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GERMANY EXPLAINED

Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays – and will it ever change?

Germany's strict ban on shops opening on Sundays can be a shock to foreigners. We looked at the culture around it, and spoke to one of the country's largest trade unions to find out if things are ever likely to change.

Shoppers at a drugstore in Mainz.
Shoppers at a drugstore in Mainz. Just don't except it to be open on a Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

It’s Sunday. You’ve invited people for dinner, but you’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. Tough luck – you’ll either have to do without or wait until Monday because your local shops are shut. 

Most of us are familiar with this inconvenience, and perhaps you’ve even found yourself screaming: “Why?” in frustration in front of a locked-up supermarket. 

But it’s something us adopted Germans have had to get used to. We decided to take a look at the reasons behind Germany’s ban on Sunday shopping – and to find out if it might change in future. 

Where does the rule come from?

The Sonntagsruhe or ‘Sunday rest’ principle is an integral part of German culture, so much so that it is enshrined in the German constitution (Grundgesetz).

Article 140 of the law, which has remained unchanged since 1919, says: “Sundays and state-recognised public holidays remain protected by law as days of rest from work and spiritual upliftment.” 

But the practice of not working on Sunday has been around for much longer. The idea that the seventh day of the week is a day of rest dates back to the old testament and was declared a general day of rest across the Roman Empire as early as 321, by Roman Emperor Constantine.

In the centuries since, however, most of Europe has gradually relaxed the strict ban on commercial activities on Sundays. 

But in Germany, the rules remain restrictive. It’s unlikely to change anytime soon partly because of religious reasons, and also in relation to the interests of workers.

Germany’s biggest trade union Verdi spelled out their view. “It’s not ‘modern’ to work seven days a week,” they told The Local. “That’s the Middle Ages.” 

What exactly does the law mean?

On the face of it, the German law forbids all forms of work on Sundays and public holidays, though numerous exceptions are laid out in the Working Time Act. 

As well as emergency and rescue services, hospitals, nursing and care facilities, exceptions include cultural and sporting activities, and the hospitality sector. 

Another notable exemption to the rule is bakeries, which are allowed to open for three hours on Sundays – which is why you may often find a long queue at your local baker if you want to get your freshly baked Brötchen on Sunday morning. 

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery.

A saleswoman reaches for a loaf of bread in a bakery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

Illustrating how seriously the rule can be taken in Germany, there have even been cases of bakeries being sued for selling bread for too long on Sundays.

Shops, however, aren’t exempt from the rule and, the only way they can legally open on a Sunday is on a so-called verkaufsoffener Sonntag – Sunday trading day.

In most federal states, shops are allowed to open on between four and eight Sundays per year, and the States can decide when these should be. The chosen days must, however, be linked to a relevant occasion – such as a local festival, a market, a trade fair, or a similar event. 

Sunday openings also have to be recognisable as an exception to the general rule and Sunday openings that have already been approved can often be later overturned by the courts.

How strictly is the rule enforced?

Retailers who break the rules and open for business on Sunday can face fines ranging between €500 and €2,500.

The strictness of enforcement can vary widely between different regions.

In Berlin, for example, you can still find lots of Spätis (late night shops) open on Sundays. Although this is technically illegal, the authorities in the capital seem to take more of a relaxed approach to enforcement than in other states. 

A "Späti" late-night shop in Berlin.

A “Späti” late-night shop in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Florian Schuh

In the traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, for example, the law is much more strictly guarded and enforced.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has strict shop opening hours

Is the law likely to change?

A survey by Spiegel in 2017 showed that 61 percent of Germans wanted to be able to shop on a Sunday, and this desire is shared by the trade industry.

The German Trade Association, for example, which represents around 400,000 independent companies, has strongly criticised Germany’s refusal to budge on the issue of Sunday openings on several occasions and argued that Sunday opening is also popular with staff, with many shop assistants appreciating the work in a more relaxed atmosphere.

In its latest statement on the issue, the association stated that, especially after following the economic impact of the pandemic, many retailers would benefit greatly from being able to open on Sundays. 

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“It is remarkable that in no other EU country Sunday opening is as restricted as in Germany,” the association said. “Even in strongly Catholic EU countries such as Italy and Poland, shoppers can generally shop on Sundays. The same applies to France, although they place great value on culture and socialising.”

However, even if there is a widespread desire in some quarters to allow Sunday trading, an amendment to the constitution would require the consent of two-thirds of the German parliament. Also, there remains strong opposition to changing the rule from many workers’ groups and trade unions.

Trade union Verdi, which regularly files complaints against states and organisations which seek to deviate from Sunday trading restrictions, said that Sunday rest is still very important for workers.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt.

A sign reads “Spring for Frankfurt – Sunday trading day” in front of a shoe shop in Frankfurt. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb | Arne Dedert

A spokesperson said: “We have just one day a week when employers can’t stop us from going to football together, meeting friends, attending cultural events, or spending free time with the whole family.

“And we want to keep it that way. There are six days a week when we can go shopping, take the car to the garage, do our banking, or get the package delivered from the online retailer. On Sunday, there has to be peace and quiet.”

The Verdi spokesperson added that it’s important to think about “work-life balance, and not about being available 24/7 for a company”.

We also asked the union if the law looks set to change in the near future.

The spokesperson said: “Sunday, which is a non-working day for most people, has so far been protected by the majority of political parties in Germany.

“Verdi, with its almost two million members, continues to work to ensure that working on Sunday does not become an everyday occurrence.”

So it appears that the culture shock for many non-Germans of shops being closed on Sundays won’t change anytime soon. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

Member comments

  1. Yes, lets ask a union what is best for the majority of people…..The comment of working 7 days a week and being in the middle ages is pure entertainment. If a grocery store is open 7 days a week, does a union spokesperson really believe that the same people are working for all the open hours? Its hilarious. Also the middle age comment, yes because we all know the internet, government, banking etc is leading is into the future. If we had grocery stores working in middle age conditions, that would allow it to be more in line with the rest of German technology no?

  2. Germany, the country that loves to say “No, we can´t/ won´t do that”,
    without any real world logic whatsoever.

  3. Good for the Germans that respect is paid to the biblical day of rest. I know there are hundreds of examples where Christian principles are flouted, but 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
    6 days at which businesses are accessible for the public ought to be enough.

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CULTURE

REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

Summer is the best time of year to get out and about and experience some of the incredible cultural events that Germany has to offer. From electronic music to scrumptious food fests, here's what's on this July.

REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

Tollwood Summer Festival, Munich Olympiapark (June 15th – July 17th) 

Tollwood Olympiapark

A sign for the Tollwood Festival at Munich Olympiapark. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

The Bavarian capital of Munich is gorgeous in the summer months, and if you fancy a trip, there are few better times to go than during the city’s iconic summer festival.

For 32 days each year, Olympiapark in the north of the city is transformed in a bustling festival site with markets, street food, beer gardens, music and cultural performances. It’s free to get onto the site just to walk around and soak up the atmosphere with a refreshing beer, though some of the performances are ticketed.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

This year, visitors to the Olympiapark in the first few weeks of July can see adventurous walks and tricks from some of the world’s best tightrope walkers on a slackline installed 15 metres above the ground. The dreamy art installation, “Museum of the Moon”, treats visitors to a dazzling projection of the moon at eye-level in the park accompanied by specially composed soundscapes. 

The festivities are set to go out with a bang on July 16th during the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” party with music, world cuisine, dancing and fireworks.

KeNaKo Afrika Festival 2022, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1st – 11th July)

Performers at the Kenako Festival in 2019

Performers at the Kenako Festival in 2019. Photo: Kenako Festival

Not to be outdone by the Bavarians, Berlin will be bringing the warmth and vibrancy of Africa to Alexanderplatz at the start of July with the KENAKO Africa Festival.

There’ll be a sprawling African market complete with arts, crafts and clothing from around the continent, as well as lively podium discussions, concerts and workshops. Arrive early to browse the stalls before tucking into some traditional cuisine and enjoying the music. 

The festival is partly about education and discussion, so if you feel like you don’t know enough about the countries of this fascinating and diverse continent, you’re in the right place. Entry to the festival ground is free of charge. 

Hong Kong Street Food Festival, Berlin Gleisdreieck (July 7th)

Dim sum

Traditional Chinese dim sum. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa-tmn | Elke_Wentker

If you’re a fan of Hong Kong street food (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) you won’t want to miss this pop-up festival at Jules B-Part in Berlin’s Gleisdreieck park. Organised by the Hong Kong Trade Bureau, you’ll be taken on a whirlwind tasting tour of the region’s vibrant culinary culture, from mouthwatering dim sum to refreshing desserts like Mango Pomelo Sago and deliciously sweet Milk Tea.

You’ll need to be on your toes to catch this one, since the food vendors are only setting up shop in the park from 11am to 4pm. Food and refreshments are all completely free – but it’s first come first served, so get their early if you can. 

Podfest Berlin, Berlin House of Music (July 16th & 17th) 

A speaker at Podfest Berlin 2021.

A speaker at Podfest Berlin 2021. Photo source: Podfest Berlin

Berlin’s podcasting community has grown rapidly in recent years, with new success stories emerging all the time. If you fancy mingling with this talented crowd – and even catching some of them in-action – there’s no better place to do it than at Podfest 2022.

For one weekend action-packed weekend, the House of Music will be turned into one big podcast recording studio where visitors can attend live recordings, seminars, panels and enjoy general festival fun and networking.

To reflect Berlin’s general international vibe, podcasts will be recorded in numerous different languages, including English, Spanish and German – so there really is something for everyone.

Early bird passes are on sale now and cost €34 for two days.

Düsseldorf “Kirmes”: The Biggest Funfair on the Rhine, Oberkassel Rheinwiesen (July 15th-24th)

A woman sells fairground tickets at the Düsseldorf Rheinkirmes

A woman sells fairground tickets at the Düsseldorf Rheinkirmes. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Martin Gerten

More than just a funfair, Düsseldorf Kirmes is pretty much a world of its own, complete with beer tents, food and exhilarating rides of all shapes and sizes.

This ginormous fairground is the perfect place to release your inner child this summer and experience a bit of Rheinische Frohheit – the joyful nature that people from this area are known for.

Enjoy soaring above the city on a rollercoaster in the scenic Rheinwiesen, sip on a local beer or two and make sure you block out some time to see a bit of Düsseldorf – the North Rhine-Westphalian city with a “dorf” (village) feel to it. 

One thing you may not be aware of is that Düsseldorf has the largest Japanese community in Germany, so once you’re tired of stodgy fairground food, we recommend grabbing some sushi at some of the city’s authentic Japanese restaurants. 

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Frankfurt with the €9 ticket

Duckstein Beer and Culture Festival, Hamburg HafenCity (15th-24th July)

Stalls at the Duckstein Festival in Hamburg.

Stalls at the Duckstein Festival in Hamburg. Photo: Thomas Panzau

Up north in Germany’s famous port city, Hamburg’s harbour is set to become a hub of music, art, culture and food throughout mid-July. Against the stunning backdrop of the the International Maritime Museum, musicians from all around the world will perform in the “unplugged” concert series. To add to the intimate feel of the concerts, many of the sets will be acoustic and the artists will perform at eye-level with the audience. 

If it’s markets you’re after, you also won’t leave disappointed: the city’s best designers, artists and craftspeople are set to descend on Osakaallee and transform it into the aptly named Design Boulevard for the 10 days during the festival. There are also set to be a range of pop-up international food hubs on Dar-es-Salaam-Platz, Störtebeker Ufer and Busanbrücke, where visitors can sample exotic dishes from far and wide, washed down with a Duckstein beer.  

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

Parookaville Electronic Music Festival, Weeze Airport, North-Rhine Westphalia (July 22-24th)

Crowds at the main stage at Parookaville Festival

Crowds at the main stage at Parookaville Festival. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marius Becker

Electronic music fans won’t want to miss this one: the three-day Parookaville festival is back, returning to its iconic location at Weeze Airport just a stone’s throw from the Dutch border.

Since its inception in 2015, Parokaville has become something of an institution in Germany’s electro scene – and many people say it’s worth going just for the spectacle alone. The organisers pull out all the stops to make visitors to Parokaville feel like they really have entered a genuine “city of dreams”, complete with a massive steampunk zeppelin adorning the main stage and a seven-meter high “monument” to Bill Parooka, the legendary founder and mayor of Parookaville. You’ll also find a town hall, post office, a power plant, the town “jail” (a tattoo parlour) and even a Parooka church where people can tie the knot. 

This year, some of the headliners include Fisher, Afrojack and Yellow Claw. 

Maschsee Lake Festival, Hannover (July 27th – August 14th)

Maschsee festival

Visitors enjoy a beer on the east bank of the Maschsee Festival. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Hannover Marketing und Tourismus GmbH (HMTG) | Kevin Münkel

Long lazy days and balmy evenings spent at the lake are an essential part of German summer, and there’s no bigger celebration of this cultural tradition than the Maschsee lake festival in Hannover. 

Every year, two million visitors descend on Hannover’s Maschsee over three weeks in summer to enjoy the best of world cuisine and art in stalls and stages peppered along the waterfront. There are also boat rides, activities for kids and sports on the lake itself – and don’t forget to pack swimming stuff for a refreshing dip!  

READ ALSO: Five German foods to try this summer

If you don’t live close enough to Hannover for a daytrip, the organisers offer experience packages complete with a 3* or 4* overnight stay, a cocktail at one of the festival bars, a boat trip around the lake and entry to the festival. It sounds like the perfect way to while away a few days this summer. 

Bayreuth Wagner Festival, Bayreuth, Bavaria (July 25th – September 1st) 

Bayreuth festival performance 2021

A performance of ‘The Mastersingers of Nuremburg’ at the Bayreuth Festival in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Festspiele Bayreuth | Enrico Nawrath

For classical music lovers, the Bayreuth festival should need no introduction. It’s an epic weeks-long event dedicated to a single composer – Richard Wagner – and has been held in the same venue that Wagner himself commissioned for almost 150 years.

Traditions and history are a major part of the festival, with the same ten Wagnerian masterpieces being played each year, including The Flying Dutchman and all four parts of the Ring Cycle. Attendees will also see the intermission musicians play their specially composed fanfare – a tradition that dates back to the first performances at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in 1976. 

You can also learn more about each of the performances through a series of introductory talks or (if you’re a skilled musician) take part in one of the masterclasses in singing and composing.

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