Germany’s Black Forest and Cologne
After visiting Germany’s greatest Gothic Cathedral in Cologne, we’ll enjoy the good life German-style at a top mineral spa and try our luck at the Versailles of casinos in Baden-Baden, then crank some old-time music and explore an open-air museum in the romantic Black Forest.
One of Germany’s top Roman museums offers minimal English among its elegant and fascinating display of Roman artifacts: glassware, jewelry, and mosaics. All these pieces are evidence of Cologne’s status as an important site of civilization long before the cathedral was ever imagined.
The Gothic Dom — Germany’s most exciting church — looms immediately up from the train station in one of Germany’s starkest juxtapositions of the modern and the medieval.
Hotel am Markt is Baden-Baden’s best little hotel. Family-run, with 23 rooms, it offers all the modern comforts a commoner could want in a peaceful, central, nearly traffic-free location, two cobbled blocks from the baths.
For a more modern experience, spend a few hours at the Baths of Caracalla, a huge palace of water, steam, and relaxed people. More like a mini-water park, and with everyone clothed most of the time, this is a fun and accessible experience, and is recommended for those intimidated by nudity. The baths are an indoor/outdoor wonderland of steamy pools, waterfalls, neck showers, Jacuzzis, hot springs, cold pools, lounge chairs, saunas, a wellness lounge/massage area, a cafeteria, and a bar. Nudity is limited to one zone upstairs.
The highlight of most visits to Baden-Baden is a sober 17-step ritual called the Roman-Irish Bath. This bathhouse pampered the rich and famous in its elegant surroundings when it opened in 1877. Today, this steamy world of marble, brass columns, tropical tiles, herons, lily pads, and graceful nudity welcomes gawky tourists as well as locals.
Baden-Baden’s grand casino occupies a classy building called the Kurhaus. You can visit the casino on a guided tour in the mornings, when it’s closed to gamblers, but it is most interesting to see in action, after 14:00. You can gamble if you want, but a third of the visitors come only to people-watch under the chandeliers. The scene is more subdued than at an American casino; anyone showing emotion is more likely a tourist than a serious gambler. Lean against a gilded statue and listen to the graceful reshuffling of personal fortunes. Do some imaginary gambling or buy a few chips at the window near the entrance (an ATM is downstairs).
The unremarkable town of Furtwangen hosts the most interesting museum in the Black Forest: the excellent German Clock Museum. More than a chorus of cuckoo clocks, this museum is practically evangelical in tracing the development of clocks from the Dark Ages to the Space Age. Because it’s modern and well-presented in English, this exhibit makes the history of timekeeping more fascinating than it has any right to be.
This museum, the Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof, offers the best look at this region’s traditional folk architecture. Built around one grand old farmhouse, the museum is a collection of several old farm buildings, some of which house exhibits on the local dress and lifestyles. While English information is sparse, the place gives you a good sense of traditional rural life in the Black Forest.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, taking time out from writing my guidebooks to be your travel partner. This time, we’re back for more of Germany and we’re here with the family. Thanks for joining us.
After visiting Germany’s greatest Gothic Cathedral, we’ll enjoy the good life German-style at a top mineral spa, try our luck at the Versailles of casinos, crank out some old-time music, and explore the romantic Black Forest with my favorite travel partners: Anne, Andy, and Jackie.
In this series, Europe’s our playground — and Germany’s in the heart of all the fun. After a stop at historic Cologne we ride the train to the resort spa of Baden-Baden, then hop south through the highlights of the Black Forest.
We’re crossing the Rhine and coming into Cologne.
There’s a lot to see in Cologne. But our first mission: stow these bags. Station lockers work great.
Rick: Beautiful! First we gotta find our train outta here.
Later we’ll be heading for Baden-Baden — our train leaves at 16:09. That gives us just enough time for a quick look at Germany’s fourth-largest city.
The train drops you right in the shadow of Cologne’s great cathedral in a compact and people-friendly city center.
We’ll see quaint small-town Germany later. And that’s fun, but modern Germany isn’t sitting on a stump, wearing lederhosen and yodeling. It’s a no-nonsense lean and mean business machine with 80 million people packed into a country the size of Montana.
This arch was the north gate of the Roman city. It reminds us that this street — and city — have been thriving for 2,000 years. Medieval Cologne was Germany’s biggest city — the cross point of two major trading routes.
While World War II bombs destroyed 95 percent of the city center, there’s not a hint of that today on what locals claim is Germany’s first pedestrian shopping mall.
After the war, the traffic-free Old Town was rebuilt with a park and riverside bike paths. Many Rhine cruises start from here. The Rhine was the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in this part of Europe.
This museum is filled with Roman artifacts — perhaps the finest in Germany.
Anne: But when traveling with kids, we’re good for one major sight a day…and today that’s Cologne Cathedral.
This is Germany’s most art-packed Gothic church.
Cologne has long been an important religious center — maybe the most important in all of Germany. In fact, 1,700 years ago, Constantine — the first Christian Roman emperor — gave Cologne its own bishop.
The Cathedral facade, while finished according to the 13th-century plan, is “neo-Gothic” from the 19th century. See the tip of that spire 500 feet high? Here’s a life-size replica.
This church makes you feel small. It’s designed to…it reminds us of our place in the vast scheme of things. Stained glass — enough to cover two football fields — bathes the church with divine light.
The church was begun roughly 700 years ago. But it wasn’t completed until 1880 — just about in time to celebrate the unification of so many small German states into one modern Germany.
This mosaic shows an archbishop holding the earlier cathedral that stood here centuries before this one was built.
Religious relics were a big deal back then and Cologne had some of the most important. This sumptuous 800-year-old reliquary holds the bones of the Magi…three skulls with golden crowns.
These “Three Kings” of Christmas carol fame were, after their trip to Bethlehem, considered the first Christian pilgrims. They’ve inspired countless pilgrims from medieval to modern times to visit Cologne.
And pilgrims brought in lots of money. That’s why Cologne decided to build this magnificent and much bigger church.
Another pilgrimage stop and the art treasure of the cathedral is the Gero Crucifix — carved in 976. With a realism and sensitivity 300 years ahead of its time, it shows what the crucifixion was all about: the human Jesus was dead. It’s great art and powerful theology in one.
On the way out, find the statue of St. Christopher — the patron saint of travelers. He’s always the big guy with the pilgrim’s staff and Jesus on his shoulder. For 500 years he’s looked out for pilgrims and travelers alike.
We’ve got 10 minutes to catch our 16:09 train. Packing light is even more important for train travelers than for those traveling by car.
Families need to pack light too. Each kid carries his or her own stuff. Our limit: one carry-on-the-plane-sized bag per person.
With speedy trains and frequent departures, town hopping by train is a breeze. We’ve had a taste of big-city Germany. Now it’s time for romantic forests, cuckoo clocks, and Germany’s top spa town. Baden-Baden specializes in utter restfulness. This is where Germany recharges its batteries.
Public transportation in Europe makes travel without a car easy. In Baden-Baden, the tourist needs only bus #201.
Buses run every 10 minutes. Buy tickets from the driver, validate by stamping a time on it — 24-hour tickets can be a great deal — and remember…
Jackie: Kids go cheaper.
Number 201 runs from the train station straight through the town center. Like many European old-town centers, Baden-Baden’s is closed to private vehicles and serviced by a great bus system.
19th-century Baden-Baden was the playground of Europe’s high-rolling elite. Royalty and aristocracy would come from all corners to soak in the curative mineral waters, and enjoy one of the world’s top casinos. Today this town of 55,000 attracts a more middle-class crowd: tourists in search of a lower pulse, and Germans enjoying the fruits of their generous health-care system.
Hotel am Markt is my vote for Baden-Baden’s best small and friendly hotel. Herr and Frau Bogner offer expert travel advice, comfortable rooms, and a great price.
It’s inexpensive because it’s family-run and there’s no night clerk, TVs, or mini bars. Andy and Jackie have settled right in.
For me, the location’s what matters most. We’re right in the cobbled old center, the baths are just a block away, and it’s quiet… [bells] Thankfully the bells stop at 10 p.m.
For me, the highlight of Baden-Baden is a visit to the baths. There have been mineral baths here ever since Roman times. As a matter of fact, it’s been said that Emperor Caracalla himself may have soaked away his rheumatism right here.
Today there are two very different baths. A baby sitter we arranged through our hotel is taking our kids to the modern water park called the Caracalla Baths. This huge complex comes with the therapeutic works — but to some customers, it’s simply lots of wet fun.
Meanwhile, Anne and I are going to the more aristocratic Friedrichsbad for a sober 2-hour ritual called the Roman-Irish Bath.
For the cost of a good dinner, you get the works. Men and women are separated for most of the routine. The ticket gets you in, releases your locker key, and gets you out — as long as you finish within three hours.
Attendants help you stay on course.
Attendant: Hello. The first time? We take shoes, you have a shower, then you go on, okay?
Friedrichsbad is powered by a steady river of hot and therapeutic mineral water. After a welcoming shower, you soak and sit in a series of peaceful pools and exquisitely tiled sauna rooms.
The routine seems complex — especially when you’re naked, new here, and don’t speak the language. Thankfully, multi-lingual signs, arrows, and numbers lead you from room to room.
Ahhh, stop number six is a highlight: the soap brush massage is rough, slippery, and finished with a good Teutonic spank.
You’ll glide like a swan under a divine dome in the central pool. This is the one “mixed” area — shared by men and women. The dress code is always nude. Being your average American, that took some getting used to. But once inside you find it’s an elegant experience — sedate and safe.
A great thing about travel is contrast. And after all this hot water, there’s no better contrast than the cold plunge.
After the icy plunge the attendant dries you in warm towels. Finally, wrapped in a cocoon, you lay clean and thinking prenatal thoughts in the mellow, yellow silent room.
Traditionally, bathers cap the experience with a sip of the thermal water. After Friedrichsbad you’ll feel, as they say, five years younger — or at least no older.
At the Baden-Baden Casino, the gambling starts in the afternoon and goes into the wee hours.
Coat and tie are required…and rentable. I guess this one’ll do.
Built in the 1850s, this is — according to Marlene Dietrich — the most beautiful casino in the world. Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, it’s filled with rooms honoring French royalty — who never set foot in the place.
Anyone over 21 is welcome to try their luck. But you don’t need to gamble. In fact, a third of those who go in just observe. Linger under goldfinger cupids and listen to the graceful reshuffling of personal fortunes.
The next morning we took the 30-minute tour the casino gives daily — the only time kids are allowed inside.
Guide: Now a little bit in English. You are here now in our most beautiful gambling hall, the Florentine Hall. And Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer, liked very much gambling here in this room. He visited the room very often, and described it in his work, The Gambler.
The casino may be the toast of Baden-Baden…but it’s the bread and butter too.
Guide: You are in the private casino, and the private owners must of course pay for having the concession for gambling, that means that since long years they must give 90 percent, 9-0, to the land of Baden-Württemberg for having the concession.
The casino wins $35 million a year and 90 percent of that goes back to the city and state in taxes.
More aristocratic Old World elegance surrounds the casino — offering charms even the newly penniless can enjoy. The Trinkhalle’s 300-foot-long portico is decorated with frescoes recalling romantic local legends.
Back when Baden-Baden was famous as the summer capital of Europe, this was the place to see and be seen. Kaiser Wilhelm I was a regular here for 40 years.
He may have enjoyed the Baden-Baden Philharmonic just as visitors do today.
Baden-Baden seems made-to-order for strolling. Bestow a royal title on yourself and promenade down the famous Lichtentaler Allee. Prince Andrew and Countess Jackie don’t quite get it.
The lane meanders along the Oos River past grand old spa hotels built in royal fashion during Baden-Baden’s 19th century heyday. This Art Nouveau rose garden — with dozens of kinds of roses — is a fragrant bonus.
Baden-Baden is a gateway to Germany’s Black Forest — a range of thickly wooded hills stretching 100 miles south along the French border. Rural areas like this are easier by car, so we’ve rented one for this part of our trip.
The Black Forest is a hit with Germany holiday-goers, city folk whose doctors have prescribed some serious R&R,and families…just out a-wanderin’.
And, like the locals, our family enjoys the fresh air, great views, and wide-open spaces that come with a good Black Forest walk.
Thickly wooded and, for centuries, isolated and mysterious, people called this the “Black” forest…that’s Schwarzwald. Now, rather than black, it’s a bright and sunny vacation land. But even today, in remote villages and farmsteads, local dialects survive and traditions are strong.
Staufen is an ideal small-town base for exploring the southern trunk of the Black Forest. Rolling or strolling through the pedestrian-friendly cobbled lanes, or daydreaming under gingerbread buildings, the town’s a delight. Staufen is a good example of why, for many travelers, Europe’s charms are best found in small-town packages.
Perched above the town is a 15th-century castle. Ruined by the Swedes in the Thirty Years War, today it seems only to protect the vineyards.
Staufen is on Germany’s wine road, and locals here are proud of their hometown wine.
Waitress: This is wine from the castle.
Rick: Okay, Good. Gesundheit.
Germany’s forte is white wine. It comes trocken, halb-trocken, or süss — that’s dry, half-dry, or sweet.
Cuckoo clocks are one of the region’s touristic claims to fame — and around here, time really is money.
Shops are perpetually wound up and ready to greet the tourists.
Rick: Now I see this tiny little word here, does that say “Switzerland”?
Guide: No, that says Germany. They are all made in Black Forest.
Rick: Completely? Every little part is from the Black Forest? Why are there three pine cones?
Guide: One is for the cuckoo, the second one is for the clock mechanic, and the third is for the music.
Rick: Can we try?
Guide: Yes, I will show you.
The town of Furtwangen’s impressive German Clock Museum offers more than a chorus of cuckoo clocks. It traces the development of time-keeping devices from the Dark Ages to the space age.
Black Forest clocks date back to the 17th century. Simple and made almost entirely of wood, they were the first affordable clocks. And accurate? To within 30 minutes a day.
From here, clocks evolved. The local knack for mechanical cleverness found fun ways to announce the hour — like the Dumpling Eater. At 3 o’clock he eats three dumplings…or at least one dumpling three times.
Over time, locals mixed automation into their clock making. When this super-clock from 1880 strikes noon, the apostles pass before Christ, each bowing as they’re blessed.
From these same villages and same techniques came fanciful music boxes. The calliope is a classic. This one’s called “an orchestra in a cupboard.” And it takes no practice to play the grind organ.
Mother: Jetzt bist du schlapp, ne? Es ist schwer! [Now you’re all spent, aren’t you? That was hard!]
Woman on bike: Ciao!
Rick: Ciao! Amerikanisches Fehrnsehen! [American TV!]
Woman on bike: Oooooh!
Smart parents punctuate their sightseeing with breaks…and we’re munching the famous, and extremely decadent — danke schön — Schwarzwald Kirschtorte…that’s Black Forest cherry cake. Bon appetit!
Rick: Jackie, tell me what’s in your cake.
Jackie: There is chocolate, whipped cream, almonds, and of course, cherries.
Rick: And a little bit of schnapps.
The Black Forest Open-Air Museum is near the village of Gutach. It’s a creative folk-life show-and-tell housed in original buildings moved here from all around the Black Forest.
The museum staff is happy to explain the exhibits. Around the turn of the first millennium, Europe harnessed the power of wind and water with mills like this.
Ingrid: This corn has to be ground four times to get the real flour out.
Rick: Ingrid, what is this mask for?
Ingrid: They put the mask on here because very superstitious and they hoped by doing that they would keep the fungus away.
With no shortage of animals to feed and traditional crafts to learn about, open-air folk museums are great for families.
Ingrid: You know farming in the Black Forest was really difficult so people were looking for alternatives like basket weaving. They had — they made cuckoo clocks. They had glass-blowing all over the country, and of course they had sawmills since lumber was abundant. And actually this sawmill here, which we are going to, is one of the last three still working in the Black Forest.
Whether grinding flour or making planks from Black Forest logs, small but powerful innovations like these kicked off a chain of industrialization which helped to shape the Europe travelers enjoy today.
From modern Cologne, to elegant Baden-Baden, to old time Black Forest hideaways — and with the kids — I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at this exciting slice of Germany.
Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’.
Rick: Tell me the main four things in that beautiful cake.
Jackie: Chocolate, whipped cream [laugh]
Jackie: Okay. There’s chocolate, whipped cream, almonds, and of course cherries.
Rick: And you missed one little important ingredient: schnapps!