I came to love Germany quite by accident. A school friend’s family spoke German at home, and every time I visited them, I wished I knew what they were chatting about. So, I chose to study German at university and spent a year living in Germany, where I discovered a country filled with diverse traditions, storybook town centers, and adventures for every season. To my surprise, after all the times I’ve returned to visit, it was winter that really charmed me. Think of narrow, snow-dusted lanes between colorful houses, of the sound of crackling fireplaces inside jolly beer halls, of clutching a bag of warm chestnuts from street sellers while shopping for festive knickknacks. All of these sum up winter in Germany for me.
When it comes to adventures, there’s a lot more to be experienced here than the usual loop around the Christmas markets.
Koblenz, located right on the two rivers’ confluence approx. 60 mi (96km) northwest of Frankfurt, is a great base to explore these two wine regions. When in town, I often head up the hill to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress for the best view of the city below, as well as the surrounding valleys and vineyards.
While the Mosel Valley is famous for its Riesling, there’s something very special about the winter vineyard tours in these parts – the Ice Wine (Eiswein) of the Rhine Valley. The Germans have been making this sweet, sticky dessert wine, made from frozen grapes, for centuries.
A perfect day in the Mosel and Rhine Valleys would be a lunch cruise on the river for superb viewing of the many castles that line the banks and a chance to try the regional dishes – unlike a lot of “German” food served in restaurants outside Germany, it’s not all sausages and sauerkraut – before a winery visit (or two) in the afternoon to sample wines of the valleys.
You can get to Koblenz on a direct train connection from Frankfurt that runs along the Rhine. Make sure to grab a window seat on the right side of the train for great views of the river and villages on your journey.
Hamburg has come a long way from its industrial port city origins. This hip city, in the north of Germany on the River Elbe between the North and Baltic seas, has been an important trade route and port of migration to the New World since medieval times. Consequently, the city has always been more open-minded than other areas of Germany. Summer in Hamburg is sunny and warm, but in winter, the city turns into a frozen metropolis like something out of a cartoon – cool in every sense and ideal for activities that celebrate winter.
At any other time of the year, Hamburg’s waterways bustle with shipping and cruising activities but in winter, when the temperature drops, the canals and lakes around the city can freeze over, creating a wintery playground. For me, there’s no better symbol of the season than a pair of ice skates.
I’ll never forget my first experience of skating on the Alster Lakes: the feeling of freedom, with the shoreline serving as the only barrier, and the natural fear of skating on thin ice… it’s definitely a winter adventure worth visiting for.
A European ski holiday often brings to mind expensive resorts and the international crowds of the French and Swiss Alps, and yet, just over the border, Germany has a good share of cheaper ski areas with equal quality snow and fewer crowds. The popular Garmisch-Partenkirchen, near the famed Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria (the magical castle from which Disney drew its inspiration), is one of the most perfect ski resorts in Germany.
The highlight here would be Zugspitze (“Top of Germany”) on the Austrian border – it’s a good starting point even for the non-skiers. Take the cable car to the peak for amazing views of the surrounding mountains before you tackle the runs down. Numerous walking trails are an additional pleasure, with walks along the river, behind frozen waterfalls, and over snow-covered rocks.
There are plenty of other snow resorts along the Austrian border, but my favorite Bavarian ski area is Hoherbogen, northeast of Munich close to the border with the Czech Republic. Floodlit pistes make night skiing a spectacular experience, and the 8.6mi (14km) toboggan run always bring out the kid in my heart.
For more than 100 years, Germany’s Black Forest, in the southwest of the country, has been a paradise for hikers and walkers with its dense stands of beech, pine, and oak. The Brothers Grimm used the Black Forest as the backdrop to many of their fairy tales, and it was their images of the candy hut from Hansel and Gretel and the tower where Rapunzel was kept that first drew me to the region. Hiking along the countless, well-marked trails in winter heightens the fairy tale sensation, and the views of the valley from the top of the hills are worth getting out in the cold for.
It’s best to hire a car and drive to the destinations as many trails are round trips where you start and end at a car park or a nearby village.
From a short walk just under 2mi (3.2km) around the Überskopf peak, to a longer 5mi (8km) panoramic snowshoe tour around the village of Breitnau, or a 4mi (6.4km) sightseeing loop to visit charming mountain huts around Rinkenpass at the foot of the Feldberg, you could plan your day accordingly. A lovely village-based option is a 5.2mi (8.4km) track from the town of Schluchsee (with a lake of the same name) up the hill into the forest to end in the town of Lenzkirch, where you could choose to stay in Lenzkirch to enjoy more hiking on the surrounding trails the next day, or hike back to Schluchsee via another route.
One of the benefits of winter hiking in the Black Forest region is the thermal spas. After a day in the cold, head to Badenweiler, Bad Bellingen, or Bad Krozingen to relax in the warm spring waters. What better way to end a winter hiking adventure?
The eastern German city of Dresden is often missed by visitors but it’s one of the cities that I love at Christmas. No winter story on Germany can be complete without the mention of Christmas markets, a tradition that pre-dates tourism history which are found in almost every city, town, and village in the country, but it’s in Dresden where you’ll find the oldest, dating back to 1434.
Dresden was one of the most beautiful Baroque cities in the world before being largely destroyed in World War II, and much of its architecture has been painstakingly rebuilt to its original features. Between mid-November and 24 December each year, this city is filled with Christmas delights.
There are usually five Christmas markets dotted around the city with different themes. My favorite thing to do is to let the steam of a mug of hot Gluewein (mulled wine) warm my face as I stroll by each stall, browsing the handicrafts and sampling local snacks.
Follow your nose to the baked goods and get a loaf of the traditional Dresdenerstollen, a pastry filled with dried fruits and nuts, that pairs especially well with mulled wine. Every baker has their own secret ingredients to their version of Stollen, so I always make sure to sample at least three.
Pay a visit to the Christmas Garden, or to add to the festive cheer, go to a Classical Advent Concert in the impressive Zwinger Palace.
NOTE: Due to COVID-19, the Dresden Christmas markets will not open in 2021.
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