Nicole Carmichael discovers castles, cathedrals and culture on an exciting train adventure across Germany
Having experienced the joys of Eurostar’s direct routes from London to France and Belgium, my husband Jonathan and I decided to venture further with a whistle-stop trip to some of Germany’s most beautiful cities. We even managed to cram in a day in Switzerland while we were there.
It really couldn’t be easier. Unlike flying, there’s none of that baggage check-in/reclaim boredom, or trying to get a week’s toiletries into a plastic bag the size of a child’s glove. On board a train, the views are considerably more impressive and you arrive at the city’s main station, so there are no fiddly transfers to contend with if you’re visiting several towns.
After an early start and the usual speedy ride to Brussels, we had a quick stop for lunch (with almost obligatory chips and mayo) arriving in Cologne just after 3pm.
As you leave the station, look left for the first item on your German tourist tick list. Cologne Cathedral, with its striking Gothic towers, looms above the city and is Germany’s most visited landmark.
Another of Cologne’s big draws is the Hohenzollern Bridge with its 40,000 love locks – engraved padlocks attached to every inch of the grillwork right across the 409m footbridge. Once across, three euros pays to see the 360-degree views of the city from KölnTriangle observation deck.
In just a couple of hours, you get a real taste of Cologne. Or should that be a whiff?
Like any great tourist city, there are plenty of accommodation options, but Jonathan and I opted for the brilliantly located Marriott Hotel, a three-minute walk from the train station and close to the banks of the Rhine.
In the evening, we walked along the river to the packed, buzzy Peters Brauhaus (brew house) in the old town, with its beautiful domed Art Deco ceiling, Kölsch beer and hearty plates of schnitzel, pork knuckle and other German favourites. If you’re vegetarian, you may struggle here…
The next day, it was back on the train. Peacefully snaking down along the Rhine past impossibly pretty villages, in less than three hours we arrived in Heidelberg, home of Germany’s most prestigious university and the ruins of its stunning 13th-century castle.
A meander through the old town – taking in the Old Bridge, the Student Kiss praline shop and the Student Prison (once a badge-of-honour to be incarcerated here) – took us to the castle funicular.
Like so many fairy-tale castles, there are suitably colourful stories about the castle’s most famous residents, such as Frederick V who lavished extraordinary gifts on his beloved Elizabeth Stuart, also the mother of his 13 children. We also loved seeing the Heidelberg Tun, the world’s largest wine barrel which holds more than 220,000 litres.
We stayed at the fabulous Europäischer Hof – a short taxi ride from the train station and the best hotel in the city. With sumptuous rooms and old-world charm, it also boasts a luxurious spa and two fabulous restaurants including the exquisite Die Kurfürstenstube.
It was hard to leave Heidelberg as this gem of a place has so much to offer – not to mention our luxurious hotel – but it was time for the next train to Lake Constance, around five hours away.
The lake area here is known as Bodensee and it extends to Switzerland and Austria. So Konstanz, where we stayed for the next three nights, was the perfect base to explore.
The stunning boutique RIVA hotel is right next to the lake and has 51 chic contemporary rooms and suites (mostly featuring a balcony or terrace) and a gym, sauna, spa and incredible rooftop pool. The hotel also boasts a sublime Michelin-star restaurant, Ophelia, housed in its own Art Nouveau villa. It’s one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group and it’s very special.
On our first evening, we enjoyed a guided tour of the beautiful old town, spared from being bombed in the war, perhaps because of its closeness to Switzerland. It’s believed that the people of Konstanz were tipped to leave their lights on at night so that enemy bombers would believe it was part of (neutral) Switzerland.
The following morning we explored the wonders of the island of Mainau, an absolute must for gardeners and flower lovers, with an ever-changing carpet of colourful flower fields and dahlias.
Being on the lake means Mainau is also perfectly placed for a quick boat ride over to the UNESCO site of Unteruhldingen, where we visited the fascinating Neolithic and Bronze Age stilt village.
It seemed too good an opportunity not to visit Switzerland, so the next day we headed to St Gallen in Switzerland, around a 30-minute train journey from Konstanz. It’s famous for its fabrics loved by celebrities such as Pippa Middleton and Michelle Obama.
In the town’s Abbey Precincts we visited the stunning baroque cathedral, housing Europe’s oldest bell and a magical Harry Potter-esque library containing some of the earliest and rarest papyrus books.
Our final stop was beautiful Munich, where we took a day trip to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle and spent a couple of days visiting the sites in and around Munich. Even standing in Marienplatz and watching the iconic Glockenspiel (at 11am, 12pm and 5pm daily) is a real tourist treat.
It’s a fantastic city for shopping, galleries, foodies and history buffs – Dachau is a short train ride away and well worth a visit, if you can stomach visiting a former concentration camp on holiday…
After eight packed days we were ready to pack for our return home. But first we enjoyed Oktoberfest and raised a stein to celebrate our new favourite country. Prost!
- An Interrail pass valid for five days in a 15-day period costs £243 per person (standard class). Book at voyages-sncf.com
- Prices start at £59 for a standard return fare from London to Brussels on Eurostar.
- Prices start at £124.70 per night for a room at the Cologne Marriott Hotel.
- Double rooms at the Europäischer Hof start at £204.55 per night.
- Double rooms at the RIVA hotel start at £244.05 including breakfast.
This feature first appeared in the Sunday Express
About the author
Nicole Carmichael has written travel features for the Sunday Express and Fit & Well magazine. Her favourite train journey is Kandy to Ella in Sri Lanka.