The Small Joys of Travel: Bielefeld, Germany

Finding home in Germany, through the sharp eyes of Explore Up Close intern, Olivia Reichwald!

Bielefeld, Germany is a second home for me; I have spent entire summers there with my family and have watched little things in the city change over the years – things that only a local would notice. Bielefeld is one of the largest cities in Germany, despite its relative anonymity, but seems small due to its lack of skyscrapers. In fact, there is even a conspiracy theory that Bielefeld does not exist, once alluded to by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel!

One of the fun things about returning to the same home-away-from-home so frequently is that I am able to revisit to my favorite spots while also discovering new hidden gems. Every time I visit, I make sure to go to the nearby Tierpark (zoo) and spend a few hours meandering through the wooded landscape watching bears, reindeer, and an enormous collection of birds. All of the animals are meant to represent local species, and visitors can interact with the habitats: you can hand-feed deer, walk on a bridge over the wolves, and even enter into the goats’ enclosure (my personal favorite). Memories of playing with the goats are some of the best memories I have of going to Germany as a young child, and the goats are always a source of comfort for me: I know that they will always be there when I return.

Not far from the Tierpark is the Sparrenburg—an old castle-turned-fortress, dating back to the medieval period. As a child, I visited this site for a Renaissance festival, during which the locals celebrated the history of their town and its origins. Over the years, I’ve seen several new excavations expand the site and enhance its history. I learn more about the fortress each time, while enjoying panoramic views of Bielefeld just below. 

Even seemingly mundane places take on a new shine when they are so deeply rooted in memories. For example, visiting the grocery store is another must-do when I visit Bielefeld. The chocolate aisle – or should I say aisles – has some of the best chocolate (if you believe that Germany chocolate is the best, like I do) for much cheaper prices than in any other country. Consequently, we stock up for the next year. The meat and cheese sections are also beyond ordinary. Germans eat Abendbrot most days, which translates to “evening bread.” They eat their warm, heavy meal at midday and have a light meal in the evening – Abendbrot. Typically, there will be assortments of breads, meats, cheeses, and vegetables for people to create their own open-faced sandwiches. Therefore, Germans care deeply about good quality cheeses and meats…and also bread. Some of my favorite memories in Germany are at the dinner table enjoying Abendbrot together with my German family. 

Downtown Bielefeld is the backdrop to many of my childhood afternoons in Germany. It’s just a short walk away from where my family stays, and I can begin to smell the sweet scents of breads and pastry (mixed with a hint of cigarette smoke) as soon as I enter onto the cobblestone streets. The downtown is divided into two sections: the newer section which contains popular clothing stores, department stores, and other major brand-name shops; and the “Altstadt” (old city) which houses boutiques, the best gelaterias, and old buildings that have been standing for generations. After a day of visiting our favorite stores, my sister and I always find our way to one particular gelateria and walk back with a fresh cone of gelato in our hands. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that the small joys are always the most memorable.