Location: Northeast Germany, 2 hours west of the Polish border, 3 hours south of the Baltic Sea and 4 hours north of Munich.
Language: German, but English is also used a lot. Other languages spoken are Turkish, Arabic, and Russian.
Population: 3.7 million
Money: the Euro (€).
Transportation: Trains, trams, suburban trains (S-Bahn), metro (U-Bahn) and buses.
Religion: 64% of the population don’t have a registered religion, giving them the nickname of the most atheist capital in Europe. Other than that, 30% are Christian/Catholic, 8% are Muslim and 1% is Jewish. There is also a small number of interfaith groups that are trying to bring people together, regardless of what religion they are.
Birthday: October 3, 1990. This is the day they celebrate as a reunification day, from when Germany had been separated during the Communist days.
Safety: While Berlin is a relatively safe city, there is the typical European problem of pick-pocketing or little scams (such as someone with a fake injury asking for money ,or even one person creates a problem, while their partner sneaks away with your wallet or phone. It isn’t just in Berlin though, these are both common throughout Europe. But pick-pocketing is easy to avoid, and much better than gun violence in other countries).
Fun Facts: The Berlin Zoological Garden is one of the most visited in Europe, with over 20,200 animals there, and around 3.3 million visitors come annually. The Berlin International Film Festival is considered to be the largest publicly attended film festival in the world. Berlin has more canals than Amsterdam, and more bridges than Venice. During the Cold War, JFK wanted to show his solidarity with Berlin and said “Ich bin ein Berliner” which translates to “I am a Berliner.” What he didn’t know though, was that the use of “ein Berliner” also means a (local) jelly donut.
History: First mention of Berlin was in the 12th century, and because of where it’s located, it became a valuable point in different trade routes. The Thirty Years War in the 1600’s devastated Berlin, but afterwards the ruler, Frederick William, put a policy in place to promote immigration and religious tolerance. Several French Huguenots fled to Germany due to this open-door policy, and 15 years later, 30% of Berlin’s residents were French. The Industrial Revolution changed Berlin dramatically both economically, as well as their population. In the early 1900’s, Berlin was the place to be for the German Expressionist movement, influencing not just local arts/artists, but even Alfred Hitchcock came to Berlin, learned and later applied Expressionism to his movies throughout the rest of his career. In the 1920’s, Berlin was the 3rd largest municipality in the world, with one particularly big name living there during this time, Albert Einstein. The unfortunate history of the Nazi’s, and later the communists, ruled Berlin from 1933-1989, but it has yet again sprung back since then and is a thriving city.
Arriving In Berlin
From the airport to the city center: Depending on which airport you fly into (Tegel or Schoenefeld) and what part of town you’re staying in, will depend on how long it’ll take you to get to your accommodation. Schoenefeld is further away, so if you’re staying near the main train station (Hauptbahnhof), it’ll take you around 50 minutes on the S-Bahn and cost €3.60 for a one-way ticket. If you’re coming from Tegel, it’ll take you about 25 minutes to get to the main train station, and will cost €2.90. Regardless of where you’re going, a one-way ticket is good for 120 minutes and is valid on all transportation.
Getting Around: Berlin is a massive city, so unfortunately, walking from one main site to the next isn’t really an option, unless you group things together by parts of town. While the public transportation can take you anywhere you want to go within Berlin, the outskirts of Berlin or even to what they call the Greater Berlin area, it can also be a little overwhelming for first time visitors. But all of the machines have an English option (as well as other languages), and nearby people will typically help you. The transportation system is broken into 3 zones, with Zone A being for the inner area of Berlin (most of the main tourist attractions), Zone B is for the area outside of the inner ring, including Tegel International Airport, and lastly Zone C is for the area about 9 miles (15km) around Berlin, including the city of Potsdam and Schönefeld International Airport. A one-way ticket costs €2.90 for all transportation in zones A and B, and a day-card costs €8.60 for all transportation in zones A and B.
TIP: Since there is so much to see and do in Berlin, another option might be to buy one of the following two options: City Tour Card or a Welcome Card. The City Tour Card works with around 50 different partners (attractions, transportation, restaurants, museums, etc) and the Welcome Card works with around 300 partners. For comparison, the City Tour Card for 48-hours for zones A and B costs €19.90 and the Welcome Card for 48-hours for zones A and B costs €23.00. Any information you need can be found here, such as the helpful journey planner. You can also download their app and just buy and use your tickets from there.
Things To Do In Berlin
No More Secrets: When a lot of people think of Germany, especially for anyone over 40 or 50 years old, their mind naturally jumps to its unfortunate fanatical past. But an amazing thing about Germany is its ability to reinvent itself. It went from being a country associated with terror, to a country that people are risking their lives to get into, and is the symbol of safety and prosperity in Europe. A really cool place to see how Berlin in particular has owned their past and say “never again” is their parliament building (Reichstag). You can visit the glass dome for free (you’ll need to register online, or at the Visitors Service next to the Reichstag), and as you walk around, you can actually look down at the main hall (Debating Chamber). The reason they have this visible for tourists, is that they want to show that they don’t have any more secrets, those days ended a long time ago.
Under The Berlin Wall: Before we move on from Berlin’s past, no history story is complete without talking about the Cold War. 2019 marked its 30-year anniversary of the Cold War finally ending, but signs of that time can still be seen in certain parts of the city. One really fascinating way to learn a little bit more, is to join the “Tour M-Under The Berlin Wall” tour. They’ll take you down to areas that showcase successes as well as failures of people trying to escape East Berlin, both above land and underground. On the tour, they’ll also let a few people try their hand at removing a manhole before the searchlight comes back around, and as of November 2019, there is now even an original escape tunnel from 1971 that’s open to the public.
A Dash of Personality: During the Cold War, the symbol for the traffic lights for pedestrians was different in West Germany, than it was in East Germany. The West German symbols are the same ones seen in many cities throughout the world, but the East German symbols were a short little man, wearing a hat (called Ampelmännchen). He quickly became a beloved symbol and was even used in cartoons, games, radio and tv programs. After the Cold War though, when everything pertaining to that time period was being removed, the East Germans didn’t respond well when their little street-crossing friend was replaced by the West German symbols. They were able to successfully save their Ampelmännchen and today you can see him all over the eastern side of Berlin, including his own souvenir shops. As you’re traveling around Germany, you’ll also see varieties on this one, including a woman, a heterosexual couple, a homosexual couple, Ampelmännchen with an umbrella, one with a bike, etc.
DDR Museum: While the Cold War was seen as a dark part of history, so, logically, a museum about it probably would be too, there’s a museum in Berlin that’s actually really well done. It’s called the DDR Museum, as the DDR is what East Germany was called during that time. Everything in the museum is available to touch and take pictures of, including an old Trabant car, a replica kitchen, living room, cinema, drawers with facts and stories, and memorabilia everywhere. If you like to snoop around other people’s things, this museum was made with you in mind.
Brandenburg Gate: No visit to Berlin is complete without seeing the 18th century gate, that used to mark where Berlin started. It was created to stand for peace, and surprisingly, it survived the massive bombing of Berlin during World War II. Although it wasn’t able to be used during the Cold War, as the Berlin Wall ran right behind it, it once again became a symbol of peace when the Wall fell. Now it is used for a variety of celebrations, festivals, holiday gatherings and rallies.
Berlin Wall: After the Berlin Wall fell, some of the remaining parts became a place for tourists to learn about the past. If you go to an area called the East Side Gallery, you’ll see the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. Doesn’t sound very interesting, does it? But it now has professional murals on it, some that are more of a picture, others that are strictly words, poems or a story, and others that combine them both. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and take pictures.
Enjoy Your Food Outside, With A Great View: Berlin is full of funky little places for food, concerts, drinks, artwork, etc. So while you will never run out of places to go and experience these in Berlin, one of my favorite places so far is near the east train station (Ostbahnhof), which is an outdoors food-truck type feel, along the river. You can get snacks, sandwiches, coffee, or a beer and just walk around outside, sit in a green space along the water, or go into some of the galleries that are also there. During the warmer months, there’s even an open-air cinema there. If you’re looking for a locals-only place, this is definitely for you.
Can You Find Your City?: Right outside of the subway station called Alexanderplatz, is a square with the same name. In this area, you can find a slowly-turning world clock, with 148 major cities on it. Not only is it a place for meeting up with friends, but it’s also a part of history. On November 4, 1989, just after the 40th anniversary of the start of East Germany, over 500,000 people came together at Alexanderplatz from not only East Berlin, but from all over East Germany to protest the communist government. Much to their surprise, only five days later, they won their freedom, and East Germans were finally able to visit West Germany for the first time in 40 years.
A Historical Amusement Park: Built in ‘69 during the communist regime, Spreepark (Spree Park) was a one-of-a-kind amusement park, which was the only amusement park in both East and West Berlin. It was really popular during those years though, with 1.9 million annual visitors coming there. After the fall of Communism, a new owner took over it, adding life and new scenery to the park. Unfortunately, it later came out that he was a little too fond of his cocaine smuggling and was caught, causing the park to close permanently in that capacity in 2002. Many of the items that made the park unique aren’t there anymore, and the park stayed closed to the public until 2018. But the city has since then bought the park and is now offering historical tours from April-early November, all the while slowly transforming it into a culture center. How that will all play out, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
An Old Airport, With A New Use: What used to be military training grounds and had one of the first airports in Berlin, the area of Tempelhof is now used for neither. The airport was one of the three iconic airports from before World War II, with London’s old Croydon Airport and the old Paris–Le Bourget Airport being the other two. Since its closure as an airport in 2008, the surrounding runways and field have been actively used, but for a very different purpose. Covering 355 hectares (877 acres), it is the largest city park in Berlin, the largest inner-city open-space in the world and is actually bigger than the micronation of Monaco. Outdoor enthusiasts love coming here for jogging, cycling, flying kites, barbecuing, sunbathing and even urban gardening. It’s free to go in, and is open from sunrise to sunset daily.
Festival of Lights: Each year in early Autumn, the city illuminates its buildings, monuments, train stations and TV tower with magical lights. While several cities scattered around Asia, Canada, the US and Europe also have Festivals of Light, this one claims to be the biggest open air gallery in the world. For 10 nights, you’ll be in awe by walking around and seeing all of the 100 locations of lights, moving videos, art, and culture. If you’re interested to go, here’s the website with information on when and where, as well as pictures of their past Festivals of Lights.