Hey all! I’m back from Germany. It was a great trip, a bit colder than I’m used to, but thankfully nothing as insane as what’s been going on in the Midwest and East Coast. I was in Germany for 10 days: 2 days in Freiburg, 5 days in Wetzlar, and 2 days in Frankfurt. (I know that only adds up to 9 days but I swear I was there for 10.) Basically, it was a week of work, sandwiched between two weekends of play.
Before I forget, I wanted to write up a few observations and surprising things about Germany — kind of as a note to self, but also for others who might be traveling there in the future. In no particular order:
Getting Around (Trains)
If you decide to take the train while in Germany, I found this post to be extremely helpful in terms of explaining all of tips and tricks of German train riding, from figuring out where to get on to how to determine which seats are reserved. Even though I’ve taken trains all around Europe, it was still good to refresh my memory on the right way to do things (SO important in Germany). In addition, the Deutsche Bahn Navigator app was a lifesaver for planning and reserving tickets between cities. It was also useful for intracity travel — more than Google maps. For example, it gave me step-by-step directions from my hotel to the Frankfurt airport, including ticket prices and all of the stops along the way. All ticket machines had English directions, and almost all took credit cards. The only one that didn’t was the tram in Freiburg — it only took debit cards or cash.
Cash or credit?
It was surprising to me how few places took credit cards, so be sure to have a decent amount of cash on you. Like many countries, the more urban the area, the more likely they take credit cards. However, even in Frankfurt — the financial capitol of Europe — there were quite a few restaurants and cafes that were cash only. Most restaurants will have the Visa/MC logo on the door if they take credit cards. Otherwise, you’ll want to ask before you order.
Another big surprise to me, despite having been to Germany before, is that you are supposed to leave a tip for food service and other services (hotel maid, taxis, etc.). For small bills, like coffee, it’s fine to round up to the nearest Euro. However for actual meals, it’s good to tip 10-15%. I had read this online, and then my friend VH, whom I was visiting in Freiburg, reiterated that point. She had worked as a server in college and lamented that many people – especially tourists, but even some Germans – didn’t know that you’re supposed to tip. Similar to the U.S., servers don’t get paid as high of an hourly wage, so they do depend on tips.
Restaurants & Cafes – What to Expect
Unless a “please wait to be seated” sign is posted, assume that you can just seat yourself. A server will bring you a menu, and then return to get your order. They will NEVER serve you tap water (how gauche!), so assume if you ask for water, you will be asked for still or sparkling, and it will cost 2-3 euros. When you’re ordering, keep an eye out for how much each item costs, because when the bill comes, you will usually have to pay the server right there and then. This process made me super anxious, as I had to do the math in my head and tell the server exactly how much change I wanted back. It’s customary for the server to walk around with a big wallet of money, hand you the check, you pay upon receipt of the check, and they give you change on the spot. You shouldn’t leave the tip on the table, like you would here in the States, but instead give it directly to the server when you’re paying. If you are paying by credit card, you’ll need to tell them the total before they charge your card because there’s not a separate line for tip in German credit card receipts. The good news is that all items are listed with tax included, so you should be able to figure out in advance how much to pay.
The other thing I had to get used to was the pace of eating in Germany. Similar to the rest of the Continent, they do not rush you… so expect every meal to take at least 1-1.5 hours. You won’t get the check until you ask for it.
Both of the hotels I stayed at included breakfast. On the bill, they were listed at about 5 Euro, and they were well worth the money. Germans take their breakfasts seriously. Having stayed with Germans this trip and previously, there was always a huge spread even at home. A typical German breakfast consists of: eggs (scramble, hard boiled, soft boiled), sausage, fresh bread/rolls, sliced meat (salami, prosciutto, smoked salmon), sliced cheese, fruit, jam, Nutella, yogurt, granola, juice, tea, and coffee. I loved it!
It was fairly easy to get around with my minimal level of German. Most people speak English, and if they didn’t, it was usually fine to gesture. If I was about to speak to someone in English, I would always ask, “Sprechen sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?). It’s more polite and less jarring. I was lucky to be around Germans for most of my trip, so that when I got to Frankfurt and did some solo travel, I was more or less OK.
As for the cities I visited, Freiburg and Wetzlar were both really charming. The old town (Aldstadt) in each city are exactly what you think of when you think “quaint German architecture.” Frankfurt is more of a urban area, but it still had it’s own charm. I stayed near Römer (the old city hall) which was a really nice area, and I highly recommend it. A lot of sites and restaurants were within a short walk from my hotel. The cathedral, though, was probably the most plain one I’ve seen. A lot of it was under renovation, but still… luckily, there’s no fee to walk through, so not much was lost there.
For cheap “souvenirs”, I went to the supermarket Rewe to stock up on chocolate bars. Many people also buy Nutella (they use less sugar in Europe, according to a friend) and Haribo gummy candies. I found that the supermarket had way more variety and was cheaper than Duty Free at the airport.
I did zero running while I was in Germany. I hope to write a separate running post later this week. The latest news is that I ran a half marathon on Sunday and didn’t die. Yay!