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DISCOVER GERMANY

12 things you should do in Germany at least once

Germany is full of stunning natural landscapes, as well as cultural activities and culinary delights. Here are some of our favourites that you should try doing at least once.

Revellers celebrate Karneval in Cologne in February 2018.
Revellers celebrate Karneval in Cologne in February 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

1. Hike around Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz)

Germany is a land of outdoor sports enthusiasts and there is no shortage of places to put your hiking boots to the test.

But Saxon Switzerland, south-east of Dresden, is possibly the most stunning of all of the country’s hiking destinations.

Various hiking trails lead through the stunning rock formations of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and offer endless magnificent views.

2. See the original Disney castle

Perched on a cliffside in the Bavarian Alps is the magical Neuschwanstein castle – a must-see German tourist attraction.

The Neuschwanstein Castle in the Allgäu region in Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Commissioned in the 19th century by the eccentric King Ludwig II, the castle became world famous when Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, which eventually became part of the iconic Disney logo.

For a particularly spectacular view, walk across the nearby Marienbrücke (Queen Mary Bridge), suspended 114 metres above Pollät Gorge.

3. Sip an Apfelwein in Frankfurt

For over 250 years, apple wine has been Frankfurt’s signature drink.

The area around Frankfurt is one of the richest fruit-producing regions in Germany so it’s no surprise that some of that precious produce has found its way into an alcoholic concoction. 

Called Ebbelwoi by some locals, ordered as a Schobbe by others, Apfelwein usually has an alcohol content of between 4.8 and 7 percent and is traditionally served in a geripptes glass or a stoneware mug known as a Bembel.

READ ALSO: ‘A megacity on a smaller scale’: The inside guide to Frankfurt

4. Strip off on an FKK beach

Though Germany’s Frei Körper Kultur (free body culture), which celebrates the beauty of the naked body, may be a little disconcerting at first for non-Germans, getting naked on a German beach is something you have to try at least once. 

A sign indicates the area of the nudist beach in Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Rehder

And who knows, once you’ve done it once, you may find yourself never wearing a bathing suit again.

5. Watch a football match at the Olympiastadion

Berlin’s Olympiastadion, which was built in 1936 and hosted the infamous summer Olympics of the same year, is worth a visit for its historical and architectural significance of the place itself.

But it’s even better to grab a seat at the 74,000 capacity stadium to watch home team Hertha BSC play a match against another Bundesliga team. 

The Hertha supporters are well known for their raucous and entertaining support, and always put on a good show from their spot in the stadium’s Ostkurve (east curve).

Since Germany goes wild for football, we’d also recommend visiting other stadiums or even checking out a local team! 

6. Try to get into Berghain

Germany’s world-famous techno nightclub – Berghain – is one of the most difficult clubs to get into in the world. 

Based in Berlin, the club is open from Friday to Monday and operates an exclusive door policy which often sees would-be clubbers turned away for reasons that are often hard to decipher.

Several hundred people line up in front of Berghain nightclub in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

However, it’s something you’ve got to try at least once – because even if you don’t get in, queuing with the hardcore techno fans on a Sunday morning is an experience in itself.

If you don’t make it past the door, try one of the many other clubs in Berlin and laugh about it with friends. 

7. Drink a beer at Oktoberfest

Downing a gigantic pitcher of frothy golden beer in a tent in Munich during Oktoberfest is an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list. 

Oktoberfest is the world’s biggest public festival and takes place every year in late September. It sees thousands of Germans and international tourists donning the traditional dress of Lederhosen and Dirndls to celebrate and relax. 

If you haven’t been there yet, it returns this year. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s Oktoberfest to return in 2022 after pandemic pause

8. Take a thermal bath in Baden-Baden

Thanks to its mild climate and hot springs, the town of Baden-Baden has been (literally) a hotspot for spa lovers since Roman times.

The thermal water in the Black Forest region bubbles out of 18 different springs and there are plenty of spas you can visit for a soothing dip.

9. Behold the home of Bauhaus

Bauhaus is an iconic art school that started in Weimar just after the first world war. Characterised by simple geometric shapes like rectangles and spheres and without elaborate decorations, the Bauhaus style flourished throughout the 1920s.

Replicas of the figures of the “Triadic Ballet” by Oskar Schlemmer are shown in the exhibition of the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

When political pressure led to the centre of Bauhaus art leaving Weimar, a new building designed by Walter Gropius, the institution’s founder, was built in Dessau to be the movement’s new home.

Nowadays, the Bauhaus Building in Dessau remains the spiritual home of the movement and is home to a museum that shows off some the era’s most stunning creations.

10. Dress up at Karneval

If you want to see what millions of Germans are like when they let their hair down – then go to the carnival in Cologne (or one of the other places it is celebrated).

Every year in February, millions of revellers take to the streets dressed in wacky attire to celebrate the ancient springtime festival.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about celebrating carnival in Germany

Cologne has the biggest carnival celebration in Germany, followed by Dusseldorf and Mainz. The celebrations in these big cities and all over the Rheinland are full of colourful costumes, a lot of alcohol, joyful songs, and crazy parties. 

11. Have a Glühwein at a Christmas market

Germany’s Christmas markets are known all over the world for their magical festive atmosphere and charming stalls selling handicrafts and tasty treats. 

One of the best of those treats is Glühwein, hot wine cooked with oranges, cinnamon, cloves and usually served in a decorative mug.

12. Order Königsberger Klopse

Forget Currywurst, Käsespätzle and Bretzels – Königsberge Klopse is the ultimate German dish that you have to eat at least once.

The more than 200-year-old recipe comes from Königsberg – the former capital of Prussia and today’s Kaliningrad – and consists of minced meat meatballs, bread, egg, mustard and anchovies (yes – that’s right). Then you let them steep in a meat broth with onions, allspice, bay leaf and pepper. You’ll find it in many traditional German restaurants – and there are even vegan versions. 

READ ALSO: The 10 heartiest German dishes to get you through winter

What else do you recommend trying in Germany? Let us know by emailing [email protected]

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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