Everyone agrees that Berlin and Munich are worth seeing, but what they don’t know is that the less-touristed, undiscovered side of Germany is equally rewarding, offering everything from historic architecture to regional cuisine, boutique hotels, and luxury spas. Places including Augsburg, Trier, Lübeck, and Würzburg pair historic highlights of Germany, and the rich culture and lifestyle of Europe, with the refreshing experience of a more-peaceful, relaxed vacation. For those who are dreaming of a trip to the Continent, these secret spots make an ideal choice when travelers are ready for their next overseas getaway.
Below, we’ve chosen 17 of Germany’s lesser-known cities and what to seek out in each when visiting—though all of them offer a well-rounded mix of historic sightseeing, upscale hotels, and local cuisine. For even the most sophisticated traveler, there’s a charming, unexplored destination with it all in Deutschland.
For a trendy stay…
Known for its eponymous university that was founded in the 14th century, the southwestern German city of Heidelberg is also a hub for scientific research and the arts, especially literature. Visitors come for the energy as well as the Gothic-style Church of the Holy Spirit, the café-lined Marktplatz, the red sandstone ruins of Heidelberg Castle, and the charming Old Town with its Baroque buildings. The best place in town to stay is Hotel Boutique Suites Heidelberg, a historic cigar factory that’s been transformed into residential-style rooms with amenities like whirlpool tubs and private balconies with city views. Guests here can also expect a private sauna and gym, sustainable design, and extras like personal shopping, grocery stocking, and chauffeur services.
Head to Münster in western Germany to see the 13th-century St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Baroque-style Schloss Münster palace, the Museum of Lacquer Art, the Pablo Picasso Art Museum and its lithograph collection, and the Prinzipalmarkt square with its gabled houses, Gothic city hall, and late-medieval St. Lamberti Church. Then rest your head at the Factory Hotel, a Design Hotel located within the historic walls of the former Germania brewery. Here, 144 beautifully furnished rooms share space with three restaurants, a stylish bar, extensive spa and sauna facilities, and an outdoor terrace overlooking a pond.
Osnabrück in northwest Germany is known for being the birthplace of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which brought the 30 Years’ War to an end. It’s also home to the Felix Nussbaum House, where you can find works by the local Surrealist painter, a European Jew whose subjects included life under the Nazi regime. A charming market square surrounded by gabled houses, the 13th-century St. Mary’s Church, and the stately Osnabrück Castle round out the sights to see. For a cozy yet chic hotel, turn to Walhalla, which has stood opposite Osnabrück’s historic town hall since the 1960s. The 69 rooms and suites mix classic style with modern comforts, while the on-site Walhalla Restaurant offers fine dining. There’s also the David Lounge Bar with its sun terrace, as well as a plush spa with a sauna, steam bath, and solarium.
Located in Bavaria, right on the Danube River, Regensburg is famous for its well-preserved medieval core. Its 12th-century Stone Bridge stretches for nearly 340 yards and features 16 graceful arches, while its 13th-century Regensburg Cathedral boasts impressive twin spires. Right in the center of it all is Hotel Orphée, which comprises three separate buildings. Book the Grand Hotel, located in a lavish Baroque palazzo, for a room furnished with antique furniture, a chandelier, and a four-poster bed. The Petit Hotel has accommodations complete with vintage washstands and Turkish tiles. For something a little roomier, try St. Andrew’s Barn, which features Mediterranean-style rooms with kitchenettes. Wherever you bed down, don’t miss a meal at the Grand Hotel’s Restaurant Orphée, where travelers have enjoyed French classics since 1896.
Founded by Romans, Trier sits in the Moselle wine region in southwestern Germany, near the border with Luxembourg. The city has several well-preserved Roman structures, including the Porta Nigra gate, an amphitheater, and a stone bridge over the Moselle River—all of which are part of a World Heritage Site. Visitors can tour the archaeological museum to see even more Roman artifacts, or Trier Cathedral to view grand architecture, beautiful artworks, and holy relics. An ideal place to stay is the Romantik Hotel zur Glocke, historic in its own right as it occupies a building that was constructed in 1567 on a foundation from the 12th century. It also has a cellar from the 11th century (likely used as a wine storehouse during the Middle Ages), as well as classically furnished rooms including some with views of Trier Cathedral from private balconies or terraces, and the oldest pub in town, open since 1803.
For historic architecture…
A spa city near the border with Belgium and the Netherlands, Aachen features fountains flowing with sulfurous water and a Baroque town hall with 19th-century frescoes. More significant, however, is the town’s namesake cathedral. One of the oldest in Europe, it was constructed in 800 B.C.E. by order of Emperor Charlemagne, who was buried here in 814. It’s famous for its Palantine Chapel, where 30 German kings were crowned between 936 and 1531, as well as items like the Throne of Charlemagne, the Shrine of St. Mary, the ambon of Henry II, its Barbarossa chandelier, and its golden altarpiece. The church even boasts one of the most important ecclesiastical treasuries in northern Europe, with objects like the Cross of Lothair, the Bust of Charlemagne, and the Persephone sarcophagus.
A vibrant university town in the Black Forest of southwest Germany, Freiburg is popular for its medieval Old Town, which is crisscrossed by scenic brooks. Start your exploration at the Freiburg Cathedral, a Gothic church with a dramatic, 380-foot spire. (The only Gothic church tower to be completed during the Middle Ages, it miraculously survived the bombing raids of November 1944.) Afterwards, walk around Minster Square—the paved area that surrounds the cathedral and hosts a daily farmers’ market. Along its edges, you’ll find the city library, Historical Merchants’ Hall, Wentzinger House, and Korn House. The north side of the square served as a city cemetery in the Middle Ages and you can still see the outlines of the cemetery chapel in the cobblestones.
Straddling both banks of the Moselle River where it joins the Rhine, Koblenz was established as a Roman military post around 8 B.C.E. Today, travelers come here mostly to tour the Upper Middle Rhine Valley World Heritage Site, which includes such gems as the Electoral Palace, Stolzenfels Castle, and Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. The Electoral Palace is one of the most important examples of an early French neoclassical great house in southwestern Germany, while Stolzenfels Castle is an impressive instance of Gothic Revival style—both were owned by the Prussian Crown Prince in the 19th century. Built as the backbone of the Prussian regional fortification system between 1817 and 1828, the fortress once guarded the middle Rhine region but was never attacked.
Located in north Germany, Lübeck stands out for its brick Gothic architecture, which dates back to the city’s time as the medieval capital of the Hanseatic League. Visitors here head straight for the Old Town, a World Heritage Site; founded in the 12th century, it remained a major trading center for northern Europe until the 1500s. While it suffered damage during World War II, it still features several 15th- and 16th-century patrician residences as well as public monuments like the red-brick Holsten Gate (which once defended the Old Town) and St. Mary’s Church, a 14th-century landmark that greatly influenced northern European church design.
The city layout in Potsdam, right on the border of Berlin, exemplifies the Age of Enlightenment, which valued a careful balance of architecture and landscape. Nowhere is this more evident than within the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam World Heritage Site, an overwhelming mix of 150 buildings and 1,235 acres of parks constructed between 1730 and 1916. Don’t miss the Sanssouci Palace—the former summer home of Frederick the Great, it’s considered a German rival of Versailles—as well as the Renaissance-style Orangery Palace and its Italian-style gardens, and the neoclassical Charlottenhof Palace (surrounded by English gardens). Also worth seeing is the Cecilienhof Palace, famous for being the site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
In southwest Germany, Tübingen is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities as well as a restored Old Town, that dates back to the Middle Ages. One of the few completely intact historic towns in Germany, the city center survived World War II mostly due to its lack of heavy industry. Come here to explore crooked cobblestone lanes, narrow alleyways up steep hills, and traditional half-timbered houses. The late-Gothic St. George’s Collegiate Church includes stained-glass windows and city views from its tower, while a functioning astronomical clock tops the 15th-century City Hall. On the hilltop, the Hohentübingen Castle houses the Museum of Ancient Cultures with fascinating Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts.
For traditional food…
Bonn may be the birthplace of Beethoven (take a walking tour to visit several sites from his early life), but this western German city is also a great place to try Sauerbraten, a traditional roast of heavily marinated meat. Regarded as the national dish of Germany, Sauerbraten is most often prepared with beef, which is marinated for three to ten days in a mixture of vinegar, water, herbs, and spices before cooking, then served alongside hearty gravy, potato pancakes, potato dumplings, or spätzle. In Bonn, and much of the Rhineland region, raisins and sometimes even beet syrup are added during cooking for sweetness.
You could come to Erfurt in central Germany for its Martin Luther history—it’s home to the Cathedral of St. Mary, where he was ordained, and the Augustinerkloster, where he lived as a monk—but the city is just as famous for its cuisine. Classic dishes include Thuringian dumplings, a potato dumpling filled with cubes of crunchy bread and Thuringian roasted sausage, made with fragrant spices, grilled over charcoal, and served in a roll with mustard. For even more delicious fare, visit Restaurant Clara, where French influence and local products meet more than 250 wines.
Nestled in the Franconia region, in the northern part of Bavaria, Würzburg is beloved for its lavish architecture, numerous vineyards, and traditional dishes like Schäufele (roasted pork shoulder). Seasoned with caraway, braised in dark beer, and roasted with root vegetables until it’s falling off the bone, Schäufele is typically served with potato dumplings and either mixed salad, sauerkraut, or savoy cabbage depending on when and where in the Franconia region you’re dining. It’s German comfort food at its best, but for something slightly more refined, try Würzburg’s Michelin-starred Restaurant Reisers, located on premier vineyard Weingut am Stein. Afterward, explore the city’s other wineries like Juliusspital, Bürgerspital, and Staatlicher Hofkeller, where you can sample the dry, highly mineralized wines of Franconian wine culture such as Silvaner.
For some spa time…
Located in the state of Bavaria, Augsburg is one of Germany’s oldest cities, founded in 15 B.C.E. by the Romans. In addition to varied architecture, visitors here find an Italian-influenced society that’s always been centered around water—there are water towers from as early as the 15th century, a water-cooled butchers’ hall from the 17th century, fountains, and a sustainable water-management system that was recently named a World Heritage Site. The city’s innovative ways with water are also featured in its renowned spas. At Drei Mohren Hotel guests can look forward to aroma brine steam baths and a relaxation room with Grander water drinking wells (which claim to restructure water for physical and microbiological benefits). The property, which will change its name to Maximilian’s next year, also offers Finnish sauna and treatments designed by wellness visionary Oksana Steinborn.
On the Baltic coast of Germany, Rostock is known for its namesake university, opened in 1419. It’s also home to beautiful botanical gardens, a Gothic-style Old Town, and sandy beaches, plus a variety of luxurious spas. Neptun Spa at the Hotel Neptun & Spa offers a saltwater swimming pool, a sun terrace with unobstructed views of the Baltic Sea, and Thalasso therapy treatments that incorporate seawater. Hohe Düne Spa at the Yachthafenresidenz Hohe Düne boasts a spacious sauna area, a pool with a fireplace, and treatments from around the world, including French beauty rituals, a Turkish hammam, and Ayurvedic massages.
One of the oldest spa towns in Germany, Wiesbaden is famous for its 26 hot springs as well as for being a center for the treatment of rheumatic and orthopedic ailments. Visitors can try the town’s healing waters for themselves at a variety of spas, including the Nassauer Hof Therme day spa, where they’ll find a thermal pool fed by mineral springs located directly beneath the building. After dipping in the water—which is said to detoxify the body, cleanse the skin, and stimulate circulation—they can also take advantage of a sauna, solarium, and roof terrace with views over the city.