When your roommate has a fall birthday and you're studying abroad in Europe, it's pretty much guaranteed you'll go to Oktoberfest. That is until you look at the prices.
Our solution? Cologne, Germany.
Cologne is a smaller city in western Germany and home to the fourth largest cathedral in the world, of which my photograph doesn't do justice. The culture and environment of the city is much more laid back than Berlin or Munich, and I didn't feel like I was sacrificing much.
The best part of the city, though, was their National Socialist Documentation Center. This extremely emotional museum features a preserved Nazi prisoner interrogation center in the basement and a history of the Nazi party in Cologne throughout the rest of the building. Still, the most intriguing feature of the Center was how common it seemed. To a metaphorically-blind, typical tourist walking down the street, the Center was just another one of the many buildings. Sure, there was a sign, but it wasn't anything overly gaudy or flashy. The inside of the museum was the same; it spoke for itself. Minimalistic signs presented the facts and told the prisoners' stories, while an eery calmness transformed the space from sad to overwhelming.
This hidden gem, located in a hidden gem, is a strong contrast to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Far from a hidden gem, it's the exact opposite of minimalistic or common. The line for entrance into the building stretches for blocks. There's a gift shop. A few signs. You can even see tourists taking selfies in front of the House. It's hard not to wonder how much money the House makes when they sell diaries in the gift shop that say, "Write your own like Anne!"
You probably didn't know the Anne Frank House is owned by a private company, meaning they don't have to release their financial earnings/spendings. Nor that her entire life and thoughts are being sold to the public for over five euros with reservations. Or maybe you did, I shouldn't assume things.
I don't mean to argue the Anne Frank House is vastly overrated and a horrifying business taking complete advantage of a young girl's tragedy. Or maybe I do, I shouldn't say things about myself I don't completely know yet. But I do know that despite the tears I shed and the emotions I felt, I couldn't shake an uneasy feeling in my pit while in that House.
At the National Socialist Documentation Center, I had all the emotion and none of the uneasy.
I saw the crazed, depressed, and hopeful writings that came straight from the hands of victims still etched on the walls of the cells. I stepped foot in the 2 foot wide, pitch black torture room. I walked into the courtyard and stared at the same sky hundreds of thousands of prisoners saw as a last glimpse before death.
What I didn't see were selfie sticks and gift shops. Or tourists laughing, talking as they walked out the door, as if nothing in their lives had changed. I only saw raw, disgusting facts and emotions.
Although Cologne, Germany is home to the fourth largest cathedral in the world, the city is definitely not a wasteland of tourist traps and fronts. It's real. It's cultural. It's blatant truth. And that's the best part of hidden gems.