The Rhine Valley includes many must-see parts of Germany but also gives a taste of less-seen local flavor. This spectacular river offers castles, nature, wine, beautiful towns, history, and much more. As it flows from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea through Germany, the Rhine passes through some of the country’s most fascinating and historic places.
The river “Rhine” (French) – or “der Rhein” as it is known to Germans – begins in the Swiss Alps as a stream, flowing northward and forming the border between Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and later, Switzerland and Austria.
It gathers steam as it flows into Lake Constance – known as the”Bodensee” to Germans – with Switzerland on the south and Germany on the north side of the lake (with beautiful views of the alps).
When it leaves Lake Constance, the Rhine heads northward over the famous Rhine waterfalls to Basel, where it widens out.
In Roman times, the Rhine was a major trade route linking the Mediterranean with the North Sea. Today, it remains a critical European waterway for the transportation of goods, especially those that are too big to be carried by train. It was also a Roman defense line, marking the boundary of the Roman empire and the “barbarian” (Germanic tribe) territory to the East. Today, the lower Rhine serves as the border between Germany and France.
Next, the Rhine passes through Speyer, Worms, and Mainz with their important cathedrals. All are cities that became wealthy during the Middle Ages partly due to their location on the river. These three cities also played a big role in Jewish history with remnants dating back as far as 900AD.
Along the way, the Rhine is intersected by the Neckar River, a major branch leading to the beautiful town of Heidelberg.
After passing Mainz, the Rhine enters a deep gorge with vineyard-covered hillsides dotted with castles atop steep rocky cliffs. This is the Rhine of myths such as the Lorelei, a siren who lured boatmen to their deaths with her beautiful song. The poem was inspired by the Lorelei Rock, a precipitous rock at a sharp bend in the river where a treacherous current caused many boating accidents. The Rhine Valley has also inspired countless poets, artists, and musicians, especially during the nineteenth century Romantic period.
There are many castles in this part of the gorge, fortifications built during the middle ages that extracted tolls from ships traveling on the river. Today, there are more than 30 castles open to the public. Some are fully restored and others in various states of repair. All have unique and interesting histories.
At Koblenz, the Mosel River – having made its way through a stunning river valley from Trier on the border with France and passing by beautiful Bernkastel Kues with its charming market square – joins the Rhine.
This junction is a place of German pride. It is the historic “Deutsches Eck” or German corner, featuring a statue of the first German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm.
As it flows north, the river widens and the land flattens out. It passes through Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, toward the ancient Roman city of Cologne, the largest city on the Rhine and site of the famous Cologne Cathedral.
Not far away is Düsseldorf, with its strikingly modern skyline.
After flowing past the heavily industrial Ruhr, the Rhine enters the Netherlands (where it is called the Rijn*), splits in three, and later, into smaller rivers, before ending its long journey at the North Sea.
*Of interest…Rembrandt was called “Rembrandt van Rijn”. Van Rijn refers to his hometown near the Rhine River.