Sausages with sauerkraut. Dumplings as big as snowballs. Schnitzels the size of boots. Pretzels bigger than your head. And foaming tankards of bier – glorious bier!
German food brings a blizzard of clichés. Some are warranted, some not. Yes, this country does still have a taste for piggy parts, potatoes and liter mugs of foaming beer, if that’s your bag. But the food scene has exploded all over the country in recent years. Menus are getting lighter, brighter and more creative. Tastes are changing.
While those good old-fashioned beer hall classics never go out of fashion, you’re now just as likely to find street food riffing creatively on world flavors and chefs shooting for Michelin stars with ingenious takes on vegetarian and vegan ingredients that sing of the seasons. And long before local sourcing became a buzzword, the Germans had embraced the joys of regional organic produce. Pretty much every town has a Bauernmarkt (farmers market) and Biomarkt (organic supermarket), where you can pick up picnic fixings, from local fruit and veg to cheese, wurst, fish and home-grown wine.
Loosen a belt notch and read on for our favorite food experiences in Germany.
Munch a Currywurst in Berlin
Curried sausage? You bet. You’ll find this smoky, mildly spicy street snack all over Germany, but it was born in Berlin in 1949 when a bored Imbiss (fast-food kiosk) owner called Herta Heuwer decided to go wild and add tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce and a dash of curry powder to her bratwurst. And hey presto, the Currywurst was born. Sliced into bite-sized pieces, swimming in sauce and dusted with curry powder, this is now a cult snack, served ‘mit’ or ‘ohne’ (with or without) its crunchy casing, often with a side of mayo-doused Pommes (fries).
Where to try it: Join the snaking queue for a classic Currywurst at curb-side Curry 36 on Mehringdamm, which has been frying ‘em up since 1981 and also knocks out veggie and organic versions. Or swing over to Konnopke's Imbiss, in the same spot below the elevated U-Bahn tracks since 1930. Here the ‘secret’ sauce comes in four heats – from mild to wild.
Have your cake and eat it in the Black Forest
Ask any local: the best Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, or Black Forest cherry gateau, is the one their Mama (mother) or Oma (grandmother) makes – fresh from the oven, a great dumpy mess of cream and chocolate shavings, as unhealthy and delicious as you like. And that’s because those dodgy 1970s takes on this classic sweet got it all wrong – this cake doesn’t just need to look pretty, it needs to taste of a loving, generous home. Get it right and it’s a masterpiece: layers of light chocolate sponge perfumed with local Kirschwasser (cherry brandy), whipped cream and sour cherries all wrapped up in more cream and shaved chocolate. It’s a dessert to dive into.
Where to try it: You can eat Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte the world over, but it never tastes quite like the real deal in the deep, dark Black Forest, which spreads a fir blanket across southwestern Germany. Rivals for the gateau crown are many, but you’d be hard pushed to find better than at old-school Café König in the ritzy spa town of Baden-Baden. Others rave about the one at Café Goldene Krone, a women’s cooperative café in the pretty village of St Märgen, topped off by a baroque pilgrimage church. For all-out indulgence, visit Todtnauberg in mid-April for the annual Black Forest Cake Festival.
Dig into Labskaus in Hamburg
No dish better sums up the seafaring spirit of Germany’s maritime north than Labskaus, minced corned beef, mashed potato and beets, served with a fried egg and gherkins and sometimes with a herring casually plonked on the side. Bright red because of the beets, this is the dish that sailors once rustled up on their fishing vessels when they spent long weeks and months at sea. Its spiritual home is Hamburg, but you’ll also find it in other northern towns and cities like Bremen and Lübeck.
Once considered the humble food of the poor, Labskaus has been poshed up lately and now even appears on swanky restaurant menus. If you believe the locals, it is brilliant hangover food – plenty of salt, plenty of fat and not too hard to chew.
Where to try it: Right in the heart of Hamburg’s Altstadt, Laufauf draws a loyal crowd with its solid menu of traditional food, including excellent Labskaus. Or for a touch more glamor try it at Deichgraf.
Bite into a Döner in Berlin
Almost every late-night party in Berlin winds up at a Döner Kebab (doner kebab) stand, where a hunk of juicy meat turns on a spit. And that’s all thanks to Kadir Nurman, the Turkish immigrant who had the brainwave to stuff a pitta pocket with spit-roasted lamb, salad and garlicky yogurt sauce back in 1972. The city has never looked back and the Döner is still king of German street food today. And if you don’t fancy the meaty version, many Imbisse (snack kiosks) serve vegetarian alternatives.
Where to try it: The longer the queue, the better the Döner, or so say Berliner. Well worth the wait is Mustafa's Gemüse Kebap next to Mehringdamm U-Bahn Station. Or for a more central pick, try Rosenthaler Grill and Schlemmerbuffet. Vöner in Friedrichshain wins the vegan Döner award for its spit-roasted blend of wheat protein, vegetables and herbs.
Go for a fish feast in Northern Germany
Wash up on the bright, breezy, dune-buckled coast of the North Sea and Baltic in Northern Germany and you’re in for a fishy treat. For a briny burst of the sea, try dishes like Matjes (herring), Rollmops (pickled herring), Rotbarsch (like whiting), Nordseekrabben (tiny North Sea shrimps) and Hamburg’s much-loved Aalsuppe, sweet and sour eel and vegetable soup with spices and fruits like prunes, apples and pears. But the ultimate snack on the hoof has to be the Fischbrötchen (a roll stuffed with fish – usually herring – onions, pickles and creamy horseradish or cocktail sauce).
Where to try it: Hamburg is rammed with fish vendors, but standing head and shoulders above most is Brücke 10, where you can nosh on Matjes (brined herring) or a bulging shrimp sandwich. In List harbor, Gosch is a Sylt institution, with outstanding smoked fish and the Fischbrötchen of dreams.
Eat pork like a medieval king in Bavaria
When many folk think of German food, they are actually thinking of Bavarian food – of the oompah-pah-fuelled, Lederhosen-clad feasts of Oktoberfest and dishes that have all the makings of a raucous medieval banquet. All of Germany likes a bit of pork, but the Bavarians are mad about it, eating every part of the pig except for the oink. Cue the nose-to-tail beer hall classics: humongous schnitzels, pounded, breaded and fried to golden perfection, Schweinbraten (roast pork) with lashings of sauerkraut and tennis ball-sized Knödel (dumplings), Schweinshax'n (fat pork trotters), Rippchen (ribs), Züngerl (tongue), Wammerl (belly) and Eisbein (salted ham hock).
Where to try it: Go for an all-out meat fest under the frescoed vaults of the Ratskeller deep in the basement of the city hall on Marienplatz in the heart of Munich.
Devour pasta in Swabia
In the Swabian region of Baden-Württemberg in Germany's southwest, locals are crazy about pasta-style dishes, which are heavier and eggier (leaning more towards dumplings) than what you’ll find in Italy, but tasty nonetheless. Top billing goes to Spätzle, stubby egg noodles, served as a side with Zwiebelrostbraten (roast beef with onions and gravy) or as a main as Käsespätzle, with loads of gooey cheese and fried onions. But keep an eye out too for Maultaschen, giant ravioli-like pasta pockets stuffed with meat, spinach, onions and herbs, and Schupfnudeln, finger-sized potato dumplings sometimes called, ahem, Bubenspitzle (little boys’ willies).
Where to try it: Any good old-fashioned tavern will do, but among our favorites are the Gerberhaus, full of beamed, rustic warmth, in the canal-woven heart of Ulm, and Maultaschen heaven Mauganeschtle in Tübingen.
Discover a world of wurst
When you start talking about Germany’s best Würste (sausages), things swiftly get personal and heated. They are from Bavaria. No, Frankfurt. Hang on, what about Thuringia? The smell of bratwurst sizzling on the grill, the sharp, sweet hit of Senf, the casual blob of kraut on the side – all yours for a fistful of change.
Grilled, boiled, baked and fried, served at an Imbiss or in a beer hall or garden, the humble sausage is so sacred here that you’ll hear parents telling their children to eat every last bite, as if it were a vitamin-packed superfood. There’s the ubiquitous bratwurst, the Blutwurst (blood sausage), the Bockwurst (ground veal and pork with paprika, marjoram, chives and parsley), the Weisswurst (parboiled veal and bacon sausage flavored with parsley, mace and cardamom) and a million others besides.
Where to try it: Competition is hot, but Nuremberg’s Rotbratwurst (finger-sized pork sausages flavored with mace, pepper and marjoram) are arguably among Germany’s finest, especially when seared over a flaming beech-wood grill at the Bratwursthäusle. Munich claims its veal Weisswurst is better still. Take the lead of locals and gobble one for breakfast at the Viktualienmarkt. Thuringia’s pork-and-veal bratwurst stays true to a 1404 recipe. The ones sizzled over a smoky grill at Erfurt’s Faustfood are legend.
Bring on the beer
'Hopfen und Malz – Gott erhalt's!' (‘Hops and malt are in God's hands’) goes the saying and indeed few things raise German passions like beer, where you’ll be told flat out – no arguments – that the country makes the world’s best. The logic is irrefutable: the beer here owes its ‘secret’ to the 1516 Reinheitsgebot (purity law) passed in Bavaria, which stipulated that breweries use just four ingredients – malt, yeast, hops and water. Brewing here goes back to Germanic tribes, and later monks, so it follows a hallowed tradition. And indeed beer is brewed, consumed and celebrated here with a near-religious fervor, not least at the world's biggest beer festival, Oktoberfest.
Once you get into the nitty-gritty, you open up an entire world. Pils (Pilsner), a bottom-fermented pale lager, with a pronounced hop flavor and creamy head, and Helles (pale lager), slightly sweet and with strong malt aromas, are universally adored. But each region has its own treasures: Düsseldorf’s Altbier (dark, full beer with malted barley), Berlin’s cool, fruity, colorful Weisse, laced with raspberry or woodruff syrup, and Cologne’s hoppy, top-fermented Kölsch, served in small glasses (0.2L) called Stangen (literally 'sticks').
Where to try it: Bavaria’s cloudy, amber-hued Weissbier (wheat beer) never tastes more refreshing than in a chestnut tree-shaded beer garden on a summer day (the Augustiner Keller is a good ‘un) or when swinging your tankard to oompah-pah at Oktoberfest. Dunkles (dark lager) is more full-bodied with strong malty aromas.
Vegetarians and vegans
Germany was once a culinary wasteland for vegetarians and vegans – but no more. In cities up and down the country, you’ll find cafés and restaurants with chefs riffing creatively on shoots and roots and where veggies take center stage. Even Imbisse (snack stands) serve non-meat treats – from falafel to veggie sausages and kebabs. In rural areas, things can be more challenging, but you’ll always find a couple of vegetarian options on menus – potato- and pasta-based dishes are good bets.
In Berlin, gourmet vegetarian and vegan restaurants are popping up quicker than mushrooms after a rainstorm, with the likes of cool Schöneberg bistro Bonvivant, pairing cocktails with slow-food, season-spun vegetables. Organic kohlrabi with pine, elder and black apple? Bring it on. In the Scheunenviertel, climate-neutral Kopps treats vegans to plant-based fine dining, teasing extraordinary flavors out of vegetables in wonders like chestnut with currant wood and truffle. While over at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin-born wunderkind Tim Raue brings a pinch of Asian spice to the equation in vegan tasting menus that include showstoppers like white kimchi with elderflower and grapefruit.
Never one to miss a culinary trick, Munich has Prinz Myshkin, dishing up imaginative vegan and vegetarian cuisine in a slickly revamped, minimalist-chic vaulted space.
Five more dishes worth trying
- Handkäs mit Musik (hand cheese with music) Frankfurt’s pongy sour-milk cheese, rolled by hand and marinated in oil and vinegar with onions. A sure-fire recipe for flatulence – hence the music!
- Himmel und Erde (heaven and earth) Rhineland fave, with mashed potatoes and stewed apples, served with black pudding – or potato-based Klösse dumplings.
- Saumagen Rhineland-Palatinate brings you stuffed pig stomach (reminiscent of haggis). Eat it with sauerkraut and sautéed potatoes.
- Königsberger Klopse A rich Prussian dish of veal dumplings in creamy caper sauce.
- Mecklenburger Rippenbraten North coast specialty of rolled pork filled with lemons, apples, plums and raisins.
A year in food
Germans go nuts for asparagus during Spargelzeit (asparagus season). Bärlauch (wild garlic) is bountiful and Baltic towns celebrate the humble herring.
Pfifferlinge (chanterelle mushrooms) and a feast of forest berries trumpet summer’s arrival. Beer gardens brim with people lapping up the warm weather, and folksy wine festivals are in full swing.
Autumn days are rich and earthy, with game, wild mushrooms and pumpkins aplenty. At Oktoberfest in September, 5.7 million partygoers wash down entire farms of pigs, oxen and chickens with Mass (liters) of beer.
’Tis the season for gingerbread, stollen and Glühwein (mulled wine) at Christmas.