Introduction To Germany
Germany sits right in the center of Continental Europe and throughout its long history has been a major contributor to Europe’s culture, identity and direction. From its days as a loose confederation of tribes, through the years as the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor and into modern days as the economic engine and political center of the continent, Germany has survived and flourished.
Every year millions of tourists come here to place their hands along the remnants of the Berlin Wall, sip beer from steins in hamlets along the Rhine, gaze in wonder at the Bavarian Alps, tour countless castles and fill their bellies with hearty German cuisine. One trip is never enough and each season holds its allure: Wildflowers bloom in the Alps in spring, tour boats ply the rivers in summer, beer festivals drown the populace in autumn and Christmas markets fill each city with magic in winter.
The joy and charm of Germany lies in the seamless fusion of a rich historical heritage with a smart and savvy modern culture. Germans drink beer in 600-year old taverns then recycle all their bottles religiously; they cruise down the Autobahn in “German-engineered” wonders, passing an immaculately maintained castle or three on the way to work.
Germany is an experience, especially now that the dark shadow of Nazism is lifting from the collective psyche and Germans feel comfortable being German again. This development heralds a revival of German culture – old and new – and can only be a good thing for visitors.
Passports & Visas
Passports are required upon entering and leaving the European Union of which Germany is a member. Visas are not required for US citizens for visits of less than 90 days. For longer visits, contact the nearest German embassy.
Obtaining a US passport
The US Government Website is where to start.
Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany
871 United Nations Plaza
(1st Ave and 49th street)
New York, NY 10017
Fax: 212- 610-9702
American/Canadian Offices in Germany:
Neustadtidsche Kirchstrasse 4-5
Tel for emergencies: 030-8 30 50
America Consulate General
Germany Tourist Information
Culture and History
The word Germany is actually a Roman geographical term first used by Caeser to describe the areas west of the Rhine river not under Roman control. Germans actually refer to themselves as Teutons (Deutschland, as opposed to Germany), an ethnic group from northern Denmark that migrated south and established control along the Rhine and Danube Rivers. The Romans never did conquer Germany the way they did France, due almost entirely to a single battle, in which Arminius (Hermann) routed seven Roman legions in AD 9. The German language was therefore never Romanicized like French, Spanish or Romanian.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse), united the Frankish tribes and spent his entire reign waging battle against and eventually conquering all of the neighboring “Germanic” tribes, including the Saxons, Avars, Alamanni and Thurinigii. In 800 Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome.
The next emperor to rise out of the chaos following Charlemagne’s death was Otto I, crowned Emperor in 936. For the next 300 years, the Emperor vied with German princes and dukes and also the papacy for control over the Holy Roman Empire – a shaky alliance between Austria, Hungary, Italy and the territories of modern Germany.
Frederick Barbarossa was the next Emperor to rise above the feuding and assert his dominance over the Empire. From 1152 to 1250, the Hohenstaufen Dynasty under Frederick I and II extended the Empires control over Bavaria, Bohemia, Prussia and parts of Italy, most notably a state in Sicily. The constant battles with the Pope, costly campaigns in Italy and elsewhere and increasing discontent in the towns and cities back home eventually led to the fall of feudalism and the rise of a merchant-based economy ruled by Free Cities working in tandem with the beneficiaries of the Golden Bull (1356), which gave four secular and three spiritual electors the power to choose an Emperor.
The Holy Roman Empire was fragmenting from within and over the next 300 years, the conflicts between the princes and the emperor, the knights and the peasants, the feudal system and the rising mercantile system and above all the growing discontent with the corrupt and oppressive Catholic Church would lead to destructive wars and revolts in the 16 and 17th centuries, culminating in the Thirty Years War. This war destroyed Germany, almost annihilated the population and ended in a stalemate with Austria and the Catholics holding on to the southern and eastern parts of modern Germany and Prussia and the Protestants maintaining control of the northern and central areas. But this division was hardly a clear and definitive one, as the authorities switched their “allegiance” and religion according to political and military realities. Adding to the chaos was the entry into the war of Sweden, Denmark and France, who took advantage of the situation to grab territory in the name of their respective faiths (Denmark and Sweden were Protestant, whereas France was staunchly Catholic).
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Holy Roman Empire finally dissolved and left a Prussian Kingdom and an Austrian-led Hapsburg Empire to lead the fractured German territory. The French Revolution and the rise of Napolean led to further wars on the Continent. Napolean defeated the Prussians and his reforms helped lead to the formation of the modern German state. He abolished many of the territories, princedoms and free cities – reducing the number of “states” in Germany from more than 300 to about 30.
After the final defeat of Napolean in 1815, the German Confederation was founded, with the Hapsburg princes leading a loosely bound federation of 35 states and five free cities. The idea of a national identity for Germans began to coalesce during the 19th century. It was a time of student marches, reactionary policies and reforms aimed to enhance national cohesion. In 1862 Otto von Bismarck rose to power and began a series of policies that strengthened Germany’s security, at first, but eventually led to WWI and destruction. Bismarck initially refused to leave the Continent and seek territory and resources abroad like the French, Spanish and English. He focused on dual and triple alliances with his neighbors – Russia, Austria and Italy – in the hopes of curbing French and English ambitions. He helped found the German Empire and finally stepped down in 1890 and handed rule of the Empire to Wilhelm II, who initiated Weltpolitik, which put Germany into conflict with the other great powers of the world over territory and resources.
The combination of entangled defensive pacts and nationalistic imperialism provided the straw and the assassination of Austria’s crown prince in Sarjevo was the spark that led to WWI. Although militarily victorious in Russia and France, Germany was eventually forced to surrender due to lack of material and men and the arrival of US soldiers on the side of their enemy. The resulting Treaty of Versailles was perhaps the most ill-advised, malicious and petty treaty ever imposed by one group of nations on another. The conditions were so humiliating and unfair that German society rumbled in protest and fury. The Communist Party and the National Socialist Party converged on the beleaguered Weimar Republic – the heir to the defeated German Empire – and rebellions sprouted in cities and towns across the nation. In 1929, the Great Depression hit, sending Germany into a tailspin of inflation, unemployment and starvation.
Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists took advantage of Germany’s woe’s to seize power in 1933 and destroy the Weimar Republic. In place of the Republic, the Nazis created a dictatorship with Hitler as the Fuehrer, or Guide, and used this power to eliminate the Communists as a threat and leverage the Catholic Church and the right-leaning parties of the Reichstag to support him. Hitler quickly scrapped the Treaty of Versailles, re-armed Germany and marched into the Rhineland. The Nazis also moved against Jews and other “undesirables” by establishing race laws, empowering the Gestapo and the SS, and building a chain of concentration camps for their enemies.
The European powers stood by as Hitler annexed first Austria, then Czechoslovakia, then parts of Lithuania in direct violation of the treaties they had put into place to cripple Germany after WWI. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and WWII began. The Nazis crushed the Polish, Belgian, Dutch, French and British Expeditionary Forces and in 1941 held sway over much of Europe. After betraying the Soviet Union and invading in 1941, the Nazis’ gains began to falter. The invasion stalled at Moscow and was turned back at Stalingrad and the US victory over the Japanese fleet at Midway Island and support of British efforts in Europe ensured an Allied victory over the Axis. Not until 1945, after 60 million deaths, the Holocaust and two atomic bombs did the war finally end.
Germany was partitioned once again, with the USSR controlling Eastern Germany and France, Britain and the US controlling Western Germany. The Cold War ensued, pitting the USSR and its allies in the Warsaw Pact against the Western Powers united under NATO. The USSR and its allies eventually “lost” the war when, in 1989, a series of revolutions led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Reunification of Germany on November 9, 1989 – formally in October of 1990.
Since Reunification, Germany has championed the European Union and become a stable and benign force in Europe. For years the memory of the Holocaust shamed and cowed Germans into a resigned acceptance of their status as “pariah of Europe.” But over time, as a new generation gave voice to its own ideals – diametrically opposed to Nazism – the world has recognized Germans (and Germans have recognized themselves) as a force for positive change and stability in the world. Many Germans point to the last World Cup, held in Germany, as the turning point for the nation as it came to terms with its past and became more confident about its future. Germany is now an economic and political power in the modern world and is a pivotal force in keeping Europe as stable and as conflict-free as possible.
Currency in Germany
Germany’s currency is the Euro €. Traveler’s checks are still accepted throughout the country, but credit cards and Euros are really the most acceptable way to pay for your purchases. ATMs are now very easy to find. The best exchange rates are often found with the use of credit or debit (ATM) cards. Banks tend to have better exchange rates than local exchange bureaus.
Driving in Germany
Traffic in Germany drives on the right (as in the US). The Autobahn is toll-free and has 24 services available.
Speed limits are generally: 50 km/hour (31 mph) in developed areas, 100 km/hour (62 mph) on main roads, and although there is no official speed limit on motorways (the Autobahn) it is recommended not to exceed 130 km/hr (81 mph.)
Reckless driving is considered a serious offense and can incur a hefty fine. The blood/alcohol limit is 0.05 ml/g.
Seatbelt use in the back as well as the front seats is compulsory.
Electricity in Germany
The majority of Germany’s electrical outlets supply 220 volts and will require the standard European two-prong adapter. Additionally, make sure your appliances can accept 220 volts of power (American outlets provide 120 volts) or you’ll need a converter and an adapter. Some appliances and computers can accommodate either 120 or 220 volts either automatically or with just the flip of a switch on the appliance. (Check it out before you buy)
Etiquette in Germany
Germans are a very open-minded and progressive people, so there are very few societal “laws” that might bend the visitor in any one direction. Germans tend to be a bit stand-offish in the beginning, but not unfriendly. Handshakes are common between new acquaintances and the European “two kisses on the cheek” is very common amongst friends, especially girls. Drinking alcohol is socially very acceptable, but a raving drunk is not – as in any other place. Smoking is also accepted and not frowned upon. In fact, you will find that Germany is much less judgmental than the United States in many ways. The only things that will get you yelled at in Germany will be throwing garbage anywhere but in a garbage can, saying racist things or making jokes about the Holocaust and if you happen to annoy an older person – older Germans tend to be the gruffer type, but if you get to know them they can be very, very friendly.
Public Hours in Germany
Banks are closed Saturdays and Sundays; during the week they are open 9am-12 and 1-3:30pm. Shops usually open between 9 and 10AM and close between 6:30 and 8 Pm. Some smaller shops close between 1 and 2pm.
In general, Germany is a safe place to visit. Violent crime is rare. However, use common sense. Do not walk alone through poorly lit areas. If you are carrying a bag or camera, sling it across your torso instead of carrying it on a shoulder where it can be easily grabbed. Watch out for pickpockets; they sometimes work in teams where one will provide distraction while the other lifts your valuables. Trust your instincts: if something doesn’t seem right, extricate yourself from the situation.
Germany is on Greenwich Mean time plus 1 hr. In summer (from the last weekend in March to the last weekend in October) the clocks are moved forward one hour to Greenwich Mean time plus 2 hrs.
Tipping in Germany
A 15% tip is already included in your restaurant bill, so there is no need to tip further, although it is common to round up to the next Euro. For exceptional service, an additional tip of 5-10% is appreciated. If you tip, be sure to give the tip directly to the wait person.
Taxi drivers usually receive a 5% tip and those who help with your baggage usually get 1 Euro per bag.
Weather in Germany
Weather in Germany tends to be pretty predictable and non-threatening. The north around Hamburg tends to be a little colder, but nothing that will stop a trip, while the hottest temperature you can expect will be a freak day in the summer. There is no rainy season, save perhaps spring and heavy snowfalls are rather rare, except in the Alps or in a freak situation like in 1998 when the whole country was hit with the largest snowfall since 1945. A light jacket for most days and a heavier one packed away should be the most you’ll ever need.
Main Sights in Germany
There are many sights in Germany, but here is a brief rundown of the most famous:
Berlin: the Wall, the museums, Check-point Charlie, The Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz … the whole city is alive with culture and history
Cologne: The Rhine River and the double-spired cathedral
Heidelberg: The beautiful Neckar river, the massive castle overlooking the city and the quaint college town as well
Bavaria: the “classic” German houses, food and beer, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Neu Schwanstein Castle, the Alps and the Bodensee
Other places of note: A trip down the Rhine via boat, vineyards in the Rhineland; hot springs in Bad Harzburg; Roman ruins in Cologne and Frankfurt; Aachen, one of the oldest imperial seats; the island of Kiel in the North Sea and Freiburg, a beautiful college town on the Bodensee.
Getting Around in Germany
Most major airlines operate regular service to one or more of Germany’s many International airports. Lufthansa, The International German airline provides non-stop service to Germany from several American airports.
Germany’s railroad, offers service throughout the country. High-speed trains run along major routes.
Car Rental in Germany
It is usually less expensive to arrange your car rental while you are still in the USA. Almost every rental agency that you might be familiar with has a Europe outlet. To drive in Germany you must be at least 18 years old. To rent a vehicle, you must be at least 21. If you are from a country that is not in the EU, you will need an International Driver’s License. To get an International Drivers license in the US, contact your local AAA.
In the larger cities, taxis can be found at airports, railroad and bus stations, and usually in the main hotel or shopping areas. A green light indicates that a taxi is available. Most have meters that will display a base rate and climb from there.
In smaller towns, taxis may not be metered and may be even be private cars. It is advisable to ask a hotel or shop clerk for a name and number of a local driver. Also, negotiate a price before the trip begins.
No permit is required to carry medication in your luggage. However, you should pack your medication in its original containers and/or have your doctor’s prescription with you. Customs officials will have to be satisfied that you are not importing more than would be necessary for your personal use, taking into account the drug type and length of stay (for no more than three months).
Lodging in Germany
Public Holidays in Germany
Jan 1: New Year
Jan 6th: Epiphany
Feb 2nd: Candlemas
Feb 14th: Valentine;s Day
Feb – March: Fasching (Mardi Gras) check the region for exact dates
March 8th: International Women’s Day
March 25th: Annunciation
April: Easter (moveable date, but always in spring)
May 1st: Labor Day
Second Sunday in May: Mother’s Day
June 12: Father’s Day
July 20th: Anniversary of the assassination attempt on Hitler
August 15th: Assumption
Oktoberfest (Munich) from September 24 – October 7
October 3: Day of German Unity
October 31st: Halloween – not really celebrated, but more of a party
November 1st: All Saint’s Day
November 11: Martinmas
December 6th: St Nicholas Day
Decmber 8th Feast of the Immaculate Conception
December 24th: Christmas Eve
December 25th Christmas Day
December 31st Silvester, new Year’s Eve
Telephones in Germany
Public phones are usually operated by phone cards, which can be purchased at post offices, department stores and newspaper kiosks. Some phones will accept credit cards.
Useful Country Codes:
USA and Canada 1
Dial 112 anywhere in the EU for emergency services
Returning to the US
Customs,VAT & Duty Free
When you return to the U.S., you’ll need to declare everything you brought back that you did not take with you when you left. If you are traveling by air or sea, you may be asked to fill out a Customs Declaration Form provided by the airline or cruise ship. Keep your sales slips. Try to pack the things you’ll need to declare separately. Read the signs in the Customs area; they contain helpful information about how to clear Customs.
For complete information on Customs, look at the U.S. Government Customs Website
Value Added Tax (VAT or IVA) Refund Information
We have found it such a hassle to try to reclaim the VAT tax that we simply do not bother. If however, you will be spending a great deal of money, it might be worth the many steps you will need to go through. Also, remember that a 7 percent V.A.T. (Value Added Tax) tax is added to rates for all restaurants and hotel rooms. Service is included. This 7% V.A.T. tax on services is not refundable.
Travelers to Germany from outside the EU are entitled to a reimbursement of the 16 % V.A.T. (Value Added Tax, IVA in Spain) they pay on all purchases as long as the purchases add up to no less than 90 Euros in the same store and on the same day. The vendor must provide the purchaser with a duly filled out invoice which includes the price of each good, the V.A.T. paid for each item, as well as the identification (name and address) for both vendor and purchaser. The goods must be brought out of the European Union within three months from the date of purchase.
At the time of departure from Germany and final departure from the European Union territory, and before checking in your baggage, you must bring your invoice(s) and the merchandise purchased to the German Customs Desk in order for them to process your V.A.T. refund claim (there is a specific booth for this purpose just prior to the entrance to the international area at the international port, gate or airport).
If you are a U.S. or Canadian resident, you may qualify for a personal exemption which allows you to bring goods of a certain value into the country without paying customs duties, excise taxes, or Value Added Tax.