Secret places: Germany's lesser-known gems

With its crumbling Nazi-era relics, mysterious Cold War remnants and natural wonders, ...

Posted: Dec 19, 2018 12:39 PM
Updated: Dec 19, 2018 12:39 PM

With its crumbling Nazi-era relics, mysterious Cold War remnants and natural wonders, Germany is packed with breathtaking sights and cultural curiosities that can be found in unexpected corners across the country.

While most visitors gravitate toward the major sights, such as the Berlin Wall and the castles of Bavaria, plenty of natural and historical marvels abound in little-known locations, if you're willing to march off the beaten path to find them.

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From cryptic bunkers to quiet islands to tiny Russian colonies, here are just some of Germany's lesser-known places to check out when you travel here.

Teufelsberg

Obscured in western Berlin's Grunewald forest, Teufelsberg -- or "devil's mountain" -- is an eerie hilltop that encompasses many chapters of Germany's haunting past. The site had been an empty wetland until the late 1930s, when the Nazi Party took over the grounds to build an elite military academy -- a project that they eventually abandoned as the war intensified.

After the war, a daily fleet of trucks began shuttling rubble out of devastated towns and dumping them onto the unfinished construction site, creating the man-made hill that now stands at nearly 100 meters.

But that wasn't the end of Teufelsberg's story. In the 1950s, Allied forces thought the artificial peak would be an ideal place for covert surveillance, and they erected a spy station on the mound that's almost entirely intact years later.

These days, Teufelsberg has been transformed into an artist colony, and for €8 visitors can wander through the premises to see the murals that have emerged among the historical remains.

Teufelsseechaussee 10 14193 Berlin

The Eagle's Nest

High on a mountain peak in the Bavarian Alps, the Kehlsteinhaus -- or "eagle's nest" -- is an unsettling piece of history found in a stunning setting. The Nazi-era teahouse and retreat was built as a gift for Adolf Hitler from his private secretary Martin Bormann, who commissioned the building in 1937.

According to historical accounts, however, Hitler had an aversion to heights and spent little time in the opulent hideaway. His longtime companion Eva Braun is said to have used it most often.

Perhaps because of Hitler's infrequent visits, the Eagle's Nest was virtually untouched during the war, and it has now become a beer garden and restaurant. Tourists can visit on a special bus, and the more adventurous can make a two-hour trek to an elevator shaft that juts up right inside the mountain.

Eagle's Nest, Oberschoenauer Str . 62 83471 Schönau a. Königssee; info@eagles-nest-tours.de

Heligoland

This tiny German archipelago is a frequently overlooked destination for quiet sightseeing, bird watching and other relaxing outdoor activities. But as unassuming as the small island may seem today, it has a fascinating past due to its location in the North Sea.

The island, which has been under Danish, British and German rule throughout its history, was used as a German naval point during World War I.

Later, the Nazis constructed bunkers and tunnels on the island's interior and built a large submarine base on its mainland. The island's inhabitants turned to the underground shelters to survive heavy bombing from British forces, but they were evacuated at the end of the war.

Heligoland then became a British bomb test site that withstood the world's largest non-nuclear explosion.

Eventually, Germany assumed ownership of the land again, and many of the original inhabitants reconstructed their homes on the island. Several WWII bunkers and historical sites are still open, and tourists can visit these while also enjoying the region's natural landscapes.

Heiliger Sand Jewish cemetery

With an ancient tombstone that dates to approximately 1058, the Heiliger Sand -- "holy sands" -- is often considered the oldest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe.

More than 2,500 graves honor the memory of a Jewish community that thrived throughout the centuries in the medieval city of Worms, located near the Upper Rhine in western Germany.

Several intellectuals, including the poet and thinker Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and the historian Rabbi Nathan ben Issak, are buried on the grounds.

But the most distinctive feature of the small space may be its resilience. The burial place somehow made it through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust untouched, and today, it's seen as a pilgrimage site that welcomes Jewish visitors from all over the world.

Heiliger Sand, Willy-Brandt-Ring 21, D-67547 Worms

Alexandrowka

After the death of the Czar Alexander I of Russia in 1825, the Prussian King Frederick William III built this small colony in the region of Potsdam to honor a longstanding friendship that the two rulers had enjoyed.

The tiny village, which was finished in 1827, was comprised of 13 intricate wooden houses that were eventually given to remaining members of a Russian soldiers' choir. The design of each house was meant to emulate Russian architecture of that era.

The colony now forms part of an area recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the houses has been transformed into a museum that contains several artifacts from the Russian families who lived in the homes.

Museum Alexandrowka, Russian colony 2 14469 Potsdam; info@alexandrowka.de

Probstzella GDR Border Station Museum

Between 1949 and 1990, more than 20 million people passed through this train station, situated at the halfway point between Berlin and Munich. Here, East German officers would examine passports and decide who could cross, and many times, who would be arrested.

Nowadays, the still-functioning station doubles as a museum, which opened eight years ago.

If visitors call ahead and pay €4, they can enter an exhibition room that contains documents and sound clips examining both successful and failed attempts to cross the western German border. Nearby, a few other attractions -- such as a German Democratic Republic guard tower -- offer other examples of how East Germany exercised its control.

Probstzella Border Station Museum, DDR-Grenzbahnhof-Museum Probstzella Bahnhof 07330 Probstzella; grenzbahnhof@web.de

Blankenese shipwrecks

As Germany's biggest port city, Hamburg is known for its seafaring traditions. But failed journeys make up part of the region's history, too.

One place that visitors can find vestiges of maritime disasters is along Blankenese beach, just west of Hamburg's central harbor.

The remnants of an old Finnish schooner that caught fire at sea in the 1920s are still visible along the shore. A rescue boat had dragged the burning vessel out toward the Elbe River and left it there, and it still peeks out from the water, just 300 meters from the lighthouse of Blankenese.

Nearby, several scraps from World War II-era submarines and part of an old barge that sunk near the area in 1975 are also easy spot when the tide is low.

Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes

Legend has it that a magical fairy once appeared inside these 16th-century salt mines in Thüringia's town of Saalfeld, and the enchanted visit has given the caves their name.

They've been recognized by the Guinness Book Of World Records as the most colorful collection of stalactites and stalagmites on earth, and since opening to the public in 1914, anyone can travel 26 meters underground to take in their prismatic beauty.

While the dripstone world is the main attraction, a visit to the Saalfeld grottoes also includes an interactive exhibition that discusses mining traditions from the Middle Ages and the science behind the minerals that have created the intricate rock formations.

Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes, Feengrottenweg 2, 07318 Saalfeld

Hitler's Olympic Village

After Germany won the bid to host the 1936 Summer Olympics, Adolf Hitler ordered a lavish Olympic village built in Wustermark, just a half hour outside of Berlin.

His vision included a 120,000-person stadium, state-of-the-art residence halls for 4,000 athletes and other high-end accommodations meant to showcase the power of the Nazi Party, despite the dark, anti-Semitic policies that had already started to devastate the country.

Once the war started, the opulent facilities had to be converted into hospital and emergency sites, and at the end of the conflict, the Soviets transformed the spaces into military barracks. Eventually, the village that was supposed to represent prosperity was abandoned and fell into decay.

Visitors can check out what remains of the complex, and several daily tours are on offer between April and October (2019 dates are not available yet, but more information can be found online or via email at olydo@dkb-stiftung.de).

Regierungsbunker

The regierungsbunker -- "government bunker" -- had been one of the most secret structures in German history until it opened as a museum just 10 years ago.

Now, anyone interested in learning about the 3,000-person site -- built to protect the German government from a nuclear attack during the Cold War -- can simply book a 1.5-hour tour through a maze of winding tunnels in the town of Ahrtal near the western city of Bonn.

The bunker, which was originally intended as a railway tunnel connecting to France, had been expanded by the Nazis and used to store rockets during World War II.

Starting in the 1960s, the West German government adopted the bunker and built out features like a decontamination chamber, conference room and control center -- all of which are currently open to the public.

Dokumentationsstätte Regierungsbunker, Am Silberberg 0, 53474 Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler

Krämerbrücke

Erfurt, located in the central region of Thuringia, is known for its pretty market squares and medieval architecture.

The city is also home to the Krämerbrücke, or Merchants' Bridge, which extends along a branch of the Gera River. Originally built in wood and rebuilt in stone in 1325, the small span is completely lined with tiny, picture-perfect timber houses that make it the longest inhabited bridge in the world.

These days, the little homes have been converted into antique and artisan shops that visitors can browse while getting to know Erfurt's well-preserved historic center. In the summer, the bridge is the focal point of the annual festival Krämerbrückenfest.

Krämerbrücke, Erfurt; +49 361 66400

Röthbach Waterfall

The stunning Triberg Falls, tucked in the Black Forest, often gets credit as Germany's tallest cascade.

However, that's not exactly accurate. The Röthbachfall is actually the highest, with a fall of approximately 470 meters, but it doesn't always get its due credit since it's hidden away in the Königssee area of Upper Bavaria.

Luckily, Röthbachfall has become easier to visit in recent years. Visitors can get closer to the falls via a boat ride from the Königssee Tourist Center that stops near the area of Salet. The falls are at their most spectacular in the summer.

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