"I Don't Think I Can Ever Go Back To The Old Way": 15 Things Germany Does Better Than The US, According To Someone Who Has Lived In Both Places

·10 min read

Hi! I'm Michelle — and nearly three years ago, I decided to move from New York City to Berlin.

The author drinking a German beer
Michelle No

While there are a ton of things I'll always love about the US, I've learned that there are an equal number of things that good ol' Deutschland does a little better. Here are some!

The Cathedral, the TV Tower, and the Schlossbruecke in Berlin at dawn
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1.Generous paid time off and vacations.

Two women sitting on a cement step, talking while drinking water, near a beach

Germans take their vacations seriously. I was shocked when I learned that the minimum vacation time that all German employees get is 20 days, and even more elated upon realizing that most people actually get 25 to 30 days off per year.

It also helps that train tickets and flights to destinations from Gran Canaria to Prague can cost less than 100 euros (around $113). With a generous allowance of paid time off, affordable destinations, and Germany's standing as the world's fourth-largest economy, it's no surprise that people here really take advantage of their chance to travel the European continent and the rest of the world.

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2.There's excellent maternity leave, too.

Tattooed woman holding a newborn close to her chest

Germany doesn't have the best maternity leave in Europe, but it's pretty damn good. It's so good that I have met several international people who state that it is their primary reason for staying in Germany.

Every person who bears a child is entitled to a minimum of 14 weeks of maternal leave — and eight weeks of leave after birth are actually mandatory. After that, you can also take parental leave for up to 12 months, earning 67% of your salary with a cap of 1,800 euros (around $2,040) per month. If only the US could take a page from Germany's book on this issue...

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3.The variety of grocery stores, including lots of affordable ones.

Aisles in German grocery stores

I love German grocery stores so much that I once wrote an entire post all about them. The cost of groceries across Germany is unexpectedly cheap, and I can usually get a week's worth of groceries for a single person for under $20. When I lived in the US, I'd have to do some serious math and make culinary sacrifices to get my grocery budget below $20.

I love that there are a ton of discount grocery stores here, like Netto, Lidl, and Aldi, where basically everything in the store is sold at a seriously reduced price. The cheap groceries are one of the reasons my cost of living in Berlin has gone down significantly and allowed me to pay off all of my credit card debt.

Michelle No

4.The social welfare programs that protect people.

Person waiting in line at the German unemployment office

Germany is a world leader in offering social benefits, even claiming the title of the first country to provide health and accident insurance, worker and employee benefits and pensions, and miners insurance.

Imagine a world where you're not afraid of going bankrupt if you're fired from your job, or not living in fear of a random medical catastrophe or an accident. Ideally, none of those things ever happen, but if and when they do in Germany, your life isn't over.

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5.Top-quality playgrounds for kids.

A group of children posing in front of an elaborate playground full of swings and ropes.

Children in Germany have it all. Well, at least when it comes to outdoor play areas. In the US, I grew up with monkey bars, seesaws, and a two-person swing here and there. But in Germany, a standard playground might feature a zip line, a giant wooden pirate ship, a three-story jungle gym, a high-ropes course, and at least three types of swings. Such architecture might seem risky to some parents, but it only reflects the general attitude toward child-rearing here.

Kids are encouraged to walk themselves to school from an early age, and they're taught to take advantage of fresh air and actively play every day (even when the weather isn't so great). I'm constantly telling my friends and family with kids that Berlin is such a child-friendly city in large part due to the great parks and playgrounds.

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6.And so many public spaces to relax in.

A strip of the boulevard of Frankfurter Allee, shaded by trees

One of my favorite things about Berlin (and about Europe in general) is the abundance of public spaces where you can bring a thermos of tea or mulled wine and a croissant and snack away while catching up with a friend.

In Berlin I have a few favorite spots to stroll: I love the boulevard on Frankfurter Allee, which is shaded by lush trees that canopy the walkway during the summertime. I also spend lots of time on the steps of the town "square" down my street and at the large socialist memorial at my local park, which reminds me that I'm living in a city that's lived through a lot in the last century.

I love how these public spaces make Berlin so pedestrian-friendly. These outdoor sanctuaries are what made the first half of the pandemic bearable for me, and I can't imagine life without them.

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7.And of course, the great beer.

Glass of traditional German wheat beer, with checkered blue towelette in background

My preference for German beer has to do with one discovery: unfiltered wheat beer, also known as Weizenbier in Germany. It's a golden beer that's super smooth, has low hop bitterness, and is usually extra carbonated. It's as if someone took all my favorite aspects of different beverages and turned them into one beer. Weizenbiers are absolutely available in US groceries as well, by the way, but require a little bit of extra investigating.

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8.And the most delicious bread.

Eight rolls of various bread on top of brown paper bag

German bread is legendary and totally underrated. Every bakery here is stuffed with all kinds of nutritiously dense breads: loaves made with pumpernickel, rye, or sourdough and studded with seeds and nuts. German bread culture is so iconic that it's even part of UNESCO's Nationwide Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Almost every Saturday since I moved here, I've had a brunch consisting of one carefully selected bread roll piled high with various spreads, meats, cheeses, and jams. I doubt I'll ever get tired of this type of meal.

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9.So many people are bilingual.

Two men looking in each other's direction, engaged in deep conversation in streets of Berlin

On the one hand, I love that so many German locals speak English fluently (it's seriously impressive). On the other hand, it makes me especially frustrated when I still struggle to pronounce the name of the street I live on, even after two years of living in Berlin. It's simply unfair that German speakers seem to pick up English so easily, but not vice versa! It probably has a lot to do with the fact that public schools require kids to start learning a second language very early on.

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10.They are expert recyclers.

Woman throwing out trash in one of six trash cans in her backyard

The first year of living in Germany means you're regularly standing in front of your five garbage bins in the freezing cold, wondering what goes where. But when you finally learn where the compost goes (and what exactly you can put in it), and exactly which bottles you can return for change at the grocery store, you'll feel like you're doing your part for Mother Earth.

At the very least, there's a sweet moral satisfaction that comes with successfully breaking down your Amazon boxes and shoving them into the tiny sliver of space left in the bin.

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11.An overarching respect for privacy.

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Sometimes, the lack of social media use in Berlin makes me feel as if I've traveled back to the early 20th century. Social media usage is definitely less ingrained here. When I go out to dinner, no one is whipping out their phone to capture a perfectly plated pasta dish or rehearsing TikTok dances on the reg. And most of my friends are off Facebook and/or Instagram, or hardly using either.

It's not just social media, though. People here have an overall expectation of privacy, and they assume that that any personal data they input into web or physical forms (such as in a doctor's office, an event registration, etc.) will be deleted after they are done with the transaction. This might have something to do with how violently personal privacy was abused during World War II. I didn't care for this heightened respect for my privacy at first, but it's slowly raised my standard of living in a subconscious way. Overall, it's pretty reassuring knowing that my public life doesn't have to interfere with my private life. 

12.Better gun control laws.

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When I hear loud noises in Berlin, I do not automatically think that there is a shooter on the loose. And it's becoming harder and harder, at least for me, to feel the same level of safety in a major US city.

It's much harder to obtain a firearm in Germany. You must fulfill a couple of key requirements, and you must show a demonstrated need for a firearm (e.g., you're a hunter or are someone who is more likely to be the victim of a crime); display specialized knowledge, usually through passing an exam; and prove that you are mentally stable, among many other conditions. It's the reason Germany has some of the world's strictest gun control laws, and in 2016 was heralded for being the only country that requires anyone under 25 years of age to pass a psychiatric evaluation before applying for a gun license.

13.A wonderful relationship with nature.

Cabin in front of a Bavarian crystal-clear lake

People truly integrate nature into their daily lives in Berlin, whether that means going on weekly forest walks (even when there's 2 feet of snow on the ground) or using their phones to identify a new type of flora at their local park.

There's something for every season: In the spring, people go Bärlauch (wild garlic) picking and take long strolls under blooming cherry blossom trees. Summertime is blissful, and everyone spends long afternoons lounging by one of thousands of local lakes. In the fall, there's mushroom picking and hikes over crunchy beds of colorful leaves. And while the winter is my least favorite season, there are still ways to take advantage of the outdoors, like skiing and other winter sports.

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14.Clearly marked, flat bike lanes all over the city.

Man on bike waiting to cross the street on his protected red bike lane

I taught myself how to ride a bike in my late teens, which is to say, I don't have the most experience as a biker. I never thought I'd be the type of person who could bike to work, but it's now become one of my favorite parts about living in a city that has proper bike lanes.

Locals here will complain about how Berlin's bike lanes are nothing compared with those in Amsterdam, but for someone who went from experiencing the dangerous and uneven bike infrastructure in NYC to flat terrain and clearly marked (and mostly respected) bike lanes, I don't think I could ever go back.

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15.And finally, the affordability of higher education.

Woman raising her arms up in front of the university of Munich.

The cost of a university education is almost fully subsidized in Germany, though students usually pay a "semester contribution" of a couple hundred euros, which is loose change compared with the cost of public universities in the US. If you want to become a doctor or other skilled professional, then that's covered as well, with most medical degrees running people a total of several thousand euros over the course of six semesters.

Of course, the system isn't perfect: In many university programs, students are barred from working more than 20 hours per week. In addition, students don't enjoy the generous faculty office hours and the abundance of resources you might get at an American university. But to a lot of people, that's a small price to pay for zero college debt.

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What's something you've experienced or seen abroad that you wish the US would adopt? Tell me in the comments!