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10 Unique Places to Visit in Germany

Whether you’re celebrating at Carnival or exploring a Baroque palace, these German cities’ landmarks, cultural activities, and traditions make for memories you won’t find anywhere else.

10 Once-in-a-Lifetime, Only-in-Germany Experiences

Cologne

©KölnTourismus GmbH Dieter Jacobi

From the distinctive towns and scenic coastlines to the soaring Alps and mystical forests, all of Germany is pretty enchanting. And it’s the ten Magic Cities where you’ll find the country’s true charm.

Established in the 1950s as a marketing effort to frame places like Munich and Hamburg as destinations for holiday and business travel, Germany’s Magic Cities have taken on a life of their own over the years. Offering everything from fascinating history and rich culture to exciting festivals and delicious regional cuisine, they embody the spirit of their respective regions and shouldn’t be missed by travelers.

Read on to learn more about these extraordinary cities and our recommendations of what to see in each one. Whether you choose to visit Cologne, Nuremberg, Dresden, or all ten, you can expect them to be like no place else on earth.

Cologne

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Cologne

A city by the Rhine that’s famous for its sense of fun, Cologne is the cultural hub of the North Rhine-Westphalia region. Many come here to see the Cologne Cathedral—the largest Gothic church in northern Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—but travelers in the know time their trip to the city’s annual Carnival celebrations, which take place the week leading up to Lent.

The Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the merrymaking kicks off in Cologne’s Alter Markt square, and from there it’s parades, parties, and lots of overindulging for the next five days. Children and adults dressed in masquerade costumes take to the streets, where bands play festive music all day long. Kölsch (the beloved local beer) and glühwein (similar to mulled cider) flow freely and sweets like krapfen (donuts) and mutzenmandeln (almond-shaped pieces of fried dough) can be found on every corner. If you plan to attend, be sure to shout “Kölle Alaaf!” to everyone you see. The typical greeting of Carnival, it loosely means “Cologne over everything.”

Plan Your Stay

Dresden

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Zwinger Palace’s walled pavilion on a typical Dresden evening

Photo by Wolfgang Ehn

The capital of Saxony, Dresden is distinguished by its celebrated art museums and classic architecture in the reconstructed Old Town. For the finest example of the city’s famed Baroque buildings, head straight for Zwinger Palace.

A palatial complex with gardens, Zwinger is not only the most significant architectural monument in Dresden, but also one of the most important Baroque buildings in Germany. Commissioned in 1709 by Augustus the Strong, it was intended as a forecourt to his new castle, with richly decorated pavilions and galleries lined with balustrades as a testament to the splendor of his reign. It remained unfinished at his death, however, and wasn’t completed until 1855, when the architect Gottfried Semper added the Semper Gallery along the Elbe river side. One of the most influential museum projects of the 19th century, the Semper Gallery made it possible to expand the use of the Zwinger from an orangery and garden to a museum complex, which it remains to this day.

The building endured extensive damage during the Bombing of Dresden in 1945, but was reconstructed in the 1950s and 60s and now houses the Museums of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, including the Dresden Porcelain Collection, the Old Masters Picture Gallery, the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments, and the Armory. Each is worth a visit but the Semper Gallery is still the star, with a renowned collection of paintings dating from the Renaissance to the Baroque period. Highlights range from the Sistine Madonna by Raphael to Dutch Master paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

See More Architectural Treasures

Leipzig

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People enjoying an alfresco evening in Leipzig’s Drallewatsch pub mile

Photo by Rötting+Pollex

It may be the most populous city in Saxony, but Leipzig is better known for its unique musical heritage. For starters, it’s the hometown of many great composers, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner. It also boasts the Oper Leipzig (one of the most prominent opera houses in Germany), the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (one of the oldest symphony orchestras in the world), and the University of Music and Theater (founded by Felix Mendelssohn and the oldest school of music in Germany).

Get a feel for where it all started at the Bach-Museum, which tells the story of its namesake composer across 12 rooms. Here, visitors can learn to play Baroque instruments in an interactive exhibit, date Bach’s work in a research lab, and compare present-day Leipzig with its past version.

They can also view some of Bach’s instruments—including his violone, a console of an organ he played in 1743, and a viola d’amore designed by his close friend Johann Christian Hoffman—and trace his family tree to discover just how many of his relatives were involved in music. Not to be missed is the Treasure Room, where you’ll find the world’s second-largest collection of Bach’s hand-written manuscripts.

Discover More Creative Wonders

Stuttgart

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A fountain and the New Palace at Schlossplatz in Stuttgart

Photo by Julian Herzog

The capital of Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart is chiefly a manufacturing hub with 130 years of automotive history, but it’s also filled with green spaces, including one of the largest zoos and botanical gardens in Europe. Among the city’s loveliest outdoor areas is Karlshöhe, with its trails, gardens, city views, and biergarten with a spacious terrace. Go hiking here and you’ll come across the historic Athenebrunnen, a majestic fountain named for the Greek goddess Athena. Sculpted by Karl Donndorf in 1911, the Neoclassical statue used to belong to the widow of industrialist Gustav Siegle. It fell into disrepair after World War II, however, and it wasn’t until the Cultural Association Verschönerungsverein Stuttgart took control in 1989 that its basins and figures were finally restored.

Today, it functions much as it did in the early 20th century, when Julie Siegle commissioned it as a symbol of her family’s generosity—Athena was the patroness of the arts and sciences, and the Siegels were generous supporters of cultural, social, and scientific endeavors in Nuremberg. At the fountain’s center is Athena at the moment of her birth, when she emerged from Zeus’s head in full armor. A stone figure of Prometheus sits on her right; Pandora and her famous box sit on her left; and Zeus’s head serves as the pedestal for the entire statue.

Celebrate the Outdoors

Hamburg

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Hamburg // Photo ©Adobe Stock

A major port city in northern Germany, Hamburg used to be called the “gateway to the world” for its large harbor, coastal location, and prominent role in the Hanseatic League. While it may not have quite the same significance today, it’s still considered one of Germany’s finest cities, with stately architecture, trendy districts like Schanzenviertel, and natural highlights like the Planten un Blomen botanical gardens.

Experience it all on the Jungfernstieg, a grand promenade on the banks of the Alster Lakes where locals and tourists alike gather for shopping and sightseeing. Named after the German word for “maiden,” the street was where the unmarried daughters of wealthy Hanseatic families would go for strolls on Sundays. In 1838, it even became the first street in the city to be paved with asphalt. Now, it’s one of the most elegant shopping areas in Hamburg’s city center, with everything from traditional jewelers and luxury shoemakers to designer clothing stores, perfumeries, and more. When visiting, be sure to stop into Alsterhaus, a famous department store that’s been around since 1912, then grab a coffee at Café Alex, located inside the atmospheric Alsterpavillon.

Explore More in this Maritime City

Bremen

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Bremen

Situated along the Weser River, Bremen is the heart of northwest Germany. It’s home to one of the largest ports in the country and serves as the cultural and economic hub of the region, with a fascinating mix of medieval and modern architecture, plus numerous galleries, museums, theaters, libraries, and archives. To learn more about the city’s artistic and cultural past, head to the Focke Museum, which features a permanent collection spread over six buildings and the grounds of an old manor house and park.

Covering 1,200 years of Bremen history, the Focke boasts rare works of art and craftsmanship alongside an extensive art history archive. In the Haus Riensberg building, you’ll find furniture, children’s objects, and a porcelain-and-glass collection that illustrates how past generations lived their daily lives.

The thatched-roof Eichenhof building, which used to function as the manor’s barn, now houses relics from as far back as the 8th century B.C.E., while the Haus Mittelsbüren building, which was built around 1580, showcases exhibits on construction, farming, seafaring, and the development of industry in and around Bremen. Visitors can also learn more about Bremen’s agricultural history in the Tarmstedter Scheune building or examine the city’s backstory from different artistic standpoints at any of the rotating exhibits throughout the museum.

Learn How Tradition Meets Innovation

Düsseldorf

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Düsseldorf’s Rhine Tower and Neuer Zollhof building // Photo Francesco Carovillano

FRANCESCO CAROVILLANO

Düsseldorf in western Germany is a study in contrasts. On one hand, it’s steeped in history, with narrow, cobbled streets and a medieval Old Town. On the other, it’s modern and sophisticated, with sleek architecture, a thriving arts scene, and museums to rival a much larger town. One of Germany’s wealthiest cities, it’s also long been associated with the luxury lifestyle. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Königsallee, or King’s Avenue, where everyone goes to participate in Düsseldorf’s favorite pastime: shopping.

Known to locals by its nickname “Kö,” the mile-long promenade is filled with designer boutiques like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Cartier as well as big chains like H&M, Zara, and Massimo Dutti toward the southern end. If you’re watching your wallet, know that Kö is also just a lovely stretch to stroll, shaded by trees, bordered by a picturesque canal, and lined with cafes where you can grab a coffee and watch the fashionistas go by.

Discover Cutting-Edge Culture

Frankfurt

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Frankfurt’s Städel Museum // Photo courtesy of the Städel Museum

A city in central Germany along the Main River, Frankfurt is known worldwide as a financial hub. Hiding behind the big business, however, is abundant history and culture, from the medieval town square and first-rate museums to the cozy taverns serving regional food and apple wine.

Another of Frankfurt’s claims to fame is that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, playwright, and novelist, was born and grew up here. In fact, his 18th-century, bourgeois-style home is now a museum—and a fascinating one at that. Restored as closely as possible to its original condition after being destroyed in World War II, it features period interiors, notable paintings, and original furnishings, including the desk at which Goethe wrote Götz von Berlichingen, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Faust. A neighboring museum focuses on Goethe’s literary legacy, as well as paintings and sculptures from the 18th and 19th centuries that highlight the writer’s relationship to art.

Uncover Frankfurt’s Icons

Munich

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Munich // Photo ©Thomas Klinger

The capital of Bavaria, Munich is beloved for its centuries-old architecture, numerous museums, and annual Oktoberfest celebration. You’ll be tempted to spend your days here hopping from one beer hall to the next, but save some time to experience the Rathaus-Glockenspiel cuckoo clock, located in the New Town Hall on the Marienplatz in the heart of Munich.

At 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day (and again at 5 p.m. in the summer), the Rathaus-Glockenspiel chimes and re-enacts two stories from the 16th century for the crowds that gather in the square below. Complete with 43 bells and 32 life-size figures, it puts on quite a show, with four different songs that change monthly. First, the top half of the clock opens to tell of the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lorraine in 1568, for which there was a jousting match between knights on horseback—no surprise, the Bavarian knight wins every time. After, the bottom half opens and details the story of the Schäfflertanz, a dance that started in 1517 and now symbolizes perseverance and loyalty to authority in difficult times. When it’s done, a small golden rooster appears at the top of the clock and chirps three times to mark the end of the spectacle.

See the Best of Munich

Nuremberg

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Nuremberg

Photo ©Uwe Niklas

History is alive in Nuremberg. In the second-largest city in Bavaria, visitors will find one of Europe’s biggest castles; the home of German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer; museums housing objects like the world’s oldest globe and a 500-year-old Madonna; and a famous Christmas market that started in 1628. If you really want to step back in time, however, check out the city’s historic rock-cut cellars.

The first mention of the cellars appears in a document from 1380, detailing how everyone who brewed beer in their house had to have a cellar. They were then used to store beers for centuries afterward. The red sandstone used to cut the cellars turned out to be very stable, as did their carefully constructed pillars, and the vaults held firm against several World War II bombings. In fact, thousands of Nuremberg citizens used the cellars for shelter during the raids on January 2, 1945 and survived. Today, the cellars are once again being used to ripen and store beer for Hausbrauerei Altstadthof. They’re also open for tours, which include a visit to the Hausbrauerei Altstadthof brewery and tastings in the attached tavern.

Step Back in History

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