Trying to decide where to go on your next trip? Let me decide for you: Germany. There are few places in the world with such a rich, often tormented history, that has been able to do a 360 and turning most of the country into an amazingly livable and visitable place. As I toured post-World War II historical sites, it was hard to believe that it’s only been 25 years — the anniversary is November 9, 2014 — that the Berlin Wall came down, especially when exploring the hipster hub of Ottensen in Hamburg’s Altona borough and wandering the scenic waterfront; sipping coffee at cafes and viewing contemporary art in Leipzig; and experiencing concept malls, imaginative restaurants and street art in Berlin.
1. WWII History
For most, this is a difficult time to even begin to wrap your head around. In Germany, there are many ways to learn and understand. While not on this trip, a few years ago I visit the Dachau Concentration Camp from Munich — from Berlin you can visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp — which was a sobering experience. I know there are many people who couldn’t fathom going to a place like this, and I’ll admit I had trepidations beforehand; however, after going I feel that as long as the visit is done respectfully it can be a really important place to see. I’ve always believed that if you ignore the terrible things that have happened and what is happening in the world, you risk having these types of events repeat themselves. The site gave me a deeper understanding no text book, museum exhibit or movie could ever show.
If a concentration camp experience is too much for you to bear, there are a number of interesting museums and sites worth visiting in Berlin — many of which can be explored on a New Berlin Free Tour (yes, free!). Other points of interest include the Topography of Terror, the Jewish Museum and Hitler’s Bunker. Keep in mind, there are many WWII sites beyond the capital, as well.
2. Post-WWII History
What’s interesting is that while everyone talks about WWII history, it’s less common to hear about life after WWII — at least abroad. When the Berlin Wall went up, Germany was no longer one country and East Germany experienced life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a Communist society where citizens were constantly under surveillance and living in constant fear of the government.
For this, Leipzig and Berlin are both must-visits. In Leipzig, the Interactive Forum of Contemporary History (Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig) is an absolutely amazing and easy-to-understand museum that literally walks you through a timeline of events — there are life-sized replicas of rooms, scenes and events — beginning with just before the erection of the Berlin Wall. You’ll learn more about how GDR citizens were watched by the Stasi (German secret police), how women began working at factories, what would happen if people tried to escape over the Berlin Wall and how GDR officials used propaganda to help persuade people that the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (GDR’s most powerful party) was a positive thing.
In Berlin, a visit to the Berlin Wall — or what’s left of it — will provide insight and opportunities for reflection. As mentioned above, Germany was divided after WWII, with the East being ruled by the Soviets under Communism. As people were constantly leaving for the more liberal and free West Germany, which was hurting the East Germany economy, the Berlin Wall was built and anyone who tried to cross it could be shot and killed. While the Wall itself is no longer up, bits of it are as part of a Berlin Wall Memorial with adjoining museum. Within the Memorial are tributes to those who lost their lives, information panels and installations showing what things were like during divided Germany.
The most touching thing for me was the Window of Remembrance, housing photos and stories of the victims. One picture I’ll never forget is one of an infant who was accidentally killed by his mother. She tried to silence him with her hand — not knowing he had bronchitis — when he started to cry during the family’s escape into West Germany. While the mother and father survived, the child suffocated and passed away.
To truly understand German culture, you’ll need to understand this part of its history, especially as it was only November 9, 1989, that the wall fell, Germany was re-unified and the country finally enjoyed true democracy.
3. Vibrant Arts
It’s impossible to escape the arts in Germany, especially in these three cities where classic and contemporary works, performance, street art and arts festivals are major focuses. For me, the highlight of my arts touring was visiting Spinnerei, a historic cotton mill from 1907 turned into an arts complex, although still retaining its original structure and feel. As you weave in and out of the many galleries, artist studios and small businesses in the industrial complex, you’ll feel an odd juxtaposition of being throw back in time while hurled into the future with forward-thinking works.
My favorite was a piece that analyzed life in the GDR by Sadia Sadia called “Fugue (Die Wende).” Created in 2014 for the annual Festival of Lights — which pays homage to the Peaceful Revolution of October 9, 1989, it was a video installation that showed a nameless “Everyman” blacking out sunlit window panes, until the audience is left in darkness. I think what I appreciated so much about the piece was that I got to meet the artist and hear the back story of the work, as Sadia Sadia’s mother escaped the GDR by crossing the Berlin Wall on her third attempt, risking her life for freedom.
In Berlin I loved roaming the Jewish Quarter, especially along and around Auguststraße in Berlin-Mitte. Here there were an overwhelming amount of galleries, with no need to plan beforehand as to where to go. An interesting art and design experience is visiting Hackeschen Höfe, featuring eight courtyards full of artisan shops and galleries. The highlight is Sammlung Hoffmann, the home of Erika and Rolf Hoffman since 1968 showcasing works by popular contemporary artists, which Erika shows visitors on Saturdays for 10 Euros (about $12.50 USD). Nearby, the Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop, which has a courtyard that still retains a 1989 feel, just after the Wall came down. It’s an interesting mix of gritty and unkempt yet lively and creative, mainly from the abundance of thought-provoking street art.
4. Delicious Local Specialties
All over Germany you’ll find delicious local specialties unique to specific regions or cities. For instance, while in Hamburg I had an interesting dish called Labskaus, created by sailors in the 16th century who needed to use their resources to make a hearty and sustaining meal. It features a lumpy mash of potatoes, onions, minced salted beef and beetroot — which gives it a red color — topped with pickles and a fried egg and served with herring rollmops. When I mentioned Labskaus in Leipzig nobody knew what I was talking about.
5. Quirky Adventures
While you can find hiking, cycling and climbing almost anywhere, Germany gives their adventures a quirky spin. For example, in Leipzig people can climb old towers from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the days when Germany was separated — called the K4 — for a day of urban mountaineering that also infuses history. Part of an urban renewal initiative, the attraction features 30+ routes of varying levels and is run by the German Alpine Association. Admission tickets are (5 Euro/$6.32 USD).
In Berlin, visitors can explore the city in a quirky way, via eTrike. A mix between a Segway and a bicycle, these electric tricycles, although they look a bit weird at first, are comfortable and are easily powered with a thumb switch. The tour company using them is Berlin on Bike, which offers a slew of differ excursions focusing on the Berlin Wall, street art, city highlights, Berlin at night and beyond.
6. Beer AND Wine
No article on Germany would be complete without talking about the drinking culture. While known for having some of the world’s best craft beer, Germany is also home to a spectacular domestic wines, mainly riesling, gewurztraminer, müller-thurgau, grauburgunder (pinot gris) and spatburgunder (pinot noir). To help you understand how to pair your wine and local German food fare, refer to the above infographic.
In Germany, music festivals and arts festivals incorporating music abound. Even if you don’t visit during an event, it’s possible to immerse yourself in Bach culture in Leipzig. At the 800-year-old Late Gothic St. Thomas Church — the very place where Bach worked — you’ll see an enormous Bach monument in the outdoor courtyard. Inside, an intricate stained glass window depicting Bach, a Bach-style pipe organ, and Bach’s tomb in the church sanctuary can be found. Across the street is the Bach Museum, full of original artifacts, manuscripts and recordings, not to mention the chance to see Bach-inspired performances.
Leipzig also has an official Leipzig Music Trail, featuring 5.1 kilometers (3.2 miles) of melodic attractions. Click here for a map of the route.
8. Beach Beauty
No city in Germany has more waterfront spaces than Hamburg, home to abundant lakes, rivers, canals, and a cruise port welcoming 200+ cruise ships each year. In the borough of Altona, head to the Altonaer Balkon on Große Elbstraße to take in scenic waterfront views before exploring the many cycling and walking paths along the River Elbe. Eventually, you’ll hit an open air museum showcasing historic boats called Museumshafen Oevelgönne, as well as the beautiful Elbstrand beach with a popular onsite bar and restaurant called the Strandperle. Tip: The sausages here are out of this world!
In Leipzig, I recommend having a meal on the canal in Plagwitz — I splurged at Radeberger, which was once a factory but is now a beautiful restaurant with white linens, crystal wine glasses and floor-to-ceiling windows. After you eat, head down to the canal for a kayak trip or boat ride.
9. Sausage And Pastries
You’ll need something to pair the above-mentioned beer and wine with. Germany is the land of the sausage, although not all are created equal. In Berlin, no currywurst vendor compares to Konnopke, who’s been serving sausages to the public since before the Berlin Wall went up. Currywurst is an interesting delight, a plump sausage doused in ketchup and curry powder. My favorite sausage restaurant from my trip through these cities was Restaurant Das Meisterstuck. You can order a variety of sausages cooked on an open flame in an open kitchen, which your server can tell you more about. During my visit, I savored Thüringer Rostbratwurst from Thuringia; duck sausage; and a spiced Franconian sausage.
There are also a number of regional desserts worth savoring. In Leipzig, don’t miss the Leipziger Lerche, a shortbread pastry featuring nuts, crushed almonds and cherry. The treat is named after the once-very popular to eat lark bird, and the cherry represents its (tasty) heart. In Berlin, a Berliner is a must. This is a hole-less donut filled with jam, marmalade or chocolate pudding. Yum!
10. Walking & Cycling
Hamburg, Leipzig and Berlin are all extremely easy-to-navigate cities with reliable and accessible public transportation via the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, trams, buses, taxis and sometimes ferries. That being said, most locals choose to get around via their own two feet or by bicycle. For example, in Leipzig the longest you’ll ever need to ride a bike between two points is 40 minutes, although travel time is usually shorter. Moreover, in all three cities the bike infrastructure is excellent with little need to worry about getting hit by a car.
*My trip to Germany was sponsored by the Germany Tourism Board. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. All opinions are 100% my own.