So You Want To Visit Germany

I posted a while back about Dining Out In Germany, and I realized recently that whenever someone I know visits Germany, there’s a bunch more stuff that I tell them.  As I prepare to head back to the US this week for my first visit home in over a year, I have some observations from my first year here that I think might help an American visitor to Deutschland.

The Bathrooms Are Different.

Not the plumbing.  A toilet is a toilet is a toilet.  The basic size and shape are pretty much the same.   The differences are in other areas.  Here’s what I know:

  • There are almost always stairs to reach the loo.  I’ve been in perhaps three restaurants in all of Germany that didn’t involve a quest down three flights of stairs to reach the bathroom.  I’m pretty sure I saw the guy from Pitfall in one of them.
  • The labels are a little different.  This stands to reason, since it’s not English, but if you don’t know that Damen is Ladies and Herren is Gentlemen, your first trip past that door can be mildly embarrassing.   Sometimes the doors just say H and D, which is even less help if you don’t know the labels ahead of time.  At least the little silhouettes that some places use on their doors are pretty universal.
  • When traveling, hold on to your fifty cent and one Euro (1 €) coins for your bathroom needs.  Europe is very fond of the pay toilet.   Restaurants and airports and trains usually have cost-free restrooms, but pay-to-pee is the norm in lots of other places.  In some train stations, there’s a chain of attended restrooms called McClean which has very nice, well maintained restrooms for a per-use fee.  There are also street level restrooms in many cities that involve fees to get in.  Sometimes there’s a coin plate near the door as if to suggest that a donation would be a good idea.
  • Don’t be surprised if a restroom attendant of a different gender than your own comes in to clean the place, especially in train stations.

Getting Around An Unfamiliar City.

Most cities around Germany have a nice public transit system.  If you’re lucky enough to be in a larger city like Berlin or Frankfurt, you might even have a variety of modes to choose from. Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Nuremberg all have underground metro systems, referred to as U-Bahns or Untergrundbahn.  Most cities have a form of S-Bahns, or Stadt-Bahn.  This is just a basic above-ground rail system with trains tying locations together.  Some places have Straßenbahn, or streetcars. And of course they all have bus lines.

In most instances, your best value is going to be a Tagesticket or day ticket.  These are typically good for use on all the forms of public transit in a city, so you can hop between them.  For example, to get from the Berlin HBF to my favorite hotel in Berlin, you need to take the S-Bahn (S5, S7, or S75) to Alexanderplatz, then switch to the U-Bahn (U8) to go one more stop.  Every Bahn station will have kiosks where you can buy tickets for the local transit system, and a full day of unlimited rides is generally more cost effective unless you’re only planning on one or two journeys.

Here Are A Few Words You Might Need To Know.

  • Entschuldigung – Apology/excuse me.  You’ll hear this when someone wants to get past you in a hallway, for example.
  • Ist hier frei? – Is this seat open?  Useful in crowded trains and restaurants.  German pronounciation note:  ‘frei’ is pronounced like fry.
  • Geöffnet – Open.  If a bar or restaurant has this word in front, you can go in.
  • Geschlossen – Closed.
  • 24 Uhr or 24 Stunden – 24 hour.
  • Tankstelle – Gas station.  If you’re driving, you’ll need to know this one.
  • Apotheke – Drug store.  If you need aspirin, paracetamol, cold medicine, skin lotion, or pretty much anything you would get in a pharmacy back home, this is where you’re going to find it.   Unlike the US, aspirin and other pharmaceuticals are generally not available in other types of stores- you’ll have to find an Apotheke.
  • Eingang/Ausgang and Einfahrt/Ausfahrt– These are entrances and exits.  When you’re on foot, eingang means entrance and ausgang means exit.  When the suffix -fahrt is attached, it refers to cars.  This leads to one of my favorite jokes, “Ausfahrt must be the largest city in Germany- there are signs for it all over the Autobahn!”
  • Besucher – This means visitor.  Some form of this word usually appears on visitor’s entrances.
  • Einbahnstraße – One way street.  I thought these were all pointing to a specific highway for my first two months in Germany, and I couldn’t figure out why they all seemed to be pointing in different directions.  I’m not always the sharpest tool in the shed.

Dining Out In Germany

When I was planning my trip to Berlin last month, I had a conversation on Ye Olde Facebook with my friend Heather about restaurants in Germany. I offered a lot of advice regarding how the experience is different from dining in the US, and I realized (not for the first time) that I really ought to post about this. I’ve been meaning to write this one for a long while. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

When you arrive:

Most restaurants in Germany do not have a ‘please wait to be seated’ sign. When you arrive, you are expected to simply sit down at a table of your choosing, although you should avoid any tables that have a ‘Reserviert’ (Reserved) sign. When in doubt, you should ask the staff.

Placing Your Order:

In places accustomed to tourists, it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to have an English menu.  Sometimes you’ll be handed the English menu as soon as they hear you speak.

Typically, your drink order is taken first, and then they come back a little while later to take your food order.

During the meal:

In the US, a glass of water is standard in most restaurants. Here, you shouldn’t expect a glass of water with your meal unless you ask for it. When you do ask for water, the waitress might ask you if you want it with or without gas. This is because carbonated water is very common and popular here. If, like me, you prefer not to have carbonation in your water, you can ask for ‘still’ water and it will be given to you “ohne Kohlensaure,” without carbonate.

Don’t expect ice in your drink in most restaurants, either. There are exceptions, but not many- even cola is typically served at room temperature here.

Some restaurants have longer tables where you might find yourself sitting with strangers- I’ve found myself in this situation a few times, and the preferred behavior is to politely ignore the other person. Sometimes you might find a talkative seatmate, but I haven’t found that to be the case.

When you’re finished:

The waiter will not bring you the check until you ask for it. It’s not uncommon for German folk to sit for quite some time after eating, have an espresso, and talk. More than one German traveler I’ve spoken to has expressed that the American habit of putting the check down while they’re still eating feels extremely rushed and rude. In Germany, nobody rushes you out the door.

Cash is king, especially when dining out. Credit cards are usually accepted in major places like hotels, but many restaurants won’t accept credit cards at all. American credit cards are especially problematic in Germany, because the banking systems are different here. If you don’t see credit card logos on the door of the restaurant, assume that you’ll need cash.

When the check is brought to the table, you will often be asked who is paying, if one person is paying, or if the check should be split. It is a common practice to split the check right there and then, and the waiter will give each person a subtotal based on what they ate.

You pay your check at the table, and the wait staff always carries a money pouch to handle the transaction. When the waitress brings you the check, she’ll give you a total. You say how much you’re paying- including the tip- when you hand over your money. For example, if I have a check of 23 euros and want to tip ten percent, I would hand them thirty and say “26 euros” (I usually round up), and they’d give me four back. Don’t leave your tip (Trinkgeld) on the table- that’s typically considered rude. If you want them to keep the entire amount you’ve handed over, you can say ‘stimmt so,’ or, in Bavaria, ‘passt so,’ and this is generally understood to mean keep the change.

Tipping is usually done at 10-15%. Any more and they’ll think you’re nuts. Absurdly generous, but nuts. In the US, people who wait tables have a tiny tiny wage and live or die by their tips, but here, they have a decent living regardless, so if you tip 10%, you’ll seem normal, not stingy.

That’s all the restaurant tips I have for the moment. I may revisit this post in the future.