With the rise in popularity of air and train travel in the mid-20th century, many river towns in Germany lost their luster. Today though, there’s a resurgence in their popularity thanks to river cruising. They’re still as magical as they once were, and you don’t need a ship tor reach them.
By Jim Ferri
Many travelers enjoy day trips. As a matter of fact, the odds are good that you do too.
In Germany one popular day-trip destination is Heidelberg, which is within driving distance of Frankfurt and several other cities. In fact, beautiful Heidelberg, home to Germany’s first university, is one of the most popular day trips in the country.
Paradoxically, that’s the problem – it’s likely already filled with thousands of other day-trippers by the time you arrive.
But there are other places –to me more beautiful and intriguing – that I’ll bet you’ll enjoy just as much.
Three of them are beautiful and historic river towns in Bavaria, each unique and charming. In fact, they all have so much allure they’ve become popular river cruise destinations.
Reachable by Ship or Car
However, you don’t need to go on a cruise to see them. Each is easily reached via rental car from Frankfurt or Munich, or both. Although you can also reach them by train, it’s best to see them by car. Then you’ll have more leeway to stop in other little tantalizing places you’ll pass along the way.
If you’re going to Germany, set your sights on one or more of these Bavarian river towns for a fascinating day trip.
(a 2-hour drive from Munich; 4½ from Frankfurt)
Passau is a postcard-perfect, little Bavarian city with a beautiful old town that appears so Italianate in style. Clinging to the riverbank near the Austrian border, it’s an old Roman settlement. It was built as a trading port at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers.
However, that location also proved problematic. At Passau’s Rathaus, you’ll see high-water markings on the exterior of the building, the result of floods over the centuries (the highest occurred in 1501). Still, the Rathaus itself is a beautiful building, a structure that was 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). But don’t linger since there’s much more to see in the town. Also, visit the former castle of the prince-bishops, now a regional museum. I enjoyed the well-regarded Passauer Glass Museum and the Old Bishop’s Residence.
You’ll find much of the city a warren of colorful, little streets lined with shops, restaurants, and apartments. Rest for a while at one of the many cafés along picturesque Rindermarkt. The entire area, with its archways and alleyways, has a medieval feel to it.
However, it’s the market area that is one of the prettiest places in the small city. Multicolored buildings and little stores and shops line its streets.
I enjoyed the chutney shop with its sampling table out front. Also, the bakeries with their variety of cakes and strudels. I enjoyed the funky little Café Bar Centrale, which looks like it was snatched right out of the 19th century.
(2½-hour drive from Frankfurt or Munich)
On the banks of the Regnitz River, Bamberg is a town of narrow cobblestone streets, ornate mansions, palaces and impressive churches. Built in AD 902, it’s a beautiful medieval city that one of Europe’s largest fully intact old town centers. Thankfully, it survived several regional wars over the centuries, the black plague and was relatively untouched during World War II.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bamberg’s 1,000 years of architectural style includes Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and 19th-century eclecticism. In addition, its old center, with 2,000 buildings listed as historical monuments, is Europe’s largest existing group of historic buildings.
Arguably, for many people Bamberg is Old Germany at its finest. It is a beautiful little city where seemingly everywhere you turn you find old timbered houses on one street and an 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.
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.
First and foremost though, 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.
Throughout the old city, you’ll find some restaurants that serve traditional Franconian food. The city also has eight breweries, many of which also operate good restaurants.
Incidentally, Bamberg’s rauchbier, has a unique smoky flavor. As a result, it’s an acquired taste, much like the city’s local delicacy, a stuffed onion.
(1½-hour drive from Munich; 3½-hours from Frankfurt)
Regensburg, on the Danube River, is Germany’s largest medieval city. Originally a Celtic settlement, it later became a campsite for Roman soldiers. Today it’s a quiet little town with beautiful Baroque buildings that, luckily, were undamaged in World War II. Moreover, it has been beautifully preserved.
Furthermore, the city is home to Germany’s oldest bridge, the famous Steinerne Brücke (Stone Bridge), a marvel of medieval engineering. At one end is the Historische Wurtsküche, a 500+-year-old cottage-size wurst restaurant 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.
Also, you’ll find little restaurants lining the warren of cobbled streets and narrow alleyways in the old town. There are also hundreds of shops selling just about every knick-knack you can imagine. Even so, it’s all incredibly clean, tidy and quiet.
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. Moreover, visit the turreted Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) and 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 a wonderful view of the old town and the market area.