A modern, multicultural city that’s a student’s dream
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Berlin quickly became a bustling epicenter of all kinds of activity and change. In 2003, the mayor of Berlin somewhat famously described the city as “poor but sexy,” as the city was drawing many young people and outsiders looking for a different way of life.
That may have changed a bit lately, especially the “poor” part. Rents and costs have certainly gone up in the years since the Wall fell, but there are still parts of the city that are relatively cheap when compared to other parts of Germany, and especially when compared to other European or international cities.
Nevertheless, it’s still an incredibly lively place with countless indoor and outdoor activities, with technological jobs, fashionable stores, hot clubs and chilled-out cafes, all of which make it a student’s paradise. Even if you’re not a student, the city’s dizzying array of museums and countless cultural activities—many of them free—provide edification and entertainment for people of any age.
People who come here for the first time usually were happily surprised by the huge and excellent Deutsches Technikmuseum (German Technology Museum) or especially the DDR Museum, which lets you get a hands-on feeling of what things were like when Berlin was a divided city within a divided country.
If that piques your interest and makes you want to learn more about the history of divided Berlin, other great museums include the open-air East Side Gallery, which is a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi Museum, which is all about East Germany’s secret police, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which is located on the former border crossing point, and which highlights stories of people who tried to escape East Germany.
For other cultural activities, nothing beats the (free) view from the dome of the Reichstagsgebäude, Germany’s parliament building. Just be sure to make a reservation ahead of time. A five-minute walk from there is the famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a somber place for reflection, as well as the Tiergarten, a gigantic urban park.
If you’re more into traditional museums, Berlin has the Museuminsel (Museum Island), a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to five famous museums, including the Pergamon Museum. Finally, if that’s too highbrow for you, you can always check out the Deutsches Currywurst Museum (German Curry Sausage Museum), which is dedicated to one of Germany’s favorite snacks!
Berlin has the Humboldt University and the Freie Universität, two of Germany’s best world-class universities.
Whatever your interests may be, you’re likely to find something to satisfy them in Berlin.
Another one of the city’s major selling points is its diversity. Roughly one out of every seven people living in Berlin originally came from another country, which translates to over half a million people of foreign origin in the city. That number rises to nearly one in three people (article in German) if you include those with a “migration background,” which are those people who have at least one parent born in another country.
All of that means that it’s easier to find German language courses and, when you get tired of conjugating your verbs and cramming new German vocabulary into your brain, it’ll also likely be easier to find people with a similar background to yours if you feel like taking a break and reminiscing about things back home.
2. Hannover, Germany
First of all, let’s get this out of the way right now: This city’s name is spelled with 2 N’s in German. But you know what they say, right? Double the N’s, double the fun!
You often hear people say, “Such and such a place is really nice to visit, but I could never live there.” Well, Hannover is basically that same phrase, only inverted. It’s the proverbial “boring to visit, but great to live in” type of city.
Seriously, though, Hannover is nice, but it almost never shows up on anyone’s radar if they’re from outside of Germany.
Whether it’s true or not, Hannover is well-known among German speakers and learners for having das reinste Deutsch (the purest/cleanest German). To immediately clarify that, they mean that the German spoken in Hannover is as close as you’ll get to the “standard” German you’ll hear on the listening tracks from textbooks.
Hannover has a lot of other cool things, too. Like the other cities, there are several language schools like Berlitz and ISK, and Hannover also has a Volkshochschule system. Hannover’s Leibnitz University is also very well-regarded if you’re looking for a university education.
The city also boasts lifestyle perks that you might not find in larger or smaller cities. Its position right in the middle of Germany, both in terms of population size and geography, makes Hannover a place that has plenty of things to do and see, but which also makes it really easy to relax or escape from the city for a weekend.
If you do stay in town, the Neues Rathaus (“new city hall,” which is actually over 100 years old) is a good starting point for a scenic day. You can ride in a unique curved elevator to the top of the town hall’s cupola, which will give you a scenic outlook on the entire city.
You can’t miss the Maschsee, a giant urban lake right around the corner from the town hall. People go there all year round to hang out, exercise, drink beer, eat ice cream and just enjoy the great outdoors. They especially go there during the Maschsee Lake Festival, a multi-week outdoor party held every August.
3. Heidelberg, Germany
A smaller city with a long tradition of education
Here’s another German city with an excellent university. In fact, the Heidelberg University, also known as Ruprecht Karl University, is the oldest university in Germany, having been founded in 1386!
And like Berlin and Munich (and nearly any mid-sized or larger German city), Heidelberg also has classes through the Volkshochschule and other language schools like Berlitz or F+U, the latter of which can even include student housing.
Heidelberg is also a beautiful city in a great location. The ruins of Heidelberg Palace are a tourism and photography mainstay, giving visitors great views of the city. Just be sure to time your stay (or visit to the castle) to avoid tourists.
The city is just a short train ride away from many western and southern German cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and it’s also tantalizingly close to France, Luxembourg and Belgium. Sounds like you’d have quite a few options for a weekend getaway, right?
Perhaps the biggest advantage of Heidelberg is that it’s not a huge, cosmopolitan city. It does have a good student scene and there are many restaurants and bars for locals and the many tourists who visit the city. On the whole, it’s quite a bit more laid-back than the larger cities on this list.
4. Munich, Germany
Everyone’s mental picture of Germany
Munich offers a lot of the same selling points that you’ll find in Berlin, including multiple schools—including Berlitz and Goethe Institut—a full network of opportunities through the Volkshochschule, and all of the advantages of living in a modern, exciting, cosmopolitan city.
But whereas Berlin looks like a city from the future crash-landed on a city from the past, Munich looks like the physical manifestation of countless stereotypes about Germany.
Magnificent churches with the Alps just around the corner? Check. A glockenspiel in the middle of the city hall tower? Check. Sausages and sauerkraut? Check. Lederhosen and dirndls worn non-ironically? Check. Enough beer to drown a team of horses? You’d better believe that’s a check. All of these elements add up to one thing: Munich just feels German.
There are tons of possibilities to learn German while living the good life and experiencing German culture. If you’re into museums, the Deutsches Museum is one of the most famous in all of Germany.
If you like parks, the Englischer Garten has wide fields, a refreshing creek where sunbathers can cool off or even surf, a Chinese tower and multiple beer gardens.
If you’re a gearhead, Munich is home to BMW, whose BMW World is a must-see for car fans.
And for sports fans, you can visit the site of the Munich Olympics or the new(ish) Allianz Arena, home to the Bayern München soccer team.
Munich’s most famous “tourist attraction” is their beer. And about that beer: Munich’s roughly 100 beer gardens can bring a wistful tear to any beer lover’s eye, and you really must go to Oktoberfest if you’re in the country in September or October, even if you’re a teetotaler. It’s still lots of fun for all ages, which makes it high on many a “bucket list” throughout the world.
Munich’s location in Bavaria in southern Germany also gives it a leg up on other cities, since it’s so close to the Alps and several central and southern European countries. Plus, the weather in the south tends to be warmer and sunnier than in the dreary, rainy north!
As we’ve already seen, there are lots of places where you can learn German, but if you’re interested in learning something else while perfecting your German, Munich is home to the Technische Universität München (Technical University Munich, abbreviated TUM). The TUM has been ranked multiple times as the number one university in Germany, and its approximately 37,000 students can study any number of subjects.
And if that’s not enough for you, Munich also boasts another top 10 German university, the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich. That institute has over 50,000 students, and over 7,000 of them are international.
So, if you’re looking to go to Germany for a university education, Munich should be at the top of your list of places to check out.
In terms of learning German, the one drawback of Munich may be the Bavarian dialect. There are some regional vocabulary words that you’ll have to pick up on, but it’s usually no big deal. For example, the biggest one I noticed immediately was that a small bread roll, normally called a Brötchen in the north, is called a Semmel in the south.
It’s normally not written, but people speak it everywhere. However, if a Münchner (a person from Munich) notices that you’re from the north of Germany or another country, they’ll often speak standard German so that you can communicate.