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Last Updated: January 2018
Germany is a land of dreamy river valleys and fairytale towns. It’s inevitable that you’ll get romanced by the half-timbered houses, hilltop castles, wine taverns and beer halls. It’s a country that has a reputation for beer, but has an equally marvelous wine culture. Germany is also a country that is healing from the 20th century.
We lived in Germany for one year (2016-2017). We fell in love with Cologne’s Karneval culture, Berlin’s edge, Baden-Baden’s healing waters, and the Moselle Valley’s wine. We loved how affordable it was to live. From museum tickets to ice cream cones, everything is significantly cheaper in Germany, as compared to neighboring countries. We also learned firsthand about German bureaucracy, systematic inefficiencies, and whatever the opposite of customer-service is. Below, you’ll find our absolute favorite experiences and recommendations. Gute Reise!
By Bus. One really cheap way to travel throughout Germany and to neighboring countries is via a Flixbus. These comfortable buses are punctual, clean, and provide wifi. It might take a bit longer than a train, but it will save you a lot of money.
By Car. Renting a car is necessary if you want to explore Germany’s tourist routes: Fairy Tale Road, Romantic Road, Roman Wine Road (Römische Weinstraße), etc. Another way of getting around is via Bla Bla Car, a private carpooling platform. The website allows you to arrange rides to other cities. You set the price with the driver and decide on the pick-up and drop-off locations, prior to the ride. Money is transferred via the platform.
By Train. ICE trains are the fastest, most expensive, and not surprisingly, the most comfortable trains in Germany. There are also tons of regional trains (RE), which are slower, but also significantly cheaper.
Official Name: Bundesrepublik Deutschland (The Federal Republic of Germany)
Government: Federal Parliamentary Republic
Regions: Germany is composed of 16 constituent states, called Bundesländer:
(1) Baden-Württemberg, (2) Bremen, (3) Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, (4) Saxony (Sachsen), (5) Bavaria (Bayern), (6) Hamburg, (7) North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen), (8) Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt), (9) Berlin, (10) Hesse (Hessen), (11) Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), (12) Schleswig-Holstein, (13) Brandenburg, (14) Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), (15) Saarland, and (16) Thuringia (Thüringen).
Population: 82 Million
Language: German. English is usually the second language taught in German school, so most Germans have a basic knowledge of the language.
Payment Culture: Cash is the preferred method of payment in Germany and often the only payment method available at restaurants and eateries. Compared to other European countries, Germany has a relatively low level of credit card usage. Small businesses often allow you to pay with EC (EuroCheque) cards, but not with regular credit cards.
Tipping Etiquette: In cafés and restaurants, round up to the nearest 1-2 Euros on small bills, and 2-5 Euros on large bills. Tip in cash.
Water Quality: It’s safe to drink tap water throughout Germany.
Something Interesting: Munich’s Oktoberfest is the largest folk festival in the world.
Krummes Holz gibt auch gerades Feuer.
Crooked logs also make straight fires.
For anyone who equates Germany with Beer only, think again. Germany is also the land of wine.
The Moselle Valley (Mosel in German) is a region that surrounds the Moselle River, and extends across north-eastern France, south-western Germany, and eastern Luxembourg. This region is famous for its wine, especially its Riesling. In Germany, you can drive the Wine Road, Römische Weinstraße, which closely follows the Moselle River. With vineyards and castle ruins on one side of the road and the River on the other, the Römische Weinstraße is easily one of the most romantic drives in Germany.
Along the route, you’ll pass through many wine-making villages filled with wine taverns (Weinstuben in German), wineries, and restaurants. We recommend driving slowly and stopping often. Here are some notable stops:
Read our Moselle Valley Travel Guide.
Visiting a Therme is an essential experience to have in Germany. It’s not only relaxing, but it’s also a cultural experience that’s very valued by the German people.
The ultimate place to experience a thermal bathhouse is in the historical spa town that’s called “to bathe – to bathe,” or Baden-Baden. It was the Romans who first discovered the healing waters of Baden-Baden and set up a wellness complex here for their soldiers and citizens. The foundations of the Roman bath ruins are still viewable in the city.
Today, Baden-Baden is home to two famous thermal spas: Friedrichsbad and Caracalla Spa.
Friedrichsbad was opened in 1877 and at the time was considered the most modern bathing establishment in Europe. The main attraction was and is the mineral thermal water rich in calcium and magnesium. The concept of the spa is achieving relaxing through a sequence of warm and hot dry air baths, a soap & brush massage, steam baths, thermal pools, and thermal water showers.
For more info on Friedrichsbad and our absolute favorite therme in Germany, Palais Thermal, read our Black Forest Travel Guide.
Likely when you hear the word “Carnival” you think of places like Venice, New Orleans, and Rio de Janeiro. But, there’s another city you should add to that list. That city is Cologne. Karneval in Cologne isn’t just a few days, it’s a whole season. In fact, they call it the 5th Season. It begins on November 11th each year at precisely 11:11 a.m. and it doesn’t end until the midnight before Ash Wednesday.
Karneval is so important to the people of Cologne that we would go as far as to say: you can’t understand Cologne until you’ve experienced Karneval. During the 5th season, it’s very common to see people in costume, hear Karneval Lieder (songs), and see Karneval Corps troops gathered in public spaces. The main festivities to attend and see are:
We want to share with you a secret. There’s a small region in Western Germany called the Ahr Valley (Ahrtal in German) that is only visited by locals and wine lovers. Tourism has minimal impact here, which makes visiting so special. You won’t see souvenir shops, or tourist buses.
We explored Germany’s largest red wine growing region by hiking the Red Wine Trail (Rotweinwanderweg in German). It’s a 35 kilometer trail that is easy, mostly flat, and clearly signed with a red grape motif. The point of this hike is to savor the local wine and hop slowly from one winemaking village to another. The region is well known for its Spätburgunder (pinot noir), Portugieser, Dornfelder, and Frühburgunder red wines. They also produce some exceptional blanc de noir white wines.
If you’re exploring the Rhine Valley or the Moselle Valley, you could add 1 to 2 days to your itinerary for an Ahr Valley detour.
Read our Ahr Valley Travel Guide.
NS Documentation Centers are learning centers and places of remembrance that investigate, chronicle and expose the causes, context and consequences of National Socialism in Germany. These centers are incredibly thorough. Information is presented both visually and aurally (via audio guide). As of 2017, there are four NS Documentation Centers in Germany:
These centers occupy former Nazi buildings. The Nuremberg center is in the unfinished Nazi Congress Hall, designed to hold 50,000 people. The Cologne center is in the the El-De Building which was the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo (secret state police). By occupying former Nazi buildings, these centers hope to keep the crimes, devastation, and terror of the Third Reich in public memory.
We visited the NS Documentation Centers in Nuremberg, Munich and Cologne. Each center has a unique focus. The Nuremberg NS-DC focuses on Nazi propaganda. It shows how the Nazis used architecture, party rallies, and mass events to stage “Volksgemeinschaft,” the people’s community, for their propaganda. The Cologne NS-DC thoroughly investigates the way National Socialism developed in Cologne, reveals the role the Cologne Gestapo played in the Third Reich, and identifies which minorities and groups of people were persecuted, abused, and murdered in World War II. The Munich NS-DC focuses on how the city contributed to the rise of Nazism, how democracy failed, and how citizens have worked to combat the erasure of National Socialism and WWII from public memory.
Berlin isn’t a pretty city. But, that’s not the point. It’s expressive and edgy as well as wounded and honest. Berlin doesn’t shy away from its past. It takes its history of unimaginable crime and division and presents it for all to see. The Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), with its 2,711 grave-like concrete slabs, is just steps away from the Brandenburg Gate, the most well-known landmark of Berlin.
Berlin’s museums are a great starting place to unraveling and deconstructing WWII as well as the country’s division between East (DDR, German Democratic Republic) and West (Federal Republic of Germany) in the Cold War era. We highly recommend the exhibition Daily Life in the GDR in Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, (Address: Knaackstraße 97, 10435 Berlin). And for those who love art, Berlin boasts over 400 galleries. Art matters to this city – and you’ll sense that when you visit.
Unlike most European capital cities, Berlin doesn’t have a heart-beating center. The geographical city center is almost lifeless. However, you will find life and plenty of hearts beating in Berlin’s many neighborhoods.
Bamberg is a disarmingly good-looking city in Franconia, the northern region of Bavaria. The entire Altstadt is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated on several rivers, Bamberg pretty much has it all in terms of European charm. When you’re done admiring the colorful buildings, the Altes Rathaus, the Neue Residenz, and Bamberger Dom, the first order of business is visiting a brewery, or tavern. Bamberg makes liquid bacon, or smoked beer (Rauchbier in German). In fact, that dark smokey beer is the only thing we’ll ask you to do in Bamberg. Here are a few places to enjoy Bamberg’s liquid gold: Klosterbräu, Schlenkerla (they have the smokiest beer), Brauerei Fässla.
As you wander through Bamberg, keep an eye out for the 6 pointed Brewer’s Star, which you might think is the Jewish Star of David (at least we did). The star is usually displayed outside Breweries and has its roots in alchemy. It symbolizes the balance of the masculine, the feminine, and the four elements of fire, air, water, and earth.
One last thing. There’s a cool story about Bamberg’s beautiful Altes Rathaus. The legend goes that the bishop of Bamberg did not grant the citizens any land for the construction of a town hall. So the townsfolk created an artificial island in the river Regntiz. There they built the town hall that they so badly wanted.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber (“Red Fort on the River Tauber”) is the quintessential storybook town in the Franconia region of Bavaria, Germany. It’s located on the Romantic Road, south of Würzburg and North of Dinkelsbühl. Wandering through the streets of the impeccably-preserved medieval town is like walking into a Disney fairy tale movie. The colorful town is surrounded by a massive stone wall with 42 towers. The town wall is walkable. You can access it from several points of entry, throughout the city.
One thing not to miss are the intricately carved altars in the Lutheran Church of St. Jakobs. The church houses the Altar of the Virgin Mary (1520), The High Altar (1466), and The Altar of the Holy Blood (1499-1505). The latter is a masterpiece by Tilman Riemenschneider in terms of its detail and humanism. It was commissioned by the Rothenburg Council to provide a respectable setting for a relic containing a capsule of holy blood.
The Romantic Rhine Valley, aka the Upper Middle Rhine Valley (Oberes-Mittelrheintal in German) is the region along the River Rhine that stretches for 65-km between the city of Koblenz and the towns of Bingen and Rüdesheim am Rhein. This region is celebrated for its wine-making towns, steep vineyards, and hill-top castles. Whether you cruise, hike, cycle or drive along the spellbinding Rhine River, you’ll feel transported to another time.
Read our guide on how to experience the Romantic Rhine Region.
Germany really dresses up for Christmas. The streets are decked with lights and wreaths. Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmärkte or Christkindlmärkte in German) emerge in town squares and public gathering spaces. And, the air smells like spiced wine, raclette, and candied nuts. It’s festive, it’s fun and most of all, it’s for everyone. Winter in Germany lasts forever, but during the festive Christmas season, you don’t even mind your numb toes. Christmas markets are open to the public. There’s no entry cost. Some have specific themes. And, there are multiple stalls/huts selling different goodies.
We don’t go to Christmas markets to buy souvenirs, which you absolutely can do. Instead, we go to the markets to enjoy a mug of spiced wine (Glühwein in German) and to savor the season’s treats.
In most restaurants, you can sit wherever there is an open table. You don’t need to wait for someone to seat you. Tap water is never served automatically. If you ask for tap water (Leitungswasser), the waiter/waitress won’t be pleased. Instead, buy a bottle of water and specify whether you want “mit sprudel” (with gas) or “stilles wasser” (without gas).
German cuisine is meat-heavy and served in large proportions. Main dishes are usually accompanied with potatoes, salad, and/or sauerkraut. When deciding what to order, opt for seasonal ingredients. For example, in Fall, order something with pumpkin. In Spring, order something with white asparagus.
Frikadellen – pan-fried meatballs of minced meat. Eat with bread and mustard.
Zwiebelrostbraten – [Swabian cuisine] roast beef topped with roasted onions. It’s often served with a side of Spätzle (egg noodles).
Sauerbraten – [Rhineland cuisine] translates as “sour roast.” Sauerbraten is made by marinating a beef roast in a sour-sweet marinade for 2 to 3 days before browning it. Next, the meat simmers in the marinade for several hours, which makes it very tender.
Reibekuchen – [Rhineland cuisine] translates as “grated cakes.” It’s essentially a deeply fried potato pancakes made with potatoes, onions and eggs. It’s popular to eat these on the street at Christmas markets, fairs and sports events. They’re delicious, but don’t over do it. You’ll die.
Nürnberger Bratwurst [Franconian Cuisine] – small sausages made with garlic, pepper and marjoram. If you order it in a restaurant, you’ll typically get 6 small sausages with Sauerkraut.
Schorle – a nonalcoholic beverage made with mineral water and juice. You can order Apfelschorle (made with apple juice), Johannisbeer-Schorle (made with black currant juice), or any other juice that’s available.
Eiskaffee – vanilla ice cream served in a tall glass of coffee, topped off with whipped cream. In summer, you’ll see people drinking these at just about every Eiscafé (café that serve ice cream) and Gelateria.
Wine – Drink Riesling from the Moselle Valley and Middle Rhine. Drink Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Ahr Valley. Drink Bacchus from Franconia.
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