This little beauty enabled me to travel within the area surrounding the German federal state Lower Saxony, within which Oldenburg is located, for free (provided I took the slow trains, of course). Because of this, I was fortunate enough to experience an abundance of delightful North-West German cities during my semester abroad.
During my first weekend in possession of my Semesterticket, a large group of friends and I decided to travel to the neighbouring city of Bremen. A lot of local students in Oldenburg dismissed Bremen as a violent and dangerous city; indeed, upon leaving the main train station there, one of the first things you are confronted with is a large shop selling an array of swords, knives and guns. The area surrounding the train station aside, however, Bremen is an incredibly pleasant city.
One of the first things you see is a large shop selling an array of swords, knives and guns
For all first-time visitors a trip to Bremen’s old town is a necessity. Known as the Schnoorgebiet (literally “string area”), visitor signs in the old town suggest that it is named after the narrow cobbled streets which are curved round like a piece of string. Wikipedia, however, evidently thinks otherwise; it tells me that the Schnoorgebiet is named so after the area’s historical production of string for the shipping industry. Regardless of where it got its name from, the Schnoorgebiet boasts an abundance of quaint gift shops and tearooms, and the wonderful Schokostube ice-cream parlour even offers its own Schnoorkuller speciality named after the old town, a delicious homemade ice-cream consisting of chocolate and nuts.
Culinary delights aside, Bremen is situated on the Weser river, and a short scenic walk along the waterfront will lead you to the famed Werder Bremen football stadium, which interestingly enough is covered in photovoltaic cells to generate solar power; over one megawatt of electricity can be generated if you’re fortunate enough to be blessed with good weather during your visit. Bremen is additionally home to Becks, and crossing the river will lead you to the Becks factory which offers guided tours (including free samples) for the eager beer drinkers among us.
During my semester abroad, I also visited Hamburg on numerous occasions. The city has a reputation for being lively, bustling, and a little bit mad – and boy does it deserve that reputation.
During the day take a trip to the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which is the city’s tallest building. Despite the concert tickets costing a significant chunk of your student finance, without paying you can enter the building and travel on the world's first arched escalators, which at 80 meters in length are the longest in Europe.
While the building is potentially an eyesore from the outside (depending on your take on futuristic architecture), from the inside the building offers a panoramic view across Hamburg, including the historic Speicherstadt. The Speicherstadt is the biggest warehouse district in the world and is home to a mass of redbrick buildings interspersed with rivers and canals. Located close to Hamburg’s famous fish market, the Speicherstadt is one of the most popular places for Instagram pictures in Northern Germany, and it offers a haven of serenity in an otherwise bustling city. Hamburg does appear to be home to an impressive collection of world records; within the Speicherstadt you can find the acclaimed Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model railway attraction of its kind in the world, featuring 1,300 trains with over 10,000 carriages, over 100,000 moving vehicles, 500,000 lights, 130,000 trees, and 400,000 human figurines. While a model railway museum may not necessarily sound like your cup of tea, the Miniatur Wunderland is immensely popular, with queues often being more than an hour long, because of its fun-sized replicas of regions and countries including Italy, the Alps and Hamburg itself. Nearby you can find the river Elbe, which offers incredibly cheap ferry trips so that you can see Hamburg from a new perspective.
Hamburg's legendary nightlife is based along the Reeperbahn, which is home to the red light district, cheap restaurants, sex shops and bars
A description of Hamburg, however, cannot be complete without mentioning its legendary nightlife. This is above all situated along the Reeperbahn, which is Hamburg’s main red light district and consists of cheap restaurants (€2 pizza anyone?), nightclubs, bars, sex shops and brothels. Along the Reeperbahn you can find the Beatles-Platz, which a circular plaza shaped and paved like a vinyl record, surrounded by metal silhouetted statues of The Beatles to commemorate their time in Hamburg at the start of their career. With tram services running throughout the night, Hamburg is an affordable and exciting city for a night out, but be weary of the undercover police.
My favourite northern German city, however, was without a doubt Hannover. Despite being the capital city of Lower Saxony, I knew very little of Hannover before my arrival in Oldenburg, but I soon learnt that it was well worth the two hour train journey there. Hannover is a fantastic city with an abundance of both natural beauty and stunning architecture. From the train station you can quickly make your way to the Rathaus (town hall), which is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever set eyes on in my life. A majestic blue- and orange-roofed building, the Rathaus has a restaurant with outdoor seating from which you can admire its tranquil grounds; grounds so beautiful, in fact, that on a sunny day you can see many newly-weds out here in bridal gear for their wedding photoshoots. Continuing in the same direction will take you to the Maschsee, where, from just €2 per person, you can hire row boats and escape the buzz of the city. Following this, a visit to the old town is a must.
Despite Hannover being heavily bombed during the second world war, much of its beautiful architecture fortunately remains. The Aegidienkirche, however, was a victim of the bombing, and following the war it was not rebuilt, with the ruins being left as a war memorial.
Should you be lucky enough to spend more than a day in Hannover, a trip to the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen is essential; clearly Barack Obama agreed with this sentiment when he visited the Garden in 2016. The Gardens are located a scenic 45 minute walk from the city centre, and the Great Garden is regarded as one of the most distinguished baroque formal gardens of Europe while the Berggarten is a large botanical garden offering a variety of rare plant breeds. Quite simply, Hannover is a delight.
My experiences of North-West Germany far exceeded my expectations. While Cologne, Berlin and Munich are incredibly popular with tourists (and rightly so!), the beautiful cities in North-West Germany are often overlooked. With Bremen, Hamburg and Hannover each boasting their own airport, the region is accessible from most major British airports, including with budget airlines. If you want to experience a glorious merging of the old and the new, from the futuristic Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg to the quaint Schnoorgebiet in Bremen, from the bustling nightlife of the Reeperbahn to the gently lapping water of the Maschsee, North-East Germany is waiting for you to visit.