The prepackaged options for visiting a country just aren’t much fun. If you’re visiting a country, you want to experience it yourself. Especially in a country like Germany, where it isn’t hard to get an authentic experience. If you get out and mingle with people, you’ll discover more, and you’ll come home with a richer experience.
Where to Stay
The ideal way to get the local experience is to stay with a family. If you know people where you’re going, ask if that’s possible. There’s a good chance they’d be thrilled to have you as a guest and show you around.
If not, at least avoid the big hotel chains. A smaller hotel will get you a more distinctive experience. A “Pension” (that’s German for “bed and breakfast”) can be best of all. Keep in mind that it may not have 24-hour access. Be sure to know the hours you can get in, and get the phone number for being let in late.
You won’t have trouble finding people who speak English in any major German city. Until you get really good with the language, they’ll likely switch to English quickly when talking with you. Still, making a slight attempt at the language will earn you a lot of points. Here are a few expressions you need to know.
Guten Tag. “Gooten Tahk.” Good day. Use it in formal situations.
Guten Abend. “Gooten Ah-bent.” Good evening.
Hallo. “Ha-lo.” Hello. You can use this in most situations.
Auf Wiedersehen. “Owf veeder–sayn.” Goodbye. You can use it in formal or informal situations.
Tschüss. “Chewss.” This one’s tricky to pronounce right. It’s a less formal goodbye.
Danke. “Dahnk-uh.” Thank you.
Vielen Dank or Danke sehr. “Feelen dahnk,” “Dahnk-uh sayr.” Thank you very much.
Entschuldigung. “Ent-shool-dig-oong.” Pardon me.
Tut mir leid. “Toot mere light.” I’m sorry.
It’s OK if your accent is terrible; you’re just showing the willingness to try. But there are lots of free YouTube videos where you can learn German pronunciation and if you don’t know any German at all, spend some time with them so you can pronounce those expressions a little better.
The best way to get money from day to day is with a “Bankautomat” (ATM). You can go to a bank and exchange currency, but you won’t get as good an exchange rate. Keep an eye on the euro exchange rate in any case, so you know how far your dollars go.
If you still have an old-style bank card with just a magnetic stripe, you’re likely to have a hard time finding a Bankautomat that will accept it. See if your bank will upgrade it to one with a chip before you go on your trip.
Not all stores take Visa and MasterCard. Find out before trying to check out a big purchase. Acceptance by hotels is much higher, but verify what they accept in advance, especially if you’re staying at a Pension. Smartphone payments like Apple Pay are still looking for acceptance, so skip them during your trip.
Where to Go
The tourist attractions are certainly worth seeing, but there’s much more to Germany. Many towns have open-air markets once a week or more. You can find great food and interesting stuff to buy.
Speaking of food, you can go beyond Hasenpfeffer and Schnitzel while saving a bit of money. Every city has stands selling all kinds of sausage. Currywurst has become a national favorite, and you should definitely give it a try. It isn’t super-hot; German tastes don’t run that way. Also, try one of the many Döner Kebab shops. That’s Turkish food, similar to gyros. Check the quality of the place first, though; some are more greasy than great.
There’s lots of other ethnic food, so you can branch out in many directions. The national meat for pizza is salami rather than pepperoni, and other ethnic foods likewise have a distinctive German style.
Coffee shops are another fine way to get out and spend time with friends or colleagues. Remember that refills aren’t free. Tipping tends to be lighter than in the US since the employees are better compensated, but it’s still very much appreciated.
You can also go shopping for your own groceries if you prefer. Just remember to bring your own bag, or you can buy a reusable bag at the register.
German cities have excellent transit systems. The systems include buses, Strassenbahn (streetcars), U-Bahn (subway), and S-Bahn (light rail). It’s the best way to get around quickly. The important thing is to understand the prepaid card system.
You can buy a card for one day or several at a dispensing machine, located at the stations or the main railroad station (Hauptbahnhof). It’s an honor system, but employees will randomly ask riders to show their cards. Someone caught without a valid card is called a Schwarzfahrer (literally “black rider,” but it has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings) and has to pay a fine on the spot. Try not to let it happen to you. If it does, explain apologetically in English that you’re a visitor to the country and didn’t understand. That may get you off.
The important thing with a day or multi-day card is to stamp it in a machine the first time you use it. That shows when your period of usage begins. You don’t have to stamp it every time you board a bus or train unless you get a per-ride ticket. Those are a bit cheaper, but they’re more confusing if you aren’t used to them.
Germany is a very bicycle-friendly country. Think about renting a bike as an alternative to crowded public transit. City sidewalks include marked bike lanes, but be careful about them when you’re on foot; if you wander into one, a rider may yell at you.
Renting a car is certainly a possibility, but try it only if you know enough German to read the road signs without reaching for a dictionary. The German reputation for being speed demons on the Autobahn is well deserved. They’re good drivers, but they come up behind you much faster than you’d think. Stay in the right lane if you don’t have the nerve to keep up with the faster ones.
Finally, there’s always just getting out and walking. That’s really the best way to discover new things in a strange city. Just make sure you can find your way back. Most places are safe, but it’s always good to think ahead and have a plan for getting back to where you’re staying.
For getting between cities, check out Bahn.de. Click on “Deutsch” near the top of the page and you’ll get the English-language version. The cheapest way to get tickets is to buy them in advance on the website. Trains run on time, except during strikes, and they’re clean and fast. Make sure you get on the right train, though! Signs in the station indicate where along the track the train stops. Some trains split along the way and go to two different destinations, so pay attention to which end you should be on.
If you take a few chances, you can discover a lot more of Germany than if you stick to the guided tours and big attractions. Just do your homework in advance and keep your locally-enabled phone at hand if anything goes wrong. Viel spass! (Have lots of fun!)