In the smaller, postcard-perfect cities of Germany, travel experiences might include buying one-euro mustard in Regensburg, munching on lebkuchen gingerbread at Christmas markets, visiting the birthplace of Beethoven in Bonn before attending a local concert, or climbing up ancient Medieval city walls. And you can easily combine the smaller, charming cities with bigger destinations like Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt.
Watch the full interview with Sascha Mayerer, CEO of Historic Highlights of Germany.
Sascha Mayerer, CEO of the Historic Highlights of Germany, which represents 17 historic, charming cities around the country, understands why people want to go to big cities like Berlin. “People should go to the big cities, but it is going to the smaller places where the real magic happens,” he says. “I sometimes have the feeling, with only two days in Munich, or Berlin, that you are missing parts. But in the smaller cities, you can do a fair amount in one or two days.” Mayerer is based in Trier, one of the historic cities, near the border of Luxembourg.
If you are visiting a bigger city in Germany, it is usually very easy to add on a day or two in a smaller city, such as combining Berlin with Potsdam, just thirty minutes away and is known for its palaces and Rococo-style architecture. Michael Kater, managing director of Compass Tours and Unique Germany, recommends Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam. “It is Europe’s largest and oldest film studio with incredible artificial streets and houses,” he says.
Travelers who are exploring Munich and interested in the local food and beer scene can take a 30-minute train ride to Augsburg, which has several centuries-old breweries, including Riegele, which is located next to the train station and dates to the 14th century. “Augsburg was the home of the Fugger family,” says Kater. “They were the world’s richest family in the Middle Ages, and built an incredible empire from business. The family is still there—they are no longer the richest family, of course—but they have built great buildings in the city.”
For other big city-small city pairings, travelers can fly into the hub of Frankfurt—thirty minutes to the west is Wiesbaden, a lovely spa town close by. An hour to the east is Würzburg, known for its wine and UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the north, you can easily combine Hamburg with Lübek, right next to the Baltic Sea and called the Queen of the Haseatic League. And you can easily travel by train between these destinations.
A little farther away from Frankfurt is Bonn, the former capital of Germany. “We’re celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year in Bonn, where he is from,” says Mayerer. “And you can sit there, hear what he wrote, and then experience what it is like where he lived. Many of the cities we represent are like this, with at least 700 years of history, and where people studied music, poetry, medicine, and so on.” Kater also recommends the House of German History [Haus der Geschichte] in Bonn, a lively and interactive museum that tells the history of Germany after 1945.
The Christmas markets in Germany’s smaller cities will always be a beloved tradition and a big reason why travelers book trips there. “The markets stands for the German gemütlichkeit, for the coziness, the hot cup of mulled wine,” says Kater. “The gluhwein is key to the experience. Traditionally, people drink the red one but my suggestion is to go for the white one, it usually has much less sugar, so you have less of a headache. Then there is Feuerzangenbowle, a red punch which is similar to gluhwein—try it once and don’t drink more than one. It contains much more alcohol.”
Kater’s favorite smaller Christmas markets include those in Heidelberg, Würzburg, and Wiesbaden in the south; Rostock and Lübek in the north; and Erfurt, where the tradition goes back more than 150 years. “But still on my list is Osnabrück, which has the largest Christmas music box in the world,” he says.