Before you visit Germany, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you can be fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Germany plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Germany - so let's get started!
Imagine it: Fantastic city life, lively beer gardens, and medieval hillside castles are just a few of the things to experience on a trip to Germany. Combine those with majestic forests, flowing rivers, and deep history and you’re in for an unforgettable getaway! Follow this travel guide for everything you need to know before a trip to Germany.
Brief History of Germany
Germany is one of those countries with a long, complicated, and sometimes melancholic past. We won’t get into all the details of Germany’s history in this travel guide but we will provide you with the basics to maximize your upcoming trip.
Humans settled in northern Europe about 10,000 years ago, sometime after the end of the last Ice Age. About 5,000 years ago, the land was inhabited by Germanic-speaking tribes. In around 9 AD, Romans started to occupy southern and western Germany. They founded a number of towns that still survive today such as Augsburg, Cologne, Mainz, Regensburg, and Trier.
Toward the late 5th century, the Franks, a tribe of Germanic people, developed an empire in what is now France (France’s name comes from the tribe). Later, in 771 Charlemagne became King of the Franks and was later crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. Today Charlemagne is considered the father of the German monarchy.
Throughout much of Germany’s history, the country is divided. Not even the Romans could unite what is now Germany under one governmental body. They only managed to occupy its southern and western sections. However, that all changed in 1871 when the country was united by a conservative Prussian aristocrat named Otto von Bismarck. Between 1862 and 1890, Otto I effectively ruled first Prussia and then all of Germany, following the Franco-Prussian War.
The World Wars
One of the most historical aspects of visiting Germany is to take in the somber remnants of the world wars from concentration camps, the Berlin Wall to extensive museums and battlefields. Step back and see some of Europe’s darkest times. While these can be heavy experiences, they are also profound and worth your time if history interests you.
In the late 19th century, Germany began competing with other prominent European countries to develop colonies in both Africa and Asia. Those conflicts then led to World War I in 1914. Germany and its allies lost the war to Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and later, the United States.
Two decades later, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, sealed with a promise to make Germany great again. A few years later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, which launched World War II. During the brutal war, Hitler created camps where millions of Jewish people and other groups of people were killed. The war finally ended in 1945 with the Germans’ defeat. That April, Adolf Hitler ended his life while Soviet soldiers searched for him in Berlin.
Following Germany’s 1945 surrender, the country was divided into four zones: American, British, French, and Russian. Berlin, although it was within the Russian area, Berlin was also divided into zones. That November, Nazi war criminals were brought to trial at Nuremberg.
Once again Germany was divided. Americans gave aid to West Germany, but East Germany became a communist regime. Following the collapse of communism, Germany was reunited once more on October 3, 1990.
Modern day Germany
Nowadays, Germany is one of the world’s leading countries with a strong economy, cultural identity, technological advances, and inviting cities. People come to Germany for vacations, to study, work, or to experience something new.
Languages in Germany
As you can probably guess, Standard German is the official language of Germany, spoken by 95% of the population. Nonetheless, roughly 67% of the German population can speak at least one foreign language.
Written German follows the Latin alphabet with the exception of the letter ß. Called Eszett, ß is a sharp 's'. This unique letter is only used in German and can be replaced with 'ss' when capitalized or when the letter is unavailable (when typesetting on the computer). Traditionally there has never been a capitalized version, but one was officially recognized in 2017.
Anyway, enough about that fun little ß letter! Like many European countries, Germany also has several minority languages. Over half the population speaks English, so the language is not considered a minority. However, Germany’s minority languages include Low German, Lower Sorbian, Upper Sorbian, and Frisian.
Depending on which area of Germany you visit, you might encounter one of these languages. Some of these other languages are similar to German, like English and Frisian, and some are Slavic languages like Lower Sorbian.
Here are some German words to know before visiting Germany
Hello or good day – Guten tag! (GOO-ten tahk)
yes / no – ja / nein (yah/nine)
Please or you’re welcome – bitte (BIT-tuh)
Thanks – danke (DAHN-kuh)
Cheers - prost! (pro-st)
Those will get you started! Prepare for your trip to Germany even more with this handy language guide.
Demographics of Germany
Germany has a population of roughly 83.8 million scattered across the country with major hubs in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich (more on these cities soon!). This central European country has the highest population in Europe after Russia. Nonetheless, its size is projected to decrease to just under 75 million by the end of the century, lowering its high population ranking.
Dividing up its population into ethnic groups, 87.2% are German, 1.8% are Turkish, 1% are Polish, 1% are Syrian, and 9% are smaller minorities. With that in mind, there are roughly 12 million international residents living in Germany – which means that it is quite a cosmopolitan country!
It is not uncommon for foreigners to move to Germany for work, especially with many major companies having offices in the country. Others may come to study, flee their country, or work on a military base.
Cities in Germany
Berlin, Germany’s capital and the largest city in the European Union with more than three million inhabitants is sprawling with life, history, and energy. After being separated into East and West Germany during the Cold War, Berlin was reunited in 1990. Now it’s a thriving cosmopolitan city chock full of historical relics and fascinating museums like the contemporary art gallery Mitte housed in a Nazi-era bunker.
Other major parts of Berlin’s identity are its grungy art scene, nature sites, business sector and unbeatable nightlife and clubs. Honestly, there is a little bit of everything in Berlin and that’s part of why it makes it such an incredible city for a vast variety of people.
As the second-largest city in Germany, Hamburg is the gem of the north and home to one of Europe’s biggest harbors. You’ll find that this is a city that blends its fishermen past beautifully with its modern present. Explore its many waterways and canals (more than both Venice and Amsterdam) and embrace its art scene with impressive concert venues, alternative galleries, and live shows.
People know Munich for Bavarian beer and Oktoberfest, and while those are two fantastic reasons to visit Germany’s third-largest city, there’s a lot more on offer. Immerse yourself in its main square, Marienplatz, to note its impressive landmarks like a golden statue of the Virgin Mary or Old Town Hall. Munich is also the gateway to the Alps and offers a plethora of nature at your fingertips! So, if you’re looking for a bit of culture, drinks, and nature, Munich is one of the best places to visit in Germany.
Boasting 2,000 years of history, Cologne is a city to see if you want a glimpse of Germany’s past. Much of the country was destroyed during WWI and WWII but this Roman-founded city has remained intact a lot more than the rest. See its roman towers, and gorgeous Gothic cathedral, and even discover its museums like the Ludwig and chocolate museums.
Geography of Germany
Germany is nestled centrally in the heart of Europe. Neighbored by both land and sea, the country is bordered by nine countries – more than any other European country. The land is shaped by forested hills, mountains that meet valleys, flowing rivers, and wide plains.
Central and southern regions of Germany boast forested hills and mountains that are cut through by the Danube, Main, and Rhine river valleys. However, northern Germany is a bit different with wide plains that stretch out to the North Sea. Combined with its well-distributed rainfall and fertile terrain, much of Germany is highly fertile and ideal for raising crops.
Some notable features stand out among the rest. Toward the Swiss border, there is the lush Black Forest known for its mountainous pine and fir tree forests and the source of the Danube River.
Then, southern Bavaria, one of the most famous regions of Germany, is home to the country’s highest peak, Zugspitze (pictured below). The rugged mountaintop stands at 9,717 feet (2,962 meters) and makes for a great hiking experience during a trip to Germany.
What is the climate like in Germany?
Considering Germany’s size and varying terrain, the climate can vary depending on where you are on your trip and of course, the time of year. Nonetheless, the country is favored with a mostly temperate climate. This means that extremely high summer temperatures are rare as well as extended levels of snow and frost. Rain is well distributed throughout the year, so there is no precise rainy season in Germany. In general, when you visit Germany, think of cold winters, warm summers, and cool weather during the shoulder seasons.
But, let’s take a look at the average temperatures in Berlin since it’s common to visit the capital when it’s your first time in Germany.
Summers in Berlin: July is the hottest month of the year. Expect temperatures to hover around the mid-70s (mid-20°C) during the day and drop by about 10 degrees in the evening.
Winters in Berlin: January is the coldest month of the year. Temperatures will hover around the low to mid-30s (around 3-6°C) with a minimum temperature of about 28°F (-2°C).
Religion in Germany
The majority of Germans belong to a branch of Christianity. That divides into Roman Catholic (29.9%), Protestant (29.8%), and Orthodox Christians (1.3%). As such, the country boasts charming cathedrals like the gothic Cologne Cathedral, a must-see when visiting the 2,000-year-old city.
Though the population is highly Christian, you will find many types of religion being practiced in Germany. The second-largest religion is Islam, practiced by roughly 5% of the population (about four million people). Some other minority religions in the country are Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Yazidi. Expect to find many different places of worship, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Berlin (Berlin Cathedral pictured above) and Munich.
Economy & Major Exports in Germany
Germany is often seen as an opportunistic country for businesses and investors, thanks in part to its high economic freedom score. Plus, it has the world’s fourth-largest economy and is recognized as a powerhouse among its peers.
Global networking has allowed Germany to thrive economically. Large export sectors, like car-making, mechanical and plant engineering, the chemicals industry, and medical technology account for more than half of total sales. As such, Germany stands among the United States and China in its world exports.
Some of Germany’s largest companies are, as you may be able to guess, Volkswagen, Allianz, BMW, Siemens, and Daimler. All of these companies work on an international scale with most having offices around the world.
What is Germany known for?
From its lively festivals to its beer culture and bread, Germany is known for bundles of things. Here are a few of the top things to know before visiting Germany.
Germans are big beer drinkers, like much of central Europe. The country’s love for a pint is even written in law. There is a more than 500-year-old German Beer Purity Law that states only hops, barley, and water can be used to make beer. The law was taken very seriously and later amended to add yeast after it was discovered. Despite those restrictions, there are more than 5,000 beer brands in Germany.
Beer can also be legally consumed in parks or local gatherings, and it’s always seen as an appropriate choice in Germany!
Of course, Germany’s love for beer is highly celebrated at Oktoberfest – Munich’s most famous festival that happens every late September and early October. The event lasts for a few weeks and greets several million visitors annually. People come to drink, dance, sing, dress up, and celebrate the beauty of beer! Everyone is jolly and it makes for an incredible memory on a trip to Germany. In fact, Germans and internationals love the festival so much that people are known to start booking their tables many months in advance.
So, practically every country consumes bread regularly, but there is something extra special about German bread. Bread-making is right at the heart of German identity and bakeries take a lot of pride in making quality loaves.
Mainly, the country is famous for its dark bread (called Schwarzbrot) that is made from rye grains, and often flavored with cardamom or caraway seeds. These help to create a delightful aroma and a delicious accompaniment for pickles, cheese, sausage, or butter.
What’s a trip to Germany without seeing a castle or two!? Besides, they are hard to miss with some 25,000 castles dotting the land. Some are quaint and unassuming and others are mystical and alluring. Nonetheless, seeing castles is one of the best travel tips for Germany!
For example, the breathtaking Neuschwanstein looks like it was pulled straight from a princess fairytale with its tall Cinderella-like turrets, sweeping alpine and mountain views, and its neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque architecture.
You’ll also want to see a castle like Burg Eltz on a misty morning with the clouds looming over the surrounding forest as you walk across the bridge to this stunning castle.
Dating back hundreds of years, Christmas markets are one of Germany’s most beloved wintry traditions. With thousands of markets, people travel from around the world to shop, drink glühwein (mulled wine), munch on sausages or traditional German desserts like Lebkuchen (the country’s gingerbread cookie), and just feel jolly in the brisk winter air!
Food in Germany
Hearty, warm, and tasty are three words to describe German cuisine. While we’ve touched on beer and bread as part of the culture, there are a lot of other quintessentially German dishes worth trying on a trip to Germany!
Kartoffelsalat (potato salad)
German-style potato salad can be found all around the country and it’s a splendid creamy dish you must try. At the basics, it is made from a mixture of potatoes, vinegar, and onions, topped with fresh herbs like parsley, and then served warm. Many recipes also add in pieces of bacon, but you’ll also find vegetarian versions. This German dish is most often served as a side and never as a main.
A fat-filled German staple like the American cheeseburger, bratwurst is a class food to try in Germany! Similar to a hot dog but less mysterious, bratwurst is a type of sausage that is grilled to an outer crunch and loaded with mustard and sweet ketchup with bread. Here’s a Berlin travel tip, squares in the city are often dotted with vendors selling bratwurst!
Knotted, thick with a crisp outside, and lightly salted, German pretzels are top-notch. You’ll find them in bakeries, at stands in the metro and all over the country. They make for a delicious, carby treat!
Germany and Austria are both proud of their version of schnitzel, though what you might know is that this breaded meat actually originates from Italy. Austria’s schnitzel is made from veal, while Germany’s is prepared from pork or turkey and is often served with a sauce, like a creamy mushroom-based one.
Germany travel tips to know before you go
Before you fly off to experience life in Germany, here are some essential travel tips to know.
- Germany uses the euro (€) and while some places accept payment by card, many do not. However, cash is still a major part of Germany’s daily life, so have euros on hand, too.
- Many shops and supermarkets are closed on Sunday as it is seen as a day of rest. Plan your purchases accordingly!
- Recycling is a big deal in Germany. Most grocery stores have recycling depots at the entrance. Drop your bottles there and collect a refund of up to 25 cents. You’ll even see people picking glass bottles out of bins, or locals leaving their bottles next to the bin so that someone else (immigrants or poorer people) can come to gather the bottles and collect the money.
- Pickpocketing is less prevalent in Germany – but as much of Europe – it can still be an issue in the busiest areas of Berlin and other touristic places.
- Use some German if you know it!
- Water in Germany is excellent, so it is entirely safe to drink tap water.
- Germany is extremely well-connected with metros, trains, and buses going to all parts of the country (and other countries!).
- In Berlin, there are no security gates at the metro or train stations. You will still need to pay for and validate your ticket. If not, you could get a fine of at least €60.
- Germans usually tip between 5% to 15% of the bill at a restaurant, but it is not necessary. If you’re paying with cash, you can simply round up to the nearest euro.
- Call 112 for emergencies.