Southwest Germany delights visitors at every turn with storybook villages, palatial gardens, Swabian kitchens and wine country.
by Michael J. Solender
Touring Germany’s Baden-Württemberg is such a feast for the senses, visitors might be tempted to pack too much into their short vacations. There are deep rewards and surprising finds for those who move leisurely, though. German history, hospitality, sights and tastes are best savored like the fine wines of the region: slowly, enjoyed with good friends and with an eye toward discovery.
Known as BaWu, the German state of Baden-Württemberg lies in the southwest corner of the country bordering France and Switzerland and is known for abundant year-round sunshine. Punctuated with verdant vineyards on sloped hillsides, diminutive villages with layers of history, centuries of architectural splendor and hearty Swabian (historic Bavarian regional) cuisine, BaWu delivers an engaging German cultural experience.
Daily nonstop flights from Charlotte to Frankfurt offer a gateway to the region, where a sophisticated rail system allows for a car-free holiday. Alternatively, renting a car offers travelers maximum flexibility and real-time spontaneity. Either way, establishing a base in Mannheim, Stuttgart or Heidelberg offers an easy approach to exploring the best of these cities while journeying on day trips to discover nearby jewels that await.
A stroll through Heidelberg’s Old Town is a pleasure, as the pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets offer fabulous people-watching along with small independent retailers, cafes, bistros and bars for exploring. There’s a youthful energy here, as nearly a quarter of Heidelberg’s 165,000 residents are students. Heidelberg University, internationally recognized and respected for the sciences, mathematics, medicine and economics, is home to 32,000 students, most of whom get around by bicycle, skateboard or scooter.
Nab a Heidelberg guide with a city map and navigate through more than 40 historic points (churches, market squares, Baroque-styled houses and university buildings) stretching two dozen or so square blocks that front the south bank of the Neckar River, an important transportation thoroughfare and major tributary of the fabled Rhine River.
The Heidelberger Schloss and Slosgarten (Heidelberg castle and gardens) is an imposing medieval castle complex high above Old Town overlooking the Neckar. A short, steep funicular rail ride whisks visitors to the former residence of the Palatine Prince Electors of the House of Wittelsbach. The 400-year-old complex (nearly all of the original 13th-century structure was destroyed) is a ruins-in-restoration, operated by the state and offering spectacular city views and Instagram-worthy photo-ops.
Left: Church of St. Dionysius in Esslingen am Neckar. Photograph by Oliver Raatz. Right: Half-timbered house in Esslingen am Neckar. Photograph courtesy Visit Germany
At Heidelberg’s less-traveled north bank of the Neckar, the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s walk) is a runner’s favorite. Named more for amorous students who enjoyed undisturbed nature walks than any fabled scholars, the 1.2-mile path winds through a residential area.
Some say Heidelberg is best enjoyed from its “most beautiful side,” directly on the river. Private river cruises are available in a 1920s-era restored sloop through Riverboat Heidelberg. Co-owner-captain Georg Bloss and his crew arrange for catered sailing excursions (with special Neckar Valley wines) that meander at a leisurely pace.
Back in town, enjoy Heidelberg’s coffee culture at any number of coffeehouses. Conditorei-Café Schafheutle is a favorite, with a loaded pastry case of tarts, cakes and strudels. Alternatively, grab a Schneeballen — the crispy “snowball cookie” that is peeled like an orange — at Diller Schneeballentraume.
Save room for dinner. Wirsthaus zum Nepomuk, a lively tavern only a stone’s throw from the famed Alte Brücke (Old Bridge), is homey, bustling and convivial. Hearty German fare, crisp lagers and a prideful staff welcome all to this neighborhood fixture. Specialties include the “Heidelberg Cobblestone” (rump roast), pork loin with cream sauce, and an impossibly thin and crispy Wiener schnitzel.
This hamlet just 3.7 miles south of Heidelberg is home to Schwetzingen Palace, the summer home of the Palatine Elector Carl Theodor in the late 1700s, around the time of the American Revolution.
Spend a half-day exploring the baroque architecture, statuary, and formal French- and English-inspired gardens across the 200+ acre grounds. The garden mosque, bathhouse, Temple of Apollo and orangery are highlights.
Savor a slow lunch at a traditional (and massive, two-storied) brew pub: Brauhaus zum Ritter. Two giant copper vats in the entryway greet diners. Altbier, Hefeweizen, Dunkel and Pilsner are among the German-style beers brewed here. Sausages, spaetzle and flammkuchen (a German-style flatbread) anchor a huge pub-grub menu that does not disappoint.
The largest city in BaWu, Stuttgart is also the wealthiest and most economically diverse. Often noted as the automotive capital and one of Germany’s most industrialized cities, Stuttgart is home to Porsche, Mercedes, Bosch and other leading manufacturers.
A visit to Stuttgarter Markthalle, the city’s expansive indoor food market, is a sensory treat. Revel among the sausage-makers, spice merchants, fishmongers, artisan chocolatiers and patisseries here, where Greek, Iranian, Indian, Italian and Moroccan foodstuffs compete for attention with traditional German fare.
Left: Vineyards around the Neckar River. Right: Arion Fountain at Schwetzingen Palace and Garden. Photographs by Gregor Lengler.
An open-air farmers market along the adjacent plaza offers flowers and seasonal fruits and vegetables in the shadow of Stiftskirche, Stuttgart, an impressive Evangelical-Lutheran church dating back centuries.
Don’t sleep on Stuttgart’s viticultural charms. There are thousands of acres of vineyards in the region surrounding the city (and annual per capita wine consumption here is nearly double that of the national average at 40 liters per person). The city’s plentiful wine taverns are fun to explore, and the culinary scene finds chefs exploiting connections between the local bounty and those of the grapes.
Take a short ride outside of town to Weingut Wohrwag, a microwinery where husband-and-wife team Hanns-Peter and Christin Wöhrwag produce varietals unfamiliar to most casual American consumers, such as Trollinger, a light-bodied red. Tastings are leisurely and informative, and the accessible wines are easy to drink and pair. Hanns-Peter worked with Robert Mondavi in the ’80s and is uncompromising in his production techniques, emphasizing quality and care above all else.
A more active and adventurous wine tour awaits an hour south in Besigheim, where small groups enjoy a covered wagon tour (think: a tractor-pulled, open-air bus) through one of Germany’s most scenic wine towns. One of the region’s largest winemakers, Felsengartenkellerei, hosts mobile tastings while slow-cruising area vineyards and parks.
The tour ends near the base of the hill leading to Sepulchral chapel Württemberg, the burial chamber/mausoleum King Wilhelm I built for his wife Katharina, who died young in 1819. The monument is inspired by the ancient Pantheon in Rome and Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda and is a study in classic architecture. Sweeping vistas of Stuttgart and the Neckar Valley below are visually arresting.
Nearby Restaurant Hirsch offers traditional Swabian fare. Can’t decide? Get a sampler plate with pork cheeks, spaetzle and maultaschen, a ravioli filled with spiced beef, pork, or vegetables and cheese.
Esslingen is a tiny village that packs a mighty touring wallop, as this medieval wine-country town was spared during WWII bombings. There are many fine examples of half-timbered houses, a massive Gothic cathedral, cobbled streets and winding canals. The city is home to Kessler, the oldest producer of sparkling wine in Germany. Cellar tours include tastings and insight into the bottle-fermentation process that gives these sparklers their pop.
The city is far from undiscovered with 2 million visitors annually, though many come late in the season for the widely recognized Christmas markets. Marvel at the Church of St. Dionys, Old Town City Hall and the old Dominican Monastery Church with a licensed guide like Tom Hale of Esslingen City Tours to get the full backstory of this storied village.
Find a strategic and comfortable home base in Old Town Heidelberg at the Hip Hotel. Each room in this boutique property is named and styled after a global city like Paris, Gothenburg, Marrakech or Zermatt, and the hotel offers easy access to the best of the city and beyond. Stuttgart’s Park Inn by Radisson is in the heart of the city, central to major transportation hubs for navigating the region. SP