This article covers Cologne, Mainz, and a number of other sights in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.
Exploring the Rhine
The stretch of the Rhine from Mainz to Koblenz is the heart of the river that Germans regard as “theirs” (even though it ultimately flows through four other countries). The vistas here are breathtaking, the food and wine are great, and there are many attractive destinations.
Taking a boat trip ♥♥♥ is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of a stay in the area. Köln-Düsseldorf company runs regular service in both directions. You will be able to see most of the sights on both banks of the river, many of them from the only perspective that lets you fully appreciate them: the middle-of-the-river fortress of Pfalzgrafenstein or the menacing Loreley Rock can hardly be experienced to a similar effect any other way. The boat stops at a number of villages along the river, allowing you to see their quays up close as well. There is a limited commentary on the sights in several languages. Food and drink service is available on board.
Note that if you choose to ride on the boat the entire length of the stretch from Mainz to Koblenz and back, you will need to plan on spending the entire day on this activity. The most sights-packed part of the river – between Bingen and Boppard – is about two and a half hours sailing down the river. Driving to Bingen, leaving the car there, getting on a boat to Boppard, then returning to Bingen by train and further exploring the river banks by car is the way to go, in my opinion.
If you do include driving in your explorations, be aware that between Mainz and Koblenz, the only way to cross the river is by an occasional ferry. Most of the main sights, though, are located on the left bank.
Bacharach ♥♥ is one of the most well-known towns on the Rhine, attracting a fair share of tourists. Its core has a picturesque complex of historic buildings, as well as fortified town walls and a couple of churches. Burg Stahleck, towering over the town, is now a youth hostel and likely not worth a sightseeing visit.
St Goar ♥ has a pretty waterfront and a number of interesting little artisan shops. Visiting a cuckoo-clocks shop is akin to stepping into a clock museum of sorts. Wine and liquor tastings are widely offered in shops that sell local products (not only in St Goar but in other places as well).
Burg Rheinstein ♥♥, not far from Bingen, is an imposing and well-preserved 13th-century castle. While never destroyed by any attack, it was in a state of general decay by the 19th century, when a new royal owner rebuilt it. In recent years, the castle has been again caringly restored and boasts a lot of interesting features from ages past. There are also unparalleled views of the river and surrounding hills from the castle’s terraces.
Boppard is one of the larger towns in this part of the river, most famous for its Roman military camp remains. Lingering in its Medieval Marktplatz, adorned with an unusual fountain, is a great way to bide the time if you are waiting for the next train back to Bingen.
Other castles on the river that may warrant interest are Burg Sooneck, Marksburg, and Stolzenfels (the last two further downriver beyond Boppard).
Koblenz, of course, should be considered a target for a visit. Plus, there are interesting nearby destinations that are not technically part of Rheintal: Trier, Mosel river valley, and the German Wine Road.
Kölner Dom ♥♥♥ is one of the grandest cathedrals in the world, having had the distinction of being the tallest building in the world in the last part of the 19th century. It is a true architectural masterpiece, worth the visit to the town all by itself, and it boasts one of the most vivid stained glass window collections anywhere. The treasury deserves a look, but you would be wise to skip going up the cathedral tower: the climb is long, laborious, and rather uninspiring, and the top view is partially obstructed, never mind that Cologne’s roofline is hardly a matter of awe.
The other architectural attractions of the city are twelve beautiful Romanesque churches, all located within medieval city wall boundaries. The ones most prominently recommended by tour books are Groß St Martin, St Pantaleon, St Aposteln, St Gereon, but each one of the twelve reputedly has something to offer.
There are also a few museums, most notably Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Imhoff-Stollwerck-Museum (also known as Chokoladenmuseum).
Köln was decimated during the Second World War and rebuilt in a way that is largely unremarkable. The central part of the city, with its pedestrianized shopping segments, is always booming and full of people – for instance, check out the shopping area of Schildersgasse and Hohestraße. There are also quiet and attractive pockets. On balance, you can find enough sights to support more than a short visit, but in most cases, you will not linger in Köln, unless you come for Ash Wednesday carnival or for Christmas markets.
If you do come in December and aim to tour Christmas fairs ♥♥♥, you will certainly be rewarded. While many towns in Germany are renowned for their seasonal fairs, Köln is ahead of the pack in that area, hosting several different markets in various parts of town. Wooden stalls sell all kinds of souvenirs, trinkets, jewelry, craftwork, toys, clothes, etc. Food stalls interspersed in between vend different combinations of sausages, potato pancakes, waffles, crèpes, pizza, ethnic dishes to satisfy any hunger. Right by food stalls are the ones vending hot fortified wine, glühwein, dispensed in souvenir clay mugs specific to each particular market (you can choose to return your mug for a refund, but very few people – except those who have more than one go at a time – do). There are carousels for the kids, occasional musical performances, and interesting stuff on display to occupy your attention for hours.
The options include Dom market ♥♥♥, seemingly the biggest and the busiest of them all right by the Cathedral; Rudolfplatz market ♥♥♥, which is conversely the smallest, best decorated, and enjoying the charming location in front of the old city gate, Nahnentorburg; the Medieval market ♥♥♥ by the Chokoladenmuseum, which is the only one requiring an entrance fee, full of artisan stalls exhibiting traditional ways of making things, complimented by street performers of the yesteryear kind. The other major squares – Neumarkt ♥♥, Heumarkt ♥, Alter Markt ♥ – all offer interesting browsing possibilities if not exactly any distinction in appearance or ambiance. Nonetheless, you will not be disappointed to stroll around, and walking from one fair to another along streets that are decorated more festively than in many other parts of Europe is certainly a treat.
The capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, Mainz is a lively town with several interesting attractions located in a compact area.
The foremost of them is the resplendent Mainzer Dom ♥♥♥, one of only three Romanesque imperial cathedrals to survive almost intact from the 11th-13th centuries until this day. The red-brick building is a stunningly impressive sight. The interior holds a number of fine monuments, even though it leaves a somewhat gloomy-Medieval impression.
The main squares of the town, Markt ♥ and Gutenbergplatz are cheerful and pleasant, especially on market days, surrounded by pretty and well-restored houses.
Similar to Köln, Mainz suffered a lot of damage in World War II, so there are not too many areas of town that retain a pre-modern look and feel. One such little corner is Kirschgarten ♥, a street with historic half-timbered houses dating from the 16th-18th centuries.
Kirche St Stephan ♥ boasts psychedelic stained-glass windows by Chagall. There are many other interesting interior features in this church for those so inclined.
The city is the birthplace of the inventor of the printing press Johannes Gutenberg; Gutenberg Museum is one of the attractions worth considering. Another may be the museum of Roman and German history at the beautiful Baroque Kurfürtsliches Schloss.
One place deserving of a recommendation is Gebert’s Weinstuben (on Fraulobstraße near the river), offering an excellent menu of local specialties.