From food and festivals to wood-carving and Saunahaus, here are 7 wonderful ways to experience local culture when you visit Germany.
About the author: LeAnna from WanderInGermany.com s a former teacher, current travel addict, and forever Mama. When she’s not travelling the world with her family, she’s living her best expat life in Germany.
While most people think of Lederhosen, Wursts, and beer when they envision Germany, those stereotypical aspects of German culture are actually quite localised to the beautiful region of Bavaria.
In reality – and as any German would tell you – each region has something different to offer visitors. While Bavaria might be one of the more popular places to find what we think of as essentially German, there is plenty of variety throughout the entire country.
Whether it’s something as simple as enjoying other beverages besides beer in Germany (maybe a wine in the Mosel Valley), wading in the Baltic Sea off the northern coast or sampling the many different foods beyond just pork, here are 7 things to do in Germany for culture-focused travellers.
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7 ways to experience German culture
1. Experience the magic of a small-town German Christmas Market
Nothing beats the magic of walking down a cobblestone street with the sound of church bells ringing in the distance as you sip on a hot, mulled Gluhwein while snow quietly drifts down all around you.
Sure, many Christmas markets can get touristy and crowded, including the popular Rothenburg Christmas Market (although it’s still absolutely worth it!).
If you veer off into the smaller villages of Germany (pretty much EVERY town, no matter how small, has its own festivities), you will still get a sense for a traditional ‘Christmas in Germany’ experience, complete with delicious foods, warm spiced wine, Christmas carols, and stands filled with local handicrafts.
2. Remember the past at a Holocaust memorial
Germany has, no doubt, a troubling past. But instead of burying it under the rug, Germans have chosen to do everything in their power to learn from past mistakes so that history does not repeat itself.
There are countless sites and memorials dedicated to the Holocaust in Germany and every visitor should visit at least one. These are not simply ‘tourist’ sites but are often places of immense significance to German history and identity, where today’s generations can still feel the sobering impact of the atrocities that happened decades ago.
A few places that are remarkably done with great reverence are:
- The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a powerful living art piece that evokes a lot of emotions. Do this as part of your two days in Berlin, where you can also stop at the Berlin Wall, walk through Tierpark and really experience the culture of Germany’s capital city.
- Dachau Concentration Camp. One of Germany’s first concentration camps can still be visited today. This is not an easy visit, but that’s precisely why it’s so important to go. Walking the grounds of this camp is so much more powerful than just reading about the events that unfolded here in a text book.
- The Nuremberg Nazi Rally Grounds. Hitler once had grand plans for an enormous area where conventions, parades and rallies would be held. While there are no Nazi flags flying today, you can still feel the chill of what could have happened to the world had he had his way as you walk on the same stand he spoke at and were thousands of Nazis once paraded around. The Dokumentation Zentrum, what Hitler wanted as the ‘Great Congress Hall’, is so well done. If you’ve ever wondered how a man with such evil and hatred could bring so many people onto his side, this museum explains it very well.
3. Eat authentic Bavarian Cuisine
Yes, it is true that Germany is so much more than just Bavaria – but this particular state in Deutschland remains extremely traditional, which is why most people envision Bavaria when they think of Germany. With those stereotypes comes some pretty great things, including fantastic local food traditions!
One of the best ways to experience authentic Bavarian dishes is by visiting the region’s local Guesthouses. These mom-and-pop restaurants typically serve up Bavarian meals just like Oma used to make.
Some traditional Bavarian foods to be on the lookout for include:
- Haxen. This roasted pork knuckle is not for the faint of heart, but is wonderfully delicious, especially with a potato dumpling and sauerkraut on the side.
- Wursts. Of course! Whether it is a Bockwurst, a local Nuremberger Wurst or a Thuringia, they are all delicious!
- Kaiserschmarrn. This pancake-style dish is especially popular in the mountains and in Southern Germany.
- Schupfnudeln. These little potato finger ‘noodles’ (sort of like longer gnocchi) are fried together with bacon and sauerkraut and are perfectly filling.
- Obatzda. This delicious cheese-based spread can be found at just about any Biergarten in Bavaria and is perfectly paired with a giant, fresh Brez’n.
- Weisswurst. This white sausage is typically only found in Bavaria and traditionally is only eaten for breakfast (along with a wheat beer!)
Heading to the capital? Here is a local’s guide on where to find the best German food in Berlin.
4. Sip Ostfriesen tea
Just like the Southern Bavarians believe their beer is the best of the best, East Frisians take immense pride in their tea. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into someone’s home for tea, you’ll enjoy countless cups of freshly brewed Assam tea, each one prepared carefully and served with a sense of honour. This is a very local, culturally significant thing to partake in.
Even if you can’t get into someone’s home, it’s still worth finding a cafe in East Frisia and having a spot of tea yourself. You’ll start by putting the tea leaves into the pot and pouring in boiling water, letting it steep for about three minutes. Then, before you pour the tea, a very special sugar cube (which looks more like a rock), called a Kluntje, is placed at the bottom of the cup.
Add in some cream slowly (and preferably over a spoon) but resist the urge to stir! What this does is create almost three different tastes and flavours in the tea: First the creamy, next the bitter, and finally the sweet.
5. If you can’t go to Oktoberfest, find a local Volksfest – the ultimate German culture experience
Everyone wants to go to Oktoberfest for obvious reasons. And while you can still find locals at this fest, it has become extremely popular with tourists and often turns into a drunk-fest as a result.
For an authentic alternative, you can still get the same great fest experience at pretty much any Volksfest in Bavaria, complete with the Trachten (traditional clothing), oompah bands, litres of beer, and pretzels the size of your head.
Just like the Christmas markets, almost every single town in Bavaria has their own Volksfest. Some are bigger, complete with carnival rides and beer tents, while others might be smaller with just an outdoor bier garten and music.
The best way to check when a town on your route is having a fest is to simply Google it. ‘Fest Season’ typically runs from Spring (shortly after Easter) through to early October.
6. Watch the wood carvers in Oberammergau
The wood carving tradition of the Ammergau region in the Bavarian Alps can be traced all the way back to the 1100s. Originally, monks would work meticulously on religious carvings. Even today, nativity scenes and crosses are quite popular, especially when paired with the famous Oberammergau Passion Play.
But it isn’t just religious items that are made here in Oberammergau by hand. There are many traditional woodworking shops still open throughout this quaint alpine village, which is also famed for its colourfully painted houses.
Wandering the stone streets will have you stumbling upon several shops where you can see local artists creating everything from figurines of animals and small toys to dolls and chess pieces.
7. Partake in a traditional German bath
A Saunahaus experience in Germany is a real cultural treat! Germans love going to the spas (also known as baths or a Saunahof) as a way to relax, but also they see it as a medical wellness treatment.
Most baths, which look like giant pools, are filled by therapeutic natural springs, which are believed to have healing properties. Most Germans combine the baths with the saunas, which supposedly give a real kick of revitalisation to your system!
Just know that most of these baths (at least the sauna areas) are nude. The wonderful thing about Germany is that naked bodies are not seen in a sexual way.
As a body conscious female, going to a German bath can be terrifying – but few people leave feeling self-conscious or worried. In fact, you will often feel the opposite: completely liberated, refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to take on your next wurst!
Yes, Germany has its Oompah bands and free-flowing beer, but German culture is so much more than that. No matter which part of the country you visit, you can always find a way to experience it firsthand.
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