The Middle-Rhine valley offers some of the most spectacular scenes in Europe and rightfully deserves its status as a UNESCO heritage site. It served once as the mountainous border of the Roman Empire. Later, at the heart of medieval Germany it served as it’s the primary conduit of trade. The wealth and strategic position of the Rhine made it an eternal source of conflict, testified by the countless ruins of castles and fortifications that dot its landscape. Today, its Romantic charm and mystery make it a premier destination in Europe, and below are my choices for the top three things to see.
3. The Fortress City of Koblenz
The city of Koblenz is the most recognizable city on the Middle-Rhine. With its small surviving old-town dominated by the inspiring fortress of Ehrenbreitstein. There’s quite a bit to see in Koblenz, and for a more detailed guide see the link below.
Despite its near total destruction in WWII, there is enough to see and do for it to make the list at number three. The main site is the fortress system of Ehrenbreitstein, which includes several nearby forts as well. Its one the best preserved examples of mid-19th century fortification in Europe and the only one in Germany. There you can freely explore its tunnels and hidden passages.
Travel Note: Getting to the old-town is best done by public transport or by car. The main train station is quite some distance from the old town, and even further from the fortress.
In addition, Koblenz has a number of medieval relics including the Church of St. Castor, the oldest building in Koblenz, and several other churches. Most of the old-town dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, best exemplified by its massive City Palace and the famous “German-Corner”.
Dominated by the might Fortress of Ehrenbreitstein, the city of Koblenz has controlled the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine River for centuries. Let’s explore the forgotten history of the Fortress of the Rhine.
2. Romantic Bacharach
Bacharach was earliest recorded capital of the Electors Palatine, who later moved to Heidelberg in the 13th century. It would remain a valuable possession for the Palatinate, who extracted tolls on the river traffic. This means for us that the town was extremely wealthy, and that they were able to construct cityscape to reflect this.
The church of St. Peter in Bacharach is one of the most ornamented churches in the valley. It was among the last in an architectural style that reflected the power of the German Emperor, and displays both the end of the Romanesque and the beginning of the Gothic. Picking up there, the ruins of the Werner Chapel show the hallmarks of the high Rhenish Gothic. The Stahleck Castle offers dramatic views of the valley, and is itself a fascinating structure.
Travel Note: One of the best hikes in the valley is a simple one, travel to Kaub on the right bank, visit the Pfalzgrafenstein castle, then take the ferry to the other side. From there, Bacharach is a nice walk along the river with some iconic views.
Of course what brings Bacharach to rank two in this list? There are many towns with churches and castles in the valley, but only Bacharach has the the sweeping views over the old town and the valley. Famous already in the 19th century, Bacharach has been one of Germany’s top tourist destinations for over a century. Join in the centuries of tradition and visit Bacharach and enjoy some local Riesling from the castle Terrace.
1. The Medieval Splendor of Linz
Linz am Rhein takes the top spot on this list. Though it sits outside of the UNESCO protected area of the Middle-Rhine, it has the best, and largest, preserved old-town in the region. It has a cityscape dominated by colorful half-timbered houses and buildings from the 17th century onward. It also offers a city castle in the center and a castle ruin on the hill above it. The real treasure though, is the church of St. Martin, a late Romanesque church with a mixture of styles from different regions and styles.
Unlike Bacharach and Koblenz, no kings or emperors ever resided in Linz. However, given the beautiful streets and market squares, you would never have guessed otherwise.
Travel Note: This stretch of the Rhine valley is not as easily accessible as the others on this list. The train to Linz will require a transfer in Koblenz if coming from the south or in Cologne if starting in the North. But since you are already on this train you can stop and see the Palace in Engers, or many of the other small towns in the part.
Here are some destinations that might make your list, but just barely missed out on mine.
Above St. Goar rises the impressive ruins of the Rheinfels Fortress. The ruins are definitely far more impressive up close. Visiting in person helps to get a better sense of how truly extensive the fortress once was. The town itself is also quite nice, though it lacks the size of Linz and the atmosphere of Bacharach. The church is unique for having the most intact Gothic fresco cycle in the valley. I considered ranking St. Goar at number two, instead of Bacharach, but I think the romantic charm of Bacharach slightly edges out St. Goar.
Eltville has one of the nicest old-towns in the southern part of the valley, before one reaches the cliffs. The small town has a number of nice streets, but one part in particular is unique. In the Middle-Ages houses would have been smaller than block-size, which would have been surrounded with walls along the street. Sort of like miniature forts. Here you can see glimpses of a truly medieval cityscape. Squint and you can make out what the street might have looked like 800 years ago. The town though, is better known for its wine and rose-flavored cakes.
Kaub and the Pfalzgrafenstein Castle
Kaub is famous for the “island castle” in the middle of the river. The town itself is not especially interesting. The castle above the town is not open to the public and the church is fairly unremarkable. That being said, the Pfalzgrafenstein castle in the river is really cool, and is worth a visit in person. However, it not quite interesting enough to make the top three list. For the best views of the castle, I actually think the cruise is your best bet.