Summer 2011 is shaping up to be a good one for Germany. As a nation, it has emerged from recession faster and stronger than much of the rest of Europe, which means there's an optimistic vibe on the street and in the restaurants and hotels. As a destination, Germany also promises to be one studded with celebrations: Fifa's Women's World Cup is in full swing; 2011 is the 125th anniversary of the first long-distance journey by Mr Benz's automobile; and the 125th anniversary of the unusual death of one of Bavaria's most extravagant monarchs, King Ludwig II, the architect of an extraordinary clutch of castles. One of them, Neuschwanstein, was Disney's inspiration for Sleeping Beauty's castle.
Anniversaries come and go, but it is cities and their hinterlands that are the essence of Germany. There's Hamburg, the wealthy port with access to the North Sea islands and Baltic beaches. There's Cologne, the unconventional city on the eminently cruise-worthy Rhine. There's Berlin, the capital, with its vibrant arts scene. There's Frankfurt, the business centre, with its museums and thriving medical tourism. There's Stuttgart, the home of Mercedes-Benz, with its access to the Black Forest. And finally, there's Munich, with its moderate climate and surrounding lakes and mountains.
But whether you go north, south, east or west, you'll find that Germany understands quality through and through. You've only got to look at German-made cars, German-made washing machines and German-made bathroom fittings to realise that. And because standards are so high at home, Germans can be very demanding when they move around their own country, ensuring that the hotel experience is better than most. Here, the best properties are usually a synthesis of old and new because, unlike the British, German architects and designers are not obsessed with the preservation of every detail of the past. Instead, they are quite prepared to place the latest in modern style and technology within a historical structure, usually with very pleasing results.
Because this is such a business-oriented destination, top city centre hotels can be busy with business travellers during the week, so if you want a more relaxed and leisure-focused form of accommodation, you'd be better off arriving at the weekend or staying at places out of town. Here's the pick of the best.
The most northerly of German cities is also its wealthiest, and it gives access to both the North Sea and Baltic coasts, as well as the fashionable island retreat of Sylt.
Where to stay Just emerging from a massive refurbishment, the Fairmont Vier Jahreseiten or Four Seasons (www.hvj.de; 00 49 40 3494 3181) is the grand dame of the Hamburg hotel scene, in an excellent location overlooking Inner Alster Lake, and within walking distance of the shopping arcades. A roll-call of the rich and the influential has stayed within its opulent walls, and the hotel even runs courses in etiquette. Double rooms cost from €220 (Dh1,115), excluding breakfast.
A distinctive and chic alternative is the Louis Jacob (www.hotel-jacob.de; 00 49 40 822 550), set in one of the city's most sumptuous merchant mansions out on the Elbchaussee, the city's millionaire's row, and with views down onto the Elbe itself. Fresh, bright, contemporary style, with the feel of a private mansion rather than a hotel. Double rooms cost from €185 (Dh962), including breakfast. Packages include the option of a trip to Sylt.
Eating and shopping A former iron foundry has been transformed with true designer exuberance into East (www.east-hamburg.de; 00 49 40 309 930), one of the coolest places to eat in Hamburg, where dramatically lit curvy pillars tower over the three-storey-high Asian-themed restaurant.
The fashion designer Jil Sander started out in Hamburg and still lives here, so her Hamburg outlet on Neuer Wall is pretty much her flagship store. Minimalism rules, colours are muted and lines are classical (www.jilsander.com; 00 49 40 3741 290).
Germany's most popular city break destination is constantly reinventing itself, and remains surprisingly arty and relaxed for a national capital.
Where to stay The Adlon Kempinski (www.kempinski.com; 00 49 3022 610) is a massive 382-room building on Unter den Linden, close to the famous Brandenburg Gate, with a graceful period interior and comprehensive spa and a whole range of themed packages. Double rooms cost from €240 (Dh1,248), excluding breakfast.
Meanwhile, the Brandenburger Hof (www.brandenburger-hof.com; 0049 3021 4050) over in the city's western part close to the shopping mile of Kurfürstendamm, is a privately owned boutique hotel where Asian style meets Bauhaus furniture in a beautiful early 20th-century city palais. It offers lots of packages related to Berlin's cultural offerings, such as its "Gods of Tell Halaf" package (€442; Dh2,300 per person), which includes two nights with breakfast, one three-course dinner and VIP entrance to a special exhibition in the Pergamon Museum of sculptures from the sixth century BC that were discovered in Syria (until August 14).
Culture, shopping and spa History aside, Berlin is most famous for its cutting-edge arts, and now has its own art tours that allow visitors access to studios and to meet a hand-picked selection of artists. GoArt's tailor-made tours cost from €105 (Dh546) for two hours for one to six people (www.goart-berlin.de; 0049 30 3087 3626).
The city's most famous shop is the massive KaDeWe (www.kadewe.de; 00 49 3021 210) on Tauentzienstrasse. Supposedly the largest department store in Europe, its six floors are stocked with everything you could want. The sixth floor has gourmet foods of the finest quality from all over the world. Berlin's re-invention of everything even extends to day spas. The Liquidrom (http://wliquidrom-berlin.de; 00 49 3025 8007 820) is a "sensory waterworld" with its centrepiece a thermal saltwater pool under a darkened dome. Minimalist, uber-cool, and also offering various massages. Entry starts at €19.50 (Dh102) for two hours.
Germany's most unconventional big city, perennially busy with trade fairs, is an accomplished hostess superbly sited on the Rhine, and a surprisingly good base for families.
Where to stay Expect the unexpected in Cologne, where one of the best addresses is in a former water tower. The Hotel in Wasserturm (www.hotel-im-wasserturm.de; 00 49 22 120 080) combines French design with German engineering, and even the furniture design mimics the curving walls. Double rooms cost from €190 (Dh990), excluding breakfast.
If industrial chic is not quite your thing, there's also the elegant, period-style Schloss Bensberg (www.schlossbensberg.com; 00 49 22 04 42 0) on the city's eastern outskirts, near enough for a view of the famous Cologne cathedral. The Bensberg's restaurant, the Vendôme, has three Michelin stars and was voted Germany's best restaurant last year, and accordingly the hotel offers special culinary packages, such as one night's accommodation plus breakfast, a four-course lunch and four-course dinner for €475 (Dh2,470) per person.
Spa The Graeflicher Park is a lavish aristocratic country estate in Bad Driburg, out to the east of Cologne, and as the town's name suggests, it has its own mineral water springs. Spa has been a tradition here for more than 225 years, and the hotel has a range of day spa packages (www.graeflicher-park.de; 00 49 5253 9523 602) set in sumptuous English-style parkland.
Culture, shopping and activities A new craze sweeping Germany - love locks - has its origins in Cologne, and is worth seeing. Couples put padlocks bearing their names on the Hohenzollern bridge and throw away the key.
Cologne is, of course, home of eau de Cologne, and the 4711 brand. Its birthplace on Glockengasse is both a store and a museum, with an eau de Cologne fountain at the entrance, (www.glockengasse.de; 00 49 2212 7099 910).
Phantasialand (www.phantasialand.de; 0049 18 05 366 200), one of Germany's finest theme parks, is just south of the city.
The ultimate business destination is also strong on culture and shopping, and is earning a reputation for excellent private medical facilities that cater specifically to international visitors.
Where to stay The ultimate business destination needs the ultimate oasis, in this case Frankfurt's Villa Kennedy (www.villakennedy.com; 00 49 6971 7121 402), one of the Rocco Forte Collection of hotels (whose latest property is scheduled to open in Abu Dhabi later this year). A 100-year-old villa just south of the Main river has been transformed into a boutique hotel on a presidential scale, with a peaceful central courtyard at its heart. A favourite for everyone from chief executives to German football stars, it also has strong connections with private health clinics just around the corner. Double rooms from €250 (Dh1,300) excluding breakfast.
Spa The Villa Spa (www.villakennedy.com; 00 49 6971 7121 160) is a 1,000 sq metre spa with its own private garden, 10 treatment rooms, a 15 metre pool, saunas, gym and relaxation area. This year its massages feature Sepai, the first spa to offer this product in Germany, and it is offering a day-long 'Secrets of Adonis and Aphrodite' package for €495 (Dh2,575).
Culture and shopping Despite its business profile, Frankfurt spends more on the arts than any other German city. A lot is invested in the Museum Embankment, a row of imperious waterside museums which is within walking distance of the Villa Kennedy, and in late August it celebrates the Museum Embankment Festival, where all institutions throw open their doors until the early hours.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the river, Frankfurt's most exclusive shopping street is Goethestrasse, with a roll-call of designer names from Prada to Jimmy Choo, and a branch of the fabulous jewellers Tiffany & Co (www.tiffany.de; 00 49 699 200 270) that looks like Fort Knox.
An industrial city best known for its luxury cars - both Porsche and Mercedes are here - Stuttgart is also well-placed for one of Germany's most touristed regions, the Black Forest.
Where to stay The Hotel Am Schlossgarten (www.hotelschlossgarten.com; 00 49 711 20 260) is well placed amidst city centre gardens and yet right next to downtown shopping, and has just undergone major renovations. Double rooms cost from €155 (Dh806), excluding breakfast.
Stuttgart hotels are primarily aimed at the business traveller. The leisure traveller is better advised to head out of town to the likes of the Black Forest's Hotel Bareiss (www.bareiss.com; 00 49 7442 470), a fabulous privately-owned holiday resort particularly good for families. The building is contemporary, and interior design somewhat traditional, but the facilities include a spa and a celebrated hotel restaurant with no fewer than three Michelin stars. Double rooms cost from €188 (Dh978) per person, excluding breakfast.
Culture and activities The big attraction is the Mercedes museum (www.mercedes-benz-classic.com), inside the grounds of Daimler's sprawling Untertürkheim factory complex. It charts the development of the company, via the merging of the firms started by the two pioneers, Daimler and Karl Benz, and is designed to appeal to everyone, not just petrolheads.
Prompted by the Mercedes Benz anniversary, this year is Germany's year of the car (for details of events, visit www.automobilsommer2011.de). A particular highlight has to be the Premium Cars of Southern Germany package being offered by the Stuttgart-based tour operator Spillmann (www.spillmann.de; 00 49 7142 9788 15), where customers get to drive the latest Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and BMW between the cities of Stuttgart, Ingoldstadt and Munich, staying at luxury hotels en route (price on request).
The Bavarian capital is the most liveable of German cities, thanks to its southerly climate and location in the lee of the Alps.
Where to stay Usually better known for its exotic Asian properties, the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com; 00 49 89 290 980) is tucked away just off Maximilianstrasse, Munich's Gucci and Prada mile. The hotel is a neo-Renaissance gem, with a spectacular roof terrace with pool and two grand staircases dominating the foyer. Double rooms cost from €345 (Dh1,795), excluding breakfast.
Additionally, there are some fine addresses in the Alpine foothills around the city, and none more elegant than Schloss Elmau, (www.schloss-elmau.de; 00 49 8823 180) about an hour south of Munich. The hotel's particulars are extraordinary: four spas, six restaurants, two concert halls and two libraries. There are sufficient spa treatments here to keep spa addicts entertained for weeks, plus a schedule of concerts and children's events. The meadowland setting, too, is bewitchingly beautiful. Double rooms cost from €429 (Dh2,230), excluding breakfast.
Spa If you're not staying at the Mandarin Oriental, then the Blue Spa in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, right up on the rooftops of Munich, is acknowledged as the best in town and has fantastic views (www.bayerischerhof.de; 00 49 8921 200).
Shopping and eating Munich's famous delicatessen Dallmayr (www.dallmayr.de; 00 49 89 2135 0) is centrally placed on Dienerstrasse, and its fabulous foodhalls are spectacularly colourful and exotic. Its cafe, too, is a well-known society meeting place. Local celebrities also tend to go to eat at Brenners (www.brennergrill.de; 00 49 894 522 880), an Italian grill-restaurant which used to be Michael Ballack's favourite. The restaurant is in a large columned hall just off Maximilianstrasse, and is surprisingly good value for money.
Andrew Eames is the editor of www.germanyiswunderbar.com. For the official website of the German National Tourist Office, visit www.cometogermany.com.