Back in June, we made a quick day-trip to the Rhine, and I was so impressed by the castle-lined river, the tiny towns and all the Riesling that I was determined to come back during our summer holiday armed with a bicycle. But the timing, the weather, and our wallets wouldn’t cooperate and we never made it back to explore the Rhine.
Instead, we made a very last-minute decision to take our cycling and wine-tasting ambitions south, all the way to the Bodensee.
Situated between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the Bodensee—or Lake Constance as it’s known to the English-speaking world—is Central Europe’s third largest lake (the 24th in all of Europe). Surrounded by charming old towns and seaside promenades, vineyard-covered hills, castles and the ever present Alps looming in the background, the Bodensee has a little bit of everything.
There’s so much to see and do that it’s impossible to squeeze it all into one trip. With the overwhelming number of things to do in mind, and to keep my obsessive tendency to plan everything in check, we quit while we were ahead and decided not to plan anything at all. Our mantra for the week was Der Weg ist das Ziel and that meant no schedule, no research, just a loose plan made at breakfast each morning. In the end, having no plan turned out to be the best plan.
When to Visit
Peak season: June – August
Though tourist season peaks during the warm summer months, the off-season spring and fall are just as enjoyable. You’ll have nice weather, top visibility, and beautiful landscape without all the crowds and the standstill traffic on B31. As a bonus, a trip in the fall puts you right in the middle of the Bodensee’s wine harvest!
The Bodensee is easy enough to reach by plane, train, or Autobahn.
By plane: There are four airports within a two hour radius—Friedrichshafen, Memmingen, Stuttgart, Zürich—of which, only Friedrichshafen is directly at the Bodensee.
By train: You can catch a train connection from just about anywhere in Germany to one of the Bodensee’s largest towns (Konstanz, Friedrichshafen, or Lindau), it’s just a matter of finding one with good connections.
By Car: There are three main routes to the Bodensee: from Stuttgart via the A81 and A98, from Munich via the A96, and from Ulm on the B30 and B33.
There’s just one main road that runs through the towns on the lake’s northern German shore, the B31, and because of that the traffic can be a real pain. But luckily, once you’ve arrived there are lots of other ways to get around the Bodensee, and they can make for a much more scenic ride. (Important to know if you’re set on driving around the Bodensee into neighboring Austria or Switzerland, both countries require you to purchase a vignette—their version of a toll—in order to drive on their Autobahns.)
By train: The DeutscheBahn, the Österreichische Bundesbahn, and the Schweizerische Bundesbahn all operate trains along the Bodensee with stops in most of its towns.
By boat: With catamarans, ferries, and boat excursions, you’re able to get pretty much anywhere on the lake by boat if you do a little planning ahead.
- Catamarans run hourly between Konstanz and Friedrichshafen (6:00 to 20:00) and cost 10€ one-way.
- Ferries (cars, bikes, people) only operate between Meersburg-Konstanz and Friedrichshafen-Romanshorn and they also run hourly (5:30-20:30) costing 9€ one-way.
- For more option to travel by boat, check out VSU’s website for times and prices for boat trips around the Bodensee and the Rhine and BSB’s for your choice of planned excursions.
By bike: There are a ton of cycling paths—even some for rollerblading—all the way around the lake and they’re all thoroughly marked and easy to navigate.
1| Cycle around the lake
With the Bodensee’s 273 km of cycling paths, one minute you’re riding along the waterfront of a medieval town and the next you’re in the middle of the Alpine countryside.
2| Stroll along the lake’s longest promenade
Stretching all the way from the Zeppelin Museum and boat repair yards to the Schlosskirche and its adjoining winery, the Friedrichshafen promenade is the heart of the city. On a nice day, the boardwalk is always crowded. Cafe tables are full, lines form outside of ice cream parlors, and stores set up shop outside on the promenade.
3| Watch the sunset at Schloss Montfort
I wouldn’t call sunset on the Bodensee spectacular, at least not this night at Schloss Montfort in particular, but there was something so serene and beautiful about this spot: the quiet, the rows of mountains stretched to the horizon, all the different shades of blue, the clouds sitting on the mountaintops.
4| Walk around Meersburg’s Oberstadt (not to be confused with Marburg’s Oberstadt)
Cobblestone streets wind their way around the squares of the upper city, past two castles and down to the waterfront, all the color and craftsmanship that make Meersburg so photogenic on display. It’s not just timber-framed houses and history that you can find here. Meersburg is also known within Germany for its rosé.
5| Get out on the water
Whether a “quick” ferry ride to Switzerland or a day-long tour of the towns along the German shore, you can’t come to the Bodensee and not go out on the water.
6| Figure out the science behind Graf Zeppelin’s flying Luftschiff
Did you know that the Hindenburg is still, almost eighty years later, the largest thing to ever fly? And that a one-way ticket cost $400—that’s $6,858 today. This Friedrichshafen museum is an informative and interactive way to spend a rainy day. If you’re interested in booking a flight on a real zeppelin, you can do that in Friedrichshafen, too.
7| Take a hike through the vineyards
You’ve got your pick of hiking spots with the Swiss and Austrian Alps so close, but staying a little closer to home base (and to the lake) leads you through ripening vineyards and orchards that seem to just tumble down the hills and right into the lake. On this particular walk on the Auf Höhenweg, you start in Hagnau, a town known for its wine, and end in Meersburg, a town known for its rosé. Is there a more motivating reason to hike?
8| Explore the city that gave the lake its name
Konstanz, because it escaped the Allied bombings of WW2 unscathed, is able to simultaneously look medieval and still feel like the college town that it is. There’s a book and record market set up in the square outside the city’s oldest church, and the history-lined streets are full of musicians: singing Wonderwall, strumming along to Paul Simon, performing an impromptu violin concert.
9| Visit the island of Lindau
I’m not sure if you could really call Lindau the ‘Bavarian Riviera’—I would think they’d need more sun, sand, and palm trees—but it’s still deserving of its spot as the destination on the Bodensee. While it may not have the French Riviera’s white sand beaches, it definitely has its color (and a casino). The red-roofed old town, contained to the island part of the city, is full of historic spots, waterfront cafes, and beautiful, green parks.
10| Picnic at Basilika Birnau
Every detail of Birnau was thought out in order to impress. From its Rococo-styled interior designed specifically to overwhelm its visitors, to its spot at the top of the hill, dominating land and lake below it. As an active church, one with three masses each Sunday, the church and grounds are crowded during service. But bring some Brötchen, grab a spot in the grass and enjoy your breakfast with a concert of bells in the background.
11| Get up close and personal with Rheinfalls
Just west of the Bodensee, close to the border between Germany and Switzerland, stands Europe’s largest plain waterfall. A nice, but expensive, spot for a day-trip, the Rheinfalls is accessible by boat or from both banks via narrow sets of stairs.
Need some more ideas for what to do at the Bodensee?
- On a clear day, ride a cable-car ride up to the Pfänder in Bregenz, Austria and spend the day hiking down.
- Take a boat ride to the ‘flowering island’ Insel Mainau.
- Want to check a UNESCO site off your list? Visit one of the area’s Neolithic stilt-house villages. While the majority of the 111 sites are in Switzerland, the Pfaulbauten Museum is in Unteruhldingen.
- Want another UNESCO site? Step back in time on the island of Reichenau. With its monastery and acres of vegetable gardens, UNESCO calls it “an outstanding testament to the religious and cultural role of a great Benedictine monastery in the Middle Ages”.