Top border towns to visit
Strategically located right smack in the middle of Europe, one of my favorite things about living in Germany is the sheer ease of travel. Within an hour and half of flying, you can bask in the warm sun of the Mediterranean or bundle up with a cup of steaming Glühwein at a Christmas market in Vienna. For old-fashioned excitement, hop on one of the high-speed trains to charming Amsterdam or experience the hipster quirkiness of Berlin.
However, sometimes it’s more fun just to jump in the car and go. Lucky for you, it’s easy to cross countries off your European bucket list. Germany is bordered by nine countries — Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic. I’ve discovered that visiting towns and villages along the border are a great way to see cultural infusion at its finest. Visit a village along the German-French border and you’re likely to see the regal French architecture mixed with half-timbered houses. Here are seven border towns worth your time.
Sharing the border with the Netherlands and Belgium, this bustling spa destination was once the preferred destination of Roman nobility. Charlemagne enjoyed Aachen so much that it became a cultural and political hub during his reign. During World War II, the city sustained heavy damage and was the first Germany city to be captured by Allied forces.
Today, visitors can admire the stunning Aachen Cathedral, which was originally completed in 798. Guests can view portions of the original mosaic flooring, or pay their final respects to Charlemagne, whose sarcophagus is interred at the church. Visitors to the city can also relax and enjoy some pampering at one of the many thermal baths.
The self-proclaimed cultural capital of Switzerland is also bordered by two other countries, France and Germany. Separated by the banks of the Rhine, Basel is home to Switzerland’s oldest university, where Dutch scholar Erasmus spent much of his time. You can see his tomb at the imposing 12th century gothic-style cathedral in the charming old town, visit one of the more than 40 museums, or just walk along the banks of the Rhine River, which lazily winds its way through the city.
Don’t let the elegant façade fool you though! In the late winter and early spring, Basel is transformed into a city of raucous fun. Borrowing from the French and German influences of carnival and Fasching, Basler Fasnacht is the largest carnival celebration in Switzerland. On Morgenstraich (the Monday following Ash Wednesday), the city wakes at 4 a.m. for a dazzling parade of colorful floats and performers.
Situated along the Salzach River directly across the Austrian border is Burghausen. Perched high above the riverbanks along an impressive ridgeline sits the longest castle in the world. This border village was home to nobility, blossomed with the nearby salt mines, sank into a deep depression following the Thirty Years War, and ultimately found itself again with river shipping and various industrial enterprises.
The city centers itself around the stunning Burghausen Castle, which has been inhabited for centuries. Once the second residence for German dukes, it has become a cultural icon and symbol in the area. Jazz concerts and festivals abound during the warmer months, and it’s the perfect location to catch a glimpse of autumn’s beauty. During winter, see the castle illuminated with the soft glow of lights from the wooden Christmas market huts along the walls.
Once the second largest port city in the Kingdom of Denmark, Flensburg was Danish for centuries. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that citizens voted to become a part of Germany. Located on the Flensburg Fjord, it was also the last German city to abolish the Nazi regime in 1945. In spite of its complicated history, Flensburg has embraced both German and Danish culture with gusto.
Stroll along the breathtaking waterfront, reminiscent of those found deep in the heart of Scandinavia. Be sure to visit the fantastic Danish and German museums offering a glimpse into the past. Or, take a respite from the chilly air at Marien-Café. Decorated with teapots dangling from the ceiling and lined along the walls, this deliciously quirky café offers delectable Kaffee und Kuchen with cozy ambience and friendly service.
Nijmegen, the Netherlands
Just a few mere kilometers from the German border is the oldest city in the Netherlands. At the young age of 2,012 years old, Nijmegen has witnessed the rise and fall of several empires and regimes. However, because of its proximity to the border, it was the first Dutch city to fall victim to the Third Reich. With heavy fighting and bombardment during WWII, much of the city was rebuilt with modern flair.
History buffs can visit the Bevrijdingsmuseum to learn more on how the war affected and shaped Nijmegen. Or take a walk through Valkhof Park as autumn leaves swirl around you. In the summer, the city is famous for the Nijmeegse Vierdaagse, or Four Days Marches. More than 40,000 participants from around the world march for four days through the Dutch countryside.
Teplice, Czech Republic
Although it’s set a short distance from the German border, Teplice is a hidden gem between the Central Bohemian Mountains and the Krusne Mountains. Because of its closeness to the border, many German refugees resettled in Teplice in the 1600s, creating a melting pot of culture. After WWII, the Czech government expelled much of the German population as retaliation.
Nowadays, the political past is all but history. Embracing its heritage, Teplice is the second-largest spa town in the Czech Republic. Take a dip in one of the oldest spas in the country. Or, when the weather is cooperating, walk through the lovely parks and gardens — including Botanika Zahrada, which features a cascading waterfall.
The charming village of Wissembourg is absolutely worth the trek off the beaten path. Nestled in the heart of the Alsatian wine region, it is also surrounded by the Northern Vosges Natural Park. The beauty of Wissembourg can be seen in the cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses constructed in a distinctly German style with French panache. The city was founded by Benedictine monks more than 13 centuries ago.
Visitors can see the impressive St. Peter and Paul church, which is the second largest cathedral in the Alsace. Or step back through time at the Maison du Sel, a hospital from the Middle Ages. During the holiday season, stroll beneath twinkling lights of the Christmas market sipping on vin chaud (hot mulled wine).
While there are many amazing cities and villages to explore in Germany, why not take a trip just across the border and cross off a country or two?