Germany is really what I consider to be my second home and there is a special place for it in my heart; there are so many reasons to visit Germany and here are 7 things for you to know when visit Germany and enjoy much of it, no matter what your level of German.
1. Country Size & Travel Basics:
Germany is about the size of the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin together and they have a population of 80 million people—we have about 300 million on a huge plot of land, so obviously Germany is much more densely populated. Germany is actually a bit diverse, although that varies from region to region.
Most Germans, in particular in big cities like Hamburg, Bremen, Stuttgart, Munich, and Berlin speak some amount of English. And as the Germans say themselves, you can do a lot by gesturing "with your hands and your feet." You shouldn’t have too many problems.
You could contact the Office of Tourism in places you would like to visit and have them send you some maps and other information before you go. There are lots of opportunities to have city tours in English, too. If you want to get some basics down before you go, take 10 or 12 lessons to get some basics down, if not a whole year’s worth of classes. It will enrich your life and bring you more authentic experiences on your trip!
2. Travel by Train & by Car:
Learn to pack light, e.g. 1 backpack and one medium-sized suitcase, so you can take your entire trip on the train either with a Eurail pass or by visiting Bahn.de. Book your tickets in advance, 2-3 months if you can, as that's when you get great prices. German trains are FANTASTIC with clean, modern trains, so you can fore-go a 1st class ticket in Germany (unless you really want to, which is usually a deal with the Eurail ticket). Check out the “reserve a seat” option with a regular Bahn ticket.
Also, on the trains, they don’t always make important announcements (like track number changes for incoming and outgoing trains) in English, however they are now making most regular announcements in German and follow it in English.
If you want to travel by car, simply rent a car with automatic (! Most Germans drive manual transmissions) and a navigation system; you can’t go wrong. I do recommend that if you choose the car route, find out a little about German driving, e.g. city signs are also speed limit signs, basic rules of the Autobahn, etc. I’m sure you can Google that or find it in a guidebook like Lonely Planet Germany, which will give you the opportunity to take beautiful detours and find out-of-the-way places.
Remember you can always start your trip with a group tour and then head off on your own once you’re comfortable in the new place. My Uncle and Aunt took a tour, and they were a bit disappointed that they were so stuck to the tour schedule they didn’t have too much time to explore the places they visited, so when they finally got to my house they were happy to slow the pace down and visit a few things with more insight.
Also, you may be able to find people to connect with through a church like an American Lutheran Church in Germany or any clubs you might belong to, like a Garden Club or an Esperanto club. A friend of mine speaks Esperanto and he got in touch with a woman in a German Esperanto Club, and he and his wife stayed with the German woman’s family for 4 days. They are now good friends. There are so many cool connections waiting to be found.
3. Germany by Bicycle
You can rent a bike just about anywhere. If you go to Berlin, I HIGHLY recommend taking a bike tour and/or just renting a bike to get around. Berlin is a bike-friendly city! German is a bike-friendly country, especially in the North, where it’s F-L-A-T.
For serious bicyclists, perhaps you'll want to plan a trip biking from city to city? Look for a "Bicycle Holiday" or a "Bike Vacation" company.
There are any number of American chain hotels in Germany and if that's where you'd feel most comfortable, book that.
For the more adventerous, try booking a “Pension,” which is a B&B and frequently costs less than a hotel room. In smaller towns you'll likely be renting a room at a family-owned Pension and could lead to a very authentic experience.
If you're looking to rent any hotel room, I’d recommend booking any 3-star hotel that appeals to you, as it will surely have all modern conveniences and be clean. A 3-star hotel stay includes breakfast, and it’s a real breakfast, with rolls, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, yogurt, etc.
5. The Food
Go hungry. German food is fantastic.
Germans eat a lot of meat and potatoes, noodles/pasta, eggs, cheese, vegetables, salad, you name it! There is also a lot of authentic ethnic food available from Italian to Turkish to Greek.
If you don't eat pork or meat, learn the words for pork (Schweinefleisch) and vegetarian ("Ich bin vegetarier") before you go and scout out a few restaurant options where you'll be staying if you think your food choices will be limited.
6. Germans in General
Germans are blunt. They don’t intend to be rude, that is just the way they are. Think a little more “East coast” than “Midwest,” and you’ll be just fine. They also speak much more freely than Americans about religion and politics. They more freely express their exact opinions about…pretty much everything. If you find this intimidating, view it as an exercise in civil discourse--you never know what new friend you might make!
Germans are way more generous and interested in the world than most people give them credit for. Germans in general travel like crazy and are conscious of world events and social issues. Germany is a social democracy and interestingly they do not have separation of church and state, so they are closed on major Christian (i.e. Catholic) holidays. (There are more and different holidays in Southern Germany, due to it being more Catholic than the North, although there are some exceptions to this.)
7. Oktoberfest & das gute, deutsche Bier
If you want to go to some big, international event like Oktoberfest, it is recommended that single women travelers do NOT go alone. While I support you in using your best judgment, I do recommend that if and when you visit Oktoberfest, that you go with at least one other person, preferably in a group, or just skip it. It’s a huge, crazy festival with loads of drunk people.
For a much milder way to enjoy a few fine German brews, find a Biergarten when the weather is nice and do it like the Germans do: bring a book, a few conversation topics, a newspaper, and spend the entire afternoon there. German restaurants don't turn tables like American restaurants do, so take your time and enjoy your food. Drink your beer slowly. You'll find it a wonderful way to recharge.