Next Up: From Mines to Wines, Germany’s Rhineland

As we set off for Germany’s Rhineland this weekend, I think back to an exchange I had with a tourist from Stuttgart the other night.

“It’s been really fun visiting Berlin this week. It’s like traveling to a different country from Germany,” he said.

We laughed. We understood. This is often what we tell people when they ask us how we like living in Germany. We’ve found that we picked up a bit of the Berliner habit of forgetting that there’s a country to explore outside of the city limits of its capital.

It’s time to do a little something about that.

After two months of enjoying summer in Berlin, we’re heading out by train to Germany this weekend. We’ll be exploring Germany’s Rhineland — a new part of the country (for us). Our trip will include places like Essen, Aachen, Cologne and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

Here’s where we’re going and what we’ll be up to.


I never would have thought to visit an old coal mining facility, but my interest in Zollverein Coal Mine was piqued recently when Dan mentioned the name in connection with a novel he’d read entitled “All Light We Cannot See.” Beginning on the eve of World War II, the novel tells the story of a German boy — whose father died as a miner in Zollverein — and a French girl, both trying to cope with the horrors of war.

Zollverein Coal Mine at night.

In addition to once being a coal mine, Zollverein is now known for its Modern Movement in architecture — something we know admittedly little about, but whose appearance we are often visually drawn to on bicycle rides around Berlin.

So we’re looking forward to understanding the historical, industrial, and architectural layers that make up UNESCO-protected Zollverein and learning more about the Ruhr region.


Aside from likely being a candidate for a spherical panorama of its interior, the 1,200-year-old Aachen Cathedral has been on our Germany sights shortlist, as it’s been recommended so often by others.

We’re looking forward to finally seeing this interior for ourselves.

aachen Cathedral
Interior of Aachen Cathedral.

Cologne / Köln

Years ago when I lived in Estonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my Estonian friend, Sirje, showed me her faded photographs of the Cologne Cathedral. I’ll never forget it. Visiting Cologne was among her first travels outside of what was the Soviet Union; she described her impressions of being in the “West” with all the fancy cars and endless shopping options. For me, as an American, the photo of the Cologne Cathedral looked like something straight of a fairytale with its towers and Gothic architecture. It will have taken fifteen years for me to finally see the Cologne Cathedral for myself…and share with Sirje an updated photo.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral at Night. Wow.

Another Cologne icon that we’re interested in getting to know a bit better is Kölsch, a local style of beer that is light in color and is only served in thin, tall glasses (in fact, we hear that drinking Kölsch in a beer stein is considered sacrilege). This style of brew does not travel well, so it’s necessary to go to the source — or to the Berlin Beer Festival — to enjoy it.

Given all that we’re heard about Kölsch, we imagine that it may someday achieve its own UNESCO culinary status.

If you have any recommended places to drink Kölsch in Cologne please let us know!


This is where the road trip portion of our Rhineland travels begin. We’ll pick up a rental car in Cologne and use it to explore the castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust near the town of Brühl before heading further into the Rhine Valley. I’ll have an opportunity to exercise my newly acquired German driver’s license on both the autobahn and tiny village roads. Dan will have an opportunity to exercise his fatalism, as he’s the one who usually does the driving in our family.

He’s frankly terrified by the thought. This should be fun.

Augustusburg Castle
The Augustusburg Castle gardens in bloom.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley

As some of you may remember, we also never pass up an opportunity to taste and learn more about wine. So it won’t surprise you when we confess that we timed this journey to coincide with the Bingen Wine Festival, taking place in the first week of September. This segment of the Rhine Valley is smack in the middle of four German wine-growing regions: Rheinessen, Nahe, Rheingau and Middle Rhine. Although we have learned a bit about German wines over the years, we looking forward to a deeper dive by dropping in on the wine festival and by visiting a few wineries along the way.

This particular segment of the Rhine River has been a water trading route for over two thousand years, which is why it is dotted with castles across its various clifftops. Add to that its steep terraced vineyards that appear to fall right into the river and its almost too-quaint-to-be-true collection of villages that trace the river’s edge, and it’s no surprise that our parents have had nothing but great things to say about the region after their visits many years ago. My mother even made me promise to wave to the Loreley rock for her.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley
Marksburg Castle in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. What a view.

Although we’ll have a rental car with us, we’ll leave it behind for a spell to take a boat ride or two and to explore by bicycle the surrounding hills, from Bingen to Rüdesheim, Lorch, Bacharach, Koblenz and all spots in-between.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites as Itinerary Anchors

We confess, we have a mixed relationship with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

On the one hand, we find that tourists can sometimes approach them as places to “consume” or check off a box as if collecting, rather than experiencing. We find this approach can lend a little bit of tunnel vision to one’s travels — enabling visitors to ignore companion experiences or nearby areas that might help to round out their trip.

On the other hand, UNESCO sites have often pushed us to visit destinations we otherwise wouldn’t — often in the middle of nowhere — just because we’re curious about what makes that a place so special to have earned it official World Heritage status. It’s this curiosity that led us to UNESCO sites such as the Jesuit Ruins in Paraguay, Paharpur Buddhist Monastery in Bangladesh, Gobustan in Azerbaijan (and had to hitchhike back), or the Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al Hitan) in Egypt. We were even married at a UNESCO site in Italy. (Sadly, our fateful day had nothing to do with its earning UNESCO status.)

In this way, UNESCO sites can serve as itinerary anchors and can highlight an aspect of history or culture that a visitor would have otherwise never heard about (e.g., that Tantric Buddhism likely got its start in Bangladesh – who knew?!).

You may have have noticed that we’re anchoring our Germany trip around several of Germany’s UNESCO sites, taking us from a coal mine to cathedrals to castles to wineries along the Rhine Valley. And as much as we’re looking forward to seeing these sites, we’re just as excited for all the experiences that will happen in and around them — including getting lost.

How can you help with our trip?

If you have recommendations for places to eat and drink in Essen, Aachen, Cologne, and in and around the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, please send them our way! We’re looking forward to balancing out our historical and cultural learning with a bit of the culinary and vinicultural variety.

Follow along with our Germany adventures

We will share all that we see and experience during the trip on our various social media channels – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus – using the hashtag #welterbegermany.

Feel free to engage with us there and share your own tips as we explore this new-to-us part of Germany!

Photo Credit: All photos above are courtesy of the German National Tourism Board.

This trip is supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the opinions expressed here are our own.

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  1. says

    Unfortunately I cannot help with tips because I’ve never been to any of the above places. I have to admit they look very interesting and some are stunning like the Marksburg Castle for instance. I look forward to hear how the trip went, enjoy! :)

    • says

      Franca, we’re also excited to explore this new-to-us part of Germany. Dan’s mother talked about the Rhine Valley so much during her visit to Europe many years ago, and my mother also has wonderful memories of this area. Look forward to sharing what we find with you!

  2. says

    Enjoy your tour of the Rhineland and the Ruhrgebeit. I happen to travel there quite a bit for work (I live in the US, but my job is in Dortmund. The entire Ruhr area (not just Essen) is a key cultural heritage area, one that I find unique as they readily recognize that post industrial areas left by the coal mining and steel production were what paved the way for expansion in the arts and culture.

    The Ruhr area (Ruhrgebiet) was even the European Cultural Capital in 2010. Something that this Detroit boy finds admirable given my own cities decline as a result of poor recognition of the importance of this link between heavy industry and the high culture.

    • says

      Hi Eric,
      Thanks for the great advice and perspective that you bring regarding the Ruhr area and how these former industrial areas helped spur arts and culture today. Rather fascinating. Also appreciate the Detroit connection. I just read a long New Yorker article that talked about how Berlin’s techo style is adapted from Detroit’s style. Never realized that connection before. We’ve never been to Detroit, but I’m really curious about the city and what urban planners can do to create more links between heavy industry and high culture.

      Now I’m even more curious to explore the Zollverein!

  3. says

    Sounds like a great trip! I still haven’t been to that part of Germany at all and I’ve been living here for 3 years. Enjoy! (And if you take a wrong turn and end up in Freiburg, let us know!)

    • says

      Ali, should be a good time! I completely relate to living in Germany for several years and still not seeing this area and other parts of the country. Sometimes we take for granted what is around us. Hope to do less of that this year :)

      Will let you know if we get lost and end up in Freiburg!

  4. says

    Castles never fail to give a great view. I always imagine to be that queen with hundreds of servants giving me everything I want.. even giving me bath.. or helping me chew those grapes they willingly put into my mouth. haha sorry, can’t help it. 😀
    And I agree, Berlin is also my top favorite city. It’s also in my list of cities I’d love to migrate to.. that way I could travel nonstop to Germany’s other cities. 😉

    • says

      Sofia, like your daydreaming about being a queen in a castle on the top of a hill :) However, I imagine that after a while she would want to run away to have some time to herself :)

  5. says

    Oh Kölsch, it’s a love it or hate it kind of thing. I personally hate it. However, if you get the chance try unfiltered Kölsch! I found it slightly better than the original.

    • says

      Derek, thanks for the advice for the unfiltered Kölsch! I think I’m kind of in the middle with it – there are other beers that I would choose over Kölsch, but I do enjoy it. I’ve never had it in Köln, so maybe that may change my mind :)

  6. says

    An inspiring itinerary Audrey. I too am unable to help, although I’m intrigued to try a Kölsch in Cologne, as I thought they tasted pretty good elsewhere! The Upper Middle Rhine Valley sounds amazing – I hope you get to Loreley rock.

    • says

      Hi Andy,
      We’ll be headed into the Upper Middle Rhine Valley tomorrow so I can let you know how it is then. Have heard so much about it over the years that I’m trying to manage expectations :)

  7. Shaik Abdul Azeez says

    I really enjoyed by knewing your world tour and reading in this blog.Really interesting and existing.Hope one fine day i will also do the same.Thank you very much.

  8. says

    If you havent been to cologne already by now here are my tips for it. The Altstadt offers lots of places to eat and drink. Most are tourist ripoffs. But the larger Brauhäuser from the breweries offer what you might be looking for. Fresh kölsch from the tab. One of my favourite is the Malzmühle, close to Heumarkt. Their beer has a little more malt than others and is kinda unique. Plus their waiters have that tough Köbes attitude that makes it special. Enjoy your trip. P.s.: if you want it more urban try belgisches Viertel and Ehrenfeld, quarters that are younger and more like Berlin, but in the city we love so much.

    • says

      Thomas, thanks so much for the advice for Cologne. Unfortunately, we had already left by the time we saw them so we will have to add them to our notes for our next visit as this one was too short. We did enjoy a good meal at Früh Brauhaus and also had some good beer at Pfaffen as well. Next time we’ll have to try Malzmühle :)

  9. says

    What a fabulous adventure. Would love to get a car rental and travel around Europe and Germany, especially. My favorite thing to do would be to visit castles. As a child I always had such a fascination with them. Thanks for the tips.

  10. says

    What an adventure. As a self confessed wine lover I am ashamed to say I didn’t know that Germany had such a large wine region. I’m curious, what are the wines like from Germany, are they mainly whites or reds? I am currently travelling South America and trying some of the amazing Malbecs from Argentina which are delicious!

    • says

      Larms, I think it’s fair to say that Germany is better known for its white wines, especially Riesling. The climate and soil is better suited for it. Having said that, you will find reds, but not on the scale of nearby France or faraway new world wine locations.

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