For your first visit you need at least a full day to explore a few villages and castles. Add more time for bigger towns (e.g., Mainz) and potential trips to Moseltal or Trier.
Plan to stick to the left bank if you are driving; most of the main attractions are on this side, and there are only a couple of places to cross the river, far apart from one another.
Worthy destinations: Mainz; Bacharach; St Goar; Burg Rheinstein.
Left for another visit: Koblenz; Maria Laach.
Also nearby: Trier; Mosel Valley; Deutche Weinstraße.
Last visit: May 2005.
The stretch of 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.
We only spent a couple of days in the area, exploring Mainz on the first day and then traveling along the river back and forth between Bingen and Boppard, the most picturesque stretch. We left Koblenz to future visits, and also did not find time to explore some of the nearby destinations that are not technically part of Rheintal (Trier, Mosel river valley, German Wine Road). Add in Köln not too far farther downriver, and you can easily find things to do in this region for a whole week.
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 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.
Kirche St Stephan ♥ boasts psychedelic stained-glass windows by Chagall. There are many other interesting interior features in this church for those so inclined.
Mainz suffered a lot of damage in the World War II, so there are few areas of town that retain pre-modern look and feel. One such little corner is Kirschgarten ♥, a street with historic half-timbered houses dating from 16th-18th centuries.
The main squares of the town, Markt ♥ and Gutenbergplatz are cheerful and pleasant, especially during markets, surrounded by pretty and well-restored houses. The city is the birthplace of the inventor of the printing press Johannes Gutenberg; Gutenberg-Museum is one of the attractions that we left aside. We also only looked from the outside at the Baroque Kurfürtsliches Schloss which is home to a museum of Roman and German history.
Places to Eat
We read a lot of good reviews on Gebert’s Weinstuben ♥♥, located on Fraulobstraße near the river. It did not disappoint. Excellent food, fantastic riesling. Service on the glacial side, but that was a very small negative. No English menus and the server did not speak any English either, so we had to make do with a phrasebook. Our damage: €65 with a bottle of wine. Last visit: Spring 2005.
We also ate at a TGIF-like Maredo on Gutenbergplatz. This South-American-flavored chain steakhouse was an alternative to a formal restaurant, and at €30 for a dinner for two (including beers and dessert) it was quite nice.
Rhine boat trip
Taking a boat trip on the Rhine ♥♥♥ 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 viewed 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 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. We opted for driving to Bingen, taking the boat from there to Boppard, a two-and-a-half-hours trip that takes you through the most sights-packed part of the river, and then returning to Bingen by train after strolling through Boppard for a bit.
Villages and sights on the Rhine
Bacharach ♥♥ is one of the most well-known towns on the Rhine, attracting a fair share of tourists. Its core has a unique complex of historic buildings, including a famous beautiful half-timbered corner, as well as fortified town walls and a couple of churches. Burg Stahleck, towering over the town, is now a youth hostel and likely is not worth a sightseeing visit.
St Goar ♥ has a pretty waterfront and a number of interesting little shops. One of them, for instance, sells all kinds of elaborate cuckoo clocks – stepping inside is akin to visiting some sort of a museum of clocks. Wine and liquor tasting is 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 the 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 by its Roman military camp remains. We did not have it in our plans to tour that, instead spending an hour or so idly walking around town center and lingering in its Medieval Marktplatz, with an unusual fountain.
Other castles on the river that may warrant interest are Burg Sooneck, Marksburg and Stolzenfels (the last two further downriver beyond Boppard), which we decided to set aside.
For in-depth exploration of the area, the car is essential, but be forewarned: From Mainz all the way to 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.
Taking a boat in one direction for an “overview”, returning by train, and then later using your car for visiting your preferred sights is the way to go.