So you’ve decided to visit Berlin. Congratulations.
Your pretentious friends went to Paris. Your haughty friends went to London. And your lost friends went to Belarus. But you decided on Berlin. You’ve probably heard that Berlin is the coolest city in the world, or that it has one of the best clubs in Europe, or that it sleeps when the sun comes up. Well, don’t believe the hype. It’s not the coolest city in the world; it’s several of the coolest cities in the world. It doesn’t have one of the best clubs in Europe; it has 10. And to top it off, Berlin never sleeps.
Berlin’s rise began with some normal history, taken to epic heights. King Friedrich II and his identically named progeny ruled from canal-lined boulevards, built palaces like middle-fingers to all the haters, and developed Prussia into an Enlightened European powerhouse, with Berlin at the helm. But after centuries of captaining Europe, Berlin went crazy in the 20th. As the seat of Hitler’s terror and with World War II drama in its streets, Berlin rebooted in the ’50s, only to become a physical manifestation of Cold War divisions. The Berlin Wall rose in 1961, slicing the city and fueling the enmity of a radical student and punk population. Ten years after the Wall crumbled in 1989, the German government decided to relocate from Bonn to Berlin. And from there, Berlin became today’s European champion of cool.
Sorry about your friends.
Berlin, situated in the northeastern region of Germany, is a city full of cities, like a Russian nesting doll or a giant Transformer composed of many smaller Transformers. No single neighborhood is alike, and you could easily spend at least a week discovering the quirks and charms of each. As a general rule of thumb, the east side of the city, separated from the west by the Spree River, is younger, artsier, and has more of a gritty, industrial feel. This is where you’ll find the best clubs, vintage stores, and cheap-eats. But if you’re more interested in Berlin’s famous landmarks, historical towns, or monstrously large Tiergarten park, the slightly more upmarket and touristy west is the place to be. However, in the likely situation that you’re equally interested in gritty industrialism and large parks, and thus unable to decide which side sounds more appealing, head over to Mitte, the city center, which is split into two distinct districts. While a map of the public transport system may look like a pair of earphones that’s been left in your pants pocket for 20 years, if you’re equipped with Google Maps or a natural maze-solving ability, you’ll be able to get wherever you want within a half hour.
While the Capital Airport Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI), to be opened in 2019, undergoes construction, Tegel Airport will serve most international travelers. Schönefeld Airport is a smaller, second international airport serving mostly budget airlines. International trains pass through Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof and run to nearby countries. Prices vary, depending on how far in advance tickets are booked, but typically range from €39 (advance) to €130-200 (standard). ZOB is the central bus station that links to all big cities in Germany and many regions in Europe.
The two pillars of Berlin’s metro are the U-Bahn, the underground trains, and the S-Bahn, the above-ground trains. Trams and buses (U-Bahn) scuttle many of the city’s corners. The U-Bahn runs from 4am-1am and the S-Bahn from 4:30am-1:30am. These lines run with 30min. intervals on Friday and Saturday night. When the train stops running, night buses take over, indicated by the “N” preceding the bus number. Berlin is divided into three transit zones. Zone A is central Berlin and the rest of Berlin is Zone B. Zone C covers the larger state of Brandenburg, including Potsdam. An AB ticket is the best deal, but a one-way ticket is good for 2hr. after validation (Zones AB €2.80, BC €3.10, ABC €3.40). Within the validation period, the ticket may be used on any S-Bahn, U-Bahn, bus, or tram. If you have a ticket but don’t validate it, plainclothes policemen, who occasionally ride the BVG, will fine you €7. If you are caught without a ticket or with an expired one, you will be charged €60.
Tourist Offices: Tegel Airport (Am Gate 1 Terminal A Flughafen Tegel; 030 25 00 25; open daily 8am-9pm), Schönefeld Airport (Terminal A, main hall, ground floor; 0331 200 47 47; M-F 9am-6pm).
Banks/ATMs/Currency Exchange: Although not fantastic, the best rates are usually found at exchange offices with Wechselstube signs outside, at most major train stations, and in large squares. However, provided that your overseas bank has a partner bank in Germany, it is best to withdraw from the ATM. For money wires through Western Union, use ReiseBank. (M: Hauptbahnhof 030 204 53 761. Open M-Sa 8am-10pm.).
Post Offices: Post (Frankfurter Allee 1; 228 4333112; open M-Sa 9am-1pm and 2pm-6pm).
Internet: Free internet with admission to the Staatsbibliothek. During its renovation, Staatsbibliothek requires €10 month-long pass to the library. (Potsdamer Str. 33; 030 26 60 Open M-F 9am-9pm, Sa 10am-7pm.) Most hostels and restaurants, and cafés, including Starbucks, provide free Wi-Fi.
Emergency Number: 112
Police: 112; Polizeirevier Abschnitt 53 (Friedrichstaße 219; 30 4664553700).
US Embassy: Embassy of the United States of America Berlin (Pariser Platz 2; 30 83050; open M-F 8am-5:30pm).
Rape Crisis Center: LARA offers counseling for victims of sexual assault. (Fuggerstr. 19; 030 216 88 88; www.lara-berlin.de; open M-F 9am-6pm). Frauenkrisentelefon is a women’s crisis line (030 615 4243; www.frauenkrisentelefon.de/en/home; open M 10am-noon, Tu 3-5pm W 7-9pm, Th 10am-noon, F 7-9pm, Sa-Su 5-7pm).
Hospitals: DRK Klinken Berlin Mitte (Drontheimer Str. 39-40; 30 30356000; open daily 24hr).
Pharmacies: Brandenburger Tor Apotheke (Under den Linden 69D; 30 39887448; open M-F 8am-7pm, Sa 9am-7pm, Su 10am-6pm).