Lake Constance (Bodensee) is Europe’s largest lake. Its shorelines in three countries – Germany, Switzerland and Austria – offer varied scenery with forests, vineyards and mountain views, as well as a wealth of historic and cultural gems, water sports and relaxing leisure activities.
We’ve gathered some insider suggestion to help you explore the attractions and enjoy the Bodensee.
Ride A Bicycle Around Lake Constance
Lake Constance is great for cycling holidays. You circumnavigate the lake along cycle paths, passing through Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The flat terrain makes cycling easy (even for families and the not-so-fit), while you enjoy varied landscapes of mountains, hills, vineyards and apple orchards.
Our favourite times are in May, surrounded by the fresh green of young beech leaves, and September, when the deciduous trees turn golden. We find the best way to enjoy Lake Constance is through a leisurely cycling tour that can be broken up into six stages.
Starting point: Konstanz (Germany), the largest town on the lake, where it’s easy to hire a bicycle.
Stop 1: Stein am Rhein (Switzerland)
View majestic splendour of Europe’s largest waterfall.
Stop 2: Überlingen (Germany)
Enjoy an ice cream and feed the swans on the Uferpromenade.
Stop 3: Friedrichshafen (Germany)
Visit the Zeppelin Museum.
Stop 4: Either island town Lindau (Germany) or Bregenz (Austria)
Here you travel up the Pfänder.
Stop 5: Rorschach (Switzerland)
Visit the Forum Wūrth art gallery.
Your bike tour will come to an end at Konstanz (Germany).
For the complete 270-km circuit, follow the black-blue-white signs. Most trains and ships accept bicycles (though not all do, and you may have to pay extra), so you can choose to rest your legs for part of the route.
Here’s the English-language website of Kultur-a major bicycle hire near the train station in Konstanz: Kultur-Rädle http://www.kultur-raedle.de/index.html#Radverleih
Expect to pay around 25 Euro per day for hiring an e-bike.
Take the trip clockwise around the lake. This way, you’ll ride in the lane closest to the water.
Take A Train Around Lake Constance
Do you want an easier way to see the lake in its entirety, from the perspective of three different countries? Consider taking the train! The so-called Bodenseegürtelbahn (German for ‘Lake Constance Circumference-Belt Railway’) isn’t a tourist attraction, but a route of the regular scheduled trains.
You can travel around Lake Constance in a single journey, or break your trip into sections to explore the towns and visit attractions on the way. Experience the train hooting as it dives through tunnels, travel past vineyards and orchards, and enjoy beautiful views of the lake. On a clear day, and when the famous föhn wind blows, you can look from the German shore across the lake and see the snow-capped mountains of the Swiss Alps.
Trains in Germany, Austria and Switzerland tend to be superbly clean and punctual. Have your passport ready, because at customs officers will request it each border crossing.
Cost: An adult ticket from Konstanz (Germany) along the Swiss shore to Bregenz (Austria) costs circa 21 Euro. Here’s a link to schedules and prices on the German side: https://www.bahn.de/p/view/index.shtml
Choose your seat depending on what you want to see – the lake itself, or the surrounding countryside.
Hop From Town To Town On A Passenger Ship
In the summer, sparkling white ships carry passengers. Some routes go from town to town along a part of the shore, others criss-cross the lake. You can travel to your next destination or go on a cruise for half a day or a day.
Cost: An adult single ticket from Lindau to Meersburg costs around 17 Euro. You can save money with return tickets, and also with train/ship combination tickets.
We love spending time on the lower deck on hot days. Feel the cool breeze caress your skin and hear the splashing as the ships plough through the water. Alternatively, sit on a bench on the top deck to get the best views. On windy days, we recommend keeping to the stern, and in rainy weather, stay in the lounge.
Walk Amidst Spectacular Blooms On The Mainau, The Island Of Flowers
This privately owned 0.45 km² island’s rare microclimate makes it ideal for flowers. Großherzog Friedrich (Grand Duke Frederick) I of Baden acquired the island in 1853 and turned it into a botanical showcase.
Stroll along the paths, feast your eyes on the floral displays, listen to the birdsong and the tinkling fountains, and inhale the delicate fragrances of the blooms. Expect the hundreds of rose varieties in the formal Italian garden to fill the air with their sweet scent.
Although the Mainau is most spectacular from spring to autumn, the winter months offer visual interest as well. Visit the150-year old arboretum and the butterfly house.
An adult ticket costs 10 Euro. (Children up to 12 years go free.) Open daily in any season and any weather from sunrise to sunset. The most pleasant way to reach this island is by scheduled passenger ship.
If you love gardens, plan to spend a whole day here. Focus on the flowers of the season, and visit the Rose Garden, the Dahlia Garden, the Hydrangea Path or the Dahlia Garden.
Hire A Rowing Boat For Tranquility On The Water
Most towns and villages along Lake Constance have a boat hire where you can rent a ruderboot (rowing boat). We love to row either far out to the centre of the lake, far from prying eyes, or along the shore to the tranquil shade of ancient willow trees trailing their slender twigs in the dark waters. The combination of physical, biceps-strengthening activity and relaxation in serene nature is simply magical.
1 hour for up to 3 people costs around 12 Euro.(I find that two hours is the ideal time.)
At a distance from the shore, the water is deep, wonderfully cool and perfect for a refreshing swim. But make sure one person stays on board to prevent the boat from drifting.
Visit The Pfahlbauten Stone Age Museum In Unteruhldingen
Experience life in the Stone and Bronze Age by taking a guided tour through the reconstructed ‘Pfahlbauten’ stilt houses in Unteruhldingen (Germany). Find out how people lived on the shores of Lake Constance thousands of years ago, see how our ancestors used wood and string to drill holes into stones to make stone axes, and find out about ancient survival skills.
From April to September, the Pfahlbauten Stone Age Museum In Unteruhldingen is open from 9.00 to 18.30. In winter, the opening times are restricted. Expect to spend around an hour in the archaeological museum viewing original finds, and 30 minutes on a guided tour through several pile dwellings.
In the summer, guided tours start every 10 minutes. During the winter months, tours are fewer but longer and in greater depth – ideal for visitors with a serious interest in archaeology. An adult admission ticket costs 10 Euro.
A good way to reach the Pfahlbauten is with a scheduled passenger ship to Unteruhldingen.
We love the first tour of the morning. The lake wakes from its quietude, white swans take their first majestic glide on the water, and taucherli (Eurasion coots) stir in the reeds.
The early morning tours usually have only a few people in each group, which allows the guide to show you much more than you would see in a big crowd during the afternoon rush.
Sunbathe And Swim In A Strandbad
Most communities along the lake shore have a public bathing area (a Strandbad – ‘beach bath’) with toilets, showers and changing rooms. Many also have a children’s playground, a refreshment kiosk or restaurant, diving towers, rafts, and lifeguards on duty.
You’ll find narrow stretches of pebbles or grey sand along the water’s edge, spacious lawns for sunbathing interspersed with ancient, shade-giving trees. The water tends to be dark green, with strands of verdant algae and seaweed floating. Ancient weeping willows trail their branches in the water.
Most of these lidos on Lake Constance are open from morning to evening from May to September, and admission is free of charge.
Bring a picnic lunch and a large towel to lie on.
Drink Bodenseewein, The Local Wine
The slopes on the north side of the Bodensee, especially around Birnau and Meersburg are home to the vineyards of the renowned Baden wines. The dry white wines of this region are especially fine.
Expect a bottle of good Baden wine from to cost 10-30 Euro in a shop, more in a restaurant. In a restaurant or a weingarten (wine garden) you can order by the bottle or by the glass.
My favourites are the wines from the vineyards of Birnau and Meersburg, particularly the Müller-Thurgau, the Weißburgunder and the Riesling, although as connoisseurs will understand, recommendations depend on the vintage.
Spǟtzle is a traditional Swabian pasta dish (popular in Southern Germany, Austria and Northern Switzerland). It may be served as a side dish accompanying a meat course, or as kǟspǟtzle, a version with melted cheese, which is a main dish typically accompanied by a crunchy green salad. A third option is spǟtzlesuppe, a soup based on clear broth with spǟtzle, and sprinkled with fresh parsley and chives.
Look for restaurants offering the real thing – freshly prepared by scraping the dough into boiling water, rather than the ready-made packaged versions. When ordering Spǟtzle, ask if they are hausgemacht (made in-house).
Join A Guided Walk Through The Historical City Of Konstanz
Konstanz (Constance) is the largest city on the Bodensee, located in Germany and bordering on Switzerland. Guided walking tours of 2 – 2 1/2 hours take you through the town’s history, spanning the Ancient Roman period, the Middle Ages with the famous Konstanzer Konzil (deciding the future of the Catholic Church), the fate of the brave religious reformer Johannes Hus, the dark aspects of the town’s Nazi past, and more.
Visit the old Gothic Münster church, see the picturesque mediaeval city gate Schnetztor, and admire the historical town houses with their elaborately painted facades depicting aspects of life in the Middle Ages.
Several organisers offer guided walking tours, typically costing 10 Euro.
Several tour versions are available. Choose one to match your interest: do you want to be guided by an expert of religious history, by an actor representing a mediaevel night-watchman, or a lady serving samples of local wines?
Check out one of the city’s own tours!
Take The Cable Car Up The Pfänder Mountain
The Pfänder (in the city of Bregenz, Austria) is the only mountain on the shores of Lake Constance. If you want to enjoy a panoramic view of the region, take the Pfänderbahn to the top. The ride in the large gondolas is short – only six minutes either way. If you plan to visit the more spectacular mountains in the nearby Alps, you can give the Pfänder a miss. Otherwise, it’s a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours in Austria.
At the top you’ll find a restaurant with traditional Austrian cuisine, and a small game park where you can watch a herd of ibexes practise their rock-climbing skills, as well as wild boars, mouflons, red deer groundhogs and nanny goats. The walk through the game park takes around half an hour.
The Pfänderbahn operates daily from 8.00 to 19.00, with gondolas departing every half hour (more frequently during busy times).
During busy periods, the gondolas can be crammed full of people. Aim to secure a space near the lake-ward side to enjoy a great view.
Visit The Baroque Church Birnau
Birnau is one of the most famous and beautiful churches in Germany. A masterpiece of 18th century baroque architecture, with rich frescoes and sculptures by the greatest artists of the period, the basilica offers a feast for art-lovers eyes and inspiration for Christian worshipper’s souls.
Admission is free, though donations are invited. Consider attending a Catholic Sunday service. Here’s the church website: http://www.birnau.de/
From the cobbled plaza in front of the church, you can enjoy a great view of the surrounding vineyards slopes and across the Bodensee to the southern shores.
Look for the sculpture of the Honigschlecker (‘honey licker’), a putto with a beehive who is furtively licking honey off his finger, by master sculptor Joseph Anton Feuchtmayer. You may want to sit in a pew and meditate upon the question that has baffled visitors: what is this chubby rascal’s significance in the church?
Pop in to neighbouring Germany and check out everything that Frankfurt has to offer!