I always knew Germany was smart, ordered, disciplined and famous for some quality, world-class brands. I always knew I would fall in love with the beer and the sausages but I had no idea that it was so big, bold, beautiful and bursting with great landscape, culture, history and hospitality.
From the financial hub of Frankfurt, the beauty of Bavaria and the class of Berlin, Germany should be on every bucket list.
I arrived on the eve of Oktoberfest and the atmosphere was electric. Bavarians know how to party and they don’t do it by halves. In fact, they do it in big beer steins! Giant tents are set up serving equally giant beers for two weeks.
Costume parades and brass bands make this one huge party where nearly six million people drink more than seven million litres of beer (Germans love their beer. Did you know Munich Airport even has its own brewery?).
If you like surf with your beer then head to the Eisbach, a small man-made channel of the Isar River that runs through Munich’s central park, the Englischer Garten. In rain, hail and snow, surfers have been flocking here since the 70s to tackle the waves. It’s quite spectacular to witness this in the middle of the city. You may even think you’re dreaming (or maybe that’s just one too many beers).
Munich’s Christmas Markets are also legendary with more tinsel, lights and choirs in one place than anywhere else in the world.
You cannot go to Germany and not experience Rothenburg, which is only a couple of hours drive from Frankfurt. This medieval town has been preserved exactly as it was in the 13th century and is like entering a Walt Disney movie set.
Yet behind this fairytale facade lurks a dark past. The Nazis held Rothenburg up as the perfect German town containing the perfect German family and it became a symbol of Aryan perfection. Jews were expelled in 1938 and it became a very popular holiday town for Hitler and his cohorts.
You can see why they came here. With historic architecture, vineyards, a castle and plenty of medieval magic, Rothenburg is a place well worth adding to your European bucket list (if you're travelling on a river cruise, make sure it's on the itinerary). And if you’re a Christmas addict, visit the Käthe Wohlfahrt, a year-round Christmas village and museum.
I don't know why they named New York twice – it should have been Berlin because it has double everything! National galleries, zoos, opera houses and main post offices. As the Germans themselves say, everything has a doppelgänger.
This once divided city exudes an abundance of life and energy. East ying meets West yang, resulting in a harmonious mix of what I would call ‘trad bo-ho’.
My new term – essentially where traditional and modern sit comfortably alongside each other – applies to both the people and architecture. The creative Renaissance exploding in the East makes Berlin’s rich cultural heritage even more dynamic and attracts a cosmopolitan blend of both expats and tourists. People love life here and it’s infectious.
I had 48 hours in Berlin and that was really not enough to see everything, but here are a few top tips.
The German capital’s war torn past is there for all to see and the best way to take in its historical landmarks is to take a ride on one the city’s many hop-on, hop-off tourist buses. Stops include the imposing Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Checkpoint Charlie, with its remnants of the Berlin Wall.
The Jewish museum was another highlight and well worth visiting. I spent so much time here that I missed out on Kreuzberg's quirky ‘Museum of Things’. That might sound odd but that's Berlin – a smorgasbord of all things innovative and inspirational with a healthy and respectful nod to the past.
Once you have absorbed the culture you might be in need of some fun and Berlin has no shortage of hedonistic havens. I loved Quasimodo, a jazz club in Charlottenburg where young and old can boogie on down to an eclectic programme of live acts – fantastic music in an intimate venue where the drinks are reasonably priced. When I visited it was Eighties night and the band blew me away. A great night out that I will remember for a long time.
This inclusive social scene was echoed on the banks of the River Spree at the regular Sunday afternoon tea dance where I watched dazzling couples – oldies and teenagers – dancing the tango to the crackling music of a bye-gone era against the backdrop of a memorable sunset.
For wonderfully traditional German tucker, try Max und Moritz. The service and the sausages in this Kreuzberg restaurant are equally outstanding, as is the roast-smoked pork with sauerkraut and lashings of gravy, and the price. You will query the bill here for all the right reasons.
There are many boat trips along the river that will give you a different perspective on the city. I went on a two-and-a-half-hour Eastside cruise and supped wine in the sunshine as I took in the sights, but was equally tempted by the evening cruise where you get to see the sun set over Berlin and the city erupt in lights. Feel a bit torn? Do both!
But don’t think organised tours are the only option – the public transport here is cheap and efficient. The U-Bahn and S-Bahn train system may overwhelm you at first but it doesn’t take long to orientate yourself and there are a multitude of buses traversing the city – namely the 100 and 200 – which follow similar routes to the organised tours.
The one thing you may find odd is the lack of barriers and ticket machines. This is a system built on trust – buy your ticket and travel stress free. Try to cheat the system and get caught out – prepare yourself for a hefty fine. It’s a bit like drinking at an honesty bar – at the end of the evening, you really do want to do the right thing.
I found Berliners to be a friendly and openhearted bunch. It was one of those cities where I actually flirted with the possibility of living there. Cheating a cheap and trusting public transport system which makes the lives of so many so much easier wouldn’t make me feel good. Berlin has so much to give – it seems only right to give a bit back.
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