Wish you were Herr: student tourism in Germany

Student Life

In my experience, most British people don’t go to Germany on holiday. Business, Oktoberfest, friends, perhaps, but a German holiday is greeted with faint bemusement. Perhaps people have visions of finding themselves floundering in John Cleese-esque “don’t mention the war” predicaments; or perhaps another practical, grey Northern European country simply doesn’t have the appeal of France or Spain. Either way, the Foreign Office figures say it all – France attracts 17 million British visitors each year and Spain 11 million, but Germany a mere 2 million. Why is this?

Firstly, the obvious, stereotypical objection – Germany is boring because Germans have no sense of humour. As a disclaimer, I work in a German bank, so the people I interact with are more susceptible to these accusations than most. Not only are they untrue, however, but they make us overlook an international and welcoming attitude that embraces foreign visitors. I’ll use Paris as a French comparison. When I spent six months living there, Parisians really did often live up to their standoffish stereotype, even despite the benefits Paris reaps from tourism, being the third most popular tourist city in the world.

At the very least, if you are a belligerent English-speaking tourist, or an unfortunate language student who has forgotten that essential word at an inopportune moment, they are far more likely to be impatient than sympathetic. Of course, the probability of anyone in England spontaneously launching into French or German to help a tourist in need is negligible too. But what makes Germany such a good destination is that everyone, from supermarket cashiers to bus drivers, not only speaks English, but most importantly is very open to foreigners. Not to mention the renowned German clockwork efficiency. Buses and trains really do run on time, in my experience – and almost entirely on obedience, because there are usually no ticket barriers whatsoever.

Enjoying sun, sea and sand in a German setting, though, might seem implausible. However, having taken several family holidays in Spanish resorts populated by sunburnt Brits attempting to drag British culture kicking and screaming over the Channel down to the Costa Brava, I would wholeheartedly recommend the south of Germany as a stunning alternative. Lake Constance, situated at the crossroads between Germany, Switzerland and Austria, is absolutely beautiful, even if the enthusiasm for FKK, or naked bathing, does attract hordes of saggy beachgoers on certain beaches and make a stroll around the lake that little bit more hazardous.

Now to city breaks. Focusing on Frankfurt, my current home for half a year, really is going for the hard sell, it being renowned as one of the most businesslike and grey banking cities in Europe. Indeed, before I arrived, I did have my doubts, having nothing to go on but images of monolithic banking blocks on a bland skyline. The city’s nickname – ‘Mainhattan’, in reference to the river Main which cuts through it – speaks for itself, really.

However, the reality is quite different. Frankfurt is far more friendly than forbidding, and the sub-districts of Bornheim and Bockenheim even feel almost like villages. Leipziger Straße in Bockenheim, where I live, is a bustling, quaint hub of activity. One of my favourite phenomena here, which I have been reliably informed exist elsewhere, but have never seen in England, is the open library, a bookcase stationed incongruously in the middle of the pavement which offers readers free books for the taking, under the premise that they either replace the same book or another one in its stead.

There is also great emphasis on open space in the city, and every second street corner seems to yield to an unexpected stretch of green. My favourite park in Frankfurt, the Grünebergpark, is a gem: the long grass, woodland fringes and bright flushes of wildflowers offer a very welcome relief from the concrete regularity of the city centre.

The city is also famed for its museums, particularly on Museumsufer (by an unfortunate coincidence, even this translates as ‘museum bank’ – a riverbank, I hasten to add), where communication and architecture museums jostle against art exhibitions and even a flea market.

Food is another one of Germany’s less well-appreciated highlights. OK, so one of Frankfurt’s signature dishes is “hand cheese with music” (Handkäse mit Musik), oddly named and even odder-smelling, and another is “green sauce” (Grüne Soße), a herby mayonnaise in an unappetising shade of green. But Germany’s pretzels, Wurst, beer and local specialities are absolutely delicious and fulfil the British longing for equally stodgy, satisfying fare. And this is not the whole story – there is a very strong trend towards organic, vegetarian living, with far more prevalent organic supermarket chains than in the UK.

Part and parcel of fitting in with Frankfurters is investing a lot of your weekend in brunch. The key to understanding this Frankfurt obsession is that almost all shops are shut on Sundays. Although I won’t go so far as to say I prefer it this way, I have learnt to see the upsides. Firstly, you really are forced to do something for your wellbeing, whether sport or leisure activities or spending time with friends and family, when you might otherwise fill the time with mindless errands. And secondly, when you have very little else with which to fill your day, it is unsurprising that brunch becomes the centre of attention, with absolutely everything available from sensible muesli to overwhelming all-you-can-eat buffet extravaganzas for 20€ or more.

Plus, as a happy fallback, there are always kebabs. If you are a Park-End-goer, you will almost certainly have a regular moment of alcohol-induced crisis in the early hours of Thursday morning when a trip to Hassan’s (other kebab vans are available) becomes indispensable. Frankfurt, however, goes one step better – there is a popular Döner Kebab Boat moored on the River Main. Largely due to the influence of the large Turkish minority, many workers having immigrated to Germany after the Second World War, the stigma associated with having a kebab is also almost non-existent. You’re absolved of any greasy, faintly queasy regret because fifty other people are settling down to kebab-based family lunches around you. If you combine this with the significantly lower tax on alcohol, meaning that you can buy a bottle of quality wine for €2.99 where you would usually opt for whatever acid concoction Tesco’s has on offer for a fiver, I would say that Frankfurt is a fine place for students.

Of course, Germany, sitting securely at the centre of Europe and economically outflanking all its neighbours, certainly doesn’t need me to act as a tourist guide attempting to rustle up some extra income. Its tourism industry is going strong, and some cities – Berlin and Munich especially – have evidently already convinced the British. However, the rest of the country has an awful lot to offer, and if any of this has piqued your interest, I’d urge you to give it a try. Really, what’s the wurst that could happen?