The mention of Germany typically calls to mind the colourful and trendy streets of Berlin or the annual Oktoberfest in Munich. Which makes us wonder, is that all there really is to Europe’s most populous country? To find out more, we recently caught up with German Ambassador to Singapore, His Excellency Dr Ulrich Andreas Ferdinand Sante, and his wife, Mrs Christina Ursula Sante, at their beautiful residence for a chat. The couple shared with us four of Germany’s underrated cities, each with a significance of their own.
“When travelling to Germany, you can concentrate on one city, and most people will think of Berlin or Munich, and perhaps think of castles that you can see in the south. They may even come up with Hamburg,” said Ambassador Sante. “But instead of cities that you have probably read a lot about, I’d like to recommend four underrated places in Germany — places we’ve been to as students or adults, as well as where our friends live.”
“These are cities not too crowded with tourists, even though they have very particular and historical attractions. What makes Germany so attractive is the fact that we have 16 different states that are autonomous in defining their cultural heritage. In Germany, we don’t have a ‘London’, a ‘Paris’, or ‘Madrid.’ Instead, we have major cities like Munich, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Hanover, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg — and then we have more intimate cities like Lubeck, Weimar, Augsburg. So it’s very diverse.”
Top on the list of Ambassador Sante’s recommendations is Lübeck, which he adores for its “diverse architecture and beauty”. The Hanse city of Lübeck is one of the oldest, ancient port cities of the Baltic Sea. Once the former capital and Queen City of the Hanseatic League, the UNESCO World Heritage Site has maintained the old structures of the Middle Ages — most of which are still intact, even after the war.
Architecture: “Ask any German, and they will tell you that the first place to go to for red brick gothic architecture would be Lübeck. The most interesting buildings are the family houses of the Patricians, who are rich trading families that used to be a major influence in building the economic spine of the Hanse cities. So this is a city best explored by foot — because it’s such a lovely place to walk around.”
Culture: “A must-see in Lübeck is the world-famous Holstentor (also known as the Holsten Gate). Built in 1464, the Brick Gothic construction is one of the two remaining city gates — the other one being the Citadel Gate. Another would be the Buddenbrook House, once the residence of novelist and philanthropist Thomas Mann’s family, but has now been converted into one of the most well-known museums in Lübeck.”
Cuisine: “One food item iconic to the city is the Lübeck Marzipan, a confection consisting primarily of sugar or honey and almond.”
Restaurant: “Schiffergesellschaft is a historical establishment which started off as a brotherhood for poor sailors, but has since evolved into one of the most well-known restaurants in Lubeck. There, you will find classic North German favourites such as Labskaus, a traditionally Nordic dish made from salted meat or corned beef, potatoes, red beet, and onions. It’s so specific to the region that it would be strange to hear a foreigner ordering it. It almost feels like the Northern German version of laksa.”
Hotel: “Where you want to stay is a question of taste. For those looking to stay in well-established hotels, there is the very well-known Radisson Blu Senator Hotel. If not, I would recommend staying in one of those small, boutique hotels. They are intimate yet elegant, allowing you to feel like a part of that town.”
Best time to visit: “Summer, especially when the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival is held around June to August. Germany is a country of festivals, and that’s the most famous one in Lübeck. It’s an open-air, classical music festival which takes place in different unique venues such as a farmhouse, church, boat, or lawn. If you want to get a ticket for next year, you should start booking it right now because it sells out fast every year.”
The cultural capital of Europe in 1999, Weimar is the place to go to for people passionate about German history and culture — making it Ambassador Sante and his wife’s second recommendation. “We first went to Weimar in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall fell,” said Mrs Sante, “Previously, we had no chance to go to East Germany to visit all these beautiful cities like Weimar. So you can imagine first going into Weimar, it was exciting for us both — it was something very special.”
Additionally, the classic town in Germany (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) has seen many illustrious personalities hailing from or living in the region over the years. “Some famous German writers that lived there include Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller,” said Ambassador Sante, “A gentleman like Napoleon would make a stop on his way to Moscow at the beginning of the 19th century and he would say, ‘I will have to pass by to see Mr Goethe and talk to him.’ So they had an exchange of views on world politics at that time — and that’s what Weimar is known for.”
Architecture: “In terms of architecture, Weimar is three things: It’s Baroque, it’s Rococo, it’s classic. Here, you will find little medieval pathways. The town is pretty, very close to the mountainous region in Elber. There are many things to see, especially rolling hills around the corner. There are also many castles in the region.”
“German composer Richard Wagner lived in Weimar for some time,” added Ambassador Sante, “So with all these people living in the town, there must be something special about it — and that’s its beauty”
Culture: “For a place so rich in history and literature, you should go to the Duchess Anna Amalia Library. It is a well-known library spread over three levels of rococo architecture, famous for German literature. It holds about one million volumes, including a large collection devoted to Goethe and a Bible that belonged to Martin Luther King. Even if you’re not into literature, the architecture itself is a marvel — it’s absolutely breathtaking.”
Cuisine: “The signature cuisine in Weimar would be Thüringer Klöße (potato dumplings), the speciality of Thuringia — the state Weimar is in. The dumplings are mostly served as a side dish with different meat or a sauce, boasting a special silky texture.
Thuringian Dumplings pair very well with pork or beef roast, Rouladen, Sauerbraten, and Gulasch. Along with the meat, they are also traditionally served with a cabbage side dish, such as Sauerkraut or red cabbage.
Hotel: “Hotel Elephant originated as an inn in 1696, which hosted many famous writers and Bauhaus artists. Goethe, for example, would meet his friends there to wine and dine. Now, it is a hotel and restaurant under Starwood’s The Luxury Collection which has 99 individually styled guest rooms and suites — such as the Bauhaus rooms and Rococo rooms. This is, no doubt, an upper-class hotel that you should go to.”
Best time to go: “Winter. The marketplace in old town Weimar turns into the most beautiful Christmas market during this season. You have special food, art and crafts, and music.”
The old town of Augsburg in the South is the third-largest city in Bavaria, and the largest one on the German Romantic Road, one of the biggest magnets for tourism in the area. Located just a one-hour train ride from Munich, this city is Ambassador Sante’s third recommendation.
“Something that Augsburg is famous for is that it was the city of two Patrician families that rose to great prominence — the Welser and Fugger families. The latter is an extremely rich family who created the first public housing for the poor in the form of small little cities called Fugger cities, donated by Jakob Fugger in 1521,” Ambassador Sante said. “As long as they believed in God and prayed daily, the poor were able to apply for a living quarter there.”
“Today, this little village within Augsburg is the oldest public housing settlement in Europe, and is a very beautiful museum,” he added.
Architecture: “Augsburg combines three different styles of architecture that you can analyse not only as a tourist, but also academically. It’s a city of Renaissance, Rococo, and also Jugendstil (German word for Art Nouveau). There are many buildings in town from each period.”
Culture: “The Schaezlerpalais is a magnificent baroque palace — probably the most famous one in Southern Germany — which is now an art museum. It’s perfect for people who would like to learn about the culture and background of the city.”
“For people who like literature, go to the Bertolt-Brecht Haus, the birthplace of the famous playwright and poet. You would have probably heard his famous opera called the Three Pennies Opera — a dramatic musical you can hear in every theatre in New York.”
Cuisine: “Something very special for that region is the plum sheet cake called Zwetschgendatschi, which is a Bavarian word. Many Germans don’t even know how to spell it. It’s a yeast cake with plums, topped with a lot of whipped cream.”
Restaurants: “Die Tafeldecker is a quaint restaurant in the oldest public housing settlement, which is a place I would recommend going to if you’d like Bavarian tapas typical of South Germany. Another recommendation is the two-Michelin-starred August located in the renovated Villa Haag, helmed by chef Christian Grünwald.”
Hotels: “You can never go wrong with the charming Hotel Augsburger Hof in the heart of the old town.”
Best time to go: “Definitely in summer. All the colours of the city will really ignite you. And this is a town where you won’t find millions of tourists, so it’s definitely worth visiting.”
The largest city in the German state of Hesse, Frankfurt is one of Germany’s major cities. “One of the best and most important museums there is the Stadel Museum, where you can see important exhibitions,” said Ambassador Sante.
Architecture: “When the Romans tried to conquer Europe in the past, they went up to Frankfurt. So today, you can travel just 20 kilometres north of Frankfurt and see old Roman walls and castles that were the defensive line towards the wild Germans. Now, you can actually see rebuilt castles and forts such as the Saalburg.”
Cuisine: “The Frankfurter Grüne Soße is a German green sauce that was the favourite dish of Goethe, who loved to have potatoes with their special herb sauce — it was necessary that this sauce had at least seven different green herbs. Now, the sauce is typically served with either potatoes and boiled eggs, Tafelspitz (prime cooked beef), or fish.”
“A dessert typical of Frankfurt is the Frankfurter Kranz, a buttercream sponge cake topped with caramel-covered brittle nuts, toasted almond flakes or ground hazelnuts.”
Restaurant: “Gemalten Haus, also known as The Painted House, is a restaurant I would recommend. You need to try the apple wine here, Frankfurt’s signature drink. It’s an alcoholic drink that has sour notes, but still very fresh and tasty — especially on hot days. If you’re in for a little bit of fine dining in a good neighbourhood, Erno’s Bistro is a Michelin-starred restaurant which boasts a cosy atmosphere and elegant food from the Alsace region of France.”
Hotels: “There are two very prominent hotels in Frankfurt. The first is Hessischer Hof, which is located ideally across the trade fair grounds. The second? Hotel Frankfurter Hof. Both are hotels rich in history. They’re nothing from a chain, but old hotels with a lot of history that attract both locals and international people.”
Best time to visit: “Anytime during the course of the year. Each and every day is different. In spring, nature starts to blossom and the trees start to have these very tender greens. In summer, it’s blossoming with all the colours. In autumn, the colour palette is a lot richer — and in winter, you can just sit in the heated booths outside cafes with a blanket wrapped around you.”