It’s always good to learn about local customs when you’re exploring a new country. With this in mind, we have put together tips on travelling in Germany. Customs might vary slightly in different areas, but most of these tips should help you – whether you’re heading to Berlin for business or to Bavaria for bratwurst and beer.
Germans generally like to play by the rules, and when you’re on their turf, so should you. For starters, always wait for the pedestrian crossing to go green before crossing the road – even if it seems safe, with no cars in sight. People will disapprove and shake their heads at jaywalking, and you might get a lecture about setting a good example to children nearby. If you’re planning to ride a bicycle (and you should), you always need to have a functioning back and front light for safety reasons. Being caught in the dark or running red lights both result in hefty fines.
As long as you stick to the rules, cycling is a great way to get around. Berlin has twice as many bikes per head as cars, and an estimated half a million of them traverse the city every day, with new superhighways in the pipeline. But this can make things slightly more challenging if you’re on foot. Look out for the Radweg signs, a white bike outline on a blue background, which designates a cycle path – sometimes surfaced in red or some other distinctive colour. The Radweg is only for bikes, and pedestrians should try to keep out of it – obeying this rule is definitely in your own interests, as collisions can be painful. If a pedestrian zone has a sign saying Frei with a bike picture, take care, as it’s also open to cyclists.
Most newbies in Berlin are surprised, even giddy, upon discovering the absence of security gates or ticket inspectors as you enter train stations. Be warned, this is not a free pass to ride the underground, as plain-clothes officials also ride the subway and could pounce at any moment, costing you at least a €60 (£52) fine and a lot of embarrassment. You can buy tickets (which are good value compared to lots of other countries) at the station or at a sales outlet. There are also endless stories of people who diligently bought a train ticket, but forgot to validate it by putting the ticket in the machine (Entwerter), which stamps your ticket with the date and time. A ticket without an Entwerter stamp is not valid, and the ticket checkers will have no sympathy – you will still be fined. If you’re going to use public transport regularly, it is a good idea to get an even cheaper weekly ticket, which only needs validating the first time you use it.
You need to get the right ticket for the area where you’re travelling. Generally, moving away from a city centre will mean crossing into a different zone. Always check the zonal maps in the station if you are not sure. For example, Schönefeld Airport in Berlin is in ticket zone C, and, if you’re travelling around the centre of the city with an AB ticket, that won’t be enough. Munich recently simplified its zones but still has about 20 types of tickets for public transport, so it’s easy to get confused. Most tourist sights are in the central Innenraum (now known as Zone M), but to visit nearby towns and attractions, such as Schleissheim Palace, you’ll need a Zone M-1 ticket and Zone M-5 to get to the airport. Again, pleading touristic ignorance will cut no ice with the authorities, no matter how sorry you are.
Fünf Minuten vor der Zeit ist des Deutschen Pünktlichkeit (Five minutes early is German punctuality) is one of many German expressions about time. The saying might sound comic to people from more leisurely cultures, but it’s actually a good rule of thumb in Germany. Arriving promptly for social and business appointments is part of German etiquette; there is no such thing as being fashionably late here, and you’ll soon come to appreciate the joys of knowing people will turn up the minute they said they would. Another time-related Sprichwort (proverb), Pünktlich wie die Maurer (Punctual as bricklayers) is used – not always positively – about people who not only turn up on time but also finish exactly on time, too.
Other countries are starting to catch up, but Germans were pioneers in the matter of sorting glass, paper, plastic and so on into different-coloured containers for recycling. Putting a bottle in the paper bin or vice versa is definitely not on. And glass is sorted by colour, too. If glass or plastic bottles have a deposit (Pfand), you can get a small refund (up to 25 cents/22p for the latter) by returning it to a supermarket. (This doesn’t need to be the same one you bought it from.) If you don’t care about the Pfand, then put your refundable bottle next to or on top of the bin, instead of throwing it away, as someone else might be happy to claim the money.
Until recently, many small-business shops, bars and restaurants didn’t have card machines. But the coronavirus pandemic changed the picture, and you can now pay with plastic in almost every Bäckerei (bakery) and kiosk. It’s still useful to have cash, too, though, as shops can’t always accept all cards. And it’s worth working out which cash machines charge less to withdraw money, as some have quite high fees. Cafes are often open all weekend, but most shops, supermarkets and pharmacies are closed on Sundays, so make sure you have everything you need before the Sabbath rolls around. Shops do not all have the same opening hours; they differ from land to land, but are often open from 9am to 8pm, Monday to Saturday. Some kiosks and shops in railway and petrol stations sell basic supplies, even on Sundays, and are sometimes open 24/7.
Despite anti-smoking laws, there is generally a slightly more tolerant attitude towards the habit in Germany than elsewhere. Smokers have now been forbidden to light up in cafes or restaurants for some years – a rule widely accepted, although the situation in pubs and bars is a bit more complicated. Some have separate indoor smoking rooms or a smoking patio, while bars smaller than 75sqm (807sqft) can restrict entry to over-18s and declare themselves private smokers’ clubs. As a rule, German smokers are less willing to accept entirely non-smoking establishments, and non-smokers are less fussy when it comes to smoking in party-style environments or outdoors. And you are not allowed to smoke in a playground.
No matter where you are in Germany, you’ll probably find a place to eat, but in smaller towns it might be tricky to get decent veggie food. Bigger cities – say, Berlin – have a thriving vegetarian and vegan culture with up-to-the-minute plant-based food sold everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants to market stalls. This is spreading rapidly across the country, but could take longer to catch on in rural areas. As you might expect, Mediterranean restaurants have more choice, while farmers’ markets (with great seasonal and organic produce) can be perfect places to pick up a picnic, and most supermarkets now cater amply for non-carnivorous tastes.
If travelling on limited means, look out for an Imbiss: these are cheap snack bars, found in almost any busy street, train station and market – even in car parks. There is some truth in the sausagey stereotypes. Yes – Germans do eat a lot of wurst, with regional specialities including Blutwurst (black pudding) in Cologne and Currywurst (sausage with curry sauce) in Berlin). Another great source of reasonably priced food in expensive cities are places serving various global cuisines. No longer is it just kebab shops and Chinese takeaways. Ask around, and you might be pointed to a tiny outlet serving chilli and basil-flecked bowls of pasta arrabbiata or subtly spiced Thai curries, fresh from the wok, for just a couple of euros.
Ah, the joys of travelling in a hops-loving nation, where it’s fine to drink in public, having a cold one during your lunch break is completely normal, and the Weg-Bier (a beer to go as you make your way to the next pub or party) is immensely popular. The most controversial restrictions – among the first to be revoked, too – during the coronavirus lockdowns were temporary bans on alcohol in public places. With so many brews on offer, it might take a while to find your perfect match. Don’t imagine Bavaria is the only place for quality – Munich’s Paulaner and Löwenbräu brands are now international. Further north in Alpirsbach, Erfurt, Bamberg and Görlitz, smaller companies are creating gold in a glass, while Berlin is at the centre of a craft beer revolution, with new microbreweries experimenting with organic, unfiltered sour beers and stouts. Pioneers include Hops & Barley, in Friedrichshain and, more recently, Strassenbräu, near Ostkreuz.
While Berlin is full of the world’s tongues, from Spanish to Arabic, and most people speak English, it’s not always true in the rest of the country. You’ll benefit from knowing some basic phrases, so you don’t feel entirely lost. Phrase books and phone apps come in handy here. Of course, signs are written in German, so it’s useful to know a few staples, for instance, Damen (ladies), Herren (gents), Apotheke (pharmacy) and Polizei (police). A word of warning: it’s not a great idea to have a loud conversation in English, thinking people around you won’t understand. Plenty of Germans may be able to follow what you’re saying quite easily and may not appreciate your commentary.
Es gibt vielerlei Lärm. Aber es gibt nur eine Stille. (“There are many kinds of noise, but only one silence”), wrote German satirist Kurt Tucholsky. With the obvious exceptions of punk bands, motorbikes and carnivals, Germans love peace and quiet. Lots of areas of the country have traditionally had Quiet Hours, when there is supposed to be less noise, between about 10pm and 6am, all day on Sundays and, in some regions, after lunch (Mittagsruhe). Noisy parties, violin practice or DIY during these hours might be problematic and can mean complaints from neighbours. Perhaps even more importantly for most tourists, German travellers also tend to have a lower tolerance for noise on trains or buses (even if you’re not in a designated quiet carriage). Laughing and talking loudly, especially in a foreign language, might get you some stares and even direct comments.
Big cities such as Berlin and Munich are great if you want to immerse yourself in nightlife, creativity and beer festivals. But Germany is also a land of off-the-beaten-track idylls and hidden beauties. From the mystical Black Forest to fairytale castles dotted around the countryside, there is a whole heap more to explore than just the novelty of being allowed to drink beer on the street. If you have a valid EU or other accepted driver’s licence, you could rent a car; citizens of most countries are legal for six months with their existing licence after registering residence in Germany. Alternatively, plan your trip using the fast, efficient German railway system. A cheap half-hour train ride from Berlin will carry you through the lakes and forests of the Grunewald to Potsdam, with its photogenic palaces, and a couple of speedy hours by rail from Munich bring you to half-timbered, Medieval Bamberg, which is idyllic.
With speeds of up to 300kph (186mph), high-speed ICE (InterCity Express) trains are popular, and the quickest way to travel between major cities. They are not cheap, and reservations can cost extra (as well as sometimes being compulsory, with limited seats for Eurail pass holders). If you’ve got plenty of time and want to save money, you might find a cheaper slower train or bus. But you’ll find better fares (up to 50 percent off standard rates) by booking longer journeys at least a week in advance: tickets have limited availability, so the earlier you book, and the greater flexibility you have, the better. You’ll spend your trip(s) gazing out of the window, for Germany has some fabulous scenery: through the Black Forest and the Bavarian Alps or along the Rhine. Der Weg ist das Ziel, as they say in Germany, meaning roughly “the journey is the destination”.