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The Rhein River is one of Europe’s most important rivers and one that is world famous for its stunning landscapes. One of the most popular stretches of the Rhein River is that of the Middle Rhein, meandering from Bingen to Koblenz is home to some of the best wines in Germany. The region is lined with steep rolling hills of vineyards, castles in ruins and quaint little wine towns that time forgot and is nicknamed the “Romantic Rhine”.
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Are you looking to do a river cruise down the Rhein region and explore some of Germany’s most beautiful landscapes and taste the wines of this famous region? While the Rhein stretches all the way from Lake Constance in Switzerland all the way to the Netherlands and into the North Sea, there is a lot to see and do on the Rhein River, so I’m here to shine a light on this one portion of the Rhein River in case you decide you’d rather explore the area on your own, popping from one wine town to the next, stopping at castles, wineries, abbeys and cloisters along the way.
A Short History of the Rhein River
The Rhein is broken up into four main sections: High Rhein, Upper Rhein, Middle Rhein and Lower Rhein. The Middle Rhein consists of everything between Bingen and Koblenz, which is one of the most picturesque portions of the Rhein river. So much so that in 2002, the Upper Middle Rhein became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here, in the Valley of the Loreley, there is no shortage of castles to visit as there are over 40 castles and fortresses along the banks of the river scattered about between quaint wine growing villages strung along the river like a string of pearls.
You’ll find not only many wine towns, hills full of vines and sporadically topped with castles, but also some of the best Rieslings, not just in Germany, but in the world. It’s no wonder that this part of the Rhein River is considered the “Romantic Rhein”. It is the very definition of Rhein Romanticism and has been known to even inspire Heinrich Heine to write his famous poem “Lorelei” (for yours truly, of course) and operas by the likes of Richard Wagner.
Wine-making in this region dates as far back as the 11th century. The Romans had abandoned the region in the 5th century but soon the Franks had moved in and ever since the 11th century, wine has increasing been produced here because of the steep slopes, the ideal growing conditions produced by the Rhein River and being on the right latitude.
Using This Guide
So without further ado, I introduce you to the most important towns, on both the left and right banks of the Rhein River with stops at some of the most desirable castles and wineries to visit in between, mostly focusing on the Middle Rhein and a few places of the Upper Rhein.
Some towns offer more to see and do than others and there are some worth skipping entirely. I’ve saved you the disappointment of visiting towns not worth the time to visit, having thought so otherwise. However, after being sorely disappointed myself to find several towns mentioned as a place to visit only to find that there was nothing to see or do was shocking. Lorch was one of these towns.
For purposes of clarity, this post will contain sights to see along the Rhein between Eltville and Boppard. The Upper Rhein consists of the last towns (Eltville to Rüdesheim) and with the Middle Rhein consisting of everything between Bingen and Boppard with the last stop at Marksburg Castle.
Now, you can either explore the left side of the river and then the right side (or vice versa), which is the most logical. If you’re extra motivated, you can even bike along the river. Or you can zig zag your way, back and forth across the river using only ferry boats, There are no bridges across the Rhein River in this portion of the river, unless you head back to either Mainz/Wiesbaden or Koblenz. For the sake of this blog post, it is written out in chronological order by looking at a map of the Rhein River and its towns without the intention of driving the entire length of the left and right sides of the river.
Visiting the Rhein on a Budget
This guide is to show you that you can visit the Rhein region on a budget and you don’t need to take a fancy river cruise to enjoy it. Simply rent a car, or visit many of the towns on either side of the river by train. Many hotels also offer bikes to rent making it even more affordable to explore the Rhein!
The most important tip for visiting the Rhein region in Germany is to visit during the off season, between March and early May or at the latter end between October and November. Peak season on the Rhein is from end of May to September. Prices jump exponentially, towns are full and the roads are lined with traffic all streaming into the area, making parking also difficult to find!
Getting Around the Rhein River
Regional Trains & Buses in the Rhein Valley
Traveling by train along the Rhein River is also possible and therefore is easy to catch trains from Frankfurt, Wiesbaden or Mainz via the DeutscheBahn. If you are without a car, once you arrive by train, getting around by bus is also possible between towns by using the Rhein-Main-Verkehrsbund Bus app or online. On both sides of the river, trains connect all of these small towns making it incredibly easy to buy a Rheinland-Pfalz ticket and jump from one town to the next, unlimited within 24 hours. Trains typically run much more often on the east bank, running between Frankfurt and Koblenz.
Driving by Car in the Rhein Valley
There are no bridges between Koblenz and Wiesbaden/Mainz. That means either exploring one whole side of the river and crossing at one of the bridges and making a loop, or taking a car ferry across the Rhein river at many locations along the way. There are ferries between many of the villages across from one another, so it’s easy pop back and forth. For a car with two people, we paid 7,50€ for a one way ticket. Simply follow road signs with a boat to head to the harbor to drive right onto the ferry. Once parked, pay for your journey!
Day Cruises in the Rhein Valley
And if you’re interested in casually cruising down the Rhein River on one of the daily tourist boats, there are quite a few landing stations located at many of the towns where you can also hop on, hop off. You can also consider taking a round trip river cruise from Koblenz to Rüdesheim, or any of the other river cruise options if you want to have a full day leisurely exploring the Rhein River and all its romantic castles.
The Best Rhein River Cruises
Major river cruises lines such as Viking River Cruises, Uniworld River Cruises, Tauck, and Avalon Waterways to name a few all cruise down the Rhein River, many offering trips from Amsterdam to Budapest, Hungary with the season starting in early April until November, sometimes also with cruises during the Christmas Market season.
Sat along the North side of the Rhein River, Eltville is considered to be the largest and oldest town in the Rheingau region and finds itself also along Germany’s Half-Timber-Frame Road. The half-timbered houses here date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. This region is world famous for the wines grown here, but other than wine, there are a few important sights to see in Eltville, such as the St. Martin’s Gate, Sebastian’s Tower, the Eltville Castle.
The town itself has had the nickname of “Rosenstadt” (Rose City) since the 19th century because a Rose School was established here and today, over half a million roses bloom here, with over 350 different varieties of roses.
Don’t just come here to stop and smell the roses, but also enjoy their promenade here and try some of the local wines at their Weinprobierstand (Wine tasting stand). And if wine isn’t for you, then head to the Eltville Altstadt Cafe and order a coffee with a decadent Original Eltville Rose Cake (Rosentörtchen) made with Marzipan and Rose gelee in the center to excite your tastebuds!
A short drive up the hills from Eltville and before reaching Oestrich-Winkel, you’ll find one of the most historic abbeys in Germany, Kloster Eberbach. I had the lucky pleasure of getting lost here when I was on a high school exchange program, hiking from the town to the cloister, but thankfully as an adult, I was invited by Bottle Stops to do a wine tasting which made up for my lack of reading a map skills.
It was first established as a Cistercian abbey in 1136 and the first monks from Burgundy brought their wine making expertise with them, establishing the monastery as the still world famous wine maker. Even if you’re not a dig fan of drinking wine, the abbey itself is well worth the visit for its well-preserved medieval interior, but be sure to pop down into their wine cellar to check out the antique wine-presses.
With over 800 years of viticulture experience, wine at Schloss Vollrads is an experience definitely worth having. As one of Germany’s oldest wineries, they have been producing Riesling has been their pride of joy. The family lived in a moat tower for years as they began their endeavor to produce fine Rieslings before finally building the castle wings in 1684. Most of the castle is not open to the public but you can take a guided tour if you wish. While here you can also pop into the wine shop as well as enjoy their “Weingarten” with a glass of wine purchased from their wine stand in the courtyard.
On a nice enough day, leave your car parked here and take a 30 minute hike from Schloss Vollrads to Schloss Johannisberg and hit up two castles in one day so you can try some of the best wine in the region. If you’re feeling extra motivated, consider hiking the entire Rheingau Riesling Route.
Geisenheim & Schloss Johannisberg
While Geisenheim isn’t exactly at the top of any list of towns to visit on the Rhein River, there is however a reason to visit nonetheless. Not mentioned in any of my tour guide books which shocked me to my bones is a historic castle world-famous in the wine world for its significance for being the world’s first Riesling winery and the inventor of both Pinot Noirs (Spätburgunder) and Ice Wine (Eiswein). How did I come to hear of it? Actually, on a TV history program which led me to doing a 6 month internship at the winery.
Schloss Johannisberg, is perfectly situated atop a hill overlooking the charming town of Geisenheim. Prior to becoming the world famous winery it is today, a monastery was established here during the times of Charlemagne, around 1100 A.D. In 1716, the estate was bought by the Prince-Abbot of Fulda who built the palace you see today, establishing the world’s first Riesling winery in 1720.
Easily one of the most popular wine towns along the Rhein, which many cruise ships stop at for excursions here, Rüdesheim can be easily overrun by tourists for the day. If the amount of tourists doesn’t shock your system and the fact that the town clearly caters to American and Asian tourists, then the town’s lack of charm and beauty will in comparison to many other towns in the region. Unfortunately, that’s because a good portion of the town was destroyed during WWII and was quickly rebuilt in mismatching styles. However, don’t let that turn you off entirely, as there are cute corners and alleys here and there that are still worth a visit, especially Drosselgasse and the Brömserhof. On the plus side, there are quite a few spots in town to pop into to do some wine tasting of local wines, including an old wine cellar offering 5 tastings for 5€.
While here though, be sure to also take the Sielbahn, a cable car for two, up to the Niederwald Monument with picturesque views over rows and rows of vines, not to mention the town of Rüdesheim and along the Rhein.
Consider doing the Ring Ticket by taking the Sielbahn in Rüdesheim up to the Niederdenkmal Monument, walking to Assmannhausen where you can catch Sesselbahn before walking down into the town, back down to the river to catch the Bingen-Rüdesheim ferry boat back to Rüdesheim.
One of the most important wineries to visit in Rüdesheim and the Rheingau region is without a doubt Georg Breuer Winery, which dates back to 1880. In the 1980’s, the winery received international recognition within the wine world because of the vision of Bernhard Breuer in helping to reinvigorate the region and advocating for the highest quality of wine thus helping to boost the reputation of German wines from the Rheingau.
If you’re short on time to physically visit as many wineries in the Rheingau to taste their wines, have no fear. While in Rüdesheim, directly across from the train station, you can pop into Vinothek Rheinwelt Rüdesheim. Here, you can try over 160 different wines from 80 wineries in the region, stretching over 200km with the purchase of 10 or 20 coins to pop into the wine dispenser. As you sip and swirl your wine, (if you speak German), you can read the info boards on display about each wine maker. If you don’t speak German, simply admire the amazing artwork also adorning the walls. Should you find a wine you have to take home, stacks of wines on offer are ready for you to take home.
If you have more time that just a few hours with the cruise ships, pop over to the Asbach Distillery.
Bingen is located at the convergence of the Nahe into the Rhein River and it is here that 2000 years ago, the Romans built a citadel. One of the main sights of interest in Bingen is Burg Klopp, perched upon a hill in the middle of the town, which was most likely built during the time of the Romans. However, the castle was surprisingly blown up by the Cathedral Chapter of Mainz to prevent it being used as a base in any future wars. However, it was rebuilt in the 15th century.
While the promenade along the banks of the Rhein is certainly enjoyable, and a walk up to Burg Klopp is suggested, especially for panoramic views over the region, there is not much reason to actually explore the historic city center of Bingen. It is mostly just a pedestrian area lined with random shops for locals, nothing really aimed at tourists. While I did find an enjoyable cafe, I did not find anything else in terms of a sit down restaurant worth eating at.
From Bingen you can enjoy a great view across the Rhein of the castle ruins of Ehrenfels as well as the entire vine-line hillside with the Niederdenkmal Monument, of the Germania proudly looking out over the region.
Another rather cute town to consider visiting in the Rheingau is Assmannhausen (and yes, I’ll try not to chuckle at that name). Surprisingly, for being a this town among Riesling wine growers, this town is actually famous for its red wines, especially for their Spätburgunder, or Pinot Noir. Here, picturesque half-timbered houses are strewn together along the banks of the Rhein nestled up to sun-drenched slopes.
Here you can take a chair-life up and then a short hike to the Niederwald Monument, the same monument you can see from while visiting Rüdesheim. Once up here, you’ll have amazing views over the Rhein, as well the chance to visit a hunting lodge or take any number of footpaths which lead to various viewpoints.
Assmannhausen is a good place to stop for lunch or a coffee as there are quite a few restaurants and cafes here.
Between Assmannhausen and Lorch is a small village called Kaub, which is worth a quick peak, if not for stopping to admire the castle in the middle of the Rhein River called the Pfalz, short for Burg Pfalzgrafenstein on a small strip of land known as the island fortress. Victor Hugo once described this castle as “a ship of stone, eternally afloat upon the Rhein, and eternally lying at anchor.” It was built by Ludwig the Bavarian in 1325 to levy tolls on any shipping down the Rhein.
It is possible to visit the castle, reached by boat with a guided tour.
On the Rheinland-Palatinate side of the Rhine River, Burg Rheinstein, Burg Reichenstein and Burg Sooneck are a hop, skip and a jump apart from one another and can easily be confused.
From Assmannhausen, you’ll have a direct view of this beautiful castle! Burg Rheinstein in the town of Trechtingshausen, dates back to around 900 A.D. and originally used as a customs house until over time, the structure had become quite dilapidated without ever being destroyed by attack. Redesigned in 1823 by Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia to give it a neo-Gothic look to turn it into a summer residence, this lovely castle set a trend that would become popular throughout the rest of the valley. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination, hotel and restaurant.
With the purchase of a 2€ castle brochure, you can conduct your own guided tour of the castle. To reach this castle, you’ll need to park below the castle, along the main road and hike up a rather step and winding path up to the castle.
Pro-Tip: If you plan on visiting some of the castles, be sure to purchase the Kombi-Ticket for Burg Rheinstein and Burg Sooneck upon arrival at one of the castles, thus saving you some money!
Easily reached from the town of Trechtingshausen, Burg Reichenstein is one of the oldest castles, dating back to the 11th century, decorated with hunting trophies, armor and is fully furnished with timeworn pieces. Today, it is both a hotel and a restaurant and therefore quite easy to visit, however, this castle is definitely NOT dog-friendly, therefore, you’ll only be able to view the inner courtyard.
From the opposite side of the river, you have a straight shot of Burg Reichenstein and can admire all its glory from a distance! This castle is easy to reach by car, though there is a rather small parking lot at the top.
First mentioned in 1271, this fortress castle has had a rich history! Like several other castles in the region which followed the trend of renovating and rebuilding dilapidated castles along the Rhein in the 19th century, this castle also underwent such a makeover, contributing to what is known as “Rhein Romanticism”.
Self-guided are available daily and its easy to reach by parking below the castle with a short hike up. This castle is both child-friendly and dog-friendly. The castle has organized treasure hunts for children to search for clues as they learn about the castle. While dogs are not directly allowed inside of the museum, they are allowed to enter the castle grounds, so long as they remain on a leash. The interior is simple and displays lots of hunting trophies and armor, with a few paintings depicting scenes from previous wars.
While lots of nooks and crannies to explore with views for days, Burg Rheinstein is definitely one of the best castles to visit on the Rhein! This castle is easy to reach with a large parking lot below and a short 10 minute or less hike to the castle.
Don’t forget to purchase your Combi-Ticket for Burg Sooneck and Burg Rheinstein at the ticket office!
By far one of the loveliest towns along the Rhein River is Bacharach, nestled behind a 14th century wall which can be walked along, offering fine views over the town. Bacharach is easily one of my favorite half-timbered towns in Germany, with the Altes Haus as the town’s pride and joy which is so wonky looking it looks like its leaning in every which direction but makes for one incredibly beautiful picture.
Perched atop the hill overlooking the town is Burg Stahleck, a Youth Hostel in a former castle I had the pleasure of staying in when I was a high school exchange student. The castle dates back to the 12th century and can be reached via a short hike passed the Peterskirche.
Another popular town for river cruises down the Rhein is Oberwesel which is snuggled up along a small bend along the Rhein River. Upon closer inspection, this town boasts lots of turreted towers, church steeples and a medieval wall which encircles it with Schloss Schönburg overlooking this quaint little town, which by the way, is also a youth hostel! It’s no wonder the town’s nickname is “town of many towers and wine”, especially with gently sloping vineyards which surrounds the town.
With custom duties collected here in Oberwesel for Count von Stahleck, Oberwesel became one of the wealthiest towns along the Rhein, hence the size of it in comparison to other towns.
A walk around the “city center” and you’ll notice exactly how quaint this town is. A few shops, a few restaurants and ice cream parlors are all that immediately encourage you to stroll around. A hike up to the St. Martin Church can provide an extra bit of sightseeing, though not entirely necessary. Here, we didn’t even so much as find a tourist gift shop!
St. Goar and St. Goarhausen and the Loreley
St. Goar and St. Goarhausen are definitely much more popular due to the proximity of the legendary Loreley, though they are on opposite sides of the river. They are however, connected together via ferry boat.
For more than 200 years, the myth of the Loreley has fascinated river goers, of an alluring siren famous for combing her blonde hair, while sat atop the giant rock crop overlooking the town and bewitching the sailors with her immense beauty and song as they sailed passed one of the most treacherous parts of the Rhein River. The portion of the Rhein River is the narrowest point along the entire length of the river between Switzerland and the North Sea. Today, there is a statue of the Loreley on a small strip of land in the Rhein honoring this legend, sadly, it’s not of me, but I do like to hope I have such charming effects on unsuspecting men.
There are two locations to get a glimpse of the Loreley. One being at river level, perched at the tip of a narrow strip directly on the Rhein River, while the second can either be hiked to, drive to or by shuttle bus, to the Loreley Visitor center and offers impressive views over the Rhein.
With a visit to Sankt Goarhausen, “the Loreleystadt” (city), be sure to eat at the Cafe Restauarant Loreley and have a slice of their Loreley-Sahne-Kirch Torte (Cherry Cream) cake with a hint of alcohol before having lunch at the Lorelei Weinstübchen.
Burg Katz and Burg Maus
Notice the names of both castles, cat and mouse. The 13th century Burg Katz (“Cat Castle”) is located above St. Goarhausen and got its name from the Counts of Katzenelnbogen which was built to trump the Archbishop of Trier’s own castle, located just a mere 3km down the way, originally called Burg Peterseck. but which became known as “Mouse Castle” Burg Maus, playing on the cat-and-mouse theme. Burg Maus is the second of only two castles on the Rhein River never to have been destroyed. However, Burg Katz is a private residence and therefore not open to the public.
Located just out of reach of a horseshoe bend in the Rhein River, Boppard is surprisingly quite touristy despite lacking in interesting sights to see, however it is still one of the loveliest towns to visit on the Rhein. There is however, a lovely promenade to stroll, as well as the Vierseenblick, a great viewpoint area which can be reached by the Sesselbahn Boppard chairlift which offers views over the horseshoe bend in the Rhein river.
The most impressive sight to see in Boppard is easily the Alter Burg on the Promenade, not far from the main Marktplatz while a walk around the charming half-timbered main square and the impressive 12th century Basilica St. Serverus you’ll find a few ice cafes and tourist shops.
Last stop to visit before reaching Koblenz, Marksburg Castle is yet another magnificent castle perched on a hilltop overlooking the Rhein river above the town Braubach. With seven defensive guns to defend this castle, it’s an impressive sight to see. With a region in constant turmoil, it’s a testament to the the strength of this castle that it still stands whole. It is considered to be the only remaining knights’ castle along the Rhein River, having never been destroyed, thus making it a truly authentic medieval gem. Today, the castle is open to visitors and a short tour will give you a glimpse into the Gothic grand hall, an armory with truly horrendous medieval torture tools as well as an impressive kitchen.
Hiking and Biking in the Rhein Valley
While we had intended to rent some bikes while I was living in the area doing an internship to bike the Rhein, we never got around to it. However, it’s HIGHLY recommended to either bike the Rhein Valley or hike through any of the various hiking paths in the Rhein Valley. Both offer a different point of view and experience of the region.
Biking the Rhein Valley is easy, especially if you stay directly along the biking paths that line both sides of the Rhein River, taking you up close to many of the towns. Along the way, you’ll find a bunch of Weinprobierstands “Wine Tasting Stands” where you can catch your breath, enjoy a glass of local wine and take in the views.
Hiking in the Rhein Valley brings its own set of joy as much of it is through endless rolling hills and paths of vineyards. Biking through here is also an option if you’re extra motivated. There are many recommended day hikes to enjoy while in the Rhein Valley, especially the RheinSteig Weg which takes you through some of the loveliest vineyards and main sights along the path.
When booking a hotel, check to see if they offer bike rentals if you’re not able to bring your bike with you. If not, head on any of the tourist officers along the Upper Middle Rhein Valley as they also offer bikes to rent for the day, including E-bikes.
Major Events on the Rhein River
Rhine in Flames (Rhein im Flammen)
Between May and September, there are FIVE occasions to experience a unique tradition in the Rhein Valley dating back to the 1700s, marking the cerebration of the change of government. The Rhein in Flames is an exciting illumination of historic, cultural castles and landscapes with fireworks and light shows in Bonn, Bingen, Rüdesheim, Spay & Koblenz, Oberwesel, as well as St. Goar and St. Goarhausen. In a matter of seconds, it looks like any of these locations has suddenly burst into flames, illuminating the night sky. For the best views, be sure to pre-book tickets on any of the boats, ferries or day cruises.
When to experience the Rhine in Flames:
- The first Saturday in July at Bingen/Rüdesheim.
- The second Saturday in August from Spay/Braubach to Koblenz.
- The second Saturday in September at Oberwesel.
- The third Saturday in September at St. Goar/St. Goarshausen.
Other events and festival in the Rhein Valley
In the Rheinland-Palatinate, there are endless festivals, events, Christmas Markets to experience throughout the year, so be sure to check out the events calendar here.
In the Rheingau, major events include the Rheingauer Music Festival, Schlemmerwoche where many small wineries open their doors for a week, encouraging winery hoping and tasting, not to mention Christmas Markets at Schloss Johannisberg and Rüdesheim.
However, despite being nicknamed the “Romantic Rhein”, excluding the unquestionable natural beauty and romantic castles, the towns are anything but romantic. There are definitely clusters of picture perfect corners to be found in many of the towns, but upon closer inspection, despite being old world charm, many towns have long since seen their glory days.
A walk through any of these once charming towns and you’ll be surprised that there are far too many boarded up store fronts, shabby shops and restaurants that clearly cater only to tourists without selling locally made products with pride. It’s clear that many corners of these towns haven’t seen renovation and modernization in decades, and why should they when hoards of tourists are quickly bustled through the towns buying products made anywhere other than Germany, making just enough to make it to the next season.
For me, now that I’ve had the chance to live for a few months and seen the region quite in depth, I don’t necessarily need to revisit it again, if only for the wine.