Jena the Science City: What it's like living here

by - January 09, 2020

          I wanted to write this post about the small city we live in because, albeit not the usual expat destination in Germany, Jena does get its fair share of international residents. So to those who may be planning to move to Jena and would like to know what the town is like, I hope this is insightful.

          When we first asked about the city, we were told things like "Jena is a nice small town with lots of people." "25% of the population is students so there is a lot happening." "It's very international." "There are plenty of English speakers so you don't have to worry." I would say all of those statements are more complimentary than accurate. We felt very differently when we moved here.



There is not a lot of things happening

          Moving from a big city like Atlanta, we knew moving to a smaller town of ~110,000 people would be a big adjustment. But we were told it was still a "young" university town so there is always a lot happening. I really can't see it that way because we are not students. FSU (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität) does organize student events throughout the year and provide clubs to join, but none of that applies if you're not a student. The city itself doesn't have much to offer. Outside of the occasional markets (Christmas Market, Summer Market, Craft Market, etc), the town is pretty quiet and uneventful.



You definitely have to worry if you don't speak English

          I don't know who had the gall to say we didn't have to worry about speaking German here. Completely false. You should definitely learn as much German as you can before moving to Jena unless you have a German you can always depend on (you lucky ducks with German partners). FSU has an "International Office" that helps only students. Yes that's right, even though my husband was an employee at FSU, they turned him away saying the integration help was only for students - not employees.
          Thankfully Jena's Ausländerbehörde (Immigration Office) and Bürgeramt (Citizen's Office) is much more English friendly than it was several years ago so this part of the moving process is easy. We did run into issues at the banks though and with finding an apartment. Banks turned us away for not speaking German, and all but one of the apartment agencies were phone only with German prompts that we couldn't understand.
          It's not completely impossible to survive here without German - we made it. But we definitely struggled because of our lack of German. The English standard is significantly lower here in a smaller East German town - even with the younger students. Once my husband was able to warm up to his coworkers after SIX months (so German...), some of them were willing to help us with more difficult processes such as the Finanzamt (Financial Office) or translating contracts.
          Which reminds me of another issue we run into frequently here. Jena locals love lying about not knowing English. I understand we are at fault for not learning German before moving here, and I don't demand/expect everybody to speak English for me. But I believe it's human decency to not lie about it. We have had employees at Deutsche Bank, Vodafone, and even prestigious institutions speak English to us one day and then lie to our face another day about not knowing English.
          TLDR; Just be aware that you should learn as much German as you can before moving to Jena. There are lessons available here, but they're geared for learning from any foreign language and may be paced slow for those who know English (since the languages are so similar). You could probably find better books for learning German specifically designed for English speakers back home.



"Very International" Well...

          I'm a little divided on this one. Is moving to Jena like moving to a podunk town in America's Bible Belt? No, it's not completely white washed. You do see a little bit of diversity from the international students. But are they plentiful? Definitely not. Non-Germans are a small percentage, and POC are an even smaller percentage. Middle Easterners and Asians are the biggest POC groups here with very little of other ethnicities. But are we welcomed here? No. Any POC will get their fair share of stares. Anybody remotely brown has stories about their xenophobic neighbors. Interracial couples are given dirty looks. For the East, Jena is a liberal haven, but it still has it's share of far-right AFD members here and political correctness is not a European trait.



So what is there to do if you're not a student?

          As much as the Jena locals are unwelcoming and the city is quiet, the surrounding area is admittedly pretty and not completely without. We have 1 skyscraper, called the Jentower, located smack dab in the middle of town so they say it's impossible to get lost in Jena. It has a viewing tower at the top so you can grab a view of the whole city if you'd like.
          Jena lies in a hilly landscape within the wide valley of the Saale river so if you love nature, there's plenty of hikes and scenic woods to walk through. We also have a large city park that's bustling during the warmer seasons complete with barbeque grills and a skate park. In it are some riverside bars and restaurants to enjoy. If you like swimming, neighborhood pools don't exist so you'll have to head to city water parks/pools like "GalaxSea Jena."
          We have a little planetarium, botanical garden, and some museums to enjoy. I'll warn you, the museums only provide information in German. But you can put your German to the test at the Stadt Museum (City Museum), Phyletisches Museum, Optical Museum, and the Romantikerhaus. Other family friendly activities available here are bowling, movies available in English ("Original Versions [OV]" are limited but available for mega blockbuster movies), Lasertag, and Go-Karting. Otherwise, here are a list of city "events" you can attend https://www.visit-jena.de/en/events-sports/events-tickets/.
          Nightlife consists mostly of just relaxed bars, but they are plentiful here and drinks are all reasonably priced. If you're looking to club, I've only been told of one or two - both with horrible reputations of trashed teenagers looking to hook up. If you want a place to catch sports games, Cheers, the "American themed sports bar," could be a good start. We have stopped by because they show the Superbowl every year.
          There are also great cities nearby worth visiting for weekend day trips like Weimar, Leipzig, and Erfurt. Weimar is only a 15min train ride away and hold several fun events a year such as the Onion Festival, City Art Day, and so on. Due to being a UNESCO World Heritage City, Weimar also has several museums with English prompts available.



Is Jena a "foodie" town?

          Obviously, you have to try German sausages while you're here. Every state has a different style of sausage that they take pride in. Thankfully, Jena is located within the state of Thüringen which is most famous for their style of sausage. Make sure you grab a wurst at a street cart while you're here! Otherwise, foodie culture is not a thing in Jena. There are plenty of restaurants, but I can't rave about many of them. It is very vegetarian friendly in Germany though! And the city is growing so more restaurants open every year. Here are some places you may enjoy:

Cafe Stilbruch - awesome breakfast (reservation needed - always crowded)

Fritz Mitte - steak fries hut
> They also have a restaurant elsewhere with a bigger menu with ok burgers

Asian Restaurants (don’t expect anything authentic)
> Mrs Bao - decent bao and they have real bubble tea (never go to Dr Wok)
> Saigon - expensive but just ok; never go to their buffet
> JEN Ramen - not my favorite but I have yet to try their recommended udon
> Bunshu - only sushi we’ve been to but ok, very westernized
> Hanoi Express - a Vietnamese student brought me here and it was quite decent;
don't order their takeout - sit down in their restaurant

Middle Eastern Cuisine
> Azad Grill - my husband's favorite
> City Kebap - great alternative
> Koz - more of a sit down Turkish restaurant but they have an extensive tasty menu
> Alibaba
> Shawaland - good falafel, amazing prices

Pizza
> L’Osteria - decent affordable pizza
> Versilia Pizzeria - equally good but smaller portions

Dionysos - solid Greek food, bit expensive

Papiermuhle Brewery - great beer, food is just ok

City Pizza - best delivery, I like their butter chicken

Lelek - good Langos and Stockbrot

Cafes
> Boulangerie und Patisserie Carlos P - real pastries and extensive breads
> Eiscafe Riva - the gelato place
> Gräfe Kaffeehaus - German desserts
> Schafers - chain bakery that you’ll see everywhere


If you're a homebody, the city is great for you

          Everything I've criticized up to this point has mainly been cultural aspects of the city. If that's not of importance to you and you're just a homebody anyways than Jena is perfectly functional. Public transportation is great and extensive, there are good job opportunities here, and it's a relatively affordable city. Jena is also a very safe city. Outside of the bike thefts, crime is low here and danger isn't a big concern.
          You're also right in the middle of the country so most cities are of equal distance from here. This means you're not really close to any major airport, but at least they all take the same amount of time to get to no matter where you need to go (better flight coverage).
         


I hope this information was helpful! If you have any questions about my time in Jena, please feel free to reach out via Instagram or leave a comment below.

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