Travel across Europe and you will learn many different tricks for navigating each country. From my experience in Germany, I can say that it’s fairly easy and stress-free. However, there are still some things that might surprise you. Here are some points for optimizing your travel in Germany and making the best use of your time.
1. Use the Trains (Where it makes sense)
This may seem like a rehashed trope, but this is not to say that you shouldn’t use a car. Indeed, in many ways traveling by car in Germany is far more efficient and enjoyable (for better or for worse). However, there are times and circumstances where trains offer advantages, and even if you rent a car for the entire duration of your trip, you can still use the railway network to your advantage.
The most clearcut example is when you may want to enjoy more than a few sips of wine or beer. The Rhine Valley in particular is full of wonderful vineyards and small towns full of wine. Don’t feel the need to drive to and from these locations when you can take a train and worry less about how much alcohol you have consumed.
Travel Tip: The German Railway, Deutsche Bahn, has a website and app available in English, and with it, you can check schedules in real-time for trains in almost every European country. You can also buy tickets (for German trains) and avoid the need to get paper tickets.
In other cases, trains are the best or fastest way to reach a destination. Parking in many old towns is limited, and the train station is in any case located right in the center of town. Why waste time trying to find parking in an easily reached destination like Heidelberg, when an inexpensive train ticket will get you there in the same amount of time. Some high-speed connections like that from Frankfurt-Cologne are indeed faster than any drive, and this can also be factored into your schedule.
Cars become essential when you are dedicated to exploring places outside of the city walls, like monasteries or castles. Most are in any case reachable with public transport, but transfer times and connections may make some trips unappealing. If the only travel under consideration is between major cities and popular destinations, a car will likely be entirely unnecessary.
2. Leave the Cities
The beauty of Germany definitely does not lie in its major urban centers. While in other European countries, the cities form the core tourist attraction, in Germany they do not. Every German city without exception was leveled to the ground in WWII (or during the urban renewal phase in the 70s), the main distinguishing factor is the effort spent on reconstructing the old towns. Only in Munich will you find anything comparable to Prague or Vienna, and even then, the core tourist space is much smaller. Most German cities do have a reconstructed central portion, even if it’s just a church or a few houses, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth seeing.
The best places to travel and to experience are Germany’s towns and cultural landscapes.
Travel Tip: Sometimes there are specific things in German cities that you may want to see, e.g. the Cathedral in Cologne. Consider just visiting for an hour or two and then moving on, or visiting on a day with a special event. Cologne is a good example of a city not worth visiting unless you just want to see the Cathedral, which takes about 30 minutes, or if you want to see the Carnival Parade in February. Doing your research and being realistic can prevent you from being disappointed.
Some urban centers like Berlin or Hamburg offer their own cultural experiences, but they are not comparable to a destination like Amsterdam or Rome. Take a look in advance at what makes German cities special, perhaps the nightlife in Berlin or the reconstructed city in Dresden, and decide if that’s worth visiting. Going in without any research may leave you disappointed.
If you want my opinion on a good itinerary, see this article here:
What should I see in Germany?
If you have never been to Germany before and would like to spend some time exploring the country, check this…
3. Focus on Germany’s Cultural Landscapes
One of the things that makes Germany so unique is its enduring regional cultures. Once Germany was just a confederation of small states representing the political descendants of the different Germanic tribes which migrated there when Rome fell. These tribes spoke different languages, ate different food, and had different political systems. The Protestant Reformation and post-war division later added even more layers of regional identity. The legacy of these regional divisions is still quite marked in some areas, even in small ones. Exploring what makes them unique is one of the best parts of traveling in Germany.
A trip to the small town of Fulda reveals a Catholic bastion at the heart of Protestant Germany. Its architecture, food, and identity revolve around its historical home to the Prince-Bishops of Fulda, surrounded on all sides by the Protestant princes of Hessen and Saxony. That such a small town even today retains a unique identity in the region is remarkable.
On a larger scale, the regions of Franconia or Baden have been subsumed by larger political entities in more recent history, but both retain a fierce sense of identity. Despite being part of Bavaria, the Franconians do not speak Bavarian or wear Lederhosen. Instead, they speak Franconian and smoke their beer. Likewise, you can follow the traces of historical figures such as Johann Sebastian Bach or Martin Luther, and be taken on interesting travels across Germany and even other countries.
Finally, Germany does a good job creating “Tourist” or “Theme” routes that you can follow. The most famous example is probably the “Romantic Road” which refers to a guided itinerary along the Western-Bavarian border through some of Germany’s most beautiful villages. Other examples include the Half-Timbered Road or the Wine Road.
4. Pay attention to Germany’s Quirks
It goes without saying that every country has its strange fascinations or facets that can make life difficult for the unwary traveler. Mercifully, this list is rather short for Germany, and for the most part, only applies outside of major cities.
- Always have cash: Although it’s getting better with time, rural Germany runs on cash. Make sure to have at least 100EUR in cash on you throughout the trip to avoid problems.
- Germans prefer human contact: When in doubt call or reach out directly via email. When booking spaces, especially on Airbnb or with a small hotel provider, don’t make assumptions about questions you have. Go ahead and send an email asking for clarification.
- Plan your mobile-phone situation in advance: You will need a phone with a sim card that is compatible with European cellular networks. Roaming can be expensive, so prepaid options are available locally as well. Wifi is always an option, but you may find it limiting.
- Your privacy will be limited: There are a lot of people in Germany, so urban spaces are smaller than their New-World equivalents. This means your hotel room will be small, and your windows may look out into somebody else’s apartment. This also applies to the outdoors as well. When you go hiking, expect to find lots of other hikers. Escaping into nature isn’t really possible in Germany.
5. What not to worry about
There are still some incorrect preconceptions that travelers may have about Germany from older sources such as previous travels in the distant past or experiences from your parents. To conclude, here are some things you don’t need to worry about:
- The Language Barrier: Aside from elderly people in East German villages, everyone speaks English to some degree. This should not be a concern for most people.
- Pickpockets: In some countries, they are a real scourge, and you can still find them in Germany as well. However, they are exceedingly rare and you can avoid this problem by just remaining aware of your surroundings. No need for a money belt.
- Physical Safety: Germany is very safe throughout the day and night. Do not feel like you have to return to your hotel room because it is dark outside, and feel free to walk there after dark as well.
With that, I can only wish you a good time on your travels. Hopefully, you took something away from this overview that will make your experience in Germany better.