Germany can be intimidating due to its historical past, especially for those like me who do not have a European ethnic background. When we spent a year in Berlin, which to be honest is not the most German city in the country, we acclimated to the region through the language.
I grew fond of the culture as I learned their use of words and grammar. Through German’s compelling language you get a glimpse of the region—an ability to be both literal and metaphorical while identifying and describing the nuances of humanity. For example, the phrase Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten means “only the strongest survive”. The literal translation is “only the tough come into the garden;” a reference to being strong enough to grow as a person and survive like a plant in a garden.
It’s the thoughtful and unique use of the language that I gravitated to, and during our trek through Europe we decided to spend a month travelling around the country. Germany’s history is vivid because it has seen triumphs, fascism, white nationalism, destruction, guilt, and atonement. I am both interested in Germany and fear it.
Even though the country has honorably taken in refugees from Syrian conflicts, pockets of the nation still harbour conservative attitudes and militant pride over white dominance. Germans are in constant battle over the world’s image of them: a progressive country attempting to escape their stereotypical image of white supremacy, while history repeats itself in the German nationalist groups rising to power and spreading the fear of immigrants.
We started in western Germany and travelled counter-clockwise from Düsseldorf. Germany is Earth-conscious in their use of environmentally-friendly wind turbines, magnificently grand modern versions of windmills, which was a sight to see as we travelled from city to city either by bus on the Autobahn or by train.
The country is large and varied in its landscape—beautiful mountains in the south, sweeping plains in the north and dense forests covered in sky-scraper trees that inspired the fairytale writers, the Grimm brothers. Germany did not form into a nation until the 19th century when the Prussian Prime Minister brought together different kingdoms of Germanic groups.
Many major cities in Germany were heavily damaged by air raid bombing during World War II, but have since been reconstructed into the modernized cities we know of today. Germany is known for their innovative artists in literature and music, such as famous German classical composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Germany is also known for birthing one of Europe’s most renowned 20th century theoretical physicists, Albert Einstein.
Here is a brief overview of each of the cities we visited in the country, and how you can spend your time when travelling to Germany.
Düsseldorf . Köln . Frankfurt . München
Nürnberg . Leipzig . Hamburg . Dresden
Located in western Germany, Düsseldorf is the capital city of the North Rhine-Westphalia region. It lies east of the Rhine River, one of Europe’s largest rivers used for trade and transportation. You can spend an afternoon taking a stroll along the riverbank and watch all the activity on the water.
We stayed with a German woman who had grown up in the city, and she would recount stories of her life to us during dinner. She mentioned that there was a friendly rivalry between Düsseldorf and Köln in the south, but found the slower pace of Düsseldorf more suited to her lifestyle.
The skyline of the city has a familiar appearance with the Rheinturm, or the Rhine Tower, penetrating the sky. It looks similar to the TV Tower in Berlin and the CN Tower in Toronto, however it’s smaller than both, standing only at 218 metres. The tower was completed in 1982 and features a rotating restaurant, including a viewing platform at the peak of the tower.
Much of the nightlife in the city takes place in the Altstadt, or the old town of Düsseldorf. Traditional German houses cover the cobble-stoned streets in the area which has the longest bar in the world. Over 250 bars, breweries, and pubs are lined up in the alleyways of its downtown area.
A two-hour hike through the city (or a twenty minute drive), south from Altstadt, is a stunning pink Baroque-style castle built during the 18th century called Schloss Benrath. Plan an entire day for the visit since you will want to take your time roaming the grand garden surrounding a long pond, and visit the interior museum. In the summer, Schloss Benrath hosts a light festival, setting-off fireworks over the castle for a magical spectacle beloved by locals.
Less than an hour south of Düsseldorf is Köln (Cologne), the fourth largest city in Germany. West of the Rhine River, Köln has become a major destination for tourists and locals interested in increasing job opportunities.
Köln is a cultural centre with many museums and historical remnants. The city boasts one of the largest Gothic churches in northern Europe, the Cologne Cathedral. The cathedral towers over the area with triangular peaks and a detailed exterior discoloured in grey and black from centuries of existence, resembling architecture from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It was constructed in the 13th century and was not completed until the 19th century. The old town near the cathedral is similar to Düsseldorf’s Altstadt where many areas of it have been reconstructed after bombing raids during WWII.
The oldest garden in the city built during the 19th century is excellent for an afternoon visit. In Riehl, a district in northern Köln, near the bank of the river is the Botanical Garden which houses over 10,000 species of plants.
A major highlight for tourists and locals alike in Köln is Carnival season, or Fastelovend as it’s called in Köln. It is an exciting and raucous event of partying and processions marching through the city, significant enough to close down public institutions. Fastelovend is celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month beginning at 11 a.m. Six days of street carnival take place at the peak of its celebration, called “Crazy Days”, full of parades, dancing and singing.
Frankfurt, or Frankfurt am Main, is situated on River Main in western Germany. It’s a three-hour train ride southeast of Köln. Known as the financial district, Frankfurt houses the European Union’s central bank and hosts various international trade fairs. Frankfurt was the capital city of Germany during the 19th century, which has since changed to Berlin.
The famous poet, playwright and writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in this city. The largest university in Germany, built in Frankfurt in 1914, is named after him. You can visit his childhood home in the old town of Frankfurt, the Goethe House, on Großer Hirschgraben.
The old area of the city, known as the Römerberg quarter, was also rebuilt after attacks during WWII. The historic centre not only contains local homes, but also many shops, cafes and museums. Within this quarter is a lovely triangular pink structure called the Römer, meaning the “Roman”. It used to be the Holy Roman emperor’s site for coronation ceremonies built in the 15th century. Now the building is used as a city hall. Many of the traditional German structures made of timber have similar characteristics with long bodies, a triangular roof and distinct lines running through the facade of the building or as trims around the windows.
Similar in its Gothic architectural style to the Köln Cathedral is the Frankfurt Cathedral which was constructed between the 1300s and 1400s, and later rebuilt. It’s a massive structure with gilded clocks on the exterior. When you view the city below from the tower above, you will notice Frankfurt is filling up with modern glass towers as an increasing number of businesses centralize in the city.
Crossing the River Main from Altstadt is the district of Sachsenhausen, an area that comes to life any time of the day or night. Many enjoy the quaint neighbourhood of wine bars and pubs to drink the well-known Apfelwein (apple wine) of Frankfurt. It is similar to what we know of as cider in North America, but the Frankfurt version is more tart and sour in flavour.
South of the country, München (Munich), is the largest city in Bavaria and situated near the icy peaks of the Alps, the highest mountain range in Europe. The city is internationally well-known for their lively drunken festival of Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest is the largest beer festival in the world held annually from the end of September to October. It originated as a celebration of the marriage between German royals during the 19th century, and since then has not taken a break from celebrating drinking culture (except it might this year due to COVID-19). At the festival you can enjoy giant tented beer gardens, people dressed in German traditional clothing such as Lederhosen and Dirndl, fair rides, and music.
München is also known as the city where Adolf Hitler joined and became the leader of the Nazi Party after World War I. However, as a purveyor of the arts, opera also flourished in the Bavarian city. The city hosts the acclaimed Munich Opera Festival at the Bayerische Staatsoper, a renowned opera house dating from the 17th century, where hundreds of thousands of visitors drop by to see lively operatic performances. During the 19th century this summer festival hosted famous composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner.
Marienplatz is a major square in the city surrounded by Gothic-style buildings and churches. The oldest church in München from the 12th century rests here, the Peterskirche. Another magnificent structure to look out for while in the square is the Neues Rathaus, its structure beaming with centuries-old glamour from the bright pink flowers hanging off its balconies.
Not too far from Marienplatz is a long park running along the Isar River, called the Englischer Garten. Apart from strolling through romantic pathways inside the 18th century urban park and adoring gazebos, you can enjoy a beer at its lakeside beer gardens.
If you are interested in viewing an extravagantly-designed German Baroque-style building, visit the Asam Church. Initially it was meant to be a private chapel, unattached to any major religions, however since then it has been claimed by Christianity. Built in the early 18th century, the eccentric structure includes detailed frescoes, spectacular arches with murals, and gilded statues and columns, all of which create a mood of heavy richness.
People are generally familiar with the name of Nürnberg (Nuremberg), a city north of München and the second largest in Bavaria, because of the well-documented Nuremberg Trials. The Nuremberg Trials took place after WWII between 1945-46 to convict Nazi party leaders for war crimes and the extermination of European Jews. The first trials were held by an international tribunal, and later trials after 1946 were held by American military tribunals.
During the 1930’s the city was the centre for the National Socialism party, and was heavily destroyed by Allied troops during the war. You can visit the Memorium Nuremberg Trials west of the city and learn about the history of the trials, as well as visit the courtroom where the trials took place. The trials were integral to the development of criminal law in later years.
Upstairs of the courtroom is an exhibition of the defendants (Nazi party leaders) and their crimes. Twenty-four men were tried—one committed suicide, one was too mentally ravaged to be tried, three were acquitted, four went to prison for 10–20 years, three were sentenced to life in prison, and 12 were sentenced to death by hanging. However, one of these 12 men, Hermann Göring, one of the primary leaders in the party, committed suicide before his date of execution.
East of the city is the Zeppelin Field, the field used by the Nazi party as a rally ground. The field was designed by Hitler’s architect Albert Speer who was later sentenced to imprisonment for up to 20 years during the trials. Nearby is the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, a circular structure where Nazi rallies also took place.
In the central area of the city stands an imposing evangelical church called St. Lorenz. It is similar in design to the countless Gothic churches found in Germany.
One of the most beautiful fountains I’ve ever seen, the Schöner Brunnen fountain in the main market area of Nürnberg is a 14th century landmark. Also Gothic in design, the gold, red, and green spire stands at 19 metres. Statues circle the structure, either representing biblical figures or fields of study. Behind it is the Gothic Frauenkirche made of brick built at the request of the Holy Roman Emperor during the mid-14th century. Much of it has been heavily restored since the war.
Although all of Germany serves wursts, a unique dish to try in the city is the local Nürnberger Bratwurst. These are typically smaller in size than the thick larger wursts you will eat in other areas of Germany, and are served with Marjoram. The production of the tasty wurst dates back to the 15th century. In order to continue tradition and keep the Nürnberger Bratwurst as authentic as possible, it is protected under EU law which means only Nürnberg can produce this particular wurst.
Leipzig is a city in the Saxony region of Germany and only a couple of hours south from Berlin. The citizens of Leipzig were crucial to the end of the Communist regime in east Germany through mass protests and demonstrations.
Locals call Leipzig the “new” Berlin because of the influx of artists moving into the city for its cheaper living standards. Berlin has grown into a more popular city and therefore the rent and cost of living has steadily increased. Since many artists are moving into Leipzig, the city itself is also transforming into a younger version of Berlin’s eclectic and quirky aesthetic.
The central area of Leipzig contains a famous 13th-century Gothic church, the St. Thomas Church. Composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the choir leader here and it was his burial place after he died. In addition, Mozart played the organ here and Wagner’s baptism took place at St. Thomas church.
The Monument of Nations is definitely worth a visit. The monolithic structure is built with soldiers surrounding it bowing with their swords, representing fallen soldiers. It was built in the early 20th century and is 91 metres high. The monument commemorates the Battle of Leipzig which took place in 1813, one of the final battles that brought down Napoleon. It was the largest battle to take place in Europe until WWI. You can climb to the top of the structure for a fee of €8, and overlook the city from a balcony.
An unusual yet interesting piece of history to visit in Leipzig is the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, the largest train station in the world by floor area. It covers 8.3 hectares and is also a museum for locomotives used during the 1930s.
Hamburg is known as the Venice of Germany because of its many canals and bridges. You can take a canoe out on the water and enjoy a peaceful afternoon gliding along, eating a snack or having a drink. North of the country, the city is close to Denmark’s border and easily accessible from the Baltic Sea in the east and the North Sea in the west.
This was one of our favourite cities to visit in Germany, apart from Berlin. Hamburg was and is a major trading port, and as one of the largest and vibrant cities after Berlin, Hamburg continues to grow in its diversity. After near-complete destruction during WWII, the city has since reconstructed itself into a modern centre of Germany.
The main area of the city is Altstadt by the harbour where you get a peek into its medieval past from the architecture of the churches and warehouses.
The city famously hosted the Beatles at Reeperbahn before the world fell in love with them. Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s redlight district in the St. Pauli neighbourhood, filled with strip clubs, bars, cabarets and theatres. It runs along the Elbe River, and on certain evenings you will find beer gardens and fairs on the banks of the river.
A panorama of the city can be experienced by visiting the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall on the Elbe River. This is a recently constructed music venue where the glass plaza offers breathtaking views. The concert hall is uniquely designed mimicking the liquid waves of the river below it. It is located in Hafencity, a new, up-and-coming harbourside quarter where modern developments are being constructed to transform the area into a recreational neighbourhood.
North of Altstadt is a large park called Planten und Blomen with a botanical garden from the 1800s. The park contains ponds, a Japanese garden and a teahouse, including greenhouses nurturing plants from all over the world.
A major historical feature of the city is the subterranean Elbe Tunnel below the Elbe River built in 1911 that runs for 426 metres. In its early days the tunnel was used by shipyard workers since it connected the docks to the shipyards. Nowadays, many cycle or walk through the tunnel to learn more about its origins.
If Berlin’s favourite German street food is currywurst, then Hamburg’s is Fischbrötchen. Near the Reeperbahn, along Elbe River, late-night party dwellers visit the Fischauktionshalle market for Fischbrötchens. These are small round sandwiches filled with fresh seafood from the harbour, such as mackerel, salmon, shrimp and more.
Each year the city is visited by the largest public festival in northern Germany, the DOM, which takes place in the spring, summer and winter. Hundreds of stalls, rides and traditional foods are exhibited. The oldest fair is the WinterDOM which first took place in the 1000s.
Dresden is a city full of extraordinary architecture. Everywhere you look numerous Gothic structures formulate the skyline of the city. It is the capital city of Saxony and is near the Czech Republic border, only a two-hour drive from Prague in the south.
The old town was reconstructed after a fire in the 15th century. It was later modernized in baroque and rococo styles during the 17th and 18th centuries, popular aesthetic designs at the time. The Altstadt by the Elbe River is a collection of some of the city’s most beautiful pieces of architectural styles.
At the Brühl Terrace you can look out at an expansive view of the Elbe River. Across the river from the old town is the Neustadt (or, new town) where baroque buildings loom large. Here you can find a diverse nightlife and courtyards of street art called the Kunsthofpassage, an artist’s neighbourhood with vintage shops and vegan cafes.
The city is also known for their various galleries and museums, such as the Zwinger Palace built in the 18th century featuring expansive gardens, a porcelain collection, and various historic scientific instruments.
Unfortunately in recent news the city has become a fixture for hatred. They have been the leaders in Germany’s extreme far-right movement, and have recently given rise to the AFD—the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party. It is also here where a fear of Islam is harboured and an anti-Islam movement was started in 2014, the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West).
Since we only visited the major cities of Germany, we skipped many of the natural wonders of the country such as the Alps in Bavaria. We suggest taking trains through the country for the spectacular countryside views. However, also rent a car if you have the option and drive through the less-popular areas of the region, such as Garmisch-Partenkirchen located near the border of Austria below the foothills of the Alps.
As the world continues to change, at times inciting fear within the minds of people (especially now from the sudden COVID pandemic), it will be interesting to see how Germany will manage their country and its politics. In the meantime, I will continue to learn German and we look forward to one day returning to Germany.
Copyright © Beyond Here 2020
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