Move over, BMW: cycle touring in Germany
The last thing you'd expect from a country that enjoys worldwide fame for its eminent position in the automobile industry is that it also ranks as one of the top (if not the top) destination for bicycle travel in Europe. Cicerone's Germany expert, Kat Morgenstern, gives us an overview
Since the end of the Second World War Germany has stayed a bit on the sidelines as far as international tourism is concerned. But Germany’s domestic market is thriving, especially when it comes to a particular brand of sustainable tourism: discovering the country’s turbulent history, varied culture and bucolic nature per pedes – either by bike or on foot.
Germany – a country for cyclists? Incredible, it seems, but – yes! It’s true!
Touring Germany by bike has become especially popular over the last 40 years or so, while the country has developed an unparalleled network of countrywide long distance cycling routes – intertwined with its already existing excellent infrastructure of local bicycle paths. To those who know Germany mostly from the perspective of the Autobahn it almost comes as a shock to discover just how much there is to see beyond those endlessly monotonous highways.
Sitting pretty squarely in the middle of Europe, the country is home to a surprising range of interesting and varied landscapes, from the Alps in the south to the coastal regions along the Baltic or the North Sea, with many medium-sized mountain chains (of various geological origins) that ripple out towards the sea, and an infinite number of picture-perfect historic towns and villages whose names most visitors have probably never heard before.
Many of the long distance bicycle routes follow major river arteries: the Rhine route starts in the mountains above Lake Constance (German: Bodensee) and runs all the way to the English Channel; the Danube route originates on the eastern flanks of the Black Forest and runs east to Munich and Passau before crossing the border into Austria and later to Hungary on its way to the Black Sea; the Moselle Route bubbles forth in the French Vosges Mountains and meanders through the famous Moselle vineyards to the ancient Roman city of Trier and on to Koblenz, where it joins the River Rhine. And then there are the Elbe, Neckar, Main and many other routes that criss-cross the country.
With so many options, it’s not always easy to choose. But thanks to the fact that the major routes are all interconnected, you can start on one, then switch to another or create your own routes according to your interests. You can even take side trips by regional trains (which transport bikes as well) to places that might be too far off the trail. The bicycle trail network covers many thousands of kilometres and new routes are added every year. The best source of current information is the ADFC, the German Cycling Association. The association test-rides the German cycling routes to assess their quality according to a certain set of criteria, such as the path surface, the proximity to major roads, accessibility by train and other factors. Every year the ADFC publishes a list of the highest-ranking routes.
5 star cycle routes
So far there are two trails in Germany that have been awarded 5 stars. First there’s the Liebliches Taubertal route, which is a relatively short route that runs from the medieval toy-town of Rotenburg ob der Tauber to Wertheim, at the confluence of the rivers Tauber and Main.
The other 5 star route is a brand new one called 'Schlossparkradrunde', which runs through the eastern Allgäu, and visits Füssen, home of Louis II's Neuschwanstein Castle (better known as 'the Disney castle'). Situated in the deep south of Bavaria, on the fringes of the Alps, the Allgäu is arguably one of the loveliest regions of Germany. It borders onto Lake Constance, one of the largest natural lakes in continental Europe, which offers another favourite route, the aptly named Bodensee trail, which runs all the way around the lake, passing through all three countries that border its shores (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). Although it does not receive ADFC acclaim, it nevertheless ranks as one of Germany's favourite routes, due to the easy terrain and fabulous views across the lake towards the Alps. Set along the shore are numerous interesting and charming little historic towns, such as Constance, Meersburg and Lindau. It does get crowded, especially during the summer, when the region is heaving with visitors. It can also get swelteringly hot, but thankfully the lake offers many an opportunity for a quick and effective cooling dip.
More ambitious cyclists may want to consider the Bodensee–Königsee route, which leads from Lake Constance to the Königsee, a lake in the Berchtesgarden National Park. At 418km, with 3917m of ascent to overcome, it certainly ranks as one of the most demanding, yet also one of the most gorgeous, routes the country has to offer. If you are not too keen on tackling hills with loaded panniers you might like to explore the Black Forest, which has several lovely long distance routes, one of which, the Southern Black Forest bicycle route (‘Südschwarzwaldradweg’), which has received a 4 star rating by the ADFC, is described in detail in my Cicerone Guide, Hiking and Biking in the Black Forest. It is a surprisingly lovely and effortless route, if you use the train to get up to Hinterzarten in the heart of the mountains.
Routes in north Germany
Or you could consider exploring the north of the country, which has no lack of beautiful and interesting cycle route options. The Weser route, perhaps, which starts in Hannoversch Münden, (Hann. Münden, for short) at the confluence of the Fulda and Werra, which together form the River Weser that pleasantly and easily ambles through the fairy-tale country of the Weser Bergland – where the Brothers Grimm collected many of their stories – to Bremerhaven, on the North Sea coast. Then there’s the Elbe route, which starts in Cuxhaven and passes Hamburg and Magdeburg before crossing the Elbe’s alluvial floodplains – a UNESCO biosphere reserve – on its way to the historic city of Dresden, known for its cultural gems. The last two sections through the sandstone mountains on either side of the German and Czech border are quite spectacular. The final destination is Prague, the ‘city of one hundred spires’. Or maybe you'd enjoy the coastal routes along the Baltic or North Sea – but remember, these are popular tourist destinations, making it difficult to find accommodation spontaneously during peak holiday times, and the wind can also be quite annoying, if it comes from the wrong direction (which it is bound to do). I could easily ramble on, as there are many more beautiful routes and each and every one tells its own story, but really you should find out for yourself. Local tourist information offices are very helpful and can provide information and assistance with planning your trip – and Cicerone publishes a few guidebooks that cover some of the best routes in detail.
Born and raised in Berlin, Kat Morgenstern is a grassroots herbalist, ethnobotanist, writer and ecotravel professional. She has spent most of her adult life in the UK, US and France but currently lives in Germany's southern Black Forest, where she loves to roam the hills and forests.View Articles and Books by Kat Morgenstern