I went to almost an all-expense paid trip to Germany with my little brother, Ali in 2008. I was in a particularly difficult time of my life, really stressed, and basically felt invisible, so this was like a little pick-me-up gift to my brother and I. Thanks Dad for a trip filled with memories!
I remember researching Germany in detail while planning this trip. And like all my trips, I plan down to each hour from what we are going to do to where we are going to sleep and let me tell you it saves a lot of time, hassle, and confusion once we are on the trip. For this trip, I bought the Eyewitness Travel guide and highly recommend it. Not only does it have beautiful pictures that you can later reminisce on, but it has a little bit of information about each tourist spot along with general Germany know-hows. Detailed maps, and transportation are missing, but honestly we had little problem navigating around Germany. We researched trains on many online websites beforehand so truly it was a hassle-free trip. I do recommend purchasing a 9 day Euro-rail ticket in advance. The train ticket allows you to travel within the cities in Germany and even outside the country if done within that 9 day period. Just remember to validate the ticket before you board. The train conductors can get pretty nasty as I recall.
We flew into Berlin from SFO and started our sightseeing immediately. Also to be noted is that my brother and I were more interested in the history of Germany rather than the artwork. For artwork, you can checkout Museum Island. Since we didn’t go there, I have no recommendations about it L
Berlin is divided in Western and Eastern Centers so the best way to plan the trip is to focus on one center at a time. I don’t remember where the sights I mention are, but these are just my personal recommendations and like I always say, use my blog as a starting point. One of the first sights we went to was the Reichstag Building. I highly recommend going to the rooftop and viewing the dome by lying down-so serene! Other places we went to were Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, East Side Gallery, Alexanderplatz, and of course what was left of the Berlin wall. One thing that was prominent and a painful reminder of a painful past was the brick path that was made on the area where the Berlin Wall once stood. It was quite scary and unsettling to visualize those areas in where East Berlin and West Berlin were physically divided and blocked off by this 14-feet tall structure. Another sad point noted was that most of the buildings were reconstructed after WWII. I hardly saw buildings that stood before the war.
In the few days we were there, we also checked out Bebelplatz, Potsdam Platz (quite impressive modern area), Kaiser Wilhelm-Gedachtnis Kirche, Fernsehturm, and Checkpoint Charlie- a great historical site.
Of the five days we spent in Berlin, one of the days we took a day trip to Wittenberg. I was just fascinated with Martin Luther and the history of his theses. It’s a small town that enjoys a scenic position on the banks of the Elbe River. I do remember that the central part of the town was about a twenty minute walk and there were no signs that told us if we were going the right way. We depended on the obscure maps we had in that Eyewitness Travel guidebook. One we made it to the center, what stood out was the Schlosskirche church that towered over the buildings, houses and cobble stone pathways. Although the original door on which Martin Luther posted his theses has been replaced, the church is original in its look. Do go inside to see the tombs of Martin Luther and Melanchthon. Other noted places to visit are Cranachaus, Rathaus, Melanchthonhaus, and Lutherhalle. Overall, a must-see for history buffs.
After returning to Berlin, we took the train to Munich the next day.
While Berlin is the modern, financial capital of Germany, Munich seems like the cultural hub. The most well-known and popular places to spend time in is Marienplatz. It is a typical European plaza filled, with historical churches, buildings, and lined with restaurants with outside seating so you can enjoy brunch or a drink (not for us J). Some of the touristy spots include Altes Rathaus, Neues Rathaus, Frauenkirche, Deutsches Jagd-und Fischereimuseum, Karl’s Gate, Burgersaal, and St. Michael’s Church. Due to the historical nature of the city, we signed up for a walking tour around the city. A great idea! Our guide was a young American studying in Munich and loved the city so much that he decided to become a tour guide part-time. He had wonderful stories, and we got to meet really nice people from around the world. One thing to look out for and plan is the clock show on the Neues Rathaus. This hall features a fascinating set of statues and the central facade features a clock tower known as Glockenspiele. Each day at 11 am and 5 pm, the bells ring out a carillon, while mechanical knights fight and a crowd dances. Quite a spectacular show so plan your day around it.
Other noted locations to visit are the Residenz, a former residence of Bavarian Kings. There are other WWII sites as well, so please refer to the guidebook I suggested.
Dachau Concentration Camp
It was a particularly dreary day when we made this day trip-maybe God’s way of foreshadowing on what’s to come. You cannot go to Germany and visit a concentration camp. We selected Dachau because of its strong history and close proximity to Munich. It’s now a memorial dedicated to the 32,000 prisoners who died there. We took the train and then walked the pathways to the camp. The camp greets you with an ominous looking gate and you can’t help but think about all those prisoners who made their way here. Once you make your way inside, you notice the exterior walls with barbed wires and it literally feels like you have committed a crime and are now in prison. Just imagine how those innocent people felt. I didn’t take a tour there because of financial reasons, but I would have liked to have done that. We walked around the museum which details what happened to the prisoners in this concentration camp. I swear I could see malnourished, ill-clothed people lying on the floor there. Then we walked to what was the scariest (not saddest) part-the gas chambers. The gas chamber building was in the back corner of the complex and almost in a teasing way surrounded by trees. We made our way into the first room, where prisoners were told to remove their clothes. It was not well-lit and I felt a heavy feeling while I was there. I felt here the prisoners knew what was going to happen to them. Then we made into the gas chamber. The gas chamber ceiling was really low and obviously had no windows. Lights were added later on so at the time of the war, it was probably pitch dark. On the walls and ceilings (and I think floors??) were the holes where the gas would come in. I literally spent about two seconds there when I was like I had to get out. I couldn’t stay in there. The energy of fear, hopelessness, and death was too much for me. After the gas chamber, there is another large room attached where the bodies were taken to be burned. It was a cruel sight to see all the ovens there. I read some part of the signage there, but as hard I tried, I couldn’t stay in that place. I made my way out the back exit and saw a graveyard. I personally don’t remember what the graveyard was about, but the fresh air was what I needed. In the center of the complex was a memorial, which was a nice, comforting sight to behold. A sad, sad day for me and my brother.
After the difficult day in Dachau, we planned a trip to this fairytale castle. Set amidst magnificent mountain scenery on the shores of Swan Lake, this castle was built for a Bavarian King. You take the train there and then from the train station you can walk or take a bus. We took the bus. The scenery to the castle was absolutely magnificent. What you imagine the magical Bavaria to look like is what you see in person. The whole day was spent here and we took many pictures. One thing I missed was a full shot of the castle. Since it’s built hidden among the hills, it is difficult to take a picture of the castle from below or when you are on any part of the castle. So to circumvent this problem, I bought a large size poster from the gift shop. A must see in my book.
We were in Munich for about 6 days. We spent 3 days exploring Munich and the rest of the days we took day trips. Beside the castle and the concentration camp, we took an impromptu trip to Salzburg, Austria. If you read an earlier post of mine, I detail my trip to Austria in 2007. However, I missed visiting Salzburg and let me tell you, it’s not a place to miss. The architecture is beautiful and the natural beauty of the Alps is spectacular too. I do remember that when you take the train to Salzburg, there is a stop when you change trains and we almost missed that, so be alert of that. We took a city tour here because we only had a day to explore it. It was a walking tour so we saw everything in detail. What stood out was of course the history and Mozart’s influence on the city. Another thing I remember fondly is the Old Monastery of Saint Peter. It’s one of the oldest monastery still in existence in Germany, and besides the lovely architecture, the graveyard is among one of the beautiful and peaceful (huh?) places I have been to. What was particularly fun were the catacombs-never seen anything like that. Other notable sights were the cute little souvenirs open-air shops around the city. They had the loveliest trinkets and we bought a few from a shop.
We took a train through the black forests of Germany (that’s where the cake gets its name) and made our way to Heidelberg. To be honest, I don’t remember seeing anything but the Heidelberg Castle. I am not saying you can overlook it, all I can say is that you can look into other German cities (like Hamburg) and get the same feeling of old towns of Germany. Heidelberg was on the way to Frankfurt so we chose this place. It’s a pretty cute place with natural beauty, food galore, and cobbled stone walkways. A recommended place for those looking for something outside the main cities.
After that quick stop at Heidelberg, we took the train to Frankfurt am Main. Frankfurt is considered the “Manhattan” or “Chicago” of Germany because of all the skyscrapers. I do remember visiting the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut art gallery, which was cool and taking a cruise on the Main River, but nothing stood out to me other than the Romerberg. Located in the center of Frankfurt’s old town, this square contains the Romer, a complex of old houses rebuilt after WWII and opposite them is a group of half-timbered houses, known as Ostzeile. That was the highlight of the city. I am not saying don’t visit Frankfurt, but truly it’s no different than a city in America. My favorite part was this old center which shows how any tourist from the western world would feel. We spent a day here, which I would say is enough.
Flew to Berlin
After Frankfurt, we flew back to Berlin because our train pass expired and it cost just as much to get another train ticket as flying. After our flight to Berlin, we took a flight back to SFO.
Germany is beautiful and a lovely country with a sad recent history. I feel the people of Germany carry so much guilt and anger towards their country’s past and Nazism that is associated with it, but I feel that like Japan it is slowly rebuilding itself after the war. The people are super friendly there and I don’t remember a language barrier being prevalent. There is a plethora of food options and convenient transportation. I always visit international places as an ambassador of America so I make sure I do plenty of research before going someplace. That’s my advice to you before you go anywhere and while you are at a place is to respect and appreciate everything a new place has to offer.
* 2/15/2017 Also on our trip we visited Cologne, which is another recommended city to see.