Germany is a progressive country full of fascinating history and diverse attractions. From the scenic northern coastlines to the peaks of the southern Alps, Germany is a land of stories. It consistently ranks among the most-visited countries in the world, and its mix of medieval and metropolitan cities and heart-stopping scenery are big reasons why. This Insider’s Guide to Germany will give you a glimpse into the inner workings of lovely Deutschland, and introduce you to the attractions that keep visitors coming back for more.
Located in western-central Europe, Germany shares land borders with the Netherlands to the northwest; Denmark to the north; the Czech Republic and Poland to the east; Austria to the southeast; Switzerland to the southwest; and Belgium, France, and Luxembourg to the west. It is also bordered to the north by the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Germany’s total land area is about 137,847 square miles.
The climate is largely temperate, but does vary by location due to its size and geography. For example, the North Sea and the land bordering it are influenced by the warmer Gulf Stream, while the Baltic Sea and surrounding land is not. The eastern part of the country experiences colder winters and warmer summers, while a mountain climate rules the southern alpine regions.
When packing for your trip, consider your itinerary and the time of year you’re visiting. In the summer, pack layers for mountainous regions, and in the winter, pack coats, hats, and gloves.
German is the official language in Germany, and it is spoken by over 95 percent of the population. However, most Germans are bilingual and English is usually the first foreign language taught in schools. While English-speakers are easy to find in Germany, it’s still polite to learn a few German phrases before your trip.
The euro is the official currency, and exchanging money in the country is quite simple. Most places do accept debit cards, but it’s always a good idea to have some cash on hand. To avoid high fees when withdrawing cash, be sure to use an ATM corresponding to your bank. For example, Bank of America has a partnership with Deutsche Bank and will not charge any fees to Bank of America cardholders.
At most German restaurants and bars, service fees are already added to the menu price, but it is still common to add between five and 10 percent to the final bill. Tipping in hotels is generally expected, so be prepared to tip bellmen a euro or two for each bag carried and housekeepers up to five euros for each night stayed. In taxis, tipping is not required, but you can round up the final fare for exceptional service.
The culture in Germany has largely been influenced by the country’s various intellectual movements throughout the centuries, and it carries a sense of formality. Family is of the utmost importance, and it can often be difficult for outsiders to assimilate. Small talk is rare, as Germans prefer to complete business at hand. Work life and social life are usually kept separately.
When greeting a German for the first time, interactions are generally conservative. Eye contact and a brief, firm handshake are sufficient. Make sure to use correct titles when necessary, but if invited to do so, use the person’s first name. Once a relationship has been established, social interactions loosen up immensely. Timeliness and appearance are important, while pointing and snapping at people are considered disrespectful.
Traditionally, German cuisine is hearty and filling, with various regional differences. In general, pork is the most popular meat, and German sausage, or Wurst, is renowned. Vegetables are used extensively, and when in season, white asparagus, or Spargel, dominates traditional restaurant menus. While traditional German food is popular in homes, the German restaurant scene is diverse and robust.
The German meal structure is similar to the United States. Breakfast consists of coffee, juice or tea and is served with bread with hearty toppings and boiled eggs. Like many other countries, lunch was traditionally the largest meal of the day, but now, it is usually a smaller meal consisting of breads, meats and cheeses. Modern-day dinner is a large, hot meal. A snack known as Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) is eaten between lunch and dinner.
Violent crime in Germany is fairly rare. However, petty theft and pick-pocketing do occur, especially in train and subway stations during the late night/early morning hours. Be aware of your surroundings and belongings at all times. Avoid areas of large demonstrations. Finally, avoid buying counterfeit goods.
Berlin and Brandenburg
Germany’s capital and largest city is Berlin. Must-see landmarks include the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. The thriving and diverse city also has an impressive art scene, with over 400 galleries and a large collection of street art.
Located in the eastern part of the country near the Czech border, the region of Saxony hosts the city of Dresden. Once destroyed by multiple bombing campaigns during World War II, the Baroque city has now been partially restored and boasts fascinating history. For outdoor enthusiasts, Saxon Switzerland is located near Dresden and offers around 1,000 peaks popular with mountaineers from around the world.
Saxony-Anhalt and the Harz
This region encompasses an area divided between the old border of West and East Germany. The area is largely agricultural and industrial, but there are numerous quaint towns and cities dotted throughout the countryside. The cathedral in Madgeburg is a popular regional site, while the mountainous Harz region is great for cross-country skiing, biking and hiking.
Located in Central Germany, Thuringia is known as the “green heart” of the country due to the dense forest covering. The Thuringian Forest is home to scenic villages and some of the most celebrated biking trails in Germany. The popular winter-resort area of Oberhof is also located in this region. It has helped create some of Germany’s most successful winter Olympians.
Munich and Central Bavaria
Home to Oktoberfest at the Hofbrauhaus, the scenic city of Munich is also an important European center of technology, culture, and innovation. The city boasts a unique mix of architecture and diverse offerings to visitors. Start in the Marienplatz — Munich’s city center since 1158 — and visit both the New and Old City Hall.
Northern Bavaria includes the wine-producing region of Franconia and the city of Wurzburg. Wurzburg is home to the Wurzburger Residence, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the center of the city built in the mid-1700s. Wurzburg is also a great starting point for the “Romantic Road” — a picturesque driving route connecting Bavaria’s prettiest cities.
The Alps and Eastern Bavaria
Located south of Munich, this region is what comes to mind when thinking about Bavaria. Lush forests, mountain peaks and postcard-worthy villages, this region has it all. Regensburg’s medieval city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been named one of the top tourist sites in all of Germany. The world-famous Neuschwanstein Castle is also located in this region in the town of Hohenschwangau.
Baden-Wurttemburg and the Black Forest
Located in the southwest portion of the country, the region of Baden-Wurttemburg is a popular vacation destination. Stuttgart, the region’s largest city, offers great architecture, museums, and parks. It also features an urban vineyard and mineral baths nearby. When in Stuttgart, make sure to visit Castle Solitude and the Wilhelma Zoo.
The Black Forest is home to the Titisee and Schluchsee lakes, which are both immensely popular water sports destinations. The Black Forest town of Baden-Baden boasts thermal baths, and there are a multitude of hiking trails criss-crossing the region.
Located in Western Germany, the Rhineland is unsurprisingly characterized by the Rhine River. It is the country’s top wine-producing region, and the city of Mainz is regarded as the German wine capital. The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “cultural landscape” and is dotted by picturesque castles largely constructed between the 1100s and mid-1300s.
The region of Hesse serves as a gateway to Germany for tourists arriving at the Frankfurt Airport. While Frankfurt is a modern city and important financial capital, there are also numerous cultural gems to be found. Visit Romer (city hall), Frankfurt Cathedral, and St. Paul’s Church. The pedestrian-only street Zeil offers shopping and large public squares hosting the annual Christmas market each December.
The most populous region in Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia is home to the cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf. The Cologne Cathedral, or Kolner Dom, is an absolute must-see in the region. The Gothic structure is the country’s top landmark and Northern Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral. Dusseldorf hosts the annual Karneval festival on November 11th each year.
Lower Saxony and Bremen
This region shares a northern border with the North Sea, and the city of Bremen and its seaport Bremerhaven have important maritime cultures. Beyond the ports, Bremen is home to numerous museums and a thriving old town. The Ratskeller restaurants boasts over 600 German wines, with a dozen claiming the titles of the world’s oldest wines.
Germany’s second-largest city and Europe’s second-largest port, Hamburg, is a popular destination for tourists. In this beautiful city you’ll want to visit the city hall and the St. Pauli Piers. The unique Speicherstadt warehouse district in the HafenCity hosts canal tours and museums. Originally built in 1883, the warehouse district has been undergoing major revitalization in recent years.
Mecklenburg and Western Pomerania
This sparsley populated region is located in Northeastern Germany, However, the area’s Baltic coastline and the islands of Rugen and Usedom are some of the most popular vacation destinations in Germany. The region is widely regarded for its national parks, beaches, and untouched nature. There are also about 2,000 castles dotted throughout the wide-open countryside.
Germany is a riveting country that appeals to all types of travelers. The enchanting countryside and prosperous cities continue to lure in tourists from across the globe. Leave the basics to us; this insider guide to the Germany will help prepare you for the trip of a lifetime.