Germany and America: Differences

German house Bad Iburg Osnabruck Germany

I recently returned from two weeks in Germany. The trip had been planned for several months, and during that time I wondered, “What is life like in Germany? How is it similar to life here in the US, and how is it different?” I’d visited Germany twice before; briefly in ’83, and for a few weeks in ’94. Still, it had been a while. Now, bearing in mind that my observations are admittedly anecdotal, and based on my own American life, here are some differences I observed between life in Germany and life in the US.


Up above you’ll see the house where we stayed for the first half of our trip. This was in northern Germany, but the southern German houses looked pretty similar. Tiled roofs, in a basic V shape. Geraniums in window boxes outside the windows. Oh, and windows that opened at the top, or could be opened out from the side too (the handles worked in an ingenious way that enabled either way of opening). None of the houses where we stayed had A/C, which was fine for me, but definitely got a little warm at times (in the house above, I was in an attic room with slanted ceilings on the very top floor – you can see my window up there). I feel for them with the heat wave coming.

Here is a taste of the decor inside our house in Bad Iburg. Now, part of this may be due to our hostess’ age (87). But I’ve said before after visiting Europe that in many ways, things seem to be about 50 years behind the US. This is an example. When is the last time you saw crocheted dolls and floral wallpaper? This is a pretty common look around here.

The German People

87-year-old Irmgard tending her garden

The German people themselves are impressive. I mean, REALLY impressive. A few examples — here’s our hostess, Irmgard. She’s 87, and in addition to running a boarding house (apparently on her own), she was out tending her “garden” (this is what they call their yards). The final night in Germany, we stayed with my friend Hildegard in Munich. She is 77. She mentioned how heavy my backpack looked, and when I agreed that it was, she went to her garden shed, took out her bike, put my backpack into the bike basket, and walked it all the way to the train station. At the station, she zipped down the stairs in the center of the walkway, not using any rails, etc. I observed this over and over. Those Germans are impressive!

Several times while driving, I noticed too that German drivers know the rules and observe them. If you screw up (and I freely admit that I did, several times!), you will get a dirty look. Sadly, I received several of these. Do not cross the German sense of right and wrong. They will notice!

Similarly, German trains and buses (generally) run on time. Do not be late; you will miss yours. Observe the conventions, and keep your act together. Once my daughter had her feet up on the opposite seat on a train. The ticket guy came through the car and complimented her on her shoes, “But please keep them on the floor!” Those Germans do love their rules.

Driving in Germany

Yes, for about six days, I did drive in Germany. On the autobahn. This was not an experience I sought, nor did I enjoy it, but there you have it. It did happen. I had an image of “the autobahn” being vast highways with no speed limits. Maybe at some places it is, but the way it played out for me is that speed limits change frequently on German roads. It will be 100 kph (of course everything there is metric, so kilometers rather than miles). Suddenly, it will change to 50 kph or 30 kph. Then out of the blue, there will be a stretch with no speed limit. Generally, the cars drive at reasonable speeds, although it’s not uncommon for a car or two to totally WHIZ by on the left. I got up to a bit above 120 kph, which I see is around 75 mph. That was plenty fast for me. Many times the speed limits seemed strange and arbitrary — 100 kph on a twisting, dirt road, and then 30 kph on a straight, rural stretch. Be careful too of the line on the road indicating where to stop for a traffic light. If you go up to the line, you won’t be able to see the traffic light without looking straight up.

The roads in Germany are well-maintained. I’m not sure I encountered a single pothole, and I saw no roadkill or tire rubber, etc. Other than one totally burned-out vehicle (I’m almost glad I don’t know the story there), I saw no accidents occurring. I asked an Austrian guide about this and he said, “Accidents cost time and money, so we try not to have them.” I suppose we Americans should emulate that 🙂

Roads in Germany are also very narrow, often to the point where cars can’t even pass each other without both going a bit off the side of the road. Oh, and you don’t see vans or pickup trucks in Germany, either. We came across road construction several places that just “happened” — no signs warning us of it, no detours posted. That was interesting. We just had to make our way somewhere and hope the GPS could figure things out.

German Dogs

The Germans LOVE their dogs. We saw dogs everywhere — at attractions, in grocery stores, on trains and buses, just walking down the street with owners. They were always on leashes and always well-behaved. I hardly ever heard a bark. The dogs were also always “nice” looking — not a lot of scruffy mixed breeds in evidence.

One day on a bus, one of the girls told me to look under my seat. I saw fur and thought it was a stuffed animal belonging to a child behind me, so I grabbed it — and it flinched! It was a live poodle, who looked a little shocked when I turned around and apologized to it 🙂 However, it did not bark, even when confronted with this indignity 🙂

German Food

German Frühstück aka, Breakfast

German food is definitely a little different from what we were used to in Indiana. Sausages/”wurst” was everywhere, as were pretzels. My girls were really missing fruits and vegetables, as most places we ate didn’t offer a lot of those. Above, you can see the breakfast that my German friend put together for us on our final day in Munich — various breads, chunks of cheese, meat, tomato pieces, butter. Many types of drinks (including tea in the teapot made from tree leaves from her garden).

There is no free water at restaurants. You’ll buy water (usually 2 Euros a pop), either “still” or the more common “with gas” (carbonation). We’re still not sure about tipping. Prior to our trip, I’d read that you generally do not tip in Germany, although it’s customary to round up your bill to the next Euro. Another member of our party said she’d read that we should tip as we would in the US. So, I’m still not sure on that. Can anyone chime in?

Cash is King

Here in the US, I charge most everything on my credit card. But in Germany, most places prefer cash, and many places don’t accept credit cards at all. I was able to use my credit card at the grocery store. But many small restaurants, some attractions, some buses, the Deutsche Bahn train ticket machine, etc — all turned down credit and needed cash. I used (and highly recommend) the Capital One debit card for getting Euros overseas. I used mine at an ATM and was able to get Euros with no foreign transaction fee. Having said that, there were issues in some smaller towns in finding an ATM. In our first village, the ATM was located inside a bank lobby, which was only open during banking hours (in this town, that included a 12:30-2 daily closure for lunch). And the ATM I tried near Neuschwanstein Castle wanted to add on an approximate 10% surcharge for changing money there.

German Ads

During our time in Germany, I didn’t watch TV at all. It’s not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but rather that our trip kept us busy pretty much from sunup to sundown. But sometimes, I still encountered advertisements. Here’s a typical one — saying, basically, “For every (I think you can figure this one out), the right bike.” Definitely racy by US standards, and yet there are places (Italy comes to mind) that take ads even further in that direction.


My lunch — captured next to the ever-present ashtray

Germans smoke. A LOT. Sometimes, even the outside air would be smoky due to all the “rauchen” going on. This is a little strange to me, given the otherwise high fitness level around here. Still, it was nice to find at least one area where we Americans appeared to have the superior position 🙂

Clothing in Germany

Germans generally dress pretty well. Nothing fancy, but I definitely didn’t see many jeans and shorts, and many (or any) sloppy t-shirts and sweatshirts with slogans, etc. One of the girls noted that they wore lots of those quilted-type vests. Back in America, she said, “Yay, finally I’m someplace where I’m dressed nicer than most people around me.”

So there you have it: a quick take on some differences I noticed between Germany and the US. If you’ve visited Germany, what others can you add?


  1. Wow you did a fantastic job covering a lot of differences. I was told after we were back home that had we asked for tap water, it would have not cost. My informer has lived in Germany so she would know. The day we arrive in Alaska we found a delightful fabric store we could walk to from our hotel and we walked there several times. In our time in Germany, I never saw any fabric for sale. I was a tad sorry. It was cool to see in various stores we were in, I did not notice much of any “Made in China” items. I was just impressed with how Germans seem like hard workers and people with a healthy lifestyle.

  2. This is very interesting, Susan. I’ve visited Germany, but it’s been years, more than three decades, in fact. The only thing I remember is being so disappointed that my ancestors came from northern Germany, as at that time, the south of Germany was so much neater than the north. Beyond that, I have no memories of it.

  3. Susan…..found your observations interesting. Thanks for sharing. Your trip was very unique in that it was a quest for family history rather than a typical tourist adventure. What great memories you’ve made! I hope you have many more adventures! I shared your blog with Karl, (as he would say…..”Karl with a ‘K’….the German way”) my German husband and here are comments the two of us have to add to your your observations. Sorry if it is TMI but the teacher in me is compelled ……..cheers!

    1) Houses….I love those multi-functional windows too. Another advantage is the ease at which you can clean the outside pane HOWEVER a disadvantage is when they are tilted open…..they can be fatal for a pet cat trying to jump through and gets wedged. I’ve shared with you my observation about how ALL shutters on German homes are functional and serve the purpose of closing to block out light and weather while in America, the majority serve no purpose other than decoration. You didn’t mention that most German homes have lacy, white cafe curtains and no drapes to close for privacy. However, almost all homes and businesses have “rolladen” which are rollable metal shades. They go down like clockwork in the evenings and up again to start the day. Your picture of the wall paper and furniture could have come from Karl’s mom’s house as well.

    2) People….their lifestyle encourages walkability and there are so many advantages to that.

    3) Driving….as opposed to in USA….it is not easy to obtain a driving license and a large percentage of the populous do not have a license or a car. All drivers are well-trained because in order to get a license… must take a required number of hours of driving instruction which you must pay for. Rule of thumb is that it takes over $1,000 worth of instruction. Thus, German drivers tend to follow the rules because if they lose their license they must re-do the process.
    Also regarding their tendency to follow rules…..when you have a population which is approximately one third that of the USA all living in a space the size of our state of Montana……rule following is essential.

    4) Dogs….it can be disconcerting to see dogs everywhere in Germany but have you noticed the increase of dogs in USA airports? I’ve even seen watering stations and poo bags at “pet care areas” in our airports. That was unheard of here several years ago. Germans have improved at picking up street poo which was a real issue when I lived in Berlin 30 years ago.

    5) Food… now know the tip of asking for “leitungswasser” (tap water) which is free. I also want to point out the German consumer can purchase water with and without gas by the crate for MUCH cheaper than USA consumers. For about $5 (plus a deposit which is reimbursed when you return bottles) they can purchase a crate of 12. A dozen bottles in USA would be at least $15. Years ago…..not many Germans drank tap water….I’m not sure if that has changed.

    As far as tipping…..unlike wait staff in the USA, who are generally underpaid and rely on tips…..German wait staff receive a living wage and don’t have to have 2 or 3 jobs. It is acceptable to round up the bill to the nearest EURO and more is not expected.

    6) Cash…..more and more places are accepting credit cards especially in tourist areas but in general, German culture is not a credit society. If they can’t pay up front…..most do not buy. A German would think you were insane if you bought a $1,800 mattress regardless if you could make payments for years….or take home a room of furniture for no money down but again….pay for years.

    7) Ads……definitely ads in Europe are much more racy than in the US. You’re lucky the ad wasn’t for “duschgel” (shower soap) and showed a glistening naked body lathered up with their product! HOWEVER….one thing you will never see is any ad for prescription medication. Health care and medication are not ‘for profit’ industries in Germany. In fact, of all the industrialized countries…..ONLY the USA and New Zealand allow direct advertisement of pharmaceuticals to the public. Hmmmmmmm……

    8) Smoking…..regardless of how much smoking you observed….major improvements have been made in the last 20 years where at least now there are SOME restrictions in public places. In the past it was acceptable for strangers to be seated with you in a restaurant if there were free chairs at your table. And….perfectly acceptable for them to be smokers. You are correct that in this area…..the USA has led the way.

    9) Clothing….this is another area where lifestyle and space limitation have major impact. There is no stigma in wearing the same clothing for several consecutive days. Many homes also lack closets so an entire wardrobe must fit into a “shrank” or standing wardrobe.

  4. This is all so interesting! I have never been out of the country but I do have German ancestry (as well as several other nationalities I don’t even remember). I was thinking perhaps the lack of accidents might be due to the rule-following tendency, whereas here people tend o follow road rules only if they might get caught if they broke them – otherwise it’s the (sad) typical “me first” American attitude. I like the orderliness and rules of the road and fitness. Not so much the smoking and racy ads and lack of credit card usability. .

  5. Thank you so much for posting! We are leaving Monday for Jena, Germany. We also plan to visits some of the area around Osnabruck. We will post pictures when we return. 🙂

  6. Your informative descriptions of Germany should really help others who plan to travel there in the future. The additional tips from the school teacher’s husband were also enlightening. I have visited Germany briefly enroute to Scandinavia many years ago, but I was on a tour bus with a tour group. We did not have the opportunity to stay in a German home or drive on the Autobahn ourselves. However, our bus driver was very good, so it didn’t seem a bit scary even at higher speeds than normal. You definitely got a better feel for all things German by spending almost two weeks there. I’m glad that your trip was filled with many educational things along with the sightseeing. You were very brave to have driven a car to various places! That would not be anything that I would to attempt. Thanks for sharing so many aspects of your wonderful visit to Germany! It was a neat vicarious experience for your readers.

  7. Your blog and the comments were educational for me. I, too, have German ancestors and can compare them to many things mentioned. Susan, you are so brave to drive in a foreign country. I would never attempt that. Even driving in Hawaii was different for us!! Thanks for all the tips for a trip to Germany.

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