The 10 best train journeys in Germany – where unlimited travel costs just £1.40 a day
Travelling by train is the best way to discover Germany – its integrated rail network criss-crosses the country, connecting both big cities and remote villages, traversing some stunning scenery along the way. And this year it’s getting even better. Tickets on Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national rail operator, have always been good value, but soon they will be virtually giving them away.
From May 1, Deutsche Bahn is launching a €49-a-month (£43) pass that offers unlimited travel on the rail network, and it’s available to anyone, including foreign visitors. It follows a successful trail last summer when the same passes were offered for €9, prompting a surge in rail travel across the country. While the fee has increased significantly, the passes will be permanent fixtures and still provide incredible value, working out at around £1.40 a day. That won’t get you very far on Britain’s costly rail network.
The only restriction is that the tickets aren’t valid for the faster intercity services – trains marked ICE, IC and EC on German timetables – just regional trains (RB and RE). However, if you’re here on holiday this isn’t such a bother. Germany’s regional trains aren’t quite as quick, but they often travel the more scenic routes, and they’ll get you anywhere you want to go (a lot of the most picturesque places in Germany aren’t accessible via intercity). Furthermore, you can pop over to Switzerland or Austria on Deutsche Bahn trains that run to Basel, Salzburg and elsewhere.
This ticket also works on trams and buses, plus U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains (urban underground and overground), giving you the freedom to roam around all the big German cities for free. It’s a fantastic way to explore this diverse and complex country. You’re not tied to an itinerary – you can make it up as you go along. It’s like a mini Interrail ticket (but a lot cheaper). The seats are comfy, the staff friendly and efficient, and although the trains don’t always run on time I’ve found them a lot more reliable than those in Britain.
Passengers will be able to buy the passes online at bahn.com or via the DB Navigator app from April. Note that they will cover a single calendar month, so a trip that straddles May and June, for example, will need two tickets.
So where to go? Well, you’re bound to make your own discoveries, but to get you started here are my top 10 German railway journeys.
Aachen to Cologne
If you want to travel to Germany by train, the best route is on the Eurostar to Brussels and then on a Deutsche Bahn train to Cologne via Liege (look out for its futuristic train station, built by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava). Travelling this route, through the industrial heartland of Belgium, Aachen is the first German city you come to.
Most people pass straight through without stopping, but it’s well worth breaking your journey here, to see its intricate cathedral and robust Rathaus, the remnants of the palace from which Emperor Charlemagne once ruled most of Europe. Aachen is renowned for its thermal springs. You can bathe in this pongy mineral water, which feels divine, or even drink it, if you’re feeling brave (locals swear it’s good for you but be warned: it tastes disgusting). Stay at the hip Ruby Ella Hotel & Bar (0049 221 9999 3640; ruby-hotels.com), which has spacious lofts from around £80 per night.
Freiburg to Baden-Baden
Germany’s Black Forest, aka the Schwarzwald, has always been a big draw for tourists, but it’s easy to dodge the crowds. Freiburg is the best starting point. A lively university town with the sunniest weather in Germany, it’s a great base for hikers and an attractive place to spend a few days.
From here it’s half an hour on a local train to the hilltop lake of Titisee or an hour and a half to Baden-Baden, Germany’s grandest spa town (the line runs between the wooded hills of the Schwarzwald and the mighty River Rhine). Here you’ll find the world’s most beautiful casino (according to Marlene Dietrich) and a seductive array of thermal baths. Stay at the Maison Messmer (0049 7221 30120; hommage-hotels.com), a luxurious five-star hotel, a striking mix of old and new, with pool and spa. Doubles from around £200.
Berlin to Dessau
Berlin is a magnet for international travellers, but most visitors barely stray beyond the city limits. They don’t know what they’re missing. Shut off behind the Iron Curtain for 40 years, Berlin’s eerie hinterland is easily accessible by train, yet it still feels like another world. The countryside is flat and undistinguished. What makes the journey really interesting is passing through old East German towns that still bear the scars of Communism, silent relics of a bygone age.
A trip to Dessau, home of the Bauhaus movement, which revolutionised modern architecture, takes you to a place where most coach parties never venture. The city centre is a bit rundown, but the Bauhaus buildings are spectacular and most are open to the public. Stay at Forsthaus Leiner Berg (0163 7444135, leinerberg.de), a rustic chalet with simple double rooms with a hearty buffet breakfast from £40 per night.
Leipzig to Erfurt
During the days of the East German ‘Democratic’ Republic, Leipzig was a bleak rustbelt city, but since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down it’s enjoyed a remarkable renaissance. Today, it’s one of the most dynamic cities in the former GDR. The hometown of Bach and Mendelssohn, it’s a classical music hotspot, and the palatial Hauptbahnhof (main station) is an attraction in its own right.
Take the train to Erfurt, a historic city which escaped the worst of the Second World War, and the Communist tyranny that followed. The journey takes you through Thuringia, the historic heart of Germany, passing through Weimar, Germany’s cultural capital, en route. Make sure you visit the Wartburg, the hilltop castle where Martin Luther hid from his oppressors, and translated the Bible into German. Stay in the middle of Erfurt’s medieval Altstadt at the four-star Hotel Krämerbrücke (0049 361 674 00; hotel-kraemerbruecke.de). Doubles from around £155.
Cologne to Mainz
Business travellers usually take the fast intercity train from Cologne to Mainz, a journey of just two hours. The regional train takes three, but it follows a far more dramatic route. Unlike the intercity train it hugs the bank of the Rhine, snaking through a deep gorge guarded by ruined castles, and the stretch between Boppard and Bingen is the most arresting part of the entire river.
Before you board the train in Cologne, take time to visit the magnificent cathedral, which towers over the station, and break your journey in Koblenz, a bustling little city where the Rhine meets the Moselle. Stay at Me and All (0049 6131 894 460; mainz.meandallhotels.com), a groovy modern high-rise hotel, with doubles including breakfast from around £100.
Dresden to Meissen
Reduced to rubble by the RAF in 1945 and miraculously restored since reunification, Dresden is now besieged by sightseers, but few of them go beyond the baroque Altstadt (old town). In fact, the surrounding countryside, beloved by landscape painters for centuries, is a big part of Dresden’s appeal, and it’s easy to reach by train. Within a few miles of the city limits, you’re out into vineyards.
Half an hour away is Meissen, where they make the eponymous porcelain, a spectacular medieval citadel which came through the war virtually unscathed. Break your journey at Radebeul and board a steam train to Moritzburg, a grandiose hunting lodge built by Dresden’s despotic ruler, Augustus the Strong. Stay at the smart four-star Dorint Parkhotel Meissen (0049 3521 72250; dorint.com), on the bank of the River Elbe, overlooking the castle and the cathedral. Doubles from £80.
Frankfurt to Heidelberg
Frankfurt has a reputation as a boring business destination, but that’s actually a bit unfair. Its reconstructed Altstadt is a pleasant place to wander, and its “Museum Mile” in leafy Sachsenhausen has some of Germany’s finest museums.
By train it’s about an hour and a half to Heidelberg, Germany’s most romantic city (the journey through industrial Darmstadt and into the Neckar Valley, is sublime). Built of pink sandstone, surrounded by wooded hills, you can see why generations of visitors have fallen in love with Heidelberg, most notably Mark Twain. Walk along the Philosopher’s Way for the best views of the town below. Stay at Arthotel Heidelberg (0049 6221 650 060; arthotel.de), a stylish modern hotel within an antique building in the historic Altstadt. Doubles from around £135.
Lübeck to Binz
Most visitors to Germany never go anywhere near the German seaside, but its Baltic Coast boasts hundreds of miles of sandy shoreline, and dozens of charming seaside towns. The train trundles along the coast, passing through woods and meadows, handsome Hanseatic ports and old-fashioned beach resorts: the Hanseatic ports of Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund are all well worth a visit; Heiligendamm and Kühlungsborn are two of the nicest seaside towns.
The train terminates in Binz, a jolly bucket-and-spade resort on Germany’s largest island, Rügen. Rügen is a wonderful place for a summer holiday, with bewitching forests, vertiginous chalk cliffs and some of Germany’s best beaches. Stay at the palatial Travel Charme Kurhaus Binz (0049 30 42 43 96 50; travelcharme.com), in a prime spot on the seafront. Doubles from £250.
Munich to Murnau and Oberammergau
Munich is a fascinating city, full of things to see and do, and one of the things that makes it so special is its proximity to proper countryside. A local train from the Hauptbahnhof runs alongside the Starnbergersee, one of Bavaria’s many lovely lakes, and takes just 55 minutes to reach Murnau, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Change trains here and take an hour or two to visit the atmospheric little Schlossmuseum, with its superb collection of German Expressionist paintings.
From here it’s 40 minutes along a bucolic single-track branch line to Oberammergau, famous for its archaic Passion Play. Stay at the Hotel Post (0049 8841 48780; hotel-post.murnau.de), a homely hotel on Murnau’s cosy cobbled high street. Doubles from £135, including breakfast.
Munich to Oberstaufen and Lindau
The Regionalbahn from Munich climbs up to the pretty Alpine town of Oberstaufen and then winds down through the rolling hills and lush green fields of the Allgäu, ending up in Lindau, a quaint little town on an island on Lake Constance, aka the Bodensee, one of Europe’s largest lakes.
From here you can catch a ferry to Bregenz, in Austria, to Rorschach or Romanshorn in Switzerland, or along the northern shore via Friedrichshafen to Konstanz, the ancient port that gives this vast lake its English name. Stay at the elegant Bayerischer Hof (0049 8382 9150; bayerischerhof-lindau.de), in a superb location overlooking the harbour and the lake. Doubles from £154.
How to do it
The tickets will be available from the Deutsche Bahn website (bahn.com) in April, for travel from May. This site is also the best place for timetable information. Ticking the “local transport only” box rather than “show fastest connections” will give you a list of €49 ticket trains.
You will also be able to buy a €49 pass from a ticket machine at any German train station, or over the counter in mainline stations. Each ticket is valid for one calendar month, so if your trip straddles two calendar months, you’ll need two tickets.
Food on intercity German trains is good quality and good value, but on regional trains even buffet trolleys are fairly rare. Best to stock up on drinks and snacks at the station. All but the smallest stations boast a delicious array of bakeries and Imbiss (German fast food) stalls.
Children aged six-14 each require their own ticket. Children under six travel free. If you’re a cyclist, you’ll need a separate ticket for your bike. Since space for bikes is limited, it’s often easier to hire a bicycle at your destination.
Reservations aren’t required on regional trains, and although it’s sometimes possible to reserve a seat it’s usually not necessary. A few of the shorter commuter routes get crowded at peak times, but on longer journeys you can almost always find a seat. A lot of the trains are double-deckers, which provides more room – and super views.
For information on train travel in Germany, see germany.travel. See more amazing places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in Germany.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.