A lot can be said about Europe’s most diverse capital city, but after nearly two years of residency, here is what we’ve found to be most true: Berlin is whatever you want it to be, even if what you want it to be changes on a daily basis.
1. A few quotes
“Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin.” – Hiroshi Motomura
“Berlin is a surprise in a great many ways… It deals with great matters and minute particulars with equal faithfulness, and with a plodding and painstaking diligence and persistency which compel admiration – and sometimes regret.” – Mark Twain, 1892
And of course, the endlessly-quoted quip from former mayor Klaus Wowereit: “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”)
2. A few generalities
As many Germans will tell you, Berlin is not Germany. Well, to be more exact, Berlin is Germany, but it is also its very own universe within Germany. Travel just a little ways outside the capital, and you’ll find that people are more formal, English is spoken much less, and food is generally more beige. None of these are bad things (we personally love beige food), but it’s worth noting that Berlin is truly a place unto itself. The city is Europe’s most diverse capital, meaning from block to block you’ll hear dozens of languages, come across wide varieties of food, and discover the many cultural layers that make up such a varied, urban mecca.
Berlin is celebrated as a party destination brimming with nightlife, a historic city full of tragic and intense monuments, and a cultural hotspot for pretty much everything from museums and opera to music and design. It’s still unbelievably affordable for a European capital (particularly compared to those further north and west), and Berliners tend to pride themselves on the fact that nearly everyone can afford to go out to dinner and see art/music/theater from time to time without breaking the bank. Unemployment is very high, but this is due in part to a disproportionately large impermanent population of students and artists who bring a huge supply of creative energy to the city. There is an emphasis on efficiency and order, but also a hardwired dedication to independence, autonomy, and occasional anarchy. These are contrasts you’ll see all over the city, and they make it a pretty special place.
People here are friendly, though generally focused on going about their own business. Ask for help, and you’ll get it, possibly even in English. Most tourist-centric spots (museums, monuments, hotels, restaurants in certain neighborhoods) and cab drivers speak English. Etiquette-wise there are certain things that don’t fly (though of course it’s a big city, so y’know): talking on a cell phone in a restaurant or bar, walking in the bike lane (do not ever walk in the bike lane), and being unprepared to bag your own groceries at the checkout are all no-nos. Also, one of the funniest things about German (or at least Berlin) culture is that people tend to be more French than British when it comes to queuing. Waiting for the bus, going to the theater, whatever – you’ll find yourself in the midst of a mass of people in no particular order, all trying to get to the front first. Just deal with it.
3. Some day-to-day advice
As a tourist, you don’t generally need to speak German. Most people in Berlin speak some English (some speak better English than native English speakers), and German is a really hard language to learn. As in, really hard. Remember that thing Mark Twain said about eternity not being long enough to learn German? Berlin even has an English version of its website for getting around: http://www.berlin.de/en/. However, it’s super helpful to know a few basics (greetings, please and thank you, numbers, how to order food, etc). Any basic phrasebook will do, and if you’re interested in learning more we highly recommend Duolingo (free app): https://www.duolingo.com/. We also strongly recommend having Google Translate on your phone, as it offers acceptable text translations and real-time photo translations of signs, documents, and so on.
(A side-note on the wonderful and terrible German language: without any background in German, it can sound daunting when spoken, and look absolutely terrifying when written. Really, though the notorious long words are simply compound nouns with the spaces removed. Where English would say "certificate of employment", German says "Arbeitsbescheinigung"; where English says "bus stop", German says "Bushaltestelle". Nouns are always capitalized, making them easy to spot, and the actual "meat" of the noun comes at the end, meaning "Stadtschnellbahn" and "Untergrundbahn" are both simply trains. Finally, the letter ß is unique to German - while it looks like a capital "B" to non-native speakers, it's actually just a double-s. You'll see it frequently, in words like "Straße" (street), groß (large/size), and Fuß/Fußball (foot/football, respectively). It has a long sibilant "s" sound, just like the double-s in "stress".)
Restaurants and bars: most places have table service, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Servers in Berlin are very European, in that they like to take their time. And they like for you to take your time, which is the whole point, so don’t hesitate to flag someone down if you have a question/want to pay/need help. It’s not considered rude, and in fact it’s usually the only way to pay and leave. When paying, you’ll be given a receipt with the amount (especially if your server knows you don’t speak German), which doesn’t include tip. Generally tipping is not required, but it’s the big city and not doing so is ill-advised. You can round up a few euros, or tip around 10% if you thought the service was really good, but here’s the most important thing: state the amount you want to pay when handing over your cash, not the amount of change you’d like back. It isn’t the end of the world if you do the latter, but there might be some general confusion. This goes for all over Germany, and also includes services such as taxis.
Speaking of cash, Berlin (and most of Germany) is very cash-centric. Most places don’t take cards (some take the European EC card, but often not credit cards or check cards), so always carry at least some amount of cash with you. The only exceptions are large supermarkets or large chain stores and fancier restaurants, all of which will post signage if they accept Visa/Mastercard. Otherwise, cash, cash, cash. ATMs charge a foreign transaction fee, so it’s better to take out larger amounts and visit the ATM less. Try to use ATMs in banks and not the sketchy variety found on street corners or in Spätis (late-night markets).
Transit: is awesome in Berlin. Basically, you have three sub-systems that all fall under the auspices of the BVG: the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, and the buses/trams. Why are the U-Bahn and S-Bahn different, you ask? Well, this is one of the many remnants of a city that was divided for decades; the U-Bahn is the former West Berlin rail system, and the S-Bahn is the former East Berlin rail system. They work well together, though occasionally you might have to walk a block or two to transfer from one to the other. One BVG ticket will get you access to all three systems, and usually you will want an AB zone ticket (city center and surrounding areas). The C-zone is outside of the Ringbahn and not likely an area you’ll frequent, with the notable exceptions of Schönefeld Airport and the city of Potsdam.
Transit is fast, very on time, and very efficient, so you can get anywhere on the trains/buses/trams. On Fridays and Saturdays, most train service runs all night, and night buses run throughout the week. Single tickets can be pricey, so it’s best to get a weekly pass while you’re here. You’ll save money and time, as you can just use the same ticket for 7 days. For general Berlin transit info, click here.
In regards to getting around: German addresses are formatted as street first, building number second. A letter following the number generally indicates a Hinterhaus, or back building (walk through the front building or courtyard to get to it). There are no apartment numbers, so you need to know the name of the business (or last name of the person) on the doorbell. Streets are not laid out American-style, where even addresses are on one side, odd addresses on the other. Often addresses start at 1 at the beginning of the street, go up until the street ends, then loop around on the other side of the street until you’re back at the beginning. In other words, 4 is next to 5 is next to 6, and higher/lower numbers may be across the street. Also, as in all European cities, the 1st floor is the American 2nd floor (EG is the ground level). In general, even an innocuous-sounding address like "Genericstraße 3" could mean dozens of different businesses spread across multiple buildings and floors, so try to get as much information about the exact location of a place as you can.
Sundays: everything is closed, with the exception of restaurants and some bars. That means pretty much everything else is a no-go. Need groceries? Too bad. Desperately need a toiletry? Nope. Want to buy some socks? Nuh-uh. In the entire city, we’ve found one supermarket that is open for a few hours on Sundays (though there are occasionally "shopping Sundays" in the lead-up to the holidays). So plan ahead, and if you get really desperate you can try your local Späti (short for Spätkauf, or "late shop", essentially like bodegas in NYC) – they often stock basics like toilet paper, soap, and some basic food items for just such emergencies.
The dreaded Pfand: Berlin, like the rest of Germany, uses a deposit system for all recyclables, which can be a bit mysterious when you’re a tourist. The idea is that every bottle (glass and plastic) has a fee on it that isn’t included in the price. In other words, if you buy a bottle of water from a supermarket, it’ll be slightly more than the listed price. The system works great if you live here, because you amass all of your recyclables and bring them in one fell swoop to these amazing machines that eat all of the bottles and give you cash for all the fees you paid. But as a tourist, just know that your drink might cost more than the small change in your pocket.
Speaking of water, two things: 1) the tap water in Berlin is generally safe but extremely hard/calcium-y. If you’re sensitive to that, make sure you have bottled water handy for drinking, and 2) the default bottled water is usually sparkling, so if you’re picky make sure you know how to ask for “ohne Kohlensäure”, or without carbonation. Sometimes you’ll be asked, “mit oder ohne?”, which is with or without, respectively. Also, water is never free or given by default in restaurants and cafes; if you ask for it, it will probably be more expensive than beer.
4. Where to stay
The timeless question! Berlin changes drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, and for first-time, short-term visitors we generally recommend staying in a central spot with at least a low-level tourism base (i.e. where some English is generally spoken). There is the question of whether to stay in former east versus former west, but it’s easy to visit both (and 25 years after the fall of the wall, they’re often indistinguishable) so don’t worry about it too much. More important is having easy access to a train station (or a tram stop if you’re in the former east). Here are a few places we’d recommend checking out:
Central and east of the city center, this former West Berlin neighborhood has a caveat: Kreuzberg is huge, and parts of it are super-nightlife hotspots, teeming 24 hours a day (particularly in summer) with tourists from across Europe and the rest of the world. This mostly applies to the eastern side of Kreuzberg (Known as “Kreuzberg 36” after its former postal code). Western Kreuzberg (“61”) is centrally located, has lots of historic sites and museums, has easy access to transit, and is still bustling but not as packed. Western Kreuzberg is a fantastic place to stay, with an excellent mix of all of Berlin’s various layers, as well as access to some of the more central U-Bahn and bus lines.
Former West Berlin, central and south of the city center. Northern Schöneberg is the “gayborhood” (ie, the Castro) of Berlin, and the south is a bit sleepier, more residential, etc. It’s a beautiful area with lots of parks, restaurants, and old-school shops, and it’s very centrally located for transit. Not as touristy as Prenzlauer Berg, but a lovely, venerable Berlin neighborhood. Again, don’t stay too far south — if you get close to the southern Ringbahn, it’ll take a while to get anywhere else in the city.
Former East Berlin, northeast of the city center. This neighborhood is generally known for upscale shops, beautiful buildings, a good number of American expats and tourists, organic everything, restaurants with non-gluten options, etc. As short as a decade ago, it was still being rebuilt and was a haven for artists, but gentrification has officially happened. As a first-time Berlin visitor, this is not a bad thing. Just beware of staying too far out, as parts of Prenzlauer Berg can feel quite distant, especially if there isn’t a train stop nearby.
5. What to do
This is organized by neighborhood, and is of course just a place to start. There’s always something happening in Berlin, but it’s not always obvious from the street: in a city with so much of its frontage folded into inner Hofs and tucked away within massive buildings, a bit of preparation can mean the difference between finding an incredible bar/theater/gallery and walking right past it. A general must while in Berlin are the Flohmarkts (flea markets). This page has a list of all of them; some of our favorites are Mauerpark, Straße des 17 Juni, Fehrbelliner Platz, Neukölln Flowmarkt, and Rathaus Schöneberg.
• Alexanderplatz and the Fernsehturm: icon of Berlin and the tallest structure in Germany; even if you don’t go to the top, it’s worth a visit. http://www.tv-turm.de/
• Berlin Wall Memorial (technically on the border of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte): if you see one Wall-related spot, this should be it. Pieces of the wall and guard towers remain intact, with a nicely curated outdoor exhibit. http://www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de/en/
• Buchstabenmuseum: located in a former GDR supermarket, this museum hosts an incredible collection of old exterior signage, neon signs, and gigantic letters. (NOTE: the Buchstabenmuseum recently moved to a new location; check their site for details: http://www.buchstabenmuseum.de/)
• The Tiergarten: lovely and never really that crowded due to its size. Neuer See is an especially charming spot, as well as what we call the “Zoo Welfare Tour” — essentially a path in the Tiergarten that goes along the back of the zoo, where you can see the animals for free.
• Holocaust Memorial: odd and dark and totally unique: http://www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en/memorials/the-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe.html
• You can walk from the Holocaust Memorial past Brandenburger Tor to get to the next stop…
• Reichstag: impressive, beautiful, and heavy with history — no need to wait in the long lines to go inside (though you can make online reservations), the exterior is cool on its own.
• Museum Island (though much of it is being renovated until nearly 2020): http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/museum-island
• Though small, the Bauhaus Archive is a must while in Berlin (http://www.bauhaus.de/en/), and it’s not far from Potsdamer Straße, which is up and coming with lots of independent galleries: http://www.indexberlin.de/
• Just off of Potsdamer Straße is Park am Gleisdreieck (http://www.gruen-berlin.de/parks-gaerten/park-am-gleisdreieck/), where you can watch the U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains wind their way through the city and enjoy one of the city’s mellowest open green spaces.
• Winterfeld Platz Market and surrounding shops/restaurants: http://winterfeldt-markt.de/
• Rathaus Schöneberg (where Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech), and the surrounding park and neighborhood, plus a great flea market on weekends: http://www.berlin.de/orte/sehenswuerdigkeiten/rathaus-schoeneberg/
• Berlinischer Galerie: fantastic modern art – http://www.berlinischegalerie.de/en/
• Jüdisches Museum: amazing architecture outside, wide-ranging (and appropriately harrowing) exhibits within: http://www.jmberlin.de/
• Walking the Landwehrkanal (one of our favorite Berlin pastimes): http://www.slowtravelberlin.com/walking-landwehr-kanal/
• Maybachufer Turkish market: http://www.tuerkenmarkt.de/
• One of Berlin’s most iconic and beautiful bridges, the Oberbaumbrücke
• If you cross that, you’re right at the East Side Gallery, a large outdoor exhibit of Wall pieces and graffiti, also a great walking tour of GDR architecture (though it’s quickly being redeveloped): http://www.eastsidegallery-berlin.de/
• Back on the south side of the river is Oranienstraße, a long street of shops, bars, and tucked-away galleries that leads towards the city center. A must-visit spot here is the Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things), which has an amazing Werkbund archive and collection of antique objects, all organized by theme. http://www.museumderdinge.de/
Neukölln and Treptow:
• Tempelhofer Feld: the old airport that hosted the Berlin airlift, now a gigantic park with runways still intact: http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/visit/
• Soviet Memorial/Treptower Park/Spreepark abandoned amusement park: Treptow is a beautiful park on the river, and it also has two of the best Berlin landmarks: the Soviet Memorial, a huge memorial/burial grounds for Russian solders who died in the battle of Berlin, and Spreepark/Planterwald, the abandoned amusement park — it’s fenced off, but a lot of it is still visible from the outside, including the creepy old ferris wheel. http://www.visitberlin.de/de/ort/sowjetisches-ehrenmal-treptowandhttp://www.berliner-spreepark.de/