The Ultimate Guide for First-Timers in Germany (How Not to Look Like a Newbie)

The Ultimate Guide for a First-Timers in Germany | Travel with Teens
Expat LivingGermany

I love Germany! In some way, it’s part of me. I lived in Munich as a child. My parents returned to live in Germany when I headed to college. My husband and I honeymooned in Bavaria, and then later baptized our son there, too. Therefore, moving here a year ago wasn’t completely unfamiliar. Over the decades, some things have changed: many trains have air conditioning, women now shave, no more East and West, and kids don’t go to school on Saturdays. However, some things remain the same.

If you are moving or visiting Germany, I created a list of essential things to help so you’re not caught totally off guard and looking like a newbie

Having Zero Cash is a Big Problem

Moving to Germany. Need Cash

This is a big one for newcomers. Make sure you have cash on hand immediately upon arrival because credit cards are often not accepted. People still count out every. single. coin. For some reason Germany hasn’t yet embraced cards despite their neighbors gladly accepting plastic payment. Most restaurants, big department stores, and grocery stores will happily take a card, but outside of that expect them not to. If they do, count it as a win.


Related: Will My Phone Work in Europe? And Other Questions Asked by Novice Teen Travelers


How Much for a Glass of Water?

Paying for Water in Germany

Expect to pay for bottled water at a restaurant. Then decide quickly if you want still or sparking water (with or without gas). Tap water is typically not offered free of charge. I have started asking for “leitungswasser,” which is the word for tap water (translates to “plumbing water”), hoping to drive cultural change because the tap water here is amazing! Clear, clean, and tasty.

Why anyone would want to pay seven euros for bottled water at a restaurant is beyond me except that’s amazing profit margin for the restaurant. Well, that and the bottled water business here is a multi-billion-dollar business, with kick-ass marketing!

But for a country so concerned about climate change, it’s a mystery that the water companies and water from the source can’t live in harmony. If you need more than a wine glass full of water at lunch, carry in a bottle of water in a bag or purse.  

Every Piece of Trash Has a Special Place

Germans take recycling very seriously and trash can be complicated, but don’t over-think it. Here is what to sort: paper, packaging (plastic/metal/other random crap), bio (not compost but anything “organic”), glass, bottles with a pfand, and everything else. After almost a year, we have it figured out, but it’s taken some practice.

Paper goes in a blue bin and is the easiest except for Christmastime when Amazon is at my door every day. Then I have to drive my boxes/paper to the dump because they don’t fit in the bin and the trash men won’t take the overflow.

Bio, also very easy. Anything consumable (meat, egg shells, veggies, fruit pieces, coffee grounds and paper towels) goes in that bin–usually brown.

Glass goes to the proper white, green, or brown receptacles around the corner.  And on Sunday I have to be quiet when I go because technically, I’m not supposed to throw away glass on Sundays because it makes noise.

Bottles with a pfand are the best. Take them to the store and get some money back. Love that!

And everything else, well, that’s fun. Every other Tuesday night we run around the house collecting anything leftover to squish into our tiny black bin to throw away.

Forget Shopping on Sundays

On Sundays (and German holidays…and there are a lot), everything except restaurants and museums will be closed. It’s important to just embrace that things are quiet on Sundays. Coming from the U.S. where everything is open seven days a week, we are still adjusting to Sunday Ruhetag (rest day). As a result, Sundays are very quiet. Almost too quiet. In the beginning I liked the excuse and hang out, but after a year, I just find it inconvenient.


Related: Reflecting on Sunday Store Closings in Germany


Think No Speed Limit? Think Again

Don’t be fooled, while the autobahn has sections without a speed limit, it’s rare to get very far before the speed drops to 120 km, then 100, then 80 and then 60. All within what feels like seconds. Every highway in Germany is constantly under construction, which means there are speed limits. This is actually a good thing.

The main rule on the German roads is the driver in the left lane goes the fastest. If you aren’t passing someone, move over. If you are blocking the car behind you, move over. Basically, if your car should be in the way, they will honk and flash their lights at you in utter impatience. Even if the light up head is red or there is a stau (traffic jam).

In Germany, police aren’t lingering on roads with radars. Instead speed cameras get you when you least expect it. Some cameras are permanent fixtures and then occasionally, they will pop up as little trailers to catch you going a few kilometers over the limit. German driving isn’t for the distracted. It’s important to be full on at all times, which really should be the way everywhere.

Mentally Prepare Thyself for Grocery Shopping

 Shopping in Germany | Travel Teening

German grocery stores tend to be smaller with less selection than the States. But for the most part, I don’t find the shopping part the most stressful. It’s the rest of the shopping experience that differs from the U.S.

First, make sure you have your 50 cent piece or cart token (which companies use as promotion items) to get the cart. Carts require some kind of payment to ensure a return.

Bringing your own shopping bags is a must, and almost any place in Europe requires bagging your own groceries. Stores will charge a small fee in case you forget your bag.

Once in line, the fun starts. Just like with driving, this is no time to day dream. Load up the items onto the belt. Don’t forget the item separator once your food is on the belt. People get anxious when the divider is not set up for the next customer, but will thank you politely once you place it down. If you have a weekly shopping visit on the belt and the next customer has one item, they may politely ask to skip you so they don’t have to wait.

While waiting, the German next in line will more than likely stand way too close to you. I’m not sure why the grocery line is the only place my personal space is invaded, but just expect it. Be ready for your turn because once the groceries get scanned, the clock is ticking. In Germany, some grocery stores have a special knack for tossing recently purchased food, produce, and products into the bagging area. Be ready to catch everything quickly and place it into the bag. As soon as the cashier tells you the total, you’re expected to stop bagging and get out your money. Don’t worry, everyone will wait patiently in line if you want to count out every cent. But don’t dare wait to pay until you’re done bagging, that will infuriate the cashier and the customers in the queue.

Some stores, like Lidl and Aldi are often known for having the unfriendliest cashiers on the planet. So, I stopped going. I found a few neighborhood stores like Edeka and Rewe with fairly nice, friendly cashiers who will smile and wait to ring up my groceries until I have unloaded them all onto the belt. Don’t be put off by the discount stores. There are other grocery stores with better selection, patient cashiers, and helpful staff.

Prepare for Contrasting Levels of Patience, Which Make No Sense

I find the Germans show stark contrasts when it comes to levels of patience. That same driver who is flashing his/her lights on the autobahn (see above) and wanting to drive 200 km/h only to come to screeching halt at the traffic jam, will be the same calm person standing in a long queue at the farmers market, basket in hand, waiting patiently as each customer talks to the butcher about which meat to buy. No one sighs or gruffs or walks away if the line is long. It’s a complete opposite from what I would expect. Cool, calm, and pleasant in the line on Saturday morning and freaking maniac on the road Saturday afternoon. A little like Jekyll and Hyde. I think the power of the car (BMW, Mercedes, and Audis) turns them to driving madness.

Germans Are Totally Honest But Totally Sweet

Newcomers Guide to Germany | Germans are Friendly

I’m not sure when Germans got the bad rap for being unfriendly. No, they likely won’t smile at you first as you pass them on the street, but they will reciprocate a greeting and smile.

I’m from Texas where people are over-the-top friendly. When checking out at the grocery store, everyone will know birthdays and home towns before we’re done. It’s certainly not like that here. But I do have a lovely neighborhood with neighbors who are happy to chat, wave, and join us for dinner/drinks. In the stores, people are polite, and “sing song” a few things now and then. When we drive, unless it’s on the autobahn, they will wave me in or stop to let me pass. Everyone always tells me to have a good day or weekend. And some times, they may try to make small talk, but with my limited German I end up smiling and chuckling a bit.

Perhaps the stereotype comes from the idea that Germans are brutally honest. That is indeed true. They will offer up their opinion on exactly whatever it is that I might be thinking but would never say out loud. Sometimes I wish Americans would be more honest.

Four-Legged Friends are on Par with Children

The Germans love their dogs almost as much as their kids. And German dogs are well trained. They will walk off leash next to their owner and sit quietly under the table at a restaurant or the train. Dogs are allowed anywhere except the grocery stores or places where they sell packaged food. There is a high level of behavior expected for your four-legged friend.

Like everything in Germany, there are laws around dogs and fines for not obeying. Keep dogs on a leash and a close distance from you in the city and neighborhoods. When approaching another person (or dog), put your dog back on the leash. Not picking up after your dog is punishable by a hefty fine (however, my neighborhood has quite a bit of dog poo on the sidewalks which have not been attended to even with bags nearby). While there are rules around dogs, there seems to be quite a bit of room for interpretation.

There are Rules Until There Are Not

There are rules for just about everything in German, and they are not all written down, just culturally known.

Here are a few fun ones I’ve heard about:

  • When it snows, the sidewalk must be shoveled by 10 am.
  • The shrubs cannot be over a certain height.
  • It is illegal to address a police offer by the informal “du.” You must use the formal “Sie.”
  • Don’t do anything loud on Sunday to upset the quiet day.
  • Even if no cars are coming, don’t cross if the man is still red.
  • Don’t run out of gas on the autobahn, it’s illegal.
  • No dumping glass recycling on Sundays or weekdays after 8 pm.

However, I’m finding there is some wiggle room to breaking some of the rules if played correctly. People seem to be more forgiving than I expected.

Staying Cool in Summer Takes Strategy and Fans

Almost nothing in Germany is air conditioned. And, by the way, Germany gets hot in the summer. While the houses are well constructed and insulated, move beyond the first floor and it gets toasty in the afternoon. For the most part, the only places to find respite from the heat are the grocery stores, some museums, and perhaps some shopping centers. When the temperatures start to rise, it’s important to understand the German windows and window shades (called rouladens) and how to properly air out your house in the morning/night and close it up during the day. Best advice is buy fans in May when they are still available in stores. Find the closest pool and make a lot of ice in preparation for the heat.


Cash photo by Hans Ripa on Unsplash

Water photo by Da Kraplak on Unsplash

Recycling photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Grocery photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Flower lady photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Dog photo by Daniel Brunsteiner on Unsplash

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