River cruising has become one of the most popular ways to explore the German countryside, but for freedom travellers, Germany's super-slick rail system smooths the way for comfortable exploration.
Within easy reach of Frankfurt, are the absurdly gorgeous riverside towns of Heidelberg and Regensburg.
Gracing the banks of the River Neckar, Heidelberg is a baroque old town, studded with photogenic architecture, a towering medieval castle, exceptional shopping, and a lively university ambience.
Layered in history, Heidelberg was a centre of political power for centuries. In 1386, Germany's first university was established here by the Elector Ruprecht I, who was also reigning when construction of the castle began. Much of medieval Heidelberg was smashed by French insurgencies in the 17th century, ushering in a massive rebuilding programme of the old town (Aldstadt) in baroque style, in the early 18th century.
Snaking through the heart of the Alstadt is the 1.6km long pedestrian street, Haupstrasse, the so-called Royal Mile. Europe's longest pedestrian zone is a window-shopper's picnic, full of enchanting old-world stores that will entice you inside for a closer inspection.
Be sure to explore the Christmas shop. Haupstrasse spills into the Marktplatz, the old market square, which resonates with historic splendour and stages the famous traditional Christmas market. Taking pride of place in the square is the gritty old Gothic church, the Heiliggeistkirche, which was built more than 600 years ago.
Reward yourself with a bird's-eye perspective of Heidelberg by scaling the 204 steps up the church spire. Adjacent to the church is the Neptune Fountain; the site of executions and the burning of witches in the Middle Ages. Petty criminals also used to be chained to the fountain, left to face the wrath of the locals.
Schloss Castle lords over the town. The red-sandstone castle is a vast residential complex that was built and extended between the 13th and 17th centuries. Much of the structure was destroyed during the 1689 war with France, but the battle-scarred Gothic-Renaissance fortress is one of Germany's medieval treasures, and is well worth exploring.
Back at ground level, stroll over Alte Brucke, the fairy-tale bridge that spans the Neckar.
Built in 1786, the entrance to the bridge features a statue of a brass monkey holding a mirror and surrounded by mice. Local legend says that if you touch the mirror, you will come into wealth. Touch the mice, and you will parent many children - apparently. Hotel Hollander Hof is perfectly positioned by the Alte Brucke, offering homely, elegant comforts and spacious surroundings to enhance your Heidelberg stay. www.hollaender-hof.de
Regensburg's riverside delights
Astride the Danube River, pedestrian-friendly Regensburg is jam-packed with history.
Originally a Roman settlement, Regensburg emerged as the first capital of Bavaria; the imperial seat for a cavalcade of dukes, kings and bishops.
The sky-piercing city landmark is undoubtedly the Dom St Peter, one of Germany's grandest Gothic cathedrals, that dates back to the 13th century.
In the 15th century, Franz von Taxis sealed his place in history by establishing the first European postal system, which maintained a monopoly on mail for 400 years.
His family's palace, which was one of the most advanced in Europe, is open to tourists. This 15th century glamour-pad installed such novel innovations as flushing toilets and central heating.
Alte Rathaus was the seat of the Reichstag for over 150 years (the first parliament of the Holy Roman Empire from 1663 to 1806). Tours take in not only the majestically decorated Imperial Hall, but the original torture chambers which feature ghastly implements like the rack, spiked chairs and the Spanish Donkey. This was a tall wooden wedge that naked men were forced to sit on. Charming.
Regensburg's stone bridge, Steinerne Brucke, was a triumphant engineering achievement for its day. The 300m bridge was built in 1135 and was at one time the only fortified crossing of the Danube. The bridge provides visitors with the best panoramic vistas of Regensburg, and the cafes are a tantalising spot to soak up the sunshine.