GERMANY DOMINATES central Europe, financially, demographically, and linguistically. The horrors of World War II and Nazism are now well in the past. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Eastern European Communism happened more than a generation ago. Anyone under 30 was born into a united Germany.
Germany ranks 3rd in the Top 100 Countries index, after only Spain and France. It’s in the Top Ten in World Heritage sites (5th) and the number of visitors and the quality of its tourist infrastructure (both 9th). Modern Germany is the world’s third-largest economy. German engineering and German education are world-class. It is a diverse country with much to offer the traveler.
Germany is easy to get around. It has an extensive train system, and the famous autobahns are fun to drive on if you keep your wits about you. It is full of wonderful attractions, and it is clean and safe. Like much of Europe it can be expensive, but it is not over the top.
Germany is a great place to visit, with many rewards for both the casual visitor and the serious traveler. One interesting thing about Germany, which explains a lot about it, is its decentralized nature. England is dominated by London and France by Paris, but in Germany no city overshadows the others.
Berlin, in the very east, is the political capital. Frankfurt, in the very west, is the financial capital. Industry is centered around the Ruhr region north of Frankfurt, an unattractive multi-city megalopolis. Prosperous Stuttgart is the automotive hub, home of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche (though BMW is in Bavaria).
Munich in the south is the capital of Bavaria, which is almost a separate country in its own right (and once was). There is the cosmopolitan port city of Hamburg in the North and many other large cities, like Düsseldorf and Leipzig and Cologne.
This mix of cities and regions makes Germany even more diverse than the other major European nations. There is great variety. And with Frankfurt a major airline hub, it is very easy to visit in conjunction with most other European destinations.
And it is not all cities. Despite its population of over 80 million, there is lots of beautiful countryside and fabulous scenery in Germany – the famous Black Forest, the Alpine country in the South, the picturesque Rhine River, and scores of beautiful and historic towns and villages. Germany has it all.
Germany has a sad but also a very proud history. It is a very
rewarding place to visit. It is very different to the rest of Europe – there is a different mood and a different way of doing things. It just feels good.
We like Germany so much we learned its difficult language - you can’t understand European history without understanding German history, and you can’t really understand German history without speaking the language.
AFTER GERMAN REUNIFICATION in 1990 Berlin again became the capital of Germany. It was almost totally destroyed in World War II, and stupidly divided in two for 40 years by the ugly and deadly Berlin Wall. But a wonderful new city has risen from the ashes.
Berlin has great museums and art galleries, including the world’s greatest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts. There is a large area actually called Museum Island. Berlin’s bars and clubs and restaurants are legendary. It is a great place to visit.
During the Cold War West Berlin was the only place in West Germany that didn’t have conscription. It was heavily subsidized by the West as a capitalist island in a Communist sea. So all the lefty young people went there to live and it became a hotbed of the 60s and 70s youth movement, with a flowering arts scene.
Now it has re-entered the mainstream, but the tradition lingers on. Ageing hippies will feel right at home. Others won’t have a problem either – it’s a very easy-going place.
Before the Berlin Wall came down, the Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin was the big shopping district. Now it’s a little faded and the action has moved to Friedrichstrasse in the old East. From there down to the famous Brandenburg Gate runs the Unter den Linden, called Karl Marx Allee in Communist times. It is one of the great boulevards of the world.
Berlin is a very multicultural city. The Germans have a word for it – MultiKulti. In some suburbs you could go through your whole life speaking only Turkish.
Berlin is one of our favorite places. It doesn’t feel like a big city - the streets are wide and there are few really tall buildings. It’s just lots of neighborhoods. We really like Prenzlauer Berg in the old East, though it’s becoming a bit gentrified now.
Munich and Bavaria
BAVARIA IS DIFFERENT from the rest of Germany – but home to much of what we think of as German, such as lederhosen and oom-pah-pah bands and beer halls. Its capital city Munich is a great place to visit, with a very pretty center.
An easy day trip from Munich is the famous castle of Neuschwanstein, built by mad King Ludwig in the 19th century and the model for the Disney Cinderella Castle. The nearby Bavarian Alps have skiing in winter and hiking in summer. Hitler’s Berchtesgarten retreat was there and is still a popular resort area.
Bavaria is predominantly Catholic, while the rest of Germany is mostly Protestant. Not that religion matters much anymore – Germany is a very secular country. Bavaria also contains the fine cities of Nuremberg and Regensburg, and a string of picture-perfect smaller towns.
The Hofbräuhaus is one of the great bars of the world. There’s lots of tourists, but lots of locals too. It has a real oom-pah-pah band and is in Munich’s historic city center, where there are lots of great bars and restaurants.
Whenever we are in Munich we seem to go to the Deutsches Museum, which rivals the Smithsonian in Washington as one the world’s great technology museums. And the Englischer Garten is up there with Hyde Park and Central Park.
The Rhineland and Western Germany
NO VISIT TO Germany is complete without a short cruise down the Rhine River. The stretch between Koblenz and Mainz is the place to go, past the famous Lorelei rock. North of there are Bonn and Cologne. Bonn is boring but has the Beethoven Museum. Cologne is a great city, with a famous and beautiful cathedral, where they say the Three Wise Men are buried.
The Moselle Valley is just as beautiful – a little less impressive to the eye, but much more charming, with the world’s best white wine (the Moselle river runs into the Rhine at Koblenz). At the top of the Moselle, just a few miles from the Luxembourg border, is the beautiful city of Trier, with Germany’s only Roman ruins. It was Karl Marx’s hometown, which means lots of Chinese tourists.
Heidelberg and nearby Rothenberg ob der Tauber are the best-preserved towns in Germany, though nowadays both have become very touristy. You can drive between them on the Romantische Strasse (Romantic Road), which follows the Neckar River. Close to Heidelberg, on the Rhine, is the old city of Speyer, founded by the Romans, with its distinctive red domed cathedral.
The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, centered on the city of Stuttgart, is Germany’s most prosperous. It is home to Mercedes-Benz, and there is a giant three-star Mercedes logo above the railway station. Not far from there is the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). Its gateway is the lovely old town of Calw, full of half-timbered buildings and home of famous novelist Herman Hesse.
This region also contains the financial hub of Frankfurt. Its full name is Frankfurt am Main, the Main (pronounced ‘mine’) being the river it is on. There is another smaller Frankfurt, Frankfurt an der Oder, on the Polish border.
To the north of Frankfurt is the heavily populated Ruhr region. It has over 5 million people and is the industrial heartland of Germany, but it is not much of a destination for the visitor.
Heidelberg is the jewel of Germany. Try and stay in the old town, or near it. It is full of great restaurants and bars, including some old student haunts that go back hundreds of years.
Our favorite is zum Roten Ochsen (the Red Ox), where they still sing student drinking songs of an evening. The old ruined castle is great, and you can get a funicular railway to the top of the mountain for a great view.
Saxony and Eastern Germany
THE FORMER EAST GERMANY does not attract as many visitors as the West, but there is a lot there. The beautiful Saxon capital of Dresden, the ‘Florence on the Elbe’, has been rebuilt after its almost total destruction in World War II, and the whole region is cheaper and less crowded than the West. The Frauenkirche in Dresden was reconstructed from the individual stones of the old one destroyed in the war. It is a kind of Lutheran cathedral.
Many of the smaller towns have barely changed since Communist days. One noteworthy place is Chemnitz, known as Karl-Marx-Stadt under communism. Go there to see brutalist Stalinist architecture. For a change of scene the porcelain town of Meissen is nearby. The vibrant city of Leipzig is worth a visit.
On the Baltic coast north of Berlin is the small town of Peenemünde, where the Germans built the V-1 and V-2 rockets in World War II. The V-1 was the world’s first cruise missile and the V-2 the first ballistic missile. The old power station is now a museum on the history of rocketry. It is one of the most interesting places we have ever visited.
Hamburg and Bremen
LIKE MANY GERMAN CITIES Hamburg was flattened in World War II, but you wouldn’t know it nowadays. Many people know it best as where the Beatles got their start in the early 60s. It is Germany’s second-largest city and biggest port, and there is a lot going on. The new Elbphilharmonie, or ‘Elphi’, has already established a reputation as one of the best concert halls in the world.
Bremen, also a port city, is like a mini-Hamburg with not as much going for it. Bremen, Hamburg and the Baltic port of Lübeck were all part of the old Hanseatic League of North German trading cities. They are a little off the tourist trail, but they are fine places to visit. Lübeck has a beautiful Old Town.