Conquering Berlin: Travel Planning Guide

Overview

Many cities with a turbulent past, hide much of it in a museum and generally try to distance themselves from it.  Berlin has embraced its recent history and integrated it into the fabric of the city.  Being able to see history where it actually stood brings levity and reality to those who visit.

Berlin however is not simply a remnant of the past.  It is a progressive city looking towards the future.  It is a trendy spot and a place to enjoy life.  Perhaps the reminders of the past have taught us that we must embrace life because you never know when life can turn.  Berlin is a dynamic city that both recognizes a somber past, while looking towards a bright future.

Get to Know Berlin

Berlin is the capital of Germany and one of the largest cities in Europe.  It lies in the north eastern portion of Germany with the river Spree cutting right through its center.  It has long been the center of power in the region, being the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic, Third Reich, East German Capital when divided during the Cold War, and then once again the capital of a united Germany.

Today it is a powerhouse of politics, culture, art, science, sports, and media.  Its residents enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world at a relatively inexpensive cost considering its standing in the world.  Toursits flock to the city for its recent history an museums, but Berlin is one of the most livable cities in the world.  There are touristy centers for sure, but it is a city for locals first.         

When To Go

Berlin is fairly mild most of the year but there are defiantly a summer and winter.  Summer sees great averages (mid 70’s) but heat waves can bring temperatures into the triple digits F on occasion.  Winter can bring snow and cold temperatures.    

Summer is the busiest travel season with warm temperatures and the long days.  Spring and Fall are the best time to visit for the best combination of temperature and crowds.  Although cold, Christmas is a special time of year in Germany with Christmas markets all over.    

How Long To Stay

Berlin is a large but accessible metropolis.  3-4 days to see the absolute must sees and 4-5 days will give an overall impression.  To fully appreciate Berlin however you would have to live here.  Its strength lies in all the nooks and crannies that can’t be experienced in a short stay. 

Language Barrier

As expected, German is the language of Germany.  English is probably the second most spoken language, but don’t expect everyone to speak it.  Knowing a little German will go a long way.  Signs is most metro lines and tourist areas will have an English translation. 

Getting To Berlin

Getting around Europe is relatively easy and Berlin is no different although it is a little out of the way from other major cities in Europe.  High speed trains and planes have cut down the travel time however.  As a major center of European power, Berlin has many routes in and out.        

By Plane

  • Tegel International Airport (TXL) The airport sits not west of the city.  You can take a bus all the way into the city in about 45 minutes.  You may also take the bus to central Zoologischer Garten Station and transfer to the train the rest of the way.  You can also take a Taxi which takes about 25 minutes.  A new airport Brandenburg is under construction and due to open in 2020.  After it opens Tegal will shutdown.
  • Schönefeld (SXF) Located southeast of the city, it primarily serves budget airlines.  A short walk away is a local train station that connects to Berlin.  For faster service use the regional trains with an R in front of them instead of the S-Bahn which have an S front of the line.  You’ll easy save 30 minutes travel time as the S-Bahn makes several stops along the way.  Bus and taxi options are also available, but the train is your best option for most travelers.         

By Train    

The gleaming new Central state called Berlin Hauptbahnhof is the primary place to visit neighboring cities around Germany and Europe.  High speed trains often make it easier an quicker to travel by train instead of plane.  From Berlin you can get to Munich in 4 hours, Frankfurt 4 hours, London 4 hours, Prague 4.5 hours, and Amsterdam in 6 hours.

Getting Around Berlin

Berlin is fairly spread out by European standards.  You will have to use transportation to get around the city unlike some other European cities that are more compact.  Luckily Berlin has a very good network that makes it fairly easy to get around.  All forms of transport use a common ticketing system good at all forms of transit.  It is a zone system however unless you are going to the airport or Potsdam you will likely be staying in zone A.  You can get a single use ticket or day ticket which pays for itself in about 4 trips. 

Note that there are no ticket barriers when using the metro, but plain clothes officers will appear out of nowhere and expect patrons to produce a valid ticket.  Those not in possession of a valid ticket will be fined.  You must validate your ticket before boarding.  Machines are on the platform.    

Metro – There is an underground (U-Bahn) and above ground (S-Bahn) trains that make navigating the city easier.  The U-Bahn runs under the interior of the city while the S-Bahn circles around the edges and out into the suburbs.  The metro is overall the best way to get around.    

Bus – Travel by bus is more time consuming than the Metro because of traffic, but offers a ay to see the city.  If you have the time the bus can offer a great way to see the city while not stopping off at every point along the way.

What To See

As you would expect, there is a lot to see and do in Shanghai.  You will never have time to see everything.  Below are some of the top sights and must sees around the city.   

  • The Brandenburg Gate – The symbol of Berlin was once recognized by division as the Berlin Wall ran by it.  It was the location where Ronald Reagan famously said tear down this wall.  Today it is the place to go to and take a photo to prove you were in Berlin.
  • ReichstagNear the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag has a short but storied history.  It was built as the home of German Empire’s Imperial Die.  A mysterious fire led to Hitler’s consolidation of power in 1933.  After reunification the building was restored and became home of the German parliament.   
  • Berlin Wall Parts of the wall can still be seen where they stood during the cold war.  The East Side Gallery is the most colorful and has become a symbol of a new peaceful Germany. 
  • Gendarmenmarkt – Berlin has no central square but Gendarmenmarkt is one of the busiest.  Home to multiple cathedrals and numerous public events, you will likely see this during your visit whether it was on your list or not. 
  • Berlin DOM and other churches – The largest most imposing church in Berlin is The Berlin DOM.  The nearby French Cathedral complements its neighbor well.  Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche was almost entirely destroyed by World War II bombs.  The remaining spire is a memorial.
  • Topography of Terror – The former home of the Gestapo or Secret Police during the Nazi era, it is now a museum that focuses on the murderous ways of the feared police force.  You can also see remnants of the Berlin Wall on site. 
  • Hitler Bunker and nearby Memorial to the Murdered Jews – The bunker where Hitler died is now a parking lot.  A lone sign signals it’s location.  There is nothing to see but never the less you’ll probably go anyway.  The Jewish holocaust memorial is nearby and serves as a somber reminder of what happened not so long ago. 

What To Do

  • Museum hop – There are so many museums in Berlin.  Museum Island packs several in one spot.  The DDR Museum documents the former East Germany or German Democratic Republic.  The Deutsches Technikmuseum or German Technology Museum is an underrated gem.
  • Hang out in the parks – There is so much green space in and around Berlin.  The Tiergarten is right in thy heart of the city.  Treptower park is East Germany’s war memorial dedicated to the Soviet Soldiers who died in the battle of Berlin.  The Botanischer Garten or botanical gardens is also another worthwhile green space. 
  • Platz hopping – Berlin has so many plazas that come alive during the day and into the evening.  They are a great place to people watch and take in the local scene.  Alexander Platz, Potsdamer Platz, Gendarmenmarkt, and Pariser Platz are among the best.
  • Experience the Nightlife – Berlin’s nightlife is legendary.  It can be difficult to get in so be flexible.  Many go literally all night and often have niches you have to see to believe. 
  • Go to a festival or local event – There is almost always some sort of event or festival going on.  Some of the biggest include the Karneval der Kulturen, Museumsinsel Festival, Beer Festival, International Film Festival, and various food festivals.  Berliners also have a tendency to protest a lot so don’t be surprised to bump into one. 
  • Day trip to Potsdam – The charming city of Potsdam is the one must do day trip while in Berlin.  The palace is absolutely stunning and gives any palace in Europe a run for its money. 

Money

Germany uses the Euro like much of Europe.  This makes things easy to travel from country to country and use the same currency.  The ATM offers the best exchange rate.  Beware of currency exchanges and definitely avoid airport currency exchanges unless losing money is no big deal. 

Budget Tips

Berlin is a moderately priced city compared to other European capitals.  Simply by choosing it over London or Amsterdam you will be saving money.  There are still tips to keep costs down.

Accommodations

  • Stay outside the high season.  Avoid the summer and holidays as prices jump. 
  • Use hotel reward points. 
  • Hostels are very budget friendly and there are many options.
  • AirBnB can she you a lot of money and you get more of a local flavor. 

Attractions And Food

  • The museum pass is worth it if you plan on visiting several of them.  Museum Island has several world class museums steps from each other making the pass well worth it.
  • Take a free walking tour.  There are plenty to choose from and are very informative.
  • Eat at a local restaurant and avoid western chains.  You’ll get a better meal at a cheaper price. 
  • Buy food at a supermarket.
  • Many of the top historical sights are free.  The Berlin Wall Checkpoint Charlie, and Brandenburg Gate are only a few examples. 
  • Get out in the green.  Parks and green spaces are all over the city.  As long as it isn’t winter, you have a pretty good shot at a nice day.   

Transportation

  • The metro is extremely cheap and efficient. 
  • Enjoy the city on foot.  The city is spread out but there are so many pockets of greatness hiding around the corner.  You won’t see them unless you explore. 

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things to know

  • If you plan on taking in Berlin’s legendary nightlife know that it doesn’t get going until very late.  10PM is still la little early.  Prepare to be up all night.  Also beware that many clubs cater to specific groups of people.  Prepare to be surprised at what goes on in some of these places. 
  • Many stores are closed on Sunday’s.  Keep this in mind.
  • There is no real center of Berlin due to the divided city after World War II.  Instead know you will have to jump from place to place to get a sense of the city as a whole.

Things to avoid

  • Don’t so too much.  Know you won’t see it all and give yourself a reason to come back.  Don’t rush your trip.
  • Only go to the touristy spots. Berlin is a vibrant city that is much more than seeing its somber reminders of the past. 
  • Expect everyone to speak English.  Learn a few German words and if someone speaks English, great. 

Time Saving Tips

  • Buy tickets to attractions online in advance.  Don’t spend valuable time waiting in line.
  • Make a rough itinerary.  A little planning will allow you to be more efficient with your time.
  • Book accommodations in advance. 


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