Berlin is often referred to as the “poor, but sexy” city that is the political and cultural capital of Germany. When many people think of Germany, images of cute girls in Dirndle’s, guys screaming “PROST!” as they clink large beers, or the movie Beerfest for my American friends often come up but that is really more of the Bavarian province in the south (and even then the Bavarians must shake their heads at the movie Beerfest). You won’t find much of that in Berlin, but there is so much more to be had in this wonderfully diverse city that is a true melting pot between Western Europe and Soviet culture.
After World War II, Germany was defeated and in shambles. Berlin was controlled by the Soviets and the Eastern section of it (East Berlin) was Soviet occupied until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nowadays, it is super modern city with all the makings of a 21st century city but is contrasted with noticeable remnants of its dark past. The city owns up to its past instead of hiding from it and it’s all on display with its many WWII monuments.
Berlin is hard to describe. It is the least “European” of the cities I’ve visited in the sense that you are not constantly surrounded by Baroque architecture, showered with museums, and “old towns”. Yes, it certainly has its share of impressive buildings like the Berliner Dom, the Reichstag building, and the Brandenberg Gate, but the city’s Soviet influences can be felt as neighborhoods in the hip and happening Eastern half are gritty and lively. It’s a city of continual rebirth as so much was damaged during WWII, and so much has been rebuilt since. You can really feel that aspect in this city as it’s not engulfed by the old, but never taken over by the new. The best thing is that it’s one of the cheapest cities in Europe.
Berlin is still very much a walking city but it is far more spread out and overall larger than other cities. It’s a perfect melting pot of Western and Eastern European influences. I can’t think of any city in Europe which has a more cutting edge scene.
Getting In And Around
Berlin goes against the mold of other European capitals. It is very spread out and while it is still a walking city, the sheer size of the city makes taking the metro imperative to a 2-3 day visit.
Transportation Honesty Policy
The one thing that blew my mind about Berlin, and Germany as a whole was the lack of security at its transportation stations. Berlin’s U-Bahn (subway/tube/underground). Everywhere else I’ve been in Europe had gates, swivels, or some sort of device to make sure you swiped a card, inserted a ticket, in order to get to the train. Welcome to Germany where you can choose whether you want to buy your ticket or not. Okay, let me rephrase. You are obviously supposed to buy a train ticket, but there is NOTHING preventing you from walking straight from the street into the train. It’s completely based on the honestly policy. There are little boxes somewhere in the entrance of the station where you can stamp your ticket.
From all the locals I met, they all seemed like honest people which means clearly there’s something wrong with me as the first thing that came to my mind when I discovered this were joyous thoughts about saving money. Nevertheless, there are occasional train employees that will check your ticket but I did not see any during my entire 4 days in Berlin. Hustle at your own risk!
Airport to the City
Berlin’s airports may be the worst airports I’ve seen in Europe. Compared to Munich and Frankfurt, Berlin’s airports might as well be third world. Thankfully, the transport to the city is easy. At Schonefield airport, it’s an easy walk (follow the path) from the airport to the train stop. There are clearly labeled signs guiding you to the train station. The fare is €3.30 from the airport to anywhere in the city and the ride to the city is about 30 minutes.
I was lucky enough to sit with a group of Scottish guys on a Stag party. Turns out the entire country of Germany has an open bottle policy and these guys were pounding the beers sparingly. Of course I couldn’t say no when they offered me a beer, and actively partook in the day drinking that ensued.
Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn
Berlin is a big city, and very spaced out, not unlike London. The train system is expansive and can get complicated. There are two types of train, the U-Bahn (underground train) and S-Bahn (overground). Both are essential for using Berlin’s transportation system. Fares differ depending on the distance traveled but is between €2.70 and €3.30. There is also the cityCard option that combines train fare (unlimited for either 48 or 72 hours) and full access to numerous museums and sights with entry fees.
Where to stay?
Traveling by myself, there’s no reason to waste money on a nice hotel in my (relatively) young age. There’s a large selection of hostels in Berlin as it’s popular with the Europe backpackers crowd to choose from. I ended up booking a bed at the Generator Hotel in the Mitte district (central). It’s a hostel in the sense that I was in a small room with 3 other guys in bunk beds but as far as hotels go, this was the nicest place I’ve ever seen. The lobby, cafeteria, and cleanliness of the rooms match that of 4* hotels. Hostels have certainly changed with the times, and this place might as well be a poshstel. Met some cool people at this place, including guys there for stag parties (turns out Berlin is a hot spot for British bachelors) who ended up asking me if I wanted to go party with them.
Where to eat?
German food is vastly underrated in my opinion. Sure it might not be the most sexy, have the most unique flavors, or come out served in some fancy arrangement but for those that love hunks of tender meat, sausage, hearty soups, and more meat, this is the cuisine for you. Oh did I mention the beer? Germany is world famous for its beer and for good reason. I was blown away by how delicious and how cheap the beer is. Beers are served standard in half liter glasses, and cost around €3-€5.
I sampled numerous beers, and my goodness how good it was. Their version of Bud Light would be a special treat of a beer in America I didn’t even get a chance to get into the craft brews but just their mass produced beer is incredible. After drinking copious amounts of weissbier (wheat beer) and dunkel (dark), I settled on Erdinger Dunkel as my go to.
As far as German food goes, the German food we all think of: bratwursts, sauerkraut, haxn, and leberkase is actually native to the Bavarian region in southern Germany. While it’s not difficult to eat that food in Berlin, it is not readily available like one might think. Munich is the city that more so fits that purpose. Berlin is a cosmopolitan culinary city with all types of cuisine. Berliners and Germans as a whole love to try different cuisines and eating German food doesn’t seem to be prominent thing especially among the younger generations. German food isn’t the healthiest of culinary options so I can’t blame them. While in Berlin, I had a few German meals but I spent most of my meals eating kebabs and currywursts knowing I would chowing copious amounts of German food in Munich.
Mustafas Gemuse Kebab
One of these culinary influences is Turkish food. There’s a large Turkish immigrant population in Germany and they brought their delicious food with them. There are Turkish restaurants everywhere, including countless doner kebab places. I can’t say I was expecting to eat so much Turkish food but this was perfect with all the sightseeing I was doing and how spread out the city was making it harder to find good restaurants. For around €3, you can get a filling doner kebab and I must had them dozens of times while in Germany.
One of the standout places in Berlin was Mustafas, a little store on the sidewalk in Mehringdamm. It’s no secret of a place either as there was a line down the sidewalk of people waiting for meat on a stick. Surprising enough, I thought the doner kebabs were amazing in Berlin. I actually think the doner kebabs here were better than the ones I had in Turkey. They may not be.
For all those keen on local cuisine, do not miss out on Haxe, a delicious tender piece of pork hock (pig thigh?) that is slow cooked to be tender and roasted until the skin is crispy and juicy. It’s widely eaten in Austria and Switzerland as well.I visited Zur Haxe for lunch and my goodness what a great sampling of Haxe it was. The restaurant has a cool and rustic interior; befitting of the “German” experience, and their food is just fantastic. Washed it down with a weissbier and I was a happy man.
Probably the most touristy restaurant in Berlin and you may think of give it a skip in Berlin if you are visiting Munich as the original location resides there. Hofbrau is a brewery in Munich and are famous for their giant communal seating beer halls with traditionally dressed workers serving you those large 1 liter beers. It’s an experience that’s well worth it in my opinion and the traditional German food is delicious as well. They have live Bavarian music most of the time, and I saw more drunk stag parties getting out of control than I did any locals. Nevertheless, just the experience of drinking out of those 1 liter beer glasses was alone worth the visit!