Baden-Württemberg, also known as Southwest Germany, is the enchanting land that has inspired fairytales. It also attracts droves to its healing hot springs, gourmands to its Michelin-starred restaurants and guests to its first-rate hotels. The region, which borders France to its west and Switzerland to its south, offers visitors a wide array of unique experiences, including a close-up view of the fabled Black Forest.
Hopping on the Autobahn, we zoom three and a half hours northwest from Munich, Bavaria’s capital city, and arrive at Baden-Baden. The town exudes a sense of elegant sophistication with its luxury boutiques, timeless architecture, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares and fragrant riverside gardens. The city center’s brightly colored buildings shade ivied homes, secluded courtyards and sculptural fountains spouting hot springs water.
The Romans discovered the area’s 12 thermal springs two millennia ago, and today, visitors flock to its healing waters, which are said to be restorative for those with ailments like arthritis. The city’s two spas are the sleek and modern Caracalla Spa and Friedrichsbad, the landmark (and clothing-optional) bathhouse. We opted to enjoy Caracalla’s marble indoor pool, outdoor baths, hot and cold indoor grottos, steam room and salt room. Two years ago, the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of the Great Spa Towns of Europe designation, which includes 10 other towns across seven countries.
Once the sun sets, Baden-Baden’s lavish casino comes alive, lighting up its emerald-green glass dome, ornate fixtures and radiant crystal chandeliers descending from its gold leaf ceiling. As Germany’s oldest casino, everyone from royalty to starlets have been gambling here since the 19th century. Enjoy a leisurely meal at Hectors, which serves elevated regional cuisine in a fancy setting, before heading next door to the tables. After hitting the jackpot, saunter alongside the river to sleep soundly in your comfortable Hotel Belle Epoque (hotel-belle-epoque.de) room overlooking the home’s secret garden.
A morning stroll through the serene botanical gardens leads to the Museum Frieder Burda, a contemporary art museum named after a denizen turned media mogul with a passion for collecting art. Or catch a show at the city’s concert hall, the country’s largest. Once you’ve had your cultural fix, Baden-Baden’s picturesque environs offer wine enthusiasts a portfolio of wineries that run along the Rhine River. Here pinot noir, Riesling, chardonnay and pinot gris reign supreme. For those hoping to be transported even further into the pages of legendary fairytales, commanding castles recline against towering mountains, like the Lichtenstein and Heidelberg, so make sure to pin a few along your route to explore.
Heading deeper into the Black Forest, winding through quaint villages, we experience the grand shadow of the coniferous trees that give the region its name, and we start to see how the forest helped inspire Brothers Grimm tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rapunzel.” An hour later we arrive to Baiersbronn and its crowning jewel, the Hotel Bareiss (bareiss.com). The family-owned hotel is the epitome of five-star hospitality, where guests are welcomed by name and every detail is orchestrated with a friendly smile and white-glove service. It’s also home to Restaurant Bareiss, which has earned three Michelin stars (among a few others in the area), and a lavish spa oasis with dreamy indoor and outdoor pools.
Upon our arrival, we’re escorted in an opulent Mercedes-Maybach to the property’s Forellenhof Buhlbach trout farm only to discover a building straight out of a fairytale, complete with bright red geraniums bursting from filigreed balconies. Come here for the freshly smoked fish pizza (trust us) and stay for the verdant forest views.
Other activities to look forward to in Baiersbronn include an herbal hike with a wild plant guide ending in a picnic with plants picked during your jaunt and known for their medicinal and culinary attributes. We also took a heart-pumping hike to Sattelei, a charming cabin with a spacious patio for sipping schnapps and savoring traditional regional cuisine. Save room for the indulgent Black Forest cake infused with cherry brandy.
As we continue our drive south, we finally get a glimpse of the brilliant Lake Constance and head straight to its shores to explore the botanical island of Mainau. The 100-acre private ancestral island turned public park is still managed by a family of counts and countesses. It’s home to 150-year-old trees, a collection of more than 1,000 orchids and roses, Germany’s largest butterfly sanctuary and an 18th-century baroque palace. It also has grandiose Disney-like seasonal flowering structures like the impressive multicolored peacock that welcomed us. The city of Konstanz, alongside the lake, which borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is a college town that balances youthful diversions like wine taverns and art studios with a well-preserved Medieval city center, pristine architecture with beautifully adorned facades, and several Michelin-starred restaurants.
Venturing out of the country’s main hubs and into Southwest Germany rewards travelers with endless activities. Regardless of your travel appetite, you’ll get your fill here in the land of adventurous hiking trails, stellar restaurants, heavenly spa retreats and enchanting castles. Perhaps you’ll even catch a glimpse of a fairy flittering among the Black Forest’s shadows.