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4 Lesser-Known German Towns and Villages Worth Exploring

Your road map to picturesque and charming medieval towns and small cities across central Germany.

U.S. News & World Report

4 Lesser-Known German Towns and Villages Worth Exploring

Bridge Kramerbrucke in Erfurt, Thuringia, Germany

Forgo world-renowned cities for these often-overlooked small towns and villages.(Getty Images)

In the former East Germany, picturesque medieval villages, storybook castles and palaces, stunning landscapes with forests, parks and gardens and a thousand-year history beckon. While most Americans may remember East Germany for its association with World War II and Communism, this part of Europe is the birthplace of some of the world's most significant cultural, art, musical and architectural contributions.

Follow the road less traveled from the town of Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt to Eisenach in Thuringia. This region in Germany, also known as Luther Country, is home to renowned composers such as Bach, Brahms, Liszt and Wagner and the poets Goethe and Schiller, the Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder and the world-famous Bauhaus school of design.

There's no better time to visit these lesser-known towns than in 2017. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther not only altered the course of religion when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, but also changed mankind forever with a cultural revolution and a focus on education and promoting the self-worth of the individual in society. With this quincentenary celebration, these smaller towns and cities underwent significant renovations, added new infrastructure and created new exhibits and museums. Today, visitors can attend special festivals and events through the end of the year. Plus, the strong value of the U.S. dollar against the euro makes now an especially affordable and appealing time to plan a trip to these intriguing destinations across Germany.

Wittenberg

Situated on the Elbe River, Wittenberg is a one-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Berlin. Plan to spend a day in this charming and well-preserved medieval town. Spared from much of the damage of World War II, Wittenberg's original buildings and churches remain today. Walk the cobblestone streets lined with 16th-century houses and the pedestrian-only Collegienstrasse and Schlossstrasse, visit the market square, Martin Luther's former home and museum, Lucas Cranach's home and art studio, the famous Castle Church and the Philipp Melanchthon House. New for this year is Luther 1517, a 360-degree panorama artwork created by internationally renowned artist and architect Yadegar Asisi.

Regional cuisine, which includes traditional bratwurst, pork and sauerkraut, can be found on many menus, especially in hearty portions at the Brauhaus Wittenberg. Another local favorite is Zum Schwarzen Bar. Quaint and cozy, this wood-paneled restaurant with a rustic atmosphere is known for its unique potato-based dishes served in cast-iron pans. Be sure to try the local wines on the menu, such as a dry or traditional late harvest Riesling. After dinner, retire to the Luther-Hotel Wittenberg, a lovely hotel centrally located in the town center.

Erfurt

Approximately 130 miles southeast of Wittenberg is Erfurt. With its charming medieval town center, old quarter, colorful buildings, narrow cobblestone alleyways and small waterways along the Gera River as well as parks winding throughout the town, it's a picturesque base from which to explore the beautiful Thuringia region and countryside.

Begin your tour on the Erfurt electric tramway, which has been making its way around the city since 1894. First, stop at the most notable landmark situated high above the market square, the Mariendom (Cathedral of The Blessed Virgin Mary) and the Severikirche (St. Severus Church). These two structures showcase magnificent 13th- and 14th-century German Gothic architecture and dominate the city's skyline. The market square also hosts one of the largest and most festive European markets during the Christmas season.

The Petersburg Citadel and its underground passageways, built between 1664 and 1701, is the only baroque town fortress in central Europe that's been extensively preserved. Tour the town hall on Fischmarkt Square with its neo-Gothic design and the Augustinian monastery where Luther took his vows to become a monk, as well as the Old Synagogue, located in Waagegasse. Home to one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe and dating back to 1100, this is the oldest and best-preserved synagogue in Europe.

A visit to Merchant's Bridge is not-to-be-missed. Reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, this arched stone bridge was built in 1325 over the Gera River. Bustling with pedestrians, it's lined with medieval houses and restaurants, shops selling regional wines, specialty foods and local products, and one of the best (and busiest) ice cream and chocolate shops in town, Eiskrämer.

At the end of the day, check into Hotel Zumnorde. Situated in the city center, the hotel offers an excellent location to walk the city and enjoy the parks, waterways and beautiful scenery of Erfurt.

Weimar

Take a short half-hour trip from Erfurt to Weimar, a small town with a resilient past. Tour the Goethe National Museum with the writer's private library and art as well as Shillerhaus, the home of Germany's famous playwright. Weimar also has several art museums and one of the world's most significant and historic libraries, the Herzog Anna Amalia Bibliothek, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which houses an astounding collection of rare books. Weimar will also be home to the new Bauhaus Museum when it opens in 2019, celebrating its centennial.

Eisenach

About an hour's drive west of Erfurt sits the town of Eisenach, the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach and home to the Bachhaus, a museum dedicated to the famous composer. Take a walk through the old town to follow in Martin Luther's footsteps from where he attended school to the church where he sang as a choirboy at Church St. Georgen, and finally to Wartburg Castle, where he was hidden for 300 days in 1522, and during that time, translated the New Testament from Latin to German, making it accessible to the average citizen.

Wartburg Castle is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved castles in Europe. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the castle is nestled in the Thuringian Forest, sitting high above the town of Eisenach on a rock plateau. This majestic castle dates back to 1067 and exhibits the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Historicist styles of German architecture.

For a medieval dining experience, make reservations for the Luther-themed "medieval feast" at Lutherstuben in Hotel Eisenacher Hof. A bit touristy but fun, this feast offers many courses, ensuring you won't leave hungry. And for a special evening, book a table at Weinrestaurant Turmschänke in the tower gate at Nicolai Centre, where regional dishes are artfully prepared. At the end of a long day of sightseeing, return to the conveniently located and elegant Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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