Germany: Background and Travel Essentials

Germany: Background and Travel Essentials


Berlin is Germany’s largest city with a population of 3.5 million. Since the reunification of the Federal Republic in the west and the communist DDR in the East in 1989, Berlin is Germany’s new capital city. Before reunification the most potent symbol of the division of West and East was the Berlin Wall – 25 of the 100 miles of the wall ran through Berlin – nowadays a little under a mile remains. The 40 years of division saw much of the East of the city (and throughout the DDR) fall into decay since reunification much work has taken place to develop the East to a similar standard to the West. The skyline of Berlin is littered with cranes and huge redevelopment projects are taking place city wide. While this massive urban redevelopment project is in itself impressive it can be quite an annoyance to the visitor – Many of Berlin’s 170 museum are in a state of consolidation and re-organisation resulting in days and sometimes weeks of closure.

The city is boasting a renaissance to bring it on a par with New York – a city that never sleeps. Visitors find the nightlife bizarre, eclectic and enticing both in new bars and clubs (Savignyplatz) and in old East Germany drinking haunts (Try the grungy slightly edgy Wiener Strasse). The Berlin ‘scene’ offers visitors a wide range of tastes and pastimes, one in eight residents in Berlin are not ethnic German and the variety of nightspots, food stalls and restaurants reflects this. Berlin has a strong techno dance scene – celebrated during Love Parade and a strong gay and lesbian scene. Don’t expect the club to open until after 11pm and things don’t get going until at least midnight. Most of the clubs in are in the Eastern districts of Mitte, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg – dress codes are liberal but always expect to pay a cover charge.

The prevailing atmosphere of Berlin is one of success and positive attitude for a progressive forward thinking future. Visitors often comment on the positivity and energy of the city. Check the listing guides for up to the minute information ‘Zitty‘ and ‘Tip‘ are two of the best.

The city is easy to get around and welcomes visitors with open arms, a great way of seeing the sites is to get a ‘Berlin Welcome Card’ which allows travel on all buses and trains within zones A-C in the city, each card lasts for three days and offers up to 50% off major tourist attractions. Travel around the city is most efficient on the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn and are open from 4am until just after minute. For travelling during the night it is possible to take the limited service on U1 and U9 and at weekends the hourly S-Bahn service. The trains are well signed and there are route maps plastered throughout the net-work should you get lost. Buses and trams are a good way to see the city, they are in-expensive and stops are clearly marked with a large ‘H’- The night bus service is comprehensive and efficient and usually routes take over from the S and the U-Bahns running at 30 minute intervals. Trams only operate in the eastern districts of the city.

Shopping in Berlin can be quite expensive, the fashionable shops, restaurants and hotels of the Kurfstendamm Boulevard can be quite tempting for the credit card, Traventzienstrasse is another major shopping street, however for all your consumer needs in one visit the Europa Centre – a massive 22 storey complex of offices, shops, restaurants, cinemas and even an ice-rink and planetarian. Be warned when shopping in Germany the sales tax of 16% might not always be included in the price on the sales ticket.


Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city, situated in the North of the country with a population of approximately 1.7 million. Shaped by water the city has a large lake in the centre and lots of green open spaces. Hamburg was an important port and the Speicherstadt – the world’s largest warehouse on a single site – is a spectacular monument to Hamburg’s industrial past. At night the entire façade is illuminated and the result is breathtaking.

Hamburg is an easy city in terms of orientation as most tourist sites cluster in the city centre – the area north of the River Elbe, bordered by large roads that follow the original fortifications. Hamburg has an excellent transport system with an efficient and extensive network of S-Bahns, U-Bahns and buses, the city is divided into Zones and after nine each morning you can buy a day pass which will let you travel throughout Hamburg state.

Kunstmeile or ‘Art Mile’ is a string of art galleries and museums between the Alster Lakes and the Elbe, most museums are closed on Mondays. The Hamburg Kunsthalle houses Munich’s internationally important art collection spanning from Medieval portraiture to 20th century minimalism, the main strength of this museum is the collection of 19th century German painting, including a whole room dedicated to Caspar David Friedrich. For more contemporary collections Galerie der Gegenwart exhibits both German in international shows in an extensive three-storey gallery.


Hanover is the capital of Lower Saxony, much of old Hanover was destroyed during bombing raids in 1943 and the rebuilding process has produced a functional but not a particularly interesting architectural aesthetic to the city. It is possible to visit most places in Hanover by foot, the city favours the pedestrian – and boasts the largest pedestrianized area in Germany. Orientation is simple as direct routes between tourist sites are maked out on the pavement by red lines.

The Herrenhauser Royal Gardens were built in 1666, in summer these gardens host spectacular firework shows and are a great place to stroll around. The gardens are considered the only surviving intact Baroque gardens in Europe, and are maintained by over 200 gardeners who work daily to keep the plants in shape – including the rhododendron grove and the marshland pond. There is a great maze to walk around and the Grosser Brunnen (Great Fountain) blasts a stream of water of 80m high.


Founded over 2000 years ago Cologne is one of the prettiest cities in Europe and is renowned throughout Germany as a cultural centre for business and media. Located on the Rhine, Cologne offers the visitor great cathedrals, huge department stores, fantastic clubs and internationally renowned museums.

Cologne’s twin spired Cathedral is a massive example of French Gothic architecture, work began in 1248 but it took over 600 years before the project was completed due to lack of funds. It took 300 years of the Cathedral standing in-completed before a generous donation from the Prussian King Friedrich Willhelm IV allowed building to recommence. Luckily the cathedral remained undamaged during the heavy bombing of WW2 and in 1996 was declared a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. The Cathedral is 500ft high with two towering spires and delicate flying buttresses. The interior is also breathtaking with sweeping arches and magnificent pillars. The Cathedral is open daily from 10am to 4pm, tours in both English and German are available throughout the day and include a slide show.

Shopping in Cologne is a fantastic experience with a wide range of boutiques, designer shops, retro stores and thrift stalls. Head for the Hohe Strasse by walking South from the Cathedral to the pedestrainised area forming the epicentre of consumer Cologne.

Cologne’s transport system is relatively easy to comprehend, anything extra that needs explaining – for example the complicated tariff structure – will be clearly described in the English language guide ‘Bus and Train Travel Made Easy’ available from transport offices.


Dusseldorf like Cologne is situated on the Rhine and over 80% of the city was destroyed during bombing raids in WW2, however, now Dusseldorf is a wealthy town with plenty of investment from banks, insurance and mining corporations. Dusseldorf’s ‘Ko’ is the main shopping area, the Konigsalle, an elegant shopping boulevard of chrome and glass arcades.

Orientation around Dusseldorf town centre is easy an most places can be reached by foot, however if you want to use public transport the Art Ticket is a perfect budget option – offering two days of free admission to museums and unlimited travel on the U-Bahns, trains, trams and buses.

For a great view of Dusseldorf climb the Rheinturm Tower, situated in the Rheinpark the tower is over 700ft tall, over half way up there is a restaurant and viewing platform, on a clear day it is possible to eat your lunch and see all the way to Cologne!

Outside of the town centre (but still served by bus and train) is Schloss Benrath, a beautiful Rococo palace with a 60 hectare park. The palace was built in 1755 by Nicholas de Pigage, the design spreads throughout the gardens to the interior of the palace with fantastic furnishings and decorative arts including stucco ornamentation in the style of Louis XVI.


Dresden, the centre of Baroque, is built on the Elbe River and was virtually raised to the ground during Anglo-American fire bombing raids in February 1945 – the war was nearly over and the city was full of refugees resulting in a death toll of over 35,000 civilians. Debate still takes place over the motives of such raids, whether for strategic necessity or an act of vengeance. Much of Dresden’s baroque buildings were severely damaged and lengthy restoration projects are currently taking place.

Around Dresden’s Theatreplatz it is possible to see the restored, magnificent palatial buildings. The opera house Semperoper was re-opened in 1985 and once more houses the Dresden Opera, which has a tradition spanning over 350 years, works by Strauss and Wagner premiered in the house.

The Zwinger Palace is an important late Baroque building, the sprawling palace was built in 1728, rebuilding still takes place but the building is largely open, housing five museums including the masters gallery with pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens and Ver-Meer and famous masterpieces such as Raphaels ‘Sistine Madonna’.


Situated on the Pegnitz River Nuremberg lives in the shadow of its Nazi party legacy and much of the architecture from the Nazi propaganda era is still apparent – well know images from films of rallies and parades held in the city. Nuremberg gave its name to the racial laws of 1935 based on the doctrine of racial superiority, stripping Jews of their citizenship and forbidding inter-race marriage. The Nazi party later used these laws to justify the extermination of six million Jews during the war years. Nuremberg also played host to the Nuremberg trials of 1946 during which senior Nazi officials were tried and convicted of war crimes. It is possible to see the Courts of Justice where the trials took place, located on Furtherstrasse, though the building is not generally open to public.

The Nazi Rally Ground was started in 1933, Hitler wanted an entire complex for his troops to parade. The buildings remain half-built and are now mainly used as warehouses. The Kongresshalle was meant to be the focal point, at a planned size of 1 ½ times the size of Rome’s Colosseum it is considered the epitome of Nazi megalomania.

There are several organised tours around Nuremberg, starting from the tourist office, tours in English usually take a little over two hours and include a visit to the German castle. In the summer months ‘History for All’ conduct tours around the rally ground.


Surrounded by a thick belt of forest and lush parkland Stuttgart is not the industrial city and home of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz you would at first have expected. The pretty city is also circled by over 500 vineyards which produce fantastic wines, usually kept locally – Try the Weindorf Wine Festival held in August for your opportunity to sample wine from most of the Stuttgart vineyards.

Like many German cities much of the centre was ravaged by war but a painstaking redevelopment and rebuilding project has been virtually completed. The Schlossplatz demonstrates an eclectic range of architecture, including the late baroque/neo-classical Neues Schloss, the Art Nouveau design of the Kunstverein (The municipal art gallery) and the 1950s design of the Dresdner Bank.

For more information on the automobile industry within Stuttgart the impressive Mercedes-Benz museum houses many ‘samples’ and has a pre-recorded commentary of the site. The Porsche museum also has a comprehensive display of cars. A visit of a car manufacturing plant is possible, to the Sindelfingen plant, it is best to arrange a visit before hand – for over fourteens only.


Munich is situated on the Isar River and is an important industrial, cultural and transport centre. The old town on the west-bank of the Isar has a number Baroque and Rococo buildings, mostly built in the early 18th century by the rulers of Bavaria, who were inspired by Italian models. In the centre of the old quarter is the Marienplatz, a picturesque square dominated by the neo-gothic town hall. Visitors congregate in the square at 11, 12 and 5 to hear the town hall glockenspiel play.

Munich yearly attracts millions of tourists not only because of the lure of the nearby Alps but also because it is home to one of the world’s most notorious parties – Oktoberfest, visited by over seven million last year, from all corners of the Earth. The festival started in 1810 when Crown Prince Ludwig held a huge wedding, the festivities took over much of Munich – with plenty of food and beer. Nowadays the drinking still continues, for 12 days in October tourists generate over $US ¾ billion in revenue for Munich, from 10 to 10 daily the drinkers consume over 6 million litres of beer. Oktoberfest helps make Munich one of Germany’s most prosperous cities.

Munich is pleasant to walk in, with the area surrounding Marienplatz largely pedestrianised. Among the best walking tours in Germany are available in Munich through Munich Walks. The walks cover the city and offer a great historical background to the tourist sites. English language tours run daily and last just over two hours.

Travel in and around Munich is fantastically easy thanks to the transport system MVV, transport is available day and night either by U-Bahn, S-Bahn, tram, bus or night-bus. The most economical travel option is the day pass which can be bought for various zones within the city and district. It is important to validate your ticket before travelling, if the ticket remains invalidated you face a fine despite having paid! All tourist offices in the city have up to date travel prices and schedules, including the night-bus pick up and drop off points.

A short train ride out of Munich is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, built by Himmler in 1933. The site is said to have held over 200,000 during the war – with over 31,500 killed there. Concentration camps like Dachau explain how Jewish population numbers in Munich fell from 10,000 to only 200 having survived the war. The disturbing exhibits on display in Dachau are extremely moving, and often considered unsuitable for children. The grounds contain bunkers, a crematorium and a gas chamber – disguised as a shower block. Outside this chamber is a statue to ‘honour the dead and warn the living’. Tours of the camp are available, along with screenings of English documentaries and an extensive catalogue. Dachau is open from 9am to 5pm everyday, except Mondays.


Garmisch – Partenkirchen were merged in 1936 by Adolf Hitler in order to host the Winter Olympics. The resorts boast access to four ski-fields, offering over 4000 vertical feet of skiing. The resort includes slopes on the Zugspitze – at 7000ft stands as Germany’s highest mountain. The surrounding area offers a fairy-tale landscape, with fantastic German castles. As Germany’s premier winter sports centre Garmisch has superb facilities, a huge ski stadium with two slopes and a great slalom course. Garmisch is only 90 minutes by train from Munich and is such a popular resort it is essential to book accommodation before arrival. It is important to note that Garmisch’s hostel is closed from November until after Christmas.

Garmisch is not only great for winter sports but offers stunning scenery and exhilarating walks year round. Hikes up the Zugspitze take two days. It is possible to ascend the Zugspitze by cable car or cog-wheel train. The train was built between 1928 and 1930 and is a quaint narrow-gauge railway up the side of the mountain. Garmisch also offers the summer visitor lake swimming, thePartnachklamm Gorge and picturesque water-falls.


Berchtesgarden is just across from the Austrian border, during the early years of his career Adolf Hitler used the salt-mining town in the Bavarian Alps as his hideaway. Later, when he became the Fuhrer, Hitler made Berchtesgarden his second head-quarters after Berlin, Hitler took over the area in his creation of the ‘Alcove site’ constructing over 80 buildings and a huge wartime bunker which stretches over 40 miles. Hitler amassed supplies to last him and key members of his party a siege of six months deep below the town.

From 1926 Berchtesgarden became Hitler’s home, his house was demolished after the war in an attempt to erase the memory of the fascist era. However recent developments have preserved old Nazi buildings, changing them into museums and exhibits. The legacy of the place can be experienced by taking part in a Berchtesgarden Mini Bus Tour. The tour lasts about four hours and depart a midday throughout the summer, all excursions are held in English – the local authorities prohibit German-language tours for fear of attracting Nazi sympathisers.


Just to the west of Berchtesgarden is the town of Oberammergau, one of the most beautiful in the German Alps and on the Ammer River, the town is a popular tourist resort and is celebrated for its local wood carving Oberammergau displays fantastic Luftmalerei – trompe l’oeil paintings on the facades of buildings including motifs from fairy tales including Hansel and Gretl and Little Red Riding Hood.

Each decade the town hosts the world’s longest running play, The Passion Play. More than half the town’s 5000 population are involved in the event which lasts five months, from 9am to 5.30pm daily. The tradition of the performance dates back to 1632, and the plague years, the inhabitants vowed that if God spared their town they would perform the death and resurrection of Christ every ten years. The next performance of the play will be May 2010, which will be the 38th decade. The 100 performances during 2000 were sold out well in advance, for the next performances the renovated open-air theatre will provide viewers with better seating and floor heaters. Hotels, restaurants and shops in Oberammergau do pretty brisk business during the passion play. But there is one trade that is pretty relieved to see the play come to an end – Hairdressers. The 2200 strong cast are forbidden to cut their hair months before the play begins, so one the play ends the haircutting begins. But it is not just the barbers who are happy; the wigmakers cash in too!

By Katie Drew

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