I went on a summer trip to Germany and Austria with my brother Ali in 2008. I was in a particularly difficult time of my life, really stressed, and basically feeling invisible so the trip was like a little pick-me-up gift for myself and my brother. Germany is expensive like the rest of Europe, so we had a little help from our Dad who agreed to pay for our meals. And he made good on that promise. Lol.
I remember researching Germany in detail while planning this trip. Like all my trips, I planned down to each hour from what we were going to do to where we were going to stay and let me tell you it saved a lot of time, hassle, and confusion once we are actually on the trip. I bought the Eyewitness Travel guide and highly recommend them. Not only do they have beautiful pictures you can later reminisce through, but they have bits of information about each tourist spot, along with overviews of Germany know-hows. Detailed maps and transportation are missing, but honestly, we had little problem navigating around Germany. We researched train schedules online beforehand making the planning process much more fruitful once we were there. It was truly a hassle-free trip. I do recommend purchasing a 9-day Euro-rail ticket in advance. The 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.
I don’t remember if we flew into Munich or Berlin from SFO since both cities have major international airports. I do remember once we landed and checked into our hotels, we started sightseeing immediately. Also to be noted is that my brother and I were more interested in learning about the history of Germany rather than the seeing its artwork. A regret, but there is only so much you can do in 9 days. For artwork, check out Museum Island.
Berlin is divided into western & eastern centers so the best way to plan the trip is to focus on one center at a time. I don’t remember which center each sight I mention is so I will give you just my personal recommendations and. Like before, I recommend using my blog as a starting point. One of the first sights we went to in Berlin was the Reichstag Building. I highly recommend going to the rooftop and viewing the dome by lying down- it is so serene being there! 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- the last being overwhelming and monstrous. One aspect that was prominent and a painful reminder of the painful past was the tiny brick path laid down to indicate where that monstrous Berlin Wall once stood. It was quite scary and unsettling to visualize these areas were where East Berlin and West Berlin physically divided the city. May I remind you that this wall was a 14-feet tall structure that went for miles. Another sad point about Berlin noted by me was that most of the buildings were reconstructed after WWII. I hardly saw any 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.
Out of the five days we spent in Berlin, we spent one day taking 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. Once we made it to the center, what stood out was the Schlosskirche church that towered over the buildings, the thatch-roofed houses and cobblestone pathways. Although the original door on which Martin Luther posted his theses has been replaced, the church is original. Do go inside to see the tombs of Martin Luther and Melanchthon. Other noted sights here are Cranachaus, Rathaus, Melanchthonhaus, and Lutherhalle. Overall, a must-see town for history buffs.
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 is in is Marienplatz. It is a typical European plaza filled with historical churches, buildings, and lined with restaurants with outdoor seating so you can enjoy brunch. 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. A great idea that makes touring really efficient and more informative because you learn an insider’s scoop! 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 to tell, plus we got to meet really nice people in the group 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 need to 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 from around Europe.
Once you make your way inside, you notice the exterior walls covered 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, but I would have liked to have done that. We walked around the museum which detailed what happened to the prisoners in this concentration camp. I swear I could imagine malnourished, ill-clothed people lying on the floor there.
Then we walked to what was the scariest part-the gas chambers. This was not the place to be sad. The gas chamber building was in the back corner of the complex and almost in a teasing way surrounded by the serenity of the nearby trees. We made our way into the first room, where prisoners removed their clothes. It was not well-lit and I felt a heavy feeling while I was there. I am sure prisoners knew what was going to happen to them. Then we made into the actual room known as the gas chamber. The dark gas chamber ceiling was really low and 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 holes where the gas would come in. I literally spent about two seconds when I felt like I had to get out. I couldn’t stay in there for too long. The energy of fear, hopelessness, and death was still lingering and too much for me.
After the gas chamber, there is another large room attached that resembled a kitchen. This is where the bodies were cruelly taken to be burned. It was a mind-boggling sight to see all the ovens there since you knew inside they didn’t belong in that room. I tried reading 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 met with a graveyard. It was a surprise to see that little nook there under the trees. Most curious. The fresh air is just what I needed. I quickly crossed the large empty plaza and stood next to a memorial that was clearly constructed after the war ended. A sad, sad day for me and my brother.
After the difficult day in Dachau, we planned a trip to the “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 of the castle was absolutely magnificent. What you imagine magical Bavaria to look like is what you see in person. Our whole day was spent here and we took many pictures. One thing I regret but was not feasible at the time was a full shot of the castle. I didn’t have a drone camera and someone suggested I charter a plane to take my dream shot. Funny conversation, especially in 2018. For those of you who are confused, the castle is built hidden among the hills and with its giant walls it is quite difficult to take a picture of the castle from any angle-whether you are below it or when you are on the other side of it (the adjacent yellow part of the castle). So to circumvent this problem, I bought a large size poster from the gift shop. The castle is 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 mentioned above. Besides the castle and the concentration camp we also took an impromptu trip to Salzburg, Austria. If you read an earlier post of mine (see HERE), I detail my trip to Austria in 2007. I had 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. I do remember that when you take the train to Salzburg, there is a stop where you change trains. We almost missed that since everything is in German. If it wasn’t for a nice conductor, who just happened to be there to alert us, we would have ended up in Slovenia.
Once in Salzburg, we took a walking city tour because we only had one day to explore it. We were able to see everything in detail. What stood out was, of course, the history and Wolfgang Mozart’s influence on the city. Another thing I remember fondly is the Old Monastery of Saint Peter. It’s one of the oldest monasteries still in existence in Germany, and besides the lovely architecture, its 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 open-air shops selling souvenirs around the city. They had the loveliest trinkets and we bought a few from a shop.
After we departed Munich, we took a train through the black forests of Germany (that’s where the black forest cake gets its name) and made our way to Heidelberg. Here is where my memory gets really hazy. Lol. 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 experiences of old town Germany. Heidelberg was on the way to Frankfurt so we chose to stop here. It’s a pretty cute place with natural beauty, food is everywhere, and cobbled stone walkways are a nice touch, more like a splat. Lol. A recommended place to stop at for those looking for something outside the main cities.
After that quick stop at Heidelberg, we continued our train ride to Frankfurt. Frankfurt is considered the “Manhattan” or “Chicago” of Germany because of all the skyscrapers. However, I feel London had more skyscrapers than Frankfurt and I was rather underwhelmed. I do remember visiting the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut art gallery, which was cool and taking a cruise on the Main River. However, nothing stood out to me other than the Romerberg. Located in the center of Frankfurt’s old town, this gorgeous square contains the Romer, a complex of old houses rebuilt after WWII and replicas of what stood pre-war. Also, you can check out the half-timbered houses, known as Ostzeile, which are also replicas. Sad (I know). This square 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. We spent only a day here and I would say that is enough.
Another city I wanted to mention is Cologne. Here we checked out the Cologne Cathedral and that’s about it. I remember staying here overnight en route to Berlin, where our departing flight was.
Flew to Berlin
After Frankfurt, we returned to Berlin and took a flight back to SFO.
Germany is a historic, beautiful and lovely country with a sad 20th-century history. I felt Germany carry so much guilt and anger towards their past and the fact that Nazism is associated with it. But I feel that like Japan, it is slowly rebuilding itself after the second world war. The people are super friendly in Germany and I don’t remember having trouble with a massive language barrier. There is a plethora of international food options and transportation is convenient. I always visit international places as an ambassador of America so I make sure I do research on the country’s culture before visiting it. That’s my advice to you before you go anywhere.