It's been a few years since my trip to Germany, but I remember most of it like it was yesterday. Actually, my European adventure was a three-week-long excursion with a few friends through multiple countries, of which Germany was one. I'll get to discussing them all here on the Sweet Frivolity site eventually, but I'm going to start with the German part of our trip.
Part of what I love so much about Germany is its deep, rich history. As Americans, I think we tend to gravitate towards British history simply because of our nations' shared experiences. (And don't get me wrong; I LOVE British history.) Many people don't realize just how much German history has shaped our own, though. It's worth doing some reading on Germany at least from 1800 to the present if you're planning a trip.
Just shy of 140,000 square miles, Germany isn't huge by any means, but its cities and towns run the gamut from urban to vineyards to medieval villages. The nation varies in so many ways. Sure, you can experience Oktoberfest, but you can also relax mountainside and sip Riesling. Berlin is an almost Brutalist, bustling city, more like New York than other cities on the east coast of the United States. Munich, on the other hand, is a charming, medieval-looking city, with more of the charm I would expect from a place like Boston. Both are amazing in their own right.
On our tour of Germany, we stuck to a borrowed car for the most part. Public transit within the cities is great, though. I'm sure you could see the country largely without a car, but I think there are many gems you might miss if you did.
If you're in Munich, start at the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus) in Marienplatz. The building's architecture is amazing, the glockenspiel in the upper tower (in the green part, as seen below) provides entertainment, and you can sit and have a beer at one of many cafes in the plaza in full view of it all.
Once you've had your beer, you absolutely must go to the BMW Museum. It's fascinating in its own right and also as a reflection of German history (read up on the role of some major manufacturers during the Holocaust for a shock). The factory tour is great for history lovers and auto aficionados alike.
I also highly recommend the Olympiapark Munchen. It was here that Mark Spitz won his record-breaking seven gold medals (well, it was a record at the time) in the 1972 Olympics.
It was also here where the tragic Munich Massacre took place in the Olympic Village. There was something very, very eerie about standing at the top of the Olympic Tower and looking down at the site of this awful event. But these are the scary things in the world I feel we mustn't avoid if we are to learn from our collective mistakes. The landscaping and architecture of the Olympiapark is something to behold, regardless. It's worth a visit.
While still in Munich, make a point to visit the Nymphenburg Palace. This Baroque masterpiece was the summer residence for former Bavarian rulers. It's lovely. You can tour both the palace itself (called a "schloss" in German) and its magnificent gardens. This would make a great afternoon trip, perhaps with a picnic on the grounds.
If you think you are prepared, visit Dachau's concentration camp on your way out of Munich. It's obviously extremely upsetting, but it's the kind of place I think we all need to see. When we visited, there was a bit of a museum set up in what had previously been used as a maintenance building. It's worth a visit. Bring plenty of tissues.
You might not think to visit Dresden while on your German vacation, but I would strongly suggest you give it a try. Dresden is a cultural and architectural gem, and both its old and new cities are wonderful to explore. Signs of the February 1945 bombing of Dresden persist all over the city, but none are more poignant than at the Frauenkirche, a gorgeous Baroque church.
One of Dresden's most iconic buildings, the Frauenkirche was reduced to rubble after the Dresden bombings. For many years, it remained damaged, and it was only after $218 million in renovations that the church was restored. The restoration included reuse of as much original material as was possible, which is clear to see. I highly recommend you pay the fee to climb to the top of the dome. Breathtaking views of Dresden await you.
If you've the time, stop in Leipzig for an afternoon on your way to Berlin. This is a very youthful, hip place to be, and it also holds some fantastic musical history. The Thomaskirche in Leipzig was the workplace of Johann Sebastian Bach for many years, and he is buried in the church. Various Bach artifacts are also on display here.
The Mendelssohn-Haus is also a neat place to visit. This furnished apartment was the home to Mendelssohn and his family until his death in 1847.
Ah, Berlin. Very, very urban, Germany's capital holds fascinating history and culture. I recommend you leave plenty of time to become entrenched in the city's gritty, post-war vibe. It helps with understanding some of what has gone on there.
First thing's first. I cannot recommend the Checkpoint Charlie museum enough. This museum actually began as an exhibition in 1962, and many of the things you'll see as you explore this seemingly endless museum have been hung on its walls for almost that long. You'll see exhibits interpreting the Cold War from a modern perspective, as well as older signs that were hung during the Cold War, thus illustrating some of the thoughts prevalent at that time. This is one of the most fascinating pieces of living historiography I have ever encountered.
Continuing with the historical vibe, you must visit the site of the Berlin Wall. Bits of the wall are left standing, and most are covered in gum. It's gross and fascinating all at the same time.
You should consider visiting the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It's an outdoor exhibition that will make you stop and think. Similarly, I do recommend the Jewish Museum. For obvious reasons, the latter has very tight security, so be prepared to check your coats, umbrellas, and bags at the front desk.
For history that's a bit more uplifting, check out Berlin's many fabulous museums. You can even explore Berlin's Museum Island, home to five fabulous institutions. This cultural center has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Berlin is home to many fabulous churches, including the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). You can enter most of these, and in many, can climb to the top for amazing city views.
The Olympiastadion in Berlin is also worth a visit. Home to the 1936 Olympic Games, it was here that Jesse Owens won four gold medals, making him the most successful athlete of the games.
Other places of note? The Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin's largest palace.
The Reichstag Building, home of parliament. The Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful public plaza known for its architecture and public Christmas market. The Fernsehturm de Berlin, the famous television tower soaring above Berlin.
And, my personal favorite, the easy-to-photograph Brandenburg Gate. The sky looks extremely angry, as if those horses are pulling a storm into Berlin.
Oberammergau and Fussen
Wrap up your fabulous German vacation with a day or two in the beauty of Bavaria. Oberammergau is well worth at least an afternoon. Famous for being the site of a passion play every ten years, this town is committed: most of the buildings and houses have detailed biblical scenes decorating their exteriors.
A little backstory: the residents of Oberammergau promised that if God spared them from the plague, they would honor him with a play portraying the passion of Christ every ten years. As it turned out, God held up his end of the bargain, and the town has done the same, every ten years since (except 1940, because of the second world war). I wasn't lucky enough to be there to see the performance, but the village is adorably quaint and well worth an afternoon. This is a good place to enjoy lunch in a cafe.
Next, head on to Fussen, a lovely town and the best place to stay for the night if your goal is to see the famed Neuschwanstein Castle. Considered a fairy-tale castle, this site has received over 61 million visitors since the 1881 death of Ludwig II of Bavaria, who commissioned the residence. It's worth the trip, but exploring Fussen for a day is equally enjoyable. I had a delicious ice cream sundae doused in alcohol and lit on fire in this town, and that alone is reason enough for me.
Everything about this part of Germany is just beautiful. This is the view from the Neuschwanstein area, looking out over the mountains. Breathtaking!
I hope you love every minute of your German vacation. I'd love to hear what places you visited and which were your favorites. Happy travels!