Monday, 7 September 2009

101 (or so) Berlin Tips!

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Having lived and breathed Berlin for the last few months, here are some hints, tips, and some general advice should you find yourself there. I recommend taking a look at these articles (here and here) as well, they might come in handy.

This list takes on a form on things that I remember being particularly important, cool, or just useful at the time. I hope it helps you experience what is a great city or maybe persuades you to visit!

  1. Berlin is pronounced "Bearleen" - the locals will appreciate you noticing this and saying the name of their city correctly!
  2. The public transport network is efficient - trains rarely run late, the underground around major routes run 24 hour and the bus network, whilst bemoaned by the locals, is noticeably better than the UK equivalent. Buses are notably clean and regular.
  3. English is widely spoken due to the fact that the city is made up of huge swathes of immigrants from across Europe, Russia and Asia. You can experience many different cultures - but they mostly communicate in English as a result of the obvious language barriers. Try and speak German though, its ridiculously easy to pick up - and its just ignorant not to do it in easy everyday scenarios!
  4. You can get fresh pastries and coffees at most train stations from early until late afternoon. Not Starbucks rubbish. There will often be fresh food stands and smaller shops - buy here if you can the quality is higher and you will pay less.
  5. Avoid purchasing foodstuffs etc at the major transport hubs - tourist prices, poor quality, multinational dreary produce.
  6. Don't be put off by staying out of the "centre" of Berlin - the transport links are superb.
  7. Kreuzberg is worth investigating for nightlife. It has a variety of interesting bars and clubs.
  8. Its worth mentioning that nightlife begins late in Berlin. Clubbing can commence as late as 1:30am and go on until the following afternoon. It's not unusual to be out until 6-7am.
  9. Due to the big Turkish presence in the city you can get good quality kebab, kebob, kebap etc. This is to say that it's not processed rubbish, though you can find that, it is often well cooked lamb kebab in its true form. It is delicious and cheap, often under 3 Euro.
  10. Alcoholic drinks can be consumed on the streets, trains, parks, pretty much wherever. Don't abuse this, instead embrace the European mentality for a nice cold drink with some food in the Tiergarten (no BBQ's allowed anymore :( ) or in front of the Reichstag's. Can you imagine drinking some beer and wine in front of Parliament? On a nice sunny day, you can experience all we overlook in the UK.

  11. You can purchase individual bottles of beers, wines etc from most street corners, street newspaper vendors, supermarkets etc. You will pay low prices for brands such as Becks, though you can always investigate brands such as Warsteiner and Krombacher for instance. Berliner Kindl, the local beer gets mixed reviews, low in price and high in volume, whilst not necessarily one to avoid, it's no classic.
  12. A few cents will be added to the purchase price of bottles, including plastic Coke bottles, to encourage recycling. You simply return these back to the shop and you get your money back. This is genius, and a concept still lost on many of the long term foreign residents who still throw them away. Local kids, savvy locals and tramps collect up bottles from around the city in order to cash them in. They literally will go through the bins (called "fishing"?) in the train stations, the longer you stay, the less surprised you will be by this regular occurrence.
  13. Despite this relaxed attitude to alcohol and its consumption I noticed that the locals do not drink until the evening, never over lunch and will save any excess until the weekend. It is not uncommon to go after work for maybe a single long drink or beer and discuss the days events at length. If faced with this scenario I suggest a nice large Weissbeir (I like Paulaner and Erdinger, the latter is available in the UK) - a fruity, yeasty wheat beer, ice cold and fantastic on a summers evening.
  14. You cannot park on the pavement. Do not do this.
  15. Do not cross the road when the red man is showing. The Police will shame you in front of everyone and scream at you. Think of the children is the general gist of this rule, and make no mistake it is enforced.
  16. The Humboldt University, most days of the week, has tables of old books from its Library stood on the street. It makes an interesting lunch break to wander amongst them and maybe find a treasure. Everything from literary classics to old children's comics. Its interesting, unique and overlooked by a lot of people. There is naturally a lot of German books, ideal for learning a bit of the local lingo, but piles of English books as well, all with well leafed, leather bound pages. Superb. A particular highlight is one seller who has a boxes of ancient records, which are great to leaf through. You get a great crowd here and is a great way to break up a walk between Freidrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz if you are sightseeing.
  17. Good places to eat around Friedrichstrasse: Vapiano makes pizza, pasta in front of you, has English menus and will come to under 10 Euro each. It also has chic seating areas and is a cool and relaxed environment to grab lunch. On a budget? Viet Box outside the train station knocks out decent fast food for 3 Euro - noodles, vegetables and a meat or spring rolls in a box on the go. Hardly a delicacy but if your cash is low and you must eat its vast food for little money. Your other option are the Grillwalkers, there is always one on the corner outside Freidrichstrasse Station - you cant miss them, orange umbrella, and a grill strapped to their chests. 1.20 Euro for a sausage, in a roll with sauce. Again, hardly high dining but a tasty snack and cheap as...sausage. Another option is to hug the train line going in between the Bandy Brooks, on the left are numerous restaurants built into the archways of the railway. They all often decent competitive value, and a tip is to go to the back - where there are often outside seated areas not offered to the tourists.
  18. If you intend on staying for any duration, buy a travelcard - you will get fined 40 Euro by plain clothes inspectors, who work on commission, if caught without one. There are no other checks as such along the ubahn, train network, no barriers etc however. The bus drivers are occasionally vigilant to you simply flashing your pass and are wary of the youthful looking crowd having purchased a valid ticket.
  19. Bike riding is big. Avoid standing in the designated cycle paths along the left hand side of seemingly all pavements. Cyclists are the bane of most road users and pedestrians in Berlin, they rule the roads it seems.
  20. You can get a bike at Police auction for maybe 20 Euros if you want a quick way of getting around the city and perhaps keeping fit. The reason I raise this method of purchase is that bike theft is a major problem bordering on a joke. Invest in a good D lock, don't bother with those chain style locks. Try and loop the D lock through your wheels if you have the "quick release" type wheels, which I would avoid at all costs if thinking of buying a bike unless you want to come back and find just the frame locked to a fence.
  21. The shopping districts are vast, get off at Zoologisher Garten and explore. Hackershermarkt is a bit touristy but has lots of variety and some interesting boutiques to offer in hidden courtyards. Friedrichstrasse offers some high end retailers, department stores such as Lafayettes and Dussmanns which is as much an architectural pleasure inside as it is a media/book store. The premiere, Harrods equivalent is KaDeWe - get off at Wittenbergplatz for this. Shopping is busy on Saturdays. This might be the time to mention that near enough every shop closes on Sunday. If you need anything get it before Sunday, Germany shuts down for 24 hours.
  22. As Berlin is surrounded by forest and lakes, swimming is very popular in the summer months. In winter they become ice rinks. Take in the delights of watching entire families skipping nude into the lake together. Nudity isn't as popular or as widespread as the stereotype would suggest. However I do recommend going for a swim in the lakes at Schlachtensee - get off at the station of the same name (S2 train line) and enjoy the wide open green space, lakes and bars. At the other end of the lake is a nice restaurant with superb views and good food. There are a couple of cheap grill house type of places, one being by the train station the other by the larger restaurant at the other end of the lake. In winter the lake often freezes and is picturesque to say the least.
  23. Potsdamer Platz (station of same name) is an interesting place if just for taking a look at the Sony Centre's roof, which is just stunning, particularly at night. There is also a vast English showing iMAX cinema inside which is a treat in itself. There are numerous bars and restaurants, which whilst pricey are often full and a great place to spend an evening. Around the immediate area are some nightclubs, but are considered by the locals to be tourist fodder of sorts. My experience would agree with this, particularly of Adagio which was expensive and whilst an impressive venue, not a great crowd.
  24. Berliners stare, so don't think there is something wrong with you. Having been to Berlin on and off or 15 years I picked up from Germans from other regions that they are known for this trait. When you know its something they "do" its quite funny. My family, who are from Berlin, deny this of course!

  25. In terms of tourist advice, I have only a bit of guidance. As mentioned through the link above the bus route 100 and 200 do all of the sights of Berlin for 2 Euro 10 cents fare. Its just happens to be the bus route now avoided by locals. However, at peak tourist times there are long queues of people gripping Lonely Planet, and whilst the cram on means you wont even pay the fare, its not the best way to see Berlin. If you are going to do this, get up early and do it, I cannot imagine it otherwise.
  26. Thursday evenings many of the museums etc are free to view. This is from something around 4pm onwards, Google "museum island Berlin" and that will probably suffice for an early evenings entertainment for free. Afterwards why not try the riverside deckchair beach bar outside Bode museum, its quick cool and quirky.
  27. The Reichstag is free but amasses stupidly long queues. However it is well worth doing, it is certainly a must do. The worst thing that could happen is that you join the line which stretches out into the baking sun across the lawn in front of the building. Get up a little earlier perhaps? Something lost on a lot of people is the fact that it is open until 10pm, grab some dinner in the area, and come back when the queues are shorter and enjoy the building and the city lit up by night. Should you do it early I suggest grabbing some food from a local store and crashing on the lawn or across the road in Tiergarten for some brunch. Not so fun in the winter admittedly. But do not get put off by that, its a great winter destination.
  28. Should you be visiting in the winter, some tourists think places are closed because it appears the windows have sheets hung up for the winter. These are just heavy woolen blankets draped down to keep the warm in these old buildings every time someone comes in. Don't forget it can get into -30 in winter here. Restaurants particularly do this in and around the Oranienburg, where you can get some decent warming meals after exploring the shops and sights of this archaic place.
  29. Bikes and dogs require tickets on the transport network.
  30. Bikes and their owners, as mentioned above, seem to own the city, and will barge into trains and assume you will move. There are dedicated carriages, often the last one or two. Either avoid these if without a bike or use them if you do have one.
  31. The main airport is still Tegal, but Schonefeld is becoming the major hub. The drawback is that it is outside the city and can take easily an hour by S bahn train. However the service is regular and efficient. A tip is to catch one of the regional trains that operate along parallel lines to the S bahn. With a travel pass you can use these and save easily half the time. For some reason the train station is ten minutes walk from the airport underneath a covered walkway. You can also buy a 25 (and upwards depending on duration) Euro travel pass at the kiosk inside Schonefeld that gives unlimited travel and discounts into most attractions, which would be ideal for a short stay.
  32. Baderschiff is a floating barge on the river that you can swim in. It has a cool decked out bar area, room for sunbathing and is very chic and popular. A drawback is that it can get full and has a reputation for housing beatiful people. So expert toned, tanned models galore. It only costs 3 Euro to get in, but from memory you have to leave all bottles at the door. Great on a hot summers day.
  33. Good cups of tea are hard to come by in Berlin, if staying for any duration you will find that outside of department stores and asian retailers tea either comes flavoured or is just abysmal. So either get into coffee in a big way or make the effort to source your daily hit!
  34. If you enjoy reading then you will find that most retailers have an English section. Dussmann on Friedrichstrasse has virtually half a floor of its immense shop dedicated to English books and is the best I found.
  35. A funny thing often missed by foreigners is the divide between East and West Berlin that still exists. In the casual sense you might hear the West Berliners winding up the East, poking fun at old poverty and backward soviet ways. However this translates sometimes into a resentment to the Western affluence. There is a little tension as affluent West Berliners take advantage of cheap East Berlin land, so watch out for this.

  36. If you are looking for a good Indian restaurant then try the Calcutta. Get off at Savignyplatz and turn left, and walk, its about 200 yards. A long established curry house, the proprietor is originally from India, but came via Birmingham. This isn't a tacky stag do place I hasten to add but a stop off to get some really decent cuisine and good service. After your meal I recommend heading back towards Savignyplatz, after the station take a left then a right, there's a great cocktail bar here somewhere. Sand on the floor, crazy things like that. An array of drinks, great vibe and something different after your meal!
  37. Public toilets are few and far between in Berlin. Where they do exist you will have to pay, perhaps a Euro as in Friedrichstrasse station. Shops rarely have facilities, KaDeWe does a few floors up but they leave a lot to be desired and do not reflect the standard of the place. But they are free. Restaurants will have toilets, but the standard will vary on the quality of the place. Fast food places are very hit and miss as you would expect.
  38. You will frequently encounter buskers, and "big issue" type sellers going from carriage to carriage of trains. Some are good fun, others are a downright nuisance. If you travel the same routes it can become a bit tedious, particularly the young beggars playing Tequila and Besame Mucho over and over. However, if you travel all over you can encounter some really talented musicians that make a journey a bit more bearable.
  39. Berlin has strong ties to the gay community, and the Love Parade and Gay Pride events are big here. Whilst not my scene the city generally embraces this, and there is no real division of people drinking and eating together during these events.
  40. On the subject of events there is always something going on. Berlin is regularly host to major sporting events, rock/pop/classical concerts and all manner of art and cultural events. I always thought London has an itinerary but Berlin makes a true mockery in terms of variety and quality of event. The Germans have a knack for putting on a show, with well organised "fan miles" such as at the World Cup in 2006 and the World Athletics Championships just recently. I regularly checked this site to see what was going on, as there is so much, publicity gets diluted for most events!
  41. Berlin is a very safe place to be out and about. By day, if you observe the usual practices in large crowds regarding your belongings you will be fine. By night, every city has its bad districts but if you are behaving yourself and just enjoying the nightlife you will be fine. One of the pleasures of going out in the city is the absense of anti social behavior that comes with nightlife in Britain. Roudy behavior is simply not tolerated by bar owners, the locals and certainly the Police. This is not to say there is no drunken behavior, but nothing like I have witnessed back home or abroad with the British.
  42. The Germans have a similar outlook on life as to most Europeans. Hard working, living life to the max kind of people. They hold many views that are similar to UK points of view and you will find it hard to be at conflict (unlike history!)
  43. The Germans do talk quite openly about the war, particularly the younger generation. They don't feel they were responsible, do condemn it, but there is a feeling of wanting to move on and prove something about Germany. This is a good thing in my opinion, as the scars of war are there to see throughout Berlin, so there are constant reminders.
  44. The Ibiza (San Antonio) equivalent for German's is a place on Majorca called Ballemann Six. This is one of those split opinion topics. Those who go love it for what it is, a party island. Then there are those who think the hedonistic, drunken exploits bring shame on Germany. This relates to a point above where I mentioned drunken antics not being tolerated, and I have witnessed young Berliners telling off others who behave in a certain way that "this isn't Majorca!" - so there's a social clash certainly between people of the same age right now.
  45. Most Berliners are educated to degree level (free in Germany) and have a good grasp of British politics and world affairs at large as a result of their excellent education and language skills. It's worth doing a bit of background on current affairs before and whilst you are there Spiegels International edition is useful for these purposes. It's useful to know, for instance that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor is widely supported and popular right now. However a big concern is that there is no meaningful opposition to her in any case.
  46. Be wary as the train doors will frequently let you open them as its coming to a stop. Due to the age of some stations, you might also have a step up, down or a gap - so it can sometimes be fun.

I will add more as the thoughts come to me! Hope this proves useful!

Liked this?  You might like this related article of a German politician refusing to speak English - quite funny!

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