Our current home of Berlin and the surrounding areas of northern Germany may not compare to Canada when it comes to secluded lakes for canoe trips or wild mountains for epic hikes.
But what Germany does have is excellent infrastructure for bicycle touring, fantastic buildings and artifacts from centuries of human settlement, and lovely slices of forests, skies, and rivers to enjoy, all extremely accessible with just a bicycle and a train ticket.
So, taking a “when in Rome” attitude – and considering that we have a toddler in tow now – we dedicated the last summer almost exclusively to bicycle touring in (or near) Germany.
While things started off a little slow and cautiously at the beginning of the summer, with a 35 km day being enough for us to tackle, by the end of the summer we were knocking off 70 km days and could have even kept going! And best of all, we saw so many interesting and beautiful places along the way. See some pictures and learn about our trips through:
- The Havel Radweg, an easy and nature-filled cycling route close to Berlin
- Alsace, with lovely little villages, tasty Flammkuchen, and local wine
- The Elbe Radweg, following a lovely river through stunning nature and historic centres
The Havel Radweg
Our summer began with the Havel Radweg, a 371km bicycle route following the Havel River from its source in the lake country of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany to where it drains into the river Elbe not too far from Berlin. One key advantage of the route is that you’re never that far from Berlin, which was a key consideration for us as we ventured out on our first multi-day bicycle trip with a toddler. In case things went south, we knew we were always a relatively quick train ride from home.
We didn’t quite start from the very start of the route, nor did we make it all the way to the end. We treated our first tour of the season as more of a shakedown cruise, taking things slow and relaxed as we casually cruised (mostly) downhill, averaging about 45km per day.
The route was well-marked and surprisingly secluded. The path was mostly excellent, though there were a few stretches that were sandy and required some intense focus or even walking our bicycles, especially as taking a spill with a toddler aboard was not an option.
We pedaled past countless lakes and swimming spots that would have been extremely inviting had it been a little later in the summer, through dark and quiet forests with seemingly endless and excellently paved bicycle paths, and past open fields with birds soaring above. The Havel itself accompanied us at times too, with everything from tiny motorboats to giant house boats ambling their way along beside us, though sometimes it was hard to tell what was the river and what were simply lakes that may or may not have been connected to it.
Winding through some of the least densely-populated areas of Germany, it also struck us just how secluded the route was, especially in early summer. Never before have we felt this solitary in a country that is about 60 times more densely populated than Canada.
We were so busy simply enjoying our foray into nature that we mostly forgot to take any pictures… although we did remember to bring out the camera while enjoying some sausages, radler, and the ruins of an abandoned medieval monastery at Himmelpfort, which was one of the most memorable highlights of the trip aside from the opportunity to simply disconnect and enjoy the solitude.
As we didn’t know if we would even make it a single night when factoring in the toddler factor, we didn’t make any reservations for accommodation along the way. We were easily able to find somewhere to stay almost every night, except for a surprise at the end of the day in Brandenburg an der Havel, where everything was surprisingly booked up in the entire town. It marked the end of our trip along the Havel… but we preferred everything before Oranienburg/Berlin anyways and the chance it gave us to really enjoy a bit of peace, quiet, and relaxation as we pedaled along.
And the toddler factor? Our kiddo was a champ! So long as she got a few decent breaks to stretch her legs and explore some of the playgrounds along the way, she was happy and cooperative, and we think she had a great time too!
Planning your bicycle trip
Setting a route
For trips in Germany, we have found Komoot to be excellent both for finding a potential trip, as well as for planning it. It’s great for both for casual navigation through the city to optimize your route for surface type, traffic, etc., as well as for multi-day bike trips. And although we often find ways to save money when we travel, the paid subscription for access to all of their maps is something we definitely do not regret.
In most cases, you can get to your starting destination using trains. Most trains in Germany have some sort of option to bring along a bicycle, but we recommend getting on a stop before major stations to ensure you snag a bicycle spot, and booking far in advance if you’re taking an intercity train. The same goes for your way back home.
To keep a high degree of flexibility just in case our daughter decided to throw a wrench in our bicycle gears, we usually didn’t make any reservations. Instead, we just started looking for somewhere to sleep once we were almost done with biking for the day. It worked almost all the time and we were able to find relatively cheap and comfortable/scenic places to sleep, except for once in Brandenburg an der Havel when we just got unlucky.
The Black Forest area and Alsace
After a planned trip to Avignon and southern France fell through because we couldn’t find any available bicycle tickets on French trains, we decided we would still go to France… but we would simply bike across the border from Germany!
We took a direct ICE train from Berlin to Freiburg, Elliott’s former home and a fantastic bicycle paradise. Cycling in Freiburg nowadays is even better than it was a few years ago, with even more dedicated bicycle paths, and even bicycle ‘highways’ that allow you to get around fast, fun, and efficiently.
Before heading across the border into France, we took a wonderful day trip along the fringes of the Black Forest to Staufen, the medieval home of the notorious Doctor Faustus and current home of problematic geothermal issues tearing the town apart and a wonderful castle on a hill covered in grape vines.
With some day-tripping and visiting in Freiburg behind us, we set off for France. First stop: Colmar, a picture-perfect medieval town with countless half-timbered houses, cute little canals, and hordes of tourbus tourists. Elliott had already done several bike trips to France back in his student days, so we focused on our first of many Flammkuchen and beers instead of doing much sightseeing in town.
The villages of central Alsace
From Colmar, we headed towards the Vosges moutnains to explore a series of beautiful French towns, many with conspicuously German names like Turckheim, Katzenthal, and Kaysersberg. Although our first day was only a modest 39 km by bicycle, we got our first taste of what it’s like to ride in the hills and through the vineyards that make the region so beautiful, and managed a decent 630 m of total elevation gain. Lisa was a little angry at Elliott for the route he had chosen… but had she known the elevation that was yet to come, the trip might have ended right there!
Each of the villages was fantastically beautiful, and it was almost a pity that all of the half-timbered houses and vineyards and churches and quaint medieval streets and squares started to blend into each other after a full day of touring through them.
Bicycle touring with a toddler is about more than just appreciating the beauty around you, however. One needs to take plenty of breaks to run around, to explore ancient nooks and crannies, to play games, and of course, snacks need to be offered at every opportunity. We fell into a regular routine where everybody got something out of the day and had a lot of fun.
For those that may not know, Elliott is obsessed with castles. During his many cycling trips around Freiburg, he had often seen the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg looming above Sélestat, France and always wanted to go. We planned to finally visit this elusive castle on our trip. It is a considerable climb to get there, so we were going to take a shuttle bus… but on the day we planned to get there, the shuttle bus was unexpectedly not running! There are castles on almost every major hilltop in Alsace, but the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg is the one that just keeps getting away for poor Elliott. Maybe next time!
The Alsatian language
Part of the reason we had wanted to travel in France was to practice our French. But in Alsace, you can almost forget about it if the locals detect any shred of German accent!
It turns out that many people speak either German or Alsatian, a unique Germanic dialect which is on the official list of non-official languages of France. And instead of powering through our pathetic attempts at French conversation, locals generally switched straight to German. Nonetheless, we did hear/google some fun and unique words and phrases that illustrate just how many times this region has gone back and forth between German and French rulers over the centuries. Some examples include:
- Bonchour: good morning (at any time)
- Or’var: farewell
- Repeteer noch a Mol: please say that again
- Mersi: thank you
- Sàlü bisàmme: hi everyone
One of the beautiful things about bicycle touring in Europe is that you don’t need to rely on just your bicycle. For the second part of our journey, we simply hopped on a train in Strasbourg with our bicycles and disembarked in Wissembourg, another German-sounding town that is delightfully Alsatian.
One of the highlights from our time near Wissembourg was a visit to a former fort of the Maginot Line. A technical marvel of its time, the fort we visited had kilometres of tunnels underground, along with everything needed to feed, house, and defend hundreds of soldiers… plus impressive artillery that made it essentially impregnable and entirely unapproachable.
Rewinding a few centuries, another highlight of the region is the Fleckenstein castle… another massive expenditure of time and resources to defend against invasion. While it makes you scratch your head about just how futile human conflict can be… it still makes for a great visit!
And last but certainly not least, our third highlight from northern Alsace was the Schumacher S´Pépé Stuewele restaurant in the tiny town of Roth. In fact, it isn’t really a typical restaurant, but rather a very lovely woman who puts some benches and tables in front of her house a few days a week and serves delicious homemade Flammkuchen and regional wine, all for fantastic prices and with a very welcoming, local atmosphere that lets you catch up on some of the talk among the townsfolk… so long as you can understand a bit of Alsatian!
The Elbe Radweg
If you google “the best bicycle routes in Germany,” the Elbe Radweg invariably comes up. It’s a 1220km bicycle route following the Elba river, which starts in Czechia just shy of the Polish border, crosses into Germany, and passes through many interesting and beautiful places before eventually draining into the North Sea after Hamburg.
We decided to check a portion of the route out for ourselves and booked one way train tickets for us and our bicycles to Prague. After spending one night to relive some old memories, we hopped on a local Czech train the next day and found the river just north of Prague.
First impression: not good. Where there was supposed to be a trail was a giant construction site! And along the river – once one of the most polluted waterways in Europe – there was nothing but a few abandoned factories to look at. But we were already there, so we had no choice but to improvise a little until we found the proper trail and some much nicer scenery a short distance later… and then things improved dramatically.
The Czech portion of the trip was probably our favourite. The route was very well marked and paved, yet we saw hardly any other cyclists. There were plenty of stops along the way to enjoy some hot food or an excellent Czech beer. The scenery and the towns were gorgeous. And everything was a little bit cheaper than in Germany.
After two and a half days of riding, we were already at the German border. It was a bit of a bittersweet moment because we had really been enjoying our time cycling in Czechia quite a lot!
The German section of the route was also good, however, starting with the picturesque “Saxon Switzerland” as we cycled through a portion of the so-named national park.
The German section also meant a lot more company on the trail, although never enough that it felt crowded, dangerous, or otherwise unpleasant. While most of the natural beauty petered out soon after Dresden, we were treated to a number of wonderful little towns that we had never heard of before, but which were perfect in which to spend a night or two.
In the city of Meissen we learned all about the history of porcelain. It might not sound very interesting, but it was considered “white gold” back in its heyday, and the secret to its production outside of China was discovered in Meissen in 1708. The secret was so valuable that a porcelain factory was set up in the security of a castle in order to prevent the technique being discovered by others. With this and other splendid bits of history, there is much to discover in the fantastic museum at Albrechtsburg castle, not to mention food and ambiance to enjoy in the lovely medieval town below!
Just outside of Meissen there is a lovely old monastery ruin that is a must-see. We started our bicycle day with a stroll through its red brick walls and lush green gardens, and it was as if stepping back in time as we imagined the people who used to live in that little oasis.
After Meissen we rode through the city of Torgau. Before we arrived we had never heard of it, but it was actually so lovely that we decided to stay an extra night! The Torgau castle was once the seat of the Elector of Saxony – so in other words, a big deal – and has a fantastic interactive museum that kept both us and our toddler happy. It also had a similar spiral stone staircase to the castle in Meissen, which really has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated, especially considering it was constructed in the early 1500s.
With our extra night in Torgau, we also checked out some other sights and museums, including a wealthy 16th century merchant’s house, a monument with Soviet and American flags commemorating where the two sides met as they advanced through Germany in WWII, and of course a few playgrounds, luckily with wonderful views.
From Torgau, the route continues flowing through the historic city of Wittenberg (think Martin Luther… also worth a visit!) and onward for many more kilometres, but for us, Torgau marked the end of the official route before we deviated north and rode back home to Berlin, in part because our time was simply coming to an end, but also because the landscape was getting increasingly flat and tedious as the route went on.
All in all, our summer of bicycle touring in and around Germany was fantastic! As a low-cost, healthy, and immensely rewarding way to discover new and under-explored parts of Europe, we are so happy that we were able to spend the summer together on our bicycles!