“Berlin is the best big city in Europe”, said almost all my friends who’d been. It’s the city of the moment, they said, thanks, mainly, to the parties, the coffee and the creatives. The cost-effectiveness doesn’t hurt either. And so, even before I’d finalized plans for my first big European rail journey, I knew one thing — that a significant portion of it would involve Germany and its capital.
What I didn’t realize, though, was just how much else there is to see across the length and breadth of the country. And how beautiful some of the train rides really are. Over the course of two weeks I ventured from Bavaria in the south to the capital in the north east. These were some of the many highlights.
Through the Alps to Munich
After a few days in a small log cabin high above the idyllic Austrian village of Zillertal I realized it was time to keep moving. Fellow guests also staying in the accommodation were driving to Munich on the same day, but I declined their offer.
Instead, I boarded a tiny train that resembled something you’re more likely to find transporting you around a theme park. It connected me to the bigger EuroCity network. A slick express train transported me through the eastern reaches of the Alps all the way from to Munich in just under two hours.
Poorly Poured Pints in Munich
Early June Munich was warm. So warm that the comically huge slab of Milka chocolate that I bought melted in my bag. In spite of the heat, I joined a mid-morning walking tour through the fairytale old town. The guide worked beer into her stories at every opportunity with far-reaching “legend has it” stories. Such as this gem: “Legend has it that this building once caught fire. With no water they decided to use beer, but ended up drinking it instead.” She did share one fact during the tour, however — that much of the town had been hastily reconstructed in anticipation of the 1972 Olympic Games. Eventually I got bored of my own eye-rolling and peeled off the back to explore the city on my own.
Later that evening I ventured into the famous Augustiner-Keller, an easy stumble from the both the train station and my hostel. I braced myself for a tourist trap, which to my knowledge it may well have been. But the face-sized pretzels and crispy pork knuckle and gigantic tankards of beer served by waitresses in all the traditional garb felt surprisingly authentic.
Even outside of Oktoberfest, beer is the focus of Munich. You’ll find beer gardens and beer halls in the most unexpected places. Though pints of German brew are far from cheap in the city, the food usually is, and there’s something to be said about drinking a liter of beer beneath large green trees rustling in the wind.
The city that’s made its modern tourist name thanks to the annual Oktoberfest still has a lot to offer at other times of the year. Perhaps more, if you consider just how chaotic it gets there over the debauchery of the festival. Instead, in June, I spent my days cycling through the lush Englischer Garten, looking for the surfers on the still wave in the Isar, wandering the quiet grounds of the old Olympic village, and marveling at motorcyclists riding down the stairs of the BMW showroom.
Swans and Castles in Heidelberg
When it came time to move on I noticed a small town on the map called Heidelberg. It was between Munich and Mainz — where I planned to meet some friends. So by virtue of having a Eurail Pass and a flexible schedule, I stopped over in the quaint town.
There I spent two days walking the bustling pedestrianized centre and classic bridges, exploring a captivating castle on the hill, and getting acquainted with some swans on the Neckar River, around which the city is focused.
Meandering around Mainz
The Rhine Valley Line Scenic Train is perhaps the most revered of Germany scenic rail routes. It runs between the charming towns of Mainz and Koblenz, and would be worthy of a journey to the region alone. But Mainz is a remarkable little destination that many tourists overlook for bigger cities in the area to their own detriment.
Set on the banks of the Rhine, Mainz is a thriving little student town. It comes complete with interesting breweries, various scenic walks along the river, and a palpable sense of history. So captivating is the little city that I extended my stay there by a few days.
Sunset over the Rhine was particularly memorable, and on one evening we stumbled across a crew of street artists painting the side of the bridge to chilled music and a cheap knock-up bar. Pedestrians and bicycles rule the streets in these parts, and it’s easy to cycle to neighboring suburbs for a change of scenery.
Riding the Rhine Valley Scenic Line
Eventually the call of river — and the capital — proved too strong. Early one morning I boarded the iconic train that runs up the valley alongside the Rhine River.
The laid-back journey on the Rhine Valley Line was brief, but laden with fairytale scenery. Castles sit on impossible hilltops and cliff sides, pristine vineyards float by the windows, and the gurgling waters of the river seem to challenge the spotless train to a race up the valley.
The surreal experience was over almost before it began, and I felt the urge to head back and do it all again. Many tourists do. Instead, I allowed myself an hour in the famous city of Cologne, primarily just to catch a glimpse of the famed cathedral, before pushing on to Hamburg.
A taste of the dock life in Hamburg
Just five and a half hours after leaving the quaint town of Mainz I found myself in the buzzing Hamburg Hauptbahnhof.
The city has an immediate pull to it, thanks to its quirky bars and restaurants, vibrant nightlife (the Beatles did, after all, cut their teeth here) and its peculiar nautical atmosphere — in spite of it being some 55 miles from the ocean.
The large Elbe River has made this an inland port town of note. Massive container ships sail down the waterways with ease dwarfing nearby buildings and locals sunbathing on the banks. A walk through the quiet harbor on a weekend morning is another surreal experience.
There’s a surprisingly laid back charm to this rather large and important city. In many ways it turned out to be a more manageable and appealing version of its popular neighbor, Berlin.
Tackling the capital
Eventually I made it to the German capital, and my initial European target. After two weeks of slow rail travel through Germany the country had captured my heart. Perhaps because of this, my initial feeling about Berlin was that it was large and unwieldy. On first appearances it lacked the magnetism of the cities that came before it. Without a manageable tourist centre to focus on, it was difficult to know how to structure a visit. On several occasions I found myself wandering strange backroads looking for something to do.
But then I realized that this was precisely why it’s so unique. Eventually I came to grips with the city by narrowing my focus to specific neighborhoods. Fascinating walking tours exposed some of the city’s hidden secrets, the intriguing history slowly came to life, several museums added context to my surroundings, slick eateries, quick street food and pretentious coffee shops provided the perfect destinations at which to refuel, and a handful of typically Berlin parties had me promising to return.
After some 750 miles by train through Germany I left the capital with a heavy heart. My two weeks in Germany had been so much more than I’d imagined, and the ease and flexibility afforded to me by my Eurail Pass had me fantasizing about a return trip before my train had even left the outer reaches of sprawling Berlin.