Germany’s scattered with soaring mountain ranges and wild moors, vast lakes, rugged coastline and enormous sandy beaches.
Berlin’s the largest city in Europe. Others might not match up in size but the likes of Hamburg, Munich and Cologne take a lot of beating in terms of history, excitement and sheer stunning good looks. The country hosts some of the world’s best and brightest festivals every single year. And it’s where family spas are the rule, they reimagine ancient Hanseatic ports as kids’ adventures and think nothing of turning legendary airfields into vast, urban playgrounds.
Berlin’s one of Europe’s greatest cities for kids. There are campsites in parks, open air movies, sailing on the Spree, cute puppet theatres, acres of gardens and the many marvels of Museum Island. Dozens of different districts each have their own personality and bike-paths everywhere make them easy to explore. You can sail to islands and see water buffalo, have a picnic on a hilltop and skateboard down a runway – all in one weekend. The city’s sunnier and warmer in summer than you imagine. It has more Christmas markets than anywhere in else in Germany, the New Year street party is Europe’s biggest and there’s all winter long on huge rinks from Alexanderplatz to Müggelsee.
Hard not to mention the mighty cathedral when it comes to Cologne and just as difficult not to highly recommend a climb up the bell towers before you do anything else in the city. Not only do they have, arguably, the finest view along the Rhine, they’re among the most potent symbols of post WW11 Germany’s architectural renaissance. Down on the ground, Cologne’s a fun city for kids, keeps its quarters nicely organised for walking around and makes sure you don’t miss the best bits like the Schokoladenmuseum, Cologne Zoo and the fabulous cable car across the river.
Don’t do as others do and dismiss Frankfurt as nothing more than Germany’s corporate capital. Look beyond the international banks, tech giants and European headquarters, and there’s another city altogether. The Alstadt’s a charming living quarter packed with half-timbered quaintness and the type of curiosities to win kids over in seconds. Only Berlin has more museums and even it can’t lay claim to such exotics as the life size dinosaurs guarding Frankfurt’s Senkenberg natural history collection. Still in doubt? Climb the 342 steps up Kaiserdom tower and have a look around, then give Frankfurt the attention it deserves.
Germany’s second city has always been a merchant at heart. Topping the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, its Kontorhaus district’s worthy of World Heritage status and, even today, few European ports are quite as huge – just look for a forest of cranes if you ever get lost. The city’s astoundingly multi-cultural and centuries of seafaring have left a legacy of fantastic food, music, art, festivals and exotic traditions. Reeperbahn is another maritime by-product: not touristy in the style of De Wallen, but still one of the city’s most famous (infamous) districts. Side-step the red-light and take kids to see Miniatur Wonderland, Kunsthalle and creepy Hamburg Dungeon instead. Or raise yourself in the teenage cool stakes with a few hours of Fischmarkt on a Saturday night.
Leipzig’s reputation for remarkable music isn’t unjustified. You can barely take a step without meeting a prestigious classical orchestra or world famous choir and the city’s annual Bach festival sells out as fast as Glastonbury. All very lovely, but far from the only reason this is once again Germany’s city of artists, writers and musicians. Inspiring, light, easy-going and a lot less expensive than Berlin, Leipzig’s just a good place to create and stuff happens here, that simple. This nurturing quality works for visitors too. The romantic old town’s enchanting and interesting. There are galleries and museums installed in everything from glass cubes to gasometers. Rich and amazing performance turn up in the strangest spots and Bach’s just one of many crowd pleasers in the city’s year round festival line-up. Then there’s beautiful Saxony all around, just to make Leipzig even more irresistible.
Home to the world’s biggest beer festival, birthplace of beer gardens and land of iconic breweries, turns out Munich is much more kid-friendly than its hop-based reputation suggests. Even Oktoberfest has family afternoons, a spectacular funfair and citywide parades that could almost have been purposely designed for under 18s. One of the world’s best urban zoos lives in Munich and the city’s English Garden is so vast it makes Central Park look like a pocket handkerchief lawn. Munich’s also the capital of Bavaria so weekend skiing’s a bit of a winter tradition, summer water sports are wonderful on glacial lakes and, if you want to stretch your legs, Germany’s highest mountains are here too.
An hour north of the Black Forest and about the same distance north west of the Swabian Jura, Stuttgart’s a complex blend of rural and urban, ancient and sharply new. The city’s built on rolling hills with vineyards less than 500m from the centre. Its neighbourhoods are connected by an intricate network of over 400 staircases. Grand 18th century palaces compete with stark contemporary masterpieces. And the traditional autumn Volksfest is one of Europe’s biggest fairs, a colourful international event and an agricultural festival at heart. Stuttgart’s an excellent base for exploring the spa towns, forests, mountains, towns and villages of Baden-Württemberg. It’s a good starting point for a family road trip through Germany’s south west wine country. Or you could just visit for the city itself, it’s good fun to get to know, just remember to wear flats.