For most British travellers, the beautiful Black Forest in Germany conjures up images of cherry cakes, cuckoo clocks and charming spa towns.
When I mentioned that I was planning a trip, there was a deluge of jokes from friends about men in lederhosen and women wearing strange ‘cherry’ hats. The stereotypical images still abound.
This romantic land of quaint villages, charming towns and leafy vineyards has long been popular tourist destination for the English. The Black Forest may be a bit of a throwback to traditional 1970s holidays, but it still has plenty to offer today’s more sophisticated tourists.
Black Forest Highlights
The Black Forest takes its name from the dark canopy of evergreen trees which cover its mountain sides. It’s lush and green with beautiful rolling countryside peppered with pretty villages, many with historic half-timbered houses.
The Black Forest is often described as “a magical land”, full of cultural traditions. Here’s my guide to some of the most beautiful attractions:
- The Black Forest Open Air Museum – a fascinating collection of authentic local buildings, some dating back to the 1600s.
- Titisee – a lovely glacial lake with picturesque views and boat trips.
- Schiltach – ‘picture postcard’ village with scenic streets, cafes and half-timbered houses.
- Triberg – beautiful cascading waterfall walk.
- Black Forest Crest Road – elevated road with stunning views and swerving bends.
I was intrigued to see if it has changed down the years, and decided to take a closer look…
Black Forest Gateau
It’s a bit of a cliche but it’s hard to escape Black Forest Gateau in this part of the world, whether it’s on picture postcards or in patisseries.
Never my favourite cake – it’s too sickly sweet for my tastes – it does at least give you a week’s sugar dose in one serving. But it’s not recommended if you’re counting the calories!
For the uninitiated, a Black Forest Gateau consists of multiple layers of chocolate cake, with cherry, whipped cream and kirsch filling.
But there’s more to this creamy cake with cherries than meets the eye – its history is fascinating and dates back to the 1800s.
‘Kirschtorte’ first appeared in Switzerland where ‘kirsch’ was often distilled from sour cherries. The Swiss found that it was also a good ingredient to add to cakes – and the earliest cherry gateaux were born.
It’s thought that the confectioner Josef Keller created the modern Black Forest Gateau in 1915 at the Café Agner in Bad Godesberg near Bonn. Strangely the town is 300 miles north of the Black Forest.
Traditionally, kirschwasser, a spirit made from sour cherries, is added to the cake. It’s mandatory that kirschwasser is present in the cake for it to be labelled a true Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte in Germany.
Even stranger is the folk costume worn by women in the Black Forest which comprises a black hat decorated with 14 red cherry, woollen ‘pompoms’. It’s called a Bollenhut.
Tradition has it that it should only be worn by ‘maidens’ and ‘single women’. Married and older women get to wear a funereal black version!
The Authentic Black Forest
A great place to discover the history of the area is the Vogtsbauernhof Open Air Museum in Gutach where you can find out more about how people lived in the Black Forest in yesteryear. It’s brilliantly curated and makes for a fun day out.
The well-preserved Vogtsbauernhof farmstead once stood alone in open fields here but the museum has now brought it together with many more historical buildings from elsewhere in the Black Forest.
Turn back the pages of time with self-guided tours around the traditional buildings which are stuffed with historic artefacts and displays.
The original farmstead (pictured above) is a magnificent building which has changed little since the owners left it. Walking inside, you can’t help but feel as if they’d just popped into the fields to tend to their livestock.
There’s a real warmth to this giant barn and family home. I can almost imagine living here at the turn of the last century.
Outside you can stroll around the outbuildings which include a sawmill, bakehouse, distillery and mill as well as a medicinal herb garden.
Life on a Homestead
Another hugely impressive farm building on the museum site is the Falkenhof which was built in 1737. It originally stood in Buchenbach-Wagensteig near Freiburg.
The sheer size and scale of this homestead is breathtaking with its enormous gables, living spaces and storage areas. This was a buildings in which to live and work, a homes and a working farm.
Falkenhof is a ‘Zarten house’, the last surviving building of its kind standing in its original form. This would’ve been a dairy and livestock farm in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today you can get a good impression of what life would’ve been like.
It must have been hard work keeping this homestead going throughout the year, whatever the weather. As result the wooden building is sturdy and solid, designed to keep out the worst of the winter cold and extremes of summer heat.
Outside you can see the agricultural stalls and adjacent meadows which are full of ancient breeds of livestock including rare cattle and pigs.
Inside the homestead, you get a good sense of what domestic life would’ve been like. A light installation in the main bedroom demonstrates how over time technical developments in light sources gradually brought brightness to Black Forest houses.
Just over the way, the huge Hippenseppenhof is another homestead with an intriguing history. It’s hard to credit it but it was built in 1599, and its structure – called a Höhenhaus – is the oldest Black Forest type of house known.
Today you can see its incredible post-and-beam structures, with huge ‘king posts’ rising right up from the ground to carry the roof ridge at the top. It’s a triumph of engineering and craftsmanship.
Don’t miss the “Black Forest cabinet” exhibition which explains everything about area’s folk costumes, the eponymous Black Forest Gateaux and cuckoo clocks.
Each of the houses on the museum site has its own history and specific style.
The Lorenzenhof was built in 1608 and is a typical Kinzigtal house, with a stone-built basement and a timbered upper floor.
There’s a fascinating exhibition about traditional forestry-related crafts, woodworking, mining, glassmaking and pottery in the Black Forest. I learned a lot about the challenges that working people faced during previous centuries and how hard life would have been for them.
The ‘Little Castle’
One of my favourite buildings was the Schlössle or “Little Castle” which is located at the far end of the museum next to a small pond.
This country manor house dates back to 1379, and was recently relocated here from nearby Wildberg. It has been lovingly restored after a massive conservation effort.
The building is fabulously eccentric – and its layers of history are brilliantly displayed and presented to reflect the very different periods in its history.
You can see signs of its earlier incarnation as a manor house as well as typical interiors from its later life as a farm.
The last occupants lived in the house until 1972 and a series of rooms recreating life in the 1970s are some of the most interesting in the museum, complete with orange sofas and Ercol-style chairs.
There’s even one of the family’s old 1970s cars on the drive outside the house – which makes it feel like a proper home. You can peel back the house’s history to its early years or fast forward to modern times.
It’s a brilliant place, full of surprises, hidden rooms and relics of previous ages. Completely fascinating and well worth the admission price on its own.
It’s hard to go far in the Black Forest without seeing and hearing the eponymous ‘cuckoo clock’. They’re everywhere – and the sound of their collective cuckoos echoes across every tourist street.
There’s big ones, miniature ones and even dog-shaped ones. Most commonly of all, there are cuckoo clocks with complex scenes and a rotating cast of characters.
These range from yodelling shepherds to charming fraulein straight out of ‘Heidi’ with long, golden plaits, and German Shepherd dogs.
Sometimes amusing, often irritating, cuckoo clocks are ‘tourist hell’ or ‘tourist heaven’ depending on your taste in horology.
It’s not known who invented the cuckoo clock and where the first one was made. The earliest clocks probably date back to around 1650 when Athanasius Kircher mentions a mechanical organ with automated figurines, including a mechanical cuckoo. The cuckoo‘s distinctive call was generated by two pipes with bellows.
The oldest Black Forest cuckoo clock is thought to date from around 1780-90.
If you love these clocks, don’t miss the German clock museum in Furtwangen, the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, which houses the world’s “greatest historical clock collection”.
Sadly, I was not allowed to go – my partner Tony was suffering from cuckoo overload!
The Black Forest has many picturesque historic villages and one of the prettiest is Schiltach. This beautiful old town renowned for its half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and a market place which has changed little since the middle ages.
Schiltach also has the bonus of a pretty riverside location, lovely cafes, a couple of quirky museums – and not too many tacky tourist shops. The Pharmacy Museum is worth a quick look, but be warned that most of the descriptions are purely in German.
Over the road, look out for the old Town Hall which is decorated with a spectacular mural featuring the history of the village. I was surprised to learn that it only dates from 1942 although the building itself is 400 years old.
Unwind by a lake
Looking to relax and unwind? I have the perfect place…
Titisee – a glacial lake in the south of the Black Forest – is one of the area’s most popular resorts. It’s the largest natural lake in the Black Forest and in the early morning light, it looks gorgeous, especially when the mist rolls in.
I found it a relaxing place to spend a couple of days with swimming, fishing, windsurfing and sailing on offer, if you fancy something a little more active.
Personally, I’d recommend getting on a bike and cycling the circular route around the lake before stopping off in town for a coffee and cake.
There are beautiful lakeside strolls which work whatever the season, including a 5 mile trail around the lake that leads up the Hochfirst Mountain.
Surrounded by pine forests on its gentle mountain sides, Titisee Lake is a place of great natural beauty.
It’s easy to get out on to the water – there are regular cruises. or you can rent a rowing boat or go fishing. It’s flat calm most of the year so it’s a relaxing spot.
Surrounded by forest and mountains, this is the perfect place to recharge your batteries… but the town centre can get busy with tourists. Expect lots of tourist shops selling everything from ridiculous German hats to cuckoo clocks. This is ‘trinket and tat’ central!
Wine and beer
Wine lovers are also in for a treat in the Black Forest if you enjoy Germanic grape varieties. The Badische Wine Road (Badische Weinstrasse) is a 100 mile long scenic drive in the foothills of the Black Forest.
The route was created in 1954 and meanders through the wine growing areas of the Black Forest, finishing near the Swiss border.
Visitors can drive from Baden-Baden to Freiburg along this alternative route, avoiding the dull motorway. The route passes historic castle ruins and vineyards. It’s worth dropping in at the Durbacher Winzergenossenschaft, a wine co-operative with prize-winning local wines.
From early March until late October, there are many wine festivals and tasting events at open wine cellars throughout the area.
For those who like beer, you’ve come to the right place. Germans love their beer and there are endless varieties to try, although I lean towards the wheat beers and speciality craft ales.
Rothaus is one of the finest local beers. It’s made at the Badische Staatsbrauerei, founded by Benedictine Monks. The brewery is located in Grafenhausen-Rothaus, not far from Titisee – you can take a 90 minute long guided tour and try out the beers.
What could be a better way to round off your road trip to the Black Forest? Happy drinking!
Land of Discovery
So what have I discovered on my travels? The Black Forest is certainly more sophisticated than I’d imagined, but there’s still plenty of mass tourism.
There’s much more to the Black Forest than its cuckoo clocks and famous gateaux – although it is hard to avoid them completely.
If you enjoy the great outdoors, historic towns and boozy holidays, the Black Forest could be right up your street!
What the tourist guides don’t tell you…
When to visit
The best time to visit the Black Forest is slightly ‘off-season’ when the roads aren’t jammed with tourists and the crowds have disappeared.
For me, September is the perfect month to spend time in this very popular beauty spot – and mid-late Spring is another less busy period.
If you visit in September, it’s easy to combine the Black Forest with a trip to Munich and its world-famous Oktoberfest.
Don’t be confused by its name – the festival takes place in late September not October. It was brought forward a few years because of the better September weather.
Trips and table bookings can be very expensive. My advice is to wing it and turn up without a booking, unless you’re in a giant group or drinking party. There’s free entry to the festival and the Old Wien area of the festival site has plenty of extra seating (indoor and outdoor), for just a few Euros entry.
You can still visit the other beer tents but you aren’t guaranteed a table. It’s pretty crazy so don’t forget your sense of humour and fun.
Where to stay
There are lots of traditional hotels and gasthofs to suit all price ranges, many in the main towns and villages. A good place to start your search is the official Black Forest Tourism website
Some of the bigger towns are outside the main Black Forest but are in relatively easy driving range if you have a hire car. Bear in mind that distances may seem further because of congested roads in this part of Germany.
Travelling can be slow, especially in high season. Alternatively, stay in one of the smaller villages in the main Black Forest where there are plenty of guesthouses.
Schiltach is a good choice of place to stay because of its central location and proximity to tourist attractions. It also has a small motorhome site or ‘stellplatz’ in the centre of town near the river, which is handy for the historic quarter.
Camping or motorhoming is a very good option as there are so many large sites across the Black Forest area. But these sites get very full in summer with the sheer volume of motorhomes and visitors.
Smaller sites with fewer facilities can be a better bet, as these tend to be less popular with family groups. Look out for smaller sites on farms and in villages.
Stuck on where to stay? There are lists of sites on main Black Forest tourism website as well as in the ‘Guide to Motorhome Sites in Germany/Europe’ book which you can buy at garages and motorhome supply shops.
There are two or three decent camping and caravan sites at the top end of Lake Titisee, with many pitches overlooking the lake itself. Camping Bankenhof on Lake Titisee is recommended by other travellers as a family friendly site with good amenities.
We stayed at Terrassen-Camping Sandbank overlooking the lake – and were greeted by lovely sunsets and misty mornings. I’d recommend this site which is an easy bike ride or slightly longer walk into town. There’s also a bus about twice an hour until about 21:00 at night.