Some useful sites on Berlin. Well, I use them anyway myself.
Need to find a chemist, restaurant, baby-sitter?
Now you need to know how to find the place...
General sites on Berlin that I like:
And for a site totally unrelated to Berlin, but I like it!
I've been in Berlin for a few years. Here's an article I did about Berlin for fun:
Someone once said, could have been Samuel Pepys, that if one is tired of London, then one is tired of life. Well, having lived for years in both London and Berlin (and a few months in Paris), I think the saying really applies much better to Berlin. I mean, London is OK if you like inflated prices, crap food, dirty streets, lousy transport and pubs that close at 23:00. Personally, I like exactly the opposite to all that. The first bar we went to in Berlin, Georges in Budapesterstrasse, we asked the barmaid what time they close that night, and she politely replied, whenever you decide to leave. They also serve extremely good French cuisine in there as well as excellent beers, and it was really so cool not to have to worry about ?last orders.?
One possible advantage London has over Berlin is the language. That is, if you speak English. But most Germans have a good smattering of English (as it is the second language taught at schools) and personally I understand English spoken by Germans better than that strange gargle of noises made by the Scots and Welsh in the UK. Another little difficulty may be the German sense of humour, which is not exactly non-existent, but may require a magnifying glass to detect sometimes. Germany is also said to be a country held together by red tape, and if you try to arrive without a valid visa or return ticket, or lose a passport, then it might be easier to arrange an exit visa from the moon rather than sort things yourself out in Germany. However, Germans themselves are really quite friendly and helpful and I guess they can?t help their own country?s regulations and rules, which they often ignore themselves when it suits them. But this does not apply to their officers, so be warned.
Berlin is really like no other city in Europe. For one, the people there are pretty laid back, and really do not see themselves as grand citizens living in the capital of the world?s third largest economy. Try searching for any such signs of humility from someone living in Paris or London. Boris Becker said that Berlin is the only town he can walk around in freely. In any other city in the world, he?ll get mugged to death by fans. In Berlin, they just nod their heads politely at celebrities and stroll on. Funnily enough, less people now live in Berlin than during the early part of the 20th century. Around 1912, the population was 4 million. Now it is only around 3 million or so, and a large proportion of that are Turkish immigrants. One might not know this but the humble doner kebab was actually invented in Berlin by Turks. That totally disgusting snack, the currywurst (sausage with curry powder liberally sprinkled on top), was invented also in Berlin, by a German curry fanatic.
Another feature of Berlin is the often severe contrast between new and old. There is evidence of human settlement around Berlin and the Spree and Havel river confluences going back 4,000 years, although the town of Berlin itself was not formally created until the 11th century by the amalgamation of several villages. The Second World War destroyed great parts of Berlin and even now there are bullet holes in some buildings in the old East Berlin. But there are still some extremely beautiful churches and buildings in Berlin dating back to the Middle Ages which are wonderfully preserved. (I won?t go into the details of the Brandenburg Gate, or Schloss Charlottenberg, or Cecilienhof and other such places as you will find them in all the usual city guides.)
However, there is a severe urge to regenerate and modernise Berlin as well, and whenever Germans feel a severe urge to do anything, they tend to do it rather well. Some of the most modern and architecturally-striking buildings in the world are in Berlin. They include the Reichstag, where the German parliament meets, Friedrichstrasse and Potsdamer Platz which has some of the best modern shopping and entertainment in Europe. As a little bit of trivia, Potsdamer Platz was home to the first electric traffic lights in the world, and now it is home to some of most modern buildings in Europe. The Sony Centre, just around the corner, with its stunning roof and colourful night displays each evening is now also recognised as one of the most striking pieces of modern architecture in the world today. I have personally sat next to many architects and architecture students on planes visiting Berlin just to visit the Sony Centre. If you come late at night, you will understand why. Simple as that.
Berlin is not a tourist trap, at least, not in the conventional sense. There is little pressure to herd tourists (or anyone else for that matter) to see this or eat that, and package tours to Berlin rarely have heavy ?must see? itineraries like in London. Perhaps it is because Berlin is not so ?concentrated? like London or Paris. Generally, if a visitor wants to do anything, he or she should just stroll into a hotel, nick a few English leaflets, read them and then wander off to the bits that catch their fancy. And there are lots of touristy things to do in Berlin. One can wander around the rivers and canals in large river boats for trips that can last up to 8 hours, though I really would not recommend such a long trip. (Another little known fact is that Berlin has more, and cleaner, canals than Venice.) Or one can go on a guided walking tour conducted by an English guide, where you can step over what remains of Hitler?s bunker. Or try the hundreds of museums, where you can see things ranging from modern art to classical paintings, natural history, toy collections, engineering works, Middle Eastern history and even the bust of Nefertiti. (Yes, the original bust is in Berlin, in case you didn?t know.) Fancy something green? Well, over 30% of Berlin is covered by parks and trees, and the Tiergarten is a beautifully wild (and very large) park right in the centre of Berlin. If you get tired of the main town, try the short trip to Potsdam to see the Sanssoucci palace grounds (or the Museum of Modern Films). Or maybe wander down to the Spreewald and punt around the tiny canals there. Want something more modern to do? Head down to Friedrichstrasse for some shopping and then to Potsdamer Platz for some serious grub and English movies, or try the casino there (just remember to bring your passport if you fancy a flutter). The wonderful Berlin Philharmonic is just across the way from there as well, and there are nice snacks and coffees at the forum restaurants under the fantastic Mount Fujiyama roof in the ultra-stylish Sony Centre.
If you fancy a wilder sort of time, then Berlin is pretty legendary. For starters, try KLO in Leibnitzstrasse, where all your drinks are served in various unusual containers (won?t mention them here as it may spoil it for you). If you have the inclination (or are severely depraved), you can then head off to the Kit Kat Club. (Every taxi driver in Berlin knows where that club is, but for some reason, the address slips my mind.) It helps to be dressed unusually to enter the Kit Kat. It helps even more if you are not dressed at all. Dancing and clubbing your thing? Try Tresor in Leipzigerstrasse. Like music? Try Deponies for good live blues and jazz, which is under the arches of Friedrichstrasse station, or Quasimodo for jazz and rock, in Kantstrasse next to the Deutsche Theater. Rock concerts are in the Berlin Arena, for bands such as Oasis, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Smashing Pumpkins, Korn, etc. Soccer and American football games are held in the Olympic Stadium, which can seat over 100,000 fans. In the summer, there are also parks and swimming pools for nudists, and unfortunately, anyone can get in them and take their clothes off.
Berlin is a large town, second only to London in Europe in terms of area. But the transport system is so efficient and reliable that getting anywhere in Berlin is rarely a problem (apart from certain districts like Pankow and Prenzlauer Berg). It?s also extremely cheap and easy as well compared to London. Just buy a ticket for 4 DM, stamp it and it is good for 2 hours on any bus, U-Bahn (underground) or S-Bahn (overground) trains. Get a day ticket (8.70 DM) and it?s good for up to 02:00 the next morning. And, yes, bits of the S-Bahn runs at that time, as well as some late buses. The amazing thing is that all public transport seems to always run on time. You can almost set your watch by the local bus timetable. In 5 years, I have rarely caught a bus that is more than 5 minutes late, although they can also be sometimes more than 5 minutes early, so be a little careful when planning trips by buses.
Not everything is perfect in Berlin, of course. Someone once said that Berlin is the graffiti capital of Europe, especially the Eastern part of the city, and it?s not hard to see why. Large swathes of walls and buildings are often covered by bright slogans and symbols. It is sometimes hard to understand why orderly people like the Germans seem to tolerate so much graffiti. Perhaps it is because, under the old East German regime, spraying graffiti was an offence punishable by death, and young people are just rebelling against the old regime. One other unusual thing is how people cross roads here. People in Berlin wait patiently for the little green man before they cross any street, even if the roads are completely empty. Even intimidating young punks with enough metal in their body studs to press into a VW car fender wait at the lights to cross perfectly empty streets. There was a story once of a foreigner who crossed an empty road at 02:00 on a winter?s morning while the crossing light was red. He slipped and was eventually knocked over by a car. Ambulances and police cars all came swarming around, and a friend of the foreigner asked the police what?s going to happen to the victim. The policeman turned around and solemnly said that if he survived, they will fine him 30 DM for crossing on a pedestrian red light. Also, not every Berliner is fond of queuing. If you fidget around and don?t hold your place in a queue, you are quite likely to find a sharp elbow in your ribs as a little old lady muscles into the queue in front of you. The best action to take then is to shout at the offender who will likely respond by pretending nothing has happened. Oh, and note that not all food stalls in Berlin have seats. They have the concept of the ?imbiss? where they have little high tables inside or outside the stall, but no chairs. So you just stand and munch your food, usually next to a main road. The reason is that tables without seats do not have to meet stringent fire safety regulations, so if you happen to be inside an imbiss when it is on fire, then you are basically dead (and hopefully insured to the hilt). But rest assured that you will not die because of the food, as Germany has some of the most stringent food safety laws in Europe. I have never had, or heard of, a case of food poisoning in Berlin, unlike London.
Talking about food, it has to be said that the food is Berlin is seriously good and varied, and extremely cosmopolitan, but is really best covered by another article as there are so many choices and styles of eating available. The traditional Berlin dishes, sadly, are best avoided, like the Eisbein, which is basically the boiled foot of a (fat) pig served with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes dripping in butter. You should seriously consider booking your heart triple-bypass operation in advance if you like the native food and intend to stay a while in Berlin. Note that food is generally of a very high quality and really cheap compared to London. A normal meal for two in an ordinary restaurant rarely costs more than 50-60 DM, although you can also get haute cuisine at many times that price, or alternatively, a massive durum doner kebab for 5 DM that will feed a family of 4.
Weather-wise, it is probably best to be in Berlin in late spring up to early autumn. Many Berliners claim that there are only 2 seasons in Berlin, winter and not-winter. In winter, things can sometimes get pretty cold, and I mean, COLD, pronounced with a capital ?F?. During my first winter, the air temperature was down to ?26C, and with the wind chill, it was around ?46C. Bits of my body that I was not even aware I had were frozen as I shuffled back to the hotel via some life-saving bars. But all such bad memories are forgotten in spring, and the gentle warm sun glinting on the new greenery is really quite breathtaking, especially with the red squirrels bounding about. Summer can be a little on the warm side, almost as hot as Kuala Lumpur sometimes, but without the humidity in the air, so there?s no need to change shirts several times a day. Berlin has over 275 days of dry weather on average, a far better average than London or Paris, and the rain does not usually last that long either when it does fall.
Perhaps I am biased in my views on Berlin as I have lived and worked there for so long now. But I do like the space the city and the people give you, the atmosphere of a town with a long history and an exciting future, the variety of things to do every day, and the security of a city that looks after itself so well. All I can add and assure you is that, sooner or later, people will catch on to what a wonderful place Berlin is (and both business and tourist air traffic is already growing). Soon it will be too late (and too crowded) to sit quietly on the pavement of an outdoor café in Kollwitzplatz, or nap on the leaf-covered benches in Gendarmermarkt, or natter with friends as you stroll along the canals. Then you might well be sorry to have missed the quiet understated grandeur and peaceful excitement that is Berlin today.
Footnote for tourists
It should be noted here that there is an ongoing dispute between the English and the Germans. The English claims that copper wire was invented by two Scotsmen fighting over a penny, while the Germans maintain it was first created by two Bavarians who wouldn?t let go of a pfennig coin. I can see the merits of both cases and will diplomatically avoid supporting either party. However, there is a positive side to this argument as most Berliners do not expect massive tips for taxis or restaurants, unlike almost everywhere else in Europe. Usually, it is sufficient to round up to the next mark for taxis and if you leave more than 10 percent in some of the older restaurants, you run the risk of waiters chasing after you trying to return your money. (This has actually happened to me.) But sadly, this is changing, especially in the newer restaurants and hotels, but really, you normally do not have to tip very much, and many Berliners do not tip at all wherever they may go.
A German friend once tried to reassure me by telling me that ?Germans are fairly normal people, you know.? I can?t recall exactly in what context the conversation came about but I vaguely remember that I must have had a good reason for bringing the subject up. To illustrate the point, you should really stay away from red paths on Berlin pedestrian sidewalks. They are meant for cyclists and there has to be some obscure law against them using bicycle bells because they would much rather run you down than risk disturbing people by ringing their bells. Things like that.
And if you?re a shopaholic, then do remember that all shops (except for restaurants, bars, and cinemas) close between 18:00 and 20:00. On Saturdays, they close between 14:00 and 16:00, and they don?t open on Sundays or public holidays at all. Museums are open on Sundays but to compensate, lots of them close on Mondays. And if you are in a shop when they announce that they are about to close, you should seriously think about getting out immediately, because when they say the doors are closing, they mean it. Tardy shoppers risk amputation of the limbs by the closing doors if they linger around too long getting out. Or at least a stern stare.
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Some useful sites on Berlin. Well, I use them anyway myself.