If you are one of the rare tourists to vacation in and visit Thuringia, the most central state in Germany, then this post is for you. I’m from here and am always surprised how little it is known abroad and how much people don’t know they’re missing when visiting Central Germany. So come a little closer and let me tell you about worthy day trips from Erfurt after you’ve seen the amazing sights of Thuringia’s capital.
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Why you should base yourself in Erfurt
When you want to travel central Germany, especially the state of Thuringia, you should look for easy train and airport connection. Erfurt, the capital, offers both.
Its airport isn’t big and doesn’t connect to many international destinations, however.
Erfurt is much better connected by train as many connecting trains pass through its central train station and has direct lines to well-known destinations such as Leipzig or Frankfurt.
Since it’s such a large city, there are many things to see in Erfurt, great restaurants, art & cultural programs, and a good selection of hotels and accommodation to choose from.
Insider travel tips
Download the VMT app to your phone so you can have access to the current schedules of public transport, including regional trains.
Don’t expect to find public Wi-Fi. Your best bet is to visit the tourist information centres, where you can tap into free Wi-Fi. Also, be aware that not many restaurants have Wi-Fi.
Be aware that you may not be able to pay with credit card everywhere. Double check with the waiters before you sit down or when you want to buy something in stores or bakeries. (The official German postal service apparently doesn’t accept credit cards.)
In Germany, it is always advisable to carry cash. This goes especially for using public toilets (which are rarely free) in towns and at train stations or using parking.
If you go hiking in the woods, know that Thuringia is tick territory and some carry lyme disease. Therefore, you are advised to wear long clothes and have a tick tweezer* ready when you search your body after your day’s outing. There are some bug sprays that repel ticks, too. I always use this one*.
Destinations for Day Trips
I’ll start off with the most important excursion from Erfurt that should, nay, MUST be on your travel itinerary for central Germany.
Weimar used to be the cultural hotspot of Europe. Russian Tzars, artists from all over the continent and anyone who wanted to be anyone and mingle among the high society of the 1800s had to visit Weimar. Multiple times.
Lavish parties, intimate gathering and cultural happenings were the norm here. And Weimar has a castle right in the centre as well as Baroque residences/castles at its outskirts.
There’s the gorgeous Ilm Park, which was created according to the English landscape park style so prominent in the 19th century.
There are amazing museums, in particular the absolutely stunning Anna Amalia library. Sadly, you cannot see the fabled staircase that was crafted from only one tree trunk so a lover could save his bride from rape by the noble lord of the lands.
Weimar houses a famous music school and roaming the streets, you may hear pianos being played and violins tuned.
The city is very compact and even. Though, be prepared to walk on (albeit flat) cobblestone streets. The walk from the train station takes about 25 minutes but you can also take a local bus. There are many more sights in Weimar.
Best times to visit Weimar:
Anytime of the year is good, but for an extra special experience, try the Weimar Christmas market in December or the Onion Festival in September.
Jena is the second biggest city of Thuringia and is a student town. In summer, it feels a lot more empty with so many people being away, but generally it is neither a tourist hotspot nor crowded anyway.
For food and drinks, visit the street Wagnergasse. Then get up onto the top viewing platform of the tower. You find the entrance in the shopping mal beneath and it’s 5€ last time I checked.
I put together a post on all the different things you can do in Jena depending on the month if you want more details.
If you’re into nature, you can do a lot of hiking in Jena. For February, you gotta see the 6 hectares of winter aconites, which are unique to Central Europe.
- Where to see cherry blossoms in Jena
- Why you have to visit Jena in February for the winter aconites
- The best hiking trails in Jena and when to see the iconic lady’s slippers orchid
Technically, Molsdorf is part of Erfurt, but it’s located on the outskirts and getting there takes 25 minutes by car and 50 minutes by bus (line 51).
The castle itself is a gorgeous little Baroque structure with lovely yellow and white colouring and ornamental details that I personally really love.
The surrounding park is free to visit, but it’s not anything special, just really nice for a walk around the ponds and visual axes from the collection of trees higher up along the surrounding walls.
If you want, you can learn more about the local history inside the castle as it houses its own museum. Furthermore, there is a stunning library as well as a café.
If you want to see a really creepy but also cool art project, make your way over to the three-house community of Plinz, south of Jena.
A local farmer-turned-artist has set up his base here. You can see his paintings and sculptures at his art barn or check out the free sculpture garden with his unique creations around the corner.
A creepy, half dismembered baby doll will great you at the entrance. (I am not sure if that’s due to the regular vandalising or if it’s part of the art.)
The sculptures feature various fairy tales and are propped up next to bubbling streams, flower beds and the entire thing looks surreal but eerily beautiful too.
Note that you are not allowed to drive directly to the village and may have to hike from the nearest village to here. But you also get to see a waterfall.
Also part of Weimar is the haunting but historically significant site of Buchenwald, which was a concentration camp during and even a while after WWII. It’s just a short drive from Erfurt away.
This site of gruesome acts is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It has been turned into a museum that has made it its mission to show the horrors to serve as a reminder to not repeat history again.
It’s not easy to stomach by any means, even though most buildings have been erased. It’s a sobering but important place to visit to learn about this dark period of history.
This medieval town is known for its impressive Wartburg Castle, which played a crucial role in German and Christian history. It was here that Luther translated the bible into German for the common people as he had to seek refuge from the church itself.
According to the legends, the devil showed up to stop him too but Luther threw his ink at it, which left a stain on the wall. (I tried looking for it but couldn’t see anything.)
You can also visit the Bachhaus museum, dedicated to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. And there’s a pretty, historic town centre.
The thing that the Thuringian town of Saalfeld is most known for are the Fairy Grottoes (Saalfelder Feengrotten).
Located about an hour’s drive from Erfurt, these beautiful underground caves are illuminated with colorful lights and are home to a variety of stalactites and stalagmites. It’s a unique and fascinating natural sight and very informative experience too.
Since Saalfeld is a spa town and one of the oldest towns in the state, you can also go to wander through town and spot historic gates, city walls, castles and even a big mansion on top of a pretty garden above the public pool.
This beautiful forest region is located to the South of Thuringia and is one of the most significant mountain ranges in Germany, splitting the country in North and South. As a result, you can expect alpine climate in winter, which is why the Winter Olympics are held here in Oberhof.
If you are into marathons or long forest hikes, you gotta step onto the Rennsteig trail, one of the most famous trails in Germany. (And Germany has a lot of trails and outdoor enthusiasts!)
There are also several charming towns and villages in the area that are worth exploring. Schmalkalden is a great choice; it looks like straight out of a fairy tale with its colourful half-timbered houses and castle. Plus, there’s a nougat museum, where you can sample treats.
Also located at the edge of Weimar, the Baroque castle and garden getaway known as Belvedere can easily fill a short afternoon with ample walks.
There is a small cafe in which you can enjoy refreshments (if you see a table, get it – it can get popular especially on warm weekends). The local reknowned Weimar music school also has subsidiary buildings here, so you may get beautiful classical tunes floating in the air.
The orangery is a stunning half-round building surrounded by flower beds.
Further in the park you can find many winding trails leading to sculptures, fountains and trellises as well as artificial rocky outcrops and towers. There’s quite a lot to discover.
And then there are the leafy arched gardens with classical statues and an outdoor theatre section for summer performances.
Oh, and there are forested lands as well. It’s a big area!
If you’re into castles, why not see three in one go? Head southwest from Erfurt on a daytrip to the Drei Gleichen, which is the name of three triplet castles from the 8th and 11th century in the Middle Ages.
They were built as part of a line of fortresses along the old trade route from Frankfurt to Leipzig. Veste Wachsenburg a residential castle for the local nobility. Mühlburg was constructed as a fortified mill.
Each sits on its own little mountain near the town of Wandersleben, overlooking the surrounding valleys and autobahn and you can visit them too.
The castles are called Gleichen, Veste Wachsenburg and Mühlburg. Most of them are ruins but they are still worth a trip.
Today, the Drei Gleichen castles are popular tourist destinations and offer great views of the surrounding countryside. Visitors can explore the castle ruins, climb the towers, and learn about the history of the castles and the region.