Eating and shopping – either for food, toiletries or other essentials – are part of a traveler’s life. This can become a little bewildering when you are trying to decipher unknown word and customs, especially at meals or in stores. Our traveler’s guide to dining and shopping in Germany (and most German-speaking countries like Austria and parts of Switzerland) will help take some of the mystery out of the process and make your dining and shopping experiences a little easier.
Refer to our “German language cheat sheet for travelers” to help you say what you need (free downloadable PDF available!).
Shopping in Germany
By German law, all items in windows have prices posted on them. Cool, huh? Plus, prices will always be clearly posted by or on items in stores. Never hesitate to “just look” and feel free to tell a clerk who asks if you need help: “Ich schaue” (“ikh sch-ow-uh”).
Recognizing prices – Know that in these German-speaking countries, a COMMA is used instead of a decimal point before the cents, so instead of 22.50 (22 dollars, 50 cents), you’d see 22,50 (22 euros, 50 cents). If the price is an even number without cents, you may see a long dash instead of zeros, e.g. 22,–, and if a price is only cents (no full euros), you’d see a dash in front of the comma, e.g. –,50 (see below photo).
In grocery stores – Most clerks will actually help you make change and are ALWAYS honest! Since you pack your own bags in grocery stores, and they try to keep lines moving, don’t let it rattle you, but do move along as quickly as possible. When shopping in Germany ask for help counting money if you need to. And do avoid always paying in larger bills for ease since otherwise you will amass a huge pile of VERY heavy Euro coins.
Packing your purchases – Do always carry your own shopping bag or be prepared to buy one to carry items. Also, always be prepared to quickly pack up your goods and get out of the next customer’s way. In some stores, you can throw everything back in your cart and move over to a packing area or unoccupied register to do the packing up more slowly.
Store names to look for when shopping in Germany – Some common store names for grocery and deli basics are Edeka, Aldi, Lidl, Rewe, or Penny Markt. Edeka and Rewe are slightly higher end. The others tend to have more pre-packaged goods, like small bags of apples instead of bulk where you can buy a couple. Know that you can get very decent bottles of wine for 3-5 Euro at most any store, and in a store like Edeka you will often find a wide selection of single-serve bottles of a wide range of quality.
Using shopping carts – If you want a shopping cart, have a 1 euro coin handy as a deposit (keep one in your wallet at all times for this purpose). You will stick the coin in the handle and push in a lever to get the chain mechanism that locks all carts together to release a shopping cart for your use. When you return the cart, push the mechanism back into your cart’s handle and it releases the coin.
Buying cold cuts, cheese or rolls – You can go to a bakery and buy one roll, or at a deli case you can buy even a couple of ounces of sliced meats or cheese. Nobody blinks. For example, 50 grams (about 1.75 ounces) or 100 grams (nearly 3.5 ounces) are common portions. They will serve you and wrap it just like they would a huge party platter.
Dining in Germany
Reservations – Most restaurants, unless quite fine, do not take reservations, although more and more are these days.
Seating – When you arrive at a café or restaurant, simply look around and seat yourself where there is availability. Sometimes, a staff member will indicate where you can sit, but usually with just a casual wave of the hand.
Joining people at another table – If there are no empty tables but there is room at another larger occupied table, you can always join another group. Just ask if the seats are “frei” (fry) before sitting down.
Coffee and cake – In a café specializing in cakes (“Konditorei”), there will be a case of what is fresh baked that day (you will find the same in restaurants with cakes and tortes). If you are seeking some sweet baked good, take a look at the selection on your way in (or go back and look after you sit down) so you know what they have. Feel free to also return with the waiter to point at what you want in the case.
Ordering drinks – When a waiter comes, he or she will usually drop off a “Speisekarte” (Menu) and ask “Zum trinken?” meaning, what do you want to drink. If you know, you can order immediately, otherwise you can kind of point at the menu and say something simple like “ein Moment” so you can look.
Ordering food – When the waiter returns to take your order, he or she will say, “Bitte?” (basically, please).
Getting water – If you ask for water (“Wasser”), you will get a glass of carbonated mineral water you will have to pay for. They do NOT as common practice serve tap water and think we are strange for drinking it. However, more and more these days a restaurant will bring a glass or small carafe of tap water called “Leitungswasser” (“lie-tungs-wasser”). Some restaurants will say they cannot, and that’s that.
Getting your bill – They think it’s rude to drop a check at a table without an indication you are done. You get to sit as long as you like! You will not get a check until you ask for it. And you could sit a very long time with just one coffee or beer, no bum rush here! To get the check, say “Die Rechung bitte” (“dee wrekh-noong bit-uh”)
Paying the bill – You will pay the waiter directly at the table. Usually he or she will tabulate your bill on the spot and either tell you a number or write it down and put a piece of paper in front of you with that number. You will hand him or her your money, the person will make change on the spot from a big wallet, and you’re done (Exceptions: very fancy or fast food restaurants).
Using a credit card – Make sure you have cash since not all restaurants accept credit cards. Your best chance for a credit card, though, is a Visa or MasterCard, but do make sure you are not paying a currency exchange fee! See our article, “7 tips on how to save money when traveling internationally” for more on that. Do not add your tip to a credit card payment, but hand the waiter some change (see below about tipping in Germany in restaurants).
Tipping – Unless you are in a fancy restaurant, a tip will slide from between 5% and 10%, usually added by simply rounding up. For example, if in a simple restaurant or cake bakery, and the waiter announces your total as 10.40 Euro, you could round up to 11 (or 11.50 if you are feeling generous). If you are in a sit-down restaurant, and the total is for example 28 Euro, you could round up to 30 or perhaps 31, all depending on service too. For a quick coffee, no tip really is needed or maybe just 10 cents (for example, if a cup of coffee costs 1.90 you could just pay 2 Euro).