Rising to the Top in Germany

By Rick Steves
Top of Zugspitze
A golden cross marks the top of the Zugspitze — the highest point in Germany. (photo: Rick Steves)

One of my favorite places to be in Europe is atop the Zugspitze — the highest point in Germany. Standing on this 9,700-foot peak, you can't help but marvel at the thought that you are above everyone else in the entire country — number one out of 82 million. From here, facing south, I feel like a maestro conducting a symphony of snow-capped peaks as the mighty Alps stretch seemingly forever to the right and left.

The Zugspitze also marks the border between Germany and Austria. Before Europe united, you had to show your passport just to walk across the mountaintop. 

Lifts from both countries meet at the top. As if waging an epic battle of alpine engineering, just a few years after the Austrians built a cable car to their Zugspitze station, the Germans drilled through the mountain in 1931 so that a cogwheel train could deposit nature lovers on a glacier just below their side of the summit. 

Today, whether you ascend from the Austrian or German side, you can straddle the border between two great nations while enjoying an incredible view. Restaurants, shops, and telescopes await you at the summit. 

There are two separate terraces — Bavarian and Tirolian — connected by a narrow walk which was the border station. Crossing used to be a big deal — you'd get your passport stamped at the little blue house and shift your currency from shillings to marks. While the border formalities are long gone, regional pride still shines here. You'll notice no German or Austrian banners but regional ones instead for "Freistaat Bayern" and "Land Tirol."

The views are equally breathtaking on either side of the border. On the German side, the Zugspitzplatt Glacier stretches before you. Ski lifts fan out as if reaching for the ridge that defines the border between Germany and Austria. Each summer, workers spread out a 10,500-square-foot reflector over the glacier to try to slow its shrinking due to global warming. Since metal ski lift towers absorb heat, they too are wrapped in reflective material to try to save the ice. 

Below you in the snow stands the "Hochzeitskapelle" — wedding chapel — which was consecrated in 1981 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI).

The German side has the oldest building up here — the rustic, tin-and-wood weather tower, erected by the Deutscher Wetterdienst (German weather service) in 1900. The first mountaineers' hut was built in 1897 but didn't last. The existing one — entwined with mighty cables that cinch it down — dates from 1914. In 1985, observers clocked 200 m.p.h. winds up here — those cables were necessary. 

Step inside the German restaurant to enjoy museum-like photos and paintings on the walls — including a look at the priest and his friends who, in 1851, hiked up with a golden cross and planted it on the summit. The German side still features a golden cross that marks the highest point in the country, but the historic original was shot up by Americans soldiers who used it for target practice in the late 1940s. What you see today is a modern replacement. 

World War II left its mark on the summit as well. The Austrian side was higher until the Germans blew its top off during the war to make a flak tower that targeted Allied airplanes. 

Both Germany and Austria use this rocky pinnacle for communication purposes. The square box on the Tirolean Terrace provides data for Innsbruck airport's air traffic control system. A tower nearby is for the Katastrophenfunk (civil defense network), harkening back to the stressful years of the Cold War.

The Austrian station (which is much more visitor-friendly than the German one) has a fine little museum that tells the story of how the Zugspitze was first climbed in 1820. The museum also includes three interesting videos: a six-minute, 3-D mountain show; a 30-minute, making-of-the-lift show; and a 45-minute look at nature, sport, and culture of the region. Looking down the valley from the Tirolean Terrace, you can see the Austrian towns of Erwald and Lermoos in the distance and the valley that leads to Reutte.  

In the summer, it's easy to actually "summit" the Zugspitze as there are steps and handholds all they way to the cross. Or you can just feed the birds from the lounge chairs of "the highest beer garden in Germany." The yellow-beak ravens — who get chummy with anyone who shares some pretzels — seem to enjoy the views here as much as the humans. While the Germans glory in the Zugspitze, their nation's highest point, their neighbors are less impressed. There are many higher mountains in Austria.