Through sunny days and fog, famous towns and little known ‘burgs, wine cellars and village vintner festivals, this was our time on the segment of the Rhine River known as the Romantic Rhine in Germany.
Half-timbered homes sit as the foot of cobbled streets. Vineyard paths wind into the hills. And foggy moments as castles disappear and re-emerge on hilltops hint at history.
If you have a fear of missing out on the must-see bits of the region, but long for a taste of the lesser-seen local experience, then this article and guide to the Upper Middle Rhine is for you.
Here is all the information we would have wanted to know before our road trip to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the 67-km UNESCO World Heritage segment of the Rhine River from the towns of Bingen and Rüdesheim north to the city of Koblenz at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers.
Rhine Valley Itinerary and Places to Visit
We traveled on the Rhine River from south to north, beginning in the town of Bingen and ending in Koblenz. Our recommendation is to spend at least three full days in the area. Ideally, give yourself more time so you can visit the area at a relaxed pace, leaving times for walks and hikes, a bicycle ride, and a few unexpected stops. (Note: We visited the area in just over two days and found our pace a bit rushed so we would suggest at least three days to visit the following places.)
Bingen am Rhein
We confess that we timed our visit to coincide with the Bingen 11-day wine festival, the longest such festival in the region. What makes this wine festival especially fun is the feel of locals enjoying their own wine and community. On the evening we spent in Bingen, absolutely everyone was in the streets enjoying the local product — even the mayor, who wanted his photo taken with us.
Many of the local wineries set up stalls on the various squares across town. We recommend that you ask to taste a few wines before selecting the one you wish to commit to by buying a full glass. This region is mostly known for whites – Riesling, Silvaner, Weissburgunder, and Grauburgunder. Show your curiosity and flash a few smiles. This will likely yield generous samples and a lesson on the different grapes in the area, the characteristics of this wine region, and the varietal in which the vineyard you are chatting with specializes.
Just across the river from Bingen, the town of Rüdesheim is the traditional favorite with Rhine River cruise passengers. It's easy to understand why. Rüdesheim’s collection of half-timbered homes and narrow alleyways stuffed with shops make it feel like you’ve stepped into the set of a Grimm Brothers fairytale. Hopefully one with a friendly ending.
Rüdesheim is also a wine town — more specifically of the Rheingau wine region — and is famous for its Rieslings and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir). There are vineyards spread throughout and surrounding the town. We suggest that you try one of the terroir Rieslings, called as such for the distinct influence of the local soil and terrain noticeable in some of the wines. Taste a couple of terroir style Rieslings side by side and you'll begin to understand how the expression of a single grape can be influenced by the various minerals present in a specific patch of soil.
Rüdesheim gets busy with visitors, especially with river cruise passengers in the daytime. However, it begins to clear out a bit in the late afternoon and early evening. Consider spending the night here so that you can enjoy the feel of the town without the crowds.
Things to do in Rüdesheim:
Cable Car to Niederwald Monument: Highly recommended. A lot of fun to soar above the vineyards and gaze across the hills to the Rhine River below. At the top, take a walk over to the Niederwald Monument for even more views over the city and river valley. Cost: €7 roundtrip.
Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet: Although we had our doubts — a museum full of mechanical music devices sounds a little yawn-inducing — our host’s excitement about the place motivated us to visit. The history of mechanical musical instruments — including contraptions like full air-powered symphonies in giant organ-sized boxes complete with single-stringed mechanical rotating violins — is almost unbelievable, particularly in light of how much we take for granted about the production of sound and music in today's technology landscape. Cost: €6.50 (includes tour)
Boat Ride from Rüdesheim to see Rhine River Castles (1.5 hours): Traveling the Rhine River by boat is one of the best ways to see the Rhine Valley and its dramatic castles perched high on cliffs. This 1.5 boat ride will take you past Rheinstein and Reichenstein Castles (Trechtingshausen), the fabled Mouse Tower of Binger Loch, and the ruins of Ehrenfels Castle. This is also a beautiful way to take in the Rhine Valley small towns and terraced vineyards all around.
Lorch, a sleepy working wine town, proved our unlikely favorite spot along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing town we visited and we were only there overnight, but there was something about the feel and personal nature of the place that we really enjoyed. Maybe it was our morning run through the misty vineyards above the river and town that made the whole area feel mysterious, as if the clouds were hiding secrets.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Lorch wasn’t very touristed and featured a slow, relaxed pace. The personal touch and attention also helped, including at a family-run hotel in a converted schoolhouse (the owner went to school there as a child) where we stayed the night. Top that off with a last-minute decision to drop in on the Perabo winery restaurant for a some appetizers and local terroir wines. A great way to spend an evening.
Kaub am Rhein
The morning drive from Lorch to Kaub is one to take slowly, pulling the car over at every overlook to catch views of castles on hilltops across the river. Kaub itself is a small medieval town that looks over Pfalzgrafenstein, a colorful 14th century castle on an islet set in the middle of the river. We skipped going inside the castle in favor of a quick walk through town to pick up a coffee and morning snack — all before hopping the car ferry to Bacharach. Try to get here in the morning before 11AM, as we saw bus tours arriving around that time.
Bacharach is another absurdly cute town on the west bank of the Rhine. Among the more sight-loaded towns in the region, Bacharach also features a 1000 year-old castle (Burg Stahleck) perched high on the hill.
Our recommendation: find the walking path behind the church and head up through the woods to get to the castle (now a youth hostel) for a view of the town and river. If you have more time, get lost in the vineyard paths leading to and from the castle. Otherwise, head back down into town to explore the church and wander around the medieval streets and alleys. Stop by Eis Cafe Italia (Oberstrasse 48) for some Riesling ice cream. Yes, Riesling ice cream! We had our doubts, but it was surprisingly tasty and refreshing and featured hints of fragrant fermentation.
Lorelei (Loreley) Overlook in Urbar
We confess that we don't get the almost cult-like need to visit Lorelei. It's a pretty rock and segment of the river, and we know about the legend of the mermaid and Heinrich Heine's poem. Despite this, we don't quite understand all the hype. Perhaps you can blame our literature teachers from high school. That said, we did enjoy — and recommend — the detour from Oberwesel to Urbar for the Lorelei overlook as the road and journey offers beautiful views of the river valley along the way.
Note: If you wish to see a photo of Loreley, it's here.
Oberwesel, Boppard and Braubach
We stopped briefly in — or drove through — the towns of Oberwesel, Boppard and Braubach on our way to Koblenz. If we stayed another day along the Rhine Valley, we would likely have spent it in one of these towns. There's a lesson here: everything in the region takes longer to cover. It's also easy to get stuck. So it was that we ran out of time walking village streets in the early parts of our days there.
Koblenz served as the final stop of our Rhine Valley road trip. It's the largest of the towns along this stretch of the Rhine River. As such, we kept our expectations in check, especially after all the fairy tale half-timbered homes and castles from the day's earlier stops. However, Koblenz surprised us.
Koblenz was originally a Roman town, dating to over 2,000 years ago and making it one Germany's oldest cities. Like Aachen and Cologne, it was under French rule for a spell at the end of the 18th century, and prides itself on still having a bit of French blood coursing through its cultural veins. Much of the city was destroyed during World War II. However, some sections survived while others were rebuilt with an eye to the traditional style, all of which made for pleasant atmospheric walks, especially in the old town.
We ended our visit to Koblenz by walking out to the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) where the Rhine and Mosel Rivers meet. The sun set as we took the cable car up to Ehrenbreitstein, the 19th century fortress across the river.
This aerial view of the Rhine River at dusk seemed a rather fitting close to our journey.
Avoiding the Crowds Along the Rhine Valley
We’d be lying if we told you this segment of the Rhine River is undiscovered and untouristed. We visited in early September, coming off the high season when river cruises and bus tours are still active. What we found, however, is that if you wish to get away from the crowds it is not especially difficult. All it takes is moving a block or two in either direction from the beaten tourist thoroughfare and you'll have the streets, castles, and vineyards much to yourself. It's literally that easy.
We also suggest getting an early start to visit some of the more popular towns in the morning before the river cruises and buses arrive (in our experience, around 11AM). You'll have the opportunity to see how the town wakes up — locals stocking up on bread at the bakery, picking up groceries, greeting shopkeepers as they make their way to work. We also tried to begin each of our days with a morning run or walk along the wine paths. Pleasant and mind-clearing.
Hiking and Biking in the Rhine Valley
Although our time was short and we couldn't do this ourselves, we recommend incorporating hiking and bicycling into your trip. There are hundreds of kilometers of hiking and bicycle paths that take you through all of the towns we mention above, as well as through vineyards and other castles tucked higher in the hills and away from the banks of the Rhine.
It's easy to pick up booklets from hotels and local tourist information offices that recommended day hikes and bicycle rides. And with the various options for train and boat transport (see below) you can easily return to your hotel at the end of the day.
The RheinSteig Weg includes 320km of paths along the east bank of the Rhine River. We ran along a very small portion of this through the vineyards outside of Lorch (called the Wein Wander Weg) and it was just beautiful. The paths on this side of the river seem a little less busy than those on the opposite side.
Note: If you aren't especially picky about your ride, don't worry about bringing your own bicycle with you. Many, if not all, of the tourist offices along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley offer bicycle rental. They also offer the option of electronic-assist bicycles if you are worried about not being able to conquer some of the steep hills in the vineyards. In addition, we noticed many hotels and shops offering Rhine Valley bicycle rentals for €10-€12 per day.
Rhine Valley Transportation Options
The jury is still out for me on whether I would rent a car again to visit this area. While I enjoyed the flexibility of having a car, I was impressed by the public transport and boat options available that allow one to move around without the stress of driving and parking. It's worth noting that I (Audrey) am not a big fan of driving. If you especially enjoy driving, by all means rent a car.
Renting a Car in the Rhine Valley
Pros: Having your own rental car provides the most flexibility to visit little towns and villages along the river. You can take car ferries from select towns to get to the other side of the river, as there are no bridges between Bingen and Koblenz. These ferries are quite reasonable at around €5 for two people and a vehicle.
Cons: Parking in some towns can be a bit tricky. It can also get expensive (10€/half day, for example in Rüdesheim). If you'd like to travel part of the Rhine River by boat (recommended, see below), then you’ll have to find a way to backtrack to pick up your car. Additionally, if you want to sample wines along the way, driving may impact your tasting and consumption options.
Rental car details: We rented a car from Cologne railway station and dropped it off at the Frankfurt railway station. If there's not much difference in the cost, I suggest dropping the car off in Koblenz and taking the train to Frankfurt. Driving in central Frankfurt is stressful, particularly with construction, one-way streets and a hidden drop-off rental car lot at the Frankfurt central train station.
Note: If you are not a German resident, be certain to indicate this when you are booking your rental car. In searches I performed with various rental car companies, I found it much less expensive to rent a car if you are a resident of the United States than if you are a resident of Germany.
Boats Along the Upper Rhine River
There is definitely no shortage of boats going along or criss-crossing the Rhine River, and we recommend taking at least one trip as boats and ferries offer a different visual perspective on the towns and landscape along the Romantic Rhine.
We hopped on one of the KD Boats from Rüdesheim to Lorch (and then took the train to return to Rüdesheim to pick up our car). There are hop-on/hop-off boats that run up and down the Rhine River several times a day, so just check the timetables. You can buy point-to-point tickets, too.
For a budget option, hop car ferries to cross the river. It's a short ride and trips are reasonably priced at just a couple of euros.
If you are really short on time you can also take this one-day boat ride along the Rhine River from Frankfurt that includes almost 5 hours in the Rhine Valley between Rüdesheim am Rhein and Sankt Goarshausen. You can even opt for wine tasting along the way.
Regional Trains in the Rhine Valley
There are regional trains that run up and down both sides of the river. Trains run more frequently on the east bank of the river (Rüdesheim-Lorch-Koblenz). We also know from experience that trains can be faster than a car if you time it well. You can buy a Rheinland-Pfalz ticket that provides unlimited rides in a 24-hour period. Alternatively, point-to-point tickets are quite reasonably priced (e.g., around €2.90 from Lorch to Rüdesheim, one-way).
Taking the train works well with hiking and biking as you can complete a trail and take the train back to wherever you are staying. Just be sure to check the schedule before you go so you aren't spending unnecessary time waiting for a train at the end of the day.
We realize that we only scratched the surface of what there is to see, do, drink and eat along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley in our short time there. However, we hope this guide assists you in your planning and your approach to spending time in the area. 67 kilometers may not sound like much, but there's a lot to unpack and experience in the area.
Disclosure: Our trip around the Rhineland of Germany was supported by the German National Tourism Board (GNTB). As always, the experiences and thoughts expressed here are our own.