Germany Travel Guide: Overview
Germany may bring to mind fairytale scenes of romantic river valleys, soaring snow-clad peaks, and half-timbered gingerbread villages, or it could inspire the vision of boisterous biergartens and the smell of bratwurst on the breeze. Both realities are accurate portrayals, but cover only half the German treasures that lie within the Central European country’s 16 diverse states. Sharing borders with Denmark (to the north), Poland and the Czech Republic (to the east), Austria and Switzerland (to the south) and France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands to the west, Germany is a kaleidoscope of culture, both modern and medieval. Traveling Germany, in a sense, is like stepping inside of a storybook, with each city visited eliciting new characters, unimaginable adventures, and entirely surreal settings.
German history begins in the Middle Ages when the land was a patchwork of independent Germanic tribes that, to this day, still color the culture of the region. It was the Napoleonic wars that inspired a unification of these independent kingdoms to form the German Empire, a territory that spanned far beyond the borders of modern-day Germany.
The end of the Empire came in 1918 after Emperor Wilhelm II was forced to step down from the throne. What followed is known as the Weimar Republic, an ill-fated and short-lived attempt to bring liberalism and democracy to Germany. The nation’s war-torn economy and embarrassing upset in World War I left it vulnerable to anti-democratic forces, most notably the Nazis in 1933.
Nazi Germany had dictator Adolf Hitler at its helm from 1933 to 1945. In that time, Germany became a police state driven by the vision of a Greater Germany in Central and Eastern Europe with Jews and Gypsies marked for total extermination, while Slavs, homosexuals, the handicapped, socialists, communists, unionists and other groups faced the daily threat of persecution.
Hitler’s ambitions led the country to World War II with Poland, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, a war it couldn’t win on three fronts. By “Stunde Null,” or zero hour, Germany (and much of Europe) had been reduced to rubble. Germany lost 25% of its territory in the war and an overwhelming 10 million displaced Germans flooded back to Germany.
The Potsdam Conference decided Germany’s new post-war borders, including the rezoning of Germany’s eastern Prussian lands. This meant that Germans living in those areas were forced to relocate within Germany’s new narrower borders.
Another caveat of Germany’s World War II defeat was that the country would be divided into four sectors, each of which would be controlled by French, British, US, and Soviet forces. This arrangement nearly lasted until the Cold War, when the country was further transformed into a Western Ally-controlled West (the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG)) and a Soviet-controlled East (the German Democratic Republic (GDR)), with Berlin serving as a democratic enclave within the East. The Berlin Wall was erected on August 13, 1961 as a means of preventing anyone from escaping from communist East Germany into West Germany.
By the late 1960’s, the tides had turned. German students ignited protests for a new, liberal Germany, learning from the devastation of its totalitarian past. At the same time, Willy Brandt stepped into the position of chancellor, an event that led to major steps forward in reconciling and repairing Germany’s relationships with the communist states, including Poland.
In 1990, Germany officially reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR’s Communist regime. The eastern states joined the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990, today celebrated as German Unification Day. The remaining post-war limitations on Germany were removed and German parliament agreed, finally, to the newly defined eastern border of the former GDR—thus marking Germany’s borders as they appear today.
In general, Germans today are proponents of a peaceful and unified Germany, one that welcomes all races, religions, and lifestyles with open arms. They are notoriously both friendly and stern, perhaps a melding of their tumultuous past and transformative present.
There is far more to German culture than beer, Lederhosen and Oktoberfest. As a decentralized federation of 16 states, German culture is actually better understood as a patchwork of distinct and unique cultures that reveal their nuances as you leave one area and enter another. Historically, Germany has been referred to as the country of poets and thinkers, with characters like Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach, Albert Einstein, Ludwig van Beethoven, Karl Marx, and the Brothers Grimm (to name just a few) leaving their steadfast mark on the world of science, music, art, and philosophy. Today, German society is not only markedly advanced, but resoundingly open-minded, with the widespread population embracing all lifestyles and identities. Sport and music run deep in German culture and day-to-day life, with German soccer and motorsport capturing the world’s athletic admiration while German artists churn out techno and rock beats that travel far beyond the country’s borders.
Good to Know
When traveling in Germany, keep some of the following in mind:
Like the rest of the European Union, Germany’s currency is the euro (€). Though cash is king in Germany, and you should plan to carry a healthy stash on you at all times, credit cards are becoming more widely accepted. ATMs and currency exchange desks are readily available throughout the country.
Backroads Pro Tip
Airports give notoriously bad exchange rates for exchanging currency. Consider exchanging cash at your personal bank before your trip. Otherwise ATMs are your best bet for quick cash at the best exchange rates.
Tipping is not required or expected in Germany, however, if the service is exemplary, a tip of 5-10% of the total bill is common. It’s also common to round up to the nearest euro when tipping. For example, a bill of €18.75 could be rounded up to an even €20.
The stereotype of the “serious” German may come to fruition during your trip, but also likely is that you will find Germans tend to be more reserved and formal in public, preferring not to draw too much attention to themselves. Small talk and even casual hello’s on the street are generally not commonplace.
The standard voltage in Germany is 230 V and the frequency is 50 Hz. You will need to pack a power plug adapter, as the power sockets are Type 5, and a voltage converter.
You will most likely have to pay to use a public restroom in Germany. There’s usually an attendant at the door collecting anywhere from 50 cents to 1 euro for use of the toilet.
The tap water in Germany is safe to drink, however Germans usually stick to bottled water and it’s recommended that you do too.
When To Visit Germany
There’s really no best time to visit Germany. Every season has its distinct charm. The spring brings blooming cherry blossoms, re-opened biergartens, pleasant weather and festivals like May Day and Karneval del Kulteren. The summer brings long and sun-filled days (however, the rain does come around by midsummer), daylong journeys to Germany’s white sand island beaches and festive open-air parties. The fall brings local wine festivals, changing leaves and of course Oktoberfest, while the winter means fewer crowds, Germany’s iconic Christmas markets and steaming mugs of Glühwein between runs on the ski slope.
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- In the German language, Germany is called Deutschland.
- Germany was the first country in the world to adopt Daylight saving time (DST). It was implemented in 1916 during World War I to conserve energy.
- It is illegal to run out of fuel on the Autobahn. According to German law, running out of gas is not considered one of the excusable reasons to stop on the legendary highway.
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Regions and Cities
From scenes straight out of a Brothers Grimm storybook to vibrant cityscapes, vineyard-clothed hills, and alluring alpine peaks, Germany is a fascinating country to explore as a traveler. Here is a breakdown of what lies in each enticing corner.
Bordered by the North and Baltic Seas, Northern Germany is best known for its beaches, historic port cities and forward-thinking locals.
Located on the North Sea, Bremen is a freethinking town with a 1,200-year history. The best sights in the city are located along the north bank of the Weser River, including Böttcherstrasse, an artsy street of incredible architectural facades fronting unique shops, museums, and hotels.
A booming port city, Hamburg is best known for its nightlife and counter-culture vibes. It’s also home to 2,302 bridges, more than Venice, Amsterdam, and London combined.
Home to the Rhine Valley and all the castles and cosmopolitan cities that fill it, Western Germany is the perfect blend of old and new.
Situated on the Rhine River, Cologne’s defining feature is the Kölner Dom, a Catholic cathedral and one of the most famous religious buildings in the world.
The capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, Dusseldorf is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, but its Old Town is the sight to see. It was completely demolished during World War II and then rebuilt meticulously according to historic plans.
The beating heart of Germany, Central Germany is not only home to the country’s financial center but is where many a German cultural icon found their start.
The business and financial center of Germany, Frankfurt is best known for its skyline of futuristic skyscrapers. Römer square and the museums at the River Main are worth a visit.
With most of its states formerly belonging to the country of East Germany, the Eastern Germany of today is etched with history amidst the buzz of modern-day life in Germany.
The capital city of Germany, Berlin is brimming with history and its assortment of museums cover all of it, while its streets still tell stories of every major event that has taken place there. Berlin is a city through and through with cafes, museums, historical sites, and diverse culture around every corner.
A city almost entirely destroyed and then rebuilt after World War II, Dresden is today a striking architectural wonder of Baroque architecture, including its most famous landmark, the Frauenkirche,
This city is home to a slew of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Sanssouci Park, The New Garden, Babelsberg Park, and Sacrow Park, each of which hosts magnificently preserved palaces and their gardens.
The Black Forest, the Alps, the Danube and Rhine Rivers…Southern Germany is the stuff of every traveler’s Germany travel dreams.
Beautiful architecture, a fine culture, and the annual Oktoberfest beer celebration are what set Munich apart from the rest of Germany. Visit the 19th Century-built Royal Avenues that run through Munich’s inner city for a true architectural show.
This Bavarian city most likely resembles your visions of Germany, complete with gingerbread houses, gothic churches, and medieval castles. Head to Nuremburg’s Old Town to witness all of it in its fullest glory.
Worth a Visit
- The Elbe Valley: located in Dresden, the Elbe Valley is a scenic hamlet of castles and vineyards open for wine tastings.
- Spreewald Biosphere Reserve: this nature reserve is a world of verdant forests, grassland, charming old-world towns and shimmering waterways
- Sanssouci Park: a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the city of Potsdam, Sanssouci Park is where you will find the rococo-style Sanssouci Castle.
- Chiemsee Lake: locally nicknamed the “Bavarian Sea,” this beautiful blue-toned lake contains the Herrenchiemsee Castle, the former palace of King Ludwig II.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Germany
A visa is not required for US Citizens who plan to stay for less than 90 days in Germany.
Your passport must be valid for at least an additional 6 months from your planned date of departure from Germany and must contain at least two blank pages.
Germany’s main international hub is the Frankfurt Airport, followed by the Munich Airport. Flights from various U.S. cities do also fly direct into the Berlin and Dusseldorf Airports.
Besides the usual public transportation options, including local and regional buses, underground subway systems (U-Bahn) and trams (StrassenbahnenI), lake and river ferries are also commonplace in many parts of Germany. Metropolitan areas also have the S-Bahn, a system of suburban trains that tend to be faster and cover wider areas than the buses and trams.
Whether you plan to take a spin on the Autobahn or not, Germany’s roads are in excellent condition and a lot of fun to drive. To rent a car in Germany, you’ll need to be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s license and major credit card. Many of the international car rental companies have branches at the airports, train stations, and in major towns. One thing to keep in mind when driving in Germany is to always mind the speed limit, as speed cameras and mobile police patrols are very prevalent.
German is the official language in Germany. Though you’ll meet many a German with at least a basic understanding of English (many are fluent), it’s a good idea to have a few German phrases up your sleeve:
- Yes: ja
- No: nein
- Thank you: danke
- Please: bitte
- Hello: hallo
- Good-bye: auf wiedersehen
- Nice to meet you: nett sie kennenzulernen (formal) or nett dich kennenzulernen (informal)
Food and Drink
German cuisine varies by region, with each region having its own collection of traditional recipes. Overall, German cuisine tends to be hearty, wholesome and never lacking in pork, beef or veal, usually in the form of sausage. Locally produced cheese, cereals and dairy products also play a starring role in traditional German meals. Here are the must-try food and drink items in Germany:
Schnitzel: thin, boneless cutlets of pork or veal coated in breadcrumbs and served in a variety of ways.
Knödel: potato dumplings served alongside many meals, especially in the north.
Spätzle: soft egg noodles, especially common in the south.
Sauerkraut: fermented cabbage rich in probiotics and vitamins
Wurst: sausage, of which there are more than 1,500 regional varieties. Bratwurst, Currywurst, and Weisswurst are the most popular of the varieties.
Eintopf: a traditional German stew that can consist of any number of ingredients, similar to an Irish stew.
Black Forest Gateau: Germany’s most famous export, this sweet, chocolate cake is made with Black Forest kirsch and cherries.
Reisling: Germany’s claim to fame in the wine world, this white wine comes out of the Rhine River region of southern Germany.
Bier: with more than 6,000 beers and 1,350 breweries, Germany is a beer lover’s paradise, with Bavaria in southern Germany being the ultimate spot for a stein-full.
In general, Germany is a very safe country; though you should heed the same precautions you would in any destination you visit, including not going out alone at night and watching your valuables closely, especially in crowded, public places. When you arrive to a new city, it’s always good practice to ask a local if there are any areas to be avoided and to stick to licensed taxis when traveling about. In the event of a fire or medical emergency, dial 112. For police assistance, dial 110.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Germany adventure!