See Germany’s Historical Sites
Germany has a history dating back thousands of years, and its place at the heart of Europe meant it was rarely without disruption and turbulence. Here’s the best way to take in a potted history of Germany on your gap year.
The history of Germany is long and storied, but in terms of visiting, its Middle-Age heritage is perhaps the place to start. There are many castles in Germany to visit, from ruins to carefully preserved castles, and cities still awash with the influence of the Roman Empire.
It’s become a lazy trend to compare Germany’s castles to those commonly seen in Disney movies, but it isn’t difficult to see why. The 1000 year old Reichsburg Castle in Cochem, west Germany, sits on a tree-covered hill over a river; Lichenstein Castle is far newer but hosts a collection of historic weapons and armour; the hunchbacked Burg Eltz Castle (seen above) has survived untouched by war since the 12th century, and Neuschwanstein Castle, to bring us full circle, is so picturesque it inspired the castle in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
It isn’t just castles. You can also visit Rothenburg, situated between Munich and Frankfurt, the country’s best-preserved medieval walled city. There are the cobbles and ramparts and clock towers you would expect, none of which are dimmed by the kitschy concessions to tourism. There are walking tours and sightseeing routes, but spend the night and you’ll get a real sense of the history of this place.
From Rothenburg you can also walk through the Tauber Valley and reach the smaller village of Detwang, which is even older than Rothenburg and has a medieval church well worth the walk.
The best way to appreciate the Prussian history of this part of Europe, and the tale it tells of shifting influence and power, is to visit Potsdam to the southwest of Berlin. It was the residence of the Prussian kings and the German Kaiser until the end of WWI in 1918.
The main attractions are the numerous palaces; Sanssouci Palace housed the Prussian royal and German imperial family; The New Palace was finished in 1769 to celebrate the end of the Seven Years’ War, from which Prussia emerged victorious, and boasts over 200 rooms and 400 decorative statues; The Charlottenhof Palace, a neoclassical beauty built in 1826.
The splendour of this era of the region is made evident in walking around Potsdam, which also has three ornate gates from the original city wall still intact. There’s a market square, St. Nicholas’ Church, and the red-brick Dutch Quarter. There’s a huge amount to see, and there are few better places to learn about this period of history.
World War I & II history
The majority of German military cemeteries aren’t actually in Germany itself, but instead closer to the former battlefields in France and Belgium, or even further afield, and post-World War II most signs of the Nazis were quickly wiped away.
You can visit a number of former concentration camps in Germany, the most prominent of which are Dachau, which now contains a number of religious memorials, and Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony, which today has a memorial and exhibition hall.
You can also visit Nuremberg in central Germany and visit the Nazi party rally grounds, or Colditz Castle near Leipzig, a famous prisoner-of-war camp during both World Wars.
Cold War history
Following World War II, capital city Berlin was partitioned between East and West, and eventually the Berlin Wall was built to divide it completely. Barely any of the wall remains today, and what’s there is commonly fragmentary and spread across the city. The longest surviving stretch of wall is on the banks of the River Spree in Friedrichshain. Further along at Friedrichstrasse is the famous Checkpoint Charlie crossing point, where there’s a great exhibition at the Mauermuseum.
There’s also an East German border watchtower at Potsdamer Platz, and Bernauer Strasse has a Berlin Wall Memorial built on a stretch of ground that used to be part of the death strip, laden with mines, tripwires, and guard dogs.
More German History
For more on the history of Germany check out our Complete Guide to Germany article, which has pretty much everything you could ever need to know.