Sail Into History, Part 3: Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Rhine River
Updated: Mar 20
Last week, we visited the beautiful Wachau Valley in Austria, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, we’ll look at UNESCO sites along the Rhine River, as well as another all-encompassing heritage site, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, typically referred to as the Rhine Gorge.
Stretching for approximately 40 miles from Mannheim in the south to Koblenz in the north, the Middle Rhine Valley is home to 40 hilltop castles and fortresses, as well as historic towns and vineyards that represent a long history of human settlement, as well as the gorgeous natural landscape of the region.
You’ll soon see why so many writers, artists and composers have been moved by this section of the Rhine. Here, we’ll take a closer look at the Rhine Gorge and inspire you with other incredible nearby sites you won’t want to miss.
Must-See Rhine River Sites
If your Rhine river cruise includes this stretch of the historic waterway, you’re in for a true treat. It’s a perennial favorite of day trippers and of those looking to extend their stay in the region before or after a cruise. There’s much hiking and cycling to be had, and simply enjoying the pristine flora and fauna of the region.
UNESCO has recognized the Rhine River for its importance in Germany’s history, geology, culture and industry, all of which you can learn about as you sail through. Be sure to not miss the Lorelei Rock outcrop, which stands more than 650 feet high.
I was fortunate to have time to explore the Wasserspiele and Wasserturm Mannheim (the fountains, gardens and ornate sandstone water tower).
If you’re a museum buff, you’ll want to spend a day in Mainz on the west bank of the Rhine, west of Frankfurt. This is also a fantastic jumping-off point for many of this region’s top sites, including the old town of Worms, with its gorgeous cathedral, and medieval Mannheim.
Among the many fine cultural institutions in Mainz:
Roman-Germanic Central Museum in the historic Electoral Palace
Museum of Ancient Seafaring with full-scale replicas of Roman galleons
Gutenberg Museum with exhibits celebrating the inverter of the moveable metal type printing technique (born in Mainz in 1398)
The Pfalzer Wald, or Palatinate Forest
Take a stroll through this heavily wooded area on the left bank of the Upper Rhine and you’ll feel like you’re in the midst of a fairytale. The huge forest completely surrounds both Kaiserslautern and Pirmasens, with gradual hills, as well as many high peaks, including the 2,208-foot-high Kalmit.
Most of the region is a designated nature preserve and you’ll find plenty of hiking and biking trails from which to choose. Work in a visit to Wachehheim on the eastern border of the forest, known for its Wachtenburg castle ruins and old-world grape-growing traditions.
After all that walking, visit the spa town of Wiesbaden, known for its numerous thermal springs and peaceful, pastoral surroundings (the town’s name translates to “meadow baths”). Visit the Fountain Colonnade in Kurbezirk and enjoy the Aukammtal spa district’s thermal baths and saunas. Choose from 15 springs at the Kochbrunne, and try out the Kaiser Friedrich Baths, dating from 1913.
One of the crowning jewels of the UNESCO World Heritage section of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the circa 1117 Marksburg Castle presides over the pretty town of Braubach. Fun fact: It’s the only hilltop castle in the Rhine Valley that has survived intact. Wander the town’s labyrinthian streets and admire the medieval, gingerbread-style architecture, visit the castle, and tour the 13th-century Barbarakirche church, the 11th-century Martinskapelle chapel and sections of the Old Town walls.
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