Berlin

Just before our trip to Germany, a massive white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. These white supremacists held Confederate flags, brandished swastikas, and did “Heil Hitler” salutes — yes, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes. In America. In the year 2017. As if that weren’t enough, one of the neo-Nazis rammed his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, murdering one person and injuring dozens of others. And instead of denouncing the rally and stating the obvious — that Nazis are bad — our president said there was “blame on both sides.”

Imagine the irony of going to Germany to escape Nazis.

Meanwhile, in Germany, public displays of Nazi symbols have been banned since the end of World War II. And unlike America, which still inexplicably has Confederate statues, Germany has shown an incredible sensitivity toward the ways in which they commemorate their past.

We noticed this sensitivity in Berlin especially. Having been the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich, and then divided for 28 years, hardly any other city has experienced such extreme transformation in the last century. Scattered throughout the city are thought-provoking memorials that directly confront its complex history.

My favorite memorial — in the world, perhaps — is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2005, this Holocaust memorial consists of thousands of gravestone-like pillars. Designed by a Jewish-American architect, it was Germany’s first formal, government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. Using the word “murdered” in the title was a big deal; Germany, as a nation, was officially admitting to a crime. The rectangular pillars stand in rows, creating narrow alleys between them, over a gently sloping ground. The location, near Berlin’s foreign embassies and government buildings, is a statement in itself — it has designated such a large amount of prime real estate to this memorial, while also forcing political leaders from around the world to observe how Germany acknowledges its past.

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We went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe twice, and I got near-lost both times. It’s disorienting. The narrow alleyways prevent you from walking through with anyone else. Once you enter, people seem to appear and disappear between the columns. Like death, you have to deal with it alone.

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Even Berlin’s parliament building, the famous Reichstag, is a sort of memorial. It was here that Nazis blamed a mysterious fire in 1933 on Communists, allowing Hitler to gain emergency powers and disband the parliament. A glass dome sits on top of the Reichstag, offering a 360-degree view of Berlin from two sloping ramps that spiral inside. The parliamentary chamber can be seen from these ramps through a mirrored cone jutting into the center. The dome, open to the public, symbolizes that the people are above the government, and that government is now transparent and will have no secrets.

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Glass dome
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Ramps to walk up the dome
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Notice the reflection of the parliamentary chamber below

While walking around Berlin, we noticed small brass plaques in the sidewalk. Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones”) is an ongoing memorial that marks the former homes or work locations of Nazi victims. More than 56,000 of these plaques have been installed across Europe, making Stolpersteine the world’s largest decentralized memorial. On each plaque is the name of the victim, and how and where that person died. Each Stolperstein is made of brass so it polishes when someone walks on it. The name stolperstein has multiple meanings. Nazis had an anti-Semitic saying when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone: “A Jew must be buried here.” But in German, stolperstein also means “to stumble across something” or “to find out by chance”. Thus, the term invokes both the anti-Semitic remark of the past and also the stumbled-upon metaphor, as the plaques are not placed prominently and are recognizable only when passing at a close distance. Unlike major memorial sites, which can be easily avoided, Stolpersteine is history that disrupts your everyday life.

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A handful of Stolpersteine

Meanwhile, the site of Hitler’s death is almost completely unmarked. Hitler stayed in a bunker in Berlin for two months until he and his wife (of 48 hours) Eva Braun committed suicide on April 30, 1945. A week later, war was over. His bunker now lies beneath a parking lot. Germans tread lightly on their past. They refuse to turn Hitler’s stronghold into a tourist attraction, to give neo-Nazis a special place to convene.

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Can you find Hitler’s bunker in this photo? We couldn’t either.

World War II is just the tip of Berlin’s fascinating history. After the war, Berlin was divided by the victorious Allied powers. The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin, while the Soviet sector became East Berlin. The catch is that Berlin was inconveniently located in the middle of East Germany (DDR) — a hundred miles away from West Germany (BRD). So, West Berlin essentially became a capitalist island in the middle of communist East Germany.

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West Berlin (the small blue, green, and orange sections) was an island in the sea of East Germany (large red)

Nearly overnight, the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, cutting through the middle of the city, completely encircling West Berlin. This 96-mile-long wall was intended to stop the outward flow of people from East to West. The wall consisted of a 12-foot-high concrete barrier with a rounded, pipe-like top and barbed wire; a death strip; silent alarms; and more than 100 watchtowers. During its 28 years, at least 138 people died trying to escape.

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A five-story watchtower
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These steel rods mark where the Wall stood
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Peeking into a deathstrip

Our apartment was located on Bernauer Straße, the very street along which the Berlin Wall ran. When the wall was erected, people were suddenly separated form their neighbors across the street. Buildings on Bernauer Straße were incorporated into the structure of the wall itself and became known as border houses. Many people in the East tried to escape through these border houses, jumping from roofs and through windows.

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Street art commemorating border houses
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Huge murals depicting snippets of the Berlin Wall era cover the sides of new apartment buildings on Bernauer Straße
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You can tell this area has become quite trendy

Not everything from this era is tragic. West Germany and East Germany had different styles of pedestrian traffic lights. West Germany had the generic human figure, while East Germany had perky little Ampelmännchen, a male figure wearing a hat. The Ampelmännchen was a beloved symbol of the East and was woven into children’s cartoons and comic strips. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, newly unified Germany sought to rid itself of the vestiges of the East–including its Ampelmännchen. But people were outraged, and a group successfully lobbied the government for Ampelmännchen’s preservation. Since then, you can find these in both sides of Berlin.

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I’ve spent a lot of time going over Berlin in the 20th century, but this city is so much more than its past. Anthony may have fallen in love with Berlin for its history, but I fell in love with Berlin for its energy and resilience. Berlin is famous for being Europe’s cheapest capital. Because it’s affordable, it attracts a young, international crowd, and because it’s youthful, there’s a lot of creativity here. Munich feels passé compared to Berlin.

It’s incredibly easy to navigate; the same transit ticket can be used for its many modes of transportation, such as its U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (above-ground rail), tram, and bus systems. And you don’t even need to speak German to survive here; apparently Berliners are so eager to learn English that they’d rather practice their English with you than hear you speak German.

Germany does so many things better than America does, whether it’s offering extensive public transportation, providing universal healthcare, having some of the strictest gun laws in Europe, or guaranteeing free education. But in Berlin specifically, it’s apparent that Germany is also much better at grappling with its history. In America, neo-Nazis claim that removing Confederate statues is “erasing our history” — even though most of these statues were erected in the mid-20th century, long after the Civil War — because apparently we learn all our history from tacky sculptures of dead, slave-owning white men who fought against America. Germany could definitely teach us a thing or two.

Tips for future travelers:

Book a history tour with Brewer’s Berlin Tours. These 6-hour walking tours are led by passionate history buffs who will make Berlin’s intimidating history more accessible and a lot funnier than just reading about it.

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Our tour guide explains that these colorful pipes found throughout Berlin suck up swamp water from underground to prepare for construction
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Our tour guide draws a map of post-WWII Germany

Eat dessert at Fassbender & Rausch, Europe’s biggest chocolate store. This family-owned business has been making chocolate for 150 years. We loved its elegant cafe that we went there twice. The downstairs shop has giant models of Berlin landmarks made of chocolate.

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Day one at Fassbender & Rausch
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Day two at Fassbender & Rausch

Check out the DDR Museum, an interactive museum that offers an unbiased look into former East Germany. In America, we only like to learn the negative aspects of communism, but this museum highlights the truth about life in the DDR. For example, 90% of East German women held jobs (compared to only 50% of West German women), and divorce and abortions were legal, giving East German women way more rights than in the West.

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Consider staying in Prenzlauerberg. I’ve compared “Pberg” to both Park Slope and the West Village. This charming neighborhood was once a haven for artists and bohemians, but now it’s full of young families and great restaurants.

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Don’t just eat German food. While we never got sick of sausages in the other German cities, we were thrilled to be back in a cosmopolitan city — which means you can find every cuisine here. We had vegan Vietnamese on our first night, Lebanese our second night, dim sum on our third night, and so on. Of course, you can’t come to Berlin without trying currywurst. Created in Berlin after World War II, this cheap dish was invented when a fast-food cook got her hands on some curry and Worcester sauce from British troops stationed here. She grilled pork sausage, cut it up, then smothered it in curry sauce. Eat these with a toothpick or small wooden fork, with some fries on the side.

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Currywurst from Curry61

Take a guided tour of the Reichstag building, which is the only way to walk up the dome. To do this, you’ll need to register in advance, and the Bundestag will vet you before accepting your reservation. Bring your passport with you!

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Our tour guide was the most German man we encountered on our trip. We were his biggest fans!
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Parliamentary chamber
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Relaxing at the top of the dome
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Notice the absence of parliamentary members during the Nazi era

Unsurprisingly, my favorite tour we took in Berlin was a 3-hour food tour with Bite Berlin. Our guide led us through Berlin and provided seven generous food samples: buttered pretzels, currywurst, buletten (meatballs), Vietnamese bao burgers, one of the best cinnamon rolls of my life (I loved it so much, we went back the next morning), cakes, and East Berlin sparkling wine. It was a delicious way to learn more about Berlin’s cultural and immigrant history. One of the most mind-blowing facts we learned in Berlin was that, during the Cold War, West Berlin accepted South Vietnamese refugees while East Berlin invited North Vietnamese workers to help build infrastructure (including the wall). There was a Vietnam for each side!

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Trying Vietnamese bao burgers
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Cinnamon roll from Zeit für Brot

Hamburg

If Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a Germany stuck in time, and Nuremberg is a Germany cautiously toeing the line between past and present, Hamburg is a Germany dashing into the future. While popular with domestic tourists, Hamburg is usually absent from travel itineraries of international tourists, and that’s somewhat understandable — Germany’s richest and second-largest city doesn’t have time for lederhosen or quaint half-timbered homes! Hamburg feels a lot more like Scandinavia than stereotypical Germany. It has more bridges than any other city in the world, and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined. While I found Munich and Berlin to be more interesting German cities to visit, I sure wouldn’t mind living in Hamburg.

But first, some history. With its crucial port and strategic transportation links, Hamburg was a prime target for Allied bombers during World War II. Bombers hit the city with air raids that destroyed roofs, broke water mains, and tore up streets. Since that summer of 1943 had been especially dry and hot, the result of the attack was an unprecedented firestorm. A tornado of flames raged, baking many inhabitants inside their bomb shelters, and sucking those who ventured outside off their feet and into a heat vortex. Roads and sidewalks caught on fire, and anyone who tried to run across got stuck in boiling asphalt. In just three hours, the inferno killed 42,000 civilians. After the eight days of air raids, roughly one million survivors were evacuated, leaving behind a demolished city.

Of course, you can barely tell now. Hamburg has successfully recovered, growing wealthier than ever, and its new port is currently the second busiest in Europe. The port left its original location to accommodate larger modern container ships, leaving behind vacant prime real estate, which is being developed into HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development project. When it’s done, downtown Hamburg will be 40% bigger, employing 15,000 workers and housing 10,000 residents.

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Hamburg’s bustling port reminded me of Istanbul
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Beautiful sunset views of the port from HafenCity

The pride and joy of Hamburg — and an icon of modern Germany — is Elbphilharmonie, a stunning building that just opened this year, and houses a concert hall, hotel, apartment complex, and shopping mall. Its wavy silhouette and reflective exterior resemble water and steamer ships, both of which have been so integral to Hamburg. When we visited Elbphilharmonie on a random Tuesday evening, hundreds of Hamburgers of all ages were sitting right outside, elegantly drinking wine while watching a free live screening of the Philip Glass/Vivaldi concert that was taking place inside. Free classical music for the masses, while watching the sunset over the water? Hamburg has clearly figured out the good life.

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Crowd outside Elbphilharmonie

Our time in Hamburg was brief, but it offered us a sufficient preview into another side of Germany: the Germany that isn’t bogged down by its history, as so many of its other cities are. Americans tend to visit Germany for two reasons: getting drunk off good beer, and satiating our obsession with World War II history. Hamburg doesn’t pander to those; it’s too absorbed with its own future and I respect that. Compared to all the other German cities we visited, this was where we heard English the least, which makes sense since its economy doesn’t depend on English-speaking tourists as much. Hamburg is still rapidly developing, and I look forward to returning someday to see how much has been transformed.

Tips for future travelers:

One of my favorite areas was touristy Landungsbrücken, which includes a half-mile-long floating dock designed to accommodate the Elbe River’s 13-foot tides. The best meal we had in Hamburg was from one of the many fish stands at Landungsbrücken — “Fischbrötchen und Pommes”, or pickled herring in a bun, with a side of fries (and the best ketchup I’ve ever had!). In fact, we loved it so much that we had it twice in one night.

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First Fischbrötchen of the day
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Second Fischbrötchen of the day

If you still like the Beatles, visit the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s Red Light District. Sure, you can find prostitutes if that’s your thing, but there are also some pretty legit music venues here. The Beatles were unknown when they first arrived in Hamburg from Liverpool, but after a season of gigs in front of tough crowds in the Reeperbahn, they launched into international stardom.

Check out the Schulterblatt neighborhood for cafes and restaurants. Nicknamed “Latte Macchiato Boulevard,” this gentrifying neighborhood is oozing with creative energy thanks to its squatter-building-turned-arts-venue.

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We stayed at the Scandic Hamburg Emporio, which is actually a Swedish hotel chain, but it felt appropriate for Scandinavian-esque Hamburg. Each room has huge windows, and the hotel provides the most lavish breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced.

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To get to HafenCity, catch the 7-minute public ferry, which takes you straight to Elbphilharmonie. Once there, wait in line at the main entrance for a free ticket to the public plaza on the sixth floor. It’s a great place to watch the sun set.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber

After visiting Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Neuschwanstein, it only made sense that our next stop would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the medieval town that inspired Disney’s Pinocchio. Like Amsterdam and Santorini, I came for the photos but ended up appreciating its beauty much more after learning about the town’s tumultuous history.

The name of the town means “red fortress above the Tauber,” because it’s located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was a free imperial city, which meant that it was self-ruling and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. It was also a strategic stop on trade routes throughout Europe. With a population of 6,000, this thriving town was one of Germany’s largest. However, Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s fortunes tumbled suddenly due to occupation and ransacking during the Thirty Years’ War and a plague that followed. The town never fully recovered, which is why it became (and still is) Germany’s best preserved medieval town — which is fortunate for tourists like us!

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But this picturesque town is more than just a pretty face. Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been admired by many, including Nazis. For them, Rothenburg was the quintessential German town and was even hailed by Hitler as “the most German of German towns”. The Nazis used to organize regular day trips to Rothenburg from all across the Reich. And unfortunately, the town was not an innocent bystander. If you recall from my Munich post, the region of Bavaria had been a hotbed of conservatism. Rothenburg’s townspeople were sympathetic to National Socialism and expelled its Jewish citizens in 1938.

During World War II, bombs were dropped over the German town, killing 37 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was familiar with the Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s historic importance and beauty, so he ordered his army not to use artillery against it. Instead, his army negotiated the surrender of the town. The local military commander surrendered, ignoring Hitler’s orders, saving Rothenburg ob der Tauber from total destruction. After the war, donations for rebuilding were received from all over the world.

Since the town has been preserved in its medieval state, it’s easy to appreciate how self-sufficient it used to be. In the main square, there’s a large 17th-century fountain with long metal gutters that slide to deposit water into villagers’ buckets. The town had an ingenious water system that serviced a series of fountains to provide drinking water, store fish for market days, and fight fires. Because of its plentiful water supply, the town never burned entirely, as so many neighboring villages did. Meanwhile, many of the town’s half-timbered homes were filled with a year’s supply of grain so they could survive sieges.

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Fountain in the main square
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This big wooden door has a tiny door cut into it. If you tried to enter town after curfew, you’d need to bribe the guard, and maybe he’d let you through the tiny door, which was small enough to keep out any fully armed attackers

For better or for worse, Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been frozen in time. It’s a fantastic way for visitors to explore a snippet of medieval life. It’s easy to see why Hitler was charmed by this town. It’s also easy to see why, despite Rothenburg’s awful anti-Semitism and support of Nazism, an American decided that this place was still worth saving.

Tips for future travelers:

Go on the Night Watchman’s Tour. This was our favorite part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A man named Hans Georg Baumgartner has been leading this one-hour historical tour for years, dressed up like a night watchman and telling gritty tales of the medieval town. No need to make reservations; just find the large group of tourists congregating at the main square at 8 pm every night.

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Climb up Rathausturm (the spire of Town Hall) for the best view of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It takes 214 steps and is comically narrow and steep at the top. In fact, some of the staircases are so narrow that a traffic stoplight will let you know when there’s enough room for you to proceed to the next staircase. (German efficiency!)

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This spiral staircase is the easy part
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Wait for the red light to turn green before climbing up to the next level
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Anthony barely fit

Check out the Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum (Medieval Criminal Museum), one of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever visited. Torture was common in the Middle Ages — not necessarily to punish but to extract confessions. Just the sight of these tools was often enough to make an innocent person confess. The museum has painful-looking artifacts like spiked chairs and thumbscrews, but my favorites were the shame masks. Shame masks were intricately decorated to indicate the crime — chicken feathers indicate promiscuity, a snout indicates piggish behavior, and a giant tongue indicates a tendency to gossip. Those convicted of immoral behaviors were forced to wear these masks while being chained in public places for all to see and humiliate.

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“Baker’s Baptism”

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Eat a meal at Zum Pulverer, a traditional Weinstube (restaurant specializing in wine). Weinstuben are mainly found in the wine-growing regions of southern Germany. Zum Pulverer has a cozy interior with wooden chairs carved into the shapes of past senators of Rothenburg. Like beer, wine in Germany is better than any wine I’ve ever had in the U.S.

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Stay at Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Griefen, which was once the home of Mayor Toppler. This 650-year-old hotel has a pleasant garden and is located just off the main square. It will make you feel like you’re a prosperous person living in the Middle Ages.

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Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Grefein is the green home on the right
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Tiny, heavy medieval doors

Go shopping. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is unabashedly touristy, and many of its tourists are actually Germans from other parts of the country. Its streets are filled with quirky shops such as the German Christmas Museum, Waffenkammer (the “weapons chamber,” where tourists can try on armor and pose with medieval weapons for photo ops), and pastry shops selling Schneeballen (leftover flour strips rolled into a ball and covered in icing).

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Of course Anthony loved Waffenkammer

Most tourists come only on day trips. Don’t be one of those. Rothenburg ob der Tauber deserves a little more of your time. Around dusk, the obnoxious tour groups vacate, and the cobblestone roads glimmer with romance. At night, it gets even better, and early in the morning you can take all the photos you want without other tourists in your way.

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Early in the morning, before the day-trippers arrive, you have Plonlein to yourself!

Neuschwanstein

For those of you who don’t know my husband, Anthony likes to make Metal Earth models for fun. He’s really good at constructing these intricate, laser-cut metal models and has even become a minor celebrity on Instagram because of them. Many of them are iconic landmarks from around the world, so he usually brings at least one on our numerous vacations. Since we were in Munich this summer, we decided to take a day trip down to see Schloss Neuschwanstein (Neuschwanstein Castle), as Metal Earth happened to design a model of the stunning castle.

You probably recognize Neuschwanstein even if you’ve never heard of it. The castle has been featured in several movies such as The Monuments Men and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and served as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. This is the castle of all castles, the epitome of fairy-tale castles throughout time. Perched high above the town, even its setting on the lush foothills of the Bavarian Alps is dramatic.

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Bavarian Alps
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Lookout point

Neuschwanstein was commissioned by King Ludwig II, who ruled Bavaria for 22 years in the 19th century. Rather than deal with the politics in Munich, he preferred to spend most of his time in Schloss Hohenschwangau, his family’s palace that was built by his father. Much of King Ludwig’s adult life was spent constructing Neuschwanstein on a neighboring hill. He spent 17 years building it, but only lived inside for 172 days. Soon after he moved in, he was declared mentally unfit to rule Bavaria and was taken away. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. Less than six weeks later, Neuschwanstein became open to the public, and now over a million tourists visit per year.

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View of Hohenschwangau

During World War II, Nazis used Neuschwanstein as one of their secret storehouses for stolen art from France. Due to its secluded location, it survived both wars without destruction. After the war, Allied forces spent years sorting through and redistributing the art.

Even without its historical significance, Neuschwanstein is impressive. Out of all the photos we’ve taken of Metal Earth models in front of their respective landmark, Neuschwanstein may have been my favorite to take. It may have necessitated quite a journey to take the photo — we first took a train from Munich and a bus from the station to town, missed our guided tour, power-walked up a short mountain, attended an audio guide tour through the castle, then stood in a long line to cross a bridge — but our efforts were well worth it.

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We made it!
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So perfectly framed

Tips for future travelers:

Skip the castle tour. Unless you’ve never been to a castle before, the interior of Neuschwanstein isn’t that remarkable. The only way to see the interior is to book timed tickets in advance, and timed tickets can be stressful, especially if your train is running late like ours. Trust me, you didn’t come here for the interior; you came to gawk at the exterior, which is completely free and unconstricted by time!

Hike above Neuschwanstein to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), which has the best view of Neuschwanstein. Any photo you’ve seen of the castle was probably taken here. The bridge spans the Pöllat Gorge and is completely free to climb — you know that if this were in America, we’d be charging entrance tickets.

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If you look closely, that bridge behind us is Mary’s Bridge
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This might be challenging for people who are afraid of heights
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Even the view on the non-castle side of the bridge is gorgeous

If you’re coming from Munich, buy a Bayern Ticket, which covers all train and bus rides to and from Munich. Aim to leave Munich in the morning, as a one-way trip takes roughly three hours.

Much of your walking will be uphill, but the hike really isn’t that bad if you’re in decent shape. Anthony and I made it up to Neuschwanstein and Marienbrücke in half the time that our guide book quoted. There are shuttle buses and horse-drawn carriages, but the lines for those are pretty ridiculous, and you’ll still have to walk part of the way even if you ride them.

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Enjoying the hike
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If you hike, you’ll feel more rewarded by this view

Go in the afternoon for the best lighting.

Don’t forget to check the times for your return train back to Munich.

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Munich

After postcard-perfect Amsterdam, it was nice to be in a real city. Munich is located down south in the German state of Bavaria and is the third most populous city in the country. Though Bavaria has long been a bastion of conservative politics in Germany, Munich is an island of liberalism, and I could easily see myself living here. It reminded me of Milan in many ways; both are stylish, livable cities with grand architecture and low crime, and both are considered second cities to Berlin and Rome, respectively.

Munich has been a major European cultural center for hundreds of years, but not all of its history is admirable. In 1920, Munich became home to the Nazi Party. Hitler’s famous “Beer Hall Putsch” happened in a beer hall in Munich, at which he and his supporters attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and seize power. Half of Munich was destroyed by bombing during World War II, but it recovered and, since the 1980s, has had one of the fastest growing economies in the country. Munich is what many Americans envision when they think of Germany (think beer halls and lederhosens), so we figured it was the best place to start our trip.

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View of Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) from the top of St. Peter’s Church in Marienplatz

I wasn’t too excited about German cuisine before our trip, but the food ended up being one of my favorite things about Germany. Munich specializes in Weißwurst (white sausage made of minced veal and back bacon, flavored with parsley, lemon, onions, and cardamom) served with Weißwurstsenf (sweet mustard) and freshly-baked Brezen (pretzels). Traditionally, the sausages are made early in the morning and eaten as a snack before noon, since preservatives aren’t used and the meat is not smoked. They’re heated in water for about ten minutes and brought to the table in a big bowl of hot water. I couldn’t get enough of this meal!

And just thinking about the beer we had in Munich makes me salivate. I’m usually quite picky about my beer — “dark ales from craft breweries only, please” —  but every single beer I had in Germany was infinitely better than anything I’ve had in the U.S., and Bavaria takes its beer even more seriously than the rest of the country. Since 1516, German beer has been brewed according to Reinheitsgebot (the German Beer Purity Law), which stipulates that water, barley, hops, and yeast are the only ingredients that may be used in production. This law was introduced partly to prevent price competition with bakers; since only barley could be used for beer, other grains like wheat and rye were saved for bread. Thanks to Reinheitsgebot, German beer is absolutely delicious and the reason I will never drink American beer again (sorry, Brooklyn Brewery).

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Biergartens (beer gardens) are a central part of Munich culture. The concept originated in Munich in the 19th century because breweries wanted to reduce the temperatures inside beer cellars in the summer, so they covered river banks with gravel and planted shady chestnut trees for cover. One of our dinners was at a biergarten in Viktualienmarkt, a huge, historic open-air food market. As New Yorkers, Anthony and I couldn’t help but wonder how such a traditional place survives, taking up a hefty amount of space, year-round, on the most expensive real estate in Munich. Turns out, the government understands how much locals love Viktualienmarkt, so it charges vendors only a small percentage of their gross income and bans fast-food chains, allowing beloved old-time shops to still exist. Imagine if America could put the interests of its people above making the highest profit!

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Like all good cities, Munich has numerous public parks. We spent one afternoon in Englischer Garten, one of the largest urban parks in the world. With rolling lawns, a famous nudist area, and multiple biergartens, it’s no wonder we loved this park. In fact, the highlight of our entire stay in Munich may have been watching surfers at Eisbach, a small man-made river that flows through part of Englischer Garten. Yes, you read that right — you can go surfing in the middle of Munich. Just past a bridge near the southern edge of the park, Eisbach forms a constant standing wave that has become a popular river surfing spot for experienced surfers. There are even surfing competitions here. We spent hours watching them, completely mesmerized — and we’re from Hawaii!

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If someone only had time to visit one city in Germany, I’d probably tell them to visit Munich. They’ll get all the obligatory beer halls, World War II history, art museums, and famous concert halls, but they’ll also get a glimpse of the way in which modern-day Germany does everything better. It grapples with its tumultuous history better than America does. It cares about the well-being of its people more (and I haven’t even touched upon its free college tuition yet!). It makes better beer. It’s even created a more efficient way to surf. Throughout the rest of our trip, Germany just continued to prove to us that it does life better.

I could have stayed forever, but it was time to visit some castlesAuf Wiedersehen, Munich!

Tips for future travelers:

Have dinner at Hofbräuhaus. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this famous beer hall because it’s incredibly touristy, but we loved it so much that we went twice! It’s boisterous, it’s loud (especially when the oompah-music starts at night), and the floors are sticky with beer — but what an experience! Munich wouldn’t be Munich without it. Plus, the food is fantastic. Get yourself some Weißwurst.

Climb up St. Peter’s Church for the best view of Munich. There’s a €2 entrance fee and 306-step climb, but the view is well worth it.

Our hotel, Hotel Splendid-Dollmann, was pure class. The lobby has a wood-paneled library, the breakfast rooms made us feel like we were dining with royalty every morning, the hotel left us a couple of hardcover German novels on our bed to take as souvenirs, and it was just a quick walk to Marienplatz. It was the perfect place to stay in elegant Munich.

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Our hotel’s breakfast room
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Our hotel’s library in the lobby

Try a Schmalznudel at Schmalznudel Café Frischhut. This light, fried, yeasty dough is basically a glorified funnel cake, but it was a delight watching the pastry chef make this in front of the shop window. You’ll get to witness the terrifying amount of butter he uses, as well as the impressive number of regulars who drop by for one of the four pastries made here.

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Other things to check out: Pinakothek der Moderne for modern art in a gorgeous museum, Asam Church for the most ostentatious church you’ve ever seen, and Cafe Luitpold for fancy cakes

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Asam Church was less a church and more a showroom for the architect brothers to get clients
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Cafe Luitpold’s signature cake, with marzipan, white wine cream, and cognac
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Auf Wiedersehen, Munich!