Germany, Switzerland, and Austria: a highlight packed two-week whirlwind vacation
Updated: Apr 21
Germany in my heart
Germany was the goal. I grew up there, and I love it beyond measure, but it had been 20 years since I had stepped foot in my beloved Germany. I NEEDED to go home.
but where to start?
Although I had lived there throughout my childhood, I wasn't quite sure where to start. This was my first time planning a big international trip. Germany is a vast country, with thousands of things to see and do. We had limited time, so need to make the most out of the time we did have. Enter Rick Steves travel guides.
planning out our itinerary
I read Rick's Germany Guide Book from cover-to-cover. I marked my must-see destinations on a map, and came up with a loop beginning and ending in Frankfurt. Because our itinerary locations were close to Switzerland and Austria, we added them too.
all of this is in just two weeks?
We aren't necessarily high-energy people, but given our limited amount of time we were determined to fit as much in as possible. Yes it was tiring, but there'll plenty of time to rest when you get home! That being said, we have a lot to cover! so buckle up, and let's get started!
Here is the basic route we traveled. 15 hours might seem like a lot of driving, but I once drove 28-hours round-trip, to Canada and back over a long weekend.
We drove. If you have reservations about driving in Germany don't. With some preparation, you won't have any trouble. I have an upcoming blog about driving in Germany for first-timers, so stay tuned for that. Oh, and do either add the Gps onto your rental, or take one with. You'll be glad you did. We have this GPS unit from Garmin, purchase Europe maps separately. You may need an International Driving Permit permit to drive in Europe.
It's affordable and efficient, but you're at the mercy of transit schedules. I appreciate the freedom of being able to jump in the car, and zip around from place to place. You might find my introductory blog on public transit helpful: Public Transportation For Beginners.
I still fondly recall a cruise on the Rhine River as a child. So naturally, our first stop was the Rhine River for castles and a cruise! The banks of the Rhine are littered with castles. Sadly, time constraints forced us to make choices. Rheinfels and Rheinstein are the two that we settled on. You have a lot of options for both cruises and castles. My best advice to you is to buy Rick Steve's Germany guide. Here is a map of his Best of the Rhine, with stops highlighted.
Here's how we did our castles and cruise:
Before the cruise, we stopped at Rheinstein Castle. I really loved this castle. It was immaculate, cute, compact, almost homey (a home I'd like to live in anyway!) Built in 1316/1317 it has a drawbridge, portcullis, a courtyard with a lush garden, and 500-year-old grape vines that still produce grapes...and fantastic views of the Rhine!
Rhine River Cruise
We opted for a KD (Koln-Dusseldorer) Line cruise of the Rhine, round trip from Bacharach to Sankt Goar. This short "45-minute-or-so-each-way" route makes for a pleasant and relaxing ride down the river. My husband enjoyed his very first beer in Germany, my sister-in-law a glass of wine, while I just drank up the atmosphere of the beautiful Rhine River.
(photo credits: Nick Kunze and Angela M. Kunze)
While in St. Goar, we had a 2 hour and 20 minute wait for our return boat to Bacharach, enough time for lunch and to visit Rheinfels castle.
Rheinfels Castle ruins
The village of St. Goar originated in Celtic times. There's a tourist train that will take you up to Rheinfels Castle, or take the nature trail up (15 minutes each way.) Built in 1245 AD, Rick says Rheinfels is the single best castle ruin on the river, and to bring a flashlight for exploring the darker recesses of the ruins. Today it is still the largest castle on the Rhine. Although now in ruins, at one time it was 5 times it's current size, and once withstood an army of 28,000 French soldiers. Impressive!
You're probably thinking our first meal in Germany was undoubtedly Schnitzel or Bratwurst...wrong! Instead, we stumbled onto a little place in Bacharach selling Donner Kababs. Donners are Turkish food, now very popular street food in Europe. Seasoned meat (usually lamb, beef, or chicken) is spit roasted until it is incredibly juicy, and then shaved and stuffed into the most delicious flatbread, which is often grilled right in front of you. Popular toppings: lettuce, tomato, onion, and a delicious tzatziki type sauce. Donner anyone???
I wish we had spent more time exploring St. Goar and Bacharach. They are adorable and deserve a bit more time.
Moselle River Valley
We chose to base ourselves, for this part of our trip, in the village of Cochem, which sits on the Moselle River. This charming little town, with its medieval town center, quickly became a favorite. It has a population of 5,000, but during the day is quite popular with tourists and river cruise passengers. Evenings are pleasantly quite.
Reichsburg Castle in Cochem
Reichsburg Castle sits majestically on a hill overlooking Cochem and the Mosel River. The first historical mention of the castle was in 1130, but at some point it was destroyed and was rebuilt in 1868. You can hike up to the castle, or take the shuttle bus up the hill. I'm sad to say that by the time we made it to this castle it was closed, but the outside of this Gothic beauty is fantastic!
Nighttime in Cochem is a treat, perfect for an evening stroll. The lights from the town reflect off of the river. The castle up on the hill, warmly lit and glowing, reminds me a bit of Hogwarts.
where to eat:
Alte Wein Wirtschaf-Cochem has a rustic wine cellar vibe. Their Rahmschnitzel (a schnitzel with a creamy mushroom sauce) was seriously tasty!
where to stay:
We rented a spacious room at Hotel Zehntof in Cochem. The owner was incredibly nice, and was most gracious about our late arrival (it takes forever to get anywhere in these river valleys! plan accordingly!)
Burg Eltz Castle
A trip to the stunning 850 year old Burg (Castle) Eltz will transport you back to the middle ages. It is currently owned and occupied by the same families who have owned it for over 700 years.
It's all about the journey folks!
You can drive to the castle BUT....am I the only one who's dreamed of a idyllic walk through the forest, and suddenly the trees part and your standing there face-to-face with a fairy-tale castle????....there's a 1.5-hour trail through the woods read more about the trail through the woods here...
The trail through the woods and your first peek at the castle..
glorious Burg Eltz:
You'll find food at the IMBISS (snack stand, smells like heaven) at the castle, quite good food in fact!
currywurst and pommes (fries) with curry ketchup and mayo (the ONLY way to eat fries!) and a cherry torte:
The Black Forest
When in Germany, a trip to the Black Forest is practically obligatory. Those crazy switchbacks had us running behind schedule again, but we had to make a quick stop.
The waterfall in Triberg is touted as the highest in Germany. I wish we had more time to linger (one of the downfalls of blitz touring) but it was lovely, and somewhat crowded.
Black Forrest Cake
Since we were in the Black Forest, we obviously had to have Black Forest cake. We stopped in at Café Schäfer, which whether due to COVID or other circumstances, sadly appears to have closed after 150 years. The liqueur was a bit overwhelming. However, we found it was mostly confined to a single layer of cream and were able to scrape it off.
Want to know more? Read all about it in my blog:
Triberg in the Black Forest: Germany's highest waterfall, cuckoo clock shopping, & Black Forest cake!
a little Switzerland on the side!
Then we hit the road again and headed for Wasserauen Switzerland. Don't forget to stop and purchase a Vignette sticker (like a toll pass) if you're driving. It's a bit pricey (40 CHF) but it's Switzerland...everything is.
Ebenalp Mountain/Berggasthaus Aescher
While planning this trip, a photo of Berggasthaus Aescher, a hotel built into the side of a mountain in Switzerland, came across my Facebook feed and I knew I had to see it. We decided to make a day of it, so we took the Ebenalp cable car up to the top of Ebenalp Mountain and then hiked back down.
Berggasthaus Aescher and our transportation up the mountain:
Once at the top of the mountain, we found it to be very foggy. Those stunning views that we were hoping for were at the moment eluding us. We headed for the warm confines of Berggasthaus Aescher, and enjoyed some refreshments while we waited for the fog to dissipate. Warm liquer coffee drinks, hot tea, and a cheesy potato dish called Rosti were among the menu options.
As we sat there warm and toasty enjoying our treats, something magical began to happen. We were there on a Sunday, and there was a church (in a cave!) on the mountain. The choir had gathered in the restaurant to practice their hymns. They began to sing. It was a heavenly sound, somewhere between a hymn and a yodel. Since the fog had not cleared yet, we decided to attend church services as well. The sermon was in German, and we couldn't understand what was being said but regardless, what an experience it was! Hear the glorious voices of the swiss mountain choir on my Youtube Channel! and follow this link to see the video of church services on the mountain, IN A CAVE.
Eventually the fog cleared so we started to make our way down the mountain. The trails were a little treacherous, and wet but they were so peaceful and beautiful. I recommend taking hiking poles.
About midway down the mountain is the stunningly beautiful Seeaplsee Lake.
When in Rome....I mean Switzerland!
I'm a big believer that "when in Rome" you should try out the things that are unique to the place you are visiting. Two things that Switzerland is known for is fondue and chocolate. Please refrain from throwing things in my direction, but if I am being perfectly honest, I was not impressed with either. The fondue in this area was made from Alpenzeller Cheese, an extremely pungent cheese, and the cost for a shared pot for two was 50 Swiss francs! As for the chocolate, maybe I'm just partial to the German variety. Anyway, don't take my word for it, try it for yourself!
Where to stay:
We were staying at the adorable little alpine hotel, Hotel Alpenrose. It was nearly dark when we arrived and were greeted to the relaxing sounds of water running off of the mountain. In keeping with the theme of our trip up to this point, we arrived late again. The staff were so nice about it, and so accommodating. Although the restaurant was to soon close, they kindly offered to prepare our dinner. We had a large room with a balcony facing the mountain, and you better believe we opened the door and let in the sounds of water running off of the mountain. So incredibly relaxing. If you intend to stay in this area, you can't go wrong with this hotel, and it is in walking distance of the Ebenalp Cable Car.
the adorable Hotel Alpenrose, and a very expensive pot of cheese fondue that we had in the cute little town of Wasserauen:
Switzerland is amazingly beautiful, peaceful, extraordinary, and very expensive! but if I had to choose something that I didn't like about it, it would be that we didn't stay long enough!
Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles
First up, Hohenschwangau
the castle on the hill looking lovely in a bright shade of yellow. If you plan to tour both you'll get a timed ticket for Hohenschwangau first.
after touring Hohenschwangau, we jumped on the shuttle bus and headed up the hill to:
Visited by 1.4 million people per year, Neuschwanstein Castle is the stunning fairy-tale castle that inspired the artistic minds at Disney, not once but twice. It is one of Germany's most iconic sights.
You'll find some tasty food just down the hill from Neuschwanstein. After lunch, we took the horse and carriage ride down the hill to the parking lot.
Hamburger and pomme frits (fries) with curry ketchup. Brat, kraut and German potato salad. Our ride back down to the parking lot:
Logistical planning can be a tiny bit complicated when visiting these castles. I've published a post to help navigate your way through it, and added in a bit of the tragedy, betrayal, and mystery that surrounds these castles:
where to stay
We stayed in Fussen, which is about 3 miles from the castles. We had yet another huge room at Parkhotel Bad Faulenbach. The staff wasn't very warm or particuarly helpful, but the accommodations were good. By the way, there is a lot to do in this area. See Rick's book for details.
where to eat:
We had a very good dinner at Hotel Hirsch, a beautiful hotel in Fussen serving delicious food, one night and the Steakhaus Fussen, an adorable little place with delicious food another.
Weiner Schnitzel with fried potatoes from Hotel Hirsch. Steak from Steakhaus Fussen:
Zugspitze and Eibsee
Eibsee is a beautiful lake at the base of Zugspitze, the tallest mountain in Germany. There's a 4.7 mile walking trail that circles the lake, where you'll be treated to views of the surrounding mountains.
After we walked around Eibsee, we had our first Flammkuchen (tasty German pizza) outdoors with a view of the mountains.
sour cream, bacon and red onion Flammkuchen and tomato, mozzarella, and arugula Flammkuchen
There's a lot to do in this area! Read all about it here.:
an afternoon in Austria!
Our drive from Zugspitze/Eibsee back to Fussen took us through Austria, and right past a couple of worthwhile stops. Make sure you get your vignette sticker when entering Austria, it's only 8 euro, and lasts for 10 days.
Ehrenberg Castle and Highline 179 Suspension Bridge
Ehrenberg Castle was built in 1295. It's ruins are situated high up on a mountain in the Austrian Alps. I truly love a good castle ruin! There is just something so alluring about them. There is actually a complex of castles in this area.
Highline 179 Suspension Bridge is for adventure and thrill seekers. It is the longest Tibetan style pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. I hung back, feet firmly planted on solid ground, while my husband enjoyed his time on the bridge.
If you would like to know more about Ehrenberg Castle and Highline 179 check out my blog: Ehrenberg Castle Ruins, and Highline 179 Suspension Bridge, Reutte Austria
Rothenburg, is a medieval village where you can still walk the wall that has been charged with fortifying the town for hundreds of years. Most of the existing buildings here were in place before 1400. It is the quintessential, too-adorable-for-words, little German village. It was the inspiration for Disney’s Pinocchio. A visit here is likely to inspire fairy tales of your own.
Medieval Crime and Justice Museum
One of the highlights of my trip was the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum, where nearly everything is an actual medieval artifact. As you can see, the masks were a favorite if mine, and they have a real Iron Maiden!
It's Christmas all year long at this store. It's so big I actually got lost in here. There's a Christmas museum upstairs (there's a small charge for the museum but not the store,) and another location across the street. Ask for the "made in Germany" section!
The wall is about a mile and a half long. Construction started in 950. Rick has a very good map of the wall in his Germany travel guide. Here are a few photos from our walk along the wall.
magical after dark
We did a little exploring of Rothenburg after dark. You can explore on your own, or take the Night Watchman's Tour. I highly recommend the tour. It's very informative.
Where to stay
We stayed at Gotisches Haus (the Gothic House.) I personally consider it a trip highlight in its-self. The atmosphere is fantastic. Find yourself bedding down in a 700-year-old building that has accommodated emperors and crown princes. It isn't difficult to imagine that you've been transported to a time long ago when staying here. Bonus: It's right in the middle of everything!
where to eat
At Zur Holl (To Hell) you can dine in a 1,000-year-old building! Make sure you check out the bathrooms in the basement, it looks absolutely ancient down there! We ordered pork steaks with a creamy chanterelle mushroom sauce. The waitress offered us seconds! That was definitely a first for me.
Ratsstube Cafe is a great little spot to dine outside right on the town square.
Schnitzel again, with German potato salad and bratwurst at Ratsstube Cafe
Baumeisterhaus was built in 1596. Dine while surrounded by beautiful wall murals in a multi-story courtyard.
strawberry torte and apple strudel with cream AND ice cream at Baumeisterhaus:
Reichskuchenmeister Hotel for flammkuchen again at an outdoor table
Flammkuchen at Reichskuchenmeister Hotel:
The Baroque style Residenz Palace in Wurzburg , a UNESCO World Heritage Site, wasn't originally on our itinerary. We were searching for something to see on our way to the airport in Frankfurt and came across the palace on Google Maps.
It was built in the 18th century and is one of the largest palaces in Germany. It was heartbreaking to learn of the damage inflicted on this beautiful palace during WWII, but it has been lovingly restored. If you've seen Monuments Men you'll be interested in the display describing how those men saved some of the precious art from destruction. Photos were not permitted inside, but it is stunning and extravagant, and worth the cost of admission. On a side note: I had a delicious lunch at the museum café (literally every place in Germany has delicious food!) German meatballs (Frikadellen) in a brown gravy with mashed potatoes and creamed cabbage...and raspberry torte.
It was a wonderful end to a fantastic trip. From the palace, it's just a quick 75 miles down the autobahn to the Frankfurt International Airport!
And there you have it, our two week whirlwind vacation.
Whew! that was a lot! Admittedly, I would have liked to have had more time to linger, to absorb, to soak up the feel of it into my very pores. When I was young, I remember wandering, meandering, seeing something new around each corner that I turned, browsing something so simple as the grocery store, because it was all new to me. That's the downside of blitz touring, you miss out on that. Retirement is on the horizon. Stick with me and I'll take you along when I get the chance to linger. I'm dreaming of a extended stay in a thatched roof cottage in Ireland, just me, the Irish countryside, and a good book. Until then, I hope that I've been able to inspire a little wanderlust in you today, or maybe that you simply enjoyed a little trip right from the comfort of our own home.