Travel

7 Vastly Underrated Towns to Hit on Your Next Trip to Germany

Germany's open and ready for exploring.

trabantos/Shutterstock
trabantos/Shutterstock
trabantos/Shutterstock

Many first-time travelers to Germany start in heavy hitters like Munich, where the beer flows freely every September for Oktoberfest, or Berlin, the chilled-out culture capital. But as excellent as both are, both reflect such a limited part of Germany-a country that’s about the size (in square kilometers) of Montana or New Mexico, two of America’s largest states.

Now that, after over a year and some change of closed borders, Germany has reopened to American travelers, we imagine you’ll want to make a beeline for the country’s greatest hits. But once you’ve got those under your belt, hop a train and head to one of Germany’s lesser-known cities, where you can wander through art museums and medieval towns, taste beer brewed in ancient styles, pour one out for Beethoven, and take advantage of some of the best hiking Germany has to offer. Here are the best spots to throw on your itinerary.

How to visit Germany and what’s open

To visit Germany, you’ll need to provide either proof of vaccination (including the two-week immunity period), proof of recovery from Covid within the last six months, or a negative test result taken within 72 hours of travel-as well as register for entry. More info here. Once you’re there, most things are open-that includes hotels, museums, theaters, bars, and restaurants-but restrictions may vary by region, so check local conditions before you travel.

Shutterstock/trabantos
Shutterstock/trabantos
Shutterstock/trabantos

Düsseldorf 

Slurp ramen in Little Tokyo and drink rare beer in Old Town 

Art, fashion, architecture, and industry all converge in Düsseldorf, which dates back to about the 8th Century. The city’s old town, Altstadt-largely devastated during WWII but rebuilt to reflect its historic past-is often referred to as “the longest bar in the world,”  packing 300+ bars into a one-square-kilometer district. Here, you’ll drink altbier, a rare, top-fermented style beer that’s unique to Düsseldorf; check out the Altbier-Safari, which goes to each of the main altbier breweries in Altstadt, and a currywurst-and-cheesy food tour of Carlsplatz Market.

Düsseldorf is also home to one of the largest Japanese communities in Europe. Just a 10-minute walk from the Altstadt, check out the “Little Tokyo on the Rhine” neighborhood. It’s a small area along the Immermannstrasse, and Japanese grocers, sushi bars, and shops line adjacent streets. Slurp down some ramen at Takumi, or a satisfying onigiri snack at Waraku.

Westend61/getty images
Westend61/getty images
Westend61/getty images

Cologne

One of Germany’s oldest cities and home of Kölsch beer

From Düsseldorf, it’s just a 25-minute train ride to Cologne, one of Germany’s oldest cities. Sitting on the banks of the Rhine, the city’s most prominent feature is the gothic spirals of Cologne Cathedral, one of the world’s tallest twin-spired churches whose towers rise more than 500 feet into the air. 

Like Düsseldorf, Cologne is proud of its beer traditions; and what altbier is to Düsseldorf, the refreshing and light Kölsch is to Cologne. While in town, down a pint at Früh, located near the cathedral, Gaffel am Dom, and Peters Brauhaus. Also make time to swing through one of Cologne’s many museums, such as the Museum Ludwig, a modern art museum that’s kept works by Picasso, Warhol, and Lichtenstein, and the Cologne Chocolate Museum, which chronicles the history of chocolate worldwide.

picture alliance/Getty Images
picture alliance/Getty Images
picture alliance/Getty Images

Ruhrgebiet

A former industrial area is now brimming with vibrant towns and art museums

In Ruhrgebiet, you’ll find a former coal-mining region that’s been reinvigorated into a hotbed for art and culture: old furnaces, mines, and winding towers still dot the landscape, many of which have been converted into art spaces and music venues. There are 20 museums spread across the metropolitan area, including the Museum Folkwang in Essen, housing works by legendary European artists like Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Rodin.

You’ve also got to visit the UNESCO-approved Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in the town of Essen. Often dubbed “the most beautiful coal mine in the world,” the rusty but iconic piece of Bauhaus-style steel architecture offers a museum, a free swimming pool, an open-air cinema that screens movies all summer, and an ice skating rink in the winter.

Robin Nieuwenkamp/Shutterstock
Robin Nieuwenkamp/Shutterstock
Robin Nieuwenkamp/Shutterstock

Bonn

The birthplace of Beethoven and a gateway to nature

Straddling the Rhine just southeast of Cologne is Bonn. You can visit the literal spot where Beethoven was born, which today is a museum housing the largest Beethoven collection in the world, including his manuscripts for Moonlight Sonata and his last grand piano. There’s also the Bonn Museum Mile, where you’ll find hits like the Kunstmuseum for contemporary art and the Museum Koenig natural history museum. 

Bonn is also your jumping-off point for the 125-mile Nature Sieg Trail, which winds through rolling hills, by the Sieg River, around lakes, and even past ruins from World War II. Every stage sits conveniently near a rail station for those who only want a half- or one-day trek, but there are also cute towns nearby with accommodations for more ambitious hikers who want to do the full multi-day hike.

canadastock/Shutterstock
canadastock/Shutterstock
canadastock/Shutterstock

Rothenburg

One of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities

Full name Rothenburg ob der Tauber, this is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. Situated along Germany’s Romantic Road-a 290-mile stretch that’ll bring you through the Tauber Valley’s vineyards, past historic cities, and eventually to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle-many of the towers, walls, and buildings in Rothenburg date back as far as the 12th century.

A city that’s stood this long has its fair share of history lessons: amidst the colorful, latticed architecture, you’ll find stories of religious turmoil, feuding kingdoms, and near-destruction in the aftermath of World War II. Walk along the old town walls to take it all in from above, or dive directly into its past on a tour. Plus, in more recent history, Rothenburg has a solid grip on fans of fantasy: it inspired the setting for Disney’s Pinocchio, and parts of the final two Harry Potter films were filmed here, too.

Oleg Senkov/Shutterstock
Oleg Senkov/Shutterstock
Oleg Senkov/Shutterstock

Leipzig

A creative college town for lovers of art and techno

So you didn’t get into Berghain nightclub, and you’re thinking of leaving Berlin behind completely for greener (or perhaps less-gatekeepy) pastures. That’s where Leipzig steps in. This city just two hours southeast of the German capital has been occasionally dubbed “the better Berlin.” Home to one of the world’s oldest universities at the University of Leipzig (founded in 1409!), it’s got all the same creative energy and freak-flag diversity and comes stacked with classic culture and history.

For the best of the city’s subcultures, check out Plagwitz, where factories are regenerated as galleries; the punk stronghold of Connewitz; and the city’s music scene, including the techno temples at The Institut for Future and Distillery, and June’s Wave Gotik, one of the world’s largest goth music fests.

leoks/Shutterstock
leoks/Shutterstock
leoks/Shutterstock

Dresden

An overlooked hub of architectural eye-candy

You probably know Dresden because their Christmas market goes crazy, but Baroque architecture is the real name of the game here. After being virtually bombed to smithereens during World War II, painstaking efforts were put in place to resurrect the city’s historic landmarks-and boy, are there a lot of them to see. The Dresden Royal Palace, home to the Green Vault (which houses the largest treasure trove in Europe); the Theaterplatz District, where you’ll find architectural masterpieces like Zwinger Palace; Frauenkirche, an 11th-century church that’s been torn down and rebuilt about 1,000 times in as many years. That’s just naming a few highlights!

And although everything looks antique and elegant at first blush-which it is-Dresden after dark takes it from an old-world city to a modern nightlife hub. Head to the unusual, colorful streets of the Neustadt neighborhood and find out for yourself. Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Spencer Spellman is a contributor for Thrillist.

Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s Associate Travel Editor. You can follow her on Instagram at @tian.a.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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