By Rick Steves
So much to see, so little time. How to choose? To help you get started, I've listed my top picks for where to go in Germany, my plan for your best three-week trip, and tips on when to go.
Depending on the length of your trip, and taking geographic proximity into account, here are my recommended priorities:
- 3 days: Munich, Bavarian castles
- 5 days, add: Rhine Valley, Rothenburg
- 7 days, add: More of Bavaria and Tirol, side-trip to Salzburg
- 10 days, add: Berlin
- 14 days, add: Baden-Baden, Black Forest, Dresden
- 17 days, add: Nürnberg, Mosel Valley, Trier
- 21 days, add: Würzburg, and slow down
- More time: Choose among Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, Leipzig, and the Martin Luther towns (Erfurt and Wittenberg).
Germany's Best Three-Week Trip (by Car)
Day 1: Fly into Frankfurt, pick up car, to Rhine (sleep in Bacharach)
Day 2: Rhine Valley (sleep in Bacharach)
Day 3: To Mosel Valley (sleep in Beilstein or Trier)
Day 4: Mosel Valley and/or Trier (sleep in Beilstein or Trier)
Day 5: To Baden-Baden (sleep in Baden-Baden)
Day 6: Relax and soak in Baden-Baden (sleep in Baden-Baden)
Day 7: Drive through the Black Forest (sleep in Staufen or Freiburg)
Day 8: To Bavaria and Tirol (sleep in Füssen or Reutte)
Day 9: Bavaria/Tirol and castles (sleep in Füssen or Reutte)
Day 10: More Bavaria/Tirol, then to Munich (sleep in Munich)
Day 11: Munich (sleep in Munich)
Day 12: More Munich, or side-trip to Salzburg (sleep in Munich)
Day 13: To Dachau, then follow Romantic Road to Rothenburg (sleep in Rothenburg)
Day 14: Rothenburg (sleep in Rothenburg)
Day 15: To Würzburg, drop off car*, then train to Nürnberg (sleep in Nürnberg or Würzburg)
Day 16: Nürnberg (sleep in Nürnberg)
Day 17: Train to Dresden (sleep in Dresden)
Day 18: Train to Berlin (sleep in Berlin)
Day 19: Berlin (sleep in Berlin)
Day 20: Berlin (sleep in Berlin)
Day 21: Fly home
*After Day 15, you're visiting well-connected cities, making a car unnecessary. Drop the car in Würzburg to save several days of car-rental costs and parking fees.
Smaller Towns vs. Bigger Towns: This itinerary (especially the first half) is heavy on half-timbered villages — a German specialty. But for some, a little cuteness goes a long way. Depending on your preference, you can plan your overnights either to maximize or reduce quaintness. For example, for Days 3–4, 7, and 15, you can opt for smaller towns (Beilstein, Staufen, and mid-size Würzburg) or for bigger cities (Trier, Freiburg, and Nürnberg).
With Less Time: This trip can be pared down to two weeks by making the following changes: Skip the Mosel (a sleepier version of the Rhine), and go directly from the Rhine to Baden-Baden. From Baden-Baden, head straight for Füssen/Reutte instead of overnighting in Staufen/Freiburg. Skip the Salzburg side-trip; choose between Würzburg and Nürnberg, and stay just one night there; and reduce the stay in Berlin to two nights.
With More Time: Berlin and Salzburg are each easily worth another day. Depending on your interests, you could stay a day in Frankfurt (upon arrival) and add another day for the Rhine to visit Cologne from Bacharach. The Martin Luther towns (Erfurt and Wittenberg) and Leipzig fit well between towns to the west and south (Frankfurt, Nürnberg) and those in the north and east (Berlin, Dresden). Hamburg isn't on the way to anything in Germany (it's near Denmark), but it's a worthwhile detour for those interested in its history.
This itinerary is designed to be done by car, but could be done by train with some modifications: Skip the southern Black Forest and take the train from Baden-Baden to Munich, which works well as a home base for visiting Bavaria and Salzburg. Then take the train or bus to Rothenburg; from there, Würzburg, Nürnberg, and Dresden are all on the way to Berlin. Or, for the best of both worlds, consider using trains to connect major cities, and then renting a car strategically to explore worthwhile countryside regions (such as Bavaria/Tirol).
When to Go
The "tourist season" runs roughly from May through September. Summer has its advantages: the best weather, snow-free alpine trails, very long days (light until after 21:00), and the busiest schedule of tourist fun.
Travel during "shoulder season" (April, May, September, and early October) is easier and can be a bit less expensive. Shoulder-season travelers usually enjoy smaller crowds, decent weather, the full range of sights and tourist fun spots, and the ability to grab a room almost whenever and wherever they like — often at a flexible price. Also, in fall, fun harvest and wine festivals enliven many towns and villages, while forests and vineyards display beautiful fiery colors.
Winter travelers find concert seasons in full swing, with absolutely no crowds, but some accommodations and sights are either closed or run on a limited schedule. Confirm your sightseeing plans locally, especially when traveling off-season. The weather can be cold and dreary, and nightfall draws the shades on sightseeing well before dinnertime. But dustings of snow turn German towns and landscapes into a wonderland, and December offers the chance to wander through Germany's famous Christmas markets (this tinseled fun often comes with higher hotel prices, but also longer museum hours).