Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Two million people ply the Romantische Strasse (Romantic Road) every year, making it by far the most popular of Germany's holiday routes. That means lots of signs in English and Japanese, tourist coaches and kitsch galore. Running north-south through western Bavaria, the Romantic Road covers 420km (261mi) between Würzburg and Füssen near the Austrian border.
For the most part the trail rolls through pleasant, if not spectacular, landscape that links some two dozen cities and towns, including Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl and Augsburg.
Locals get their cut of the Romantic Road hordes through, among other things, scores of good-value private accommodation offerings. Look for the Zimmer Frei signs.
One of Berlin's most photographed locations, Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) once marked the impenetrable boundary between East and West Berlin. Built in 1791, Brandenburger Tor has often been a centre stage for Berlin's militant political rallies, including the memorable celebrations in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down.
This imposing 18th-century structure has endured several symbolic reincarnations. Intended by its architect Carl Gotthard Langhans to be a symbol of peace, the gate was crowned by the Quadriga (a four-horse chariot driven by the winged goddess of victory) a couple of years later, turning it into a monument to Prussian militarism.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, political groups from all ideological walks hijacked the pliable Brandenburger Tor as the backdrop for their rallies and processions. All this triumphalism ended abruptly in 1961 when the Wall was built and the gate sealed off in no-man's-land.
In 1989, after the dissolution of the border, the area was reopened to the public. Today, traffic passes freely under the gate while nearby, enterprising scammers sell chunks of Berlin Wall concrete, mostly of dubious provenance.
The celebrated Augsburger Puppenkiste holds performances of modern and classic fairy tales that are so endearing, with sets and costumes so fantastically elaborate, that even non-German speakers will enjoy a show. Advance reservations are advised.
Appearing through the mountain-top mist like a surreal fantasy is the world's best-known castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein. Ludwig II planned this castle himself with the help of a stage designer rather than an architect. It was conceived as a giant stage to recreate the world of Germanic mythology immortalised in the operatic works of Richard Wagner.
Construction started in 1869 and, like so many of Ludwig's grand schemes, was never finished. For all the money spent on it, the king spent just over 170 days in residence.
Neuschwanstein's centrepiece is the lavish Sängersaal (Minstrels' Hall). Wall frescoes in the hall depict scenes from the opera Tannhäuser. Though the hall wasn't used during Ludwig's time, concerts are now held there every September.
Other completed sections include: Ludwig's bedroom, dominated by a huge Gothic-style bed crowned with intricately carved Gothic spires; a gaudy artificial grotto (another allusion to Tannhäuser); and the Byzantine Thronsaal (Throne Room) with a great mosaic floor and a chandelier shaped like a giant crown.
Neuschwanstein served as the model for the Sleeping Beauty Castles at the original Disneyland in California and the new Hong Kong Disneyland.
The wooded hills framing the castle make for some wonderful walks. For the postcard view of Neuschwanstein and the plains beyond, walk 10 minutes up to Marienbrücke (Mary's Bridge), which spans the spectacular Pöllat Gorge over a waterfall just above the castle.
Home of the cuckoo clock, the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) gets its name from its dark, slightly sinister canopy of evergreens: this is where Hansel and Gretel encountered the wicked witch. The vast expanse of hills, valleys, rivers and forests stretch from the swish spa town of Baden-Baden to the Swiss border, and from the Rhine almost to Lake Constance.
Twenty minutes walk - or a five-minute bike ride - fom populated spots will almost always put you out in nature - in the middle of quiet countryside dotted with traditional farmhouses and amiable dairy cows, perhaps, or in a thick forest where Little Red Riding Hood's wolf may lurk.
The northern section, with its hilly but relatively gentle terrain is home to several charming towns. Freudenstadt makes a good base for exploring the Northern area. Many of the Schwarzwald's most impressive sights are in the triangle delimited by the lively university city of Freiburg, 15km (9.3mi) east of the Rhine in the southwest; Triberg, cuckoo clock capital of Creation, in the north; and the charming river-valley city of St Blasien in the southeast. Even smaller towns in the area generally have tourist offices.
Germans love to party, and kick up their heels at everything from pagan harvest romps to black tie opera galas. The Winter Carnival (Fasching) season occurs throughout Germany, with big cities such as Cologne (Köln), Munich and Mainz erupting into commotion just before Ash Wednesday.
Germany's rich musical heritage is showcased in a plethora of festivals. Some towns concentrate on a particular composer, such as the Thuringian Bach Festival in Erfurt in March or the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth each July, whereas others focus on a particular style. The jazz festivals in Stuttgart (July) and Berlin (early November) are lively and popular.
Autumn is a great time for harvest-inspired mayhem, especially in the Rhineland, where the five Rhine in Flames extravaganzas feature barges laden with fireworks. Mention must be made of Oktoberfest, Munich's annual lager frenzy, but it's a bit like being stuck in an endless soccer crowd and is more an example of mass tourism catering to the lowest liquid denominator than a display of German culture. Christmas markets, with their twinkling lights and steaming mulled wine (Glüwein) are embraced wholeheartedly by German families; they occur in Munich, Nuremberg, Lübeck, Berlin, Münster, Heidelberg, Rüdesheim and Stuttgart, amongst other places.
When to go?
Germany is a fine destination year-round, but most people visit between May and September when sunny skies are most likely and much of life moves outdoors. Beer gardens and cafes bustle at all hours; outdoor events and festivals enliven cities and villages; and hiking, cycling and swimming (in lakes or pools) are popular pursuits - at least as long as the weather plays along. Remember that rain is a possibility in any month. The flipside of summer travel is, of course, larger crowds at museums and other attractions and traffic jams at places such as Lake Constance. Accommodation needn't be hard to come by unless you're drawn to beach and mountain resorts popular with German holiday-makers.
The shoulder seasons (from March to May and from October to early November) bring fewer tourists, lower accommodation prices and often surprisingly pleasant weather. In April and May, when flowers and fruit trees are in bloom, it can be mild and sunny. Indian summers that stretch well into autumn are not uncommon.
With the exception of winter sports, activities between November and early March are likely to focus more on culture and city life. In these months, skies tend to be gloomy and the mercury often drops below freezing. On the plus side, there are fewer visitors and shorter queues (except in the winter resorts). Just pack the right clothes and keep in mind that there are only six to eight hours of daylight. In December the sun (if there is any) sets around .
Travel Visa Overview
Most EU citizens only need their national identity card or passport to enter, stay and work in Germany. Americans, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Poles, Swiss, Japanese and Israelis just need a valid passport (no visa) to enter Germany as tourists. Passports should be valid for at least another four months from the planned date of departure from Germany.
Nationals from most other countries need a so-called Schengen visa. Applications for this visa must be filed with the embassy or consulate of the country that is your primary destination in Europe. It is valid for up to 90 days. For details, check www.auswaertiges-amt.de and check with a German consulate in your country.
European plug with two circular metal pins
Germany is not prey to dramatic climatic extremes, although there are regional differences. The most reliably good weather is from May to October, with high summer a good bet for mid 20°C (low 70°F) shorts-and-t-shirt conditions, even in the north. Autumn is a good time to visit Germany. As the tourist scrum disperses and the forests turn golden, it's not too stifling to be active but still warm enough to leave you thirsty for a few well-deserved steins. Winter is frosty and wet, especially in the south, with snow rarely settling for long except in the high country.
History and Culture
Unsurprisingly for a country whose land has so often been at history's crux, the moods and preoccupations of Germany's people are reflected in a rich artistic heritage: from the soaring beauty of its cathedrals to classical films from the silent era of cinema, from the most influential philosophers (try Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx for starters) to some of the world's greatest physicists (Einstein and Planck), from the cream of Western classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel and Wagner) to contemporary industrial-grunge music and Krautrock, from the genius of Goethe to the revolutionary theatre of Brecht, Germany has it all. The scope of German art is such that it could be the focus of a lifetime of visits.
Arguably the most outstanding creative genius that Germany has produced, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a poet, dramatist, painter, scientist and philosopher. His greatest work, the drama Faust, is a masterful epic of all that went before him, as the archetypal human strives for meaning. The ghost of Goethe inhabits the soul of Germany. A steadfast commitment to excellence in artistry persists in more recent forms, with Germany a notable producer of excellent and challenging cinema from Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, among others.
Pre-20th Centure History
Germany's hill-and-trough history kicked in early: from the time that everyone's favourite fossils, the Neanderthals, left their jaw-jutting remains in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, this joint has been in the thick of it. All of Europe's great empires got their paws into Germany, but none was ever able to count all its inhabitants as faithful subjects. Different pockets of fierce resistance met the Roman legions (50 BC to the 5th century AD), the Frankish conqueror, Charlemagne (up to the early 9th century), and Otto the Great's Holy Roman Empire (from late in the 10th century). By the time the house of Habsburg, ruling from Vienna, took control in the 13th century it was little more than a conglomerate of German-speaking states run by parochial princes.
The Habsburgs muddled on until the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-48), sparked by ongoing religious and nationalist conflicts. Europe had been simmering ever since 1517 when Martin Luther tacked 95 suggestions for improved service to his local church door in Wittenberg. It took a bloody good stoush to settle everyone down and secure the rights of both Protestants and Catholics. Germany lost a third of its population in the process. Local princes assumed complete sovereignty over a patchwork of some 300 states, which made it all too easy for Napoleon to come along in the early 19th century and start adding them to his scrapbook. The French never quite managed to subdue Prussia, which became the centre of German resistance. It was Prussia that led the 1813 war that put an end to Napoleon's German aspirations in a decisive battle at Leipzig. In 1866 Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia, annexed most of Germany, consolidating his position as the biggest wig in Europe with a resounding victory over France in 1871. The Prussian king, Wilhelm I, was instated as Kaiser and a united Germany hit the world stage for the first time.
Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck in 1890, lingered long enough to lead Germany into WWI, then snuck off to Holland in 1918 when he realised the war wasn't going to end in a ticker-tape parade. Germany struggled with civil unrest and a disastrous peace, uniting only in dislike of the reigning Weimar Republic. Then came Adolf Hitler, an Austrian drifter and German army veteran who was able to turn general disaffection into a focused lunacy. In 1933 his National Socialist German Worker's (or Nazi) Party assumed brutal and absolute authority over Germany. Extravagant military spending and blasé border bending gave way to outright aggression, WWII, and the unrivalled horror of the Holocaust. Even the Germans were surprised by the success of their initial invasions, but by 1943 a litany of heavy losses set the tone for the sluggish march to 1945's unconditional surrender.
Postwar Germany, its cities largely rubble, was divided up between the Allies, with Britain, France and the USA consolidating the western portion into the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Soviet zone transmogrifying into the communist German Democratic Republic. This formula for division was repeated in Berlin. West Germany received massive injections of US capital, attracting many workers from the miserable economic conditions in the East until some bright Communist spark had the idea of building a wall around West Berlin and sealing the rest of the border. The Cold War's icy eye focused on Berlin. Over the next 25 years West Germany became one of the world's most prosperous nations while its communist Siamese sibling suffered. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has no more potent symbol than the opening of the Berlin frontier in 1989 - one of world history's better parties.
Helmut Kohl's era as chancellor, marked by the reunification of Germany, came to an end in 1998 when a 'red-green' coalition of Social Democrats and Greens took office under Gerhard Schroeder. In 2005 Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat at the head of a 'grand coalition' with the Social Democrats, became the first woman, the first East German and the first scientist to serve as chancellor.
Although the euphoria of reunification has subsided and there is some resentment and disaffection from both sides, Germany is working towards true unity in typically sedulous fashion. In the 1990s Germany absorbed the majority of refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and these and other immigrants have recently been the targets of racist attacks. However, the extreme right wing, although insidious and occasionally violent, is politically weak. Germany suffers from high unemployment, structural problems in the economy and fierce competition in world markets but at least so far social dislocation has been minimal. In recent years, the economic and social integration of Germany's large Turkish minority has been the subject of public debate.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008-09, the German government pumped hundreds of billions of euros into the financial system to prop up the banks. The export industries Germany relies on so heavily for its wealth have suffered badly during the crisis, and if the predictions of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) are a good indication, unemployment in Germany will rise to almost five million or 11.8% of the working population some time in 2010.
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