Germany off the beaten path

This summer I have an opportunity to travel for a week or so in Germany with a friend who is a fluent German speaker. I would like to visit places that might be less accessible to the monolingual speaker (eg. me). We will have a car. The problem I'm finding is that many standard tour books, such as RS, focus on the places the average American visitor can visit without speaking the language. And I know many of them are great places. I'd just like to try to take advantage of this rare (for me) chance to visit another country with someone who is fluent in the local language. So I'll throw this out to forum, in hopes of getting your advice. How would you approach this? Are there books or websites you can recommend?

Posted by Barry
San Diego, CA
587 posts

If there are books and websites on a place it pretty much means it's not off the beaten path, being it's 2013 not too many places are still undiscovered. My advise just get in a car and drive. You might find small villages that few if anyone speaks english but there might not be much to seeor do there. The key to doing what I think you're looking for is finding friends that live in small villages, visiting them and being taken in by them.

Posted by Monte
Genesee, ID
1376 posts

There are a number of other guidebooks. We use Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Frommers sometimes, and get them from Amazon although large book stores have them.

Posted by Anna
Lawrenceville, Georgia
692 posts

John, there are quite a few variables to consider when planning a trip off the beaten path. Firstly, what are your interests and what would you enjoy seeing? Countryside, small villages, nature, beaches, lakes, mountains or smaller cities, museums, exhibitions, concerts, festivals? Also, when in summer do you plan to visit? Once school vacations begin, the roads will be clogged and so will the vacation destinations frequented by Germans. The various German states stagger their summer vacations, so not everybody is out at the same time, though. In 2013 the earliest ones begin June 19/20. Your German speaking friend can google this. There is a current thread going on this forum about the Friesian Islands (Northsea/Atlantic), definitely overlooked by foreign tourists. My personal suggestion would be fly into Hamburg and visit Luebeck, Schwerin, Rostock, Stralsund on the way to the island of Ruegen in the Baltic, Germany's largest. We did this trip by car. We stayed in Binz and visited Sellin and other places on Ruegen; really enjoyed it. If you like trains, they have a miniature railroad connecting some towns. The island of Hiddensee is reachable from Ruegen and Stralsund via ferry and water taxi, no cars allowed. If you google some of the places I mentioned and click on images, you'll see how attractive they are. We went in May, which was pre-season, the prices were very reasonable, the food was good everywhere, with large buffet breakfasts included in the price. We happened to have great weather. Once you pick an area, you could get a German travel guide specializing in it via amazon or amazon.de. You could also do this trip flying into Berlin and heading north.

Posted by Russ
Paradise
1759 posts

I think you have the impression that there are specific places in Germany that will be more accessible because of your German-speaking companion. But I really think you should just go to places that interest you, whether they happen to be tourist destinations or not, because it generally isn't the case that one place will have a far greater number of folks who speak English than another. German public schools everywhere teach English and have done so for decades, so English is pretty well spread around at this point. Medium and large cities will have more English speakers than small villages because they tend to attract better-educated professionals more likely to need English. Small villages - even ones that get lots of tourists - are home to many folks who don't speak English well or at all but who run small businesses or rent out rooms or apartments. Your best bet for limited English is probably the former East Germany, where English wasn't in the curriculum before the late 80's. Almost any place you visit will be somewhat more accessible if one of you speaks German. But if you go too far off the beaten path, the High German taught in our schools doesn't cut it. In certain rural regions of Swabia, Bavaria, or the Hunsrück region, for example, your friend will have no trouble making himself understood to the townsfolk, who hear High German regularly but don't speak it, but he won't understand a word of their VERY different Dialekt. Even native speakers struggle in such places.

Posted by Terry
Bellevue, Wa
57 posts

First of all most Germans see an American coming from around the corner and so many of them can speak some english they will want to try theirs on you. If you are a polite friendly person you will have lots of opportunity to speak german and english so I would plan my trip as to what I want to see...mountains coast or cities they have it all. Generally the smaller a town or village the more german you will speak and hear but if thats not your cup of tea then plan on hearing and speaking some english....have fun

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

Hi, I applaud your idea of going to areas in Germany which are not part of the international tourist scene where English is spoken widely. Going to more esoteric places in Germany where you see only German-speaking tourists or just locals is most effectively done when you (or someone with you) knows the language quite well, basically fairly fluent. Russ is quite right in saying that the high school German of 2-3 years is not going to cut it at all. You got the first step right by traveling with a friend whose language knowledge is fluent. That way even if you are recognised as American and are addressed in English, your friend doesn't have to oblige, just keep talking that Hochdeutsch and they'll come around talking to you in German. No need for your friend to lapse into English. Choose the places you want to see based on your interests, look at Rough Guide Germany and Berlin, and if they are places under the American tourist radar, don't let that stop you. If your interests are specifically in German culture and music, see Weimar, Berlin, Marbach am Neckar, Frankfurt, Meissen, Goettingen, Dessau, Naumburg an der Saale, Dresden, Frankfurt an der Oder, Leipzig, Bonn, Eutin/Holstein, etc. Good that you'll have a car. That way you can go easily into the suburbs of Hamburg, villages in Brandenburg outside of Berlin and Potsdam (plenty of sites/museums to see there if you're into Prussian geography and history), towns on the Baltic and on the Oder, the lower Rhine area, etc.

Posted by Martin
Germany
208 posts

>"So I'll throw this out to forum, in hopes of getting your advice. How would you approach this? Are there books or websites you can recommend?" You are right, many tour books like RS give a pretty distorted view of Germany. Bavaria, the Rhine, and Berlin somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I think there is not a single book I could recommend. Maybe a map of Germanys highlights according to Baedeker could be a good start? Baedeker, Germanys oldest and most popular travel guide, surely knows the country. Here is the map: Baedeker Germany Map Many of the towns websites offer informations in English, Wikipedia is a good source, and Germanys official tourism website is quite helpful too (try the interactive map): http://www.germany.travel/en/index.html Two regions I would recommend are the Harz mountains and the Baltic coast. The Harz mountains offer many medieval towns with thousands of half-timbered houses, while the Baltic coast is a wonderful mix of culture and nature.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Good points make about dialekt. Funny story, my Swabian friend and his Filipina wife, who is learning hochdeutsch, were skiing in Bavaria the other week. The Swabian could not understand a word some of the Bavarians they met were saying. He had to have his wife help translate! Generally though, most people in Germany can speak hochdeutsch, although they may do it with what sounds like a difficult to understand accent for your friend (assuming your friend is not a native German speaker?) I would as others have suggested figure out what kind of history/landscape interests you and maybe pick a region while being sure to visit more out of the way places while in that region. I'm not a fan of them for actual travel, but in terms of ideas and planning, the DK Eyewitness guides are comprehensive in that they pretty much cover every area of interest, separated by region. So you can flip through that book and get an idea if you want to hit the Baltic coast or spend some time joyriding through the Swabische Alb.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

Are you looking for areas that are generally not visited by any tourists (Mannheim, lower Rhine/Ruhr, most of Niedersachsen, etc.) or places not commonly visited by North Americans? Some suggestions would for the latter would be the Odenwald south of Frankfurt, the Waldeck region of northern Hessen (lots of castles, Fachwerk villages and one of Germany's national parks), Germany's Baltic coast, the Sauerland region of Nordrhein-Westfalen, the Swäbische Alb region of Baden-Württemberg, most of Thüringen and Sachsen-Anhalt (particularly the Hartz region).

Posted by Monte
Genesee, ID
1376 posts

Two years ago we were in Grabenstettin doing some family research. That's roughly halfway between Ulm and Tubingen. The waitress in the cafe said that as far as she knew we were the only Americans to ever visit. You could be the second.

Posted by Monte
Genesee, ID
1376 posts

I should have mentioned Bad Urach also. It is where the train stops and the bus begins the short trip to Grabenstettin. Lovely town, not damaged by the war. If you got there for a few days you may well be the only Americans in town.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

James' point is well-taken, being "the only American" and not seeing your fellow countrymen is too often a form of snobbery on this board, but in John's defense, he doesn't seem to be trying to get away from tourists or Americans, but rather use the opportunity afforded by having someone who is fluent in German with him to go places he might find difficult to visit without knowing the language. But the reality is, there aren't really any places left like that in Germany, and if there are a few, I somewhat suspect they're not really someplace a visitor would get a lot out of, period. But lord knows, I am essentially planning a trip to St. Petersburg while my friend is still living there so I have someone who knows his way around town and can speak some of the language to guide me, as I'd be hesitant to visit without that crutch and I'm allergic to tour groups (not because of other Americans, but because I like to dictate my own schedule). So I get the impulse to want to do things that would otherwise be nerve-wracking because you have someone who can make it easier for you. ;)

Posted by stephen
Greeley, co, usa
245 posts

Every place that has a website is not well known to tourists. Virtually every town in Germany has a town website. You can usually access them by entering www.(town name).de. This will give you a wealth of information. In southern Germany, three areas that are less visited by Americans are (1) the area between the Danube and Neckar. A great website is www.naldoland.de/ (2) The Altmuhl valley - http://international.naturpark-altmuehltal.de/en/
(3) the Bavaria forest - the eastern mountains. If you stay in smaller B&B's, zimmers, farms, etc., you can be in a popular tourist area but still be among the first Americans to stay there. See some of the trip reports on Bavaria Ben's website - www.bensbauernhof.com

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2608 posts

One of my favorite smaller and less well known towns is Bad Gronenbach and it's in the south. On a trip there a number of years ago we experienced a wonderful small town festival... my daughter drank her first pils, and we went to a horse show. We also went to a blacksmith shoppe who did some magnificent pieces of art. We stayed in a little guest house about a mile or two out of town in the countryside. I had met one of the residents of the town through a friend. A businessman who frequented the US, he did speak English, but his two preteen daughters were just learning and his wife who worked at the healing/sanitorium did not. We had a great experience and I felt like we saw a part of Germany and typical german life that lots of tourists never get to experience. Had my first white asparagus there! His wife trained horses and the daughters rode. We were lost when we first arrived into town so we had some help from non-speaking policemen... I had Florie's name and phone number written down, so they called him and he showed up on his bicycle wearing liederhosen...(quite different from the business suit he had been wearing when I met him in the US)

Posted by John
Van Nuys, CA, USA
155 posts

Thank you for the replies! To answer a few questions, I will be there at the end of July. In terms of what I'm looking to do, I'd say I'm open to a variety of experiences from hiking, visiting art or historical museums, visiting medieval villages and castles, etc. In general things that are a change from what I see around me in CA, trying to get a sense of different worlds and lives. I guess that doesn't narrow it down much, though...

Posted by Martin
Germany
208 posts

>"I'd suggest drawing a circle around Osnabrueck, as this area seems to be lacking in tourist activities from all the major guidebooks." There you can visit - the historic town halls of Osnabrück and Münster, where the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 - the old town of Münster - Quakenbrück, a small historic town full of colorful timber-framed houses - Tecklenburg, another small, preserved town
- many castles, among them many moated castles, connected by the "100 castles route"

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7209 posts

I like the idea of a swath across far northern Germany. It's the only place I've visited where many people aren't used to speaking English to tourists on a regular basis. Although most younger Germans are still going to know English - your friend will be able to help when the grandma starts yelling at you for crossing against a light, dropping a used piece of gum on a lawn, or putting the wrong coin in a vending machine (How dare you? You should know better!). These are exagerations - but if you go, you'll see what I mean. :) I enjoyed Schlesswig, the Capitol of Schlesswig-Holstein. As others have mentioned, it's not touristy because it's a small, quiet place - but it's beautiful and off the beaten path (plus a couple of sights to visit). I also think Kiel is worth a look, but I may get arguments here. Certainly Lubeck is worth a stop.

Posted by Martin
Germany
208 posts

OK, I didn't want to write it, but now I do it anyway:
I think the OP has a point. The simple truth is that 90+ percent of all American tourists are affraid to visit 75% of the country. Many, especially on this board, prefer to repeatedly visit the same small part of Germany in the south, and only the most adventurous risk to cross the Main river, i.e. leave Bavaria. Travel guides also reflect this fact. Calling the rest of Germany "off the beaten path" is therefore quite right. And compared to places like Rothenburg, parts of the Rhine valley or Füssen, which are totally dependent on international mass tourism and feel like €urodisney, many places in Germany are indeed different. Most of them get visited mostly by Germans and a few Dutch, Scandinavians and Eastern Europeans (Dresden gets more Russians than Americans for example). You can't expect that everyone in hotels, restaurants, shops and on the streets is fluent in English. On Wartburg castle, which most Germans would call Germanys most important castle, there is only one tour in English available, as far as I know. Having a fluent German speaker on your side surely helps in such cases. And if it motivates the OP to visit other parts of Germany... all the better.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

"On Wartburg castle, which most Germans would call Germanys most important castle, there is only one tour in English available, as far as I know." They day I visited, there were two English tours, but for some odd reason, dogs were only allowed with the German-language tours. So, because I didn't want to leave my most faithful travel companion waiting in the car, I had to rely on my imperfect understanding of German. BTW, I'm assuming James used the example of Osnabrück because it seems like half the LKW's in Germany are registered there.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

John, Some well taken points here. True, at least what I saw on my most recent summer trips to Dresden that you do hear more Russian than American English. By "off the beaten path" if your intention is to avoid masses of Americans, then the simple thing is to avoid the middle Rhine area, Bavaria and the rest of south Germany. No blame from me on that. True, that for Americans "off the beaten path" is going to areas north of the Main, out of their comfort zone, to places relative to their numbers few Americans go to. If that's what you want to do, philosophically, go to places like Celle (basically untouched by the war whereas British bombers plastered Hannover), Minden, Magdeburg, Meissen (almost untouched ), Jena, Wilhelmshaven, the Swäbische Alb area, as suggested by Tom, (Stauffenberg's family Schloss is there), Detmold, Kleves, Dortmund, Schleswig-Holstein area, in addition to places I listed above, etc., I heartily recommend: do it, all the more so since with your friend there's no language issue, no linguistic challenge, regardless of the Germans you encounter speak any English or not. Your friend should/can start with German and stay with it. Numerous places I have suggested here I have visited at least once in the 40 years and I can assure you that on the streets/train stations you will literally be the only non-German tourists or Americans there. Being motorised gives you the extra flexibility more than relying on public transportation in going out to the villages.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7209 posts

The Bodensee, Lake Constance, is a good suggestion. It's a beautiful area but skipped by most Americans - popular with locals. Another thought is to go camping. Camping is a popular thing and almost never experienced by American tourists. My favorite campsites here are remote and primative, European campsites are more like KOAs, but they are a great way to interact primarily with locals (and other European tourists).

Posted by Mark
Kansas City, Missouri, USA
24 posts

John, I agree with others who said to try the east German side of Germany. I have enjoyed these places the last few summers on my visits. The east German side of Germany has a different non-western feel. You might enjoy Usedom Island. I visited there two summers ago. No one spoke English. My German is not great after 15 years, but I was able to get by. You and your travel companion will have no problem. Last summer I visited Erfurt and loved it. The areas around were great as well. Enjoy your trip. I am going back this summer as well. Remember the trips are about the people you meet, not the language you speak.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

"...different non-western feel." I don't know about the non-western part but absolutely agree about the "different feel" as in Potsdam, Meissen, Magdeburg, Frankfurt an der Oder, etc. That strikes you when you're out walking about taking in the sights and environment or even at the stations just for changing trains. One thing you can bet on is that you will be literally the only Americans in lots of places and the service personnel won't start off talking to you in English. You'll be expected to speak German.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Even in rural parts of the country, the majority of young people do speak English. It's not at all comparable to the USA and young people speaking 2nd languages here (unless they were exposed to a 2nd language in the home)

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2608 posts

I would also like to second or third The Bodensee/Lake Constance as one of the most beautiful places I have visited. I have been there a few times now and each time it takes my breath away. The first time I was there we got up and watched the sunrise and it was s peaceful and serene. I would much rather spend time there than any number of touristy cities (although all of Germany has a lot to offer...I love it)

Posted by Jon
Cincinnati, OH, USA
241 posts

John:
Does "off the beaten path" mean only "rural"? My wife and I traveled to the north and had a great time in Bremen and Hamburg. Not small cities, in the case of Hamburg, quite the contrary. We met a few (very few) Americans while in Hamburg, but it wasn't overrun with them/us. In Bremen, I don't think we encountered a single American. We were there doing research on our family genealogy, but we enjoyed the city very much. If you visit Bremen dine at the Ratskeller and tour the Becks Brewery. See http:/www.destingation360.com/europe/germany/bremen

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

John, It is a reasonable expectation that in the western part of Germany that most Germans under 50 know some English or are very good at it. I've always found that as a rule most Germans (in the west) are willing to speak at least some English. If you want avoid and escape that, spend most of your time in the eastern part visiting places, aside from Berlin and Potsdam, like Dresden, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Jena, Meissen, Schwerin (formerly of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Halle, Erfurt, Frankfurt an der Oder, Naumburg an der Saale, Weimar, etc. Ideally, one should visit Bremen, Hamburg (definitely), Cologne, Dresden, and Heidelberg when doing a mainly German trip. But, when under a strict time constraint where you have to decide either or, then I would pick and recommend Dresden (both Dresden-Neustadt and Dresden itself) over Heidelberg or Cologne, depending on the specific museums you want to see.

Posted by Pamela
New York City, NY, USA
3313 posts

john, It's been many years since I spent a winter and spring near Reutlingen in the Neckar Valley. But I did go back a few years ago and revisited the towns and general area. They had changed, but it was more about growth and the global developments that have happened over the past 30 years than a change in tourism. In other words, it's a beautiful valley without a lot of tourists. If you go, enjoy the Schwabische alb. I think that the wonderful alcoholic apple drink will all be consumed for the year by the time you arrive, but it's a wonderful area. Pam

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

I was in Reutlingen yesterday, in fact. Nice little town, difficult to find decent German food it in it though, oddly. Can't say I'd really recommend it as a base of operations in Germany, though - not with Esslingen and Tubingen nearby. Both more visited, yes, but again - more going on. I see the moderator did a cut and snip job on my post. I'd much rather have a post deleted entirely and get a warning rather than have a post edited to one sentence out of context.

Posted by John
Van Nuys, CA, USA
155 posts

Jon asked: Does "off the beaten path" mean only "rural"? No, I just meant to imply off the path normally visited by American tourists where you're commonly going to find english speakers. I have what I think is a unique (for me) opportunity to travel anywhere I want in Germany with someone who is a fluent speaker, so instead of going places I could easily go without this friend I'd like to try to go to places where a speaking ability in German would come in handy. These may be places popular with German-speaking natives, I don't think there are that many undiscovered corners of the world (especially in a major Western country like Germany). As an example I have traveled on the Andriatic side of Italy and there are many smaller towns, quite popular as vacation destinations for Italians, where many if not most people do not speak English. So I'm hoping to find equivalent areas in Germany.

Posted by Beatrix
Calgary
1974 posts

Northern Germany is still all that popular with American tourists but definitely worth a trip. Good tourist infrastructure as well (e.g. nice hotels and restaurants). Have the Friesian Islands been mentioned yet? If so I'd like to second them, especially in connection with the Wadden Sea National Parks, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that sees few Americans but many German tourists. "Mud flat hiking" is a very unique activity. Take a guided tour and your German friend will come in handy as very few tours would be available in English. http://www.waddensea-worldheritage.org/

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
2696 posts

Hi, It may be too much to expect that certain areas in Germany are still "undiscovered" but certainly they're much less visited, if at all, by international tourism, ie., the only tourism is German. True, there are places which don't even get German tourists. The more esoteric the place/site is, historically and culturally, the less foreign, specifically anglo-phone, tourism it gets, again if at all, especially in northern and eastern Germany. There have numerous places I've been to where the few visitors present were basically German speaking. Although I travel by train, I'll say that you have that great advantage of being motorised so that you can easily go into the rural and outlying areas, such as in the greater Dresden or Berlin area, where you neeed to speak the language well in order to be effective.

Posted by Beatrix
Calgary
1974 posts

There is a big difference between "great tourist infrastructure" and "great tourist sites". There are too many places in the world that actually do have good tourist infrastructure but not necessarily sites I want to see before I die. And then there are those wonderful sites that may not have the best tourist infrastructure to support visits by thousands of tourists but can provide the experience of a life time. I do agree that generally speaking the tourist infrastructure in the former GDR might be lacking in some areas and could be considered to be at a lower standard - depending on what you compare it to. However, that is completely besides the point wether the region has sites that are worth a visit.

Posted by Martin
Germany
208 posts

>"There are so many "hidden" gems in Bavaria; the possessed and fanatic former GDR lovers on here love to shame Bavaria by making the entire Bavaria look like one big nonstop Oktoberfest fairground." Actually, most people here simply try to give some advice for sights off the beaten path. Since this is Rick Steves forum, and 2/3 of his book are about Bavaria and the Rhine, people tend to recommend regions not covered there.
You on the other hand mostly bash recommandations of others if they aren't located in Bavaria.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
5444 posts

.??? Dresden must lack the much-loved Holiday Inn Express.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8755 posts

Any chance we could get back on the topic raised by John and answer his question?

Posted by Lesley
Belcarra, BC, Canada
6 posts

John
I would agree with those who have suggested Eastern Germany. We have spent several weeks cycling there (on three different occasions) and ran into many people who spoke no English. Having a travelling companion who is fluent in German would give you an understanding of this part of the country that many tourists don't get. As well as the other towns that have been mentioned, I think that Gorlitz, which is right on the German-Polish border is delightful, particularly if you are interested in historic architecture. Have fun!

Posted by Shoni
Kirn, Germany
331 posts

I live off the beaten track in Germany in Rheinland Pfalz, west of the Rhein in an area where, in the last 5 years, I have seen only a few Dutch number plated cars and certainly not one American tourist. The area is wooded and hilly and heaven for those who enjoy rambling and visiting deserted castles, although not much else. However there are very few Germans who speak English, certainly not enough English to conduct a conversation. The younger ones mentioned who have learned English at school have mostly moved to the cities for work. It is basically a farming community with little knowledge of foreign languages. All this despite being only an hour from Frankfurt by train. I think it is a misconception that all Germans speak English and your German speaking friend could be a great asset if you are in such an area as this.