Back during the last week of summer, at the tail end of our Balkan adventure, there’s one pretty significant portion of our sojourn I failed to tell you guys about, which is surreal as it was the best part of all: SVV and I went on a week-long road trip through the Alps of Austria and Germany. And it was magical.
It was also a bit impromptu.
The trip itself was not—we’d had our flights and river cruise with my family booked for nearly a year—but after the ship docked in Romania, we were scheduled to fly onto Turkey for the last leg and a little bit of time on our own. Due to recent circumstances over in those parts, however, we completely altered the itinerary for our trip just weeks before our departure. Sure, we could have just flown home after the cruise, but SVV and I wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere easy, somewhere we could rent a car and just … drive. We also didn’t want it to be too far from Bucharest, so the closer, the better.
We were all over the map, quite literally, when it came to choosing where we’d spend that final week. Did we go somewhere new? Somewhere remote? Somewhere urban? Somewhere beachy?
In the end, we wound up returning to a pair of places we’ll continue to visit time and time again: Germany and Austria.
Why? For many reasons. One, the food. There’s no denying Bavarian cuisine is some of my favorite in all of Europe. Two, it’s one of the most efficient regions in the world. The public transit runs on time; the buses, trains and trams are super clean; and the whole system is impeccably reliable. Three, we’ve both driven through Germany and Austria a number of times and knew they made for great road trips—nothing crazy to expect on the autobahn; we could just pick up our rental car at the Vienna airport and go. Four, the people of Bavaria are some of the nicest, most welcoming you’ll ever meet. Five, the Alps is one of the most Instagram-worthy regions you’ll find anywhere.
Basically, going back was a no-brainer for both of us.
But most importantly, Germany has long been a mutual favorite place of ours. In fact, we’ve always said that if we moved abroad on a more permanent basis, it would likely be to Munich or maybe even Berlin. It’s also interesting to note that this trip brought our relationship full circle. When we first met as post-grad students in Holland in 2005, we spent our winter break traveling through Hungary and Romania—both of which we visited prior to our Austrian road trip—and then Christmas’d in a snowy winter wonderland Vienna before SVV went onto Salzburg to do some skiing on his own.
This time around, though, it was all a bit different, namely the weather. Being September, the days were still warm and relatively long. I haven’t been in the Bavarian Alps during summer since I was 20 years old, and I couldn’t wait to see all the small mountain towns—and, let’s be honest, beer gardens—alive with greenery and buzzing with activity. September was also ideal as it wasn’t as busy as, say, June or July, so we didn’t encounter any traffic or have to wait in line anywhere.
With friends up in Munich, we ultimately decided to start there and weave a big loop through the Alps and end back in Vienna for our flights home. Upon landing there on a Thursday, we drove to the Bavarian capital where we stayed for two nights, before winding our way back south again. Over the following five days, we’d hug the border between the Austrian and German Alps and dip in and out multiple times.
Had we an extra week to spare, we would have tacked on Switzerland, as well, as it’s easily up there with Germany as one of my favorite countries in the world. I’ve been to Switzerland a handful of times in the past, both on a solo trip—during which I went canyoning through Interlaken, took the funicular to the top of the Matterhorn in Zermatt and kicked up my feet at Lucerne—and on group trips where I found myself mountain biking high above St. Moritz, testing my wits on a via ferrata and eating all the fondue in Zurich.
After all, I still have plenty quintessential Swiss experiences to eventually check off my bucket list: hiking a glacier, visiting the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, soaking in the thermal baths of Leukerbad or even learning to play the alphorn. It seems like a shame to be so close to Switzerland and not pay it a visit.
But I’ve also learned a few things about trying to cram too much into a single trip, and we wanted to take time to stop and smell the roses (or rather, in this case, sunflowers) and not be in too big of a rush.
After we drank our way through the beer gardens of Munich, we departed mid-afternoon on a Saturday and were elated to find the Alps weren’t even an hour away, nor was our first stop of Neuschwanstein Castle. The inspiration for the Disney castle, this beauty situated high up in the mountains is somewhere I’ve always wanted to see. Unfortunately, we arrived within an hour of closing time, so we did more of a drive-by, still being able to marvel at the Romanesque Revival palace from afar as we continued over the border into Austria to our home for the night: Reutte.
Pro tip: In summer months, tickets to Neuschwanstein Castle often sell out, particularly on weekends, so it’s wise to book them online in advance, sometimes even weeks prior to your arrival.
Though the crowds were few in the other towns we drove through, seeing as it was the final week of summer, many Germans and Austrians were on one last vacation, so I thought we might have trouble traipsing into town and finding accommodation last minute—as you know, when traveling (or even at home), I’ve been known to plan my days down to the half-hour, yet promised my laid-back California-born husband I’d try to take the “impromptu” nature of this trip to heart—and while many were booked, we found the most fantastic little hotel with views like this:
The receptionist was one of the friendliest people we met the whole trip, and she pointed us to the perfect dinner spot, then in the direction of the gondola the following morning.
But with five days and a laundry list of things we wanted to see, we had to prioritize and limited our rides up the mountain to just two, one in Reutte and the other in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
After we took a meander around Reutte, we ventured on over into Germany again. This is where things got tough: How do you choose between one awesome experience and another? We really wanted to see Lake Königsee, but after several people recommended Mittenwald via my Instagram, one Google Image search told me all I needed to know: We’d be going there, no doubt.
The more you know: If driving from Germany into Austria, you need a sticker called a “motorway vignette.” Many rental car companies will issue this to you if you tell them you’re crossing the border, but if not, you can stop in at any convenience store or gas station to purchase one.
The German municipality of Mittenwald lies in the heart of the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area, where we’d later find a hotel for the night. I knew nothing of this town before arriving—in fact, we initially planned to spend the entire week in the Austrian side of the Alps—but it wound up being well worth the trip.
First thing was first after arriving in Mittenwald: We needed lunch. So we found a nice patio; ordered a couple of beers, a feast of pretzels and Weisswürste (white sausages), one of Germany’s specialties; and were ready to continue our day (well, after I indulged in a strudel, too, of course—I seriously could not get enough of Bavarian cuisine!).
As we decided our next move, a parade carved through the center of town; a dozen or so lederhosen-clad musicians clanged their way right through Mittenwald’s core as us tourists gawked. It was almost like being back at Oktoberfest, but even more authentic.
But our time in the Alps was just getting started. After all, we still had the outdoors to tackle and were in the heart of prime hiking territory…
Looking to emulate our trip through the Alps? Let these posts guide you:
- High-Altitude Adventure in the Austrian Alps: Hiking the Leutasch Gorge
- Planning a Trip to Munich for Oktoberfest
- Missteps in Germany: How Garmisch-Partenkirchen Redeemed Itself
- Get Out of Salzburg; See Berchtesgaden Instead