Long Weekend Guide / Rhine River

How to Spend a Long Weekend in the Romantic Rhine Valley Without a Cruise

The Rhine river runs from south to north through Germany, originating in the Swiss Alps and emptying into the North Sea. This river is one of the most important natural resources in Germany, serving as a major thoroughfare for transport, industry and tourism. The Rhine Valley also happens to be one of Germany’s most picturesque regions to travel! Now not all of the Rhine is beautiful, but the Upper Middle Rhine Valley certainly is. 

Also called the Romantic Rhine, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley stretches between Koblenz and Rudesheim am Rhein. With its steep-sided banks covered with Riesling wine vineyards and topped with medieval castles, it’s no wonder that UNESCO declared this 65 kilometer stretch of the Rhine River a World Heritage Site. It is a beautiful section of river that offers plenty for tourists to explore! 

The Romantic Rhine is a popular destination for river cruises and many of Europe’s main tour companies visit the region on organized tours. However, there is no need to book an expensive cruise to see the Romantic Rhine — you can easily do it as an independent traveler! My husband and I have visited the Upper Middle Rhine Valley each year since moving to Germany as part of our anniversary celebrations. We’ve never done a full river cruise and yet, we have explored much of the region. I am here to share all of our insider tips on how to travel the Romantic Rhine without a cruise! 

This is Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Romantic Rhine

About the Upper Middle Rhine Valley

The 65 kilometer stretch of the Rhine River called the Romantic Rhine is considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of the river because of the landscapes, historic castles and wineries that line both sides of the river. Keep in mind that the Rhine is a working river in Germany, so it is typical to see large shipping vessels and tankers on the Rhine in addition to private and recreational boats. In fact, climate-change induced low water levels on the Rhine in 2018 had a worse economic impact for Germany than the great recession. 

The best time to visit the Upper Middle Rhine Valley is from May to October. If you visit in the off-season, you’re likely to find many of the restaurants and shops are closed. But in the heart of the season, formerly sleepy towns will be full of wine festivals, cycling groups and outdoor patio restaurants. While there will be more people around, it doesn’t feel particularly busy or crowded. 

How to Get Around the Romantic Rhine Without a Cruise

There are three primary ways to explore the Upper Middle Rhine Valley without using a cruise — car, train and bicycle. 

Obviously, renting a car is the easiest and most flexible option, but would probably be the most expensive option. The experience is pretty nice though, thanks the immaculate and well-cared German motorways. Parking is typically not an issue in this region, and you’ll find both free and paid parking options in almost every town. There is a two-lane highway on either side of the river, but there are only bridges to cross the Rhine in a few key areas. Remember to check your route before getting in the car, or else you might have some lengthy detours in between bridge crossings. 

If you opt to take the train, the main rail company in Germany is Deutsche Bahn. You can buy multi-day passes or individual fare tickets, and there are several stations along the Romantic Rhine. To get nice views of the river, you’ll want to look for regional routes (RE/RC) or the scenic routes (EC) instead of the high-speed routes (IC/ICE). There are regular stops in Boppard, Sankt Goar, Oberwesel, and Bacharach, all of which are featured in this Romantic Rhine itinerary.

The EC8 and EC9 are the best options because these trains have a glass-roofed panorama car for extra viewing opportunities. The main regional line runs on the west bank of the Rhine, so sit on the left-hand side of the train if you are going south and the right-hand side if you are going north. 

For a truly wonderful way to explore the Romantic Rhine, consider cycling! You’ll see plenty of cyclists using the riverfront path which is flat, paved and protected from cars. It is a super safe and scenic way to enjoy the region. The Rhine Cycle Route along the Romantic Rhine stretches 120 kilometres along both sides of the river between Rüdesheim and Remagen. If you get tired along the ride, you can always bring the bike onto the train and transport yourself with your bike to your final destination.

The Perfect 3 Day Itinerary for the Upper Middle Rhine Valley

Day 1: Koblenz and Boppard

Because of its advantageous location at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers, Koblenz is a perfect destination to start your Romantic Rhine vacation. You can see most of the major highlights within a few hours, so dedicate a morning and early afternoon to exploring this historic city. 

Koblenz ranks among Germany’s oldest cities and bursts with sights from the past 2,000 years. Start the day with a cable car ride over the Rhine river up to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. This strategic military outpost is perched on a high rock plateau that has been almost continually occupied since as early as the 4th century. The fort itself has been converted to a museum, which I found kind of boring. But what you really come up here for is the view! The fort offers the most incredible view of Koblenz and you will get a bird’s eye view of the Rhine + Moselle coming together. 

Head back down to the city for a few attractions and lunch before moving on to your next stop in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. For sightseeing, Koblenz’s old town hosts a variety of interesting sites, like the Basilica of St. Castor, Romanesque Church of Our Lady and the city’s history column, a sculptural marvel that documents the 2,000 year history of Koblenz. If you’re not one for sights, simply wandering the romantic alleys and narrows streets in the Altstadt will keep you occupied.

Germany is well-known for its nearly 20,000 castles, one of which sits just outside of Koblenz. Schloss Stolzenfels is a perfect stop on your way to Boppard. This 13th-century fortress was largely destroyed during the 30 Years War, but then rebuilt in the 1800s in neo-Gothic style. The castle can only be accessed on foot, and you’ll be required to park your car at the bottom of the steep hill. 

Similar to other castles in Germany, you can only see the interior on a guided tour and photography is strictly forbidden. When I visited, the tour was only in German but there were language translation sheets for each room, offering English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese translations. In the various rooms on the tour of Stolzenfels, you’ll find paintings, weapons, armor and furnishings from the mid-19th century which were left when the castle was abandoned. I especially enjoyed the quaint gardens surrounding the castle as well as the lovely views over the Rhine.

End your first day traveling in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley with a stop in Boppard. This charming and historic city will be your first introduction to the half-timbered houses that characterize many of the towns in this region of Germany. Boppard is a popular destination for wine lovers, thanks to its convenient location surrounded by vineyards. Each year in September, Boppard hosts a harvest festival which surrounds the Romanesque St. Severus Church and Main Square in the center of town.

For a delicious dinner with exceptional views, ride the Sesselbahn Boppard chairlift up to the top of the 240-meter-tall Gedeon hill. There is a lovely viewpoint at the top, offering sweeping panoramic views of the largest bend in the Rhine River. Before riding the chairlift back down, stop for dinner at the well-regarded Gedeonseck restaurant. The massive terrace is a perfect place to watch the sunset while drinking a beer and enjoying dinner.

Day 2: Sankt Goar + the Lorelei

Before leaving Boppard this morning, stop by the 2,000 year old Roman fortifications at the Roman Fort. This is widely considered one of the best-preserved antiquity fortresses in Europe, thanks to the preserved 28 circular towers and large sections of old walls. You can freely wander this ancient fortress to get a sense of the massive 12-acre footprint that it used to occupy. 

Continuing on, the next stop on your Romantic Rhine tour is Sankt Goar. This charming town sits on the west bank of the Rhine River, directly across from Sankt Goarshausen. Sankt Goar has a prominent church steeple, the Stiftskirche, overlooking the town as well as the Katz Castle, making it a representative Rhine town. You can also visit the 13th century Rheinfels castle which looms over Sankt Goar and give visitors an evocative hands-on castle experience on the river. 
Sankt Goar and Sankt Goarshausen are popular locations for ferry and cruise boat stops.

If you want to get out on the water for a short boat ride, this is the perfect place to do so. There are low commitment 1-2 hour cruise options with the KD River Cruise line. I particularly like this operator because they have several different boats running during the day. This gives you the freedom to jump off at one destination, and hop on another boat a few hours later. Make sure to grab a timetable (Fahrplan in German) to see all the scheduled trips the day of your ride.

If you would rather experience views of the Rhine and surrounding castles from above, consider taking a day hike on the RheinBurgenWeg (Rhine Castle Trail). This is a 200 kilometer long trail with 13 different stages or sections, and stages 7 – 13 are in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. This moderate scenic trail offers hikers unbeatable views of this region. On a sunny day, you’ll find plenty of outdoor-loving Germans on this trail. 

From Sankt Goar, a perfect day hike option is stage 10, a 9km path that ends in Oberwesel. If you get too tired for the walk back, you can always hop on the boat for a short ride back to Sankt Goar. The stage 10 RheinBurgenWeg hike will take about 3 to 3.5 hours, taking you past several cute towns as well as the fabled Lorelei. As the Lorelei myth goes, there was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a cheating lover. She was transformed into a siren who lured fishermen traversing this river to their deaths. 

I didn’t know how much Germans loved this myth until I was on a night cruise on the Rhine. When we passed by the Lorelei rock, people were pushing each other aside and telling people to move out of photos as if they were seeing some sort of cult celebrity. It was quite a highlight for German travelers and a funny cultural experience for the rest of us.

Day 3: Bacharach

Probably the cutest of all the Rhine towns, Bacharach is a genuinely enchanting place to explore in one day on your Romantic Rhine tour. It draws lots of tourists for its time-capsule quaintness, but don’t let that scare you off. It never feels overwhelmingly crowded, especially as you tuck into quaint alleys and lantern-lit streets. There are plenty of wood timbered houses in Bacharach to snap photos of, but don’t miss the one that dates back to 1368! It is called the ‘Altes Haus’ or old house in German, and is now a restaurant perfect for lunch or dinner. 

For some town views, take a short walk uphill to the Wernerkapelle ruins, which make a great Instagram backdrop. Also take a peek inside St. Peter church, a great representation of German romanesque and early French gothic architecture. Above the town, you’ll see Burg Stahleck, a medieval castle that now serves as a youth hostel, the Jugendherberge Stahleck. The hostel still rents cheap rooms to travelers of all ages with no surcharge for breakfast.

Bacharach is one of the best towns on the Rhine for wine tastings. The name actually derives from “altar to Bacchus” the god of wine, because of a medieval pope’s decree that wine be ordered from Bacharach by the cartload. If you happen to be in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley during September, Bacharach has one of the best wine festivals in the region with firework shows and illuminated ships on the Rhine. You can even sample Riesling wine ice cream — yes ice cream — at Eis Cafe Italia on Oberstrasse.

Day 4: Mainz (optional)

If you have a little bit of extra time in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, there are a few more worthy stops to hit. While traveling south along the Rhine towards Frankfurt, you’ll hit the picturesque old towns of Worms, famous for its splendid cathedral and Mannheim, well-known for its medieval architecture. Just outside of Mannheim is the beautiful Rhine Gorge, a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site that is considered one of the most beautiful places to visit in Germany.

Mainz is a great place to end your tour of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, because it is centrally located making it a perfect jumping off point to other parts of Germany or returning to Frankfurt. Red sandstone rock is used throughout the old city of Mainz, making it a picturesque place to explore in an afternoon.
Mainz itself boasts a rich and diverse heritage, and is absolutely flush with museums and cultural attractions. You can learn about the history of Mainz and Roman influences in Germany more generally at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum which maintains some of its most important artifacts in the historic Electoral Palace in Mainz. To learn about Roman sea faring, the Museum of Ancient Seafaring actually has full-scale replicas of Roman galleon ships. Did you always love the Gutenberg competitions as a school kid? Well you can see fascinating displays depicting the life and times of the inventor, who was born in Mainz, at the Gutenberg Museum.

Where to Stay in the Romantic Rhine

There are a lot of accommodation options for hotels, guest houses and pensions in the Romantic Rhine Valley. Some of the densest areas surround Boppard and Sankt Goar. In my opinion, one of the places you absolutely must stay while visiting this region of Germany is in a castle hotel. There are several medieval castles along the Rhine that have been converted into hotels and hostels, making for a unique and historic night sleep! 

Prices for castle hotels vary widely based on amenities. On the lower price end, there are hostal accommodations such as the one I mentioned in Bacharach (Jugendherberge Stahleck) or the Rheintal-Jugendherberge Hostel in Oberwesel.

For something a little bit more romantic, I absolutely loved our stay at Burghotel Auf Schönburg in Oberwesel. I had visited this place as a child with my parents, and returned in 2019 for an anniversary with my husband. Each room in the castle is unique and your overnight rate includes full board, including wine. The views here are incredible, and you can visit the attached museum and gardens for free. Another luxury castle hotel option is Burg Reichenstein in the tiny town of Trechtingshausen. The rooms here are a little more modern than Schönurg, but you can expect the same white glove service and full board at the castle restaurant, Puricelli.

Do you have questions about visiting the Romantic Rhine without a cruise? Comment below!

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