Germany ranks among the world’s most delightful places in which to make a road trip. Routes are well-marked and in excellent condition throughout the country, and, of course, there are the famed autobahns. I can’t deny that I love to rent a powerful car and, when the speed limit disappears, floor it.
This itinerary traverses the former East, starting in the splendidly rebuilt baroque city of Dresden, flanked by extravagantly beautiful wine country. Vibrant Berlin beckons to the north, where a stay in the Mitte district affords easy access to the most exciting sights. Continuing farther north, unspoiled Mecklenburg feels like a time capsule of 19th-century Northern Europe, with rolling countryside laced with allées and dotted with crumbling manor houses, grand palaces and well-preserved half-timbered towns. The return to Berlin affords a stay in a new favorite tucked into a quiet corner adjacent to the city's loveliest park, near the center of the former West. It is a good base for a visit to ornate Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great.
This region of Germany once languished behind the Iron Curtain, but it’s making up for lost time. Expect to find beautiful architecture, friendly service and excellent food along the entirety of this itinerary.
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Refresh yourself with some traditional coffee and cake in the hotel’s elegant Café Vestibül, then tour the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger. The collection includes masterpieces such as Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” Giorgione’s sensual “Sleeping Venus,” Rembrandt’s “Saskia With a Red Flower” and two typically luminous Vermeer paintings, “The Procuress” and “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.”
Have an early dinner nearby at William, a charming small restaurant tucked away in the Schauspielhaus (State Theater).
You need at least two more full days to take in Dresden’s many treasures. Use this time to visit Residenzschloss, which houses one of my favorite collections of crown jewels in Europe; the Frauenkirche, a magnificently restored baroque church capped by a graceful stone dome; the Albertinum, a world-class art museum with important works by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich, Otto Dix and Gustav Klimt; and the fascinating Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr, strikingly reimagined by Daniel Libeskind. For lunches, I recommend casual spots like PulverTurm an der Fraunkirche and the Altmarkt Keller. For dinners, more upscale options include the seafood-focused Kastenmeiers and the Michelin-starred Caroussel. If time permits, I highly recommend attending a performance in the beautifully restored Semperoper, one of the great opera houses of Europe.
Hire a driver to take you on an excursion out of Dresden today. The wine country along the Elbe begins soon after you leave the city, with vineyards terraced into bluffs above the river. Continue to Weingut Schloss Proschwitz, my favorite winery in Saxony, owned by the Prinz and Prinzessin zur Lippe. Don’t miss the Pinot Noir and great-growth Pinot Blanc. After a tour and tasting, have lunch at the winery’s excellent restaurant.
Backtrack to the picturesque town of Meissen, with Gothic spires towering over the Elbe. Tour the surprisingly diverting porcelain museum, observe some artisans at work, browse the gift shop and perhaps indulge in some Meissen torte in the bright café.
Continue along the opposite side of the river to the grand Schloss Wackerbarth, a rather touristy winery that still merits a visit for its setting beneath hillside vineyards punctuated by baroque pavilions. Skip the tour and opt instead for a flight of sparkling wine at a table on the patio.
Return to Dresden.
Those with additional time could explore more of the wine country adjacent to Dresden, take a cruise down the Elbe toward rugged “Saxon Switzerland” or visit some of the many impressive countryside palaces such as Schloss Moritzburg.
Otherwise, take the train (or drive with your guide) up to Berlin. Check into a hotel in the Mitte district, where many of the city’s most important sights and restaurants can be found. My favorites are the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, which has views of the iconic Brandenburg Gate, and the Hotel de Rome, a short distance away in a prewar bank building overlooking pretty Bebelplatz.
In the afternoon, explore Unter den Linden (Berlin’s Champs-Elysées) and the Gendarmenmarkt, a graceful square anchored by twin cathedrals. My favorite chocolate shop in Berlin, Rausch Schokoladenhaus, is on the southwest corner.
Have an aperitif at the rooftop bar of the Hotel de Rome before heading to dinner at Pauly Saal, a Michelin-starred restaurant in a former Jewish girls’ school.
Set near many cultural and historic sites, this grand landmark hotel faces the Brandenburg Gate on the famous Unter den Linden promenade.
Just a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island, this architecturally stunning luxury hotel is set in a converted 19th-century former bank headquarters on historic Bebelplatz, off Unter den Linden.
Berlin has so many intriguing sights that I have yet to exhaust them despite my efforts over the years. First-time visitors shouldn’t miss the Pergamonmuseum, the Caspar David Friedrich paintings in the Alte Nationalgalerie, a Spree River cruise, the communist-kitsch Alexanderplatz, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag (have lunch in the rooftop restaurant), Potsdamer Platz and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Those looking for something less obvious should consider a private tour of lesser-known Berlin Wall sights with Thomas-Dietrich Lehmann; a viewing of the top-tier private contemporary art collection of Sammlung Boros (tours are restricted to 12 guests at a time); and a behind-the-scenes visit at Tempelhof Airport, site of the famous Berlin Airlift.
If shopping is on your agenda, browse the boutiques of the Hackesche Höfe (a series of interconnected courtyards) and Mulackstrasse. Berlin also has a branch of French department store Galeries Lafayette.
For dinner, my favorite new discoveries include La Soupe Populaire, Nobelhart & Schmutzig and Golvet. And I can never resist dining one night at popular Lutter & Wegner, which serves delectable plate-sized schnitzel.
Pick up a rental car or drive with your guide north into unspoiled Mecklenburg, a countryside of rolling pastures, thick forests, timeless small towns and interconnected lakes lined with marinas and villas. My favorite time for a visit is May, when the rapeseed fields blaze with yellow flowers.
Stop for lunch in the lakeside town of Waren, and continue to the Ivenacker Oaks. These majestic trees range in age from 500 to 1,000 years old, and walking among them is an unforgettable experience.
Skirt the bottom of Malchiner Lake and make a short detour to Basedow. See the red-brick-and-white stucco, northern Renaissance-style palace fronted by flower gardens, and stop in the Alter Schafstall nearby, a farm shop specializing in products containing local sea buckthorn.
A little farther on is the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz, an 18th-century manor house atop a hill overlooking forest and pastureland. Its two restaurants, the formal Gothic-vaulted Wappen-Saal and the more casual Café-Brasserie “Louise” are both excellent, serving upscale but unfussy seasonal cuisine. The bar’s list of spirits is inspiring, including extraordinarily well-priced glasses of Hennessy Paradis and local artisanal fruit brandies.
I recommend taking one full day to simply enjoy the Burg Schlitz estate. Walk through the old forest, an environment straight out of a Grimm fairy tale, to the Rötelberg, a hill with sweeping views. In the afternoon the hotel can arrange for a horse and carriage to take you to a picturesque spot for a picnic. Also, be sure to take advantage of the spa and swimming pool in a separate building behind the manor house.
Take a day trip from the hotel today, perhaps visiting the Renaissance Schloss Güstrow and the quaint town of the same name, or the romantic Schloss Schwerin, set on its own island. The Hanseatic city of Rostock also isn’t far away. Alternatively, arrange for a relaxing boat trip around Mecklenburg’s lakes, or go for a hike in the exquisite countryside near the hotel.
Return to Berlin and check in at Das Stue, a chic new hotel abutting the Tiergarten park near the heart of former West Berlin. See the haunting Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, its broken steeple left unrepaired as a reminder of the destruction of war, and visit the little-known Bauhaus-Archiv Museum. Germany’s answer to the legendary department store Harrods, Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe), is also nearby.
Return to Das Stue and have dinner in its superb Michelin-star restaurant, Cinco.
Make an excursion this morning to Sanssouci, the rococo pleasure palace of Frederick the Great. Timed-entry tickets ensure that the 12 rooms of the main palace are merely crowded, not insufferable. Take some time to stroll the sprawling grounds, and don’t miss the grand Bildergalerie, containing Frederick’s painting collection, and the opulent Neue Kammern, a palace with additional guest quarters and ballrooms. We had these remarkable buildings almost entirely to ourselves during our in-season Saturday visit, because most tourists focus only on the main palace.
Drive from Sanssouci to the Grünewald forest and have lunch at Paulsborn am Grünewaldsee, a 19th-century coach house and inn where Kaiser Wilhelm I entertained hunting parties. It now serves classic German and Austrian dishes.
Return to Das Stue and take the rest of the afternoon to relax and pack. Have a casual dinner somewhere nearby. I like Ottenthal, a very good Austrian restaurant with a fine wine list and excellent schnitzel.
Head to the airport after breakfast and board your flight home.
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