With its hilltop castles, glittering palaces and half-timbered villages, Germany seems like the setting for a fairy tale (and indeed it was for the famous brothers Grimm), but more modern attractions will charm youngsters, too.
Kids will recognize this iconic castle immediately as the inspiration for Disney’s theme park castles. Neuschwanstein was a fantasy castle from the first, a romantic dream of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who seemed to live in a perpetual fantasy world that nearly bankrupted his kingdom. Although it has medieval flourishes and décor, it is really a late 19th-century folly. But your kids won’t care. If one of Ludwig’s fantasies isn’t enough, combine this with his nearby hunting lodge, Linderhof. It’s most often described as a jewelry box, glittering with gold curlicues. Kids will especially like the garden with its fountains, the fanciful Moorish Pavilion and the faux grotto.
For a wow “castle” carved by nature, take the kids east to Saxon Switzerland National Park. There they can walk across the narrow Bastei Bridge that arches 250 feet above the forest between the tall, wildly eroded rock pillars in a fantasy landscape right out of a fairy tale. Travel there by steamboat from Dresden, only a few miles down the Elbe River, or take a train there and climb aboard a little century-old tram in the village of Bad Schandau to visit the waterfall at Lichtenhain.
While you’re near Dresden, take the kids to the Christmas villages where those beautiful little painted wooden ornaments are made. They can watch artists paint tiny faces on angels and see wood carvers make miniature figures to dance around Christmas carousels powered by a single candle. In the area’s central town, Annaberg-Buchholz, they can step into the Manufaktur der Träume (maker of dreams), a museum filled with carved and painted Christmas decorations, giant candle carousels, fierce nutcrackers, doll houses, animated miniature villages and toys. In nearby Seiffen, every shop is like stepping into a Christmas wonderland.
Among Europe’s largest and best, Leipzig Zoo houses 850 different species in habitats that closely replicate their natural homes. Alligators laze in murky waters draped with Everglades vegetation, koalas lounge among eucalyptus branches and elephants swim in a pool you can observe through an underwater glass wall. Even the penguins are comfortable in their polar surroundings. View the dozens of tropical creatures from a boat ride through a rain forest or walk through on winding paths or a treetop walkway. Giraffes, zebras, ostriches, gazelles and other African animals live in a re-created savannah, while snow leopards and red pandas are at home in the newly opened high-mountain landscape of the Himalayas. Amur tigers — the world’s largest cats — are in a Siberian landscape. Colorful fish and reef sharks swim all around you in one of Germany’s largest aquariums.
The world’s largest model railway, Miniatur Wunderland runs on 7.5 miles of track in the middle of the historic Port of Hamburg. Nearly 900 trains circulate through this astonishing scale model of cities, villages, rural scenes and busy harbors, with sections representing places in the United States, as well as Hamburg and Germany. These scenes are populated by more than 200,000 human figures, and the many animated features include planes that take off and land at miniature airports. You’ll be just as enchanted as your kids.