The 65-kilometre section of the Rhine River between Koblenz and Bingen called the Upper Middle Rhine Valley or the Rhine Gorge is frequently described as the most scenic section of the Rhine River (Rhein in German). That was our target, but how best to see it? Options included a boat trip (or as part of a longer river cruise), renting a car and driving the loop, or riding the trains that run along both sides of the river and ferries to cross as needed. We opted to stay at a river-side hotel about halfway down the gorge for four nights and used the trains and ferries to get around.
Settled in our hotel, our next task was to narrow down what we would try to see in the three days that we had to explore. One map showed 25 castles, not including the ones in Koblenz at the top end of the gorge (where we had booked a three-night stay since we were unable to reserve more than four nights down river). Since some of the castles were also reachable from Koblenz, our plan was to focus on the lower half of the area first. Realizing that visiting 25 castles would be impossible, we found a guide to help us narrow it down to the best 14 castles.
Once we determined that getting up to the castles, which were mostly perched on cliffs or ridges, was going to be a manual effort (where were the buses, taxis, funiculars?), we whittled the list of 14 down to six.
We headed for our first town with a castle we thought we would explore. There were two in the vicinity, and we’d read that you could get up to the first one (the one we weren’t planning to explore) and then there was a pleasant trail to the next one. After climbing (pulling myself up by the handrails, more accurately) a short but very steep and gravelly trail to the first one, we were told that, no, there was no trail to the other castle. You had to go back down, along the road, and then climb back up again to the next castle.
After finding a much-safer road to walk down so we could avoid the trail, we reasoned that many castles could be appreciated from a distance, as they have to be when being viewed from a cruise ship or boat. We didn’t actually have to climb up to them all to see and enjoy them, right?
In the end, we managed to see almost all of the castles on our original list from varying distances–some from the train, some from right below them in town, some from across the water; during our three days in the gorge, we only climbed up to one (we climbed up to our final castle while in Koblenz, so more on that in a future post).
We also visited the towns of Sankt Goar, Sankt Goarshausen, Bingen, Boppard and Bacharach.
Sankt Goar/Sankt Goarshausen
We stayed in Sankt Goarshausen right across the river from Sankt Goar. A little ferry spun its way across the river every 20 minutes between the two, and day-trip sightseeing boats seemed to stop at both towns. When you are in one town, you are viewing the castles and buildings across the river so it’s hard not to group them together. Sankt Goar is the larger of the two, with more accommodation, dining, and shopping options. From Sankt Goar you can access Fortress Rheinfels, a castle ruins now attached to a hotel. Sankt Goarshausen has Castle Katz and nearby is Castle Maus. A hike up to a high ridge will get you to a lookout from where you can view all three castles.
We’re not sure if it was a result of COVID or because it was early in the season (early June), but many restaurants didn’t seem to be open or had very restricted hours. Sankt Goarshausen has a wine museum with tastings and a winery, but neither was open when we were available to go.
Bingen is the southernmost stop of the so-called prettiest section of the Rhine Valley. We rode the train the full way to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Vineyards creep up the hills everywhere, some along extremely precarious terraced hillsides. We did hop off the train in Bingen but, really, unless you have plenty of time it’s not a town that you need to stop at.
This is the one that we climbed up to. The pathway wound up behind houses and into a forested area and it was in pretty good shape (at least I wasn’t imagining sliding down it on the return trek). Marksburg can only be visited with a tour, and they were only doing one English tour a day later in the afternoon. You can join a German tour and they provide an English leaflet so you have at least some of the information. We got lucky since the tour that we were added to was an extra English group tour for a high school exchange group. We would have missed a lot had we only been able to read the little blurbs on offer.
As the tour finished, we all heard thunder clapping above the castle and exited into a massive downpour. We tried to wait it out over a coffee, but finally gave up and headed back down the trail in the pouring rain. The trail held up, but it was a little river in several places and we arrived back at the train quite soggy. Still, the castle visit was worth it.
We had read that Boppard warranted a visit, but until we started to dig into why we didn’t realize that there was a chairlift up to one viewpoint that overlooked the largest bend in the whole Rhine River and another, the most promoted, called Vierseenblick (Four Lakes Viewpoint). The latter was supposed to result in a view of the river that made it look like four lakes rather than a continuous river. You can choose to climb up rather than taking the chairlift, but after viewing the pathway below the chair that would be a big no for me.
Once at the top, a short hike gets you to a restaurant advertising a panoramic terrace, but the signs continue to point to the famous Vierseenblick so off we went to find it. My take on the Vierseenblick is that a restaurant built farther along the mountain with a lesser view had to come up with a marketing tool to get people to bypass the panoramic terrace and patronize their establishment instead. Yes, you could see the four-lakes illusion but, for my money, the view from the panoramic terrace was much nicer and definitely worth the trip up.
We had to bundle up in our raincoats and even rain ponchos pulled over our legs on the way back down (and that 20-minute trip feels very long when it’s cold and rainy!) but it was still worth the time and money to get up to that vantage point.
Boppard itself is a lively place with many restaurants and places to hang out, but as the rain continued to pour down even the places that were open when we arrived began to close their sun umbrellas and pack everything up. For a few minutes, though, we enjoyed the shelter of umbrellas and delicious hot chocolates at a small café called Chocobar.
The final town for us to visit along the Rhine Gorge was Bacharach. We really enjoyed the ruins, the views and the buildings that were filled with character, often looking like parts might topple over in a good storm.
And that was it for our time staying alongside the Rhine/Rhein. It really is a beautiful area. We enjoyed the view of the river from our room and hotel dining room and wandering along the riverside. The boat traffic was endlessly entertaining as the barges, freighters, tankers, cruise ships, ferries and more manoeuver around each other and the sometimes crazy bends in the river. Occasionally a boat traffic jam would ensue when the lights controlling traffic at bends told the boats going in one direction to wait while boats coming in the other took their turn.
As we were visiting the Rhine Gorge by train, we often pondered whether traveling by car or by boat might be preferable. We didn’t come to any conclusion. Each mode of transport offers its own point of view to this landscape. You could probably visit the region using all three modes and still enjoy the experience each time.
- Trier to Sankt (St.) Goarshausen was covered by our 9 Euro Ticket (see TripBits on Germany: Trier).
- Train trips up and down each side of the river to visit towns and castles were also covered by our 9 Euro Ticket. However, we had booked our hotel knowing that they were part of another promotional program where hotels in the area offered one-day regional train passes for each stay night. If you are not visiting during the summer of 2022 (to take advantage of the Germany-wide 9 Euro Ticket), check to see if the VRM (the Rhine-Moselle Transport Association) Guest ticket program is still in operation and if your hotel is participating.
- Ferry: Between Sankt Goar and Sankt Goarshausen, €2 per person, paid by cash if possible on the ferry. This ferry also takes vehicles, but I don’t have that pricing information. The ferries are not included in either promotional program mentioned above.
- Entry fees
- Castle Marksburg: €11 per person.
- Chairlift in Boppard: €9.50 per person.
- Maps: We found the maps provided on the Loreley Info site to be useful. There is one for all of the castles and one showing where the ferries cross.