The first time I visited Germany’s Sächsiche Schweiz (‘Saxony Switzerland’) – officially called the Saxon-Bohemian Switzerland National Park Region – was around a decade ago, by car.
Having already explored various parts of the Bavarian Alps, which are generally considered the finest peaks Germany has to offer, my expectations admittedly weren’t too high. But when we arrived and stood at the park’s Bastei (‘bastion’), a gorgeous assembly of limestone rocks connected by an old stone bridge, which overlook the dreamy expanses of the Elbe valley below, I was totally bowled over.
I have returned to the park several times since, every couple of years or so, usually in spring or autumn when it’s a little cooler, and always return feeling happier and somehow fulfilled. In a way, the park has become something of a natural antidote to the gradual, everyday grind of life in my adopted hometown of Berlin. Although there are green spaces (and lakes) aplenty in the Hauptstadt and the pleasant surrounding region of Brandenburg, many of them closer, they just don’t quite match the majesty and elevation of losing oneself in the mountains.
It takes just two or three hours by car or train – or a very lovely couple of days on a bike along the Elbe river from Dresden – to reach the park from Berlin, though it’s also easily accessible from the south and from the Czech side too, since it straddles the border. There’s no official entry point: you can just rock up at any of the cute sleepy towns at the foot of the park – Rathen, Königstein, Bad Schandau, Pirna – and get directly stuck into one of the 800-miles or so of walking trails, from easy strolls to multi-day hikes, that crisscross the park’s official 36 square-mile terrain.
Although the park was only officially established in 1990, its name dates back to the 18th century when a pair of Swiss traveller-artists explored – and painted – the mountains, which reminded them of home. The soaring sandstone formations that give the area its distinctive character, in the shape of idiosyncratic formations, table mountains, valleys, gorges and cliffs, was once the bed of a Cretaceous sea, around a hundred million years ago.
The more you push into the park, the more you discover. My favourite trail, the Malerwag or Painters’ Way, is also named after the two Swiss painters, as well as a reference to successive artists who also took inspiration from the area. It officially takes eight days, in stages of 10–15km (approximataely 6-9 miles), though I’ve done it in various one-two days stages, including taking on some stages twice.
The advantage of these longer hikes is that you really get a deeper sense of the park and what it has to offer: aside from the otherwordly formations (little wonder it’s been used as a film set for movies such as Cloud Atlas and The Grand Budapest Hotel), there are remains of old castles and fortresses – Königstein Fortress, one of the main sights along with the Bastei, was built in the 16th century on the site of a medieval castle, and is set on a hill with spectacular views – baroque gardens, mountain inns that provide refreshments (usually tasty German pilsners and hearty traditional fare like schnitzel and spätzle) and overnight accommodation, mills and farms. It’s also possible to catch glimpses of eagle owls, otters and dormice amongst the park’s ferns, lichens and mosses.
Of course it’s possible to just come and see the key landmarks without exerting oneself on a hike. It’s even possible to take a historic steam-boat ride on the Elbe and enjoy the park from ground level, take a ride on the historic Kirnitzschtalbahn cable car (which runs largely on solar power), enjoy the ‘Liquid Sound’ experience – from whale sounds to club nights – at Bad Schandau’s Toskana Therme – or just browse the shops, cafés and restaurants in the region’s atmospheric towns, many of which are connected by public transport.\
There are some great places to stay too. In Bad Schandau, choose from the pretty and colourful Villa Waldfrieden, the eco-friendly Helvetia in the same town, or the quaint Grundmühle. Or boutique fans might enjoy Laurichhof in Pirna. Discover more amazing places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in Germany.
Can I go to Germany?
From August 8, Germany will join the UK's green list. People coming from green list countries have to provide a negative Covid test within 72 hours of travelling home, and then pay for a PCR test on or before their second day back in the UK.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has also lifted its blanket advice against all but essential travel to Germany.
Germany lifted its ban on passengers from the UK on July 7. The UK is now classified as a "high-incidence area," which means "you may enter Germany from the UK for any travel purpose if you are fully vaccinated."
Are flights operating?
Yes, but in limited numbers. Currently, Lufthansa and Air Canada are running flights to limited destinations from Heathrow, including Frankfurt and Dusseldorf.