By Jim Ferri
In Germany, Berlin may typify the modernity of the country, but it’s Bavaria that epitomizes it for many travelers.
After all, who isn’t charmed by old timbered houses with bright flowers cascading from window boxes…little villages with streets that are lined with konditoreis and bäckereis …. dense forests and soaring Alpine peaks…beer halls resonating with oompah music, where dirndl-clad waitresses serve countless steins of bier.
Yes, from Munich to Nuremberg and everywhere in between, Bavaria has a special allure for many of us.
Here are six towns and cities where to enjoy the best of Bavaria, a state larger than many European nations.
Italianate Style in Bavaria
Passau is a postcard-perfect, little Bavarian city with a beautiful old town Italianate in style. Its Rathaus, or City Hall, is a beautiful building, cobbled together from eight patrician houses.
Pay a visit to Baroque St. Stephan’s Cathedral to see its massive pipe organ (with 17,774 pipes, the largest in Europe). Also visit the former castle of the prince-bishops, now a regional museum. I also enjoyed the Passauer Glass Museum and the Old Bishop’s Residence.
Much of the city is a warren of colorful, little streets lined with shops, restaurants, and apartments. The entire area, with its archways and alleyways, has a medieval feel to it. Multicolored buildings line its streets, and its market area is one of the prettiest places in the small city. You’ll likely love stopping in one of the many cafés along the picturesque Rindermarkt.
Old Germany At Its Finest
For many people, Bamberg is Old Germany at its finest. On the banks of the Regnitz River, it’s a town of narrow cobblestone streets, ornate mansions, palaces, and churches. A beautiful medieval city, it has one of Europe’s largest fully intact old town centers.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bamberg’s 1,000 years of architectural style includes Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and 19th-century eclecticism. Also, its old center, with 2,000 buildings listed as historical monuments, is Europe’s largest existing group of historic buildings.
First and foremost, see the old town hall, which sits on an island in the middle of the river. With its beautiful exterior and dramatic location, it’s probably the most photographed building in town.
Seemingly everywhere you turn here you find old timbered houses on one street and old Wedgewood-style of architecture on another. It’s a city that screams with color, from pastel buildings to the blazing red geraniums tumbling out of window boxes.
The city also has eight breweries, many of which also operate good restaurants. The rauchbier they serve, like the city’s local delicacy, a stuffed onion, is an acquired taste.
Also be sure to visit the 800-year old, triple-nave Bamberg Cathedral, the final resting place of Pope Clement II. Also, it’s home to the famous equestrian statue of the “Bamberg Rider” whose identity has remained a mystery for centuries.
Germany’s Oldest Bridge and Wurst Restaurant
Regensburg, on the Danube River, is Germany’s largest medieval city. Today it’s a quiet little town with beautiful Baroque buildings that, luckily, were undamaged in World War II. It also has been beautifully preserved.
The city is home to Germany’s oldest bridge, the famous Steinerne Brücke (Stone Bridge), a marvel of medieval engineering. Be sure to visit the Historische Wurtsküche at one end of it. It’s a 500+-year-old cottage-size wurst restaurant that’s reputed to be the oldest in Germany. In my opinion, it’s a great place to stop for a beer and wurst, especially a Regensburger sausage.
See the soaring St. Peter’s Cathedral, a Gothic cathedral adorned with beautiful 14th-century stained glass windows. It sits on the site of the old Roman military camp.
Also, visit the turreted Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) to see its beautifully decorated Reichssaal. Interestingly, its seats are colored to dictate who could sit where. Incidentally, it was in this hall that the first Parliament of the Holy Roman Empire sat for nearly 150 years.
Finally, go up to the rooftop terrace of the restaurant of the Kaufhof department store on the old market square. Bring your camera to capture an excellent view of the old town and the market area.
A Palace and Two Castles
You could almost mistake little Füssen for a back-lot set in Hollywood. It has centuries-old streets and buildings, a palace right in the middle of town, and not one castle, but two.
That second castle, Neuschwanstein, is believed by many to be the model for Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyland. Go see for yourself; you’ll find the resemblance uncanny.
The Rathaus is in a ninth-century Benedictine monastery. (If that’s not old enough, there’s also evidence of Roman barracks dating from the fourth century found on the site.) The old building is also home to a fascinating museum of musical instruments.
Visit some of the town’s many little shops and its market. Also see the High Palace, the former summer residence of the Lord Bishops of Augsburg. Today it’s a well-preserved late-Gothic castle complex that houses a museum of paintings. From a distance, its exterior trompe l’oeil painting tricks you into thinking it has corner towers and ornate window frames.
Disney-like Neuschwanstein Castle, the most famous of the Fussen’s stately residents, is about two miles outside of town. You reach it from the castle of Hohenschwangau. The walk takes about 45 minutes although during the summer months you can take a shuttle bus. In the winter there are horse-drawn wagons that cost six euros per person, and another three euros for the return.
Gingerbread, Sausage and Über Cultural
Historic Nuremberg, the second-largest town in Bavaria, dates back to the 11th century when it was a trading center. In medieval times it was one of the greatest cultural centers in Europe.
Today it lures travelers not only with its famous gingerbread and sausages but also with its history. Visit Albrecht-Durer’s House, containing a painting and printing workshop from Durer’s time, where staff demonstrates artistic techniques. Another don’t-miss is the Germanic National Museum. Its collection contains over 1.2 million objects, making it Germany’s largest museum of cultural history.
You may also want to visit St. Sebald Church, a beautiful Protestant church with the grave of St Sebald. It’s also home to a permanent exhibition of pictures of Nurnberg before, during and after World War II.
Perhaps the city’s most famous sight, however, is Courtroom 600, the site of the famous Nuremberg war trials. Visiting it is a fascinating experience, which you should do with a guide for a better understanding of it all.
Be sure to relive more history at the Documentation Center adjacent to the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds. Set in a historical, austere building, the Center attempts to demonstrate through narration, photos and film clips how Hitler used the propaganda and public relations machines, along with other tactics, in his rise to power.
Bavaria’s Must Famous City
Munich is Bavaria’s most famous city, and justifiably so.
Start your tour of Munich at the Neues Rathaus on the famed Marienplatz, the medieval marketplace of the old city. Also stop in St. Peter’s church, where you’ll feel the imperial hierarchy in the Baroque and Gothic architecture.
The store Dallmayr, the purveyor of food to royalty since 1700, is Munich’s answer to Harrods in London. (It’s behind the Rathaus). Customers visit not only to buy groceries, but also to have dinner in the restaurant above the marketplace.
Also walk through the nearby Viktualienmarkt, one of Europe’s most renowned outdoor markets. It’s adjacent to the Münchner Schrannenhalle, a large specialty food hall on the site of the city’s old grain market. It’s also a good place to have lunch.
Munich has more than 80 museums. If you’re short on time, as most of us are, choose to visit the Brandhorst Museum and the Deutsches Museum.
The renowned Brandhorst has a superb collection of modern and contemporary art, including an extensive collection of Andy Warhol’s works. Even if you’re not interested in the exhibits, you’ll find the building itself to be a modern masterpiece.
The incredible Deutsches Museum is one of the largest and oldest science museums in the world. Don’t let that science stuff put you off, however. It’s a place that’s of interest to nearly everyone, likely the reason 1.5 million people visit it every year.
Another don’t miss Munich’s famous beer halls, most notably the Hofbräuhaus and Augustiner Brau.
The Hofbräuhaus draws a large tourist crowd with its oompah band and Bavarian ambiance. Order a stein of the original Hofbräu (€7.30 per liter) and a Münchner Weisswürste, Munich’s original veal sausages. Both are great.
Many Münchners, however, prefer the less touristy Augustiner Brau, named for the Augustinian monks who founded the brewery and city. You’ll find good food and beer here as well. You’ll also find men in their old Bavarian hats and jackets adding to the non-touristy ambiance.