Glorious hours at the Zugspitze, 'the Top of Germany'

The summit cross at the Zugspitze in Germany, a replica of the 1851 original, lords over mountains as far as the eye can see. (DAWN CATE   |   Times)
The summit cross at the Zugspitze in Germany, a replica of the 1851 original, lords over mountains as far as the eye can see. (DAWN CATE | Times)
Published Jan. 23, 2017

MUNICH, Germany

Our alarms went off way too early for vacation — 5 something in the morning — but my cousins and I had big plans. We were leaving our Munich hotel for a day trip to the Zugspitze, known as the Top of Germany. I learned of the mountain two days before our Norway-Germany getaway, when a colleague mentioned a memorable visit there. In darkness, we headed to the train station, our pace hastened by a desire to escape the predawn chill.

We purchased a Bayern Ticket that allowed all three of us unlimited travel on the regional trains in Bavaria for one day at a bargain price of 33 euros (about $35).

As we neared the Garmisch-Partenkirchen station a little over an hour later, daylight revealed mountains, and the excitement level for this native Floridian went way up.

We hopped off the train and headed to the nearby cash desk to buy our round-trip transportation to the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany at roughly 9,700 feet. (I had tried to buy tickets online, before we left the States, but was flummoxed by mentions of "KeyCard," "activation" and "deposit.") We paid 44.50 euros apiece (about $47) and boarded a cogwheel train. Minutes later we were on our way.

It became clear, as we picked up dozens and dozens of people at various points on our ascent, that we weren't the only early birds. It became clear, too, that we were the only tourists. The giveaway? Our footwear — flat-soled leather boots with plenty of style but little traction. Their footwear? Ski boots. (They also were wearing brightly colored ski pants, jackets and hats, and applying lip balm. Oh, and there were skis.)

After emerging from a very long tunnel at the end of our hour-plus journey from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we reached the Zugspitzplatt, the plateau below the summit. The skiers quickly scattered.

My cousins and I had planned to spend just an hour or so here, then head to Stuttgart a few hours away to see the Christmas markets and the Porsche Museum, but after briefly surveying the landscape — mountains, snow, blue sky as far as the eye could see — we abandoned that idea.

I was surprised, given all the snow, that I wasn't freezing. I wasn't ready to shed my gloves and jacket, but the temperature was quite lovely.

We walked around outside — gingerly, to avoid slipping — and gave our cellphone cameras a workout. We also explored what was inside: a few restaurants and a gift shop.

Awed by the beauty that surrounded and dwarfed us, we wondered what it would be like up at the Zugspitze. We boarded the cable car for the four-minute ride.

When we got off the cable car we headed to the 360-degree viewing platform (though not quite 360 degrees the day we were there due to construction). In clear weather, you can see a panorama of the mountains of Germany, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, 400 peaks in all, according to the Zugspitze website. I didn't count — it was considerably windy and frigid at this height — but I would believe it. The scenery, so vivid on this picture-perfect day, was the stuff of postcards.

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After taking a few photos, we headed inside, where there were more restaurants and another gift shop. Because we had left our hotel well before breakfast, we were hungry. We stopped in Gipfelalm, a cozy spot with lots of windows, wood and stone, and ordered some hot, and alcohol-infused, beverages. It was not yet lunchtime, but my cousin Debbie asked our server if it was possible to get the fish dish. The server said he would check with the chef, then returned with good news. Minutes later the food, toasty and tasty, arrived. (I equate high-altitude dining with high prices, but the entree and an Irish coffee came to a reasonable $15.)

Our stomachs full and our bodies warm, we took the cable car back to the Zugspitzplatt.

We had eyed some yellow canvas chairs on an outside deck the first time around. The sun was beaming, the heat from its rays palpable, so on our way to the chairs we picked up some cold beverages. (It is Germany, after all.) Then we perched, watching the skiers, soaking in the splendor and taking more photos without so much as getting up from our seats.

Eventually, I peeled myself out of the chair to investigate a small church several hundred yards away, at a higher elevation. It took some work to get there in the snow (again, footwear), and I think I was crossing a ski run, but I made it unscathed. I learned later that the church, Germany's highest, is Maria Heimsuchung Chapel, and that it was consecrated in 1981 by the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. It was closed on this day, so I didn't get a look inside. My descent from the church involved essentially body tubing part of the way — sliding on my derriere, by choice — but it was a blast.

Once I rejoined my cousins I sat down and finished my drink. We enjoyed our time there a little while longer then decided to return to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Boarding the train was a bit of a free-for-all — the skiers were as eager to get to the bottom of the mountain as they had been to get to the top — but we managed to get three seats and settled in for the ride.

After exiting the train we set off for the Christmas market several blocks away, escorted by a sweet German woman who spoke little English and who, rather than simply point us in the right direction, walked us there.

Over steaming mugs of mulled wine, a Christmas market staple known as gluhwein, my cousins and I marveled at the Zugspitze, and what we had seen.

As for Stuttgart? There's always next time.

Contact Dawn Cate at