by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Germany is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating countries to visit in Europe, and the entire world. At times, it's an intriguing clash of modern vs. traditional, like contemporary architecture and antiquated cathedrals on opposite sides of the river, or a Starbucks firmly planted a block away from original remnants of the Berlin Wall. But traveling within Germany isn't a piece of cake, as I learned firsthand from visiting there last November. Here then are personal tips when visiting this spectacular international destination.
1) Getting to Germany
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) offers daily nonstop service (as of late March) between Seattle-Tacoma and Frankfurt airports - outbound and return flights are 10.5 hours in length. You can easily connect to any major city within Germany or Europe from Frankfurt, or take a 30-minute train ride into the city for an overnight stay. I flew on Lufthansa, both in business and economy class, and loved the food and wine selections, comfortable seats, in-flight entertainment, and the service was more attentive than on U.S.-based airlines to Europe I've previously flown on - international airlines just seem to get it right when it comes to customer service. Highly recommended is business class, not only for fully reclining seats, extra room, and gourmet food by Star Chefs (Daniel Boulud, Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller), but also for entry to Lufthansa's top-notch Welcome Lounge, providing individual shower suites, breakfast/lunch buffet, freshly brewed coffee, chocolate sweets, draft beer, and ample space to stretch your legs after a long-haul flight, computer stations with free internet access, and a large flatscreen TV to catch the latest global news. And, if you book or upgrade to business class on your outbound flight from Seattle, you'll receive access to British Airways' polished bar-lounge at the airport. Other flight options from Seattle are Air France to Paris, British Airways to London, or Icelandair to Reykjavic with connecting flights to Germany. But seriously, go Lufthansa!
2) Rail service
Central or main train stations in Germany are referred to as "Hauptbahnhof," or abbreviated to "Hbf." Each city will have an Hbf, where you're likely to catch your connections between major cities. Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) offers train passes that should be purchased before your trip departure - cost depends on which countries you plan to visit and the length of intended use, plus Rail Europe has offices at Hbfs in all major cities that can assist with questions or concerns in regards to seat assignments, on-board amenities, and time schedules. Recommended highly, and not too expensive for American travelers, are first-class tickets - besides extra room for both yourself and luggage, it's much quieter as students and families occupy many of the coach seats. Also in first-class, train attendants will make snack bar and food/beer runs for you - you still have to pay for them, but you can relax and enjoy the scenic routes through the German countryside as someone else fetches a cold pint of beer for you.
Somehow I presumed Germans spoke more English than they actually do, aside from tourism and hospitality professionals. I also encountered difficulty in getting help from random people on the street and in train stations, who did not want to be bothered or appeared to have better things to do than assist a tourist with questions. City maps and addresses of the places you intend to visit are strongly suggested to carry in your backpack at all times, and instantly learn the name of the rail station nearest your hotel - I even took photos of mine in Cologne and Berlin, to give myself a visual reminder. Students and younger professionals will likely speak more English, and are usually friendlier when approached. And, a pocket phrasebook never hurts.
4) Food and beer
German food is heavy; pork chops with boiled or fried potatoes are standard fare in traditional pubs/breweries, as are bratwurst and blood sausage. In modern restaurants, however, you'll find more recognizable items like pasta, steaks, and fish - if you prefer chicken, expect to be disappointed, as I rarely saw it on menus. American and German fast food is everywhere. Currywurst is a beloved snack of the locals, Turkish delis offer delicious and affordable bites, and large train stations such as "Alexanderplatz" in Berlin have dozens of small, inexpensive spots to eat everything from Chinese food to fish 'n' chips. Young, hipster Germans are quickly discovering international cuisine, making sushi counters, Spanish tapas bistros, and Thai-style eateries a norm in the urban sprawls. If you see the word "imbiss" above a restaurant it means they have food available for take-out or can prepare it quickly. Beer is a treasured beverage of the Germans, with each city and region specializing in a certain type of brew - draft beers are usually light in color, and if you prefer something darker simply ask for a bottled beer instead.
5) German people
The Germans are an interesting bunch, and my advice to anyone going there is to not take their unenthusiastic welcomes personally. Berlin was where I found people to be the most friendly and conversive; surprisingly, Cologne was the least friendly of the five cities I visited in 2009. Germans tend to be reserved, not ones to begin discussions at a bar or on a public train, and I can't tell you the many times I smiled at them and got nothing in return except a semi-cold stare. They do become friendly over the course of time, which can also be said about those of us in Seattle, so don't translate it as being rude; it's just by nature that they're a bit wooden in their social skills.
The Germans are serious when it comes to being punctual, so plan on a 10:20 a.m. departure, and no later, if that's what it says on your train ticket. I learned this the hard way by nearly missing my train from Cologne to Dusseldorf, thinking I had time for a Starbucks run and eventually forfeiting my first-class seat as I made a last-minute dash to the train. Be prompt for hotel check-ins/outs, restaurant reservations, guided tours, and scheduled business meetings.
7) Tourism offices, great resources
Upon arrival at each German city by train, look for signage pointing you in the direction of tourism offices. Here is a great place to grab maps, get directions to your hotel, learn about the available public transportation, and get recommendations on guided tours. If tourism offices are not immediately in the central train station, like Berlin or Hamburg, they'll be within walking distance of them - the Cologne office is a few blocks away, directly across from the famed Cathedral.
8) Gay lifestyle
Germans are very tolerant of Gay people and culture, especially in the metropolitan areas. You shouldn't have a problem traveling solo or with companions within the country - I toured five cities in two weeks and felt safe the entire time, though I also stuck closely to the central parts of town. Each major city has its own Gay district - Berlin and Hamburg have more than one, and interestingly Frankfurt and Cologne both nicknamed theirs "The Bermuda Triangle." Ask for a "Friends (The Gay Map)" at your hotel desk or pick one up at any non-hetero or mixed bar, bookshop, sex toy shop, or even at select hotels to acquaint yourself with Gay points of interest. In Berlin, I came across "men only" bars - these tend to be very cruisy spots that boast "dark rooms" and/or dungeons, where anything and everything goes.
9) Holocaust memorial visits
Many German travelers choose to visit authentic sites of the Holocaust, most of which have been turned into museums, educational centers, and historical landmarks. Once concentration and working camps or Jewish ghettos, these historical sites are almost always outside of the urban centers - expect to take a train/bus combination to get there, and book a half-day for travel time and site tour. Some, like Neuengamme outside of Hamburg, are free and self-guided, though others such as Dachau near Munich, will charge a small admission price. For Dachau, I recommend joining a tour group at the train station, which usually includes the entrance fee and transportation costs. I've visited two separate camps in Germany and both were powerfully emotional experiences, considering how many fellow Gay men and women were executed during the Holocaust.
10) Electronic adaptors
Should your camera run out of juice, as mine did, go ahead and pack your battery charger and spend six euros on an adaptor that can be plugged into most hotel power sockets and ICE trains. The electronics chain store Saturn will usually stock an entire wall with adaptors to suit various plug-ins from around the globe, so take your charger to the store and present it to the information desk for assistance.
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