Road tripping by car through Europe can be a nice break from train travel and a way to see some smaller cities or stumble off the beaten path during your vacation. In addition, it is much MUCH cheaper than vacationing in Switzerland (trust me), and the views of the Bavarian mountains can be just as fabulous as the Swiss Alps. Although I strongly recommend train travel to get you to and from major cities (see Everything to know about train travel in Europe), we LOVED renting a car in Munich and driving through southern Germany and northern Austria and seeing the Bavarian mountains at our own pace. If you decide to spend a few days or a week traveling by car through southern Germany and northern Austria, here are some tips:
- Don’t skimp on the rental
Get a car with GPS navigation and speed limit updates. Change the language of the GPS ASAP. If you are unfamiliar with driving in Germany or don’t speak German, you absolutely need a GPS. Also remember you could be driving through hills/mountains. You may want a 4-wheel drive, particularly in the winter.
- Be careful on the Autobahn
The Autobahn looks like a typical highway (not the 20 lane futuristic road you may think of). You may have heard that there is no speed limit- the reality is that there is SOMETIMES a speed limit- and the speed limit can change frequently. This is the benefit of getting a rental that will inform you of the speed limit. Also note that Germany’s blue directional signs do not tell you direction (North, South, East, West). Rather, they tell you the name of the next city. Thus, you should try to know generally where you are headed. Again, this is why you need a GPS. Remember to drive carefully and cautiously, but don’t be a jerk. Use turn signals, and get out of the way if someone needs to pass you. Stay out of the left lane unless you are passing, as you will see some sports cars flying past you.
- Visit the Ludwig Castles
There is nothing quite like the Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau Castle, or Linderhof Palace. You should definitely visit these Ludwig Castles on your drive. They are breathtakingly beautiful and look just like the ones out of the fairy tales. If you visit, make sure you wear comfortable shoes- it is quite a hike up (to Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau) and there are a TON of stairs. Unfortunately, they are not handicap accessible. The tours are worth it, and they are offered at different times and in various languages.
- Check out a concentration camp
If your heart can take it, schedule a day just for a concentration camp. There are quite a few that now host tours throughout Europe, but Dachau is located just south of Germany and is easy to visit by car if you can’t make it all the way to Poland for Auschwitz & Birkenau. Check out my blog on Why Americans Need to visit Concentration Camps.
- Make sure to get a highway sticker if you cross into Austria
If you rent a car in Germany, they may not mention the Austrian highway sticker. Make SURE you get one (about 10 Euros) before you cross into the country. They sell them at gas stations. A ticket will charge you around 150 Euros if you’re caught, and I’ve heard that crying “tourist” won’t help your situation.
- Cross into Austria and visit Salzburg, then drive down to Gmunden and the Salzkammergut Lakes
This area is one of the most impressive picturesque stops of the trip. The lakes are gorgeous and are surrounded by the Bavarian mountains. There are opportunities for bike rides, hikes, etc., if you have the time!
- Go see Ice caves in Werfen & Chiemsee
Try to make it far enough east to see the largest ice cave in the world. If you come into Austria through Salzburg, this is a must! You will have to pay (around 20 Euros per person)- but there are some family rates available. Be advised that you will have to climb a lot of stairs (around 134 altitude meters). Also remember that it is an ice cave! Thus, wear warm clothes (gloves, scarves, hats, etc). Unfortunately, the ice cave is not handicap accessible.
- Stumble upon little German towns
One of my favorite parts of our road trip was stumbling upon some fabulous little towns like Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Oberammergau. A quaint, picturesque little German village, Garmisch-Partenkirchen had some fabulous little German shops and restaurants. We enjoyed walking through the village and finding a local hotel (that had a wonderful breakfast spread). If you’re there during Winter, ski! From Garmisch-Partenkirchen you can see Germany’s highest peak- Zugspitze. You can take a cogwheel train and Gletscherbahn cable car up to the top during certain months.
- Go see the Partnach Gorge
This is the perfect area for a hike if you want to be outdoorsy. Home to beautiful waterfalls and tranquil water basins, you can hike all around (various paths of different physical levels). They say this is the perfect place for summer and winter, though beware- it does get cold in the winter! You will need all-weather snow attire.
- This drive is not for those with diet restrictions
Although we are not vegetarians, picky eaters, or with any diet restrictions, I really found that restaurants offer somewhat limited dining options. I found German food mostly pork (Bratwursts, Leberkase (meat loaf), soups, etc.). While my husband LOVED Bavarian food, I was done with pork and pretzels by day 1. Lol. You may need to find a supermarket for special diet needs. They do have them, they may just be difficult to spot (they don’t look like Publix or Walmart lol). Also, if your “nicer” hotel has a breakfast spread option in the hotel price, get it! All of the breakfast options we had at our hotels were fabulous and had a lot of delicious options.