Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the Switzerland of Germany & the Czech Republic

Lizet Wesselman - 16/02/2024

Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the Switzerland of Germany & the Czech Republic

Lizet Wesselman - 16/02/2024

In the middle of Europe, on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic, lies a unique natural area: the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. That probably doesn’t tell you anything at all, but the local names Saxon Switzerland and Bohemian Switzerland might ring a bell. This park is wildly popular among domestic Czech and German tourists, but for some reason still does not reach a large audience. And yet its beautiful rock formations are unique to Europe. You can find sandstone rocks in several places, but not in this way. Time to put this beautiful area on the map!

Two countries, one natural paradise

Saxon Switzerland, located in Germany, and Bohemian Switzerland, on the Czech side, together form a contiguous nature reserve. It is also known by the collective name ‘Elbe Valley’ or ‘Elbe Sandstone Mountains’. Nice and easy, named after the sandstone mountains in the area along the Elbe: Elbe Sandstone Mountains.

The name ‘Saxon Switzerland’ was coined in the 18th century by Swiss artists Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, who found the landscape as impressive as their homeland. So they affectionately called it the Switzerland of that region: Saxony, or ‘Saxon Switzerland’. The part on the Czech side was subsequently named ‘Bohemian Switzerland’ after the region of Bohemia in the Czech Republic. Technically, it is in northern Bohemia, but I guess that became too long a name.

History of Elbe Sandstone Mountains

The landscape of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains is the result of natural processes, over a duration of millions of years. During the Cretaceous, some 100 million years ago, this area was covered by a shallow sea. Sand and clay particles sank the bottom and formed thick layers of rock. New layers were continuously added, creating these layered rocks. As the sea retreated, erosion and the mobility of the tectonic plates in the area began to shape the landscape into what it is today. The soft sandstone was eroded by wind, water and ice into the dramatic cliffs, pillars and arches that make the park so special.

From the 19th century, the value of this special natural area was realised, and more efforts were made to protect it. After World War II and the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain, the area remained an important natural border between East and West, thanks to the river Elbe, which runs through the area and marks the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. With the fall of communism and growing cooperation within the European Union, hands were joined to protect this area. Both parts were eventually granted national park status: Saxon Switzerland in 1990 and Bohemian Switzerland in 2000.

Are the country boundaries an issue?

Short answer: no. Of course, we have open borders in Europe, so you can cross them without any problems and, for example, have lunch in the Czech Republic while staying in Germany. At most, you may notice some differences between countries, in terms of accessibility, entrance fees at specific sites and maintenance. Although there is as much cooperation as possible to protect the area, there are obviously different laws and regulations in both countries, so certain aspects may be handled a bit differently per country. But nothing that will bother you as a visitor.

In both countries you will find beautiful spots and near both areas you will find small villages where you can stay or eat something. The Czech Republic is cheaper than Germany, so you can make smart use of that. But Germany has the euro and the Czech Republic the Czech koruna. In both locations, it’s best to carry cash for restaurants and shops (except supermarkets) so then euros might be more convenient.

But both have their charms and, below the line, there is little difference between the areas. Even to such an extent, that many people work just across the border and you can actually get along best with German throughout the area. In Bohemian Switzerland, they speak German better than English and you’ll also encounter a lot of German staff in restaurants there. Czech in the German part probably works a bit less well.

Highlights Elbe Sandstone Mountains

Saxon Switzerland – the German side:

  • Bastei Bridge: A visit to this iconic bridge is a must. It offers breathtaking views over the Elbe Valley and connects several impressive rock formations. It is one of the most photographed locations in the park.
  • Königstein fortress: This historic mountain fortress is one of the largest in Europe. It offers not only stunning views of the surrounding area, but also a glimpse into the region’s rich history.
  • Schrammsteine: For the adventurous hikers and climbers, the Schrammsteine are a great place to explore. The cliffs offer challenging routes and stunning views of the surrounding nature.

Bohemian Switzerland – the Czech side

  • Pravčická Brána: The largest natural sandstone arch in Europe. Follow the red route, which rises a bit at first but is then easily flat. To climb up the arch, you pay around €5 from March to October, outside it’s free.
  • Edmund’s Gorge: Take a boat trip through this narrow gorge or hike to it from the village of Hřensko. This is probably the easiest hike, but popular because of the dense vegetation, the Elbe River and a cute little house that make up a pretty picture. Especially popular in autumn.
  • Mariina skála and Rudolfův kámen: These vantage points offer panoramic views of the park and surrounding valleys. Perfect for a rest and to enjoy the view.

Why is the Elbe Sandstone Mountains so popular?

The Elbe Sandstone Mountains are a huge area with different collections of sandstones in different places. This ensures that there are various hiking trails, from very easy to quite challenging. And so plenty of choice, to keep you entertained for several trips. I have been there three times now and still haven’t seen everything. And what I did see is also worth a second visit.

The park offers a variety of landscapes. Everything revolves around the sandstone rocks, of course, but they come in different shapes and sizes. From beautiful collections you can climb, with the most impressive views from rock plateaus. To a maze of detached rocks that you can zig-zag through, sometimes through very narrow passages or under naturally created bridges. This diversity makes each walk unique.

Sustainability Elbe Sandstone Mountains

Nature conservation is always important, but a unique park like this one, we obviously have to protect with all our might. Unfortunately, there was a major fire in the area in 2021, thanks to global warming and perhaps reckless people throwing their cigarette butts on the bone-dry ground. You can unfortunately still see the effects of that quite a bit, with whole sections burnt down and certain routes closed by fallen trees. So the recovery, now 2.5 years later, is far from complete. In the photo, see the view from Pravčická Brána in February 2024. A view over a burnt valley, which in 2020 was still full of beautiful green conifers.

When visiting national parks such as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, there are a number of things you can do to minimise your impact on nature:

Respect nature: Stay on the marked paths and respect the flora and fauna. By staying on the paths, you help protect the fragile nature from erosion and damage.

‘Leave nothing but footprints’: Leave no junk behind. Even things like banana peels don’t digest as fast as you expect, especially if it’s very dry. So just take it back to a trash bin.

Sustainable accommodations: In some villages you will find some very luxurious chain hotels. Perhaps nice to be able to dive into a sauna after a long walk, but with this you certainly don’t support the locals. Rather choose a small-scale hotel or a B&B run by a local family. Or, for example, these little apartments on a sustainable campsite with sauna.

Camping: And speaking of campsites, camping is of course another option for exploring the area sustainably. Via Campspace, you can book several small-scale, sustainable campsites in this region where you can stay.

Use public transport: Both parks are easily accessible by public transport. From Dresden or Prague, you can easily travel by train or bus to the entrance of the parks. This reduces CO2 emissions in the area and besides, there is not enough parking space in high season, so you won’t even want to come by car. Did you know that a night train now runs from Brussel to Amsterdam-Berlin-Prague with stops directly in the area? The European Sleeper to Prague stops in Bad Schandau in Saxon Switzerland as well as in Děčín in Bohemian Switzerland!

Do you still want to go by car, for example because you want to camp? We went to Saxon Switzerland in a green, electric Leavv campervan and it was fantastic! There are plenty of charging points in the villages. Sometimes not always within walking distance of a nice hiking trail, but near cafés and restaurants where you can recharge both yourself and the motorhome after the hike. Use the Leavv discount code ‘AWFW55’ for €55 off any booking!

Powered by GetYourGuide