Hi! In January I will be driving from Dusseldorf to Zurich (by way of the Black Forest) and then onto Milan. My first question - is this a safe drive in the winter? If not, then I was considering driving to Zurich, leaving the car and then taking the train the rest of the way to Milan. Second - is there anywhere I must stop in the Black Forest or anywhere else along the way? Thank you everyone in advance!!!
"is this a safe drive in the winter?" As long as it's not actively snowing, yes, it's just as safe as any other time of year.
Great, thank you.
If you are a Californian with no experience with ice and snow driving that is a lot to tackle. The good news is that from Switzerland to Milan you will most likely be driving through one of the long tunnels, so there won't be any snow or icy roads in that part. The bad news is that driving in tunnels is not much fun either. If I were you, I would drop the car in Zurich and take the train over the Gotthard route to Milan.
The Black Forest is pretty, but it is really not the hit you in the face, incredible scenery of Southern Bavaria and Austria. Zurich is not in the Swiss Alps, and I found it somewhat quiet and reserved. If you do take a train out of Zurich, a day trip is preferred for the scenery. And, the Lake Como area north of Milan (around Lugano, Switzerland) is absolutely breathtaking scenery. All of these areas could experience any kind of weather in January, however.
In reference to driving in the winter, I just returned from Germany. The rental cars are required to have snow tires during the winter months. Last week we drove in heavy snowfalls and we were okay. What is great about Germany is that they keep the autobahns clear. Yes, there can be patches of snow and ice here and there, however, for the most part, the roads were clear and good to drive on. It's in the evening and early morning when the roads could have some ice on them.
Thank you for the responses everyone. Denise - I am glad to hear about your experience. David - humm...would you maybe suggest driving from Dusseldorf down to Salzburg and then onto Milan? We just have to fly into D and fly out of M. So great to have options.
From Düsseldorf to Zürich via the Black Forrest the easiest route is Autobahn A3 from Düsseldorf to Frankfurt first. I assume you will have visted Cologne before you leave the Düsseldorf area anyway. If not Cologne has got much more to offer than Düsseldorf. A great stop along A3 would be in Limburg an der Lahn (in the Lahn river). Visit the old town and cathedral for an hour or two. In the Frankfurt area just before you'd pass the airport you'd take A67 towards Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Darmstadt. In Darmstadt they've got a weird/interesting square called Mathildenhöhe. There is a 1920s-Bauhaus-style-built Christian wedding church and a traditionally built Russian-Orthodox church around a park-like square. It might be worth a quick stop. Also at Darmstadt the freeway becomes A5 and goes all the way down to Basel, CH. 30 minutes after you leave Darmstadt you'll pass Heidelberg. Many people like to stay there for a night. From Heidelberg it's a bit over an hour's drive to Baden-Baden...
I'm not going to try to change your mind about driving - for all I know you have very good reasons for driving in winter versus the less expensive and easier train. I will suggest to check carefully on drop charges, make sure that you have the tires required in the countries, the Vignettes required, the tolls. And I restate - check the drop charges. If you are driving from north to south in January remember that the sun will be low in the south and you may find it in your eyes.
To emphasize what Nigel is saying about the drop charges, a very large fee of potentially hundreds of euros/dollars will be charged for renting a car in one country and returning it in another. I suggest you find out from the rental company how much that is before committing to a rental, unless money is of no concern for you.
If you're comfortable driving I-5 on the west coast, you'll be fine driving from Dusseldorf to Zurich, autobahn all the way. You'll have to venture off the autobahn to get into some of the popular Black Forest towns like Triberg and Feldberg. Roads should be fine that way also as there's some ski runs in the areas as well. The autobahns are really well kept along your whole route, even in the southern Swiss Alps because there needs to be a way for everyone to get to the ski areas. The tunnels are indeed the worst part, so drop the car in Zurich if you feel you don't want to drive a lengthy distance in them.
I would compare driving in the Black Forest to driving in mountainous parts of Vermont, difficult in the winter, narrow lanes and curves in the summer. As hinted, driving on divided highways doesn't show you much of a country. I think by "must" you meant not "what are the nice places along the way", but "what will I kick myself if I skip it" or "what will people at parties ask me if I saw ... ?" That's hard to answer without knowing your interests. The Black Forest is particularly known for outdoor activities, from walking to X-country skiing. You can see nice medieval towns all over Germany. There are fewer in Switzerland, including Murten and Stein am Rhein. For myself, the Vitra Design Museum and the Fondation Beyeler were must-sees, but others would call them special interest stops. The Rheinfall and Lake Konstanz are more "recognized" attractions along your route, although on a foggy morning they might not reward leaving the highway as much. I'm very fond of Cologne and Koblenz, but not everyone agrees. The Kolner Dom is the highest attendance local tourist site in Germany. (More people GO to Berlin, I'm referring to single buildings.) Strasbourg, France is very attractive, and provides a sort-of real-live-Disneyland summary of the stops you'll miss along the highway. Colmar, France is also nice, but so is Freiburg. But any such stop is less fun on a windy, snowy day.