Boasting some of the most celebrated historical heritage sites, architecture, and museums in Europe, Germany has developed a well-earned reputation for supporting education of all varieties.
With that, visitors who limit their explorations solely to cities and interior spaces may miss some of the most meaningful lessons Germany has to offer—by way of its unique natural landscapes. Beyond the boundaries of its bustling cityscapes, Germany currently plays host to 16 UNESCO biosphere reserves, protected biodiverse areas that are recognized as having invaluable significance to humankind and serve as living laboratories for the discovery of sustainable ways to coexist and interact with the natural world. Across the country, a vast array of breathtaking scenery, from luxuriant forests and blooming heathland to pristine rivers, lakes and tidal ecosystems beckon; inviting visitors to learn something new with a hands-on approach.
Just where and how should one approach those lessons? Ask Germany’s Ambassadors of Nature, the men and women who know them best of all. Here’s what they’ve learned.
Hainich National Park
At Hainich National Park in Western Thuringia, Forest Ranger Sandra Wendt has learned the importance of protecting and embracing nature—and she takes that lesson quite literally. She’s been known to throw her arms around the ancient beeches that stand throughout the park’s 62 square miles of woodland. “I do hug trees—when I’m showing children how thick they are,” she says. “My favorite tree is the European hornbeam. It has a very gnarly bark that makes it look like something out of a fairytale.”
Though Hainich is Germany’s second-smallest national park, it’s part of a transnational series of UNESCO-designated refuge areas for primeval beech forests (an initiative with 94 component parts spanning 18 countries) that offers visitors magical glimpses of old-growth forests that have developed across Europe since the last Ice Age. That undisturbed growth is truly special: “Happiness for me is being in the forest, seeing how it changes through the seasons and observing the animals that live there,” Wendt says.
Humans hoping for an avian perspective on Hainich National Park can traverse the treetop-skimming, 1,772-foot Canopy Walkway and perch atop a 144-foot-high observation tower that offers a panoramic view of the verdant Thuringian Basin. The walkway features two loops, one that highlights the park’s animals (including the seven native species of woodpecker that Wendt monitors in her work as a ranger) and a second dedicated to the jungle itself.
Those who would have an intimate experience with the endangered native European wildcat, in turn, can visit the park’s Wildcat Village Hütscheroda and encounter four of the rare animals—Carlo, Toco, Franz, and Oskar—in person. That kind of meeting would be impossible in the wild (given the regression of their natural habitat, these endemic cats have vanished almost entirely), but both a small observation tower and a ground-level cavern enable visitors to see the felines up close. Not far from the wildcat enclosure, an information center housed in a 500-year-old converted barn offers visitors details on the conservationists’ plan, nicknamed a “safety net for the wild cat”, which aims to connect patches of wild forest across Germany so that the animals can repopulate it.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a Bavarian destination on the German-Austrian border. Skiers regard it as a winter wonderland of Alpine peaks and seasonal celebrations; nature-lovers like Rudolf Achtner, the Gorge Warden who ensures visitors’ safety at Partnach Gorge, cherish the many faces it presents throughout the year. Created by meltwater and debris as the Partnach River thunders between 262-foot limestone walls, forming waterfalls, rapids, and basins, the Gorge has been a designated landmark since 1912—and Achtner introduces guests to its sublime, mercurial beauty and an insightful lesson. “The gorge is always changing: sometimes it’s as stately as the Grand Canyon; on other occasions, it’s an untouched spot where nature remains wonderfully untamed,” he says. “It’s different every day, but it’s at its most beautiful early in the morning. Being alone in the gorge at the crack of dawn is an almost mystical experience.” A 25-minute hike from Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Olympic Ski Stadium (where international athletes competed in 1936), it’s a sublime reminder that no two visits to the wilderness are the same and, as in both life and nature, everything changes over time.
After drinking in views of the plunging Partnach River, Garmisch-Partenkirchen visitors can soar to the top of nearby Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain and a crown jewel of the Northern Limestone Alps that join Germany and Austria. A trio of cable cars carries sightseers to the 9,843-foot peak for views of around 400 summits in Italy. Germany’s highest mountain hut, Münchner Haus, is just a few meters from Zugspitze’s summit cross; its overnight guests can take full advantage of the ever-changing natural views Achtner loves so well. Thirty-six other mountain huts also offer refreshments for adventurers on Garmisch-Partenkirchen's 186 miles of trails. “Walking, mountain hikes, watersports, riding, you name it—you can do it all here,” Achtner says.
Wattenmeer National Park
From her vantage point at Friedrichskoog Seal Station, a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation and educational facility on northern Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea coast, marine biologist Tanja Rosenberger can assert with confidence that her region of the world is like no other. “The wind, wide open spaces, and horizons along this coast are simply incredible,” she says. “I’ve travelled a lot and been to a lot of coastlines, but there’s absolutely nowhere on earth like the Wadden Sea.” Visitors to her station can join in on guided tours, watch feedings, and visit an enclosure where residents from Germany’s two native species, the harbor and grey seal, frolic on land and in the water. (The seals’ living arrangement is unique, too: Friedrichskoog is the only center in the country where the species are cared for together.)
Wattenmeer National Park unites natural landscapes of three states in one: Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Lower Saxony are all part of the Wadden Sea UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized for its significance to the planet’s geological and ecological processes and its role in the preservation of biological diversity. In 2022, park administrators are spotlighting the Wadden Sea’s function as an essential stopover for 150 species of migratory birds; “feathered hikers” such as geese and wading birds make the parks fantastic birdwatching destinations in the spring and autumn. Arctic songbirds like snow buntings, linnets and horned larks, in turn, highlight the winter season—and researchers have recognized the area as the most bird-rich region in all of Europe. The landscape is magnificent even without the birds, of course: “The sheer vastness of the place, the towering clouds, the light over the tidal flats—you only find these things here,” Rosenberger says; a reminder to us all to appreciate the uniqueness of each park we travel to. And while scaling mountain peaks is certainly a feat, nature-lovers with tales of hiking along the bottom of the sea—across the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world—are few and far between.
Allgäu High Alps Reserve
In the Allgäu High Alps Nature Reserve, Hündelskopfhütte—at 3,871 feet above sea level, the first vegetarian mountain hut anywhere in the Alps—serves up beloved classics like Allgäu-style Käsespätzle along with novel vegetable-forward creations. Its hostess, Silvia Beyer, moved back to the Alps after spending time in the American Rockies; she knew she was still writing her story in Germany. “I’m happiest in the mountains of my homeland,” she explains. “For lots of people, it’s a mystical place. It has unique diversity and wonderful people, who are open-minded but keen to preserve their traditions.” Food is a widely-celebrated part of the Allgäu’s appeal: the mild, aromatic Allgäuer Bergkäse produced with fresh milk from the foothills’ cows retains the alpine pastures’ flavor, and it was awarded the European Protected Designation of Origin in 1997. And while vegetarian food isn’t traditional fare, it can serve as a reminder that there is always something new to learn, whether by way of a tasty treat or an experience with unique flora and fauna.
The region’s pristine landscapes and fresh air, in turn, feed the body and the soul. More than 124 miles of hiking trails (and the health resorts and spas that support them) in and around the Allgäu’s Oberstdorf region encourage visitors to slough off the stressors of urban life and focus on regeneration. (The municipality itself was designated allergy-friendly in 2015.) High above the landscape, glimpses of the golden eagle—a large raptor known as the “king of the skies” that nests on the mountains’ steep cliffs and is considered a symbol of the Alps—reward onlookers who take their time to look upward. With a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, the birds have been known to hunt animals as large as badgers, deer, and even small bear cubs; to spot one in the wild would be a feather in any nature-lover’s cap.
Though Allgäu’s pristine landscapes feel like another world, they’re readily accessible from other parts of the country; Deutsche Bahn service to Oberstdorf, Sonthofen and Kempten is regular and inexpensive. More than a third of Germany’s total area is covered in forests; in Allgäu and across the country, tapping into the vibrant natural network—a lattice comprised of more than 186,411 miles of footpaths, 47,224 miles of trails for cyclists, 12,000 lakes, and thousands of rivers—is as simple as stepping off the train.
Ready to experience the transformative powers of Germany’s natural landscapes?