Best for culture: 12 of Germany’s top cultural experiences

With fairytale castles, decadent palaces and reborn coal mines, rich culture is abundant across Germany. Here are our top twelve cultural experiences across the country…

Rhodri Andrews
02 December 2020
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Discover Germany

Main photo credit: ©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

With fairytale castles, decadent palaces and reborn coal mines, rich culture is abundant across Germany. Its cultural landmarks uncloak some of the country’s most fascinating characters, architectural masterpieces and moments in time – here are our top 12 cultural experiences in Germany…

The gilded interior of the Margravial Opera House (©Markgravial Opera house)

1. Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth

Don’t miss the Neuschwanstein castle along the Romantic Road (©GNTB/Florian Trykowski)

Step inside the Margravial Opera House and you would be forgiven for half expecting a packed audience watching live performances from great composers like Beethoven, Schubert or Haydn. Inaugurated in 1748, it represented the zenith of baroque grandeur and belied its sleepy Bayreuth location to rival the great theatres of Paris, Venice and Vienna at its peak. With a sandstone façade and the interior constructed from wood, a six-year renovation has ensured its elaborately carved, painted and gilded décor has returned to its baroque best. Reopening in 2018, now’s your chance to step Bach in time when we can travel again. 

View towards Cologne Cathedral (©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano)

2. Romantic Road

Linderhof Palace (Shutterstock)

Southern Germany’s Romantic Road has been fascinating road trippers since the 1950s. With a name like that it was hardly going to fail, but the 460km-long route connects 29 medieval villages and hamlets to wander – a throwback to its time as an important trade route with the centre of the country. As much as it’s a classic road trip, it’s also a fascinating journey through living German culture, with gothic cathedrals and fairy-tale castle turrets peeking above its towns and countryside along the way. Its most iconic castle, Neuschwanstein, caught the eye of Walt Disney, becoming the template for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

Lake Constance (©GNTB/Ben Wiesenfahrt)

3. Cologne Cathedral

Schwerin Castle (Shutterstock)

Even though Cologne Cathedral is a gothic masterpiece, its two blackened spires look more like ancient rockets about to blast off into space. It’s a marvel that took over 600 years to complete and with enough room for 20,000 people inside, its colossal size still always catches people by surprise. The South Tower was once the highest point in Europe (until a certain Eiffel Tower was built) and summitting its 533 steps still serves up an epic city panorama. Inside the cathedral is no less impressive, with a cavernous nave and intricate stained-glass windows allowing ethereal streams of light through. Initially built to preserve the holy relic ‘Shrine of the Three Kings’, it’s safe to say the cathedral has usurped the treasure it harbours within.

Heritage-protected colliery Zollverein (©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano)

4. Linderhof Palace

Herrenchiemsee Palace (Shutterstock)

Taking his father’s old hunting lodge and festooning it with his own extravagant tastes, Linderhof was the only palace completed during King Ludwig II’s lifetime. It was a visit to Versailles that inspired him to create his own version in Bavaria, becoming the reclusive king’s personal retreat. The baroque landscaped gardens, fountains and terraces are very much French-inspired but the palace is all Ludwig’s lavish vision, its rooms dripping in gold leaf, encrusted in jewels and furnished in Second Rococo style. Naturally, his bedroom is the largest of them all, crowned by a 108-candle chandelier weighing half a tonne.

Spy room in the DDR Museum (Shutterstock)

5. Lake Constance and surrounds

Eltz Castle (Shutterstock)

With views of the Swiss Alps, sun-drenched vineyards and rolling meadows, Lake Constance doesn’t do scenery by half measures. The same goes for the wealth of culture on its shores, too. Medieval castles and churches lord over the lake from clifftops or by the water’s edge, while the twisting alleyways of Konstanz are a well-preserved glimpse into the past. Lake Constance’s culture has remarkable diversity as well, from the Zeppelin history of Friedrichshafen (you can still take sightseeing rides in them today) to the idyllic island town of Lindau and the flower-filled gardens and regal palace of Mainau island.

ChocolART (©Alexander Gonschior)

6. Schwerin Castle

Wilhelmshöhe Palace (Shutterstock)

With its elegant towers and seven surrounding lakes, Schwerin Castle is like the realisation of a fairy-tale. A building of some sort has existed here for over 1,000 years, changing hands from a Slavic tribal fortress to the seat of the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg, before they moved home elsewhere. It was transformed in the 19th century when the castle returned to the Duchy and descendant Friedrich Franz II ordered a complete overhaul. The castle today is his brainchild and every one of the 653 rooms oozes architectural class, packed with marquetry flooring, intricate gilding and detailed carvings. Not a bad ode to your family’s glorious past.

7. Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex

During its heyday in the mid-19th century, the Zollverein Coal Mine in Essen was the model of industrial efficiency as the largest coal mine in Europe. After the last worker clocked off in 1986, the mine could have been left to fall into disrepair. Instead, it’s had an extraordinary rebirth as a cultural complex bursting with museums, cafes and performance spaces, while art installations and sculptures are scattered around its sprawling grounds. If you want an insight into mine life at its peak, then take a guided tour with a former miner for a first-hand account.

8. Herrenchiemsee Palace

With creations like Linderhof Palace and Neuschwanstein, Ludwig II is known as the ‘fairytale king’ for good reason. Herrenchiemsee Palace was his next ambitious project, with the aim of making it his lavish creation yet. Indeed, he splurged more on Herrenchiemsee than the previous two castles combined but this time the magic only stretched so far: he soon ran out of cash, leaving 50 rooms unfinished. Those that were completed compete with one another in an uber-elegant game of one-upmanship, while those that haven’t have refreshingly been left bare.

9. DDR Museum, Berlin

Peeling back the Iron Curtain for a comprehensive look at life during socialist East Germany, the merits of the DDR Museum lie in its interactivity. It’s something it does so well, with a number of immersive exhibits: take a virtual drive around a typical neighbourhood in a Trabi car, explore a full-scale replica of an East German apartment and learn the Lipsi, a dance specifically created to combat the rock ‘n’ roll revolution in the west. You’ll leave the museum feeling like you were really there.

10. Eltz Castle

Tucked away in the leafy hills of the Moselle Valley, the 12th-century Eltz Castle isn’t just a building that appears torn from the Disney playbook, it’s a living piece of history. It’s been left unscathed by war, resisted invasion attempts and, as a result, much of what you see today is original. What’s even more astonishing is it’s still owned by the same family – now 33 generations in. Guided tours unpick the rooms and their furnishings, fireplaces and paintings – most of which are centuries old – in great detail, remembering all the while you’re walking the same floorboards many members of royalty, emperors and dukes have treaded in the past.

11. ChocolART, Tübingen

Every year during the second week of Advent, the cobbled streets of Tübingen come alive in the name of chocolate. ChocolART is the biggest chocolate festival in Germany, where master chocolatiers from all corners of the globe to showcase their sweet creations and skills with all things cocoa. More than 100 stalls line the town’s market square, each one stuffed with every form of chocolate you can imagine, with pralines, truffles, novelty chocolates and unusually flavoured hot chocolates (think lemon cherry) ready to taste and buy.

12. Wilhelmshöhe Palace and Park

The neoclassical home for German emperor Wilhelm II, Wilhelmshöhe Palace is now home to one of the country’s largest hauls of art. Flemish and Dutch baroque paintings make up the lion’s share, while the Weissenstein Wing is the only part of the palace to retain its original furnishings. But the palace is only one of the sights in the surrounding UNESCO-protected namesake park, Europe’s biggest hillside park. A 70m-high Hercules monument stands proudly atop the hill, while a set of 300-year-old hydro-pneumatic devices service the park’s many water features, including a Roman aqueduct, fountain and 350m-long cascade.

Main photo credit: ©GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

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