Ask someone what they know about Germany and they’re bound to bring up sausage, beer, and probably German punctuality. And, actually, those things are often true. But Germany is a huge country with tons of variety and a large population. To make the most of your time in Germany, there are a few things you should know before you go.
1. Cash is essential
Plastic has little power in Germany. Despite being an incredibly modern country, many shops and restaurants in Germany do not accept credit cards or even debit cards. You’ll be fine at most supermarkets and tourist spots, but if you plan on a night out at a bar or a dinner at a local restaurant, you’ll want to have cash with you. (And, oddly, ATMs are seriously lacking in cities like Berlin.)
2. There’s epic scenery beyond the Black Forest
Yes, the Black Forest is stunning, but it’s not the only place to go in Germany for big nature. Saxon-Switzerland National Park borders the Czech Republic, and its sandstone formations around the Elbe River make for a dramatic landscape. There is also a surprising abundance of white sandy beaches, like on the Rügen archipelago, or in Rostock on the Baltic Sea.
3. Sundays are for relaxation
In many countries, Sundays are for shopping—but not in Germany! There, it’s all about the Sunday stroll. Almost all shops are closed, including grocery stores, which essentially forces you to simply enjoy the day. Go for brunch, read a book, take a walk or go out to explore the nature. There are some exceptions with occasional Shopping Sundays when stores are legally allowed to open – it’s every few months. You can also always find at least one grocery store open in a city – it’ll be the one located in the large train stations.
4. Bavaria is completely different from the rest of Germany
Even the dialect in Bavaria differs from the northern regions — in some rural parts of Bavaria, it’s practically a different language. But mostly the difference lies in Bavarian identity and culture. Most people are familiar with Oktoberfest, and although Bavarians don’t strut around in their lederhosen and dirndl on a daily basis, there’s a good deal of pride for the celebration and its traditional garb. Bavarian food is also unique, and includes the likes of white sausage and mustard, and the ubiquitous pretzel.
5. Speaking a little German will go a long way
The German language is notoriously challenging for foreigners. But remember: English is a Germanic language! So while you might not think you’ll know many German words, it’s surprisingly easy to pick up what you might need to know. You’ll find that speaking some common (or uncommon) German words or phrases will go a long way. German people aren’t known for their small talk, but throw in some words like na? or geil and you’re sure to spark a conversation!
6. Overt displays of patriotism are not a thing
Although you might see Germany flags everywhere during Euro Cup or World Cup, Germans are usually very hesitant to show lots of patriotism. Nobody wants to confuse pride with nationalism. Germans are very aware of their country’s dark history.
7. But Germans have no problems acknowledging the past
Having said that, Germany does an incredible job acknowledging the past and has accepted full responsibility for it. Children are taught about the world wars from an early age, and every museum and memorial dedicated to these wars and the Holocaust are free of charge. Places like the Jewish Museum in Berlin have free admission.
8. Water is not cheap
A few things about water in Germany. First, if you’re ordering water in a restaurant—it’s going to come carbonated. Many Germans just don’t seem to have the taste for still water. Second, water is never free. You won’t receive still water for the table at a restaurant. And even if you ask for it, you’ll likely be charged or they might simply refuse to offer it for free. Water fountains in public places are also extremely rare. Perhaps it’s a smart move. Water is not necessarily an infinite resource, so perhaps it’s just forward-thinking of the Germans to prepare for a time when water is less readily available and more expensive.
9. Germans really do take their beer seriously
In Germany, there’s such thing as a beer “purity law” (Reinheitsgebot), which outlines a certain standard for all beers being brewed in the country. Beer is also ridiculously cheap, because it’s taxed as “food” (bread) and isn’t really considered alcohol.
10. Bag your own groceries
In Germany, grocery stores operate a little more frugally (or efficiently – depending upon your viewpoint). You’re expected to bag your own groceries and to do so quickly! There’s surprisingly little space at the end of the register so if you’re buying more than you can quickly bag up, be prepared to just load it all back in your cart and bag it at a small table or shelf you’ll find against the wall. Oh, and bring your own grocery bags, too. Gotta be green, remember? And in Germany, you’ll also find vegetables and produce to be very fresh.
11. Children have a whole lot of freedom
In big cities like Berlin, you’ll see young children riding the subway alone, or headed off to school alone…and it’s totally normal. Or you might notice a stroller parked outside a shop with a baby still in it while his or her mother briefly runs errands inside. Again, this is totally normal.
12. Berlin is a different universe compared to other cities
The German capital is packed so full of history, it’s hard to take everything in on your first visit. But it also draws expats and travelers from around the world, and is an incredible multicultural hub with a massive arts scene. Berlin is gritty and more graffiti-laden than other German cities and villages, but its free-spiritedness can’t be beat.
13. Everything is recycled…and carefully!
The Germans are famously green – and that’s a good thing. Recycling is so ingrained into the culture there, even if you’re just visiting for a few days, it’s easy to pick up the habit. You’ll find large recycling bins on the street for glass containers sorted by color (green, brown, white) which are used collectively by the local community. This is where you’ll recycle wine bottles. Beer and plastic bottles get returned for Pfand—a deposit paid when you initially purchase the drink. Pfand can range from 6 to 25 cents. Just look for the Pfand returns inside grocery stores, usually near the cash register. Also: don’t forget to sort your biodegradable products, too – there’s a separate bin for that!