Italy, Spain, and France always top travel lists for Americans—but it’s a trip to Germany that usually ends up being the biggest surprise, says Sandra Weinacht, co-founder and owner of Inside Europe, a company that plans personalized trips to Europe for hundreds of travelers in a normal year. “While Italy and Spain are our top destinations by demand, good old Deutschland continues to surprise our travelers. Once they have been, they always want to return, especially to those still unknown smaller destinations,” she says.
I talked to Weinacht, a former journalist, about her passion for German food and the country’s best festivals. (And as a lover of Christmas markets, I now want to visit Germany for the lesser-known Easter markets, as well.)
Watch the full interview with Sandra, or read the highlights below.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
You love the food culture in Germany. We all know pretzels and beer and sauerkraut, all things we know to be part of German food culture. What are your favorite things about German food and drink, and can you talk about some of the regional differences?
Everyone wants to try bratwurst and sauerkraut. But I think the biggest surprise for people is that they vary from town to town, and even within the towns—the bratwurst recipes are not the same from different butchers and restaurants. The first thing I crave after landing in Germany is bread, also the pretzels, but it’s the dark bread, sourdoughs, and ryes. The regional differences are tremendous. In the south, caraway is really predominant in a lot of the breads. Another favorite of mine is veggies—people probably don’t think Germans like veggies or salad, but we really do. The heavier meals are something special for a Sunday. There’s quite a big vegetarian and vegan culture. Let’s take Würzburg for example, a city that is known for its Schäufele, a beautiful heavy pork roast, usually served with dumplings and cabbage. There is also a wonderful place where you can get gluten-free chickpea pancakes with a sugar-free raspberry coulis, so that’s truly what makes it exciting and surprising.
German food is very international. A lot of our chefs, from the ones in food trucks to the Michelin-starred restaurants, have diverse backgrounds. They may be immigrants who came from a different country to open a hotel or restaurant. One of my favorite Michelin-starred chefs is actually Italian. His name is Marcello Fabbri, who cooks in Weimar, near Erfurt. There is also Dominik Kaeppeler, who probably has the smallest Michelin-star restaurant in Germany [in Munich]—and he never repeats a dish once it is off the menu, so it is very seasonal and local.
Do you think beer culture is still a big thing in Germany, and that most Germans appreciate it as they do their food?
I believe the stats say that Germans actually consume more wine than beer, per capita. My [German] husband is a total beer lover, and I like wheat beers. There are so many variations regionally and seasonally. Right now, there is Winterbock, and in the spring, there are the Märzens, lenten beers coming from when the monks gave up eating for Lent but they didn’t give up drinking. In Germany, we have a saying—four beers is a meal, but then you have to drink something with that.
In Germany it’s very common to have a glass of wine or a beer with lunch. We have the tradition of Frühschoppen, a second breakfast with weisswurst, brezeln, and weissbier. [It’s usually around 11], but you have to be careful as the weisswurst shouldn’t be ordered after 11—in the old days, it was made very fresh, very early in the morning, and without refrigeration it would go bad. In some beer gardens or restaurants that take it absolutely seriously, you will not get weisswurst after a certain time.
You advocate for sustainability by recommending that travelers take the roads less traveled. How do you think a trip to Germany allows for a sustainable experience?
[Sustainability] is part of the culture, and I will come back to the food part again, because there is a lot of local consumption. People go to beautiful markets, where you get fresh produce, bakery products, cheese, warm sausages, and more. People also walk a lot more. We advocate to [see the smaller cities], like go to Trier for three nights, stay in town, take the train, buy the city card.
You say that people of course love Italy and France, but they fall in love with Germany and want to return. Why do you think that is?
That savoir vivre or dolce vita, what people assume to find only in France or Italy, you have that in Germany. People are wowed by the regional differences, the internationality, the price value, how easy it is to navigate, and more.
There are so many festivals [that people love]. Let’s take Tübingen—they have the chocolART, a celebration dedicated to chocolate, which usually takes places on the squares and in the market, but also in the restaurants and the retailers. And that is something that surprises the travelers—all of the [big and] little events that are happening.
Everyone knows Oktoberfest—I met my husband at Oktoberfest!—but there is also Kiliani, a beer festival that takes place in Würzburg in July, and it’s hundreds of years older than the Oktoberfest. It’s much smaller, much more contained, and you will have fun with the locals without hour-long waits to get into tents. There is also a wine festival up on the hill called Wein am Stein with rock bands and gourmet food. Everybody in the family can be happy, as there is a carnival with rides for the kids.
To close, what are some of your other favorite experiences in Germany that you recommend?
If you want to start somewhere, the Christmas markets are just so magical. In Heidelberg, the Christmas markets are spread throughout town, there’s an ice skating rink, and you just stroll through and at every square there are booths offering you wonderful artisan products and food.
A good way for first-time travelers to see many Christmas markets is a river cruise, because it’s easy to access and see the well-known towns. But I think those markets that only take place for one weekend during the whole festive period are so special. I love the markets in Würzburg, Trier, and Rostock.
And there are also the Easter markets—we will take any excuse in Germany to eat, drink, and have a great time. There are eggs, lamb, and how could I forget about white asparagus? There are spargelfests, where you get asparagus in all its variations, like with schnitzel, ham, or hollandaise on a flammkuchen. The season usually starts in May and ends at the end of June.
Everyone knows Beaujolais Nouveau in France, but we have Neuer Wein in Germany [also in the fall], which is “New Wine,” fermented grape juice, and it is just delicious. You can get a Zwiebelkuchen, an onion tart, or a flammkuchen, to enjoy with it.
There is also the Wurstmarkt, the world’s largest wine festival—even though it’s called the ‘sausage market’—which takes place in my home region of Bad Dürkheim, early in September.