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My experience/tips for the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) in Germany

Photo: Muchenland near St Blasien.

The Black Forest (Schwarzwald) is a mountainous region in the south west of Germany. What people count as Black Forest can be quite varied, in some cases down to the Rhine and Europa park, I am just dealing with the hilly wooded region.

This is an update of an old Reddit post which I made – that is still worth a look if only for the list of places of interest. This post is meant to be more opinions and useful tips rather than an info dump/comprehensive guide (I haven’t really visited enough of the Black Forest for that).

I have spent quite a bit of time in the Black Forest due to family links, but my experience only really around the southern Hoch Schwarzwald and just goes as far north as the Titisee. Anything north of there I just know from my research, though general points should still apply. I will get around to visiting the other two thirds one day.


Resources

Looking south from the Herzogenhorn

Anglo expectations

English speakers seem to really romanticise the Black Forest. To quote one perplexed German on Tripadvisor:

The fixation with foreign tourists and foreign tourist information pages, guide books and so on with the Black Forest is simply bizarre. It is a bloody ordinary Mittelgebirge (rolling hill country) of which there are many in Germany; they make up half of the country. it is no more or less interesting than the others and it e.g. clearly loses if you compare it with the Harz. Triberg itself qualifies as a particularly bad tourist trap with silly cuckoo clocks and fake highest waterfalls

German bloke on Tripadvisor

Honestly I agree to an extent. The Black Forest is a beautiful area and there are endless hidden little corners to discover. I like it and don’t regret a minute that I have spent there. But it isn’t really exceptional.

There are lots of German Mittelgebirge (medium sized mountains/rolling hills) that offer much of the same and could easily fit any Fairy Tale Forest/Wooden house requirements: Saxon Switzerland, Harz, Bayrische Wald, Spessart….. Across the border I spend lots of time in the Swiss Jura and Emmental regions which have much of the same feel, even lower lying areas in the Swiss flatland like the Bucheggberg often have the right look. The Emmental even has more of the giant wooden farmhouses and feels more Black Foresty than the real Black Forest at times.

The Anglo interest possibly started 100+ years ago with the spas and then popularity of hiking tours in the region. However, much of the fascination now seems to be related to a belief that the Brothers Grimm were either inspired to write their stories after visiting (very wrong) or collected their stories which all/mostly originated there (wrong, but a bit less wrong at least). This isn’t helped when even the BBC can be used as a source to cite the incorrect myth. Plenty of the stories collected by the brothers Grimm were set in forest, but just generic forest rather than any specific location. There are some more modern tales based in the Black Forest like ‘The Necromancer’ or ‘Heart of Stone’, though I doubt many people are familiar with them. For Germans themselves it tends to be more associated with a 1980s TV drama series or somewhere their aunt goes camping every summer.

To their credit the Black Forest tourist website never mentions anything to do with the brothers Grimm (nor do any German language bloggers when writing about the region). They just go hard on the cuckoo clocks instead.

Curiously, despite the higher level of interest compared to most other rural regions in Europe. It is quite hard to find much useful information in English beyond just a few destinations. There are endless travel blogs and articles, but they can all be summed up in 3 simple steps:

  1. Incorrect Brothers Grimm reference (“easy to see why the views had inspired the Brothers Grimm to write their fairy tales.“, “The Brothers Grimm were preoccupied with it“, “Visit Germany’s beautiful tree covered hills, where the Brothers Grimm derived inspiration for their fairy tales” etc)
  2. Cake and/or ham reference.
  3. A brief visit to one or two of the same few places (Titisee, Baden-Baden, Triberg, etc).

What to expect

  • A forested/hilly region well suited for scenic touring and/or outdoor activities.
  • The keyword is ‘Rural’, not ‘Wilderness’. You could carefully plan a route to spend days walking without passing through a village, but you will still be crossing roads and seeing plenty of other reminders of civilisation.
  • For the central/western part of Europe it is a very large amount of forest, but for people coming with expectations of endless wild and thick forest it is going to be a disappointment. It might once have been an impenetrable forest, but that is long gone. The sunlight reaches the ground as much as it does in every forest (probably more than in many). Due to mass deforestation followed by mono-culture replanting many areas are quite dull. There are also problems with trees dying in the warm dry summers, so it isn’t uncommon to turn a corner and find a tree graveyard.
  • The forest is not very lively. You might hear some birds, and see the odd deer or squirrel but that is about it. There are a small number of wolves and Lynx, but there is basically zero chance of seeing them.
  • There are pretty giant wooden farmhouse buildings which you might find anywhere in the Black Forest, and whole villages of beautiful half timbered houses in some of the previously richer valleys (eg Schiltach), but mostly it is fairly plain old stone farmhouses or inoffensive but forgettable modern housing.
  • On a clear day you can get views of the Swiss Alps and French Vosges. Though photographers and tourism pages have a habit of playing the former up to make it look like they tower over the Black Forest.

General travel tips

  • Mostly the standard travel tips for Germany apply.
  • Many areas (but not the cities like Freiburg) provide overnight visitors with the KONUS guest card which allows free travel on local transport (so not the fast intercity trains) within the entire Black Forest holiday area. This is great if you are on the trainlines or in a transport hub, but might be next to useless in smaller villages with only one or two buses a day.
  • In the main tourist spots English should be fine, outside of them you will probably find it more hit and miss. The official tourism websites are all just in German with a built-in Google Translate function for other languages which probably says quite a bit about who they expect (or maybe just their IT budget)
  • Not every village has a shop. Even a restaurant can be a bit much to hope for at times. Being Germany there will however always be at least one cigarette vending machine per village.
  • There are a few Mountain House like guesthouses scattered about, especially around the popular areas like the Feldberg, but they are not everywhere.
  • There are a small number of wild campsites which can be booked at https://www.trekking-schwarzwald.de/ . Otherwise wild camping is illegal.
  • It is the sort of place that gets better the more you know it. There are so many hidden little spots.

What actually is typical Black Forest?

  • Forested hills and giant wooden farmhouses. There are times when what you see matches the romantic images.
  • Black Forest Ham (Schwarzwälder Schinken). One thing you might notice is that in a region famous for its ham products there are a conspicuous lack of pigs. 90% of the meat is imported from other regions of Germany or the EU. Those that are there are usually kept indoors so you would only know they were there by the smell. In the EU the Black Forest ham term is protected to ham made in a certain area and with a certain method, elsewhere anything can be called Black Forest ham so long as it meets the minimum local legal definition of ham (or pork product).
  • Cuckoo clocks (Kuckucksuhren) have a good claim to heritage. Given the faff to fix them clocks don’t seem to be worth the bother. On a more practical level for something you might actually find useful there are a few watchmakers scattered around the Black Forest, especially around Pforzheim which is home to many of the more affordable options (map of companies).
  • Black Forest gâteau/cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte). The German name certainly comes from the local cherry schnapps, though if the cake was first created in the Black Forest is unclear. How much you enjoy this might vary somewhat depending on how hard the confectioner goes with the Kirsch; the right amount adds character, too much and it is overpoweringly alcoholic. Something that can be a nasty surprise for parents ordering it for their kids (though many cafes will offer a non-alcoholic version).
  • The Bollenhutte (the hat with the red balls) make a great logo but is not very representative. They are used by the tourism board for the whole region, but they were only actually used in a few protestant villages which made up a tiny proportion of the Black Forest.
  • Glass making was a major industry here for centuries. Looking over a map you will find endless places called Glashütte (literally ‘glass hut’). There are a few museums/shops you can visit.
  • There isn’t really any food or drink that is truly Black Forest beyond the ham. There are local beers like Rothaus and Waldhaus, and even whisky and gin have started to be produced in recent years.
  • Black Forest gummy bears are a purely USA thing. Nobody in Europe has even heard of them outside of Reddit comments.
Unterkrummenhof by the Schluchsee.

Where to go

There isn’t really much that stands out as an “absolute must see” in itself. You can go almost anywhere to get the feel for the Black Forest. It is the sort of place that offers endless beautiful spots, hidden corners, and good hiking/biking routes, in any given small area.

It is small enough that you can set up a central base somewhere around Wolfach and spend a few days exploring most of the region. You could also spend weeks visiting every last corner or doing long distance trails, or with the train lines and roads it is easy to pass through and combined other places in the area like the Alsace.

For the average visitor wanting to swing through and get a quick feel a few days is enough to take in the atmosphere and visit a few different areas.

A few places and points of interest:

The tourist hotspots

There are a few spots which are dense with tourism, but even in those places you will quickly leave the crowds if you just walk a few hundred meters away. Mostly  

The standard/most promoted tourist destinations are:

  • Freiburg im Breisgau. More at the foot of rather than in the Black Forest, but it offers good transport connections into the Black Forest and is a beautiful and lively little city that is worth a visit in itself.
  • Titisee. A lake with a tourist resort town of the same name. Easy train access from Freiburg. Meaning of the name which tends to amuse English speakers.
  • Feldberg. The highest point in the Black Forest at 1493m. It is actually a surprisingly large plateau/ridge connecting the Feldberg itself with the slightly lower Seebuck (1448m) – requiring a 2km walk from one end to the other to get the full range of views. The sight of hundreds of people marching back and forth across it is a little amusing/ridiculous. It is the main downhill ski area in the Black Forest and easy to access by car or public transport. Meaning it is somewhat overbuilt and very touristy (especially on the south east Seebuck side where the car park, ski lifts, and resort are). The best tour I did there was driving to Rinken, hiking up to Feldberg, down to St. Wilhelmer Hütte, then skirting around the north side of the Feldberg back to Rinken via the Zastler Hütte (8km, +/- 300m).
  • Schluchsee. The name of both a (reservoir) lake and village. The only real problem with the lake area is that a fairly busy road which runs along almost all the north side of the lake. My favourite part is the Aha end and the Vesperstube Unterkrummenhof. The village of Schluchsee itself is probably best described as a pleasant holiday resort, somewhere which would be great to stay with your family, but there isn’t any real reason to visit for the village itself.
  • Ravenna Gorge.
  • Baden-Baden. Spa town.
  • Triberg. The centre looks like it is the Disney Land of the Black Forest. Well known for cuckoo clocks and waterfalls. Touted as the highest waterfalls in Germany, the key is to note that the plural is always used in official marketing, it is actually a series of cascades rather than a single high fall (Röthbachfall in the Alps is the highest single fall in Germany).
  • Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof.
  • Baiersbronn. A village noted for having a number of Michelin star restaurants.
  • Tree top path (Wipfelpfad) and tower near Bad Wildbad.
  • Mummelsee. A small lake sitting quite high up in the northern end which seems to get an extraordinary amount of attention. It looks like it would be an alright if not exceptional spot, but my expectations for this are not high. Sitting directly on the popular Hochstrasse road it seems to be something of a tourist trap with almost as much car parking space as lake area. I have seen it described as the Neuschwanstein of the Schwarzwald (without a castle).

Some of my favourite locations:

Unsurprisingly all in the south given my experience.

  • Muchenland and Blasiwald. The view from Muchenland is tiny, but to me it is peak Black Forest (it is the cover image for this page).
  • Ibach.
  • St Blasien. Probably the sight that has surprised me most so far. A village dominated by the giant dome of a baroque monastery, all snuggled away in a valley.
  • Herzogenhorn. The 2nd (or possibly 3rd or even 4th) highest mountain in the Black Forest at 1415m and the Feldbergs more attractive little sister. The smaller peak offers a better panoramic view, and the fact that it takes some effort to get there means the number of people tends to be fairly small. Access from the south via Bernau or Menschenschanz also lets you see the attractive villages there. Berggasthaus Krunkelbachhütte. The view to the north is blocked by the Feldberg, but that isn’t the most interesting direction anyway. It also has the largest summit cross.
  • Vesperstube Eichrüttehof, Görwihl. Not exceptional, but a very nice example of a little farmhouse restaurant.
  • Aussichtsturm Hochkopf, Todtnau. A lookout tower at the end of a great ridge walk. Free parking across the road from the Waldhotel Auerhahn a short walk below the tower. There are endless hills called Hochkopf around the Black Forest but this is the only one with a tower.
  • The Schluchensteig. Especially in the Wutachschlucht , for a shorter and easier version in a single day see the 3-Schluchten Tour (3 gorge tour).
Ibach.

My to do list

Most of it is planned by bike to cover a bigger distance. With most trips aiming to end or start with family in the south.

  • Schauninsland and the Engländer Denkmal.
  • Bike packing from Baden-Baden up the Murgtal and then south, maybe via Freundenstadt and Alpirsbach.
  • Bike packing from Offenburg south through: Gengenbach up the valley to Schiltach (with a few diversions to spots like Burg Hohengeroldseck + Herberge zum Löwen), then south through Triberg and Titisee.
  • Schwarzwald-Panorama-Radweg.
  • Karlsruher Grat.
  • Klösterle-Schleife (Bad Rippoldsau-Schapbach).
  • Burgbach Wasserfall.

What to do

There are plenty of things to do in the Black Forest.

  • Active sports like hiking and biking are the main attraction (see below).
  • There are plenty of destinations like Mehliskopf which offer a more relaxed way to enjoy the views, and with attractions like mountain coasters.
  • Spas. Like Baden-Baden or the giant Badeparadies Schwarzwald by Titisee.
  • Museums are a bit limited. The obvious choice is the Vogtsbauernhof open air museum and there are a number of smaller ones scattered around. There are also a surprising number of mines, like Museums-Bergwerk Schauinsland.

Getting about

For a quick visit and just to get a taste of the region then public transport working from a base like Freiburg or Baden Baden is fine, but If you really want to explore and visit a wider area and/or some of the more obscure corners in a reasonable amount of time then you need a car.

Public transport

  • The most practical options are the train lines going up from Freiburg, Offenburg and Baden-Baden. Trains usually run hourly. Even half hourly on some sections like Freiburg – Titisee.
  • For small villages buses tend to be slow and can be infrequent in the week (they are often linked to school times or the start/end of the working day), rarer on Saturdays, and essentially non-existent on Sundays.

Driving

  • Schwarzwaldhochstrasse (B500) is the route that is normally highlighted, though driving anywhere in the region will be scenic.
  • There are a large number of free car parks all over the region. Most are quite small but do the job for scattered tourism.
  • The windy roads might be a problem for anyone who gets car sick easily.
  • The locals are only slightly mad. Cutting corners, overtaking at inadvisable times are common, but they far from the worst I have seen.
  • Take care on weekends and holidays. Cyclists slowing you down, lots of blind corners making it hard to safely overtake, and suicidal motorbikes coming up the rear.

Activities/Sports

  • There is lots of freedom on getting around thanks to the very dense and extensive network of paths and forest roads (it is very hard to try and find a spot on the map where you can draw a 200m line in any direction without crossing at least one). If you are not following an explicitly marked path then this can mean endlessly checking your GPS for which turning to take. I highly recommend downloading the area on Maps.me or similar.
  • Forests can suddenly give way to a beautiful little hidden meadows or wide views. But given that hardly any of the Black Forest is above the treeline, you can often spend hours in the trees without looking out. Maps.me is again quite useful for listing where good viewpoints are.
  • Being a domestic destination it offers plenty of family and kid friendly activities and route suggestions.

Tour planner

The Schwarzwald.info tour planner is the best way I have found to see all the official networks for getting about by foot and bike, it lets you plan routes which you can download as a GPX.

  • The more zoomed in you are, then the more details on the coverage and conditions you will get.
  • There are a multitude of things you can set the map to display (restaurants, waterfalls, etc) by clicking on features and then contents. This is not entirely exhaustive for any of the options I have looked into, but it is certainly better than nothing.
  • Annoyingly you can’t show and work with multiple layers at once. If you want to switch between layers (e.g. to jump from MTB to standard cycling) as you plan, then it will re-route your existing markers to fit the new filter. You can drag the routes back to where you want them (if you can remember), but it is a bit of a faff to say the least.
  • Both the cycling and mountain bike routes tend to be quite roundabout. The MTB routes especially ask the question of “why cycle through 2km of gravel road in the forest with 50m of height change, when you could cycle through 7km gravel road with 350m of height change instead?”. If you are trying to cover a fair distance and don’t want to pay with extra height and length then Komoot is very good at routing you off the main road but with direct paths for an efficient price in height change (but it is still worth checking their route carefully to make sure it isn’t taking you up a steep and bumpy footpath (again)).
Hiking (white) and Mountain Biking (yellow) signs.

Hiking

There are endless options from little local loops to long distance treks.

  • As ever the problem is you just drown in information and options when you have a big region and seemingly endless ideas dumped on you. A good starting point for ideas would be the listing of “best” paths like the Genießerpfade, also the German Wanderinstitut website has top rated hikes in the Hochschwarzwald, and further north in the middle/upper Black Forest, and also all the best hikes in the Bundesland.
  • Otherwise A few other resources for suggestions are Kleinhans-blog, and wandern, and Bergreif, and Sasbachwalden.
  • There isn’t really hut to hut hiking. There are some buildings you can class as mountain huts, but mostly you are looking at village to village.
  • It is well signed. Distances here and elsewhere in Germany tend to given in distance rather than time as is the case in Switzerland.
  • More often than not you are on gravel road rather than true single trail paths (in my experience, and it might vary by region).

Cycling and Mountain Biking

See my dedicated page for cycling and mountain biking in the Black Forest.

Winter

Snow is increasingly unreliable. If you turn up on a given day in winter you are more likely to see grass than snow. I have been there every Christmas since 2015 and only one has really been snowy.

  • Cross country skiing is the most prevalent option Given that you have lots of valleys and relatively gentle/low hills.
  • Downhill skiing is limited in scope, but relatively cheap compared to the Alps. I don’t ski but am told that Feldberg can get very crowded on weekends.
Sometimes it will be under a blanket of snow in winter….
… but more often than not it will just be grassy meadows these days.
Grassy ski pistes in the High Black Forest on Christmas day.

Misc

Travel articles/blogs:

I have yet to find an English language blog post on the Black Forest which I like.

Bits of history or culture:

Other:

  • In Age of Empires 2 the skirmish level is called ‘Black Forest’ in English, and ‘Forêt-Noire’ in French, both of which are their names for the Black Forest, but it is ‘Dunkel Wald’ meaning ‘dark forest’ in German.
  • The Romans didn’t really go into it. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest took place 500km to the north. Likewise there were a few very minor skirmishes with the advancing French troops in the very final days of WW2, but it was otherwise untouched.
  • The Netflix series ‘Dark’ takes place in a moody German forest, but it is filmed on the far side of the country near Berlin. The flat landscape and brick buildings are a world away from the hills and wooden buildings of the Black Forest. There is a Winden in the Black Forest, but there are loads of places called Winden.
  • Some people think it is a generic name and don’t realise it is an actual place. Honestly I can understand that.