Berlin For First Timers

A hotchpotch of our experiences and travel tips in Berlin


I spent 12 days in Berlin as my first destination in this European journey. I must say that due to all the positive feedback I’ve heard about how fantastic this city is, I came here with high expectations. So what do I personally think about the city?

To be honest, I think we came at the wrong time, winter is a miserable time of the year and even in a city as vibrant as Berlin, the bitterly cold weather (-3dg today) have dulled the city’s upbeat pulse a fair bit. Don’t get me wrong, I still find it interesting but just lacking that vibrancy and energy that I was being sold to. We will give Berlin another go Summer next year before we fly home, so impress me in the warmer season ya hear Berlin?!

Accommodation in Berlin

Our main preference for accommodation while traveling is through Airbnb.com. If you have not heard about this site before, then you’ve been missing out. IMHO, it’s the best rental accommodation source for holiday goers who don’t want to splurge on hotels and don’t like the idea of hostels/dorms. I love Airbnb because you get to choose between renting a private apartment or just a room, and share the space with your host. Staying with hosts has its perks because you get first hand information about the town from the locals who actually live there. Also, sometimes if you meet a super friendly one, they will bring you out or invite you to their party as well ☺. Of course, if you cherish your privacy, you can always book for a whole studio apartment instead. Budget wise, it’s comparable to staying in a hostel, so what’s not to like?

This is our cozy room in Kruezberg for only 37euros per night. All amenities included.

For our stay in Berlin, we have chosen to stay in the funky neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. We love this neighbourhood! Kreuzberg is a surburb located in East Berlin. It used to be mostly inhabited by Turkish immigrants so everywhere you turn you’ll find Turkish bakeries, doner kebab shops, and shops selling Turkish trinkets. Apparently Berlin is the largest Turkish city out of Turkey itself and Kreuezberg just happens to be where most of the early immigrants live. These days however, Kreuzberg is metling pot of multinational culture and cuisine. Not only will you get Turkish food, everything from Italian, to Vietnamese can be found here. The place is grungy, hip and rough around the edges littered with graffiti in every corner of the town. This is where hipster expat Berliners will want to stay. It is also quite central and linked via the main station Kottbutser Tor on U1, so very easy to wander to other neighbourhoods and city central. Food is abundance and cheap here as a result we’ve had some of our best foodie experience here in Berlin from this neighbourhood. We will come to this shortly as the topic of food will be a long one.

Berlin Public Transportation

We landed in Berlin Tegel airport — I think I read somewhere on the internet that Tegel is the nearest one to the city (nearer = cheaper). So if you are planning your trip to Berlin, you might want to consider landing in Tegel instead. The airport itself is small, nothing to boast about and like most German public institution, it is efficient.

U-Bahn and S-Bahn map. Picture source: BVG

Getting around Berlin is easy. Three main modes of public transportation: trains, trams and buses. Let’s start with the trains, most common ones you’ll likely use in the city are U-bahn and S-bahn. Between these two, they’ll take you to every major neighbourhoods and landmarks you’ll want to go. There’s also regional trains, typically for long distance or interstate travels. Buses run around the city like a spiderweb reaching to places not serviced by the trains. Trams are good use for traveling within Mitte (central district). Surprisingly, public transport tickets are not cheap here. Divided into zones A,B, and C, single or daily tickets are calculated accordingly. The most common ticket is the Zone AB ‘single travel’ for EU2.60 for unlimited travels within 2hr period. As were staying in Berlin for 12days, we decided to purchase the weekly 7-Day ticket for EU28.80 - which proved to be worth the investment since we fully utilized the trains, buses and trams on a daily basis.

Now I’d like to point out a very special system for Berlin public transportation. The entire system relies on an ‘Honour System’. Essentially this means there is no scrutiny on paying customers boarding their public transportation. I find this exceptionally fascinating, because, well.. I come from Australia. And in Australia you have to pay for everything (and everything is expensive!)

Berlin U-Bahn station. Image source: Wikipedia

The stations here are open, no gate barriers dividing paid/unpaid passengers and only a few validation boxes for you to validate the tickets you have purchased. Yes, even after you pay for your tickets you need to validate them on your own accord before you board your ride. Or at least, that is what the rule says. After just a few days in Berlin, I can easily pick out many who didn’t pay for their ride. Every so often, we will see some random plainclothes fellas checking for ticket validation on the train and around the stations. Predictably, there will always be people getting caught and fined a hefty EU40.

Arguments on the morality of catching a free ride aside, it is just incredible how the government knowingly ‘close one eye’ and allow people to continue catching free rides. In a way it is pretty cool, because despite the number of people who don’t pay, there will always be ‘kiasi’ people like me who will pay *ahem* and I supposed this is enough to cover the cost and keep the stations open to all. Sort of like ‘pay what you can’ model don’t you think? Some people just cannot afford to pay everyday, so they pay once a week and those that can pay their fair share. That way, the cost is covered, trains and workers get paid and everyone gets to work on time. Win — Win situation for all.

Berlin landmarks and some off the beat ones

Berlin is such a big city sitting over layers of world history within the city itself. It was the epicenter of World War 2 and Cold War, both significant events that have shaped our modern day lives. Therefore it is impossible for me to cover all the landmarks and iconic places in just 12 days.

So instead, we decided early on that we’ll only cover landmarks and places that really interest us. We did cover the usual ones, but we also found some quirky places as well.

  1. East Side Gallery

The remnants of what was once the famous Berlin wall now stands for 1.3km long, covered in beautifully drawn graffiti. Located along the River Spree on Mühlenstraße near Kreuzberg. Along your way, enjoy the many buskers’ performance as well.

A busker performing without pants in near freezing temperatures.

2. Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe

I find this place very fascinating due to all the emotions that it evokes upon you when you walk into the concrete ‘maze’. It also houses a memorial gallery in the basement that shares the history of the catastrophe and personal accounts of the victims who survived.

4. Sachschenhausen Concentration Camp

A pretty dreary and gloomy place on a clear winter’s day. It’s a concentration camp, so I knew what to expect before I got there, except that reading about these atrocities that happened here and then actually seeing where it all happened, everything was a bit too surreal. Like the Jewish Memorial, it’s a very thought provoking and extremely sad place. To see how once upon a time in the not so distant past, humanity had stooped so low, by either perpetrating or allowing such horrifying acts to happen to another human being.

5. Gendermanmarkt Christmas Markets

Absolutely the most beautiful and magical in the evening. Also I heard Gendermanmark is supposed to be the most beautiful square in Berlin so it is also fitting that it houses the most lavish Christmas market in Berlin.

6. Hackeschen Höfe

Not sure any single photo alone can capture this unique square for what it is. It used to be a townhouse for a Jewish population, until all the families here were deported to various concentration camps during WW2. At the entrance to the square, you could see on the floor in metal plates engravings of the names of the Jewish families and the year and camp they were deported to. It’s pretty surreal to see that piece of history at your footstep.

Back to the square, which is now populated with unique retail shops and cool cafes. It’s a cool place because it’s like a small little maze in there, and the beautiful facade of these buildings changes subtly as you go from ‘block’ I to ‘block’ VI. If you have spare time, and have interest in buildings or design, then check it out. It’s a nice place to hang for a cuppa as well.

7. Turkish Markets

I love markets. I love going to different cities and towns in the world, and visiting their local flea or food market. To me, it’s the best place to see how the locals live, and what they actually eat. I like this one in Berlin as it shows a different side to the usual Berlin markets everywhere else. It’s setup mostly by the Turkish community selling their traditional food fares and produce for the local consumption. We also happened to sample on the best Gozleme in this market as well.

(Located along the Maybachufer river banks every Tuesday and Friday.)

NEXT: Berlin Street Food Galore

Par 2 of the Berlin series will be all about our foodie finds. Read on if you are a fellow foodie like us. ☺

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