Guide to Visiting Germany
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
I. Love. Germany. What a beautiful place. I actually think it is one of the most underrated travel destinations, often overshadowed by the traditionally more 'romantic' places on our lovely continent like France, Spain, and Italy. Though these are certainly not ones to miss out on, Germany definitely needs to be more appreciated as a bucket-list country. I've been there 3 times in the past 5 or 6 years, and each time I grew to love it more and more. I cannot recommend a visit highly enough and so, in an attempt to get your wanderlust raring to go, Los geht's!
I went to Saxony in the summer of 2015 with my sister to see some friends of ours. We flew from Bristol to Berlin with EasyJet (around the £50-£75 mark each) then it's about a 2-hour drive to their town from the airport. If you're following the same route we did but aren't visiting anyone, then the trains and buses from Berlin to places like Dresden are very affordable. We stayed with our friends, but if you're in need of accommodation then you're looking at about 21€ per person per night on a budget, or 48€ if you're going for something more mid-range.
As we were staying with friends who were local, we got such a great insight into how to really do a Saxon summer well, and the answer to that is exploring the stunning natural features to the absolute max. The area we were in boasts some beautiful forests, and on one walk we made it to a tower with some pretty stunning views that stretched as far as the next city. There's also a great high ropes centre near Moritzburg that can take you on courses for any age or ability, and after a morning clambering about in the trees, you could take a short drive to Schloss Moritzburg, the original Cinderella castle (complete with a slipper on the steps!), and have a walk around the extensive grounds.
Lake swimming was a definite highlight; German summers can get pretty hot and so finding a secluded place to go for a swim in is perfect if you're up for it. I remember floating in the middle of Grüner See (near the village of Strauch), looking up at the sky, breathing in the summer air and just feeling entirely peaceful. It was a great experience, plus I'm pretty sure that if we enjoyed swimming all the way across it and back straight after 8 hours of travelling and no food since breakfast, then anyone can...
Saxony is also home to the stunning Saxon Switzerland National Park, which sits on the border with its Czech counterpart, Bohemian Switzerland. I can say without a doubt that it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. We spent a whole day hiking there and despite the intense August heat, it was definitely the highlight of the week. The rugged formations of the sandstone mountains are spectacular, surrounded by dense forest and complemented by the smooth winding of the Elbe river. The river also interrupts a few of the walking routes, so make sure you have a few extra euros for the boat ride (though some places on the Czech side may only take koruna). There are plenty of places to sit and admire the view or take a quick water break, and I do recommend either bringing a lot of water and/or rationing it depending on how long you plan to walk, as there aren't many places to buy more or grab a refill. If you're going in summer then it's also a good idea to bring something in case of wasp stings as there were a fair few around when we went!
Another highlight was the Dresden Stadtfest, a weekend-long festival that happens every year. The atmosphere was pretty amazing - loads of people, fairground rides and stalls, food trucks, live music, and various events throughout the day. We spent the whole afternoon and evening there, mostly just exploring and taking in everything around us, which is definitely one of my favourite things to do while travelling! Dresden is a beautiful city - it was pretty much flattened during World War II but most buildings were re-built as they previously had been, meaning that it has a really historic feel to it with elements of the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicist styles among others, highlighted especially by the beautiful Zwinger Palace and Semper Opera House.
If I were to go back I would...
Explore the castles and other historic landmarks like Dresden's Zwinger Palace, Wasserschloss Kaffenbach, and Schloss Albrechtsburg.
Visit other Saxon cities like Leipzig, and spend some more time in Dresden.
N.B. Huge shoutout to the Gutsche family who were our generous hosts for the week, Vielen dank! Credit to Aris for the beautiful photos from our day in Dresden.
Going to Munich was the genuine fulfilment of a dream for me. I'd always wanted to go on a winter holiday complete with magical Christmas markets and snowy fairytale castles, and going to Munich a week before Christmas absolutely hit the nail on the head and more. It's one of those places that visibly carries a lot of history, giving it a beautifully traditional Bavarian feel. My friend Georgie and I had been planning this trip for two years before we went, and it was even better than we ever thought it would be...and we had some pretty high expectations! We flew from Gatwick to Munich with EasyJet (less than £100 each) and stayed in a twin room at Hostel Haus International in Schwabing, which only came to £160 between the two of us for 4 nights. It's a bit out of the way if you're looking to explore the city centre, but it's well-connected via public transport and has some really good facilities and a great breakfast.
Of course, the main attraction in Munich at Christmas time is the Christkindlmarkt - the Christmas market. As soon as Georgie and I came out of the U-Bahn at Marienplatz on our first day we were completely in awe at just how perfect it was. It's like the best possible assault on the senses: so many stalls selling hearty food, sweet-smelling Glühwein, and artisanal crafts; traditional Christmas carols being played by a brass band; fairy lights; a glorious Christmas tree; the smell of roasted nuts; happy people everywhere, all milling about against the impressive backdrop of the Neues Rathaus. It's basically everything you want from a Christmas market and more! We also paid a visit to the very pretty fairytale market within the Rathaus courtyard and the Medieval market a little further down from the Christkindlmarkt, which sells everything from traditional food to bows and arrows.
We also chose to visit Dachau Concentration Camp, the only camp that was operational throughout the entire 12 years of Hitler's dictatorship. Nazism and the Holocaust are uncomfortable parts of German history, but they are nonetheless important. We went with InMunich Tours, who provided a highly informative tour with the perfect amount of sensitivity towards both us and the topic.
Walking around the camp is a surreal experience. There is a profound stillness there that I have never experienced anywhere else. Whenever I go to historical sites, whether they're stately homes or battlefields, I try and visualise how it would have been when it was in use - the people, the smells, the sounds. Doing that at Dachau was sickening, but I don't regret it. I'm of the opinion that everyone needs to visit a concentration camp at least once in their lifetime, especially if your country was involved in World War Two on one side or the other - it's a difficult thing to do but for me, it really helped to bring home just how atrocious the Holocaust was, even though I'd already studied it in depth. I don't think it's appropriate to talk about it as a 'tourist attraction' because it isn't one and definitely shouldn't be, but as an important life experience and an opportunity to reflect, I recommend it.
The other activity we did with InMunich Tours was a free walking tour of the city, which I also wholeheartedly recommend. Our tour was about 4 hours long and was really engaging. Munich has a lot of stories to tell from the past millennium (most of them to do with beer in one way or another, I'm not kidding), and taking the walking tour really helped us to appreciate the city in a whole new way.
The visit to the Hofbräuhaus, arguably the world's most famous beer hall, was especially interesting given its centrality within the history of the city. Of course, we figured that given its significance that it was compulsory to try it out that evening to see if it lived up to the hype, and it absolutely did! Going to the Hofbräuhaus is the quintessential Bavarian experience - there's a traditional brass band, massive trestle tables, vendors walking around in Lederhosen/Dirndls with huge baskets of fresh pretzels (which are literally as big as your face), and the classic 1-litre beer tankards (also as big as your face!). If you're like me and don't particularly enjoy beer, you can still get the experience by ordering a Rußn, a drink made from equal parts Munich Weissbier and lemonade.
Probably the biggest highlight of the week, however, was our day at Neuschwanstein Castle. It was actually the reason we first started planning our trip to Munich - both Georgie and I had seen it in films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Great Escape, and having spent a lot of time ogling pictures of it on Google, we decided that we needed to go.
By far the best way to get there from Munich is to take the train to Füssen which is about 3-4 hours, and from there you take a short bus ride to the village of Hohenschwangau, where you can buy your entrance tickets to the castle. I recommend leaving Munich fairly early to avoid the crowds at the ticket office, as they have been known to sell out fairly early during peak season. We got a 6.50am train which sounds like insanity (it sort of was - we nearly missed it but it's a very funny story), though even with a breakfast stop-off in Kaufbeueren we still made it before the most others coming in from Munich.
The entire journey is absolutely magical in the snow. As someone who has lived in the south of England her whole life I'd obviously seen snow before, but nothing close to the winter wonderland that is Bavaria in December. It felt like we'd stepped into Narnia and it was utterly thrilling.
Commissioned by the famous King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late 19th century, Neuschwanstein is known as one of the most iconic fairytale castles in the world, and anyone can see why. Not only are the mountains, forest, and lake that surround it straight out of a storybook, but the interior is also breathtaking. Ludwig was a huge fan of the work of German composer Wagner and much of the décor was inspired by his operas, as well as famous fairytale stories like Tristan and Isolde. All of it is incredibly elaborate - the woodwork in the king's bedroom alone took 14 carpenters 4 years to complete! The most impressive room by far, however, is the throne room which was designed to resemble the interior of a Byzantine church. The walls and ceiling are almost completely covered in gold, with the exception of some amazing Biblical frescoes. You aren't allowed to take photographs inside the castle without a license, but believe me when I say it is absolutely spectacular and 100% worth a visit.
Also, if you have time at either end of your visit to the castle, I recommend chilling out for a while in Füssen. It's very pretty, and it's the perfect place to warm up with a coffee and a slice of sachertorte!
If I were to go back I would...
Aside from not losing the gorgeous Christmas tree decorations that I bought for my family which is still one of my biggest travel tragedies? Hands down, I'd go to Oktoberfest. It sounds nuts but also like an amazing experience!
Düsseldorf was an unexpected favourite of mine. I went in spring 2018 as part of a music tour with my university concert band (#EUCBrepresent), and to be honest, my fellow tour manager and I picked it out as a destination because it was one of the most easily accessible European cities we could get to via coach. We obviously checked out Google beforehand to make sure it would be a good place to go, but I think all of us were surprised at just how beautiful a city it was. We stayed at the Backpackers Düsseldorf hostel, which I can fully recommend for comfortable dorms, a great breakfast, cosy communal spaces and friendly staff, who were also very accommodating in terms of providing secure spaces for our instruments and luggage before check-in/after check-out times.
I think the thing that struck me most about Düsseldorf is that it's easy to feel at home there. It's not the most touristy city, meaning that if you know your way around public transport and speak enough German to get through the basics then you can basically blend in as a local, which I love. The day before we left, I had a bit of introvert time by myself in the city centre and I was surprised at how comfortable I was just walking around and using the U-Bahn as if I lived there, and my German didn't go further than a few basic sentences at that point.
The old quarter is especially pretty, boasting some really beautiful architecture like the Rathaus (town hall), and some affordable but still very good places to eat. The atmosphere is quite laid-back, making it easy to have a low-key evening out with friends. This part of the city is also right next to the water, which obviously boosts the aesthetic even more!
For the thrill-seekers among you, I have good news. Düsseldorf is only an hour away from Phantasialand, the second-largest theme park in Europe! It was genuinely one of the best days out I've ever had, and doing it with a big group of friends made it so much fun. The different areas of the park have different themes, including fantasy, Far East Asia, Africa, Central America, and 19th-century Berlin, among others. Even in the longest periods of waiting for rides, the scenery is immersive enough to keep you entertained for quite a while! The food and facilities are great, and for those who want to spend multiple days there, they also have 3 hotels on-site. Definitely a must for anyone who enjoys theme parks!
One of Düsseldorf's primary attractions is, of course, the Rhine Tower. It was built as a telecommunications tower, but the restaurant and viewing platform at the top have made it an essential activity for any tourist. From there you can see right across the city, and even as far as Cologne on a clear day! Amazingly, it only costs 5€ to go up after 6pm (less than half of what it costs during the day), and so going up for the sunset is unmissable.
Also, it's not exactly a touristy thing that you could replicate on your own trip (sorry!), but I cannot talk about our concert band tour without mentioning the concert we played, which was by far the most wholesome part of our trip. We played at a local primary school, bringing out our favourite film medleys like Mulan and How To Train Your Dragon which all went down extremely well with both the kids and the staff. We were told that many of the children were from pretty difficult backgrounds and that some were even from refugee families, so a concert like that was not exactly an everyday thing for them and it was a real privilege to be able to facilitate it. Our thank you from them was unexpected but absolutely phenomenal - I got a bunch of flowers for organising the concert, each of us (52 in total) received a wire treble clef that had been handmade by the kids, and then we were directed to a nearby pub where there was a 50-litre keg of local beer waiting for us! As a tour manager, it was definitely the most rewarding part of the entire trip.
If I were to go back I would...
Explore the various parks like the Hofgarten, Japanese garden, and Nord Park.
Take a boat ride on the Rhine!
N.B. The Phantasialand photos on the left and right come from here and here respectively. Shoutout to Chantelle, my fellow tour manager, and the rest of the legendary EUCB 2017-18 cohort. We did good.
Tips for visiting Germany:
Get into German food. There's absolutely no messing about with it and no attempts to be super fancy, which I really love. The more traditional foods tend to be pretty meat and carb-heavy (no complaints here) and so most dishes make for pretty ideal comfort food, especially in colder weather! I also don't think I've ever eaten anything from a German bakery that I didn't like - breakfast is so much better when it features fresh bread to go with your cold meats and cheeses, and pretzels are absolute winners at any time of the day.
Jay-walking is illegal, even on the tiny crossings! If there are crossing signals there, you have to follow them or you could be fined.
Make sure to get your train/U-Bahn tickets validated, and check you're getting the right kind of ticket for your journey. Validating tickets is pretty simple - you'll see small units dotted around train stations that will either punch or stamp your ticket - but it's important to do or you could face a fine (and no, feigning ignorance as a tourist won't get you out of it!). Making sure you have the right kind of ticket can be a little more tricky as some are only valid at certain times of the day, so leave plenty of time before your train to get to the station and sort your tickets out so that you don't find yourself getting kicked off the train later!
You're generally pretty set in western Germany but when visiting eastern Germany, be aware that not everyone will speak English. Most young people will have learnt it in school, but if you're trying to get directions on the street from someone a bit older (i.e. old enough to have grown up while Germany was still split between East and West) then you might find communication a bit more difficult. It's not a huge problem by any means, but one to keep in mind.
If I were to go back I would...
Visit Berlin. I've heard from several friends that it's absolutely unmissable!
Explore more castles. Germany has some stunning castles and palaces, and the fairytale-esque ones built by Ludwig II of Bavaria are particularly famous for their incredible beauty and character. I'd especially like to go to Linderhof (Bavaria), Eltz Castle (Rhineland-Palatinate), Mespelbrunn Castle (Hesse), and Herrenhausen Palace (Lower Saxony).
Hike in the Bavarian Alps and go up Zugspitze, Germany's tallest peak.
Visit Cologne. The city has a strong cultural scene, and Cologne's cathedral is famed as one of the most beautiful in Europe.
Germany is a beautiful country and I hope that if you haven't been then you're inspired to go - I genuinely cannot recommend it enough as a travel destination. Happy travelling, Leute!
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