Heritage Visitor Centre. The Centre itself is housed in the Salzstadel, a former salthouse, and sits across the Stone Bridge, which is itself the country’s oldest arched stone bridge – as you cross over, see if you can spot the original sections. Once you’re inside, embark on your own journey of Regensburg with its interactive exhibition. Learn all about its history, from emperors and kings to today’s visitor-friendly status as a much-loved tourist destination.
There’s also plenty of art and culture to be enjoyed: the Festival of Early Music puts on concerts in historical venues, and the Thurn and Taxis Palace Theatre Festival sees visitors and locals alike enjoying Regensburg at its most atmospheric, helped by a crackling fireworks display. For those planning a winter trip, Neupfarrplatz has a wonderful Christmas market, but seeing as Regensburg has the highest concentration of bars in Germany, the town really can be enjoyed at any time of year!
- Best for: Medieval old towns, beer and German sausage lovers
- Nearest major city: Nuremberg
- Nearest airport: Munich
- Website: tourismus.regensburg.de/en
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.