Somewhere is the east and somewhere is the west. If you just go for the directions it is no problem to navigate in Berlin. It is much more difficult – or even: impossible – to find the border from the time of political separation. The wall that separated the East and West meandered through the city, it was not just a demarcation line, and the more the city develops the less of those traces you will find.
However, they have kept some pieces of the Wall as a part of living history. Some are protected by a fence, like at the Topography of Terror (Topographie des Terrors), between Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie, so tourists and locals cannot carry the blocks and concrete pieces away as souvenirs, or sell them like they once sold “Berliner Luft in Dosen”, tinned Berlin Air.
This stretch is a great reminder of the past, and if you are fit you can even make a longer walk, from Checkpoint Charlie past Gropius-Bau, Potsdamer Platz, Holocaust Memorial, and Brandenburger Tor, to Bahnhof Friedrichstraße. At times, you find the position of the Wall marked by cobble stones embedded in the pavement. Incredible how it separated the city and people, and how close it was to huge buildings. At Gropius-Bau you could not use the main entrance, and it went right past Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag. Former neighbours on the opposite street sides were suddenly separated by a wall, barbed wire and land mines – in fact, by worlds.
Whereas this area is very lively and buzzling with tourists, the atmosphere along the Wall near Ostbahnhof is still rather sombre because building in those empty wastelands has just started. The Wall, however, is spectacular there. Well-known artists have used the concrete slabs as canvasses for fabulous paintings, some are fading, some have been repainted and restored. It is a kilometre-long stretch of wall, called Eastside Gallery, following the line of the river Spree from the former checkpoint Oberbaumbrücke to Ostbahnhof.
Next to Checkpoint Charlie you can visit the Mauermuseum.
Fondest memory: -
From another tip (Mauermarkierung and more Traces of the Wall):
(formerly I did not have enough space here... now it is possible thanks to a VT update)
The Wall markings (Mauermarkierung) in Zimmerstraße near Checkpoint Charlie are close to being fun. You put one foot on the east side of the marking and one foot to the west, and somehow you cannot imagine what happened there.
If you want to get depressed go to Bernauer Straße (U-Bahn station of U 8; Bernauer Straße 111, 13355 Berlin-Mitte) which separtes the suburbs of Mitte (east) and Wedding (west).
Since 1998 there is a memorial site at the corner with Ackerstraße, and a Dokumentationszentrum Berliner Mauer.
Another incredibly distasteful site of the Wall is Invalidenfriedhof, north of Hauptbahnhof.
Near Brandenburger Tor you will find an installation of trees, memorial stones and border segments as the reminder of the Wall and the people who died here.
Read more info about this list of traces of the Wall here in another tip.
Photo of Mauermarkierung near Checkpoint Charlie in the original tip.
This fantastic book by Rainer Hildebrandt is a real bestseller (sold in more than 1,200,000 copies) and a must-read for everyone interested to find out what life in Berlin looked like between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989.
The book is in fact a catalogue of the "Checkpoint Charlie" museum and features the introduction to the Wall and the background info about its phenomenon. A large part of the book is dedicated to the creativity of East Berliners trying to escape to the West - a black and white photography documenting something that we all took almost as normal until 1989.
Great b/w photographs and descriptions in German, English and French make this 224-page book easy to read but hard to understand.
The book is sold in many bookshops in Berlin, as well as in Tourist Offices. A very good bookshop is "Berlin Story" bookshop at Unter den Linden 40 offering many books in non-German languages.
Berlin asks for some preparation! It is a city without a central square, without charming boulevards and without many equestrian monuments. It is not an ancient city and its development shows all traces of its history that often took dramatic and even tragic courses. Berlin sights cannot only be looked at, you have to at least try to understand the stories that happenned behind their walls.
I am a big fan of Rough Guide guidebooks and Berlin RG is a great source of background information about the city including the stories, people and off the beaten track places. (I doubt there are many guidebooks that list Marzahn on their pages ;) Written by John Gawthorp and Jack Holland they provide the usual useful information with just a right amount of other stories that make it easier to digest the Berlin puzzle.
Of course, once inside the bookshop I bought some other books as well:
Berlin architecture and design is a small picture-book showing the main highlights of Berlin architecture and some of the best interiors worth visiting.
Berlin highlights by Clemens Beeck (with photos by Günter Schneider) is a quick overview of main sights of Berlin, more worth for the pictures than for the text giving only brief info.
Berlin New Architecture by Michael Imhof and Leon Krempel is a guidebook to new Berlin architecture from 1989 to today. From Reichstag to Potsdamer Platz and from Galleries Lafayette to the Nordic Embassies it lists all most important new buildings with basic info and a short description. Even if you're not an architect I guess this is interesting since Berlin in the 1990s was Europe's largest construction site.
You will find few cities in Europe with such a lot of lakes, rivers and canals. That is why Berlin is called Spree-Athen (Athens on Spree). You can walk along nearly 500 kilometres along the riverbanks or lakesides. As this is far too exhausting, why not enjoy some spectacular views from the water? Boat tours are a great option to explore parts of the city. My favourite one is on the Spree, along Museumsinsel.
Those tours start at Friedrichsbrücke, between S-Bahn station Hackescher Markt and Berliner Dom.
Most operators offer tours from March - but sometimes not with daily schedules. But from April they operate daily. In general this goes on until the end of October, sometimes to the first days of November.
Every now and then VT members ask for guided walking tours.
Here are some links:
New Berlin Tours are FREE and take place daily in any kind of weather. They take about 3.5 hours. Tours in German, English and Spanish. They also offer free cycling tours.
Brewer's also offers a FREE tour. Daily departures at 1pm in front of the Bandy Brooks shop opposite Friedrichstraße station. The Best of Berlin day tour costs 12 Euro and departs at 10.30am at the same place. Other themed tours available. (No tours on some few dates like Christmas Day, New Year and Love Parade.)
Berlin Walks also has a big choice of themed tours. Their main tour costs 12 Euro (9 Euro for Welcome Card holders). From Meeting Point West it takes 4 hours, from Meeting Point East it is all walking.
Tour Times from Meeting Point West (taxi stand outside station Zoologischer Garten)
April - October: daily 10am and 2.30pm
November - March: daily 10am
From Meeting Point East (in front of Häagen Dazs, opposite S-Bahn station Hackescher Markt)
April - October: daily 10.30am and 3pm
November - March: daily 10.30am
Insidertour even offers an infamous Pub Crawl (12 Euro). The main tour starts at east and west meeting points and takes 4 hours, as above. Cost, likewise, 12 Euro (10 for Welcome Card Holders).
From Meeting Point West (McDonald's opposite the main entrance to the station Zoologischer Garten) at 10am and 2.30pm (April - Oct), and 10am (Nov - Mar).
From Meeting Point East (Coffeemamas at S-Bahn station Hackescher Markt) at 10.30am and 3pm (April - Oct) and 10.30am (Nov - Mar).
Their bicycle tours cost 20 Euro.
All other themed tours like Potsdam, Third Reich, etc. on the respective websites.
Cultourberlin is specialised in Spanish language tours. They offer five tours options: Todo Berlin (4 hours), Sachsenhausen concentration camp (6 hours), Potsdam (6 hours), suburbs (Berlin de barrio; 3 hours), Jewish quarter (Barrio Judio; 2.5 hours), Cold War, Stasi and Wall (3 hours) and a Berlin cycling tour (Berlin sobre ruedas; 3.5 hours). They depart daily in any kind of weather. You find them - wearing green - in front of the entrance of the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz.
Mobile phone: +49 (0)177 65 22 171
Frederik William III. has his merits: The Prussian king founded the University of Berlin and pushed some reforms promoting freedom and equality. But in 1799 he had a weak moment when he invented the Prussian house-numbering system which still exists in Berlin. His idea was that, relative to the position of the City Palace*, the numbers count up on the right side of the street: 1,2,3,4,5 ... Quite simple, but at someplace the street ends and the numbers now continue to count up all the way back on the left.
According to Murphy's law, this u-numbering system will confuse you the most, the more important punctuality gets.
Say, you have a job interview at 10 a.m. in 171 XY-Strasse and the first number you see when you arrive at said street is number 53. You hasten up the street until it ends at a crossroads - and with number 85. The number of the house on the other side of the street reads 86. Familiar with the zigzag-system (even numbers on the left, uneven numbers on the right) you think that's o.k. So you cross the crossroads to find AB-Strasse. Now that's odd, where is 171 XY-Strasse? Answer: At the opposite end of XY-Strasse, opposing house No. 1 - you walked down the street on the wrong side and in the wrong direction. Be glad when you only arrive 10 minutes late for your interview.
Actually, this system fits the proverbial Prussian sense of orderliness well. It works like double-entry bookkeeping: When one account is being debited, another account is being credited, with the debits of each transaction equal to the credits it creates.
In our example, we have number 1 on the right hand side at one end of the street and number 171 on the other side of the street. That sums up to 172. Had we crossed the street when we first saw number 53, we would have found number 119. 53 + 119 = 172. You get the idea. And yes, I know, 85 + 86 is not quite exactly 172, but I did say the house-numbering system can be a bit confusing, didn't I?
Fondest memory: Now to make matters worse, Berlin has grown, well: somewhat, since 1799, and as you can imagine, extending a street can get difficult when using the u-numbering system. Hence, it can happen that you go down XY-Strasse and, without further notice, you are all of a sudden in GH-Strasse. Those responsible then thought, inventing a new street name was easier than to force 2,045 residents and shop owners to change their business cards and newspaper subscriptions.
You may feel lucky to have the zigzag-system in your hometown. But as I wrote someplace else, Berlin has something for everyone. We even have the zigzag-numbering system, you are so familiar with. Sometimes and someplace. Most often, however, when you thought you just got used to the u-system.
What, two different systems don't make it easier? Now you are difficult to please.
At least, you now know what to do when your taxi driver stops at number 15, not 150 as you requested. No need to issue a fatwa against Berlin's notoriously rude taxi drivers. Just remember Frederik William III. - and cross the street. And a last tip: Google Earth can cope with both systems fairly well.
* Yes, that's the thing that was partially destroyed by WWII, completely destroyed by the socialists, replaced by the Palace of the Republic (or Erich's Lamp Shop, with "Erich" standing for Erich Honecker, head of GDR's government for a couple of decades), and which is going to be rebuild. It's probably going to be No. 1 Soandso-Street, but who knows.
Historians have tried in vain to find out why the bear is the symbol of Berlin. But it is a fact that the bear has continuously been Berlin’s coat of arms since 1280. As they missed to take notes about it at the time it could never been clarified why the bear has become the symbol of the city, and even more: Why Berlin was named after the/a bear. Berlin means nothing else than “little bear”. Ber = Bär which can also be spelled Baer if you have no Umlaut key ;-) And the ending –lin is the diminutive in Middle High German. Now it would be spelled –lein, and Berlin would be spelled “Bärlein” nowadays.
If you have ever learnt German you might have heard about this ending –lein in the song “Sah ein Knab ein Röslein steh’n”, Röslein meaning: little rose. (I mention this song because every educated Korean I met in South Korea could sing this song!) The ending –lein is identical with the diminutive –chen in “Mädchen”.
It could never be verified that the name Berlin derives from Albrecht der Bär, the founder of Brandenburg, because this guy was only named “the bear” after his death. Other historians say that the area where Berlin was founded once was a deer pass, with lots of wild animals including bears running around. At the time it was common to name places after animals. And others more suggest the “ber” has indogermanic or eurogermanic roots, meaning swampy ground – which could also be the case, as the ground-water levels in Berlin are rather high, and from Museumsinsel we know that it has long been wasteland for exactly this reason.
The first verified seal with a bear dates back to 22 March 1280. It was found in the letter-head of Berlin’s pelt-mongers guild. But until the 19th century the bear appeared in co-existence with Brandenburg’s eagle. Then the seal and coat of arms showed a tamed bear with a collar, and finally (from 1879) a wild bear with long fur and without collar. But it took until 1935 for the bear to become the city’s only symbol.
Fondest memory: -
Since then Berlin has always had famous live bears in parks and the zoo. The first one was a bear named Urs (this name even means bear) who was lucky enough to have three wives. Unfortunately Urs and two of his wives died during World War II.
Every year on 22 March Berlin celebrates the Day of the Bear, remembering the first seal from 1280.
The bear is everywhere and – as the holder of Kimi the bear – I love it. Be it the armadas of cuddly toy bears, the huge and the small Buddy Bears they have since the early 2000’s. Germany’s most famous condensed milk brand is called Bärenmarke and has a nice bear drawing on the label, and in the city of Ulm where I lived more than 20 years we had a bear-pit I used to visit frequently.
You can learn more about the bear on this website of Berliner Bärenfreunde. Most pages are also in English, just navigate to the English looking titles ;-)
The water quality of most lakes and the rivers Spree and Havel is of surprisingly good quality, so it is no problem to cool down there and go for a swim. If I think of our contaminated lakes and rivers in New Zealand, dubbed as a nature paradise… This water has even killed cattle when drinking from it. Well, at least this is a kind of suicide, as dairy cows pollute our waters…
But back to Berlin. Another trend is the growing number of river swimming pools (Uferbad), and clubs along the Spree with beach bars (Strandbar) and deckchairs. We saw quite a lot of these on both sides – up and downstream – of Oberbaumbrücke, including along the Eastside Gallery. A big Strandbar is the Strandbar Mitte opposite Museumsinsel.
The lakes - like Wannsee - are havens for other water sports. I especially love to hire a rowing or pedal boat, and enjoy this mixture of exercise and relaxation.
There is NO one centre/downtown in Berlin, no central square. Quite unique among large and old European cities. The city was divided between two worlds: "capitalistic" West Berlin and "communist" East Berlin but even before that there was no one center.
The center of former West Berlin was... hmm... I don't know, probably along the main, representative shopping boulevard Kürfurstendamm (Ku-damm).
The center of former East Berlin was at Alexander Platz.
The center of reunificated Berlin is at the place or rather two places where the Wall stood: around Potsdamer Platz and around Branderburg Gate.
Confused? Just check the map and learn/remember the names of a few of central districts ("bezirk") of Berlin:
Most of tourist attractions are located in the above 4 district (zone A + B for transportation tickets).
The 3-Day-Ticket Museum Pass Berlin is a good buy. For 19 € one has a FREE ADMISSION to 55 museums and exhibitions on three consecutive days.
The pass is available at all Berlin Tourist info's or at participating museums.
I got mine at the ticket office on the Museumsinsel (between Neues Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie; not the best place because there can be lines in season).
As for most museums, inclusive the five of the Museumsinsel and the Gemäldegalerie, the price is 8 - 10 €, one can visit in 3 days six of the best museums for only 19 € spending 2 - 3 hours per museum (if your legs and attention support it).
Don't forget that on Monday a number of these museums are closed.
With the pass one receives a brochure with content and practical info, in German and English, of al the museums.
Don't confuse the 3-Day-Ticket Museum Pass Berlin with the BERLIN WELCOME CARD which is a public transport ticket which enables free travel with public transport and over 200 various discounts also in museums. Price according to the number of days.
Everybody knows that Berlin is the place to be for nightlife, music, art and general good times but what help is that when you don't know your Kreuzberg from your Kartoffel. Locals recommened I should read Berlin listing magazines such as tip and zitty which I'm sure are great- but not if the only German phrase you know is 'Sprechen Sie Englisch?' So it was a stroke of luck when I spotted the monthly English-language magazine EXBERLINER in my local newsagent. EXBERLINER is a great magazine for any English-speaking visitor to Berlin. The articles are informative and the listings are varied and up to date, all that for only 2 euros-well you can't really go wrong! www.exberliner.com
Fondest memory: I'm still in Berlin so I'm not feeling sentimental yet, but i'm sure when i'm back in 'Old Blighty' I'll have my subscription of EXBERLINER sent over so i'm still in the know of whats happening in Europes best capital city.
Especially when you are American, you may witness what you might consider a lack of service you are used to in the U.S.A. when traveling to Europe.
Yes, most of what follows goes for Europe in general, not necessarily Berlin or Germany in particular.
Say, you are in a restaurant: A good waiter will not come every 5 minutes and ask if you have any complaints or if you wish to place another order. Maybe he or she will come once and ask if everything's ok, but even that happens seldomly. The reason behind this ostensibly rude or ignorant behavior is that it would be considered intrusive. A good waiter will return empty plates (not glasses!) from your table and other than that come when you make eye-contact.
Another thing may come as unpleasant surprise: You'll find every drink on your bill. When you order a coffee and want another one, the waiter will not refill your cup, but bring a new one and take the first back to the kitchen. In any way, you'll find two coffees on your bill. Drinks are what a restaurant makes money with; the meals they serve bring comparatively little revenue. The good thing is that meals, by comparision and a ridiculous Dollar-Euro exchange rate not withstanding, are a couple of bucks cheaper than they are in in the U.S., at least when you take into account that a 10% tip is not minimum but absolutely o.k.
In Germany, plastic money is not as widely accepted as you may think. Department stores, fuel stations and supermarkets, not to mention hotels generally do accept both - debit and credit cards. Smaller shops and very affordable restaurants, like those frequented by students, probably won't accept any card. Issuers of credit cards charge shops with approximately 5% of each sales volume, plus a flat transaction fee plus a monthly or annual rate for the card reader. Many shop owners refuse to distribute those exenses to each customer. (Continues below)
Fondest memory: Speaking of supermarkets: Shopping for groceries in a supermarket means self-service! Sure, you can ask for help if you don't find something you need, but don't expect employees to approach you and ask if they can be of any service. That would, again, be considered intrusive. I for one hate if, when others comment on what I put into my shopping cart (not that any item would be embarassing), and likewise I don't think it's anyone's business to know which toothpaste I use or which table water I think is safe to drink. Other people seem to feel the same, hence it's only logical that you won't see a smiling student eager to put your groceries in a bag or in your car.
Yes, some chains have tried it, but to no avail, and yes a typical "super"market is about one-fourth or fifth the size of an American. The range of products to choose from is, however, similar, since there are usually a number of different supermarkets to choose from. I live within walking distance (~10 minutes) of 5 supermarkets plus 2 additional supermarkets that exclusively sell organic food not to mention some greengrocers and a farmers market.
Back to bags: Plastic bags almost always come free when you shop in a small retailer, such as a perfumery or wine store but never in a supermarket - at least not in Germany. If it has to be a supermarket (you may notice I like smaller shops and farmers markets better), bring a daypack, trolley or spend a couple of Euro Cents on a bag. The idea behind it is that plastic bags are not environmentally friendly. Even in a smaller shop you may be asked you if you need a bag for your purchase.
Whenever I tried to put on my "Berliner" face I would laugh! What is a "Berliner" face? OK, its the serious but not unfriendly lack of expression most Berliners wear the majority of time when you see them out in public.
I felt like a primordial animal baring its teeth at passer-bys sometimes because where I'm from when you make eye contact with someone you smile and say hello. Not in Berlin! If someone takes an interest in you they look at you until their heart is content without a smile.
One day while riding the S-Bahn this guy, whom I named Herr Zug! looked at me for a full 3 minutes after having looked me up and down at his leisure when I first boarded. I looked back of course, he was really cute! but no smiling, though I felt like winking just to see what his reaction would be! ;-) Before he exited he gave me another 3 minutes of his time, and I wished him good day because I hoped he'd stored enough to have good dreams that night or something!! I wrote part of this memory in a short story in my travelogues.
This is during the day I must say, at night when I was out and everyone had a beer or two, everybody was smiling ;-)
Fondest memory: Herr Zug and his unusual shoes! YES, I too was looking for a very long time at him! ;-)
I would normally describe myself as a rather cautious person, quick in the mind but slow to do, however Berlin introduced to me strongly the idea of "Warum Nicht?" or "Why not??!!" The city is very energetic, very alive and vital, moving and busy, intense and vague all at the same time. A great mix and totally intriguing!
After only 2 days of getting acquainted with the basics even I began to say "Warum Nicht?" whenever anyone made a suggestion of what to do, where to go, or how much to have. You're on vacation, you are with friendly people, you want to have a good time and some memorable memories, so "Warum Nicht?"
Fondest memory: Learning to say, "Warum Nicht".
"Do you want one more vodka? I'll have one if you have one...." says one.
"Warum nicht!" replies the other.
But really its not about getting drunk, having a smoke, or doing things you wouldn't ordinarily do at home, its about being free and open and happy, and allowing yourself possibilities. Saying "warum nicht" can be a very good thing.