Where the River Main and the Rhine meet is the city of Mainz on one side, and Wiesbaden on the other. Mainz (pronounced MINE-zz) a short train journey from Frankfurt, and a lovely destination for a day trip with kids. It’s a very walkable city with a stretch of pedestrianized or low-traffic roads in the centre, and a lovely path along the banks of the Rhine.
Birthplace of Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg, European inventor of the movable-type printing press, was born in Mainz, and he printed his first books in the city. There is an extensive museum, with a vault containing two of the first Gutenberg bibles, as well as many examples of older hand-written books, and replicas of his original press. The audio guides are worth getting, and although they don’t have one geared for kids, the 20-minute highlight tour was interesting enough to keep our 7 year old engaged. But after 45 minutes he was pretty finished with this museum dedicated to books and printing, so unless your children are older or significantly interested, don’t expect this one to take all day.
Marktplatz and Altstadt
Thankfully the museum is centrally located in the Altstadt, near the central market square. Many of the buildings here have been restored as Mainz was heavily bombed in the Second World War. Starting in the Marktplatz, you can wend your way through picturesque little streets, in and around the cathedral. There are lots of cafes, ice cream shops, and restaurants. If you come on a Saturday, there is a huge market that fills the square and the streets above and below it. It’s a lovely festive atmosphere, so it’s worth catching the city on a Saturday if you can.
Mainz was the site of Roman habitation as well, being well situated at the confluence of two major rivers. There are remains of aqueducts and city gates dotted around the city, as well as the remains of a massive stone monument inside the Mainz Citadel, which we didn’t have a chance to visit this trip.
When you move an ocean away from your family and friends, the first few months are full of practicalities and excitement. Everything is new! This is so exciting! Where do I buy toilet paper?!
Three to five months in, the everyday routine is no longer new. That’s when some of the longer-term challenges start to appear, it gets really tiring and the loneliness hits hard. After a few overseas moves, I’ve learned a bit about how to make it over this midterm speed bump. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Go for quantity over quality when it comes to making new friends
Now that you’ve figured out the groceries and things, go out there and meet people. When you’re not in school or work, it can be difficult, but you’ve got to think of this like getting your electricity hooked up. It’s just as important really. If you speak the local language – sign up for classes, join a walking group, get a community garden plot. If you don’t, look up expat meet-ups on Internations or expat.com, seek out local expat FB groups. Even better, look for a tandem language partner and combine language learning with making new friends. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not finding people you connect with right away, just keep going to things, having coffee with people. My husband and I made a rule to always say yes when we first moved to London. Dinner, the pub, whatever it was – just go. We met some of our best friends through other people, so it will happen eventually. It’s both harder and easier when you have kids – there’s the school parents and toddler groups to go to, but it’s harder to go out in the evenings.
Don’t stop exploring
I know you’re tired. Living somewhere new is exhausting, and that’s something your friends and family who have never done this will have a hard time understanding. It’s tempting to settle in and stop going to places you don’t know because you’re sick of new things. For sure, take a mental health day and relax, but don’t fall into a pattern of never seeking out new places anymore. This is part of the reason you moved here, remember? Do your research and find a new neighbourhood, a historic site, or even just a new restaurant. Instagram’s location tags are a fun way to finding new places nearby.
Make medium term future plans
I’m not good at this one. It’s easy to put one foot in front of the other, day after day, and realize two months later you haven’t done much. Make plans for three months in the future for an overnight stay two towns over, or that festival in the town square. It gives you something to look forward to, and gets your head out of the everyday.
Sign up for local news
Find out what the local newspapers are, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Sign up for the newsletter from the city council or neighbourhood association. If it’s not in your local language, make good use of your best friend, Google Translate. This is how you find out about those local festivals that can be such good fun and remind you why you made this crazy move in the first place!
Keep working on your language skills
Oh it’s so tempting, after getting to the point where you can interact with the grocery store cashier and order a coffee, to stop trying. I’ve been there, for sure. But even when you’re feeling frustrated, do your 10 minutes of Duolingo every day, watch films you know in the local language, and set up a weekly walk with a tandem language partner. I have to constantly prod myself into these, despite having language class twice a week. Don’t forget how far you’ve already come! Remember when even going to the store felt insurmountable? You can totally do this.
If you follow me on Instagram (and if you like castles, you really should because I am obsessed) you know my family and I visit a lot of them. The thing is, southern Germany is wall to wall with castles. I didn’t know that until I moved here, and if you look at Pinterest, you’d think the only one is Neuschwanstein. Oh no, my friends, there are more. So. Many. More. It’s also worth noting that the entrance fees of the castles on this list are half of what you’d pay for Ludwig’s folly, and they will all be much less busy.
A bit of history
Germany has only been a country for a short period of time really, and before the 19th century, it was a land of hundreds of little principalities, duchies, Free Cities, and more types of city states than you can rattle a sword at. Even more confusingly, due to the mind-bendingly complicated inter-marrying of all these ruling families, lots of these kingdoms would include little islands of land scattered across the countryside. Each of these places would have a castle or two, to show they were the boss, to serve as a reminder you had better pay your river tax, and defensible places for the Duke or Prince Elector or whomever to hole up when the going got rough, or to lavishly entertain other Dukes and Prince Electors. That explains the truly incredible number of castles.
Not all castles in Germany are all that old
There was a bit of a trend in the 19th century, everything medieval was cool. People wrote cheesy approximations of medieval music, and other people with too much money and rotting castles no longer needed for defence, built incredible monuments to castley-ness. That doesn’t make them any less interesting to visit, in fact they are often stuffed full of CASTLE things – crenellations on all available surfaces, over-elaborate knights halls – the whole bit. Neuschwanstein falls into this category, as do a couple of the ones on my list. These castles are often built right on top of an older castle site. The stone was there, right?
Guided tours – don’t miss them!
As with most German castles, you won’t be able to see interior rooms without going on a guided tour, and sometimes these are only available in German. There will always be an info sheet with the translation available, so don’t skip this! You will miss some amazing views, interiors, and furniture. Often the guide will speak some English anyway, and can answer questions.
On to the list! Five castles to visit that aren’t the super busy Neuschwanstein:
This is a favourite of the river cruises, and our local castle. It is in ruins, but what ruins! They have inspired generations of writers and artists – Turner, Mark Twain, and Goethe. A portion of the castle has been restored with period furniture, and you can visit it on a guided tour. My favourite stories of Heidelberg Castle come from Princess Elizabeth Charlotte’s time there as a child, though she’s more famous as Liselotte, sister-in-law of Louis XIV. She loved the castle at Heidelberg, and urged her family to restore it when she was living in France. In her letters, she reminisces about climbing the cherry trees in the gardens early in the morning, and eating fruit until she was too full.
Cochem Castle is a gorgeous 19th-century renovation right on the Mosel (Moselle) river and sits above a cute little town. This is a great weekend trip, and if you love wine, this is the best castle-plus-wine spot ever. Yes, those are vineyards lining the hill up to the castle, and you can try plenty of the excellent local Riesling in the local restaurants. The tour is particularly good at this castle, and kid friendly if you’re traveling with little ones.
Were you hoping for creepy tales and ghosts in your castle visit? Then Burg Berwarstein is the one for you. One of the most intact of the old Rhineland cliff castles, this one has loads of excellent stories of robber barons, tragic ladies, and ghosts. You can just see another tower poking out of the trees on the other hilltop in the photo above, and there’s actually a tunnel leading to it from this castle. You can’t visit that tunnel, but they do take you underground into candlelight caverns chiseled out of the sandstone hundreds of years ago.
This castle is all over Pinterest and Instagram, and understandably so, as it’s very cute. A short drive from Stuttgart, Lichtenstein Castle is not actually in the country of Lichtenstein, but was named after a famous Romantic German novel that was inspired by the original medieval castle on the same site (got that?). In any case, ‘Lichtenstein’ in German is roughly translated as ‘shining stone’ – and you will noticed immediately that the castle is built on an outcropping of white rock. The current castle was built in the 1840s and is full of Gothic Revival castleness. Again, you will need a tour to see the inside, but the tours are only in German. There is a useful brochure with the details in English. My favourite spot? Inside the dining hall, there’s a large gilt grate that allowed the music from a small orchestra to filter down so Duke Wilhelm von Urach could dance with his guests.
This is my favourite German castle, and I’ve dedicated a whole post to it over here. The tl;dr version is this: it is one of only three Rhine valley castles to have survived unscathed the many wars that ravaged this countryside, and is one of the most beautiful. The interiors are breathtaking. My favourite is the bed chamber with wall paintings preserved from the 15th century. Incredibly, the same family has owned the castle for the past 33 generations, and they still have quarters there. In fact, the Countess puts huge vases of fresh flowers in the public rooms every day. Burg Eltz is a short trip from Trier, Koblenz and Cologne.
This post contains affiliate links, if you click through and make a purchase, I am paid a small amount with no additional charge to you. Thanks for helping support my work.
Heidelberg is a university town at the entrance of the Neckar river valley. If you drive in from Mannheim, you will suddenly see the little mountains rising up from the flat plains, and there is the town, nestled between them. It’s quite obvious why people have chosen this spot over thousands of years for their settlements. We took our drone up the mountain for a bird’s eye view of the place.
The Heiligenberg translates literally to ‘Holy Mountain’ in English, and it has been home to humans since the 5th century BCE. The first big structures were constructed by the Celts around the first century BCE, and you can still see the remains of the double walls that surrounded their hill fort today. It’s always been important spiritually, functioning as a sacrificial site for the Celts, then as a Roman temple, a monastery, and the location for a massive annual Walpurgisnacht party these days. Most of the ruins you can see in our film are from the 12th century monastery. It’s a beautiful place, and it has a distinct feeling to it. I’m not going to go all woo-woo on you, but if six thousand years of humans thought it was important, I figure I’m not too far off the wall in saying it feels kinda neat.
Huge outdoor amphitheatre with an interesting past
There’s also the Thingstätte, a huge outdoor amphitheatre built in 1935 – by the Nazis. It’s creepy, for sure. It has a bit of an odd history, as the whole idea of folk plays was co-opted by the Nazis, but apparently Hitler wasn’t super keen on that whole arm of the propaganda machine. It was hard to convince people to sit outside in grim weather and watch educational plays, unsurprisingly, so by the time this one was finished, they were already being converted into plain old ‘festival sites’ where people came to celebrate the Spring equinox and things like that. By the time World War II arrived, its mountaintop site was more important for defence and a flak tower ended up there. However, after the war, the US troops used to hold jazz concerts there, and a smattering of other performances have attempted to use the site. Now, the biggest thing to happen there is the annual Walpurgisnacht party, which is unsanctioned by anyone, and involved thousands of people going up there in the dark, having bonfires all night and hanging out on April 30. The black circles you can see in our film are the marks left behind, as we filmed this a week after the celebration.
You can walk up to the Thingstätte and the Monastery, but make sure you have an offline map available as signal gets spotty up there. Buses run on Sundays, and there are a few tours that will head up there as well. There is a nice little restaurant with a biergarten right below the Thingstätte. Many people talk about these sites in the same breath as the Philosopher’s Walk, which is much lower on the mountain. They are not that close together, so know that if you plan to hit both of them in one day, it’s a fair hike. Hiking up from the Altstadt will take you about an hour. Personally, being from the west coast of Canada next to the Rockies, I think calling this a mountain is a bit of a stretch, but it is bigger than a hill. Take that how you will!
We’ve been living here in Deutschland for nine months now, and we have definitely changed a bit. I’m not a fan of clinging to my old country ways, but there were a few things I never would have guessed we could have adjusted to. Yet, here I am, eating cabbage all the time and driving very fast. Who knew.
I plan more
With all shops closed on Sundays and holidays, and services like doctors and municipal offices closed at unpredictable times (Wednesday afternoons! Obviously!) – I have to plan our shopping a few days further out than I would before. I mean, I usually meal planned and did a big shop, but if I forgot something it wasn’t a big deal. Now, it’s not unusual to have two days in a row with no grocery stores open if there’s a holiday… if you run out of something, bad luck! I have made milk from powder for coffee in desperation.
I eat more cabbage – okay, a lot of cabbage
Kale? What’s kale? We’re savoy cabbage all the way now. So much cabbage. Broccoli is trucked up from Italy, and goes off within a day, so I don’t rely on it the way I did in the UK and Canada. Those big clamshells of baby spinach? Also not happening. Bags of romaine? Very expensive. Cabbage. Get used to the cabbage.
I know everyone’s last names
It was not uncommon for me, in Canada and the UK, to know a neighbour enough to chat to, but not to know their surname. In Germany, oh no. I don’t know any of my neighbours first names because I call them all Frau Müller, Herr Schmidtt, etc. Most of the people at my son’s school are surname only, and when I write emails to the woman arranging my liability insurance, it’s Frau. I feel like I have to go back to my elementary school letter writing skills just to write an email sometimes. Even email newsletters address me as Frau McGann, which cracks me up.
I avoid buying things in glass
This sounds odd, in a country so keen on recycling. Surely this is the easiest recycling option? We have curb-side pick-up for all plastics, bio waste, paper and the regular rubbish. But I have to walk nearly eight minutes hauling all my glass recyclables which I have to sort by colour. This is such a pain that I have a giant bag of wine bottles that makes me look like I have a serious Problem because I wait nearly three months before I get myself over to the Altglass containers. And you can’t use the containers after 7pm or on Sundays, because it’s insanely loud throwing them in there. But of course it’s always Sunday when I have time to do it so… it never gets done. I’m staring at a giant bag of bottles right now.
I have a running tally in my head of how much cash I have on me
In Canada and the UK, I would use my debit cards for everything. Three dollar coffee? Yep, sure. I didn’t even think about it. Now, I feel a bit panicky if I have less than €20 on me. Oh Germany, so technologically advanced, yet so paranoid. It’s cash everywhere, and woe betide the hapless person from somewhere else that would like to use their debit card on a purchase less than €20. Not only will the cashier roll their eyes, everyone in the queue behind them will start getting huffy.
I can pack groceries super fast
I maintain that there must be a grocery cashier speed Olympics somewhere. They award special medals for the cashier who can scan and toss the most items down a short conveyor belt in a short amount of time. I have my reusable bags out and lined up in my cart so I can toss as quickly as the cashier can. I’m still sweaty and flummoxed at the other end, but I wait until I’m outside to let go the breath I was holding. And then I can pack them onto my bike.
I’m fluent in Denglish
This is a particularly hilarious mashup of words I know in Deutsch crammed into English sentences. We’re super good at this in texts, like recently: ‘I’m zu Hause, mit adaptor thingie’. Also helpful when speaking with non-English speakers about topics well out of my German knowledge, like the time the radiator maintenance guy came. I don’t know the terms for radiator parts in English, so I’m really not going to know them in German. That conversation involved a lot of made-up sign language. Our actual functional German is getting much better, thankfully.
We go for brisk walks on Sundays
As I’m sure you’ve heard me mention before, nothing is open on Sundays. So we go with the German flow, gear up (no, not in matching Jack Wolfskin jackets, we haven’t gone that German) and go for a walk. When we’re really organized, we pack a lunch too. We nod and exchange Hallos with other families out to experience the nature.
I’m happy driving 160km/hr on the autobahn
If you had asked me before I moved if I was going to go super fast on the unlimited sections of autobahn, I would have said no no no. But really, once you get used to it, it feels quite normal. I find driving here very reasonable and straightforward. Now when we drive in Switzerland or France, it feels so very very s l o w.
So, my friends living abroad, how have you changed in your new home?