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An American in Germany for Winter

Continental_OpContinental_Op Registered User regular
edited August 2010 in Help / Advice Forum
Hey Folks,

Title gives you the gist of it. I'm thinking of traveling to Germany, the Czech Republic, and maybe the Netherlands or Belgium for a few weeks this winter. Most likely this will be late December (just before xmas time) through early January. I've been to the UK, Ireland, and France a couple of times already and want to try something new. However, I've always traveled during the summer and was hoping the collective consciousness of H/A could fill me in on traveling in winter. All tips are appreciated, but I'll number my main concerns. I apologize if this seems harebrained at the moment, it pretty much is. I figured out I could do it a couple days ago and haven't started reading up on it yet.

1. How much is open during winter there? Thinking mostly of museums and restaurants, maybe some shops if the need to get anything super winter-y arises (I'm from Southern California, so I don't have any heavy winter gear, just a nice, heavy pea coat and pants)

2. How easy is it to travel in Germany without speaking more than a few words of German?

3. What are some of the must sees? (right now I'm planning on Berlin, Munich, Prague, and maybe Amsterdam if I can fit in the Netherlands [sub parentheses, no, I'm not going there for the pot]), but I'm open to more suggestions.

4. German hostels? Are they the a good and cheap way to go or is it relatively easy to find decent, affordable hotels? (I'll be traveling light in any case, just trying to stretch my funds)

5. How's the food?

6. Is there anything you think I should know or consider?

Thanks in advance for your help.

XBL - TeenageHead
Continental_Op on

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    QliphothQliphoth Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    I haven't been in winter but I've travelled around Germany without speaking any German. In Berlin it was quite easy, the public transport system is easy and most people will speak at least basic English, enough that if you're lost someone will be able to point you in the right direction without too much trouble. Most restaurants/cafes/bars had atleast one if not several staff that spoke English. I stayed in hostels and the one I stayed at in Berlin (EastSeven Hostel) was probably the best one of my whole 3 month Europe trip. German food was great and extremely well priced compared to the other wealthy European countries, Dutch food was pretty good as well although a bit more expensive than German. Hit up Hostelworld or some similar hostel rating site, if you stick to the higher rated hostels in a city you should be able to avoid any of the dirty and dodgy ones that people seem to stereotype hostels as, I found that cheap hotels were dodgier than the upper end hostels.

    Qliphoth on
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    ZeonZeon Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Umm, everything will be open. Things dont close down because its winter, unless you were planning on hitting the outdoor swimming pools or beaches.

    Buy winter clothes though, especially if youre backpacking. Coming from southern california, it will be "cold". Not ridiculously cold but you wont be used to it so you will probably feel like youre dying, even when youre completely bundled up.

    Zeon on
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    President RexPresident Rex Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Hey Folks,

    Title gives you the gist of it. I'm thinking of traveling to Germany, the Czech Republic, and maybe the Netherlands or Belgium for a few weeks this winter. Most likely this will be late December (just before xmas time) through early January. I've been to the UK, Ireland, and France a couple of times already and want to try something new. However, I've always traveled during the summer and was hoping the collective consciousness of H/A could fill me in on traveling in winter. All tips are appreciated, but I'll number my main concerns. I apologize if this seems harebrained at the moment, it pretty much is. I figured out I could do it a couple days ago and haven't started reading up on it yet.

    1. How much is open during winter there? Thinking mostly of museums and restaurants, maybe some shops if the need to get anything super winter-y arises (I'm from Southern California, so I don't have any heavy winter gear, just a nice, heavy pea coat and pants)

    Winters in Germany tend to be milder than most winters in the US (...in places that have winters like the Midwest and New England). There's generally little snow in December and usually some in January (Austria, or Alpine Germany are a bit different). Germany has fairly diverse climates; Northern Germany can be pretty windy and cool in winter. I've been in Prague in mid-December and had 50°F weather, but then I'm used to below freezing weather after November. It's a bit of a crapshoot whether the weather will cooperate.

    Keep in mind that Europe (especially the parts you've mentioned) is farther north than much of the United States and it will get dark earlier.

    Operating hours often depend on the city and the particular museum or event. Germany follows a fairly religious outlook on business hours (despite how religious or agnostic the populace may be). Stores often close at 6pm with later hours on Friday and Saturday (this is changing a bit now; you can usually find something open at 8pm that's not a convenience store). Generally everything but shops inside of train stations will be closed on Sundays (restaurants will be open).

    Larger museums will tend to have the same hours regardless of season. Some smaller museums (for instance, the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg) open a little later and close a bit sooner. Generally things are open on weekends specifically to cater to tourists. Many cathedrals and churches may be hosting church services on Sundays and may not want tourists to enter during service.

    2. How easy is it to travel in Germany without speaking more than a few words of German?

    Smaller museums or sights may not have information on plaques in English (although often smaller places will still try to cater to tourists with grammatically unsound tourist pamphlets). Most larger museums (for instance, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin) have audio tours in multiple languages. Restaurants in tourist centers tend to have menus in multiple languages; if they don't it's likely they'll have one in English stowed away somewhere.

    English is a mandatory class in school, but you can't rely on many people to speak it well but that shouldn't matter. You may not be able to hold a conversation with everyone, but it's usually easy to find someone who speaks English in any establishment (or who's willing to communicate with you via pointing and counting with fingers). Larger train stations often have help centers which tend to have some English-speaking staff.

    I saw one train in East Germany that had signs in German, Italian and Russian, but I assume you can operate a toilet.
    3. What are some of the must sees? (right now I'm planning on Berlin, Munich, Prague, and maybe Amsterdam if I can fit in the Netherlands [sub parentheses, no, I'm not going there for the pot]), but I'm open to more suggestions.

    I think Amsterdam may have closed down the stoner houses for tourists (maybe that happens next year?).

    I'll need a bit more idea of your interests for potential sites (History: specific period? Like science/techy stuff? How about religion? Etc.). And whether you want stuff to visit in those cities or you're looking for other cities as well.

    If you really want to fit in more countries (and a decent day/weekend trip) I'll recommend Aachen. It was the center of Charlemagne's administration during the Carolingian Empire (800s-900s). It has one of the few Byzantine-style cathedrals in Europe (originally circular instead of cross-shaped), as well as his initial palace and some thermal baths. Plus you can get over the borders to Belgium and the Netherlands via the bus system. If you're going by train it's fairly short ride to Köln/Cologne (speaking of Köln, if you change trains there step outside the train station, the cathedral's right there).
    4. German hostels? Are they the a good and cheap way to go or is it relatively easy to find decent, affordable hotels? (I'll be traveling light in any case, just trying to stretch my funds)

    Hostels are a bit of a mixed-bag but they will be cheaper than hotels. Some have 2 or 4-bed rooms, some have ridiculous 12 or 16-bed rooms. Sometimes rooms are co-ed (especially bigger ones). I tend to be able to fall asleep without problem, but if you're a light sleeper or paranoid you may have difficult coping with people coming and going or occasionally belligerent drunk roommates (who usually get shut up pretty quickly if the room is full of people trying to sleep).

    I've never had anything stolen from a hostel. Just exercise common sense and make sure you lock up your stuff when you're not around and you should be fine. Some hostels have age limits (I've heard 29 and 35), but I've never seen one that checks. You're best off checking in advance to see how a hostel's been rated. Keep in mind that many hostels now require reservations (although if a room is free you'll often be able to get in).
    5. How's the food?

    Full of cabbage and pork.


    Most areas have their own little unique dishes. You'd probably be best off getting a book if you want to learn about area specialties. Most places have food stands (called an Imbiss) where you can usually get a sausage (usually about a foot long with a fist sized roll for the bun) or fries. Bockwurst is probably the closest to the traditional American bratwurst.

    Almost every small town in Germany has a Turkish food shop that will sell Döner (or a Kebap). If you've had Greek before it's essentially a gyro (pita bread with thin-sliced lamb, assorted vegetables and a sauce). In Berlin and Munich you'll likely have a small food stall selling them.

    Berlin and Munich/München both have Berliner doughnuts (you may have heard the joke that JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" means "I'm a jelly donut"). They're essentially jelly-filled doughnuts covered in powdered sugar (although you can usually get them with other fillings). In Berlin they're often called Pfannkuchen, while Munich (and Bavaria and Austria) call them Krapfen. Krapfen used to be traditional Christmas fare, but you can find them at bakeries year-round now.

    Stollen is a traditional Christmas fruitcake. Famously from Dresden, but most places have them before Christmas (unlike the doughnuts they're not available all year). There are actually quite a few Christmas-related foods that come out. Visit a Christmas market if you can and find a food stall. Usually there'll be pictures of what stuff is.


    If you happen to get sick of the German food McDonalds are everywhere. Berlin and Munich tend to have the most variety so they've both got Burger King as well. Dunkin' Donuts was also sprining up in Berlin last I was there. It's basically like New York though: international cuisine is everywhere (apparnetly Thai is very popular). Keep in mind, however, that Pepsi products are very rare.

    Germany and the Czech Republic arguably have the best beer in the world, so try some variety (be aware that it tends to have 4.5% alcohol or more by volume). Pilsner Urquelle originates from Plzn (German: Pilsen) in the Czech Republic. If you're going with friends keep in mind that you can buy bottles for about 20-30 cents (although they'll have a Pfand (deposit) that you may want to bring back for a few cents).
    6. Is there anything you think I should know or consider?

    Berlin has one of the best, most accessible mass transit networks in Europe and a subway or tram stop's never that far away. A day pass (even though it's around €7.50 now, I think) is pretty much worth it. Unless you want to go to Potsdam - then you might consider buying two one-way tickets across the 3 zones.

    ...Speaking of Potsdam, it's right next to Berlin and it's full of Prussian and WW2-era history. Plus it has its own Brandenburg Gate.

    Prague has an awesome Christmas tree. Keep in mind that the Czech Republic still does not use the Euro. You'll have to go to a bank or ATM to get Czech koruna.

    There are some free tours you can take of Amsterdam fairly easily (their fee is generally "whatever you want to tip"). Keep in mind the Anne Frank house is actually around the corner from the entrance to the museum area.
    Thanks in advance for your help.


    ...I think that covers the basic stuff.

    President Rex on
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    KalkinoKalkino Buttons Londres Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    I use Hostelbookers dot com a lot for travel in Europe. It hasn't led me wrong yet so far. You should be able to get a room for 20-50 Euros a night (with the high end being a private room akin to a 2-3 star hotel) at most hostels.

    So far as Winter goes, well last winter was terrible in the UK and I assume it was similar in the rest of northern Europe. Coldest one I've experienced since living in Europe, although I come from a slightly more temperate NZ (not as warm as Southern California I suspect) so I'm pretty soft when it comes to that kind of thing. You will certainly need to buy gloves, a scarf and possibly a warm hat. You could easily pick up some cheap stuff here in a place like H&M

    So far as German traveling with only English. My experience has been mixed. I was in the Rhineland area a month or two back and it was very easy. Most people I needed to talk to spoke enough English to get by* and were pretty courteous about my lack of German. In and around Berlin I found it far harder to find random people who spoke English, especially in the eastern parts of the city. Although Berlin is so well known and visitor friendly generally, that isn't a problem.

    *Although I did have an issue at a museum where the guards were trying, I think, to explain to me the rules around copyright, in German. At least I think that is what they were trying to do.

    Kalkino on
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    AldoAldo Hippo Hooray Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Amsterdam still has their coffeeshops open, also for tourists. :P

    --

    You'll want to pack warm clothing, gloves, scarves, caps...the whole shebang. Also: warm shoes. Although it's usually only around freezing point, it can be a lot colder if you're unlucky.

    Germany can be a lot of fun in the winter if you like Christmas, there's christmas markets that are quite popular. Living in the Netherlands I can't really recommend visiting in the winter, it is mostly a bleak and desolate place with most people being a whole lot grumpier than in the summer because we're only living on a few hours of natural light per day.

    I dunno, the cities can be nice regardless of the season, but I wouldn't bother visiting in the winter.

    Aldo on
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    FerrusFerrus Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Germany has had relatively harsh winters during the last years (~ -4F°), so you really shouldn't skimp on warm clothing. Altough the real brunt of winter usually hits during january and february.

    Wether or not people will understand you mostly depends on their age. People in their twenties, especially college students and such, should be able to give you directions or even hold a conversation with you. Just because English is mandatory in school however doesn't mean everyone understands you. It largely depends on their overall level of education.

    Concerning food: As someone already mentioned, Döner can be found pretty much everywhere. There are some rules of thumb however if you want to get a decent one. Never pay less than 3€ for one and observe how many other people are buying in that place first (If you can). The quality of many Dönerbuden is... lacking to say the least.

    Also, especially when in Berlin, don't miss out on Currywurst. It, too, should be readily available everywhere.

    Ferrus on
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    anonymityanonymity __BANNED USERS regular
    edited August 2010
    It seems like you'd be in the ideal position to do some cross-country skiing.

    anonymity on
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    AldoAldo Hippo Hooray Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    anonymity wrote: »
    It seems like you'd be in the ideal position to do some cross-country skiing.
    Only if you head up in the Alps.

    Aldo on
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    anonymityanonymity __BANNED USERS regular
    edited August 2010
    Aldo wrote: »
    anonymity wrote: »
    It seems like you'd be in the ideal position to do some cross-country skiing.
    Only if you head up in the Alps.

    That would be Alpine skiing. I'm talking about Nordic skiing, particularly classic-style cross country.

    anonymity on
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    AldoAldo Hippo Hooray Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    anonymity wrote: »
    That would be Alpine skiing. I'm talking about Nordic skiing, particularly classic-style cross country.
    Ah right. I think you still need a good pack of snow for that, right? Maybe the lower alps or higher ardennes will do.

    Aldo on
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