How to Dress for Winter in Germany

Photo: Erin Porter

The author feeling cold Photo: Erin Porter

It’s hard to tell what the weather will be like day-to-day in Berlin. You can wake up to bright sunshine, leave your Wohnung (apartment) amidst deep fog and return home to an epic downpour. Other places like Freiburg may boast more sunshine than anywhere else in the country, but there is no escape from the cold. Bone-chilling, breath-stealing, icicles-in-your-nostril cold eventually finds its way to every corner of Germany. Sometimes this is only for a day or two, and sometimes this chill feels like it will never end.

And unlike places like the USA where you run from your well-heated home to your preheated car to your next heated destination, life in Europe refuses to let you hide out through the winter. There will be very cold minutes waiting for the train, the airy flat you loved in summer will turn into an ice box and the only times you’re warm are when you are sweating through your under layers on the random overheated UBahn car.

The only way to fight back is with the proper clothing (Kleidung) and Germans are champion over-dressers. Here is how to dress for winter in Germany.

At Home

You know the usual suspects – pile on the sweats and robes. But there is one ever-present German item you might not know about. Germans take off their shoes in their homes, but need something to protect their feet from their cold, beautiful wood floors.

Enter the Hausschuhe (slippers). Sure you’ve seen slippers before and socks may do, but Hausschuhe are serious business. They come in all shapes and sizes and are a mandatory clothing item for many a German.

The first time my German friend came over with her own Hausschuhe I didn’t know what to think. Was my home too cold? (Yes.) Should I supply guest Hausschuhe? (Yes.) I went downstairs to a knick-knack shop wonderfully called “1000 Dinge” and bought a felt holder with four Hausschuhe for 8 euro.  Done.

Preparing to Go Out

To stay warm outside, you need to start preparing inside. This means careful layering.

For regular winter wear, pants should offer enough protection. But when it gets dangerously cold, you need a second skin. Long johns do good work, but I often opt for simple Strumpfhosen (tights) as they are sleek and don’t impede movement.

And winter doesn’t mean you lose your sense of style. I wear dresses and skirts year round. To make this possible, there are tights for sale everywhere from pop-up markets to department chains. You can easily find every kind of tight: with feet and without, heavy and opaque and even some heavy-duty insulated.  

Photo: Erin Porter

Warm those kidneys! Photo: Erin Porter

If you really want to meet German standards, don’t neglect your midsection – particularly your kidneys. I wish this was a joke, but a surprising array of Germans (mostly older) fervently believe you must keep your kidneys warm for good health. It is so much weirder than “Es zieht!“.

Outside

Once you’ve got your base layer and are ready to exit your home, it is time for the heavy artillery.

Winter Jacket

On top of your warm sweater and layers covering the kidneys, you need a proper jacket. Americans often take this to mean a bulky ski jacket, but a good quality coat doesn’t have you confused for the Michelin man. You can find inexpensive and stylish coats at department stores like the New Yorker to C&A for 60 – 100 euros, but the higher your budget the warmer, more stream-lined coat you can purchase. Look for wind and water resistant heavy material with faux fur or fleece lining.

Scarf

You aren’t fully dressed in Germany unless you’re wearing a scarf. Germans practically have them surgically attached from fall through spring.

Suitable for men and women, young and old, there are willowy patterned scarves and heavy-knit infinity loop scarves. I am actually a big fan of the infinity loop as you can avoid the endless wrapping and they seal up the area around your neck perfectly. Another of my favorite scarves is a polar fleece wrap with attached hood that I use with coats without.

Hand Wear

Don’t neglect your hands or else they will fall off. Ok, not really, but it will feel that if you leave your hands uncovered. Any manner of glove is helpful (even the dollar store brand), but the best are obviously water proof and extend into your coat sleeve.

Another helpful tip are those chemical hand warmers. I rarely see Germans carry these, but they are a dream when your blood is slowly turning to ice.

Hat

Woe is the foreigner who wanders outside without a hat in winter. I’ve been scolded about my uncovered head on more than one occasion and – I hate to admit – Germans are kinda right. Wandering around Germany without a hat in winter is all kinds of silly. Whatever style you like, just cover that head up, preferably with something that also covers your ears.

Footwear

Photo: Erin Porter

Photo: Erin Porter

While good walking shoes are always necessary in Germany, in winter they need to stand up to freezing temperatures, wet snow and skate-rink quality ice. The North American classic of sneakers just won’t do.

Instead, most Europeans – both men and women – wear boots. Available in every conceivable style, the most important consideration is that they be water-proof. Also look for something that isn’t too bulky (unless all you’re doing is trekking through snow), without a heel and offers good grip. Doc Martens with a thick sock are a familiar boot that stands up to most German winters, at least in the city.

Speaking of socks, you should consider sock thickness when contemplating footwear. Good socks provide the necessary cushion and warmth for walking through countless Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets).

Do you feel the chill yet? If you need to shop for your winter gear in Germany, here is a helpful guide to sizes and shopping in Germany.

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