Getting to Berlin
Berlin has three airports - Tegel (TXL) 8km from the city centre, Schonefeld (SXF) 22km from the city centre, and Tempelhof (THF) 6km from the city centre.
When we visited Berlin in May 2006, we flew into Tegel airport from London Heathrow. We found the airport to be very organised and we were through customs, with our baggage collected in record time. Our first taste of German efficiency!
We chose to fly with British Airways to Berlin as they fly from Heathrow, which is the most convenient airport for us. There are several other airlines that fly from the UK to Berlin, including Air Berlin, Easyjet and Ryanair. Ryanair often has some very cheap fares on offer from London Stanstead.
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Getting from the Airport to the centre of Berlin
On our visit to Berlin we flew in and out of Tegel (TXL) airport. This airport is located around 8km from the centre of town, and there are a few transport options to choose from.
A popular option is to catch the JetExpressBus TXL if you are heading for the Mitte area of the city. This bus has departures throughout the day, and takes around 30 minutes, depending on traffic. It stops at main stations such as Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz.
If you are staying in the western part of town you could jump on either the 109 or X9 bus, which also take around 30 minutes.
Alternatively, you can catch a taxi from Tegel to Mitte for around 20 euro. We took this option as we wanted to be able to spend as much time sight-seeing as possible. Our taxi driver was incredibly friendly and played the role of tour guide on our drive to the hotel, filling us in on details of each building we passed and explaining a bit of the cities history along the way. A great introduction to this amazing city.
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Getting around Berlin via U-Bahn & S-Bahn
The easiest way to travel around Berlin is by using the U-Bahn & S-Bahn train network. These lines cross the city, intersecting at various points to make getting around very easy once you get the hang of reading the line map. The lines all have different colours to help differentiate them.
The U-Bahn is the underground railway and there are 10 lines. The S-Bahn or Stadtbahn (city railway) has 15 lines, connecting the centre with the suburbs. Many of the S-Bahn lines share tracks, so you need to keep a close eye on the indicator boards to ensure you catch the correct train.
The trains operate between 4am and 1.30am each day, with some lines running all night on weekends. If you are just going to travel within central Berlin you can buy a day pass that covers zones A&B - it cost 5.80 euro in May 2006. You can use the pass throughout the day, as many times as you like - but don't forget to validate your ticket before you use it for the first time or you may be subject to fine - those ticket inspectors are everywhere!
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U-bahn & S-bahn
Berlin is too large to navigate entirely on foot so you will need to take public transport of some sort during your stay. It is very cycle-friendly, with designated cycle paths everywhere (watch out for them if on foot as they often seem to cross over pavements!), lots of bike hire shops and a city-wide hire scheme. But we chose to rely on the public transport network, which is excellent but a little confusing at first as there are two types of urban rail line (S-bahn and U-bahn), plus buses and trams. We used a bus to and from the airport (see my other transport tip) and on one occasion in the city centre, but otherwise relied on the S- and U-bahn.
So what is the difference? U-bahn is short-hand for Untergrundbahn, i.e. underground train. Confusingly perhaps these don’t run exclusively underground, but as in London tend to do so in the centre and surface further out. The lines are much shallower than in London however, and a short flight of steps will usually bring you down onto the platform. Many more stations than in London are also accessible by lift, and the free map available at the stations (or online – see below) indicates all of these.
The S-bahn trains run on lines that are above ground, and indeed usually above street level, so whereas you walk down for an U-bahn line, you walk up for an S-bahn. The two types intersect at a lot of stations – if changing from one to the other look for the large “S” or “U” signs.
Tickets are bought from machines on the platform (photo 2). Unless you are going some distance out of the city (maybe to Potsdam), you will need one for zones A and B only. When we were there in May 2011 a single ticket cost €2.30, and is valid for a journey lasting up to two hours, regardless of how many changes you make. But we found the day tickets, at €6.30, to be much better value – you only have to make three journeys in the day for this to be the case. Make sure you validate your ticket (photo 3) before boarding (unlike on the buses where you do so on board) – if an inspector finds that your ticket is not stamped, it is the same as if you had no ticket at all.
Trains are pretty frequent on all the lines, or so it seemed to us – the longest we waited was nine minutes but three to five was more normal, even at night. Our guidebook said that the U-bahn trains are more frequent than the S-bahn but I didn’t notice that this was the case. I was very impressed with the system and would be happy to travel on it alone, day or night, just as I do in London.
You can download a map of the S- and U-bahn network here: http://www.visitberlin.de/en/article/line-network
Efficient public transport stretches beyond the tracks with hundreds of bus lines that make a dense network above ground. Most bus stops in central area have displays showing when will the next bus arrive and stops are announced inside the bus so there's no worry of getting lost. Plus, unlike S-bahn and U-bahn buses always offer the view outside so you get the idea of the area.
Many lines are operated by double decker buses and this is a great chance to rest and do some sightseeing, enjoying some nice views from the upper deck. You have to validate your ticket in front of the driver or show him the ticket by entering at the front door only, and when you see a plate saying "Aus-something Hinten" it means that the exit is at the rear ;)
Bus lines #100 and 200 are made for tourists as they connect all sights in central Berlin between the Zoo station and Alexanderplatz, making it a perfect hop-off hop-on opportunity for the low price of the regular ticket. The only thing that differs them from the numerous tourist sightseeing buses is the fact that passengers in sightseeing buses look like they are watching a tennis match as they are trying to follow all "On your left hand side there is a...." directions.
Berlin is a real showcase of a large city with efficient transport based mainly on rail public transport systems. There are two independent rail systems - U-bahn that runs mainly underground and within the city limits and the S-bahn that runs mainly above ground and its 330 kilometres of tracks efficiently connect far outskirts with the city centre.
The history of Berlin's S-bahn system dates back to 1830s and today it is still fast, frequent, efficient and well integrated with all other transport systems in the city. The ring S-bahn railroad around the wide central area of Berlin marks the transition between fare zones A and B. Red-yellow trains run every 10-20 minutes and reach both the distant suburbs and almost all main spots in central Berlin.
Although operated by a separate company S-bahn is integrated into the unique system of Berlin's public transport system and same tickets are valid on S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses. Single-ride ticket costs 2,20 Eur. As soon as we arrived to the airport we bought a 7-day ticket for zones AB that costed 25 Eur (Aug 2005) and it was a great deal even though we stayed in Berlin only for 5 days - Berlin sights are spread on a wide area and we used public transport a lot.
While S-bahn is fast and efficient the other system - U-bahn is charming and its yellow trainsets are one of Berlin's landmarks. In 2002 the system celebrated its 100th birthday and it was Europe's fifth metro system.
The best thing about the Berlin metro is that its tunnels are very shallow and fare system is based on trust so usually there are only relatively small steps and no barriers between the street sidewalk and the train. Trains run frequently and untill late in the evening. Remember to push the red button on the doors if you want them to open at the station - the driver will only "unblock" them when it arrives to the platform.
On lines U1, U2 and U4 old narrow-body trains still operate and make the ride a charming experience. Some stations are worth visiting - especially low-ceiling ones with nice steel columns on U6 and some nicely decorated and colorful stations on U7.
Flying to Berlin
We flew to Berlin Tegel from London Heathrow by British Airways, having got a good package deal on Lastminute.com. The flight in both directions was fine, with no greater problem than a 30 minute delay on the return leg. The flights lasted around an hour and a half, and light refreshments were served (a drink and a bag of crisps or biscuits).
Tegel is a small airport for such a major city, and is one of its two main airports; you might find yourself arriving at Schönefeld instead, which is also quite small. There are plans to open a new major airport to serve the city, Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) as neither of the existing hubs (nor even-smaller Templhof) is really up to the job these days. An added issue with Tegel is that you are not even able to travel directly to the centre by train but must instead take one of several buses, depending on your eventual destination.
As we were staying in the eastern half of the city we decided that the TXL bus would be the best for us. If you’re not sure and haven’t researched in advance, there is a bus information desk in the airport – follow the bus signs to find it, and the best exit for the bus stops. You can’t buy tickets at the desk, so don’t waste time queuing if you know what bus you want; instead go straight to the machines outside. These are just regular city buses, so the fares are the same as everywhere in the city. A single ride to anywhere in the centre cost €2.30 (in May 2011) and is valid for up to two hours in zones A and B, so if like us you need to change to the U-bahn or S-bahn (more on these in my other transport tip), hang on to your ticket and don’t buy another one. If you know you’ll be doing several more journeys on the day of your arrival, check out the various multi-ride options too. And do make sure you validate your ticket once you get on board – insert it into the slot on one of the small machines, in the direction indicated, so that the date and time are stamped on to it.
We had just missed a bus, but only had to wait about eight minutes. Just the same, the bus was full, and as a regular bus was not really set up for carrying lots of luggage. Consequently the first part of the ride was rather uncomfortable as we had to wedge our bags into the space in front of the seat where our legs should have been! But this eased after a while and we were able to enjoy the second part of the ride, spotting some landmarks such as the Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate on the way. We could have got off and changed for the S-bahn at the Hauptbahnhof (which was the route we took on our return) but instead did so at the Alexanderplatz, which was just two stops from our hotel near the Ostbahnhof. This is a major interchange and quite confusing when you’re unused to the system, but a helpful information desk and a good map soon saw us on our way!
The whole journey from airport to hotel took us about an hour, with the bus ride being about 45 minutes. If this all seems a bit too much hassle (although it really isn’t!), or you have loads of luggage and/or small children, you could consider the airport shuttle as a slightly cheaper alternative to taxis: http://www.visitberlin.de/en/article/book-your-airportshuttle-here-online.
This are my first photos of Berlin, made from the inside of the shuttle on a way from the airport to the city. I landed at the airport of Schonefeld, which is smaller and used to be the East Berlin airport. It takes about 30 minutes by the shuttle to reach the town centre, crossing East Berlin roads which aren't traffic busy. Since it was very cloudy day the first impression about Berlin wasn't positive at all.
SXF - Schönefeld Airport
We went to Berlin by Germanwings from Zagreb - bought our tickets few months in advance and paid something like 50 Eur for the return trip. Again, Germanwings showed as the great airline - cheap prices and great service.
They use Berlin Schönefeld airport which is located quite far from the city centre and was once the main airport for East Berlin. There is only one terminal and it's rather small and still has old charm when airports were more about efficient boarding and not about efficient shopping.
The S-bahn station is located approx. 200 metres from the terminal building and if you don't like walking under the covered walkway there is a shuttle bus. S-bahn #9 takes you to the center in little more than half an hour, and there is also an Airport Express that's even faster and costs the same - only 2,20 Eur (Aug 2005) which is a regular price for Berlin public transport.
There are very ambitious plans for the new terminals south of the existing airport when this will become BBI - Berlin Brandenburg International Airport - and will serve as Berlin's main airport from 2011 onwards when Tegel will close.
Berlin's transportation is a unified system combining the U and S-Bahns of West Berlin with busses and the trams of East Berlin. The U and S-Bahns are the underground (U) system and the suburban trains (S). All of these can be accessed with the same tickets and everything is run by the BVG. You'll mostly be travelling in the AB region, and tickets for that cost two euros for a "einzelfahrausweis", or single ticket, which is valid for two hours after validation. For e5.60 you can also buy a day ticket, which is valid until 3am the next day. If your ticket isn't automatically franked with the date and time, like the ones you buy on the machines in trams, then you will need to validate your ticket in a machine, or else risk a fine. You will see this validating machines as you get on, but just watch what the locals do if you aren't sure. You can also buy weekly and monthly tickets, if you plan on staying a long time.
Be warned that the system can be confusing when it comes to the transition from East to West Berlin.
The first subway, called U-Bahn, was built and opened in Berlin in 1902, and serves 173 stations spread across the lines. Around 80% of the track length goes underground. Train runs every two to five minutes during peak hours and every ten minutes in the evening. Subway is rapid transit and major part of the public transport system of the city. S-Bahn is actually West Berlin system and was unified with the U-Bahn following the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.
In former East Berlin tram system was upgraded and constantly developed in the years after the WWII and these noisy, sometimes slow but always charming vehicles can be spotted in most of the eastern part of the city. Old Czech trams are being changed with new vehicles and there are even plans for some network extensions in the western part of the city.
In the meanwhile some tram and bus lines have been upgraded into "MetroTram" / "MetroBus" service with more environmentaly friendly, user friendly and driver friendly vehicles. (One of the features are sensors that slow down the bus as it approaches the bus station and automatically lower its floor to allow easier boarding. I guess soon drivers will just read newspapers untill they totally dissapear and become replaced by autopilots).
Boat tour on the River Spree
I am sure that we all bring home some small disappointments about travellings we make, always questioning ourselves, did we missed something? When I was checking my pics snaped in Berlin I knew immediatelly what did I missed, boat tour on the River Spree.
There are various compamies offering Berlin city Spree river trips from one up to three hours but most of this tours starts in April and ends in October. Some cuisers offer trips in the winter season aswell but passengers aren't allowed to stay at the deck. Discovering Berlin from the water must be in pasticularly attractive and I plan my next visiting in May or June.
All around Berlin you'll find these bikes standing at crossroads or metro stations. You get the code for the electronical lock after registration with the Deutsche Bahn, who offers this service.
The price is 0,07 EUR per minute or 15 EUR per day.
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