While a boat cruise is unmatched when it comes to taking in the beautiful curves of the Rhine River Gorge, the main advantage of touring the Rhine Valley by car is that it gives you a chance to explore the area in much greater detail. And there is so much to explore!
There are 25 castles nestled in the lush greenery on both shores of the Rhine. There are trails for hiking and biking through shadowy forests and across blooming meadows. There are picturesque villages like Assmannshausen and Bacharach welcoming you with delicious food and drink from the nearby vineyards. There are Roman ruins and Imperial monuments. Here is what I checked out on my Rhine Valley trip:
Rüdesheim am Rhein is the kitschy tourist mecca of the Rhine Valley, or as The German described it, “the only place in the Valley that every Chinese tourist knows.” Naturally, I loved it. Rüdesheim is like Rothenburg on crack – every building looks like it jumped off the page of a German fairy tale, what with whimsical murals and carvings and such – but infinitely more soaked in wine and wine imagery. It’s ADORABLE.
Essential Rüdesheim facts: It is a thousand years old with a population of 10 thousand people; it is located just over 30 minutes away from Mainz and an hour from Frankfurt; it’s a popular starting point for Rhine Valley boat tours; it houses the first German museum for data-storage musical instruments (who knew that this was a thing?) and a museum of medieval torture, and hosts an annual wine festival.
Whisper River Valley connects with Rhine at the small town of Lorch. It is probably one of the greenest places I have ever seen, anywhere – like a temperate jungle. Driving along its winding roads I felt like Nature was giving me a big, green hug. The German took me on the Wispertal micro-adventure in pursuit of the best lunch in the region, but I would gladly come back for a week of hiking the cliffs above Wisper and Rhine (and the best schnitzel ever).
Essential Wispertal facts: Whisper (river) is a Rhine tributary less than 30-km long. The town at its mouth, Lorch, has produced the Catholic Bishop of Oslo (Norway) and a deputy to a German cabinet minister. There are 5 private vineyards specializing in Riesling and Pinot Noir. The valley is very popular for hiking, camping and fishing, as it is a natural conservation area (peppered with medieval ruins).
Lorelei is a cliff 120 meters above the Rhine at one of its narrowest, curviest points. The name allegedly stems from a local beauty named Lorelei, who distracted shipmen passing through this dangerous part of the gorge with her sad song (about an unfaithful lover) and golden hair. With fatal consequences, of course. Personally, I liked Lorelei for the gorgeous views of the Rhine Valley.
Essential Lorelei facts. Lorelei is located mid-way between Rudesheim and Kolbenz. The cliff serves as an observation deck above the Rhine Valley, and there is a picturesque café just steps away, should you be craving some Weinschorle (as I always was). You can read the ballad of Lorelei in German or French here, or listen to the modern English-language interpretation of the legend.
Koblenz is the first real city you encounter on the north-bound trek along the Rhine after leaving the Mainz/Frankfurt area, and marks the northernmost point of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. There’s quite a bit to do, including touring a giant Ehrenbreitstein fortress that can be accessed by a funicular over the Rhine itself.
My favorites? I loved the EPIC Wilhelm I of Germany monument that paid tribute to the unification of Germany yet specialness of all its regions (there was something very Soviet and VDNKh-like about it), the sprawling biergarten on the banks of the Moselle River, and the Ehrenbreitstein-adjacent flower garden high above the Rhine that offered stunning views of Koblenz.
Essential Koblenz facts: the city is home to more than 100,000 people, it recently celebrated its 2000-year!!! Anniversary, the name means “confluence [of rivers – Rhine and Moselle]”, it’s been frequently occupied by the French, leading to some identity crises; and apparently it was considered as the capital of West Germany following the partition of the country after WWII, but lost out to Bonn…I do not remember why, but it had something to do with France.
Ok, so I did SEE quite a lot of them – just from a distance. But in-between feeling lazy and melting in 40C heat, I didn’t feel bad about missing out on strenuous uphill hikes (especially when I knew that those awaited me in Bavaria).
That said, here are the best Rhine Valley castles for exploring, if you’d like to journey back a thousand or so years: Rheinstein, Reichenstein, Soonek, Lahneck, Stolzenfels, Rheinfels, Marksburg and Sterrenberg. Most offer guided tours, special events for adults and kids, and restaurants serving regional cuisine – in the case of Sterrenberg, with a panoramic view of the valley. Several other Rhine Valley castles are full-time hotels – for those of us who like to vacation German-nobility-style. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t considering it…