Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series highlighting superlatives of countries and cities around the world. Click here for pieces on Italy, France, the United States, Canada, Taiwan, India and South Korea.
Cars. Efficiency. Leather shorts. Germany is known around the globe for excelling at a variety of things. Germans themselves are known as friendly and welcoming people, even if everyone thinks we have a nonexistent sense of humor.
The country also boasts two millennia of history that, for good and bad, shaped the world as we know it today. But there’s much more to this large country sitting in the middle of Europe than stereotypes and war jokes.
Here are 11 things that make Germany special:
1. Mixing water, barley and hops
Germans drink, breathe, eat and sleep beer. OK, mainly we just drink the beer. There are more than 1,300 breweries and 5,000 different brew brands helping us drink more beer per person than any other European nation, apart from the Czech Republic. And, yes, we know the United States now has a ton of new craft breweries. We don’t care.
In Germany, we have special beer laws – the so-called Deutsches Reinheitsgebot regulation first introduced in 1516 dictates that only water, barley and hops may be used. AND we have a ton of new craft breweries.
2. Getting from A to B
With so many great car producers, you could be forgiven thinking we’re all driving around in BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. But while the rest of the world is drooling over our premium autos – or in the case of Volkswagen owners, scratching heads at emission levels – we’re usually taking the train.
Germany’s excellent rail network is mostly still state-owned, with Deutsche Bahn, or DB, operating the majority of trains on both passenger and freight routes.
About seven million relatively happy passengers and 1,138,000 tons of freight daily make 26,000 train trips on its 33,000-kilometer network.
Despite all that traffic, German trains are generally on time – or at least within five minutes of schedule. There are high-speed ICE trains linking major towns and cities at up to 300 kph. You can try doing that in a BMW – some of our autobahns have no official speed limit – but you’ll be taking the train home when the engine gives up.
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3. The life aquatic
When Germans aren’t obsessing about beer, they’re obsessing about water. Not to drink, but to get out on, sailing, surfing, waterskiing, swimming, kayaking and canoeing and windsurfing – in any weather. And no wonder.
The country has more than 12,200 scenic lakes, most of which are accessible for any activity throughout the year. Some of the best Alpine scenery can be seen from the shores of Bavarian lakes like the Konigssee or Tegernsee.
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg are also crammed with lakes – there’s even a hiking trail connecting all 66 lakes in Brandenburg.
A European ranking published in 2013 showed that Germany has one of the highest numbers of “excellent” lakes and rivers for swimming. If all that exercise builds up a thirst for beer, better still.
4. Taking our clothes off in public
When it comes to getting naked in nature, no other nationality comes close. We can’t blame you for keeping your distance, just don’t judge us.
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5. Baking bread
Some French wine connoisseurs can tell simply from sniffing an uncorked bottle not only where the grapes were grown but which direction the vineyard slope was facing. It could well be the same in Germany with bread.
Bread here is more than just a part of the daily meal. It’s part of the culture. Each region has its own variations – there are more than 1,500 – ranging from dark and heavy rye breads in the north to lighter wheat breads in the south. Germans eat an average of 87 kilograms of bread a year each, and there’s a bakery for every 2,100 people.
And yes we know all that carb loading is taking its toll on our waistlines. But we’re still getting naked in nature.
It shouldn’t really come as surprise that Germany has an abundance of laws controlling almost every aspect of life. And while this amount of over-regulation might seem to make us inflexible, it’s what gives us our reputation for being efficient.
This love of rules manifests itself in many ways. Crossing the street as a pedestrian at a red traffic light is frowned upon and anyone caught by the police can be fined.
We’re also sticklers for waste separation. Every house has at least four different garbage cans: plastic, paper, organic waste and general garbage. Placing trash in the wrong can risks a fine.
To keep all that potential for social chaos under control there’s even a government office called Ordnungsamt, which literally translates to “office of order.” Laugh all you like, but that’s one way we achieve some of Europe’s lowest unemployment levels.
7. Moving everything
When offered for rent, German houses and apartments are never furnished. That means that not even the kitchen or bathroom equipment is a compulsory item. So when Germans move they move with all their furniture – including oven, fridge, countertops, cupboards and even the sink.
Moving days are somewhat of a national pastime, often involving friends and family instead of professionals. That means laying on enough beer and food to make sure everyone stays until the place is emptied. And, of course, the last piece of trash has been filed in the correct can.
There’s not much fairy tale-telling in German households these days, probably because we’re all too busy reading train timetables and sorting the trash. But the country is still dotted with many beautiful castles from bygone days.
There are medieval hilltop fortresses, moated Renaissance castles and 19th-century Romanesque revival palaces like famous Neuschwanstein in Bavaria (allegedly an inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle).
There are more than 25,000 castles in Germany today (not counting ruined ones still visitable), and most are home to museums, restaurants and even hotels. We’re willing to rent some out to vacationers. Call us crazy, but we’ll even throw in a kitchen sink.
World’s most visited castles and palaces
9. Weekend walks
Here’s another reason to exit the autobahn and abandon the Audi – Germany’s forests, mountains, rivers and coasts are home to 200,000 kilometers of hiking trails.
From flowering pastures to high mountains, they cover an incredible variety of terrain. There are pleasant, leisurely hikes along climb-free trails or physically demanding scrambles up narrow, winding paths.
Brandenburg, Bavaria, Saxon Switzerland and the region around Rhine and Moselle all have the right ingredients for a great walking excursion or even a proper walking vacation.
10. Getting down
The best carnival is in Rio de Janeiro, right? Nein! It’s in Germany. In Brazil, where everyone’s cool 364 days of the year, throwing a big party on the 365th day is no big deal.
In Germany, where everyone is serious 364 days of the year, throwing a big party is a massive deal. Northwest Germany’s Rhineland holds an annual “karneval” in the shape of its Rose Monday parade in which up to two million costumed visitors throng the streets of Cologne and Dusseldorf.
In southern Germany, celebrations known as Fasching and Fastnacht see people wearing traditional masks or dressing up as devils or wild beasts. Wherever the celebrations take place, it all ends on Ash Wednesday when everyone gets back to being serious and efficient, albeit sometimes with a slight hangover.
11. Making meta jokes
It’s not that Germans don’t know how to tell jokes, it’s just that some of the best jokes take 50 years to tell.
Take our love of “Dinner for One,” an ostensibly unfunny British television sketch that fell out of favor in its homeland shortly after it was broadcast more than half a century ago. The play, about an elderly dame and her drunken butler, hangs around the repetition of the phrase “same procedure as last year,” and culminates with a double entendre punchline that may have been unexpected just after the Berlin Wall went up, but is now worn thin.
Whether the play is funny or not doesn’t really matter. The real humor comes from the reassuring fact that it’s been aired in Germany, almost without exception, every New Year’s Eve since 1963.
The same procedure as last year.
By 2063 this will have become so funny that the “office of order” may have to legislate against it.
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Marcel Krueger is a German writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin. He mostly writes about history, travel and beer – or all three combined.