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Germany - The complete Travel Guide

Categories: Sightseeing, Cultural and History, General Travel Info

Schloss Schwerin
Schloss Schwerin

[ source: Flickr]

Born and raised in Germany, I can safely say that I've experienced all that makes my home country an exciting, multi-faceted vacation destination: Vibrant world cities go hand in hand with medieval villages, castles and monasteries, and the landscape offers rugged mountains, rivers and lakes, as well as the rolling meadows of the Rhine valley — not to forget the famous Black Forest region. Throughout the years, I've developed my personal favorites of course, so the following four destinations are by no means a comprehensive list of Germany's best, but this travel guide of Germany will make you come back for more — guaranteed.

When to go

Although Germany is an all-year-round destination, I suggest going in the summer to take advantage of the many outdoor activities such as the sheer endless number of scenic routes through Germany's wine regions, or the Black Forest, or along the many castle roads and medieval towns. Not to forget, there are plenty of places to hike and bike in the German Alps, or enjoy a stay at Germany's beautiful lakes and beaches.

Getting there

Cheapest round-trip flights from the US to Germany range from $900-1,200 in the summer to $800-1,000 in the winter. In February and March, prices drop to as low as $360, so you if you want to experience a true German Fastnacht (Mardi Gras German style), this might be your time to come. The downside is, it might rain the whole time.

Getting around

One of the great things about Germany is the Public Transportation System (German National Railways or Deutsche Bahn). It's extensive, reliable, efficient, clean, safe, practical, easy, and a number of other German virtues. What's more is that it offers a range of discounts for international visitors, traveling within Germany or Europe. So once you're in Germany, either by plane or train from some other destination, you should never need or want a car to get around most cities. Buses, inner city street trams, subways, and S-Bahn express trains (connecting the central city to the suburbs) run every 5-10 minutes during the day. Since most German cities have a very active nightlife, nightlines run every 10-20 minutes until the wee morning hours.

Car rental

For some of the scenic routes through Germany, you might want to rent a car. Most major US and European car rental agencies service all German airports, many major rail stations and other main city locations. If you book your car beforehand, best as a package deal with your flight and accommodation, you'll get a great deal.

1. Munich (München)

The capital city of Bavaria (one of Germany's federal states), Munich (Munich vacation rentals | Munich travel guide) is the third largest city (1.35 million inhabitants ) in Germany. Self-proclaimed world city with heart, Munich has earned its title, rightly so. People in Munich are some of the most welcoming and friendly Germans I've ever met. Their natural joy for life and laid-back attitude is contagious. Plus, Munich is a beautiful city, rich in history and culture. It's probably most known for its beer garden culture: the Hofbräuhaus and the Oktoberfest.

Getting there

Munich International Airport is located 15 miles northeast of the city center. Buses and trains connect to the town center, located on Marienplatz square. There are also hotel shuttles and taxis. Depending on which part of Munich you're staying at, travel time is approximately 30-45 minutes.

No matter where you are or want to go, you're always five minutes away from a subway, bus or train station. Check the Munich Public Transportation Website or the Munich Official Tourism Site for visitor offers, timetables and maps, or pick them up from any of the stations.

Places to stay

Live Like a German offers a variety of vacation apartments for your stay in Munich. Just use the search box on the top right, select apartments, and type in Munich.

In addition, Munich offers a range of accommodations, from five-star hotels to the most modest options. I recommend taking advantage of Bavarian hospitality and staying at one of the bed & breakfast places or small hotels and hostels.

  • Bed and Breakfast: Book online and choose from a variety of options, depending on the time of your stay and location. You can be sure that the host families will give you a hearty welcome, offer tips, not to speak of serving up a great Bavarian breakfast.
  • Hotel Monaco: This small, cozy hotel is conveniently located right in the center of Munich, close to the central train station and the airport bus. The rooms are furnished in traditional flowery Bavarian style, and their German breakfast buffet is a great way to start the day.
  • Euro Youth Hotel: Located in a quiet side street, this young and fun hotel is a great place to stay when you're on a budget. Munich's Old Town with its beer gardens is just a hop away.

Places to eat

As a world city, Munch offers a range of culinary riches. But you haven't been to Germany (or Bavaria for that matter), if you haven't frequented at least a dozen German beer gardens. As soon as temperatures rise, Germans flock to their beloved beer gardens, where they sit the entire evening under old chestnut trees, consuming enormous amounts of beer and hearty German food, while socializing at communal wooden tables and benches. The atmosphere is loud and cheery, and sometimes (in Munich at least) you'll even experience (the doubtful pleasure) of the live band in lederhosen, playing German folk music.

Bavarian cuisine

No travel guide of Germany would be complete without focusing on the food. Like most German traditional cuisine, Bavarian cuisine is very meat and potato heavy, but Bavarian specialties you should sample include:

  • Beer: Beer is actually not considered alcohol in Bavaria, but a basic part of nutrition, which is why the 700 breweries make up 30 percent of breweries worldwide, producing about 40 different kinds of beer. Almost every beer garden has their own brewery, brewing their own beer, so take your pick.
  • Obatzda cheese: A wholesome mix of one third Camembert, Romadur and butter, spiced with some paprika powder and other herbs, this beer garden treat is served like a scoop of ice cream and tastes as heavenly as it is heavy. It's usually spread on dark rye bread or German Brezen (pretzels).
  • Schmankerlplatte: Pork roast, smoked Pork Chops, and three kind of sausages, served with sauerkraut, fried cabbage and mashed potatoes
  • Vesper platte: German cold cuts and cheeses served with bread on a wooden board
  • Backhendl: Rotisserie chicken, usually served with German Potato salad and cabbage salad
  • Weißwurst: White veal and herb sausage (traditional Bavarian breakfast), with Bavarian sweet stone-ground mustard and German Brezen.
  • Dessert: Black Forest cake (sweet cream layer cake with cherries and cherry schnapps); Dampfnudel (fluffy warm yeast dough with vanilla sauce)

Restaurants

  • Augustiner Keller: Munich's oldest, most typical beer garden/restaurant runs a bit pricey, but the rustic atmosphere and food is worth it. Also, check out the inside beer cellar, located eight meters underneath the earth in a big stone vault. Specialties: backhendl (rotisserie chicken), mixed meat and cheese cold cuts.
  • Franziskanergarten: More for the modest budget, this traditional place has a charming beer garden with old chestnut trees, as well as cozy Bavarian style rooms inside, to sit and dine in. Specialties: spicy sausages (Klosterseufzer), Weisswurst (white sausages)
  • Hofbräuhaus: Originally founded in 1589, to quench the thirst of the Duke of Bavaria, this famous brewery/restaurant has come to embody Bavarian life and beer culture all over the world. Underneath the cross vaults of the historic beer hall, up to 1,300 guests sit at tables, many of them regulars with their own reserved beer steins and tables. In the center is a music podium where musicians play German folklore music as the guests drink their beer or sing and participate through schunkeln (link arms with your seat neighbors and sway from side to side). Most of them look like they've been there all day, which is probably true.
Note: Any of the traditional restaurants also serve lighter dishes and great German white/red wines, and for a different taste, there is an endless selection of restaurants around.

Things to do

  • Viktualienmarkt (Victuals Market): This market is a culinary paradise. An endless labyrinth of stalls offers the freshest fruits and vegetables in Munich, along with traditional Bavarian meat and cheese specialties, as well as delicacies from all over the world. Seriously, there is nothing you can't find here. Perfect for a lunch break.
  • Neues Rathaus (Munich New Town Hall): Located at Marienplatz square, the tower of the New Town Hall contains the world-famous Glockenspiel (carillon). The figures of the carillon reenact parts of Munich's history. While a joust is going on in the upper part, the lower part of the carillon shows a famous dance of Munich, the Schäfflertanz. You can watch the daily Glockenspiel at 11 am., 12 am. and 5 pm.
  • Various sights: There is an endless list of architectural wonders you can feast your eyes on, such as the beautiful churches (Frauenkirche, Peterskirche), or the number of big royal palaces, like the dominating Residenz palace, which owns one of Europe's most significant interior decoration museums. Not to forget — the Bavarian State Opera.
  • Become a local for a day: Have a beer, white sausage and pretzel at 12 noon in any of the beer gardens. You won't be alone, because this is called a traditional Bavarian breakfast.

2. Lake Constance (Bodensee)

Shared by three nations &mash; Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Lake Constance's 160-mile shoreline is united in a common cultural and historical heritage. More than half of the shoreline of Lake Constance is in Germany. With a water temperature of up to 26°C in the summer, the lake offers a range of water sport activities and boating adventures. The clear, blue water invites to swim and sunbathe at the many small beaches and islands dotting the lake, while soaking in the breathtaking scenery along the shoreline, where vineyards and fruit orchards alternate with castles and historic towns. Watch how the appearance of the landscape and architecture changes according to which country owns the shoreline.

Lake Constance can be summarized in three distinct territories:

  • Obersee (Upper lake)
  • Untersee (Lower lake)
  • Überlinger See (north arm of Upper lake)

Getting there

Getting around

  • By boat: A network of tourist boats (The Bodensee White Fleet) and ferries link every major destination around or on the lake. The Hohentwiel steamship is a more romantic alternative. Choose a tour to accommodate which towns/islands you like to see. Trips range from half-day to week trips. Check the Bodensee Ship Charter website for a variety of tours. (Note: This website will be updated in English in the next month or so). It is also possible to rent your own motor boat or sailboat for the day, but you have to have a valid license for motor boats over 6 hp, and sailboats over a certain width. There are also ways to combine boat passages, mountain railways and many tourist admissions into one package, called the Bodensee Card. Check the Bodensee Tourism site for more info.
  • By bike: You can rent bicycles at all the major train stations, like Lindau and Konstanz. If you have a few days, this is actually a very popular way to explore the lake. The cycle track spans almost the entire shoreline and you can also take your bike on any ferry across the lake.
  • By car: There are car ferries, connecting to destinations across the lake.

Places to stay

Live Like a German offers a variety of vacation apartments for your stay in the Bodensee area. Just use the search box on the top right, select apartments, and type in Bodensee.

In addition, accommodations around and on the lake range from five-star luxury to simple bed & breakfasts. A great website to search is www.bodenseehotels.com, which covers all three countries around the lake.

  • Kellhof, Hemmenhofen: Located on the Untersee, this romantic, half-timbered farmhouse offers inexpensive, cozy rooms and excellent regional cuisine. Only two minutes walking distance from the lake, it's a great hub for daily excursions along or on the lake.
  • Barbarossa Hotel, Konstanz: This cult hotel, situated in the old town's lively pedestrian zone, is perfect to stay and dine while exploring the historic town of Constance.
  • Strand-Hotel Wilder Mann, Meersburg: Located right at picturesque Meersburg (Meersburg vacation rentals | Meersburg travel guide) harbor, this family-owned hotel is over 400 years old and considered a national landmark; the restaurant's sea terrace, shaded by chestnut trees and exotic palms, offers the best view in town, as well as a variety of local menu specialties; the dance pavilion has been known to be the scene of wild parties in the 60's. Hence the name, Wilder Mann, German for Wild Man
  • Alte Post, Lindau: This newly renovated hotel offers comfortable rooms, a traditionally furnished restaurant and a great breakfast menu. The beer garden in front of the hotel is great to have a beer and unwind.

Places to eat

Bodensee cuisine is based on a variety of fresh, local fish (whitefish, perch, pike, trout, pike-perch, quab, char and eel)Â and seasonal vegetables, grown in the fields on the island of Reichenau (Reichenau vacation rentals | Reichenau travel guide). Other regional specialties include Maultaschen (ravioli filled with sausage meat and served with caramelized onions), Käsespätzle (special cheese noodles), or Wurstsalat (sliced sausage salad).

The local vineyards are famous for their delicate and fruity Müller-Thurgau wines, a mix of German Riesling and Silvaner. In every town around the lake you'll find a traditional wine bar, serving genuine Lake Constance wines.

Due to the lake's international location, you can also find French, Swiss, Austrian and Italian restaurants in the lively pedestrian zones and alleys along the harbor.

Restaurants

The previously mentioned hotels have great restaurants, but all around the lake it's easy to find a restaurant to fit your taste and budget. As a general rule though, it's best to stick with restaurants on the German side of the lake, because they offer the best bang for the buck. That's why, traditionally, Swiss people come to eat at the German side of the lake, and Germans come to get gas for their car/boat on the Swiss side, because it's cheaper there.

Things to do

  • Water sports: choose from a wide selection of activities, such as sailing, surfing, paddling, motor boating, waterskiing, diving. For novices, there are also a number of surf and diving schools.
  • Bike and hike along the 160-mile stretch cycle track or through idyllic forest paths and beautiful hillside vineyards and fruit orchards.
  • Island visit: Located on the Überlingersee, not far from Constance, the island Mainau (Mainau vacation rentals | Mainau travel guide) is a tropical paradise of flowers, parks and gardens. The island belongs to the Count Bernadotte, a former prince of Sweden, who lives on the castle on the island. The island Reichenau is located near Konstanz at the western end of the lake, and used to house the oldest monastery in Europe. Now the island has become famous for its vegetable farms and wineries. It's a beautiful place to spend the afternoon.
  • Meersburg: Surrounded by vineyards, this medieval town with its half-timbered houses and the oldest inhabited castle in Germany, seems to exist in another time. Divided into Oberstadt (upper city) and Unterstadt (lower city), the upper city harbors the castle, towering over the city, propped on a steep rock shelf. Take a guided castle tour or venture round the castle grounds yourself. The lower city bustles with local restaurants, wine bars and ice cream shops, and the atmosphere reminds very much of a Disney fairytale.
  • Konstanz (Constance): Konstanz is the largest town on Lake Constance (at the intersection of Untersee and Obersee). The old town district along the harbor has largely remained unchanged since the Middle Ages, where the town served as an important trading location between the three nations around the lake.
  • Lindau: Located on an island on the eastern part of Lake Constance, right at the Austrian Border, Lindau's historic old town charms with its colorful half-timbered houses, beautiful churches, and the old Town hall. The cobble-stone pedestrian zone invites for a stroll along the many cafes and shops and quaint little courtyards. At night, the brightly-lit harbor makes for a romantic dinner in one of the many harbor restaurants.

3. Ettlingen

A visit to the Black Forest is a must (not just because I was born there). However, most towns in the vicinity of the legendary cradle of Grimm's fairytales are swamped with tourists. Away from the mayhem, the town of Ettlingen (Ettlingen vacation rentals | Ettlingen travel guide) is an untapped gem. If you want to get a feel for a true Southern German town, this is the place to go. Ettlingen (40,000 inhabitants) lies at the foothills of the Northern Black Forest, within fruit orchards and the rolling plains of the Rhine valley. The town's flair lies in its mix of Germanness —clean-swept cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses and medieval alleyways — and the Mediterrenean feel of its lively pedestrian zone with its many outdoor cafes and restaurants, inviting you to unwind and watch local life unfold. Don't forget to stop by Pierod's, the local ice cream shop, for some creamy gelato, and then enjoy the idyllic scenery along the dreamy Alb River, flowing through the center of town.

Getting there

By plane: Ettlingen lies about an hour car/train ride away from the international airports of Frankfurt (Frankfurt vacation rentals | Frankfurt travel guide) and Stuttgart (Stuttgart vacation rentals | Stuttgart travel guide). Hop on a train connection at the airport or rent a car.

Getting around

Ettlingen is connected through trams and buses to every major airport or destination within the region.

Places to stay

Browse the Live Like a German web site to find a list of vacation apartments in Ettlingen.

In addition, Ettlingen provides visitors with a range of first class hotels down to reasonably priced bed & breakfast lodgings.

  • Stadthotel Engel: Right in the heart of town, this cozy hotel offers comfortable rooms at a modest price.
  • Holiday apartments and bed & breakfasts: for a selection of accommodations, please visit (www.bed-and-breakfast.de/).

Places to eat

Due to its proximity to France, Ettlingen features a seasonal gastronomy, ranging from beer taverns to gourmet restaurants with French Mediterranean delicacies.

  • Bistro Täglich: Situated in the lively pedestrian zone, this local favorite serves mouthwatering sandwiches and big portions for a modest budget.
  • Brasserie Pot au Feu: Facing the Ettlingen Castle, this French bistro serves the best Carpaccio, fresh salads and French casseroles.
  • Vogelbräu Brewery: Tourists and locals alike mix it up at the town's favorite eatery/beer garden. Specialties: Great rotisserie chicken, German bratwurst, pretzels and great beer. A must-see.

Things to do

Black Forest: Situated in Southwestern Germany, the Black Forest region spans over a 100 miles, and is bordered by Switzerland in the south and France in the west. From the vineyards on the western slopes to the rugged gorges of the east, and the mountain ridges, romantic valleys, rivers and lakes of the South, the Black Forest is a feast for the eyes. Sitting at the northern tip, Ettlingen is an ideal starting place for scenic hikes or bike tours through the Forest region.

To get a full experience of the vast area, I suggest renting a car to drive along the scenic routes, such as the Schwarzwald-Hochstrasse (Black Forest Pass), letting your mind drift over the sheer endless expanse of dark pine and fir trees. When on the Pass, don't forget to stop by the Mummelsee Lake. This picturesque mountain lake is said to come to life at night with fairies and mermaids and all kinds of mythical creatures. For wine lovers, the Badische Weinstrasse (Baden Wine Street) with its vineyards and old towns is also worth a trip.

As for culinary delights, no Black Forest experience is complete without a real Vesper (home made sausage, smoked trout and Black Forest ham with crusty farmer's bread served on a wooden board) Maybe even top it off with some high proof fruit schnapps from cherries, plums or pears, which have made the region famous. Or just have a Black Forest cake, which is made with cherry schnapps. The gourmet should visit the Hotel Bühlerhöhe (Kennedy's favorite hotel in Germany). A castle on a hilltop in the Black Forest, its cafe /restaurant serves the best and biggest Black Forest cake.

Last but not least you should browse the selection of cuckoo clocks and tourist trinkets, and maybe if you have time, consider attending one of the folk drama or music festivals where you can watch Black Forest maidens in "Bollenhut" hats dance to traditional songs.

Alsace Lorraine wine region: To the west, Ettlingen only lies a 20-minute car ride away from the famed Alsace wine region, known for its earthy, rich Gewurztraminer whites and Quiche Lorraine. The designated wine route along typical French villages and enchanted vineyards makes for a perfect day trip.

Special Tip: In September, Ettlingen sponsors a duck race on the Alb River. Every participant receives a big yellow rubber ducky with a number around its neck. The ducks are sent down the Alb River, followed by the cheering participants (1000-2000 people). The winner is crowned by the mayor and wins an air trip to an international destination.

3. Berlin

With a population of 3.4 million inhabitants, Berlin (Berlin vacation rentals | Berlin travel guide) is Germany's largest city. Berlin is probably most known for its role in World War II and its subsequent division into two parts: East Berlin became the capital of East Germany while West Berlin remained under the administration of the West, and was surrounded by the Berlin Wall from 1961-1989. A city of contrasts, Berlin has no real center, but its many districts all have their unique flair. From high-end shopping boulevards to small artist quarters, from busy metropolitan centers to quiet forests, parks and lakes, from historic to modern, Berlin has it all.

Getting there

Getting around

The best and most cost-efficient way is to use the public transportation system or to walk, as many sights are best explored by foot, plus you'll get a feel for the city.

Places to stay

Live Like a German offers a variety of vacation apartments for your stay in Berlin. Just use the search box on the top right, select apartments, and type in Berlin.

In addition, there a range of accommodations for every budget. I recommend hostels and bed & breakfast places. Another great option is a special category of small hotels, offering unique accommodations, such as unusually designed rooms, or they target particular group of guests. For example, there is a women's only hotel and a children's only hotel.

  • Aletto Jugendhotel Kreuzberg/Schöneberg: These small, modern hotels are conveniently located and offer comfortable rooms and friendly service.
  • Mittendrin: This bed and breakfast place is centrally located and offers cozy accomodations of all different decors and styles, as well as a great breakfast.
  • Hotel-Pension Funk: Situated in central Berlin near the famous Kurfürstendamm Boulevard, this turn of the century gem features artfully decorated rooms and also includes a breakfast buffet.

Places to eat

As a world city, Berlin has about anything to offer on the culinary landscape. The one thing not to be recommended is local Berlin cuisine, as it is very fatty and bland, except maybe for the stands serving Currywurst (sliced bratwurst doused in spicy ketchup and curry that you eat with a toothpick).

Restaurants

  • Baba Angora: Located on Sabiniplatz, a popular square with little restaurants, this Turkish restaurant serves up delicious middle-eastern delicacies, such as mantis (noodles in a special yogurt and cinnamon sauce) and rice pudding.
  • Pranzo e Cena: furnished with dark wood, this comfy, small Italian place makes irresistible rosemary pizza bread, giant pizzas, and homemade pasta.
  • Diekmann's Chalet Suisse: A bit more pricey, this German/Swiss restaurant lies in beautiful Grunewald Forest. The converted Swiss farm house and sun terrace are definitely worth a visit. So is the menu, including German and Swiss specialties. Try the sausage salad, the grilled salmon with brown butter, and the tarte tatin.

Things to do

  • A taste of Berlin life: For a pub/café tour and to soak in the local flair, walk through Kreuzberg (Kreuzberg vacation rentals | Kreuzberg travel guide), Berlin's artist quarter. For a first-class shopping experience, stroll along the Kurfüstendamm, a wide boulevard, full of shops, old houses, hotels and restaurants.
  • Excursion to Potsdam: 25 min away with the S-bahn, Potsdam (Potsdam vacation rentals | Potsdam travel guide) used to be the residence of the former Prussian kings. A harmonious landscape of parks, hills, palaces, and lakes, it's perfect for a relaxing day trip. The small town charms with its mix of Prussian, French, Dutch and Russian architecture.
  • Historic tour: No visit in Berlin is complete without seeing the Berlin Wall. From Potsdammer Platz (Potsdamm Square), you can see the remains of the Berlin Wall, and see where and how it ran through the city. Then walk down Ebertstrasse toward the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) — the former city gate and one of the main symbols of Berlin and Germany. On your way you will pass the Holocaust Memorial, commemorating the murder of six million European Jews at the hands of Hitler and his forces. You can walk through the memorial, exploring the labyrinth of unique stone monoliths.
  • Nightlife: Located in the Tempelhof Airport, this lounge bar/nightclub used to be a casino for high-ranked German army officers. Now the various rooms feature rock music and live bands in a funky decor. The big leather sofas at the bar are great to relax in and enjoy surprisingly cheap drinks.
  • Special Tip: Berlin really comes to life at night, because its state buildings, churches and squares are beautifully lit, so it's worth taking a walk, train/car ride late at night, when it's quieter, and let the surroundings transfer you back in time.

Useful resources:

Of course, the Live Like a German web site offer comprehensive travel guides to many travel destinations in Germany — a good place for further reading. In addition, these web sites provide useful information:

Original article: Germany: the complete travel guide - written by Julia Drake on Factoidz

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