Many Brits head to Italy to spend time at Lakes Garda and Como, but perhaps they are missing a trick when they bypass Central Europe’s third largest lake: Lake Constance, whose natural beauty makes it, without doubt, the Alps’ best-kept secret.
Also known Bodensee in German, what makes Lake Constance so special is that its 270 kilometres of shorelines takes in three countries: Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is made up with the waters of The Rhine that descend from the Swiss Alps and is also an expansion of Switzerland’s Rhône River.
There are no border controls so you can easily embark on a latter-day mini-Grand Tour and visit four countries – taking in the micro state of Liechtenstein located few miles south of the lake.
Aside from the sensational views over the Swiss Alps from the German segment, here are the ten sights and activities you absolutely must not miss when you visit the Lake Constance area.
1On the water of Lake Constance
Water sports on Lake Constance
The largest lake in Germany and Austria, Constance is 65km long, 14km wide and 252m deep. The very photogenic lake is so big that because of the Earth’s curvature, you cannot see one end of it from the other.
The water of Lake Constance is a gorgeous, shimmering, crystalline blue which would not look out of place around a Greek island. The water is an inviting 26° in the summer, and many love bathing in it. It is also a water-sports paradise for visitors, offering everything from paddle-boarding to yachting.
2Germany – Constance city centre
Constance City centre scene
Situated in a charming spot on the edge of the lake, the German city of Constance is freighted with history. Nowhere is that clearer than in the centre. An area where it is not hard to lose yourself in attractive, higgledy-piggledy, winding alleyways, it is crowded with eye-catching medieval buildings which date back as far as 1260 and – unusually for Germany – survived the Second World War. During Allied raids on the area, warplanes mistook it for neutral Switzerland, and the medieval town centre was spared.
3Germany – The Council Building
The Council Building c. MTK Dagmar Schwelle
Now is a particularly good time to visit the city of Constance because it is celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Council of Constance. In the early 15th century, the Catholic Church had not one, not two, but three popes. So a four-year meeting was called in 1414 at the splendid waterside Council Building (a former goods warehouse) in neutral Constance to resolve the problem. Why was the Council necessary in the first place? Because in the 15th Century, rival European nations were incessantly jockeying for power. There really is nothing new under the sun.
4Germany – Imperia
Imperia c. MTK Dagmar Schwelle
The population of Constance swelled from the normal 5,000 to 25,000 during the four years of the Council. The new residents of the town included as many as 700 prostitutes. To mark that fact, “Imperia”, a towering, 9-metre-high, rotating statue by the local sculptor Peter Lenk was put up at the mouth of Constance Harbour in 1993.
Imperia’s dress is split down the front in a decidedly revealing fashion, and in 1993 the staid town council tried to ban the statue for “outraging public decency.” However, the harbour’s owners tersely informed the council that the statue was staying put. It turned out to be an inspired decision: Imperia is now the city’s most photographed landmark.
5Germany – The Lake Dwelling Museum
There is a corner of Lake Constance that is forever Stone Age. One of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region, the lake dwellings of Unteruhldingen in Germany constitute the largest and oldest open-air museum in Europe.
Dating back three millennia, 23 remarkably preserved houses are suspended on stilts above the water of Lake Constance. They give an unrivalled insight into the lives of the farmers, traders and fishermen who lived there over 3000 years ago. It’s an astounding journey back through time.
6Germany – Zeppelin flights
If you happen to find a spare €700 down the back of the sofa, you can catch a once-in-a-lifetime flight over Lake Constance in a 12-seater Zeppelin flying machine from Bodensee Airport in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
Housed in gigantic lakeside hangers and pioneered in the early 20th century by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who lived in the city of Constance, the airships are a gargantuan 75m long. Like those magnificent men in their flying machines, you can drink in the true majesty of Lake Constance from the air in these awe-inspiring air-ships.
7Austria – The Hohentwiel Paddle Steamer
Steamship Hohentwiel in front of Bad Schachen_Achim Mende
One of the most memorable activities on Lake Constance is taking a dinner cruise on the Hohentwiel, (from €119 per person ). This is a beautifully restored 1913 paddle steamer, that sets off from Hard in Austria.
Serenaded by a jazz trio, you glide across the lake while enjoying a delicious, five-course meal. Each course is paired with a very tasty local wine. The cruise is the perfect melange of gourmet and glamour – even if the Hohentwiel will definitely be carrying more weight by the end of the evening than it was at the beginning!
8Austria – Bregenz Opera House
The centrepiece of the annual performing arts festival in Bregenz, Austria is a major operatic production. This is mounted every July and August at the breath-taking lakeside Opera House on the world’s largest floating stage, which was also the backdrop for a famous chase sequence in the 2008 James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.
After an acclaimed Carmen this year, you can book now for next year’s production of Rigoletto in the spectacular 7000-seat arena. But hurry: tickets are already selling out.
9Liechtenstein – The Treasure Chamber
Liechtenstein Treasure Chambre
In terms of GDP per capita, Liechtenstein, to the south of Lake Constance, is the richest nation on earth. Some of that wealth is reflected in the splendiferous Treasure Chamber in the centre of its capital Vaduz.
As well as the crown of the Prince of Liechtenstein, rather more surprisingly it also showcases a piece of moon rock and two Lichtenstein national flags, which were carried to the distant planet on Apollos 11 and 17. These items recognise the fact that the moon landings would not have happened without Liechtenstein, which was then the only country that had the advanced vacuum technology required to test if a space capsule could land safely on the planet.
10Switzerland – The Weinfelden Wine Trail
Weinfelden Wine trail
The Weinfelden Wine Trail in Switzerland is a picturesque 9km loop that encompasses several local vineyards. En route, you can call in at the wine safe. This is a large wooden box which houses a visitors’ book and a lever that you pull to raise a dumb waiter holding a rack of 20 different wines from a cooler below. At the end of the trail, you can gaze out towards some of the 240 breath-taking Alpine peaks that surround you. This moment reinforces the sense Lake Constance is an unknown pleasure just waiting to be discovering by British visitors.