Unofficial Berlin Guide

Introduction | Transportation | Flights to Europe | Transportation in Europe | Getting around in Berlin | Safety | Public Safety | Theft and Fraud | German Culture | History | Germany today | German Language | Religious Life | Sightseeing Berlin | Sightseeing in Germany | Major destinations in Europe | Accommodation Restaurants and Food | Money | Cell Phones | Weather | General AdviceUseful Links

 

Introduction

Berlin is one of the best cities of the world with a very rich and unique history. This is the place , where unspeakable evil occurred during the Nazi Regime. After total destruction during the Second World War, Germany was divided into East and West. The wall in Berlin symbolized the Cold War. Right here, Kennedy announced "Ich bin ein Berliner" and 20 years later a miracle occurred: The peaceful revolution of 1989 swept out Communism, knocked down the wall and unified the city and the whole country. Berlin became the capital of a peaceful Germany. There is no city in the world that has had such a drastic transformation as Berlin, literally rising from the ashes. Berlin overcame the fear of history repeating itself. When the spell of the past is broken everything becomes possible.

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Transportation

Flights to Europe

Flights to Germany during July, being the main season are expensive. You should expect to pay between USD700 to USD1200, depending on the travel dates and how much time the ticket is booked in advance. Typically, booking around 8 weeks ahead of time is ideal but with this major event going on in Berlin it might be smart to book several months ahead. When searching for flights you should vary the departure and arrival dates to see the impact on the ticket cost. Flexibility also pays off with regards to the US departing city. Leaving from major airports may be a cheaper option. Flying into Frankfurt, being the largest airport in Germany, will give you the best rate, but for convenience, flying into Berlin is by far the best choice. The alternative option is a 5 hour train ride from Frankfurt to Berlin that costs up to 100 Euro. Another consideration is visiting the European AOL Ashram in Bad Antogast which is located about 2 hours south of Frankfurt in the opposite direction of Berlin.

Transportation in Europe

The transportation choices when traveling in Europe depend on where you want to go and how much time you have. In general, public transportation works very well and any destination can be reached by trains and buses. On the other hand, trains are expensive especially when booked last minute. Tickets for trains in Germany can be booked at www.bahn.de in advance at discounts of 50% and more. Trains are reliable and fairly punctual. It is advisable to reserve a seat especially when traveling with luggage. Renting a car provides flexibility but comes with considerable disadvantages. The web page http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/carrental.htm gives useful advice. In Germany, a US driver license is sufficient to rent a car. The cost of gasoline should not be underestimated. Gasoline is at least 2 to 3 times more expensive than in US. Parking is also expensive and very limited in the cities. Traffic jams are making driving a torture especially in large cities and on busy travel days. With many weekend commuters on the road, Friday is a particular bad day for driving. Traffic in Europe is thicker and less relaxed than in the US. Of course, if you are used to driving in India, the European traffic will not scare you the least. Europe has a couple of discount airlines like www.ryanair.com or www.germanwings.com or www.airberlin.com. Air Berlin offers discount flights out of Berlin to many destinations in Germany and Europe. The largest and major German airline is www.lufthansa.com. Tickets for travel in Europe are typically reasonable due to the stiff competition. Round trip to any place in Europe is in the $250 range if booked in advance. Finding cheaper tickets is possible with discount airline if booked well in advance. Hidden fees for luggage etc. should be expected with discount airlines.

Getting around in Berlin

Berlin’s public transportation is fantastic with a huge network of subways, trains, buses and streetcars. Driving a rental car in Berlin is a terrible idea and should be avoided. Taxis are readily available if needed but in general, public transportation is the cheaper and faster choice.  Network tickets are available for multiple days at all subway stations. The cost is very reasonable. In general, traveling as light as possible is a good idea. Carrying large suitcases and bags up and down some deep subway stations is not much fun. Backpacks work the best. Back To Top

Safety

Public

Safety

Germany is a safe country with a very low crime rate. Walking in all tourist areas is not a problem day and night. Germany laws on alcohol consumptions in public and for minors are much less restrictive than in US. As a result, you will encounter drunken teenagers especially on the weekends. Berlin has a reputation as Europe's party capital similar to Florida during spring break (but all year around). College students come to Berlin from all over Europe to celebrate.  Public drinking is very common and as such no indication of a dangerous situation. Applying common sense should be sufficient to stay out of trouble. If you do encounter any emergency situation you can reach the police at the number 110 from any phone. The fire department is 112. The dispatchers are fluent in English.

Thefts and fraud

Theft is more common in Europe than in the US. Carrying expensive jewelry and large amount of cash should be avoided. Make a copy of your passport and keep it separate to the actual documents. Keep your wallet in your front pocket. Be mindful when in crowded places. Suspect fraudulent intention in any unusual situations. Betting and money games in the streets are common. Do not get involved - tourists always loose.

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German Culture

History

The devastation from the Second World War and the Nazi terror has long been cleaned up. All major German cities and especially Berlin were completely destroyed during the war and have been rebuilt. Very few destroyed buildings were left unchanged as a reminder of the devastation. The "Gedaechtniskirche" (memorial church) on "Kurfuerstendamm" street is a prime example. Berlin has countless historic sites. It is difficult to read up on the history while sightseeing so prepare yourself a bit at home or on the flight! Berlin itself is not an old city by European standards. Berlin has come into existence with the raise of the Prussian kingdom in the 1800s. Famous German cities with a rich middle age history include Dresden, Leipzig, Nuremberg and Frankfurt. Beyond the middle ages, many German cities, especially those located at major rivers have a history that traces back to Roman times. Like India, Germany also has a very colorful and complex history. Germany as a single country has not existed until a hundred years ago and previously consisted of many small independent kingdoms and cities. A famous example includes the kingdom of Bavaria with the extroverted king Ludwig II who built so many castles until the whole state was bankrupted. Each major German city has a residence for the king or local duke, a cathedral or major church and a residence for the bishop. Other historic buildings are the city hall, a theater or opera house and museums. Although understanding the historic background for each building or event might be close to impossible getting a guided tour at major sights helps to grasp the basics and is far superior to reading some book. All major tourist spots will offer tours in English at a reasonable cost.

Germany today

The first surprise when visiting Germany is the cultural and ethnic diversity with foreigners from all over the world living here. Berlin is by far the most cosmopolitan city in Germany. In some neighborhoods native Germans are the minority. Overall, Germany is an open and friendly country. There is more social interaction than in the US leading to unexpected conversations in the stores, the subway or while eating in a restaurant. You can expect people asking questions about how you liked Berlin or about your opinion on just about any topic. In particular, Germans like to discuss politics with anybody anywhere.

German Language

No need to learn German for a trip to Berlin! All of the younger German residents understand and speak English fluently. In tourist areas, English menus will be available in the restaurants. Berlin is a very popular tourist destination and caters to non-German speakers in every way imaginable. Information signs in public places and museums are in German and English and tours for tourist sites are offered in English. It is more likely that you cause confusion by trying to speak some German word from a dictionary than by sticking to English. Of course, a universal big smile will solve any verbal communication issues that might arise.

Religious Life

Germany is divided into three groups:  Protestants (Lutherans), Catholics and non-believers. The church is funded by the government through special taxes. The most striking observation is that in US churches are full and in Europe empty. Most people belong to a church, but do not attend services regularly. Most churches are historic buildings that are interesting to visit even without any religious background just from an architectural point of view. Throughout the middle ages most works of art was religiously motivated. Even today, churches contain treasures of sculptures and paintings that are proudly displayed. Typically, churches are open during the day for visitors. Major tourist sites will charge a fee. Besides the Christian churches, temples, mosques and shrines of all religions can be found in Berlin.

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Sightseeing

Berlin

  • Berlin is a great city with a rich history and many museums. Get a tourist guide and make a plan in advance what you want to see. The biggest disappointment is to find out that you missed a sight after returning back to the States. Here are just a couple of items that give you an idea of the wide spectrum of things to do in Berlin:
  • The wall that divided the East and the West. Checkpoint Charlie is a famous site not to be missed.
  • The Brandenburg Gate is the symbol of Germany. It used to be in the empty border field between the East and the West. It is now in the center of what is called "Berlin Mitte" (Middle). The Reichstag (parliament) is just a few steps away. Further in that direction is the Kanzleramt (similar to the White House).  Next to the Brandenburg gate is the famous Hotel Adlon and the US Embassy and further along is the main Holocaust Memorial. Underneath the memorial is an information center.
  • The new Jewish museum is huge and very popular.
  • A boat tour on the spree river gives you a good perspective of many famous sites and provides a welcome break from walking. Berlin is a huge city so use public transportation as much as possible!
  • The Museum Island is right at the Spree River close to the Brandenburg gate. There are many different museums mostly on cultural topics. Right next to it is the Berliner Dom, the main church which is breathtakingly beautiful. You can go to the top of the tower for a great view over the heart of Berlin. Just be aware that there are no elevators and the climb is tough through narrow staircases but very much worth it.
  • Potsdamer Platz has been completely rebuilt in recent years. The major German art museums are close to this area.
  • Alexanders Platz is the center of the former East. You can get on top of the TV Tower that is visible throughout the city.
  • Kurfuerstendamm is the center of the former West. KaDeWe is a major department store. The Gedaechtniskirche should not be missed.

Sightseeing in Germany

The best option for sightseeing outside of Berlin’s city limits is Potsdam which can be reached by trains in less than an hour. The residence of the Prussian kings is spectacular surrounded by a huge park with many fantastic outbuildings - a must see for any Berlin visit. Downtown Potsdam is a nice example of a smaller German city. Here you can enjoy a snack after touring the residence. At the very least, a half day is needed to see the residence and gardens. The city of Dresden is amazing and extremely popular among all tourists. At a minimum, a full day is needed to see this city. Dresden is located about two hours away from Berlin. Prague ("the golden city") in Czech Republic, is only another two hours south of Dresden. Considered one of the most beautiful cities of Europe Prague offers a huge castle, the world’s most famous historic bridge and a middle age downtown.  Prague is extremely popular with American tourists.  The combination of Dresden and Prague is a great option for spending a couple of days outside Berlin and getting an impression of another European capital. No flights are needed and the cost of food and hotels in Prague is low. Depending on your nationality please check the visa requirements for Czech Republic before heading that way. Another good choice is the German city of Leipzig which is also around two hours away from Berlin. The sights are not as spectacular as Dresden but still worthwhile a visit. The German main cities in the north (Hamburg, Bremen), the west (Frankfurt, Duesseldorf, Cologne) and the South (Munich, Stuttgart) are around six hours away from Berlin by car or train. A larger tour of Germany should be planned in advance to make the most of it. In the Frankfurt area, there are many sightseeing options. River boat rides on the Rhine and Mosel are very popular. The scenery is beautiful and many castles can be seen right from the boat. In less than two hours you can take an amazing train ride along the Rhine river from Frankfurt to Cologne. Next to the train station is the Cathedral of Cologne, the largest and most famous German church. South of Frankfurt is the small city of Rothenburg which is one of the most visited places in Germany for international tourists. This middle age town has been preserved exactly in the same condition as 500 years ago and somehow survived all the wars and revolutions with no damages. It feels like you are taken back in time. Other famous places in the South of Germany include Munich which is the third largest city after Berlin and Hamburg. Berlin has much more to offer for international tourists but it is interesting to see the contrast to Munich which is a very clean and organized city famous for Beer Gardens and the October Fest. Berlin can be compared to New York and Munich to Chicago in that respect. In the very South of Germany is Neu Schwanstein, the most famous castle in the world. Expect major crowds and plan for extra time when visiting. Interesting cities along the major train lines in Bavaria are Wuerzburg, where the kings of Franconia resided and Nurembuerg, one of the most historic German cities with an old castle in the center.

Major Destinations in Europe

Italy is the best (and most popular) tourist destination in Europe. A week’s time is sufficient to tour the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. Flying to Italy is the easiest and fastest option. Traveling by car, bus or train from Germany is time consuming but scenic crossing the Alps of Austria or Switzerland to reach Italy. Beautiful spots like Lake Como, Lake Garda or the city of Milano are on the way and always worth a stop. While in Italy, never lose sight of your belongings! All major cities and countries can be reached from Berlin within a two hour flight. Some of the most popular and worthwhile destinations include Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Prague, Istanbul and Greece. Vacationing on a Mediterranean island like Mallorca, Ibiza, Crete, Corsica and Cyprus is extremely popular in Europe. Especially Mallorca and Ibiza cater to a mass tourism comparable to Cancun or major Florida destinations. Overall, the Caribbean islands or Hawaii would make easier destinations for a beach vacation when traveling from US.

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Accommodation

Berlin accommodations are plentiful and relatively cheap compared to other European capitals. Check http://www.worldculturefestival.org/en/Festival_Accommodation.wzi for details. Since so many visitors are expected for the festival booking in advance is recommended. When traveling through Europe finding a hotel room even without reservations is typically easy. Especially for smaller hotels you should insist to see the actual room before making a payment at the front desk. Asking for specials or discounts is always a good idea that applies not only to hotels but also to shopping. Regarding the quality of accommodation expect a much wider range than what you are used to in US chain hotels.

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Restaurants and Food

Due to the numbers of foreigners living in Berlin ethnic food from all over the world is available. Only New York and London can compete with Berlin for restaurant options.  Vegetarian options are available everywhere in Berlin. In smaller German cities, vegetarian food is less readily available. Thankfully, Italian and Chinese restaurants are very popular in Germany and always have vegetarian dishes on the menu. Overall, the Italian restaurants in Germany are authentic so you can get a taste of Italy even without traveling there. Finding vegetarian options in France and Spain is tricky. In Italy you will have no problems. Do not be shy to ask for vegetarian dishes that might not be listed on the menu. When eating out you need to be aware that servers are paid mostly by the hour and do not rely on tips as much as in the US. As a result the level of service is much lower than what Americans are used to. Having a grumpy waiter is the norm not the exception especially in Berlin. Europeans are used to this style of service but Americans could easily get disturb and misjudge non respectful behavior as a sign of harassment against them which is typically not the case. All you can do is send a blessing in the direction of a moody server. Do not take the bad treatment personally. Doggy bags are not common in Germany. With smaller portions finishing up the plate is much easier than in US. Any left-overs are usually returned to the kitchen. Expect some confusion when asking for a box. While in Germany do not miss the following treats:

  • Ice-cream stores can be found everywhere. Most will have dozens of flavors.  
  • Bakeries are literally part of every single street. Many will also serve coffee (decaf is available everywhere labeled "entkoffeiniert"). The breads and bread rolls are unforgettable good. Just be aware that you might not enjoy American toasts any more once you tasted German bread. Also try the sweet breads and cakes. You can ask for choices without eggs.
  • Historic pubs and coffee houses are very popular. There is usually fresh cooked food on the menu. With alcohol-free options readily available everywhere you do not have to miss the taste of German beer.
  • Just as a final reminder on the food topic keep in mind that most German dishes contain meat. Noodles in Germany are typically made from eggs. In a traditional German restaurant the vegetarian options are limited to side sides and salads. Rather find a good Italian "Pizzeria" instead.

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Money

A Dollar is worth about 0.75 Euro. One Euro consists of 100 Cents. Berlin has the reputation of being cheap compared to other German cities and especially in comparison to Paris or London. You can find relatively affordable food and accommodation. What makes the trip expensive is the exchange rate alone. You can expect to pay around the same prices in Euro than in Dollar at home so you are spending at least 25% more due to the exchange rate. You can expect to spend at least Euro 50 per day and person in addition to accommodations and transportation just for food and sightseeing. ATM’s are very common and popular. There is a service fee but in general, the exchange rates at the ATM’s are better than what banks will charge for actual dollar bills or travelers checks.

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Cell Phones

Using a US cell phone in Europe is very expensive due to the roaming charges. If it works it all depends on the phone type and the carrier. A detailed discussion can be found at http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/mobilephones.htm. There is a risk especially with I-Phones and Blackberries to encounter very high roaming charges even without making any calls just by the data fetching. If you decide to take your phone along, familiarize yourself how to switch the international roaming off within the phone settings menu. If living without a cell phone for a couple of days is not an option buying a pre-paid cell phone in Germany is quick and easy. With this German cell phone you can be reached for free (incoming calls are free with German carriers, but not with US carriers when roaming!). If you are just planning to make a quick call back home either call from the hotel and keep the call short or find a internet café. There are also public phones available. Some work with cash, others require a phone card that can be purchased from any newspaper stand.  From Germany you need to dial "001" to reach US. For calls from US to Germany dial "01149" followed by the local phone number. In summary, you want to keep your cell phone off or leave it home when traveling to Europe. The word "cell phone" might not be understood as Germans refer to it as "handy" and wrongly assume that this term is used around the world.

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Weather

The weather in Germany compares well to that in New York City. July is considered mid-summer and the hottest month of the year. German summers are not as dry as in the US so a rainy day is always a possibility. Temperatures are typically in the 80s dropping to 60s at night so a sweater or light jacket is useful. There is no air-conditioning in most hotels, restaurants, trains and cars.

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General Advice

  • Be prepared! Read a tourist guide. Check out http://wikitravel.org/en/Berlin for a very good overview.
  • Think about what your fields of interest are and Google them with "Berlin" or "Germany" added to find out what is available.
  • Check out what other cultural events are going on at the time that you may enjoy. Berlin has many theaters, opera houses, orchestras, etc. Concerts of any type and scale are happening everywhere. If you always wanted to see an authentic Spanish flamenco dance, you can expect to find one in Berlin.
  • Berlin is also considered Europe’s center of contemporary art. Countless unique galleries and project houses are scattered throughout the city.
  • Get a map upfront and familiarize yourself where your hotel is located in relation to the stadium.
  • Take a bus tour to get familiar with the major sites which can help you to decide which ones you want to see in more detail.
  • Expect to walk a lot and bring comfortable shoes.
  • Exploring the city as a group is much more fun so team up with others!
  • And after all this serious advice do not forget the purpose of the trip: Celebrate! Enjoy Berlin, the coolest city on the planet!

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Useful Links

http://www.visitberlin.de/de/event/world-culture-festival

http://www.deutschebahn.com/site/bahn/en/start.html

http://www.abendblatt-berlin.de/

http://www.tip-berlin.de/

http://vegetalis-shop.de/

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Disclaimer: This is an unofficial guide for your planning purposes. The reader should not assume that the information is official or final. We do not assume responsibility for any errors.