21 Things That Surprised Me About Germany

21 Things That Surprised Me About Germany

When I first set out on my 3 month digital nomad/travel excursion we had just planned on staying in Germany for about 3 weeks, but that turned into 2 months! Whoops. And during that time I really fell in love with Germany – it’s such a lovely country!

Lübeck in northern Germany from St Peter's Church
[Lübeck is a beautiful town in northern Germany, and an easy day trip from Hamburg; this view is from St. Peter’s Church]
I’d been before – to Berlin for a couple of days and then Starnberg and Munich for Oktoberfest. But this visit was the first time I’d really spent an extended amount of time in one country, and in one city no less!

We were in Hamburg the bulk of the time and Berlin for 10 days, but I was also able to squeeze in some day trips and visit the Saxony region for a weekend, too. Here’s what surprised me most about the country itself:

Brick building in Wernigerode, Germany
[Pretty brick building in Harz National Park]


In California I RARELY ever had to take out cash, and I usually traveled with about $20 on me max and that would last me for weeks. Not so in Germany!

Most large chain stores do accept credit card (and if you do use credit card, you will have to sign, so make sure you have the back of your card signed! They often checked me for this and I had forgotten, so I had to show my ID with my signature on it), but many smaller ones, restaurants, bakeries, etc. do not. Even the doctor’s office I went to in Berlin only took cash!

And make sure to get the Charles Schwab debit card before you go so you don’t have to pay those pesky ATM fees.


I had to go to the doctor while I was there, and it was sooo cheap and easy to deal with as compared to the US! Each visit was never more than €100 (and often much less than), and you paid right then and there. No surprise bills later on!

It was also suuuuper chill. Like I was never weighed/had my blood pressure checked, and the room you saw the doctor in also felt like it doubled as their personal office. Some of the doctors were even wearing regular street clothes!


View from Brocken in the Harz Mountains in Germany has a small elevation change as the highest mountain in Northern Germany
[View from the top of Brocken]
When I picture German countryside, I think rolling hills and castles perched on cliffs. But that’s only in central/Southern Germany! Northern Germany, where Hamburg is located, is actually pretty flat!

I hiked to the top of the highest mountain in Northern Germany (Brocken!) and it’s only 1,141 meters (3,743 feet). It’s half as high as Half Dome in Yosemite to give some perspective.


Seriously – even when we went to a small organic specialty store it was way cheaper than in the US (or at least in the Bay Area, where Whole Foods has taken over the world). Like I think I spend about €50 a week on food from the grocery store here (and that’s even with buying some organic stuff), whereas I’d spend about twice that back home.

And alcohol is sooo cheap. Like beer is often cheaper than water at restaurants!


The large variety of bread in German supermarkets is one thing that surprised me about Germany!
Germans are INTO their breads. You can find a whole aisle of different kinds of bread in the store. They’re also really obsessed with protein, I’ve noticed, and have this ‘protein bread’ that people love to eat.

And they put all kinds of toppings on bread – yes, the traditional butter and jam (which they call ‘marmalade’), but also fresh cheese, cottage cheese, pesto, honey, peanut butter, hazelnut chocolate, quark (like a combo of cheese and yogurt?) – there are literally a million different spreads to choose from.

German Breakfast of bread, fruit, vegetables, and spreads
[The breakfast spread that one of our house sitting hosts put out for us! Check out that bread tho, both in the basket and upper right corner]
And the bread is a huge staple of a German breakfast! And it’s not just wheat toast or English muffins that we eat in the US – oh no. That’s a disgrace in Germany. It’s hearty, fresh-baked bread often decorated with a variety of nuts and seeds.

And yes, it really is as good as it looks. One person we house sat for said that if she ever left Germany, the delicious bread is what she’d miss most.

I don’t think I’ll be able to look at another pathetic piece of soggy sliced sandwich bread the same when I return to the US.


The large variety of chocolate in German supermarkets is one thing that surprised me about Germany!
Germans are VERY serious about their chocolate (which I deeply appreciate) and have aisles dedicated to it in stores! And there are soooo many varieties. The Ritter Sport and Milka chocolate brands have like 20 different flavors commonly sold in stores. It’s basically heaven.


You have to be specific and ask for it “still” or “without gas” here, or else they’ll probably just bring you sparkling water.

Even though Germans love their sparkling water, kombucha hasn’t yet seemed to catch on. I only found one brand of kombucha commonly sold in stores, and there were 3 varieties to choose from (and they weren’t really that good…). This was quite a disappointment to me as a kombucha lover, and I’m counting down the days until I can return to Whole Foods and buy a whole bag of GT’s.


Water is expensive in Germany
[Fancy expensive water]
And going off that, water is so expensive when you go out to eat! It’s ridiculous. I combat that by bringing my reusable water bottle with me EVERYWHERE. Beer is often cheaper (although there is a law where there has to be at least one drink on the menu that’s cheaper, be it juice or water), so many people just get that instead.

They don’t seem to have many water fountains, either. I don’t get it – is everyone here just extremely dehydrated?? I drink so much water throughout the day, and am used to having access to free water at restaurants and numerous drinking fountains back home in the US. I don’t really remember ever having to search for water like I do here. It boggles my mind.

I even tried to ask for tap water when I went to one restaurant (this trick usually works in other places in Europe, like France) and the waitress just stared at me, confused as ever. One of my German friends confirmed that no, no one orders tap water here.


I think this goes for a lot of Europe, but all the shops are closed on Sundays! Large chain stores will probably still be open, but most shops are closed. This is weird to me since back home, Sundays are usually “errand day” for myself and most people I know. And especially shitty if you arrive somewhere on a Sunday and can’t do any grocery shopping!


Almost everyone we met that was around our age (mid- late-twenties) either already had or was working on their Master’s. I honestly can only think of a few people I know from back home that have their Master’s, and I know many who don’t have their Bachelor’s either!

I think this is due to the cheaper cost in higher education in Germany. In the US, it’s soooo expensive to go to school, so many people just don’t. Here, it seemed like the norm. HOWEVER, I have heard that they pay for it with their taxes, so it’s not technically “free” – BUT I think the fact that it’s already taken out makes you more likely to go? They also apparently get money back if they study abroad, again because it had already been paid in taxes earlier.


The trains in Germany operate on the 'honor system'

All of their trains and buses seem to operate on the “honor system”. You’re SUPPOSED to buy a ticket, but they only actually check every now and then (and then you pay a fine, I think €60, if you don’t have one).

It’s so interesting to me as at least in California, they definitely want to MAKE SURE you’ve bought a ticket. The honor system doesn’t exist haha.


If you go on German Netflix, you’ll find popular shows like “Modern Family” BUT WITH GERMAN VOICES. LOL WUT. It’s the strangest thing to see actors/actresses you know from the US with slightly different voices and a sudden amazing German tongue. They do a really really good job, too!


This is appalling. Pizza should be eaten with your hands – NOT a knife and fork!!! Like what is this nonsense. Apparently it’s also an Italian thing?

Regardless, I went on a date with someone and was shocked when he picked up his fork and knife and started CUTTING our giant pizza. Um, what????

In the US, I literally NEVER use my knife – pretty much only to spread butter on bread. That’s it. Otherwise my knife just sits on my napkin, collecting dust. I pretty much just use the side of my fork if I needed to cut anything. This is a huge faux pas in Germany, apparently. They actually use a knife to eat pretty much EVERYTHING.

So anyways, back to my date – here I was, shocked, and in all honesty – I hadn’t used a knife with my food in so long that I didn’t even really know how to use it. So I just rambled on as I clumsily took my knife in my right hand and fork in my left (even though I’m right handed??!!!! Like what is this blasphemy?????) and stabbed the pizza aggressively with my fork while I hacked at it with my knife. Instead of gracefully slicing it like you’re supposed to do.

It was basically like the scene in the movie How to Deal where she goes to her rich sister’s boyfriend’s parent’s house, and is trying to cut this squab but has no idea how to do it, and it flies off her plate. The pizza didn’t fly off my plate, but I did spend about 3 minutes trying to cut just one piece while (unsuccessfully) detracting his attention that it was about to end up in my lap.

And if you’re wondering, I did successfully eat the pizza – but he ate most of it since it took me about 5 minutes just to cut one piece LOL. And we did go on more dates – but only after he made a joke about his sister saying you should never go out with someone who didn’t know how to properly use a knife and fork. My soul pretty much left my body at that moment because I realized that he’d noticed the whole thing.

So, if you’re planning to go to Germany (and maybe even go on a date or two) watch a YouTube video or SOMETHING and learn how to properly use a knife and fork so you don’t look like the ultimate fool like I did.


Germans are into separating EVERYTHING when it comes to recycling - one thing that surprised me about Germany!
[They are SERIOUS about their separation; here you can see one container for “colored glass” and one for “white glass”; they also separate compost, plastics, and paper]
Usually in the US you just have one container for all recyclables and one for trash; here you have one for paper, plastics, colored glass, white glass, compost, etc. And you have to get it right OR ELSE.


And they literally NEVER check ID’s. Which is so, so weird to me! In the states, they always check everyone’s ID.

And I’m still in shock that the drinking age is 16 (!!!!). However, they can only drink beer/wine and not hard liquor. That’s reserved for you once you turn 18 lol.


I thought the sauna obsession was mostly just a Scandinavian thing, but nope, it’s a huge thing here, too! And everyone goes naked! Such a weird thing for my American brain to wrap my head around.


Bike lane in Germany
[So that brick path is the bike lane. But like, I had no idea and almost got ran over LOL]
Similar to Amsterdam (once my friend accidentally walked in the bike lane and a very unhappy older man scolded her that “This isn’t Disneyland!!”), they take their bike lanes VERY SERIOUSLY. And they’re often not marked (at least in Hamburg and Berlin) but rather are just different colored bricks in a line on the sidewalk.

Bike lane in Germany
[Another secret bike lane]
We didn’t realize this (in the US the words “bike lane” are spray painted on the path with a picture of a bike so there’s no room for error lol) and got reprimanded in Berlin. And people bike FAST, so you’d better look around and make sure you’re not accidentally standing on the path!


Lol I am embarrassed to say I pretty much know jack shit about Germany and their politics. But this also goes for American politics. I got schooled by Germans multiple times. #embarrassing


I’m full of embarrassing stories in this post. I’m actually surprised I’m even allowed in public at all…

But anyways, I was talking with my travel buddy, Stephanie, and one of our new German friends. We were talking about the differences in German and American school systems and she mentioned kindergarten – and I was like “I doubt there’s kindergarten in Germany” and my German friend looked at me and was like, “Kindergarten is a German word…”



The Lübeck city gate in Germany
[The city gate in Lübeck]
Ok, so this is probably just me being super ignorant, but for some reason I had this idea that EVERYONE in Germany could speak at least some English. For the most part, people did, but we also encountered A LOT of people (especially in the slightly older generation) that couldn’t or didn’t feel comfortable.

And this is totally fine! I get it – I’m in their country, and I don’t EXPECT them to speak to me in English – just like it would be ridiculous for a German to come to the US and demand people speak German. But, for some reason I assumed more people could speak English than could in reality.

But on the flip side, learning some German was really fun! And we made German friends, so they were great translators haha.


View of Hamburg and Elbphilharmonie from the Church of St. Michael (Michel)
[I love city views! This is from the Church of St. Michael. You can see the giant concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, in the distance]
I did not expect to care for Hamburg at all, really. I looked up photos online and it just looked like another big city to me. I was like eh.

But I really fell in love with it! It’s got lots of interesting neighborhoods, has a lot of fun stuff going on but still doesn’t feel too overwhelming, is really pretty, public transportation is great, it feels super safe, lots of green spaces within the city itself, I like the weather, lots of fun places to go out…To be honest, it pretty much fits the bill for everything I want in a city!

Buildings in Hamburg, Germany
[Obsessed with the apartments here]
I think the only thing that’s missing is its proximity to nature NATURE. Like yes, I love all the parks, but city parks are very different from NATURE if you know what I mean. And I’d love it if there were more hills/mountains – it’s relatively flat, and I’m used to having mountains after growing up in the Bay Area. But otherwise it’s pretty much perfect.

Forest in Alt-Tegel Berlin
[Hanging out in a forest in Berlin]
Ah Germany, you shall be missed. I’ll probably be back – I’d love to explore more of the south/central region! Because, as mentioned before, CASTLES. And there are more mountains, too. And apparently I have some family in a couple places in the southern regions that I’ve never met, so there’s that (my grandpa on my dad’s side is German).

Also, German CHRISTMAS MARKETS. I would love love love to be here for Christmas!

And then there’s that German freelance visa that I’ve heard about. Granted, I’d need to become a bonafide freelancer first, but, you know…Small things…

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4 thoughts on “21 Things That Surprised Me About Germany

  1. Can you please provide the name and location of the chocolates supermarket photo that you’ve posted? TIA!

  2. Agree, Hamburg is a special place. Whereas the rest of Germany can be frugal and utilitarian to the point of spartan, Hamburg is posh and glamorous, even decadent in many ways. Especially during the warmer seasons when people zip around in their BMW convertibles and lounge in Belle Epoque bars and restaurants near the lake. There’s also a fair amount of Beatles history that lives on in the city. Hamburg sure knows how to let its hair down!

    1. Yes, Hamburg is great! It’s probably my favorite German ‘big’ city so far. And spring/summer there is hard to beat – there’s some sort of buzz in the air. 🙂

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