The word is out and maybe you’ve heard it: Germany is one of Europe’s great travel destinations. Every year, more and more visitors from around the globe are discovering the pleasures to be found in Germany’s cities, towns, and countryside. Tourist numbers have risen steadily in the 25 years since the country’s dramatic reunification in 1989–1990 and show no sign of slowing down.
Germany’s appeal is really no great mystery. Moody forests, jagged Alpine peaks, and miles of neatly tended vineyards are not just scenic but the stuff of legend, places that have inspired fairy tales and where much of Western history has been played out. The Germans more than anyone appreciate the soothing tonic of a hike in the Black Forest or a stroll on North Sea dunes, and just seeing these storied lands from a train window can be good for the soul. The cities are treasure-troves—not just of great art and history but of culture, sophisticated lifestyles, and, from ever-changing Berlin to old-world Baden-Baden, cutting-edge architecture. Food—well, don’t write off the cuisine as just a lot of heaping plates of wurst and sauerkraut and schnitzel with noodles. For one thing, these traditional dishes are delicious, and one of the pleasures of traveling in Germany is discovering time-honored regional favorites.
So, let’s look a little more deeply into why your travels in Germany will be filled with pleasures that go way beyond the spectacle of dirndls, lederhosen, Alpine meadows, and half-timbered houses (although the sight of any of these can be a bit of a travel thrill, too).
Ditch Those German Stereotypes
So what about the people? Everyone seems to have an opinion about the “German character” except for the Germans themselves. The militaristic Nazi past that continues to haunt Germany has given rise to many stereotypes. But if you connect with just one German person on your trip, chances are that all the stereotypes you’ve heard about will crumble to dust. Germany today is the most pacifistic country in Europe, sometimes to the annoyance of its neighbors and allies. Overall, it has one of the world’s highest levels of educational attainment and technological achievement. Germany never got caught up in the real-estate bubble that sent so many countries freefalling into recession, and its unemployment rate is about 5 percent, the lowest in the European Union. The Germans have their rules and ways of doing things, which sometimes seem stiff and bureaucratic, but clearly they are doing something right.
Many travelers base their notions of “national character” on their experiences with hotel employees and the waitstaff in restaurants. In that sense, Germany’s hospitality industry has gone through a real sea change in the past few years. Hospitality was never lacking in Germany, but it was sometimes accompanied by a manner that seemed a little less than welcoming. Today you’ll find that Germans have embraced the American model of friendliness and service. What’s also true is that there is a German level of professionalism in all service-related jobs that someone accustomed to the slap-dash and sloppy might find almost bewildering. A waiter in Germany does not behave like your overly familiar best friend, as is so often the case in the U.S. That’s because waiters in Germany are paid a living wage and don’t have to hustle for tips.
What about the food served in those restaurants? It’s always good. Even a simple wurst, that staple of the German cuisine, is delicious. Why? Because the Germans take their food seriously and pay attention to what they eat. Sausages, by law, can have no filler added to them. Beer, by law, must adhere to strict standards of water and ingredient purity. The same is true of German wine. And the bread—well, even a humble Brötchen, that crusty-on-the-outside and soft-on-the-inside roll that you get for breakfast, is delicious. And the Germans have had the cautious good sense not to embrace genetically modified foods.
Eating local cuisine is part of any travel experience, and in Germany you’ll find many regional variations of traditional German dishes. German cuisine—what you might call “traditional home cooking”—tends to be hearty and heavy on meat (particularly pork), starch (potatoes), cooked root vegetables, brined leafy vegetables (red cabbage, sauerkraut), and dairy. Fish is always available (herring is a popular delicacy), and menus are always enlivened with seasonal specialties, such Erdbeeren (strawberries), and game. One thing to note is that in beer-hall restaurants, the seating is often communal, so if you are shown to a table where strangers are sitting, take the opportunity to expand your experience of Germany and the Germans.
There are, of course, Michelin-starred restaurants throughout Germany where you can enjoy spectacular meals of a kind that Grandma never cooked, or at least didn’t cook like this, and in cities, all manner of ethnic restaurants reflect Germany’s large immigrant population (roughly 10 percent of its population of 80 million is first- or second-generation). Turkish is the most prominent “casual” ethnic food (in the form of kabobs), but you’ll also find French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, and Greek restaurants. All this information is meant to reassure you that you’ll eat well in Germany wherever and whatever you eat.
You don’t have to speak German to order a beer. It’s spelled Bier but it’s pronounced beer. And it’s such a vital part of German culture that the right to drink a beer with lunch is written into some labor contracts. The traditional Biergarten (beer garden), with tables set outdoors under trees or trellises, remains an essential part of German culture. A Bräuhaus (broy-house) serves its own brew along with local food.
When you order a beer in Germany, you have many choices. The range of beer varieties includes Altbier, Bockbier, Export, Kölsch, Lager, Malzbier, Märzbier, Pils, Vollbier, and Weizenbier. The ratio of ingredients, brewing temperature and technique, alcoholic content, aging time, color, and taste all contribute to a German beer’s unique qualities. A German law adopted in 1516 dictates that German beer may contain no ingredients other than hops, malt (barley), yeast, and water.
Dark and sweet Malzbier (maltz-beer; malt beer) contains hardly any alcohol. Vollbier (fole-beer, or standard beer) has 4 percent alcohol, Export has 5 percent, and Bockbier has 6 percent. Pils, or Pilsener, beers are light and contain more hops. Weizenbier (vi-tsen-beer), made from wheat, is a Bavarian white beer. Märzbier (maertz-beer), or “March beer,” is dark and strong. The most popular beer in Germany is Pils, followed by Export.
To order a beer, decide whether you want a dunkles Bier (dune-kles beer; dark beer), brewed with darkly roasted malt fermented for a long period of time, or a helles Bier (hell-less beer; light beer), brewed from malt dried and baked by the local brewery. If you want a large glass, you ask for ein Grosses (ine grow-ses); if you want a small glass, ask for ein Kleines (ine kly-nis), and tell the waiter or tavern keeper whether you want ein Bier vom Fass (fum fahss; from the barrel) or in a Flasche (flah-shuh; bottle). The beer is always served cold, but not too cold, in an appropriate beer glass or mug, with a long-lasting head of white foam. A proper draft beer, according to the Germans, can’t be poured in less than 7 minutes to achieve the proper head.
Sleep Well, Sweat in a Spa
What about German hotels, inns, and hostels? Here, too, there has been a shift, with a greater emphasis on friendliness, service, and comfort. The German hotel industry uses 300 criteria to rate every hotel in Germany on a one- to five-star system, with one star being the most basic and five stars being awarded to top-of-the-line luxury hotels. (On this site, we rate hotels with our own one- to three-star rating system that is not to be confused with the German hotel-rating system.) Although room amenities obviously vary according to the price category, you can always be assured of a superclean room. If you want to travel like a German (or like Germans used to travel), look for a pension (pen-see-own), a room in a house or apartment that provides lodgings and breakfast. You can save money in some hotels by getting a room with a shared bathroom in the hallway; never fear, the bathroom will be cleaner than yours at home. Do not expect air-conditioning except at the most expensive hotels—the Germans still believe in having windows that open for fresh air. In more expensive hotels (the type that offer fitness and wellness centers), you’ll nearly always find a sauna.
Spas and saunas are a way of life in Germany—dozens of spa towns, or Kurorte, are scattered around the country, with thermal bath complexes where you can steam, sweat, swim, and relax. Experiencing Germany by spa is wonderful, but do keep in mind that many saunas are clothing-optional and co-ed: The Germans are not prudish when it comes to their bodies. This is part of the communal side of German life, like sharing a table at a restaurant—only, of course, you wouldn’t do that nude.
Get Arty, Get Active
Germany is a country where the arts are part of life. The caliber of museums and the collections they hold can be breathtaking. Germany has a long-established musical tradition (think Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) and is famed for the excellence of its music performances. So if you enjoy great art and music, you’ll never be lacking for things to see and do in Germany. That goes for every kind of music, including jazz, pop, rap, hip-hop, indie, and every other genre.
A country’s cultural character and heritage are also reflected in its architecture, and Germany is fascinating on that front, too. The country’s visible architectural legacy spans some 1,800 years, from Roman-era walls to Ludwig’s 19th-century “fairy-tale castles” in Bavaria; and the corporate skyscrapers that define Frankfurt’s skyline. Less grandiosely, you’ll find half-timbered inns, Bavarian chalets, ruined castles, and an imposing Rathaus (town hall) in just about every town or city you visit.
But this architectural heritage can also reflect the ominous side of Germany’s Nazi past: the remains of Albert Speer’s giant Nazi stadium in Nuremberg, the grim prison buildings at Dachau, the ruined Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, and the numerous memorials and documentation centers that serve as reminders of the Holocaust. The Nazis excelled at destruction, but after the war, the Germans excelled at rebuilding—not just new buildings, but exact reproductions of many great palaces and churches. The Frauenkirche in Dresden is perhaps the country’s greatest postwar rebuilding feat.
But maybe you’re less interested in museums, music, and architecture and want to explore the German countryside. Germany has many fabled landscapes. If you’re an active traveler who is interested in hiking, biking, skiing, or swimming, you can head to the Black Forest, the Bavarian Alps, or the Bodensee (Lake Constance).
All the above merely scratches the surface of what makes Germany a superb place to visit. We could also add the seasonal festivals celebrating beer, wine, music, and art. And the shopping, particularly the traditional Christmas markets with their decorated booths and regional craft and food specialties. All these examples help define who the Germans are and what you will find when you visit Germany.