Our preferred mode of travel is to get off the beaten-path in a rental car, away from expensive big cities. Here are suggestions for places to drive your rental car; interesting, pretty and, in many cases, historic towns where the price of hotels and food is much lower. Though you’ll miss the wonders of cities such as Munich and Vienna, you’ll be more than compensated by the peace and beauty of authentic country life.
The Proper Equipment
As always, when driving in Europe, especially on back roads, we recommend road maps scaled at 1:200,000 or, for even more detail, 1:150,000. If you have a GPS, so much the better; but maps remain essential.
Next to the maps and a GPS, your best traveling companions will be the Michelin Red Guides for hotels and restaurants—including vital information on thousands of small towns—plus Michelin’s Green Guides for sights and history.
In recent years, we have come to rely on the same mobile phone we use in the U.S. With AT&T’s overseas roaming, the cost is 99 cents per minute and we use the phone mainly to call ahead from our car for same-day hotel reservations. If we’re just wandering, with no specific itinerary, sometime in the early afternoon when we have a good idea where we’ll be around 4 to 5pm, we consult the Michelin Red Guide for nearby hotel possibilities. Even on this short notice, we almost always find a room available at our first-choice hotel.
Here are seven interesting small town destinations in Germany with affordable hotel/restaurant recommendations:
This almost idyllic, way-off-the-beaten-track hamlet, about 15 km northwest of Füssen, is close to the main tourist attractions of southern Bavaria, especially the Royal Castles of Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and Linderfof. Among Seeg’s attractive features are a quiet, comfortable hotel and a simple but authentic restaurant that serves good farm food to locals. The town’s hilltop location commands long views of mountains, forests and meadows. Like many Bavarian towns, life centers around an onion-domed rococo church, St. Ullrich, which shelters a perfect little cemetery. The entire scene is backdropped by the jagged peaks of the Allgäu range.
Nearby towns worth a short visit include Nesselwang, Mittelberg, and Rosshaupten.
The Heim is an exceptionally welcoming, small family-run hotel, already known to many readers. Room Number 20, on the first floor, is on a corner and features a snug sitting area with couch, easy chair, coffee table and TV. Its pleasant balcony, accessible from the bedroom and also from the small, adjacent dressing room, offers a fine view across the valley to the “pre-Alps” beyond Füssen.
Pension Heim Aufmberg 8, D-87637 Seeg, tel. +049/08364/258. Double rooms from about €70
This lively “local,” where tables are sometimes shared, consists of two low-ceilinged rooms; the front is casual with bare wooden tables and the back more formal, with tablecloths, napkins and flowers. There are fabric-covered light fixtures and wood banquettes around the perimeter of both rooms. The deep window wells are filled with indoor plants.
The simple food is delicious. You’ll pay around €11 for such dishes as crisp, greaseless Wiener Schnitzel, and about the same for beef fillet on a skewer bathed in a reduction sauce of the juices and herb butter, served with French fries and mixed green salad. A half-liter of Allgäuer Bräuhaus is €2.3
Gasthhof Hirsch, Seeg, Kirchplatz 3, tel. +49/08364/353
The island is easily accessed by rail or car via a bridge at Straslund. From Rostock, the drive, over a busy two-lane road, is about two and a half hours—traffic permitting. Most visitors will want to headquarter in the beach town of Binz, where miles of white Baltic sand invite walkers, sunbathers and swimmers.
From Binz, easy auto excursions are possible to the fishing town of Sassnitz and the remote village of Lome for lunch high above the sea on the terrace of the Panorama Hotel Lome. Not to be missed is the Prora, the failed, Nazi-constructed monstrosity that was to be an every-man holiday resort. Had not more pressing matters, such as the Russian Front, intervened, the three-mile-long series of six-story buildings, joined in a way as to result in a single “hotel,” would have accommodated 20,000 guests.
In the village of Baabe, just down the coast from Binz, the Villa Grantiz’s Victorian-Gothic architecture is reminiscent of our country’s Old South, and feels like a private residence. Covered wooden walkways connect various wings of the house through the lovely garden. Ask for Number 123, a spacious, comfortable double with a generous sized terrace. There is no restaurant.
This is relaxed, easy-to-live-in luxury, at an amazing price. Wreecher Hof’s country location, in tiny Wreechen, about nine kilometers southwest of Putbus, seems far from sea and beaches. The half-dozen thatched-roof, all-white bungalows are surrounded by well-tended grounds featuring colorful flower beds and clipped lawns intersected by walkways of red and gray pavers. A yellow awning shelters an inviting outdoor terrace that overlooks a large lily pond. The 43 guestrooms apportioned among the six cottages are five-star in terms of size and quality of furnishings. The hotel’s excellent restaurant merits a red Karte designation from Michelin.
At the southern end of the Binz beach crescent sits this high-ceilinged, Victorian building stuffed with a wild mixture of antique furniture, potted plants, and the bric-a-brac of decades, including a life-size religious statue. When not smothered in some heavy, overwrought sauce (ask for the sauce on the side), the absolutely fresh fish is first-rate. Be sure also to try the grilled potatoes mit Speck (bacon pieces). Including a beer or two, a couple can eat well here for about €50.
Restaurant StrandhalleRestaurant Strandhalle Strandpromenade 5, D-18609 Binz, tel. +49/08393 31564.
It doesn't cost anything to walk Baden-Baden’s fashionable streets or browse its smart shops. For about $10, you can even nurse a beer for an hour or so in the clubby Oleander bar of the high falutin’ Brenner’s Park Hotel. It’ll taste better, of course, after you've spent a couple of hours (about $20) at the Caracalla Baths, an aquatic festival of warm pools, Jacuzzis, waterfalls and saunas; one of the world’s great public spas.
A Baden-Baden headquarters makes for easy day trips: south through the Black Forest; a day in Strasbourg with perhaps a lunch of choucroute (sauerkraut with smoked pork, an Alsatian specialty) and a glass of one the region’s most distinctive wines, gewürztraminer from the house of Trimbach; or a slow drive with stops in picturesque towns such as Riquewihr, Rebeauville and Colmar along the Alsatian wine road.
You can enjoy upscale Baden-Baden at a downscale price from the Hotel Rebenhof, about a 10-minute drive from the center of town. The Rebenhof sits on a gentle slope surrounded by rolling vineyards on the edge of the town of Neuweier. Light wood paneling and lots of windows create an open, airy atmosphere. Modern, clean-as-a-whistle guest rooms are attractively decorated and large sliding, floor-to-ceiling windows seem to bring the vineyard indoors.
In a wooded setting about three miles from the city center, the Forellenhof offers good value and rustic charm. The appealing interior of a typical Black Forest farm house overflows with such country touches as carved wooden chandeliers, massive tile stoves, and dark wood wainscoting. The restaurant, no surprise, specializes in trout.
A part of far northern Germany that attracts few Americans is the western Schleswig-Holstein, a lowland of dikes, tide flats, and marshes. In Husum, the main town, visit the North Frisian Museum to understand how the sea, and the disasters it has visited on the land, have affected life in the region. Your next stop might be the Eider Dam, built in the late ‘60s after the disastrous storm-tides of February 1962 claimed 315 lives.
Other than limitless sky and sea, and melancholy wind farms, there’s not a lot to see here, though on long, restorative walks or bike rides atop the dikes, you’ll experience the kind of solitude found on mountain-tops and lonely beaches. Highly recommended.
Hidden among beach grasses behind an imposing North Sea dike in the Wattenmeer National Park, is the dormered, thatch-roofed Hotel Lundenbergsand. This one’s way off the beaten path, so you’ll need a good map to find it near tiny Simonsberger, seven kilometers southwest of Husum.
The theme is nautical. On the walls are a ship’s wheel and pictures of ships. Oil lamps hang over each table in the dining room.
Room Number 11, reached via a stairway, is compact and spare but comfortable enough for a stay of two or three nights. There is a white wooden bed, a table and two chairs, a small TV, furrowed sisal carpeting, stripped wallpaper, a painted wood ceiling edged in white molding, pictures of boats and flowers, and a chest-high window offering a long, peaceful view of sky, hedges, waving grasses and wheeling birds.
Dinner in the Stube featured ample portions of good but not great food, mostly from the sea. Main dishes are in the €14-20 range. A four-tenths liter glass of Königpilsener was €3.
In the summer it stays light for a long time in the evening, making after dinner a perfect time for that walk on the dike.
This village between Rothenburg and Bad Mergentheim is just an overnight. Stop in the early afternoon, walk through the town, climb up to the castle, and you've seen it. However, the food at the recommended hotel here, the Krone, is so good you may want to make Niederstetten your headquarters for car day trips over the maze of tiny back roads to towns such as Rothenburg, Bad Mergentheim, Tauberbischofsheim and Creglingen. Even Würzburg is daytripable.
From Niederstetten, follow the Vorbach river north for about 10 kilometers and you’re in Weikersheim, which has a fine market square that adjoins the rather spectacular 16th-17th century Schloss Weikersheim. Its meticulously-kept grounds are extensive with formal gardens and statuary. Indoors, the Knight’s Hall is much praised.
For some great country driving, proceed west to Dörzbach, then along the twists and turns of the Jagst river to Krautheim, Schöntal and Möckmühl. From there you can head north through Adelsheim and angle back east to Bad Mergentheim, Weikersheim and back down to Niederstetten.
Clean, comfortable guestrooms in a modern style more reminiscent of business conferences than German country charm. Still, it’s family-run and a fine value. The restaurant is a cut above, getting a deserved red Karte designation from Michelin. Most main dishes are in the €14-€20 range. Winners for us were juicy Zwiebelrostbraten (steak and crispy onions), with wondrous roasted potatoes, and four thick lamb chops baked to rosy perfection and accompanied by butter-laden gratin potatoes under a crust of cheese. A half-liter of local red wine is about €10 and draft beer costs €2.1. Try to avoid the English menu as it doesn't list all the dishes available.
This is a part of Germany rich in back roads and interesting villages. A great euro-beater option is take a vacation rental for a week. There is good selection at the tourist office website. One that looks attractive is unit #2 of Ferienwohnung Siedler (tel. +49/07932/8361), which comes with kitchen, bedroom, tiled bath, living room, balcony, and regional decor at the extraordinary price of €25 per night. Even at our current nasty exchange rate that’s $271 for two persons for a week in very pleasant surroundings.
I’ve always been partial to the Mosel; it’s sweeping 180-degree-plus bends, the spectacularly steep, neat vineyards, and, when compared with the Rhine, fewer tourists. I suggest driving from Trier to Koblenz, or vice versa. Burg Eltz—a photo of which should be in the dictionary alongside the word ‘castle’—is a must see in the forest 10 kilometers from Hazenport. By far the most interesting town is Trier and its many Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre that held 20,000 spectators, and some of the Roman Empire’s most extensive baths. Other towns of interest along the river are Neumagen-Dhron, Berncastel-Kues, Marienburg, Beilstein and Cochem, watched over by its impressive castle.
Entering its lovely grounds high above the city, your first Petrisberg impression is of an upscale, resort hotel. However, not only are you about to experience one of the warmest welcomes in all “Gemütlichkeit-land,” but one of its great bargains as well.
Guestrooms here are simple and clean, but many have panoramic city views and the Pantenburg brothers’ hospitality is legendary. Many readers return year after year.
At the east end of the German Alpine Road is Berchtesgaden, mostly famous as Adolph Hitler’s vacation hideaway. Though the town itself is long on vehicular traffic and visitors, and not especially appealing, the Salzach basin is a place of astonishing physical beauty. The jagged peaks of the Watzmann, the quiet, melancholy Königsee, country churches like lovely little Maria Gern set in the green hills, are the stuff of full-color travel posters. And the place has an intriguing history, most of it recent rather than ancient.
Hitler, of course, had a home here, but contrary to popular opinion it was not the famous “Eagle’s Nest” at the top of the Kehlstein, which he seldom visited. His Berghof was down the mountain, in the foothills of the Obersalzberg. Many of his high-ranking aides also had luxury homes here, all of which were connected by several kilometers of underground bunkers. These tunnels were used as air-raid shelters but were probably not, as it was once believed, planned as an “Alpine Redoubt” where Hitler, the SS and the Gestapo would make a last stand and prolong the war. By knowing where to look from a road on U.S. Army controlled property at Obersalzberg, you may be able to see fragments of the foundation of the Berghof which was leveled in 1952. The destruction was one of the conditions imposed by the U.S. Army when it returned the property to Germany. For an update on what happened at the Obersalzberg during and since the war—plus some extraordinary photos—visit www.thirdreichruins.com. Nearly all the buildings and homes associated with the Nazi presence have been, or soon will be, destroyed. But as Thirdreichruins.com author, Geoff Walden, says, “History-minded tourists will continue to visit the Obersalzberg because of what happened there from 1933-1945, regardless of the further destruction of the area sites. The history happened, it cannot be erased by removing the remains.” Your thirst for World War II history may have to be slaked by having a beer at the bar of the posh new InterContinental Hotel, built near the former site of the homes of Martin Bormann and Hermann Göring. It is still possible, however, to visit the bunkers and tunnel complex, though they are dank, cramped, dirty and there is little to see. What we do recommend for a Berchtesgaden visit is the bus and elevator ride up to the Kehlstein, an electric boat ride on the Königsee, a drive over the high, scenic Rossfeld Road, a tour of the Salt Mines, and day-trips to Salzburg, just 20-minutes away.
On gorgeous grounds five kilometers west and a little south of Berchtesgaden, in Schönau am Königsee, is the stately and staid 53-room Hotel Alpenhof, a mountain resort with exercise, wellness, beauty, and spa facilities, including indoor and outdoor pools.
Expectations fueled by the hotel’s elegant entry, with its oriental rugs thrown over gleaming marble tile floors, and light wood paneling, are not quite fulfilled by the guest rooms. Though large and comfortable, for the most part they are unimaginatively decorated with drab colors and bulky furniture.
That, however, is our only quibble. The quiet Alpenhof is an ideal spot to hideout for a week or two, far from the world’s stresses. Though you wouldn’t be turned away, this sort of hotel is geared for stays longer than a night or two. A week in the springtime in a small double room with south-facing balcony for two persons, including breakfast and dinner, is €868.
Hotel Gasthof Bergheimat
In the same area and only a five-minute walk to the Königsee, is the Bergheimat. Though it is a step down in class from the Alpenhof, everything is bright, shiny and clean in this 43-room, family-run hotel. And, considering the prices of other hotels in and around Berchtesgaden, it is a good value.
A third-floor (there is a lift) double room with toilet and shower, but no balcony, can be rented for about $110 per night. In that category we recommend Number 302, whose bed is cozily tucked under a slanted wood ceiling with skylights.
Like the Alpenhof, this is a quiet country hotel. There is no pool but in winter you can ski right to the front door.
(Editor’s Note: A favorite of many readers, the grand old Hotel Geiger, closed several years ago and has stood vacant ever since. According to the Website, during the war it was used as a recreation center for Luftwaffe officers. Rumor has it that the cost to refurbish and maintain the rambling old building precludes a profitable hotel operation on the site. Historical preservationists hope to save the structure from the wrecker’s ball.