In Saxony, two hours south of Berlin, the capital of Dresden has been restored to baroque splendor after World War II Allied bombings and nearly 50 years of Communism. In Thuringia, charming cities like Weimar and Eisenach recall Martin Luther as well as poets Goethe and Schiller, and musicians Bach, Liszt and Wagner. In the verdant countryside, hilltop castles, porcelain works, terraced vineyards and sculpted sandstone mountains invite wandering.
Spend a week or, better yet, 2-3 weeks, visiting Berlin, Saxony and Thuringia. Getting around is a breeze with barrier-free travel for the physically challenged, well-marked bike and walking paths, and an extensive network of trains, buses, ferries and paddle-steamers. City cards offer free transportation along with discounted museum admission. As for hotels, Germany’s rates are among Europe’s lowest, and the country’s commitment to “Smart Luxury” guarantees personalized service and the highest standards. Well-priced restaurants offer everything from traditional German fare to fine gourmet cuisine. In 2016, Germany’s restaurants were awarded a record 349 Michelin stars, Europe’s second-highest after France.
In Berlin, choose from hundreds of hotels in every price category. In Mitte, the capital’s central-most district, four-star Boutique Hotel i31 (www.hotel-i31.de/en) has spacious rooms, a stylish breakfast room, a courtyard garden and a wellness center for about $150 a night. At the nearby Brandenburg Gate, a tourist office sells the Berlin WelcomeCard (www.berlin-welcomecard.de/en) for discounted museum admission and free
Steps away are the glass-domed Reichstag building, offering panoramic views, and the sprawling, contemporary-style Holocaust Memorial (www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en). Just south, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (www.mauermuseum.de) has thousands of intriguing artifacts on World War II, the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Communism. Don’t miss Museum Island (www.smb.museum/en), a UNESCO World Heritage Site with five renowned museums, and the Berlinische Galerie (www.berlinischegalerie.de) with striking German Expressionist works. For contemporary art-and-design tours, contact Miriam Bers at GoArt! Berlin (http://goart-berlin.de).
From Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, it’s a two-hour Eurocity train ride south to Dresden, capital of Saxony. With your Dresden Card, explore attractions like the rococo Zwinger Palace and baroque Dresden Royal Castle, where Saxon rulers gathered the world’s wealth in precious jewels, sculptures, and paintings, including Raphael’s famous “Sistine Madonna.”
At the 363-acre Grosser Garten (www.grosser-garten-dresden.de)visit the Dresden Zoo, Botanical Garden, and the high-tech Volkswagen Transparent Factory. Along the River Elbe, stroll, bike, or cruise aboard a Saxon Steamship Company (www.saechsische-dampfschiffahrt.de) paddle-steamer. Enjoy creative cuisine in contemporary-style Alte Meister (www.altemeister.net), then take a 25-minute tram ride to Alaunstrasse, lined with bars and music clubs, jewelry and goldsmith shops, and late-night bakeries, vegetarian restaurants and ethnic eateries.
Book early for a five-star hotel room at an incredible $100-$150 in Dresden’s baroque center-city. On Neumarkt square, around the landmark Frauenkirche, are the five-star Hilton Dresden (www3.hilton.com) and the four-star Steigenberger Hotel de Saxe (www.steigenberger.com). The five-star Swissôtel Dresden Am Schloss (www.swissotel.com) is between the Frauenkirche and Zwinger Palace. Across from the Zwinger, in the yellow-and-white palace that 18th-century Saxon ruler August the Strong built for his favorite mistress, the Countess Cosel, is the five-star Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski (www.kempinksi.com). A four-star NH Collection hotel (www.nh-hotels.com) is on the Altmarkt, site of Dresden’s month-long Christmas Market.
Across the Elbe, in the Inner Neustadt, choose the four-star Westin Bellevue Dresden (www.westin-dresden.de), with two restaurants, or the five-star Hotel Bülow Palais (www.buelow-palais.com), a 58-room Relais & Châteaux property with one-star Michelin restaurant Caroussel. For rock-bottom rates, book the four-star Quality Hotel Plaza Dresden (www.qualityhotelplazadresden.de) in the Outer Neustadt, 25 minutes north of downtown and 20 minutes south of Alaunstrasse by tram.
The Saxon countryside is a short day-trip from Dresden by train, bus, bike or paddle-steamer. A half-hour train or bus ride takes you to the town of Meissen and the famous MEISSEN Manufactory (www.meissen.com) where you can watch craftsmen glaze and paint porcelain figurines and tableware, see 2,000 museum works, and buy tableware, scarves and ties in new and traditional patterns.
In Radebeul, a 10-minute train ride south of Meissen, is Schloss Wackerbarth (www.schloss-wackerbarth.de), Saxony’s oldest sparkling-wine facility. Enjoy guided tours of the modern cellars, walks through terraced vineyards, tastings of red, white and sparkling wines from local Goldriesling, Müller-Thurgau and Traminer grapes, and Saxon-Mediterranean cuisine in the baroque manor’s award-winning restaurant.
Saxon Switzerland (www.saechsische-schweiz.de) national park, with fantastically sculpted sandstone mountains overlooking the River Elbe, is an easy 45-minute train-and-bus ride from Dresden. Take in views from the rock-bound Bastei Bridge or over lunch at the Berghotel Bastei’s (www.bastei-berghotel.de) Panorama Restaurant. Trails range from short nature walks to long treks along the 70-mile Malerweg, or Painter’s Path. The Schwedenlöcher trail, a 1½-2 hour hike, winds through a lush, rocky gorge to the spa town of Rathen. From there, it’s a 33-minute train ride back to Dresden.
Visitors will find the nearby state of Thuringia equally alluring. A 2 ½-hour ride west aboard a high-speed Intercity-Express (ICE) train takes you from Dresden to Weimar, home of Germany’s greatest writers, composers and artists. Virtually all historic houses and museums are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, overseen by the Weimar Classical Foundation (www.klassik-stiftung.de). The ThüringenCard offers free admission to more than 200 attractions plus free public transportation throughout the state.
In the city-center, visit the Goethe National Museum, the sprawling mansion and garden where 19th-century poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived almost 50 years. In the nearby Schiller Residence, Goethe’s friend, Friedrich Schiller, wrote the play “William Tell” in 1804. East is the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, whose stunning white-and-gold Rococo Hall houses rare books, along with portraits of Goethe and Schiller, founders of Weimar Classicism. A bronze statue of Goethe and Schiller rises just west on the Theaterplatz, across from the Bauhaus Museum, honoring architect Walter Gropius and the early 20th-century movement he established here.
South of town, in the Liszt House, see the Beckstein grand piano of Hungarian Franz Liszt, appointed Weimar Court Musician 140 years after Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote three-quarters of his organ compositions here, many based on Luther’s hymns. Just west, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent his final years in what is now the Nietzsche Archive.
Of Weimar’s 50 hotels, surely the most romantic is the Hotel Amalienhof (www.amalienhof-weimar.de), steps from Goethe’s house. Named for the Duchess Anna Amalia, who attracted Germany’s 19th-century intelligentsia to Weimar, the three-star hotel has 23 antique-filled guest rooms, an elegant breakfast room, a cozy terrace and a small parking area.
If you have children, the four-star Familienhotel Weimar (www.familienhotelweimar.de) offers one, two and three-bedroom suites, most with living rooms, and all with kichenettes and balconies. Also on-site: a sandbox-adorned rooftop garden and casual Gretchens restaurant. For creative German cuisine in an elegant contemporary setting, try nearby Erbenhof (www.erbenhof.de).
Starwood’s five-star Hotel Elephant (www.hotelelephantweimar.com) is on Markt square, where, incredibly, Nazis built Buchenwald (www.buchenwald.de/en) concentration camp six miles from the center-city. The hotel is steps from the Lucas Cranach House. The City Castle museum displays many works by Cranach the Elder, but the famous Cranach Altar triptych, featuring his friend, Martin Luther, at the foot of the Cross, is in the City Church of St. Peter and Paul.
From Weimar, take a sleek Abellio regional train 19 minutes northeast to Bad Sulza, then take a taxi or walk 30 minutes to rustic Thüringer Weingut Bad Sulza (www.thueringer-wein.de) for tastings of superb red, white, rosé and sparkling wines. It’s an hour’s train ride from Weimar to Kahla, a major stop along the Thuringian Porcelain Road (www.thueringerporzellanstrasse.de). From there, take a taxi ride to 13th-century Castle Leuchtenburg, hilltop home of the intriguing new Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds (www.leuchtenburg.de) with more than 350 high-tech exhibits. Before leaving, toss crockery over the 12-foot-long Skywalk of Wishes for good luck.
Leaving Weimar, hop a speedy ICE train 48 minutes’ west, beyond Erfurt, the Thuringian capital, to the leafy town of Eisenach. At the Bach House (www.bachhaus.de), period furnishings evoke the 18th-century musician, while an adjacent modern museum features personal memorabilia, antique instruments, and contemporary bubble chairs where you can listen to Bach on headphones. The highlight: a daily concert on baroque organs and harpsichords.
Visit the restored Luther House (www.lutherhaus-eisenach.de), one of Thuringia’s oldest half-timbered houses, where schoolboy Martin Luther lived. After lunch at Leander in the four-star Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof (www.steigenberger.com), head to Wartburg Castle (www.wartburg.de), an 18-minute ride on tram no.10. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 11th-century castle houses the rough-hewn desk where, in 1522, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German. After touring Eisenach, take another high-speed ICE train two hours west to Frankfurt Airport for your flight back to the U.S
For More Information
For flights, contact German national carriers Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com) and Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com), or Condor Airlines (www.condor.com). For German Rail information, visit www.bahn.com. For Berlin, go to (www.visitBerlin.com). For Saxony information, visit www.dresden.de and
www.saxony.com. For Thuringia information, see www.weimar.de, www.eisinach.info and www.visit-thuringia.com. For the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, visit www.luther2017.de and www.visit-luther.com.