Germany is awesome! This past fall, I was lucky enough to spend close to three months exploring the country. I stayed in six different cities spread all over both east and west, north and south, and took several day trips to yet other places. After all this time, it is safe to say I learned a few lessons about Germany, Germans, and the German way of life. This article will share those things with you, so that you’ll be a bit more prepared before planning your own Germany vacation.
I’m going to attempt to put these into basic categories for a bit more ease of use.
1. Friendly vs Warm
Germans have a reputation for being unfriendly. Perhaps this is due to the way German sounds to an American ear, full of harsh gutturals. Or perhaps it is due to a misconception of what it means to be friendly versus warm. Germans are incredibly friendly, or at least polite. If you ask for help, you’ll get it. If you say good morning (guten morgen), you’ll likely get a response. However, it can take Germans a while to warm up, so you shouldn’t expect the American greeting of a hug for someone new, or easy expressions of open emotion.
2. Germans Take Responsibility for the Past
This is a societal attitude. Germany, as a country and as a people, takes responsibility for the terrible crimes of its past iterations. Monuments to murdered Jews and other victims of the Nazis are, quite literally, all over the place. It is even a crime to deny that such things happened. As a result, Germans today tend to lean toward pacifism, not wanting to risk another militant society.
It is a stark contrast to nearly every other country out there. Few other countries even acknowledge wrongdoing, let alone use public money to build museums and monuments to educate their populace of those mistakes. While it can never make up for the Holocaust, it certainly makes it easier not to judge modern Germans for the mistakes of their ancestors.
3. Keep Germany Clean
While not spotless like cities such as Singapore and Tokyo, German cities are fairly clean, and Germans are proud of that, while acknowledging that there is more yet to do. Littering is looked down on more so than in other places, and viewed as a breaking of the public responsibility.
In addition, this is a country with a huge environmentalism movement, albeit one slightly tempered by current energy realities given the war in Ukraine. Wilderness areas are fairly pristine, and the aim is to keep them that way.
Getting Around in Germany
4. Drivers are Polite
The silence of German streets can be deafening. There are few car horns. Here in Los Angeles, we honk in frustration. In some places, like Israel, honking seems almost a greeting. In Germany, it is pretty much reserved for situations where it is needed. Add to that the fact that German drivers tend to stop for pedestrians (not a guarantee in parts of the world), and it is a welcome change for this traveler.
5. Cyclists are the True Danger
While drivers watch out for pedestrians, bicyclists definitely do not. Lots of people in Germany bike to work, or just to get around. Most major streets have bike lanes. However, those tend to run on the street side of sidewalks. What does this mean? It means that if you are crossing a street, you are probably crossing two bike lanes as well, and those cyclists will not stop for you if the rules of the road (like red lights) don’t dictate they must. Watch out for them. Also, watch out for cyclists choosing to use the sidewalk instead of the bike lane for whatever reason. They will try to dodge you, but it can be dangerous.
6. Wait for the Green
Speaking of crossing the street, Germans wait for the light to change. While you probably won’t be cited if you choose to jaywalk or cross against the red, you will be judged by locals for doing so. Even if nobody is coming, just wait like the others. To me, it is the flip side of having drivers stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
7. Transit Tickets
While I didn’t take public transit in every city I visited, in each instance I did use it, it was the same model. Tickets are not scanned before one gets on, whether it is a light rail, bus, subway, or tram. Rather, checks are performed at random, and if you are caught without a validated ticket, you will be given a fine of €60 or more. There is no claiming of ignorance allowed, or an excuse of being a tourist. There is no warning. And for their part, Germans are mainly good and honest about purchasing their tickets. That societal expectation that goes with keeping cities clean and waiting for green lights includes supporting the transit people here depend upon.
It is also incredibly helpful to have a smartphone with some sort of local data plan to use the local transit apps for tickets and proof thereof.
8. There is No Free Water
While some European countries have a code for getting free tap water (in France, ask for a carafe d’eau), there is no such thing in Germany. Water at restaurants here will be bottled and will cost you money, unless you are elderly and say you need it to take your medications. And beer is cheaper anyway. However, if you have a reusable water bottle with you, nobody will say anything outside of a fancy restaurant.
9. Tips are Appreciated, but Hard to Give
Tips here are not expected, but are appreciated. However, when paying with a credit card, there will not be an option to add a tip in the overwhelming majority of cases. If you tip, it will need to be in cash. That makes it hard for most of us who try not to carry much cash, so don’t worry if you choose not to tip; you won’t be judged. But if you plop a few euros down on the table, it will be appreciated. (Servers in Germany make enough to live on without tips, unlike their US counterparts, but they are not getting rich, so anything extra is useful.)
10. Bees in Summer
This is not unique to Germany, but is worth noting. If you are here in warm weather, you’ll notice a lot of bees, especially if you are dining outdoors. Some cafes have spray bottles of water to try to ward them off. It can be an annoyance, for sure. Just watch out for bees hiding inside of the spouts of sugar jars before pouring. And if you have a phobia or allergy, you might want to default to indoor dining and drinking experiences during daylight hours.
11. Sundays and Mondays
Like much of the world, Sundays and Mondays can be slow in Germany, with both tourist sights (mainly Mondays and the odd other day) and restaurants closed. In addition, grocery stores are almost all closed on Sundays. You will find dining options, but just be sure to check hours before walking in somewhere.
Germany is an incredible place. It has world-class tourist sights, shockingly good food, and a great vibe. But, as with any other country on the planet, there are cultural differences one must be aware of. I hope this list helped you tackle some of those, and has you feeling more confident in planning a Germany vacation.
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