(Editor’s note: Germany’s Harz region is the next stop for our Staycation series as the pandemic limits travel in some European countries. You can see other staycation posts here. Also, due to an editing error, the first version of this post incorrectly implied that Saxon Switzerland, Bad Schandau and Pirna are in the Harz region.)
Expats in Germany are spoiled for choice when it comes to “staycations” as they have mountains, coastline, forests, wine-producing regions and lakes to explore. I reached out to a German friend for some recommendations for some vacation hotspots.
The Harz Region
The Harz is a low mountain range in Lower Saxony, its highest point, Brocken, with an elevation of 1,141 metres, or about 3,700 feet. Within the region are some splendid medieval towns, rivers, forests and some of the oldest dams and reservoirs in Germany.
The once important and productive silver mines became part of a sad period for the Harz as the Nazis used them for armament production staffed by slave labor. The mountains were also once home to the border between East and West Germany and therefore a military no-go zone. Consequently, wildlife there flourished, and it is now a “green belt” protected area.
Wernigerode, on the northern slopes of the Harz Mountains, is a 1.5-hour drive and a two-hour train ride from Hanover. The enchantingly quaint town, with its timber-framed buildings reminiscent of childhood fairytales, was, until the reunification of Germany in 1990, in East Germany and boasts a castle and a steam train for trips up to the Harz Mountains.
Wernigerode does have a self-guided tour with a map that you can get from the tourist information office and is a great way to explore this beautiful old town.
• Wernigerode Castle ~ Originally a hunting lodge, the castle was rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 18th century. The castle offers guided tours as well as self-guided audio tours through the 40-plus grand rooms of the castle. The castle is also surrounded by gardens and has a tree-shaded café and terrace with great views of the Harz Mountains.
(Author’s note: There’s no parking at the castle, and you should expect a moderately steep walk to get there from the town.)
• The Rathaus/Medieval Town Hall ~ This beautiful old 13th-century building dominates the main square with the beautiful decorative fountain placed in front and offers guided tours and houses the tourist information office. If you are lucky, you might even see a wedding party arrive there.
• Kaiserturm/Emperor Tower ~ This tower dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm II is a short way out of town but offers great views from the top and allows dreams of throwing your hair down to a waiting prince à la Rapunzel!
• Harz Museum ~ Based in one of the town’s many ancient timber-framed buildings, this small museum celebrates the history, geology and wildlife of the Harz.
• Luftfahrtmuseum/Aviation Museum ~ This museum has about 60 aircraft along with many other items of interest on display, all set out in the four large halls.
Kleineste Haus/Smallest House ~ The smallest, 2.95-metre wide, timber house in the town and contains a small museum. It was once home to 11 people!
Things to do
• Harzer Schmalspurbahnen/Harz Narrow Gauge Railway ~ Whether you are a train enthusiast, a photographer or a hiker, there is nothing quite like the scene as this steam train travels over the crossing in the town. The 140-kilometer line is the longest narrow-gauge track in Germany and will take you to the top of the Brocken to begin your hiking trip or travel to the other side of the mountains, a 2.5-hour trip to Nordhausen for the complete experience.
The main station for the train is in the centre of Wernigerode.
• Hasseröder Ferienpark ~ This holiday park offers accommodation with plenty of fun for families with a water park, wellness area, an indoor activity centre with bowling, billiards, etc. and an outdoor sports field.
• The Harz National Park, part of the sustainable tourism charter offers beginner and challenging hikes, which may even include a sighting of the reintroduced lynx. From rocky outcrops, ancient forests and various habitats, the park has plenty to offer the explorer in each of us. The Brocken was a favorite of German writer Goethe, and as you hike the craggy rocks you can maybe tap into his inspiration.
The Brocken Transmitter provides a point of reference on the top of the highest West German mountain and the older building has an observation deck from which to enjoy the view. You can even have a coffee in the Communist-era dome.
The region includes a stop on the Dutch-German holiday route known as The Orange Route (the 2,400-kilometer route starts and ends in Amsterdam and visits places and sights that were linked to the Royal House of Orange-Nassau) and the German Timber-Framed Road (the 3,000-kilometer route explores towns renowned for typical timber-framed buildings.)
Wernigerode doesn’t have a huge shopping experience, but you can enjoy a wander around the local stores. The shopping area is clustered around Breite and Burgstrasse and near the train station at the Alstadt Passagen. The area is famous for its hand made wooden toys and decorations and for its range of schnapps-style alcoholic beverages.