First time travelers to Germany usually visit the bigger and beautiful cities like Berlin, Cologne, Munich and Hamburg. Then maybe they add smaller towns or regions like Dresden, Nuernberg, Mittelrhein or Schwarzwald.
But if you stick to these main regions then you are missing out on other really cool parts of the country which makes Germany and also Europe so special. Europe and Germany is stunning when you explore the countryside and the best way to do this is by car. Sure, you can easily combine that with the one or other bigger city. I would actually recommend to do this. It’s the mix of the big cities and countryside villages which makes a trip through Germany very special.
Wherever you go you’ll find lots of history and I’m not just talking about young history of the last 50-100 years… No, I mean the real deal of history, which is full of castles and medieval houses, which are 500 plus years old.
You could drive around aimlessly and see where you end up, or you could give your trip a specific focus, like visiting castles and palaces.
That’s what I have done, as well as focusing on the historical aspect of each destination:
Any idea who that is? If you are interested in religion and especially in the Christian religion, then you should know about him. I’m sure you do, if not, no worries, let me introduce you to Martin Luther (not Martin Luther King). And by the way, you do not need to be religious to be interested, I’m neither.
Here a quick intro:
Martin Luther had a massive impact in religious history. He didn’t make many friends with his actions, as he didn’t like how the Catholic church was run. Yeaph… he had the idea to criticize the powerful Catholic church and he did it at a time when the church was far more powerful than it is today.
Martin Luther was born 1483 and at that time there was pretty much only the Catholic church in Germany and Europe. The church’s structure and strategy was set up in a way that it would remain in complete control and power. One strategy was to keep all info in a smaller circle. They did that by writing and speaking in Latin, which the normal unskilled folks were not able to speak or read. Only a few people were able to learn how to read and write at that time and Latin was not the common language either.
The church used every instrument to stay in this position. It built huge churches, which must have had extremely impressive and also terrifying impacts with its sounds and tones to the population, where most had never even left their own small village. There were no cars, ferries or planes. People walked, unless they were wealthier and they could afford a horse. There were no newspapers and books were not printed, but “copied” by hand, though that was about to change at the time of Luther as well. A world of media like we know it nowadays was out of mind. So the people had their word to word gossip and went to church, where they were then strongly influenced.
The priests shared their stories and the people had to believe those, as they couldn’t really inform themselves about any other. One of those stories was that there was no salvation outside of the church and people had to pay money to do penance. That’s a practical and easy way, if you have money and nice if you are the one charging. For everyone else… ;-)
At that time Luther was born and became later a monk. He then studied theology and did his dissertation. Luther also traveled to Rome and created his own important experiences with the church. So he was well educated and over time he realized that he couldn’t find and see himself in the Catholic church.
Luther then shared his “rebellious” thoughts in public and in several letters. He also wrote them down in 95 theses', which were posted on the doors of the church in Eisleben. That created a big tumult in the Catholic church, as you can imagine.
He pointed out things which nowadays sounds so natural and taken for granted, but weren’t at that time. He explained that only God could give salvation -- not the church, not the donation to the church and also not a piece of paper by the church.
This was, not surprisingly, big news to the people and very much of interest. The message of Luther was passed from village to village and at some point arrived at the pope in Rome. As you can guess he, and others, were not amused and tried to charge Luther. Luther stood up for his opinions and when he was about to be charged as a heretic, he had to flee. That’s when he was “kidnapped” and brought to the Wartburg. His kidnappers were actually his friends and it was only supposed to look like a proper kidnapping to mislead Luther’s enemies.
At this moment it was already too late for the Catholic church and many people supported the reformation of the church. It even got to a point where it ended in brutal force and where 50,000 - 100,000 people died. This happened while Luther hid in the Wartburg, where he translated the bible into German.
His translated bible was the turning point and was as well the beginning of one common German language.
What Martin Luther did, opened the door to freedom to religion and changed the world.
What a time… what a story!
So here I am, arriving in Berlin by train, finding out more about Martin Luther’s routes, learning about the history of the reformation, though paired with a very touristic angle. The cities I’ve visited all, more or less, had something to do with Luther. But they offer more than “just” the historical touch. The cities are also worth seeing if you are less interested in their history.
My first step was to get a rental car for a week, which you can get for around €135 - €500, depending on the category. Check out Budget or Europcar for good rates.
Geared up and ready to go, my first stop was…
(Route on Google Maps)
Potsdam is only a short 30-40 minute drive away by train or car from Berlin. That makes it a superb day trip from Berlin. There are several tour companies that do day trips from Berlin to Potsdam.
I’ve been to Berlin many times and always wanted to see Potsdam and I should have done it much sooner. As it’s so close to Berlin, it still feels like a part of Berlin -- I’m sure that the locals see that very differently though. You so still feel like you're in a different world from Berlin though, it's wide, open, posh and relaxed.
Things to see in Potsdam:
Park Sanssouci: It’s only a short walk from the city center where you'll find this amazing, well looked after and huge park. You can easily spend hours here, as there are also several palaces and castles to visit like the Sanssouci Palace, Orangery Palace, New Palace, Charlottenhof Palace, Ruinenberg, Neptune Grotto, Church of Peace, Kaiser Friedrich Mausoleum, Winzerberg Potsdam, Belvedere on the Klausberg, Roman Baths… and I’m sure I forgot a few more. Many of them include museums and all of those are fab locations to take photos. There are also several cafes and restaurants in the park. Or you just enjoy strolling around.
Explore the city center: There is a nice and cozy pedestrian zone with different kinds of shops and cafes. To get a good overview of the whole city, get a Hop on Hop Off day ticket.
Alter Markt (Old Market): Here you'll find the St. Nicholas’ Church, which is a Lutheran church. For €1 you can climb to the top, where you'll get a beautiful view of the city. Then you have other impressive buildings surrounding the square like the old town hall, Landtag of Brandenburg and the Museum Barberini.
Restaurant Tips for Potsdam:
Restaurant Dreimäderlhaus: Go here for some excellent German cuisine for good prices. There are only a few tables and it’s usually very busy as you get served freshly cooked meals like dumplings with beef roulade and red cabbage...delicious! The restaurant is completely managed by the owner and his partner (wife?) and only once in awhile an extra assistant. The owner is also a character you have to meet. He is very straightforward and sometimes a bit “snappy”, but in a nice way. Watch the opening hours, as they close at 9 pm.
Hotel Tip for Potsdam:
Hotel Brandenburger Tor Potsdam: Look out for the Brandenburger Tor and you'll find the hotel, which is right next door. There is a parking garage opposite, which makes it a good choice to stay if you have a car. Apart from that, the hotel itself is of course also worth to staying at. It has a very classical and elegant vibe with a luxurious interior, which fits in perfectly with the rest of Potsdam. The rooms offer everything that a top hotel needs to have. You will feel comfortable right away… and the breakfast is a dream!
This is a tiny and laid back town, still worth stopping and exploring on foot.
But before heading into town, stop 10 minutes outside of the town, at the Klostermuseum. This is also a nice stop to do a bicycle tour, as there is a popular cycling path. It’s a museum of the old monastery and you can also see how the traditional liqueur was made. They still make it at the distillery, so can taste it and buy it. There are many concerts and other events on the grounds on weekends and you'll find 2-3 cafes/restaurants in the village.
Jueterbog itself has a museum about Tetzel, the preacher whose selling of indulgences caused Luther to write his 95 theses. Stroll along, head to the market square, where you’ll find a nice looking city council.
Then head to:
Coming from the North, you’ll be passing the river Elbe and just before doing that, stop on the right side. Here you’ll find the spot where the Russian and the Western Allies met on 25th April 1945 at the end of World War 2 before their final victory against Hitler. It’s called “Spirit of the Elbe” and you have a wonderful view from here onto Torgau and its Schloss Hartenfels.
Stay overnight in Torgau, as there is enough to see and do here. If you like old traditional houses, you will enjoy the over 500 Renaissance and late-Gothic buildings.
Things to do in Torgau:
Schloss Hartenfels: This one is stunning, but watch out before crossing the bridge and entering the palace… do not jump off the bridge… OK, you should never do this, but especially not here, as you will be eaten by bears. :-) Yes, Schloss Hartenfels has 3 bears in their moat. I guess that was one way of keeping attackers away in the old days. The castle and its bears have a long tradition, going way back.
When entering the palace itself, you will be impressed by its architecture and especially its grand staircase in the center, which winds elegantly upwards. You can also climb its tower, which is next to it. Just be prepared and have €1 in your pocket for the entrace -- they only tell you after climbing the tower half way and I guess you would be annoyed to walk all the way down again, to get a coin. It’s a machine eating your coin and there is no other way to get to the top, unless you have that coin. But it’s worth it, as the view from the top is stunning. The city itself is very pretty from above and then you have the river Elbe floating next to it. Very picturesque.
There is also a museum, which provides info about its history, which includes Luther, Cranach and also Napoleon. Luther inaugurated his first protestant chapel here. And it was here, where Luther and his friend Cranach also performed church songs, translated into German.
Schloss Hartenfels was also the film setting for the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Which makes total sense the moment you see this location.
There is also a nice cafe in the square of the palace, where you can sit beneath a big tree.
Spalatinhaus: this is one of the oldest existing houses in the city and it belonged to Spalatin, a friend of Luther and who was a priest and supporter of the reformation. It’s worth to go inside to see how people lived around 1500.
Just around the corner you will find also the Katharina-Luther-Stube. Katharina was Luther’s wife, which was another huge scandal at that time as it was forbidden for priests to get married. Well… there love goes… changing history. This alone is a very interesting story itself, though the Katharina-Luther-Stube did not hold my attention for long. It’s tiny, most information is in German and the tablet with English info was not working properly.
Restaurants Tip for Torgau:
Herr Käthe: named after Luther’s wife, you can dine here in one of the old traditional houses. The food and the service is good. It’s positioned right in the city center, so that it’s a good add-on after exploring the city.
Gaststätte Bärenschenke: I would suggest to have a quick lunch or an afternoon snack here (coffee and cake?) or just go for some drinks. They have a nice little outside area where you can sit and enjoy a nice view onto Schloss Hartenfels.
Where to stay in Torgau:
Hotel Goldener Anker: I chose this hotel as it’s right in the city center, positioned at the market square. Ask for a room with a view onto the square. ;-) The hotel has a good standard, a nice restaurant in the front and parking in the back. The breakfast was also good, though I was surprised that they couldn’t serve cappuccino.
The city Wittenberg is all about Luther and there is no way around it. So they totally deserve to call themselves “Lutherstadt”.
There are two longer pedestrian zones, which invite visitors to explore the city on foot. Many cafes and restaurants are open to welcome locals and tourists to relax, and in the end it will still be all about Luther when visiting Wittenberg. There are a few tours that will take you around Wittenberg, learning all about Martin Luther.
Things to do in Wittenberg
Schlosskirche: this is where Luther’s 95 Theses were posted and where the reformation really started and took its course. Everyone talks and probably thinks that this was done by Luther himself, but there is no evidence for this. In the end it does not matter, as people read them and spread the news into the world.
You can also climb the church’s tower to enjoy the view of Wittenberg.
The Luther 1517 - 360° Panorama by Asisi: This huge “painting” was one of the few places on my trip where I had the feeling of stepping back in time and could imagine how it was around 1500 in Germany. The artist Asisi is well-known for his 360° panorama artworks, which you also find in other cities in Germany. The one in Wittenberg is 15 x 75 meters big and is dedicated to Luther’s 95 theses, which were published on the church’s doors. But there is far more than that. You can find many little stories on this huge painting. In the center of the room is a podest with 2 levels, so that you can see Asisi’s work from different levels and angles. An extra nice feature is, that every couple of minutes the whole scene changes its time of day, supported by sound & light effects.
Lutherstube: This was formerly the home of Luther, which is now a big museum. The building itself is already worth walking through the gate. There are 2-3 very beautifully newly restored rooms from Luther, with wonderful wooden ceilings. It’s also the oldest of all Luther museums, as people used it as a place of remembrance right after Luther’s death in 1546. The museum gives a biographical presentation of Luther and includes objects (for example books and paintings) of that time.
Where to eat in Wittenberg:
Vino Veritas: I can definitely recommend eating in this Italian restaurant. It’s a bit upper-class, but well worth it. The meals are freshly prepared and beautifully decorated. The atmosphere inside is elegant, with a historical flair, and there are also a few tables outside, so that you can enjoy a nice summer evening. The restaurant is right in the city center.
Where to stay in Wittenberg:
Luther-Hotel Wittenberg: It makes sense to stay in a Luther hotel, when visiting Wittenberg, right? OK, I was also open to other hotels when I was looking for a good standard, central location, with friendly staff, nice hotel rooms and a parking garage. And the Luther Hotel provides all of that. The hotel is a bit bigger and also seems to be used by quite a few larger tour groups. So it can get a bit loud and busy at breakfast, but apart from that, it’s a good choice.
On our way towards Halle we stopped at Woerlitzer Park. Here you can see one of the first artificial volcanoes of the world, named “Vesuv of Woerlitz”. It was built in 1794 and restored for a crazy amount of around 7.5 million Euro in 1999. Since then the volcano has erupted several times, the last times being in 2010 and 2016. So it seems that people have better chances to see the real Vesuv (Italy) erupt. ;-)
Though still, you should come here to see it. The volcano is built next to a red house, the Villa Hamilton, on a small island and it simply looks cool.
Then there is the Woerlitzer Park around it, which is perfect for nice walks. Those will get you Woerlitz Palace and the Gothic House.
You might know this city if you are a tennis fan. Here you have the second biggest tennis tournament on grass, after Wimbledon.
Or maybe you like classical music? Then you will have heard of George Frideric Handel? He was born in Halle. Listen to Handel on Spotify.
But these should not be the only reasons to visit Halle. The city of Halle welcomes you with a wonderful and picturesque big square in the city center. You have the five towers of the Market Church & Red Tower, surrounded by other historical buildings, like the town hall.
The Market Church is where you can see Luther’s death mask. So if you're interested to see how he looked in an older age, you'll get an idea here.
And then you have the Marienbibliothek, which you can visit between 2 - 5 pm on Mondays & Thursdays. This is the oldest and largest Protestant church library. It's very impressive to see 3-4 floors full of historical books and you wonder what is written in them. They even have the original translated bible by Luther. To get there, you have to go through the inner courtyard of “An der Marienkirche 1” and walk up to the first floor. Best is to make an appointment and ask for a tour: +49 0345 517 08 93 or at Halle Tourist Information: +49 (0) 345 1229984 firstname.lastname@example.org
This is another little gem of German cities. The city center is so small that you won’t need much time to explore it on foot. There are as well Luther’s birthplace and his last residence, which will then take a bit more time to explore.
I liked Luther’s birth place. There are two buildings, one is the old historical one where you can see and imagine how people might have lived in the past and then there is the new one with objects above Luther, but also about his father who was a miner. There are several big paintings and I liked that the museum placed seats in front of them with screens, which provided more info to those.
And then there is Luther’s last residence, which gives a focus on the last days of his life, including a written statement of his son who describes the last hours of Luther. The museum also handles the topic of how Luther himself stood to death.
Where to stay and eat in Eisleben:
Hotel Graf von Mansfeld: There are not that many choices to stay, as the city is small. That said, Graf von Mansfeld would also be a good choice with its standard in other cities. It’s in the city center and fits in nicely with the rest of the town with its old building. The rooms are cozy and the breakfast is good. I also had dinner here, because there wasn’t that much of a choice in the city, unless you have an appetite for Doener. The dinner at Graf von Mansfeld was very good and on its menu you'll find classical German dishes like goulash and dumplings. Yummy! There is also a car park behind the house.
Germany is full of castles and each one is more spectacular than the one before, especially if you like castles and who doesn't? On the way to Erfurt I recommend to drive a little detour and stop in Querfurt and visit the castle there. You won’t guess who might be living there. I’ve seen Rapunzel’s hair hanging out of the tower!
The rest of this castle is also worth exploring. It’s not a super huge castle, but it’s still 7 times bigger than the popular Wartburg. And take a look at the Castle Sheep Farm museum next to the castle. Here you can see old farmer’s hardware. There are also some sheep, goats and chickens which make it a fun place for families.
Just a short drive from Querfurt, through a little and idyllic valley, you’ll find Arche Nebra. If you like modern architecture, which fits nicely in a natural surrounding, then you’ll like this place. It’s a planetarium. This is the location where the “Nebra sky disk” was found -- a disk made out of bronze, around 30 centimeters diameter, which shows the sun, moon and a few stars. With its around 3600 years, it is one of the oldest representations of the sky. If you like planetariums and history, I’m sure you’ll like this one. If that topic is less of interest, you should still stop to check out this building. It’s spacey-cool.
Erfurt was probably the city which I liked the most on this trip. It surprised me with so many things and I wondered why I haven’t been here before. The city lies in a big valley and it’s full of traditional old houses. It’s one of the most intact medieval cities in Germany. So wherever you walk in the city center, keep your camera ready. It’s a city of bridges, which cross the Gera river.
Things to see in Erfurt:
Erfurt Cathedral: There is no way to miss this one, as it’s right in the center next to the big market square. It’s positioned on a little hill, so that it looks even bigger than it is already.
Kraemerbruecke: This is a bridge which has half timbered houses on top of it. You might have seen photos of a similar bridge in Florence. This one is the only bridge north of the Alps with occupied buildings from end to end. Make sure you also see it from the side, as it’s really impressive. The buildings have shops in them, but above those are houses that actually have people living in them.
Augustinerkloster: This is the monastery where Luther lived for several years and it’s still in use. The building itself is from the 13th century and worth checking out. Make sure to go inside, as there are wonderful inner courtyards where you can experience an authentic medieval atmosphere.
Zitadelle Petersberg: This is an old city fortress, which is one of the biggest and best preserved ones of its kind. Come here for a fab view, as it’s lying on a hill overlooking the city.
Where to drink & eat in Erfurt
Glashuette Petersberg: Do you like to dine in style, a bit extravagant, while overlooking a city? Then come here and make sure to reserve a table if you decide to have dinner. The restaurant is not huge and it’s positioned right in the Zitadelle Petersberg, on a small modern building on steel beams. The meals are top quality and are always prepared fresh. Try their self-made lemonades, which are super.
Cafe Fuechsen: this is a little “hidden” and “gemütliches” cafe in the old town, next to the river Gera and close to the Kraemerbruecke and the Augustinerkloster. If you feel like a coffee and cake break, have it here! It’s cozy inside and outside.
Restaurant Feuerkugel: It’s one of the best restaurants in town and also positioned in the old town. Expect traditional German cuisine and good local beer in a nice “brewhouse style” atmosphere. Go for the dumplings, roulade and red cabbage, as it’s the traditional dish out of the region -- here made from the family recipe, which has been passed on for generations. It’s delicious.
Where to stay in Erfurt
Bruehlerhoehe: The hotel is a typical city hotel, good for business travelers and tourists alike. The rooms are smaller, but have a good standard. The breakfast also has everything you'd be looking for. The hotel is not right in the city center, but it’s only a 10-minute walk away and close to the Zitadelle Petersberg. There is as well a small parking space next to the hotel.
This was another nice surprise. After visiting Erfurt and on the way to Leipzig, you should stop at the castle in Rochlitz. The first impression of the castle is not overwhelming and there are far nicer castles in the area, but you really have to see it from the inside! Its museum is really good. From a bit of a distance the castle looks a bit more like a church with its two big towers, right next to the Mulde River. Inside are dozens of rooms waiting for you and so much to explore.
I loved the way the museum combines the old historical part and using modern technology to provide more info. For example, there are quite a few drawings scratched on a few walls, which you might spot, but only if you know where to look. The museum positioned a huge touchscreen close to the walls and the drawings. The screen shows you the different ones and also gives more info on those and it's you who navigates from drawing to drawing.
There is then an empty room with only four chairs. At each chair there is a virtual glass, which then provides you the view of the exact room you are sitting in, but in the different areas and times. So you can see how it looked and how it has changed over the different times, like in the Renaissance or the DDR period. One of the other rooms keeps it far simpler, technology wise. Here you can try on a knight’s armor. It’s a really cool round tour, getting you into the castle’s cellar, torture chamber, the tower and many other rooms. If you are in the area, do not miss this one. And after that stop at the Bluemchen Cafe outside and have one of their delicious cakes.
This is one of my favorite cities in Germany. It’s a city to explore and which has many different sides. There is the city center with its pedestrian streets, Thomaskirche, Maedler Passage, different museums and then there are the districts worth to explore like Zentrum-Sued, Sudvorstadt or the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei.
It’s also the city of Johann Sebastian Bach, as he lived here for many years. Richard Wagner was born here, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn & Gustav Mahler are others who created and shared their music here.
And then Leipzig is well-known for its peaceful revolution and it’s Monday demonstrations, which ended in the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany.
Things to do in Leipzig:
Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei: this is an old cotton factory, but nowadays it’s only the walls which remain of it. In those walls you’ll find all kinds of cool little companies and galleries. You can easily explore the aerial for a few hours.
Panorama Tower: Head to the viewing platform on the 29th floor and enjoy the bird’s view perspective of Leipzig.
Stadtgeschichtliches Museum: The city of Leipzig has a huge and interesting history, starting in the medieval days till today. The museum connects different objects and provides information of the city’s development.
Monument to the Battle of the Nations: Just outside of Leipzig you’ll find this huge memorial, which was built in memory to the battle between Napoleon’s French army and the coalition armies of Prussia, Russia, Austria and Sweden. The defeat of Napoleon and his army was a crucial step and a step towards Europe how we know it today.
Church of St. Thomas: Luther shared his new ideas here and the church is home to the world-famous St. Thomas choir.
Where to eat in Leipzig
Where to sleep in Leipzig
Innside Leipzig by Melia: It’s centrally located and surprises by its funky interior and high standard. The outside is a nice neoclassical building and when you walk in, it’s a modern design hotel. The rooms are quirky cool and have all what a top hotel needs to provide and even more. The free Wi-Fi is limited, which should be a no-go, but in return you get a couple of free drinks at the room’s mini-bar. There is also a parking garage beneath the hotel.
Conclusion of my trip of exploring the rural and historical parts of Germany:
I traveled the above route, see it here on Google Maps, in a week. That was a busy schedule for it, though still possible. I would still recommend to add at least 3-4 days or to skip one or other place and/or sight.
I was very positively surprised at how nicely you could combine such an historical event and time, Luther and the reformation, with a road trip exploring lesser-known regions of Germany. All the cities mentioned above have their own charm and are worth a visit. I’ve seen many Luther sights, some surprised me with their charm and others with their skill of combining old historical events with new modern mediums. Then there were also a few of the typical museums, which are only worth visiting if you have a bigger interest in the topic itself.
There are 8 official Luther routes. It would take far more time to explore them all, so that I’ve created my own route with some of the most important places around Luther, which I combined with a few little gems and lesser known spots. Other “Luther spots” would have been Mansfeld, Weimar, Gotha, Wartburg/Eisenach, Schmalkalden, Coburg, Nuernberg, Augsburg, Speyer, Heidelberg and Worms.
I used this map here germany.travel/en/map-of-germany… to plan my trip. It gives you the feature to show all kinds of different interests. You can then zoom in and click on the icons to get more info on each location. It's very cool.
Even if the topic of Luther and the reformation should not be a topic of interest for you, all of the places that I visited offer so many things to do and see, that you should still explore them.
Driving from one to the other place was lots of fun. The distances between each location were only 1-3 hours apart from each other.
The hotels which I chose to stay in always had the priority to be centrally located, provide a good quality standard with high ratings, include Wi-Fi and provide a parking option. Each chosen hotel was priced around €70 - 120 per night and met my requirements, so I'd definitely recommend to stay in the same ones.
There are many flights to Berlin and Leipzig also has an international airport and if you should not find the right return flight, Berlin is just a short 1.5 hour train/car drive away.
This was a fun and diversified trip and I’m happy that I have seen these parts of Germany as well now.
Travel tip written by Melvin for Travel Dudes.