Leipzig is fast catching Berlin as a setting for innovative arts, particularly the city's Baumwollspinnerei (spinnerei.de), a former factory that now hosts dozens of eclectic galleries and artists' studios.
1. Leipzig's cutting-edge arts
The Spinnerei is the venue for British artist Jim Whiting's Bimbotown Parties (bimbotown.de, next one 2 April), a mix of music, theatre and lots of crazy stuff by artists from all over Europe. Tickets are sought after but some can usually be bought on the door. The cafe at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (gfzk.de) is redesigned every two years by artists and called Kafic in its current version after a makeover by artist-architects Apolonija Sustersic and Meike Schalk. Stay in the Meisterzimmer, a room of 116m² right in the middle of the Spinnerei (meisterzimmer.de, €80 for two, €160 for up to six people).
2. Raise a toast to the monks
Beer is so much a part of the fabric of life in Germany that it even has a role to play in monastic existence. The best example is the fabulous Weltenburg Benedictine monastery (klosterschenke-weltenburg.de), dramatically sited on a surging bend in the Danube near Regensburg. Here the monks run what is purported to be the oldest brewery in the world, and their dark beer is potent stuff. Visitors sit at tables in the monastery courtyard, quaffing and eating under spreading chestnut trees, and there's always the option of confession, either before or after, in the monastery's bewilderingly over-decorated rococo church.
3. A model hotel owner
German actress Jessica Schwarz, a 33-year-old former model who is now among the country's acting elite, has somehow found time to convert an old listed building in her home town of Michelstadt into a boutique hotel. Die Träumerei's 17th-century building houses just four chic and individually designed rooms, as well as a cafe (die-traeumerei.com). Michelstadt itself is in the Odenwald forest, and ideally placed for Heidelberg, Germany's stunning university town, as well as being only 45 minutes from Frankfurt airport. From €135 for a double room.
4. Hamburg's city orchard
The largest fruit orchard in northern Europe is in the outskirts of Hamburg, and reachable through the city's S-Bahn system. And yet Altes Land, as the name suggests, is still a deeply traditional place, and it is particularly spectacular at blossom time (late April/early May, tourismus-altesland.de). The landscape is carefully preserved and comes complete with some of the finest half-timbered farmhouses in north Germany. Start exploring from the ancient port town of Stade, the terminus of S-Bahn line 3.
5. Roll up to a hay hotel
Hay hotels are a peculiarly German institution, and an excellent old-fashioned adventure. They're at their best in the giant brick-built farmhouses of northern Germany, where the farmer and his stock all used to sleep under one roof. Many of those farms now open their hay barns (with attached bathroom facilities) to cyclists, who weave unhurriedly towards them across Niedersachsen's tapestry of dykes, marshland and heath (niedersachsen-tourism.de/en). This is ideal family cycling country, with big skies, dedicated cycle tracks, farmyard animals galore and minimal overnight costs, which include an immense farmhouse breakfast.
6. Who needs the Alps?
Germany may not be a first-choice destination for ardent skiers, but you can't fault the ambition, and the accessibility, of one of its (almost unknown) ski regions. Sauerland, a hilly area east of Düsseldorf, describes itself as the "largest snow paradise north of the Alps", despite its comparatively low peaks and patchy snowfall (wintersport-arena.de). There are more than 120 ski lifts and a lively après-ski, and it is good for beginners and intermediates. There's lots of entertainment for no-snow days, such as riding the Taxi-Bob, a bobsleigh run that can reach speeds of 80mph.
7. Live it up on the lakes
The Mecklenburg lake district (mecklenburg-lakes.com) is a region of a thousand lakes and watercourses about 70km north of Berlin, and is pillowed in soft woodland and rolling agricultural land. These living waterways have long been a mecca for German boating holidays, although their appeal is more akin to the seductiveness of the Norfolk Broads than the drama of the UK's Lake District. Homemade boathouses line the shores, and youngsters still set off on motorised rafts for watery adventures, like something out of Huckleberry Finn. You can rent sophisticated cabin cruisers here too.
8. Art at Düsseldorf's heart
The city's tradition as a hub for art dates back hundreds of years. In the 20th century, Joseph Beuys set up shop at the prestigious Kunstakademie (Academy of Arts) and the Becher School photography movement gave birth to household names such as Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer. The Kunst Palast (smkp.de) and NRW Forum (nrw-forum.de) are key locations for contemporary exhibitions. The latter is currently showing Zeitgeist and Glamour, with works by David Bailey, Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol.
9. Channel-surf in Spreewald
The Sorbs are Germany's most enduring ethnic minority, and they've lived in a crescent of land in modern Brandenburg since the sixth century. Here, the Spreewald (spreewald.de) is a watery mosaic of channels, meadows, fields and forests fed by the river Spree, and easily accessible from Berlin. Key towns are Lübben and Lehde, where a lot of travel (including tours) is still by boat. Gherkins are a big industry for Sorb farmers, and every April the region hosts a unique Spreewald marathon, which involves running, cycling, walking, and paddling. The starting command? "Auf die Gurke, fertig, los" (gherkin, steady, go!) – not something you're likely to hear at the 2012 Olympics.
10. Frankfurt's beach life
"Bankfurt" is not all about gleaming capitalism, for Frankfurt's Main river undergoes a bank-side transformation in summertime to become a large outdoor bar. Favourites such as the Maincafé, with its deckchairs and beach vibe, (between Untermainbrücke und Holbeinsteg) attract a relaxed crowd. Hafenbar (near Alte Brücke on the north bank of the river) is the beach bar outpost of the Stereobar club, where visitors can bring their own food. And the city's famous King Kamehameha gets down to the river as well in summer with its King Kamehameha Beach Club (king-kamehameha.de).
11. Spas and bars in Munich
Budapest doesn't have a monopoly on art nouveau baths. Müller'sches Volksbad, the "people's spa" (swm.de/privatkunden/m-baeder) next to Munich's Isar river is a gem, its murals and stucco the polar opposite of today's sleek and stylish spa designs. Opened in Rosenheimer Strasse in 1901, it is named after engineer (and benefactor) Karl Müller and it has been kept in its original condition. There are two pools, a steam bath and saunas. Early swimmers (doors open at 7.30am) get a discount and pay only €2.60 instead of €3.80.
When Münchner speak affectionately of Die Glocke, they are referring to an area of trendy shops, easy-going cafes and bars in the Glockenbachviertel and Gärtnerplatzviertel districts. It's a far cry from pricy Maximilianstrasse, the city's Gucci and Prada mile. Try Westermühlstrasse and Klenzestrasse for fashion, as well as Eisenblätter-Triska (Hans-Sachs-Strasse 13, eisenblaetter-triska.de) for quirky hat creations, or boutique Kleider machen Leute (Reichenbachstrasse 10, kleidermachenleute-shop.de) for clothes and style advice. There's plenty of nightlife too, from relaxed retro at Trachtenvogl (Reichenbachstrasse 47, trachtenvogl.de) to easy listening, funk, electro, house and soul at Ksar Barclub (Müllerstrasse 31, ksar-barclub.de). The area is also the centre of Munich's gay community with clubs and bars mainly between Thalkirchnerstrasse and Fraunhoferstrasse.
12. A paddle down the Elbe
Paddle steamers were once the monarchs of the European river systems, but these days they are rare. Except, of course, if you're in Dresden, that reconstructed jewel of an imperial city, because a whole fleet of old beauties operates from this Florence of the Elbe (saechsische-dampfschiffahrt.de). Decks quivering, funnels billowing, paddles kiss-kissing the water, they thump upriver to the castle at Pillnitz (schloesser-dresden.de), and then onwards into mountainous Saxon Switzerland. From their final destination at Bad Schandau, it is only 45 minutes back to Dresden by train.
13. Mud-walk with me
Man has planted his mucky feet firmly into most corners of this planet, but the sea bed has so far been mainly off-limits. Not so in the vast intertidal zones of the Wadden Sea, those enormous tidal flats on the north coast of Germany, where the ebb tide often retreats as far as 10km. Walking out across these mostly sandy flats is called Wattwandern (wattwandern.de), but there's mud here too, of a quality that spa addicts would pay good money for. On certain tides you can walk right out to the Frisian islands, and then catch a ferry back on the returning tide. Go with a guide.
14. A view to a thrill
X marks the spot where the AlpspiX viewing platform (zugspitze.de/en/summer/berg/garmisch-classic/alpspix.htm) hangs out over a thousand-metre void in the lee of the 2,962-metre Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, in southern Bavaria. Two metal walkways cross arms as they reach out into giddy nothingness, and you need to keep your nerve if you intend to walk the full 42 feet to the end of each, especially when it wobbles. The AlpspiX is reached via the Alpspitze cable car from the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, €22 return.
15. King Ludwig's hilltop hideaway
Everyone knows Neuschwanstein, the fairytale Bavarian Schloss that inspired Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle, but millions queue for its (perfunctory) tour every year. Far better to take a hike up Schachen to the King's House (schloesser.bayern.de, admission €4.50) an extraordinary mountain-top retreat also built by castle-obsessed King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and have its bizarre Turkish-themed salon to yourself. It's a four-hour walk up from the car park at Elmau, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and you can overnight for as little as €10 in the next door Schachenhaus (schachenhaus.de), which also serves hot food and cold beer.
16. Michelin stars in the Forest
We may not have heard of Baiersbronn here in the UK, but this small rural community in the Black Forest is a gourmet valley of international repute. Its nine small villages can boast seven Michelin stars, divided between three chefs. They are Harald Wohlfahrt (Schwarzwaldstube/3 stars, traube-tonbach.de), Claus-Peter Lumpp (Restaurant Bareiss/3 stars, bareiss.com) and Jörg Sackmann (Schlossberg/1 star, hotel-sackmann.de). If you don't feel like joining the queue for a reservation, Baiersbronn is also a prime hiking destination and ramblers can roam the forests on walks guided by a local chef, who'll reveal nature at its tastiest (baiersbronn.de).
17. A grape escape
The Palatinate region, up against the border with France, is where Germany gets super-excited about food and wine. The German Wine Route runs here, with lots of tastings and good little restaurants. In March, the Mandelblüte (almond blossom) makes the hills blush. The Ketschauer Hof (from €220 for a double room, ketschauer-hof.com) in Deidesheim is a stylish conversion of a winemaker's old manor house. In nearby Speyer, more than 1,500 years old and home of the Unesco-recognised Speyerer Dom (imperial cathedral), visitors can explore the city's rich history on a culinary walking tour (€52 per person, fourth Friday of every month, speyer.de), stopping off at different restaurants for each course of their three-course meal.
18. Spin round the Nürburgring
Put your pedal to the metal on Germany's original grand prix track, the Nürburgring (nurburgring.de), a looping circuit through the forested Eifel hills. The 14-mile Nordschleife includes 73 right-angle bends and was used as a Formula One circuit until the cars simply became too fast for it. When Niki Lauda was badly injured in 1976 the drivers refused to compete there again, with Jackie Stewart christening it "green hell". These days you can drive around it yourself in your own car and see whether you agree, but just don't get distracted by the scenery.
19. Boozy festivals
The Oktoberfest has lots of siblings all over the country, and it doesn't always have to be about beer. A reliable way to get pleasantly beschwipst (tipsy – good word!) is by mixing fruit and alcohol. German summertime favourite Erdbeerbowle (a mix of white wine, sparkling wine and strawberries) is a great beschwipst-er and is best enjoyed on a warm evening at the Wilhelmstrassenfest street festival in elegant spa town Wiesbaden (this year from 2-4 June, wiesbaden.de). If you must have beer, the Bergkirchweih festival in Erlangen (9-20 June, erlangen.de), dates back to the 18th century. And Bamberg, beer city par excellence, hosts the Sandkerwa (25-29 August, bamberg.info), when the output of the city's own eight breweries is supplemented by the arrival of outside beer makers, who set up stalls in the old city.
20. Up the garden path
The UK and Germany share a love of gardens. Schleswig-Holstein's "Garden trails between the seas" (the North Sea and the Baltic Sea) is a selection of nine routes that can be covered by bike (best, it's flat here!) or car (sh-tourismus.de/en/garden-trails). Each route takes in 10 different gardens and parks plus stopovers in tree nurseries or garden cafes. Apart from discovering northern German garden culture, it's a fantastic way to explore a region that is usually off the radar for Brits.
Andrew Eames and Barbara Geier are editors of germanyiswunderbar.com
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