Berlin is a large city with a lot of 19th-century architecture, trees and water (in the form of the river Spree, canals and - around its edges - lakes). Like London and unlike (say) Barcelona, Paris or Krakow, it needs quite a bit of working at to get beneath its skin. Because of the city's division until recently by the Berlin Wall, the scars of which remain, the city lacks an obvious geographical centre.
It's often described as Europe's biggest building site - since the fall of the wall (1989) and the reunification of Germany that followed, extensive and exciting rebuilding as well as substantial if lower-key rehabilitation of areas that had lacked investment has been taking place. At the same time you can easily find buildings bearing all the marks of street-fighting in 1945 (when the Russians retook the city from the Nazis), eloquent gaps where something not so long ago stood, and various survivals both of Hitler's Third Reich and of the subsequent cold-war period - stretches of the wall, watchtowers, some interesting Soviet-style futuristic showpiece construction, Hitler's Olympic Stadium, derelict factories, and much much more. If anywhere in the world summarizes in physical form the complex political divisions of the mid and late 20th century, it's Berlin. Still visibly 'healing' itself, it's full of great new architecture, a lot of museums (some are terrific), as many contemporary galleries (of the interesting sort) as anywhere else in mainland Europe, and several areas populated by lively and reasonably-priced bars, cafes and clubs, some of them offshoots of what from the sixties to nineties was a vigorous squatting scene. It has an excellent public-transport system (though you'll miss a lot if you don't explore by walking).
You must have valid passport, an E111 form less than 12 months old (as long as you are an E.C. citizen), which can be got from post offices. U.K./E.C. citizens don't need a visa for Germany (Other nationalities may do)and basic insurance (against cancellation, theft, medical expenses). Experience tells that claims for stolen wallets/cameras etc. can take a long time to process. No claim will succeed if you don't get a statement from a police station within 24 hrs. of any event: also any claim may need proof that you had what you lost, so hold on (separately) to all receipts including for money changed.
Euros are the currency of Germany. Costs in Germany are a bit lower than UK prices. Berlin does have a fair number of cashpoints, though nothing like the quantity seen in the UK, and they tend to be well-hidden - many are not on the street, but in station precincts and the like (also post-offices). All those displaying the 'EC' sign seem to accept Switch, Delta, Visa and Mastercard
If you want to look at guide books before the trip, all three of the Rough Guide, Time Out guide and the Lonely Planet guide to Berlin are full of good detailed reasonably up-to-date information - and maps, which Berlin (being very large and spread out) will be impossible to navigate without. They all vary: Rough Guide or Lonely Planet are better for all-round hard info and context (latter however not so good on bars/cafés, and its U- and S-bahn map is hard to read), Time Out for 'happening' stuff (music, clubs) but also good maps and plenty of pics. Try to get the very latest editions Berlin just moves that fast. The Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd is recommended for anyone wanting in-depth background reading on the twentieth-century politics of the architecture and public art of Berlin: recently-published, a serious academic enquiry that is also very readable. Free maps of the city centre are quite easy to come by in Berlin.
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Expect it to have similar weather to England, though probably distinctly colder (Berlin is most of the way to Poland!) Take appropriate clothing, not forgetting gloves, headwear etc.
English is very widely spoken, though if you don't want to be a 'tourist' you may learn a lot more if you make the effort to use even a little German. Signs in museums and suchlike will very often only be in German, so a small dictionary could be a smart buy. There is one letter still in common use that is particular to German - ß, which is actually a double-S. Street-signs etc. commonly use the abbreviation 'str.' for strasse ('Street'), and 'pl' for platz ('Place').
Most shops shut around 6 pm (but earlier on Saturday), though there are supermarkets open later in the precincts beneath some of the larger S-bahn stations (Zoo, Friedrichstrasse, Ostbahnhof - the two beneath the last are open till 9 pm at least even on Sunday, a day when almost all other shops are closed).
Very cheapest way to eat healthily (apart from straight from the supermarket): a toss-up between the University Mensas (student cafeterias but open to anyone), the many Turkish take-aways, and the Imbiss (snack) stands you'll find everywhere. Vegetarians should have no problem at all in Berlin: the falafels, lentil soup (linsensuppe) and spinach-and-cheese pastries (börek) many of the Turkish joints do can be meal in themselves, and every one of the newer type of cafe/bar will have several things on offer, whatever your 'faith'. At imbiss stands, and more traditional joints, note the large selection of wursts ('sausage' is an inadequate translation!). Anything with the word 'fleisch' in is meat...
In bars/cafes you pay when you are ready to leave, rather than when drinks are ordered (you order from your table, they keep a tally). It's customary and considerate to round up - to let whoever served you to keep the change.
In Germany you will find a strong consensual trust and respect for the law. One thing you should note is that jay-walking - crossing the street when you are not at a pedestrian crossing with a green light, even when there is no traffic - carries a statutory fine. Curb your natural instincts, wait with others until allowed to cross, or risk paying! Similarly, you must have a valid franked ticket when you are on the public-transport system, even though there is no barrier or conductor to regulate this. It is up to you to be responsible - and in fact there are plain-clothes inspectors who will levy a 60-Mark fine if you are caught without. Tickets are cheap enough!
Toilets are found in all bars/cafes as well as museums etc. There are paying toilets in the major S-bahn stations too. Doors are often just marked with a D (damen - women) or an H (herren - men).
There are two fortnightly listings magazines (published alternate weeks) if you want to know about music/theatre/film/club/etc. events: Tip and Zitty. Neither is fantastically easy to read if you lack German, though someone should get a copy. Though they list exhibitions (hundreds!), it's much easier to see what's currently on and where (also in all the museums) by picking up a copy of the free Berliner Galerien sheets (or the Mitte Gallery Guide) in the contemporary galleries or some of the museums: also there's a cheap publication called Berlin Artery (from galleries) listing everything you need to know about.
Although Berlin is reasonably safe as major cities go, you should (as anywhere else) look out for bags, wallets, etc. - and don't keep valuables where they will be an open invitation to opportunists. You should also note that parts of former East Berlin are home to aggressively racist neo-fascists with something to 'prove' where anyone of non-Caucasian appearance is concerned: especially if on your own, at night, etc. Such people are a minority, but do reflect a more widespread insecurity about jobs and immigration, so be extra vigilant, and don't risk trouble.
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There are four overlapping systems - the U-bahn, the S-bahn, buses and trams. All are easy to use, reliably punctual, and can be boarded with the same ticket. U- and S-bahn are equivalent to the underground, though often run above the city, and share interchange stations. 'U' and 'S' platforms are almost always on different levels. Unlike the London tube, several different lines may use the same platform, so watch the signs. Some of the stations are interesting in themselves - Rathaus Spandau, at the end of one of the lines, is amazing Nazi-style art-deco inside. The S-bahn runs till about 2 in the morning, then again from 4 (if youy want to check for the last one, look at the beginning of the timetable, not the end!). TheU- bahn and buses however stop around midnight. Trams take over from buses in most of former east Berlin, and there are also night buses and trams. Universal ticket machines (the ticketsa are valid for the whole system) are located on buses and trams, and on U- and S-bahn station platforms (occasionally in entrance hall instead). In all cases, when you have bought your ticket, you must frank it as soon as you first use it in the machine with a slot that stands right next to the ticket machine. Machines are clearly laid out with explanations in English. Either buy a day-ticket (tageskarte, about 9 marks) or a single-journey ticket (normaltariff), about 4 marks. The day ticket is valid until 3 in the morning of the day after you use it, the single-journey ticket for any travel for two hours from first use. There is also a 7-day ticket (Siebentageskarte, 42 marks for zones A and B [see below], a useful buy if you want to avoid stopping to pay each day: frank it on first use to establish its validity), and there is also a 3-day visitors' ticket which includes half-price entry to a lot of the museums (Welcome Card), which although worth considering is only available from limited outlets, and your student card gets the same half-price discount anyway.
Rather like London, there are 3 concentric travel zones, and ticket prices vary slightly according to whether you want A (central) + B, B+C, or A+B+C. For most if not all purposes, A+B should suffice (you can pay an extra charge if a journey takes you outside your ticket's zones). Zones are displayed on U- and S-bahn and tram maps. Free tramline-maps can be found inside trams.
If you are boarding a bus or tram after 8pm you are expected to enter by the driver, and to show you've got a ticket. You are allowed to pass your ticket on to someone else if you're not using it.
A very good way of orienting yourself around the centre of Berlin is to take the 100 or 200 bus from Zoo station (where they terminate) to Alexanderplatz, then return by S-bahn (from where you get terrific views down on the city).
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Points of urban orientation
Zoo station and around: this became a commercialised central point to West Berlin during its years of isolation. Now, that role having lost its importance, it's rather taken over by the same tourists and fast-food joints you can find anywhere else in the world. The atmosphere, at night especially, can feel somewhat aggressive. However it is worth exploring for the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis Kirche, left bomb-damaged as a memorial to WWll events, and perhaps for some of the shops and ethnic snack-bars. Zoo station remains one of the better places to stock up on food etc. out of hours. The largest department store in Berlin, KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), is in Tauendzienstrasse, by Wittenbergplatz U-bahn.
Kurfürstendamm (known as Ku'damm), just a few minutes' walk from Zoo station, is the smartest shopping street in Berlin. That may or may not make it exciting: but it's worth exploring, as much as anything for some of the streets leading off. Any contemporary art galleries not around Scheunenviertel are likely to be found near here (or in Charlottenburg). Fasanenstrasse has the excellent Käthe Kollwitz museum - highly recommended - and an amazing (though not cheap) secondhand treasure-house-cum-flea-market in a set of railway arches at no. 14, more or less opposite the Jüdisches Gemeindehaus, which includes parts of the synagogue burned during Kristallnacht in 1938. Tiergarten is the huge former hunting-park that straddles the geographical centre of the city: well worth cutting through by foot (in daylight). The 100 bus runs through, but doesn't reveal its more human scale once away from the main roads.
Alexanderplatz was to East Berlin sort of what Zoo was to West Berlin, an artificially-engendered focal point. Other things apart, it's interesting as a busy but soul-less study of the 50's and 60's Soviet-style approach to combining 'democratised' city planning with monuments to the spirit of the age - thus the extraordinary television tower (Fernsehturm), which you can ascend in a lift for the highest views over Berlin from the viewing platform at the top (the second-highest views are from the dome over the Reichstag). Other 'communistry' in the area includes a statue to Marx and Engels, modestly scaled by soviet standards, in the park to the south-west of the TV tower (actually where medieval Berlin stood until flattened by WWll bombing), and an amazing Sputnik-style clock in Alexanderplatz itself. (There's a seriously big hunk of classic heroic Socialist Realist public sculpture on Greifswalder Str. - take any of the trams 2, 3 or 4 heading to wards Weissensee from Alexanderplatz: it's on the left a kilometre and a half out, at Ernst-Thälmann-Park: get off at the Danziger Strasse stop.)
Potsdamer Platz: This is becoming again what it was before WWll, a major hub of the city. Lots of new (commercial) architecture with shopping mall, hard against where the wall used to run (you can still see acres of levelled-flat 'deathstrip'). Nearby (to the east) is the Topography of Terror, a free exhibition/excavation of buildings that belonged to the headquarters of the SS (the cellars being former sculpture studios from a previous state school of art): hard against this, in Niederkirchnerstr., is one of the longer surviving stretches of the Wall. To the other side of Potsdamer Platz (in what was the West Berlin sideof the wall) are some notable buildings from the 60's: the Staatsbibliothek, Philharmonia, and Neue Nationalgalerie (latter a classic by Mies van der Rohe, with interesting sculpture courtyard and collection of 20th C. paintings). There are often interesting exhibitions in the Kulturforum behind here (plus Gemäldegalerie - see 'galleries, museums etc.', below).
Reichstag and Brandenburger Tor:If you do nothing else in Berlin, go up into Norman Foster's new dome over the Reichstag (Parliament Building). It's an amazing structure, both physically and socio-politically, and the views over the city are great. It's free, but if you arrive at weekends after about 9 a.m. (it's open from 8) you'll probably find long queues to get in. Entry is via a lift just inside the rear main entrance. It's easiest to walk from Unter den Linden S-bahn, heading west towards the Brandenburg Gate.
Unter den Linden and Museum Insel: At the other end of Unter den Linden is an aggregation of museums at the northern tip of an island formed by the river Spree. Not all are open at the moment (major restoration and bringing-back-together of collections as a result of the reunification of Germany), but whichever are will be worth visiting: the Pergamon Museum, for example, is one of the world's great archaeological museums. There is an entry charge, but (especially with student card) it's worth it. Just along Unter den Linden, in the middle of the open square (Bebelplatz) between the Humboldt University buildings, is the sculpturally very interesting 'Empty Library' monument to the Nazi's burning of books by 'un-German' authors. It's especially worth seeing after dark. Humboldt University's Mensa (student cafeteria) is good for cheap meals.
The Wall (die Mauer): From the end of WWll in 1945 until 1961, Berlin was nominally separated into zones that the four occupying forces - American, British, French and Russian - administered. Movement was free within the city. Then in 1961, as the Cold War was at its most confrontational, the Wall was built by the East German authorities to effectively split the city in two and encircle West Berlin, completely isolating it (as it lay deep inside the East German state), but equally making it impossible for citizens of East Berlin to escape to the West. The Wall zigzagged across the city centre in a roughly N-S direction. Wherever possible, an extensive 'death strip' of open ground (buildings were razed for the purpose) lay on the Eastern side of the wall, floodlit at night and with watch-towers occupied by guards ordered to shoot on sight anyone attempting to cross. The western side, meanwhile, became covered with graffiti. Not much remains: the longest standing stretches are at Niederkirchstr. near Potsdamer Platz, and the mile-long section known as East Side Gallery along Mühlenstr. (Ostbahnhof S-bahn or Schlesisches Tor U-bahn): also a small section near the Reichstag, and another in Wedding. If you're interested in all of this (or even if you aren't, though you cannot understand the way Berlin is if you aren't), an essential visit is to the indisciminately overstuffed but at the same time fascinating museum 'Haus am Checkpoint Charlie', which overlooks the border-crossing where during the Cold War the U.S. and Russia exchanged their imprisoned spies.
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Other areas to explore (cafe culture etc.)
First thing to say - Berlin changes all the time, and it is well worth exploring wherever you may have heard it's worthwhile...
Kreuzberg is well-established (but still lively) home to street cafes/bars and cheapish restaurants. But it's a big area, and the action tends to be concentrated around two or three axes: Oranienstrasse (the stretch between Moritzplatz and Görlitzer U-bahns), and around Kotbusser Tor (e.g. canal-side cafes on Paul-Linke-Ufer, and the great Friday and Tuesday street market ['Turkish Market'] from midday on Maybach Ufer). South Kreuzberg around Bergmannstrasse is also quite lively, though not in the same league for general 'happening' energy.
Prenzlauer Berg has the reputation of having picked up where Kreuzberg left off: in fact most of it (streets around Knackstrasse: Senefelderplatz U-bahn) seems headed a bit more up-market. The most relaxed bit is on the other side of Schönhauser Allee, around Oderbergerstrasse/Kastanien Allee. If you want to sample a huge traditional beer-hall (with hearty food aswell as drink, and a summer beer-garden), try Prater on Kastanien Allee, a few minutes along from Eberswalder Str. U-bahn.
The real truth about where's newest may be a section of Friedrichshain - Simon-Dach-Strasse and Gabriel-Max-Strasse (Warschauer Strasse S-bahn, or various trams). You may find this the single most congenial/reasonably affordable batch of cafe/bars to meet at for a drink and/or some food.
Last but certainly not least, the area known as Scheunenviertel is more central, and was until Nazi times the centre of Jewish Berlin. Oranienbergstrasse, Sophienstrasse (explore all the extensive networks of courtyards!) Auguststrasse, and Grosse Hamburger Strasse are home to the majority of contemporary galleries (especially Auguststr.), bars, the Neue Synagogue, Christian Boltanski's Missing House, the bronze table-and-chairs monument (both Grosse Hamburger Str.), and much more. Hackescher Markt S-bahn is a good jumping-off point (this is also where most trams terminate in the city centre). If you're interested in an intensely moving 'small moment' in the personal histories of Jews and gentiles in Nazi Berlin, or simply in places that resonate with past lives, ask us about the Blindes Vertrauen at Rosenthalerstr. 39: it's extraordinary, and not yet mentioned in the guidebooks (3DM for entry: Sat-Sun 1-7 only)
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Galleries, museums, shops, markets, cafés, etc.
Note that most galleries are closed Mondays.
The major contemporary art museum is at the Hamburger Bahnhof (Invalidenstr. 50-51: Tues-Fri 9-5, Sat/Sun 10-5), an ex-railway-station with a major collection of work by Beuys and plenty of work by significant others of the late 20th century: Kiefer, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Judd, Warhol, etc: also excellent bookshop and decent cafe. The major museum for art of the early-to-mid 20th C is the Neues Nationalgalerie (same hours: see under Potsdamer Platz above). A real treasure is the Gemäldegalerie, situated in the Kulturforum immediately north of the Neues Nationalgalerie: terrific and extensive collection of historical European painting (+ a little sculpture) from the middle ages to the 19th C: Cranach to Goya by way of Breughel, Dürer, Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer... What's really special, however, is how few visitors it gets - I can't think of anywhere else you can so easily be in a room of van Eycks or Rembrandts with hardly another visitor to disturb your thought. Same hours as other collections above. Meanwhile Berlin is a good city for searching out publicly-sited work by sculptors including Serra, Moore, Calder, Chillida, Borofsky, Rickey, Haring (yes, sculpture), Koons, Shapiro, Di Suvero, Rückriem, and others: ask for details. A fantastic small museum (with sculpture garden) is dedicated to Käthe Kollwitz - drawings, sculptures, prints (see under Ku'damm above).
Most contemporary galleries are on or around Auguststrasse: incl. Schipper und Krone, Eigen+Art and Kunst-Werke. Best get one of the listings then wander Auguststr., Gipsstr., Oranienburgstr., Rosenthalerstr., etc., including their many courtyards and passages (you'll miss a lot if you don't). Many of the more commercial galleries are to be found around Charlottenburg (also the main branch of the excellent art bookshop Bücherbogen in railway arches just by Savignyplatz U-bahn). You should also check what's on at the DAAD Galerie in Kurfürstenstrasse (not Ku'damm!) - attached to a really good/important international artist residency programme and showing work by current recipient(s).
You may well find more 'alternative' spaces in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain or Treptow.
Museums of a more general sort include one dedicated to sugar, another to the Gestapo and its methods, a musical-instrument one, a medical one... and Haus am Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse, which among much more is wonderful in its testaments to human ingenuity in the face of cold-war confrontation.
The biggest bookshop in Berlin is also on Friedrichstrasse - Dussmann, open daily till 10pm, also good for CD's, internet and café. Gelbe Musik at Schaperstr. 11 in Wilmersdorf is unique to Berlin - a small record shop specialising in sound art (Ursula Block who runs it is a serious expert), electronica, avant-garde music, etc.
Markets: the two best are probably the wonderful Turkish market on Maybach Ufer (mainly food: see Kreuzberg, above: walk along the canal to get there)and the one on Am Kupfergraben opposite Museum Insel (all kinds of interesting bric-à-brac: I think Sundays only). There's also a pleasant street-market on Saturdays and Wednesdays 8-2 at Winterfeldplatz: food mainly, as well as plenty of other street-markets, some rather touristy (e.g. one right by Tiergarten S-bahn on Sundays).
Bergmannstrasse has an interesting covered market and is also good for secondhand shops - clothes, books (incl. art books!), junk...
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Cafés and bars
As well as the cluster on Simon-Dach-Strasse and Gabriel-Max-Strasse in Friedrichshain (above), good concentrations can also be found around Oranienburger Strasse and Auguststrasse and other streets in Scheunenviertel, along Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, and along Paul-Linke-Ufer in Kreuzberg (opposite the Turkish market). But all over Berlin... Some Berlin cafés (like 100Wasser on Simon-Dach-Strasse, from 10 a.m.) are well-known for their all-you-can-eat buffet Sunday breakfasts.
Cafe Zapata (Oranienburger Str) - Multi-story squat style bar with cheap drinks and great ambience
Ackerkeller (Bergstrasse 68) - Great little bar with friendly bar staff and good music
Cafe Linie 1 (Wilhelmstr) - Pool bar with cool decor, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a hard rockers pub but when we went there they were playing dubious middle of the road music. The bar staff also seemed to have a penchant for lime throwing contests.
40 Seconds (Potsdamer Str) - Top floor exclusive bar with overhead views of Potsdamer Platz, the €10 entry, grossly inflated drink prices (think exclusive London) and pretentious crowd make this an acquired taste and not for those on a budget!
El Sur (Pohlstr) - Relaxed Latin Bar decorated by many tambourines on the wall
Brauhaus Lemke (Dirksenstr) - Micro brewery under the railway arches serving up large tasty dishes of food.
Oranium (Oraniernburgerstr) - Large cafe style cocktail bar/restaurant with adjoining sports room. Service is a bit testy.
Restaurant Baccanali (Auguststrasse 36) - Decent Italian restaurant with friendly service portions are a bit on the small side erring towards 'gourmet' style. The seafood pizza is recommended washed down with a bottle of the house red.
Storch (Wartburgstr) - Delightful French/Alsation restaurant serving up traditionally rustic dishes such as Rabbit, Veal and Goose. The owner is most accomodating and friendly in a kind of 'Herr Lipp' way! Advisable to book in advance.
Kadima (Oranienburger Str. 28) - Fantastic Jewish/Russian/Israeli Restaurant serving up perfect dishes, great service in clean surroundings. Recommended are the mixed Kadima and Russian starters.
Websites you may want to check before going:
Last but not least: two side-trips worth taking, both at the ends of S-bahn lines, are firstly to Potsdam, a small and very interesting town immediately beyond Berlin's city borders, where among some great 17th-18thC street architecture (including much baroque), there is an extensive set of palaces (this was the capital of Prussia before Berlin) and beautiful parkland (Park Sanssouci), Erich Mendelsohn's astonishing expressionist observatory built for Einstein, and Alexandrowka, an intriguing old Russian colony with carved wooden houses, orchards, and a beautiful little church on a hill: and secondly and very differently to the WWll concentration camp Sachsenhausen, where over 100,000 Jews, intellectuals, communists, gypsies, and homosexuals were killed between 1936 and 1945. Entry is free Tues-Suns 8.30-4.30 (later in summer). There's a museum with thorough explanation of events there in English. For Sachsenhausen, take S-Bahn no. 1 to Oranienburg, then follow the signs - a 20-minute walk. For Potsdam, take S-bahn nos. 3 or 7 to Hauptbahnhof Potsdam, then walk (10 mins) or take a tram into town - your zone-C ticket is still valid: however note that the town-houses apart, the attractions mentioned above are all on or beyond the edges of the old town: walkable, but not for the lazy..
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Info supplied by Nat Goodden/Andy Webb