We’re off to Berlin for a few days and are beyond excited. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Berlin very well, and picked up a few tips and tricks to make a visit smoother, cheaper and more fun. If you’re also Berlin-bound, here are six insider tips for a better vacation.
Over the last decade I’ve lived in Berlin twice and in between enjoyed about a dozen holidays to the city. Whenever I’ve encountered people who didn’t enjoy Berlin (too expensive, too commercial, too dirty, etc), I’ve found it’s often because they didn’t know about, or embrace, some of the following things.
1. Go east
I’ve been a huge Berlin fan ever since my high school German teacher took our class on a study trip there. She was a great teacher who had spent many years in the city, and opened my eyes to the Berlin beyond the KaDeWe department store and famous Kurfürstendamm shopping street. In short, she showed us the east of Berlin.
Staying in the eastern areas of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain or Mitte is a far more charming experience than anywhere near Kurfürstendamm and the centre of former West Berlin. Kreuzberg (which is east-ish but belonged to West Berlin) is another great option.
These areas mix early 19th century “Altbau” (older buildings) with a vibrant contemporary scene. Worn down GDR factories have become night clubs, bars, shops and communal spaces.
2. Enjoy a Sterni from your local Späti as a Laufbier
Embrace the Berlin way of life, and your stay will be very cheap. A “Laufbier” is a walking beer – a beer you bring for the walk (to the bar, to the club or to your friend’s house).
The most famous is perhaps the “Sterni” (short for Sternburger) which is generally the cheapest bottle of beer you can find. A bottle from a local cornershop (known as “Spätis” – roughly translated: “laties”) will sometimes set you back as little as 70 cents.
Drinking in public is accepted in Berlin (even on public transport although there are now signs banning alcoholic drinks from the underground trains) and it’s perfectly normal to enjoy a few beers or some wine in a park or canal front.
If you don’t drink beer, most Spätis sell a range of mixed spirit and soft drink cans/bottles, as well as wine (though that’s obviously a lot harder to chug from a bottle on the go).
A non-alcoholic option is Club Mate (pronounced “mahteh” not mate), the brilliant ice tea fizzy drink used to fuel many a night out in Berlin. It’s a pretty potent caffeine drink, well on par with coffee. You’ll see it everywhere around Berlin, and probably grow to miss it greatly when you’ve no longer got 24/7 access to it.
3. Embrace the Denglish (Deutsch English)
Speaking of Laufbier, Sterni and Späti – do pick up a few German words before you go. While Berlin is a young and international city, a surprising amount of Berliners speak little to no English.
You will get by speaking English, but don’t expect bus drivers, supermarkets, signs (except museums/tourist information) or menus to cater towards non-German speakers. I studied at a Berlin university for a year, and encountered many university students who spoke virtually no English. Most cinemas and TV is also dubbed into German.
Downloading a translation app or even a brief word list can be very helpful if you don’t speak German. “Ein Bier, bitte” will really only get you so far.
4. Find the free sights
Berlin is a famously cheap city, an excellent exception to the rule of capitals being expensive. That said, most museums will still set you back 6-18 euros, public transport will cost around 7 euros per day, and food and drink by tourist hot spots are just as overpriced as in London or Paris.
Do a little bit of planning and research, and your trip will be significantly cheaper. (We’ll be publishing a Google Map soon with our favourite just-out-of-the-tourist-spot eateries and shops.)
For example: many museums offer a day/evening of free entry, the Reichstag dome is free to visit if you book a slot online in advance, Bernauer Straße has an excellent outdoor exhibition of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust memorial near Brandenburger Tor has an interesting and heart-breaking exhibition under ground that is free, and so on.
Of course it’s great to support museums and cultural establishments if you can, but if you’re on a tight budget, the free options are there.
5. Skip the “hop-on, hop-off” buses and catch bus 100
Although Berlin is excellent to walk around (so many hidden sites and lovely walkways!), chances are you’ve had to buy a day ticket for Berlin public transport, BVG. Save your money and hop on the bus 100 instead of the expensive private tourist buses.
It has an almost identical route from Alexanderplatz towards Zoologischer Garten (the zoo) and the famous Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church.
It passes the museum island and Berliner Dome cathedral, goes along Unter den Linden parade street past the Humboldt University, Neue Wache, Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag and Bundestag buildings. Then it goes into the Tiergarten park with the castle and victory column, down to the Kurfürstendamm area.
It’s a very regular service and will be included in your BVG ticket. (Just show the driver your paper ticket, if s/he asks.) Most of these sites have info displays in English and German (and sometimes other languages too) where you can read up on them yourself.
In the BVG machines you can buy a day rider, a 3-day ticket or a 7-day ticket. Beware though – the machines generally only take cash or German EC cards. The tram ticket machines only take coins (!). Which brings me onto my final tip…
6. Cash ist King
Partly due to the troubled history of Germany, Germans prefer cash over easily traceable card transactions. ALWAYS bring cash. ATMs are relatively rare for a cash-loving country (and often charge a fee), so grab the chance when you see one or bring euros from home.
Many restaurants, bars and even shops will only accept cash, and if they do take cards it’s often only German EC cards. For example, the Rewe and Kaisers supermarkets accept VISAs and Mastercards whereas Lidl and Aldi only take debit cards and cash.
These are my top tips for an even better Berlin trip. If you’ve been to Berlin, what advice would you add?