Eating and drinking in Germany
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Though neither as obsessive as the Italians nor as fussy as the French, Germans nevertheless see eating as a serious business. Consequently standards are high. You’ll rarely find cause to criticize the quality in Germany even if you don’t share a taste for its national cuisine. For most outsiders that means a taste of tradition – Bratwurst (grilled sausage), assorted cuts of pork and, of course, Sauerkraut. All present and munched daily, but to brand German cooking as its time-honoured dishes only, is to overlook a foodie revolution that has rippled across the country over the last decade or so.
To complement the impressive range of regional cuisines from granny’s cookbook, the nation’s chefs have created a brand of light, modern cooking infused with international flavours. The Michelin Guide reviewers now rave about the contemporary Neue Deutsche Küche (New German Cuisine) of the nation’s superstar chefs as much as they do the gourmet Bratwurst produced in Bavaria’s Wurstküchen (sausage kitchens).
And menus throughout the country now show a taste for modern Mediterranean cooking as Germans look to reduce the calorie and cholesterol counts. Even the old oompah-and-Schnitzel joints have healthy salads these days. Indeed, even if not quite a gourmand’s paradise, modern German cuisine is one of the great surprises of culinary Europe. Perhaps as importantly, the modern urban brasserie in Germany arguably represents better value than its French equivalent. On top of this, Germany keeps an excellent cellar of wine and spirits. And its beer should need no introduction.
Germany’s share of ethnic restaurants tends to be those of its large immigrant groups – Italian, Greek and Turkish, with the ubiquitous Chinese thrown in and, in cities, the occasional Thai and sushi joint. Indian cuisine is less well represented, and often fairly mild.
It’s rare for a hotel – or even a hostel come to that – not to include breakfast (Frühstuck) in the price of your accommodation or serve it separately for around €8–15 (around €5 in hostels). This usually proves excellent value for money, especially ay the mid- and upper ends of the market. Most places allow you to browse at leisure from a Scandinavian-style smorgasbørd of mueslis and cereals, yoghurt, hard-boiled eggs, jams, marmalade and honey, as well as cheese and cold meats, usually ham and salami.
Alongside this will be a regional assortment of the nation’s three hundred varieties of bread – from simple crusty white rolls or brown rolls encrusted with sunflower or poppy seeds to damp, heavy Schwarzbrot (black bread), the gourmet’s choice – the most famous is rye Pumpernickel. Watery orange juice aside, breakfast is usually washed down with coffee – always fresh and usually weaker than that of France and Italy – although you will also be offered tea, usually Schwarz Tee (black), or fruit teas.
Cafés also provide excellent breakfasts – for many younger Germans a café brunch is a weekend institution – though it’s easy to spend €12–15 by the time you add in juice and coffee. A better budget option is to grab a coffee and sandwich at a bakery such as ubiquitous chain Kamps and use the stand-up counter (known as the Stehcafé) to eat it in the shop. These open from around 7am and you’ll breakfast well for around €6.
Germany is a nation that invented fast food: Hamburg’s meat rissoles became the hamburger, its sausages in bread were exported as the hot dog. The difference with German snacks is their high quality, which makes bites on the go a mini-meal rather than a guilty filler. Most quick snacks are served at Imbiss stands, invariably located at transport hubs and market squares, where you eat standing.
The standard fare is a range of sausages plus hamburgers and occasionally meatballs or perhaps a greasy Schnitzel. Some Imbiss stalls specialize in spit-roast chicken, which typically comes as a half-bird (Halbes Hähnchen) at low prices. Mustard (Senf) comes free, ketchup and mayonnaise may cost a few euros extra. Larger towns and cities often have market stalls in a dedicated Markthalle, with a wide range of delicatessens under one roof, some rather upmarket and often with a few international cuisines.
On the coast, fish replaces the traditional meat-fare in Imbiss stalls – often smoked and almost always served by the harbour, fresh fish comes in sandwiches (Fischbrötchen). Nationwide fish chain Nordsee prepares fast food alongside cheap meals.
In bakeries, there’ll often be a corner to sit or else stand, known as a Stehcafé. Incidentally, German pretzels, known as Brezeln and covered in salt crystals, are a far superior snack to their American counterparts.
You’ll find standard Italian and Asian takeaways everywhere, and also Turkish. It’s no surprise that a country fond of fast food has embraced the kebabs of a large Turkish community; indeed, the idea of a kebab with salad in pitta bread is a German invention. Known as Gyros or Döner, these are generally of grilled lamb, sometimes chicken. British visitors will be pleasantly surprised.
Finally, a special word about Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes), a traditional Germanic treat equivalent to English tea. It is observed religiously by an older generation at late afternoon, and is best taken in an old-fashioned café. Most prepare fresh home-made gateaux piled with quantities of cream and chocolate to make dieters weep.
The tradition of lunch (Mittagessen) as the main meal of the day has been quashed by the pressure of modern work practices. Like most North Europeans, Germans are now as likely to grab a sandwich or snack and save the main meal until dinner (Abendessen). Nevertheless, cooked food (warme Küche) is served throughout the day except in more upmarket restaurants, which pause between meals, and on Ruhetag (day off), when the establishment is closed; Sunday or Monday is a favourite.
The first choice for honest traditional food should be a Gaststätte or Brauhaus. Traditional and convivial, these are roughly equivalent to the British pub, so are relaxed venues in which to drink as well as eat, many providing a beer garden in summer. The latter (literally, “brew house”) also means fresh beers brewed in-house. The cuisine is almost always gutbürgerlich Küche – unpretentious home-cooking that’s filling, tasty and generally good value.
Similar but slightly more upmarket is the Ratskeller, a German institution in the often-historic cellars of the town hall. These are reliable and strong on regional specialities if a little stuffy at times. Don’t be surprised if you are asked to share a table in either, nor if your credit card is met with a dismissive shrug – most small Gaststätten only accept cash. German restaurants serve anything from posh traditional food, to a lighter take on German cuisine, often with a polyglot of Mediterranean accents, to exquisite Neue Deutsche Küche, a sort of German nouvelle cuisine. Wherever you go, the menu (Speisekarte) will be displayed outside.
Notwithstanding regional variations, traditional starters (Vorspeise) are soups of the thin variety, or pâté. Things get more interesting for the main course (Hauptgericht), usually meat (Fleisch – no flinch from the truth in Germany) with one or two vegetable dishes and sometimes a side salad. As a rule of thumb, the meat in question will be some part of a pig. Every possible cut, plus knuckles and offal is served in a baffling variety of ways; ubiquitous German pork dishes are breaded fillet Schnitzel, Schweinbraten (roast pork), Schweinhaxe, a huge crispy knuckle which could have graced a medieval banqueting table, and Eisbein, salted knuckle or shin.
And, of course, pork comes as sausages (Würste) – grilled, fried, boiled and baked, all are excellent. The standard beef dish tweaked with regional variations is Sauerbraten (roast and marinated in vinegar). Game (Wild), typically venison (Hirsch) or wild boar (Wildschwein), occasionally hare (Hase), and veal (Kalb), also provide respite from the pork-fest. Lamb (Lamm) sometimes gets a look in, and chicken (Hähnchen) rarely. Except on the coast, fish is almost exclusively freshwater, typically salmon (Lachs), trout (Forelle) and Zander (a meaty pike-perch).
Vegetable side-dishes will nearly always feature some form of potato (Kartoffel), often the pub-favourite fry-up Bratkartoffeln, sometimes jacket potatoes (Ofenkartoffeln) or in traditional places stodgy potato dumplings (Klösse or Knödel). And, of course, there’s Sauerkraut. The classic side-dish of green cabbage pickled in white-wine vinegar is an acquired taste – many outsiders find red-cabbage variety Rotkohl more palatable, especially as apple-spiced Apfelrotkohl. Worth a special mention is asparagus (Spargel), which is of the white variety and comes into season from April to late June to feature on dedicated menus throughout the land.
Desserts (Nachspeise) are usually light, often ice cream or fruit salad. The nation that brought the world Black Forest Gateau (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) tends to reserve cakes for late-afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.
Few foods are as iconic of their home country as the German sausage (Wurst). Part of the national cuisine since the Middle Ages, sausages are taken seriously in their home nation. Yes, you’ll find Germans guzzling them down with a dollop of mustard as fast food – a tradition exported by nineteenth-century émigrés to give the world the hot dog – but Michelin critics also list Wurst kitchens in Bavaria. All Würste feature pork (and sometimes beef or veal), spices and peppercorns. What makes each distinctive are the herbs and spices. Aficionados say there are around a thousand regional varieties to sample. Good luck.
What comes as a surprise for most visitors resigned to a pork-and-spuds diet is the tremendous variety of regional cuisines.
Fresh seafood is always worth investigating in the north coastal regions: Matjes (herring) and white Rotbarsch (like whiting) are common. Hamburg vies with Berlin for the title of gourmet capital of Germany, and is arguably more cosmopolitan in its range of restaurants. Nevertheless, you’ll still find traditional sailor’s dish Labskaus, a filling mash of beef, pork, salted herring, potato, beetroot and gherkin, topped with a fried egg. Aalsuppe, a piquant eel and vegetable soup with fruits such as pear and prunes, is another one for adventurous diners. More conservative tastes will prefer Rotes Gruz, a dessert of red berries, and keep an eye open for Pharisäer, coffee with a swig of rum and topped with cream. You’ll also find widespread use of Nordseekrabben, tiny North Sea shrimps.
Further south, lamb from the heather-clad plains of the Lüneburg Heath is excellent, while a traditional dish in Lower Saxony and Bremen is Grünkohl mit Pinkel, curly kale with spicy sausage.
North Rhine-Westphalia is known for smoked hams and dishes such as Himmel und Erde (literally “heaven and earth”), a gutsy casserole of puréed apple, onion and potato with black sausage, or winter-warmer Dicke Bohnen, a fava bean stew cooked with a splash of vinegar.
South of here, in the Rhineland-Palatinate, look for Saumagen, pig’s stomach stuffed with cabbage, like a German haggis. And around Frankfurt there’s the marvellously named Handkäse mit Musik, cheese with onions in a spicy vinaigrette – the “music” in question refers to its effects on digestive systems. Baden-Württemberg, also known as Swabia, in southwest Germany boasts a unique pasta-style cuisine – typically doughy Spätzle noodles coated in cheese or eaten pure as a side dish, and Maultaschen, like over-sized ravioli stuffed with meat, spinach, eggs or herbs. Beef, potato and Spätzle stew, Gaisburger Marsch, is another favourite. In the Black Forest, smoked hams are always worth tasting, trout is excellent and there is, of course, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, which bears no relation to the stodgy Black Forest Gateaux dolloped onto foreign plates in the 1970s.
Bavaria, the Land of beer-hall-and-Lederhosen cliché, comes good with a no-nonsense pig-fest, typically great hunks of Schweinhaxe (roast knuckle) and Rippchen (roast ribs). This is also the sausage capital of Germany: short and thin, those of Nürnberg and Regensburg are acclaimed by gourmets, though Munich acclaims its veal Weisswurst as far finer. Franconia in north Bavaria is renowned for carp. Thruringians will tell you the state’s charcoal-grilled Rostbratwurst (grilled sausage) is better than anything produced in Bavaria, made to a recipe that dates from 1404.
Classics from Saxony include marinated braised beef (Sauerbraten), Quarkkeulchen (sweetened potato pancakes) and Eierschecke – similar to cheesecake. Dresden is renowned for Christstollen, a local Christmas cake.
And finally to Berlin, which has the full glut of modern restaurants of a capital city. By common consent, traditional Prussian cuisine is solid rather than exciting – perhaps the most iconic taste of Berlin is the Currywurst.
Not too long ago, Germany was almost a no-go zone for vegetarians. Innocuous-sounding tomato soups would come flecked with bacon, green salads would hide slivers of ham. No more. While still a nation fond of its meat, Germany has modern European attitudes to vegetarianism – indeed, many large towns will have a vegetarian restaurant.
Even if they don’t, salads are always meat-free unless stated, the ubiquity of Italian cuisine means vegetarian pasta dishes abound, and even traditional Schnitzel joints will list at least one vegetarian dish even if they don’t have a dedicated menu – short, admittedly, but there. Bear in mind, too, that even meat-obsessed Bavaria includes traditional German vegetarian options such as filling soups and potato dumplings as well as dedicated asparagus menus for much of the summer. Otherwise, modern bistros and cafés will always provide something tasty and wholesome, and more upmarket Turkish takeaways often provide cheap veggie dishes alongside the ubiquitous kebabs.
The standard beverage is coffee, always fresh and generally weaker than its counterparts from France or Italy unless you ask for an espresso. All the usual lattes and cappuccinos are on offer. Tea is most popular in the northern Länder of Lower Saxony, Bremen and Schleswig-Holstein where the Dutch influence is most pronounced. Mineral water (Mineralwasser) usually comes sparkling (mit Gas), although the muscle of corporates such as Evian and Volvic has pushed still water (stilles) onto the shelves.
High-proof Schnapps spirits come in a range of regional flavours which rival that of beer: common varieties include Kirschwasser (cherry Schnapps), served with ham in the Black Forest, and in Berlin a Doppelkorn (corn Schnapps), traditionally tossed off with a knuckle of pork. Whether digestif, aperitif or simply a short, Schnapps is served in 2cl measures and locals delight in claiming it is medicinal, an idea handed down over a millennium since monks began distillation of fruits and herbs.
And so to beer. Supped by all, Bier is not just the national drink but an integral part of German life, with distinct regional accents and seasonal quirks. Whether conglomerate or small Hausbrauerei (a brewery-cum-Gaststätte), 1200-plus brewers producing over 5000 brews adhere voluntarily to the 1516 Reinheitsgebot, a purity law that specifies that only barley, hops, water and yeast can be used for fermentation, perhaps why delicious chemical-free brews slip down dangerously easily – and won’t give you a hangover, locals say. (Not true, incidentally, but the morning after is noticeably less brutal.) Beer comes in volumes of between 0.2 litres and 0.5 litres, either as draught (vom Fass) or in the bottle (Flasche).
Pils is the most familiar beer for visitors, golden in colour and with a hoppy, refreshing flavour. Many will also know Export, stronger than Pils and named because its high alcohol kept the beer fresh during travel. It is dry with a hint of sweetness, although not as sweet as Helles, a generic term for light brews.
Dunkel is the generic name for dark beers, which are rich in malt and full-bodied, though not as heavy as catch-all name Schwarzbier (black beer). Its opposite is Weissbier (white beer, also Weisse or Weissen), a southern favourite now available country-wide. Brewed from wheat, it is pale, cloudy and tastes like fresh hay; Hefeweissen has a stronger kick of yeast and Kristal-Weissen is clearer with more fizz.
In Berlin it comes with lactic acid as low-alcohol Berliner Weisse, often drunk mit Grün (with green woodruff syrup) and mit Schuss (raspberry syrup). Light or dark, Bock beers should be treated with respect because of a 6.5–7 percent alcohol content, which makes super-strength festival brew Doppelbock positively dangerous. Lemonade shandy is known as Radler or Alsterwasser in Hamburg.
Local specialities abound. Dortmund, Germany’s beer capital in terms of volume, is renowned for its Export; Düsseldorf brews a malty Alt beer, served with fruit in summer as Altbierbowle; and Cologne is proud of its light, refreshing Kölsch beer, routinely dismissed elsewhere as a glorified shandy, not helped by the small measures served in narrow Stangen glasses.
Bavaria, the spiritual home of German beer and the beer garden, produces all the usuals plus sweet Malzbier (malt beer), like stout; Munich specials are Märzenbier, a powerful brew fermented in March for September knees-up, the Oktoberfest, and Hofbräu, formerly supped only by the royal court. Bamberg’s smoky Rauchbier is another state special.
Such is the German love of beer it would be easy to overlook its wines. The memory of sickly Liebfraumilch once exported to Britain may play its part. But in recent years Germany’s better wines are being exported, prompting foreign wine-buffs to wax about a renaissance in German wine-making. Quite simply, German wines of the past decade have been superlatively good, aided by global warming and a return to Riesling rather than exotic crossbreeds. Of the thirteen areas in which wine is produced, most in the southwest, the most celebrated are those of the Rhine and Mosel valleys (see German wine regions). Most areas produce wines that are trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (medium), though there are some lieblich (sweet) wines.
Another reason non-Germans may have steered away from German wine is that the classification system seems absurdly over-complicated alongside the classic French AOC standard. Basic plonk is sweetish Tafelwein; a better choice is Landwein, a dry, German vin de pays. By the Qualitätswein level you’re in the good stuff, either Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (Qba) from defined regions, or Qualitätswein mit Prädiket from specific vineyards. Of the latter, Kabinett wines are reserve wines – unsugared dry wines of natural personality and occasionally sublime – while Spätlese are produced from late-harvested grapes to produce fuller, usually dry flavours. Auslese wines are a step up in strength and sweetness, their intensity often prompting comparisons with honey. Eiswein, sharp with a concentrated, often sweet flavour, is made from grapes harvested after being frozen. Sweeter still are rare Beerenauslese, produced from exceptionally ripe grapes.
Three-quarters of German wines are white (Weisswein), typically Rieslings, which comprise over a fifth of total wine output and at their best are sensational – light and elegant, often almost floral. Silvaner wines have more body, while Gewürztraminers are intense and highly aromatic in flavour. The German Grauburgunder is better known in English as Pinot Gris. Notable reds (Rotwein) are Spätburgunder, a German Pinot Noir, rich in colour, velvety in taste, and Trollinger, a light, fresh wine that’s delicious in summer. Rosé (Roséwein) is less common. A notable addition to the cellar is Frankfurt’s Apfelwein – cider – and at Christmas everywhere Glühwein (hot mulled wine, literally “glow wine”). More detail on German wines is published online at germanwine.de.