Raise a stein to Bavaria — Germany’s largest state. Touch down here to be in striking distance of the Alps and soak up everything from homebrews to cold water wellness cures
With the nation’s best climate, its most spectacular castles and welcoming beer gardens, Bavaria will impress you at each turn. The mellow Danube runs across it; the classic touring route that is the Romantic Road bisects it; and Germany’s highest point, the Zugspitze, marks its most southerly border. Soak up the art and science in Munich’s museums, brace yourself for some wild swimming in its crystalline lakes, or lace up your boots for a hiking trail in the Alps.
1. See the bright lights of Munich
The Bavarian capital, Munich, is the most appealing of German cities. Its southerly location combines warmer climes with easy access to the Alps and its architecture is a happy mix of German baroque and Italian renaissance. The city’s beer halls, particularly the Hofbräuhaus, are famous, as is its annual Oktoberfest. It’s also a storehouse of art museums, with the Alte Pinakothek for paintings and the Deutsches Museum for science, and it even has a BMW Museum. Besides that, its green spaces include an expansive parkland, the English Garden, threaded by streams.
2. Tour medieval Bamberg
The world heritage city of Bamberg has 2,500 protected buildings, and is still divided along medieval lines, with the Imperial Residenz and the cathedral up on a hill overlooking the Regnitz river, while a Little Venice of wonky, half-timbered fishermen houses lines the opposite bank. The Old Town Hall straddles the water, blushing with frescoes and frilly with rococo balconies. Of the nine breweries within the city walls, seek out Schlenkerla, a warren of wood-panelled rooms where customers smack their lips over rauchbier — smoky beer.
3. Hike the Bavarian Alps
The foothills of the Alps is a groomed and glossy landscape of milk and honey where all the cows seem to be auditioning for Bavaria’s Next Top Heifer. The countryside is dotted with lovely lakes and laced with ancient hiking trails such as the long-distance Via Alpina. Lakes such as Tegernsee, cupped in mountains, are perfect for wild swimming. Or Starnberg, with its islands, where King Ludwig II met his mysterious death. Climb high, and you’ll come across mountain “huts”, which despite the name are substantial, offering hearty food, beer and bunk beds.
4. Cruise through imperial cities
The Danube threads its way across Bavaria’s midriff at the beginning of its huge journey through ten countries to the Black Sea. In its top section, from its source at Donaueschingen in the foothills of the Black Forest, it is best seen from a bicycle along the towpath, with little castles and riverside inns such as at Sigmaringen. But once you get to Imperial Regensburg, which has all the atmosphere of an Italian riverside city, the luxury river cruisers take over, heading downstream towards Passau and Vienna.
5. Feel the Passion
Oberammergau, a charismatic small town in the Alpine foothills, has a worldwide reputation for its once-a-decade Passion Play. This marathon staging of the Jesus story by a cast of more than 2,000 locals and their animals dates back to a promise made by God-fearing villagers during the medieval plague and it attracts huge international audiences, despite being performed in German. Come too for the town’s frescoes on house facades and its long tradition as a community of woodcarvers. Want a 10ft Jesus statue for your back garden? This is where you’ll find it.
6. Find homebrew heaven
An ancient legal loophole in the Oberpfalz region of eastern Bavaria allows householders to make their own beer in village breweries, which they then sell in their front rooms at weekends. This bottled secret is Zoigl beer, and involves around 14 households, the majority of which are in the small towns of Windischeschenbach and Neuhaus. When open, these convivial Zoiglstubes are marked by hanging the six-pointed Zoigl star outside the front door. For beer lovers, savouring these distinctive handcrafted beers is the equivalent of tracking down an aromatic cheese in France.
7. Roam the Romantic Road
Germans love their designated tourist routes. The Romantic Road, which runs up the spine of Bavaria from Füssen to Würzburg is the classic. And it’s easy to see why it is so popular: it starts down by the castle of Neuschwanstein and then runs up through medieval half timbered towns such as Nördlingen and Dinkesbühl, the setting for many films. Fairytale Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the prettiest of the lot, perched on a hill with its multitude of tower gatehouses, its cobbled streets and its skirt of vineyards.
8. Savour Nuremberg’s sausages
Nuremberg is a name with worldwide resonance. The ancient imperial city was a favourite of Adolf Hitler, who held some of his biggest pre-war rallies here, which is why the victorious Allies held their post-war Trials here too. These days this steepled and gabled place, the colour of freshly baked pottery, is known for more innocent reasons. For being the hometown of Albrect Durer. For a massive Christmas Market, presided over by a golden-tressed Christkind. And for Nürnberger Würstchen, a particularly delicious finger-sized sausage, served by the Bratwursthäusle since 1313.
9. Climb the Zugspitze by rail
Germany’s highest point, the 2,962m Zugspitze, sits on the border with Austria. A mountain-climbing cogwheel railway sets off from near the resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and runs right up through the skin of the mountain. It emerges in a high, arid, moonlike landscape, complete with (dwindling) glacier, providing magnificent views of mountain tops echoing away in all directions. Substantial buildings on top include restaurants and a beer garden – this is Germany, after all. The actual summit is a short scramble further up.
10. Try a Kneipp cure
The Germans are the inventors of wellness tourism and take complementary medicine very seriously. Nowhere more so than in Bad Wörishofen, a health resort west of Munich which is focused on Kneipp, a cure that involves a lot of cold water, in the belief that it produces a resistance to stress and disease. That means wading in cold water and having an attendant hose you down in doses of hot and cold. It’s said to be a great help for those with nervous disorders, blood pressure and conditions such as asthma and osteoarthritis.
11. Seek out Ludwig’s castles
You may not know its name, but spectacular Neuschwanstein castle, a salvo of towers and turrets in the foothills of the Alps, was Walt Disney’s model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty. Its creator, King Ludwig II, built others too, and the pocket schloss at Linderhof is a little gem. His extravagant palace perched on an island at Herrenchiemsee is a homage to Versailles, but only the true Ludwig fan will climb up to his mountain villa at Schachen. Ludwig, who was accused of mental illness and locked up by his own government, met a sudden and unexplained death.
12. See Rothenburg’s Christmas market
The market square in the storybook town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a perfect setting for a Christmas market: half-timbered houses, medieval cobbles and the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg rising from the 50 booths. But even if you can’t get here at Christmas time, don’t panic — Rothenburg is the headquarters of a business that promotes the festivities all year round, with no fewer than four shops and a Christmas museum in town. That business is Käthe Wohlfahrt, and if you can’t get to Rothenburg, then it also has shops in Bamberg, Oberammergau and Nuremberg.
13. Pay your respects at Dachau
In the northern Munich suburb of Dachau, easily reached on public transport, is a devastating memorial to the cruelty of Second World War. The Dachau concentration camp, created by the Nazis as early as 1933, was a prototype for those that followed. Although it wasn’t an extermination camp, at least 32,000 inmates died here from beatings and starvation and ovens had to be installed to dispose of the bodies. There’s a permanent exhibition detailing the camp’s history, plus harrowing testimonies about life within its fences.
14. Try the wine of Würzburg
Although Bavaria is predominantly a beer region, its northern department, Franconia, happens to be one of Germany’s foremost wine destinations. Stand on the old stone bridge across the river Main in Würzburg, and the wall of vineyards on the Steinburg slopes is barely a stone’s throw away. In fact one of the winemakers, 700-year-old Bürgerspital, has its fermentation vats and cellars right in town. And it’s unique in being a charitable foundation, so that every bottle it sells helps support care homes and a thousand needy townspeople.
15. Explore Bavaria’s placid lake
The gentle warm waters of Lake Chiemsee constitute the perfect family playground — within its 85 sq km are islands, rental boats, beaches and cycle routes, all against a backdrop of the Alps. An elegant fleet of ferries criss-cross the lake and serve the two main islands, the Herreninsel and the Fraueninsel. He spent just nine nights here, sitting in his Hall of Mirrors and reading by the light of 1,848 candles.