by Ellen Curham
If you’re on a budget but still want to do some exploring, then you can’t go wrong with East Germany. The region offers an array of exciting cities and can easily be navigated by train. From the über-cool capital, Berlin, to the artsy student city of Dresden, East Germany has some of the best-value and most culturally rich getaways in Europe.
To understand the region properly, you need to know a little bit of its history. After World War II, Germany was separated into different occupation zones run by the British, French, Americans and Soviet Union. While three of the zones were run in similar ways, the Soviet zone, based in the east, took a different economic and political approach.
In 1948, after much ‘denazification’, the western zones decided to unite and form the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD), otherwise known as West Germany, while East Germany became the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). West Germany was a capitalist system that was similar to much of Western Europe. East Germany, in contrast, was run by a socialist government. Tensions on both sides and between the Soviet Union and United States led way to the Cold War that spanned much of the late 20th Century.
East and West Germany were officially reunited in 1990, a few months after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall—a functioning symbol of the divide between the East and West. You will still find many differences, some subtle and some not-so-much, between the two sides. In the East, prices (although they have risen with overall inflation) are still much lower than the rest of the country for things like rent, groceries and entertainment. These prices along with its history, architecture and nightlife make it ideal for tourists on a budget.
Train is by far the best way to get around East Germany. There are the impressive national high-speed trains (ICE—Inter City Express) or the regional trains which are slower due to having more stops but make a pleasant journey none-the-less. Regional trains also offer awesome deals on tickets valid within the same state, called Ländertickets. This means that five people can share the cost of a train ticket which works out way cheaper than buying a single one—a great plan if you are traveling in a group. If you are fewer than five people, this is also a cool way to meet locals who you will often find hanging around at train stations trying to form a group to share the cost of the ticket. Trains are usually pretty regular but if you are stuck for time it might be worthwhile reserving tickets in advance, especially for longer journeys and ICE trains which increase in price closer to the travel date.
Where to go
Germany’s capital is consistently voted as one of the top places to visit in Europe. Where else can you see famous historical landmarks like the Brandenburg gate, Holocaust memorial and the DDR Museum? Berlin’s also one of the best nightlife destinations on the planet, is a haven for vintage shopping and has tons of places offering delicious cheap eats. Check out our guide on how to live like a local in Berlin for more info on this unmissable destination.
Where to stay in Berlin? There are so many cool hostels in Berlin, but one that Hostelbookers users consistently rate highly is the Circus Hostel. Located in the Berlin’s central Mitte neighbourhood, this boutique hostel offers privates and dorm rooms, free Wi-Fi, a walking tours and rental of iPad, laptops, bikes, segways and way more – not to mention the in-house microbrewery and café.
A short S-Bahn hop from Berlin, it’s possible to do Potsdam as a day trip although there is more than enough to make it worthwhile spending a couple of days there. This is the capital city of the state of Brandenburg. Once you arrive at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll feel like you’re in a fairytale, thanks to its beautiful palaces and gardens. You may also recognise the name from the Potsdam Conference; this is where post-WWII debates took place between the allies regarding the future of Germany. Highlights include former ruler Frederick the Great’s rococo summer palace, Schloss Sanssouci, and the lavish New Garden. This place is a real treat for fans of decadent architecture.
Where to stay in Potsdam? With lovely, bright, modern rooms nestled amidst the grandeur of Sanssouci Park—and only five minutes’ walk from the Orangery Palace—Quartier Potsdam Hostel is the perfect spot for a chilled-out summer visit. Rent a bicycle onsite and head out to explore the city!
Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony and was home to the region’s royalty for centuries. Located on the Elbe River, it was previously touted as the ‘Florence of the North’. However, the city was mostly destroyed by bombings in 1945. Much of it has since been restored and this has led to an eclectic mix of old and new styles of architecture as well as an influx of new inhabitants that have made the city the vibrant hub that it is today. The rebuilt Frauenkirche is now one of the most famous landmarks in Germany, while other places to check out include the Zwinger Palace and the trendy Neustadt neighbourhood that is home to many artists. Dresden also features a large university which has given way to a lively and inexpensive nightlife.
Where to stay in Dresden? Located in the Old Town, Cityherberge offers a modern hostel look with a friend hostel feel; the staff have great tips on local things to do and we like their onsite bar as well.
Historically a trade city, Leipzig also became known as a scholarly centre and is home to the second-oldest university in Germany. Nowadays, artists and young families are flocking to the city due to low rent prices and have garnered it a reputation as ‘the new Berlin’ or ‘Hypezig’. Check out the town centre’s beautiful baroque architecture and the Bach museum, a homage to the city’s most famous resident. You’ll also discover the world’s largest railway station here. Outside the central core, you’ll find vibrant and alternative neighbourhoods like Plagwitz and Connewitz boasting studios, vegetarian restaurants and underground bars. Also worth checking out is the nightlife district on the Karl-Liebknecht Strasse where students and young people party all night long.
Where to stay in Leipzig? Right in the very centre, of course! Five Elements Hostel Leipzig is surrounded by restaurants and is less than five minutes’ walk from Thomaskirche, from Thomaskirche, the S-Bahn and the tram. The private and dorm rooms are very clean and modern but we think the historic façade of the building will make you say, ‘wow’!