So you’ve landed in Berlin, the one city in Germany that most Germans (who live outside of Berlin) don’t even consider to be a proper German city. You’ve heard so much about Berlin, yet outside of the city centre of Mitte, the city seems run down, with graffiti everywhere and many buildings abandoned. At night, everything goes quiet – where is this party scene that everyone keeps talking about?
Berlin has been evolving quickly since the wall came down in 1989. First, as the go-to city for the artsy types because of the freedom it offered, coupled with cheap rent and living costs. And more recently, as the hot new start-up hub. This, of course, has caused the gentrification of many Berlin neighbourhoods – to the chagrin of locals. Rent is still cheaper than most Western European cities though, but not to locals who have been used to really low costs of living.
Visiting Berlin is quite the experience if you’re into history, art, culture and of course, the nightlife. It truly is the city that never sleeps. To make sure you trip here is tweaked to its full potential, follow some of these tips on surviving Berlin:
1. Always carry cash
It’s always easy to spot the tourist because they’re the only ones trying to pay for things (especially in bars) with a card. Berlin is a cash-centric city; almost all bars and restaurants – with the exception of very touristy ones – only accept cash. Even places that say they accept cards, accept only German bank cards. This, in fact, applies across the country.
Pro tip: Avoid taking cash out at ATMs in spätis (convenience stores) or smaller ATMs not tied to any bank, as they are known to charge high fees on top of whatever fees your bank back home charges you. Stick to banks like Sparkassen and Berliner Volksbanken (my favourite). Check with your bank to see which German banks they have affiliation with, to avoid high fees.
2. Dress down
This is probably funny advice to be giving anyone visiting a city that’s known for its cutting-edge fashion and art, but when it comes to fashion, Berliners have a weird take. Leave your high heels and bodycon dresses at home; what will get you into clubs in other cities won’t even get you past the bouncers in Berlin. People are fashion-conscious, yet tend to dress down. Colours are not limited to, but tend to be black, shades of grey, and white.
You are, however, encouraged to let your weird out and to be different. Think outside the box: Wear a cool pair of sneakers or really funky sunglasses. Dye your hair a weird colour, or just don’t care at all and go normcore (unpretentious, unisex fashion). Really, no one will judge you.
Pro tip: Second-hand clothing is big in Berlin. Check out the many markets they have over summer and fill your wardrobe with awesome clothes for as little as EUR1. Each borough has its own flea market. Popular ones are: Mauerpark (famous for its Sunday flea market, or Flohmärkte) and Nowkoelln Flowmarkt along the canal on Maybachufer.
3. Get a local SIM card
With pre-paid SIM cards costing as low as EUR5, if you’re staying here for more than three days, I’d suggest getting yourself one. I recommend Lebara.de but there are many different telcos peddling theirs at competitive prices. Top up your phone with some data and you’ll find it much easier to manoeuvre the city.
Pro tip: You can purchase a SIM card from most spätis. They don’t always advertise it, so ask at the counter. In the city center, most of the people working in a späti speak English.
4. Rent a bicycle
Berlin is a pretty flat city, which makes cycling around a breeze. Couple that with ample bike lanes and you have a cheap and fun way to get around – especially in the summer when you don’t want to be stuck underground in the hot uBahns. My friends travel around in bikes and until I got my own, I did not know what I was missing out. You needn’t worry about missing the last train at night because you can just cycle back to your hotel. Just be careful not to cycle around inebriated as you may receive a fine or have points deducted from your driving licence.
Pro tip: My favourite place to rent a bicycle is from Rent-a-bike-44 in Neukölln because it only costs EUR4 a day, or EUR25 a week. However, if you’re staying in the city centre, then it is a bit out of the way. A quick search on the Internet and you’ll find tons of places to rent bikes from in Berlin. It really is the best way to discover the city.
5. Find a room on Facebook
Finding a place to stay can be quite a challenge if you don’t want to pay hotel prices, and AirBnB is limited in Germany. However, there are plenty of Facebook groups where Berliners post to rent out their rooms/flats directly to interested parties. Most of the time, these are the rooms of those going on vacation so it’s like a more personalised and intimate version of AirBnB. But you have to be alert to postings on the pages; it is notoriously hard to find rooms or flats to rent in Berlin so check frequently. If you do get one though, you can bet it’ll be one of if not the cheapest option around. Some groups you can join on Facebook are:
- Temporary Flat Rentals in Berlin
- Flats in Berlin
- Berlin Startup Flats and Flatshares
- WG-Zimmer und Wohnungen Berlin
- Berlin Housing
- Housing Berlin
Pro tip: Seeing that these groups aren’t regulated like hotels or AirBnB, there have been cases where room rental posts turned out to be scams (usually for long-term rentals). Never send money beforehand, especially if the room looks too good to be true and the price is ridiculously low. Most of these scammers claim that they will mail you the flat key after you transfer money to their account (they will claim to be out of the country for work). I also usually avoid any room-for-rent websites that charge fees and prefer working directly with the person renting out the room. Also feel free to hit up the admin to double check profiles if you suspect anything.
6. Don’t be shocked by the naked culture
Germans are notorious for nudity or Freikoerperkultur (FKK), Free Body Culture. All their lakes have nudist zones, their spas are fully naked, and they almost never bother with curtains (many times even in the bathrooms). If you’re not someone who enjoys wearing a bra, then feel free to go braless! No one will even notice.
Pro tip: If you do want to check out a spa but don’t want to be naked in front of men (I get it. Not everyone is up for this), spas such as Sultan Hamam that offers women-only days.
7. We are equal
In many Northern European countries, street harassment just doesn’t exist. Feel free to walk around Berlin in relative safety, knowing that no one will inappropriately comment on your body, take up your space or time, or eyeball your bosom as you walk around. It is refreshing and it opens up a world where you suddenly don’t have to conform to the usual norms. Generally, there is a lot of equality between men and women in Berlin. On the flip side, if you’re used to men doing ‘chivalrous’ things for you – like giving up a seat on the bus, holding the door open, or helping you carry things – you might be in for a surprise.
Pro tip: The biggest complaint I hear from my female friends is that German men never hit on you, even at typical pick-up spots like bars or clubs. If you want to get a date, go straight up and talk to them, they won’t mind. In fact, they’re used to it and encourage it.
8. Pay your share on a date
The gender equality extends to the dating scene as well. If you do go on a date in Berlin, make sure you have ample cash to pay for your share of the bill. It isn’t uncommon to tell the wait staff that each person will pay separately.
Pro tip: Don’t pretend to fight for the bill. If you say you’ll take care of the bill, people usually take your word for it. Don’t feel embarrassed or offended to just pay your part with a small tip (anything between EUR0.50-2 is considered decent)
9. Take one for the road
Unlike most other cities, it isn’t illegal to drink outdoors in Berlin. Come summer time, the parks are full of people enjoying the sun with a beer in hand. Also, once you’re done with your beer, don’t chuck your empty bottle away as each returned bottle will earn you a whopping EUR0.08! Or better yet, leave your bottle on the sidewalk and someone will come by and collect it. These are usually the homeless, who will exchange your bottle for cash. So don’t be surprised if, at the end of a Friday night, you see a bunch of empty beer bottles on the sidewalks or someone comes up to you at the park and asks for your empty bottle.
Pro tip: It is, however, illegal to bring open alcohol bottles onto public transportation although that hasn’t stopped some people. To avoid a fine, finish your drink before getting on your ride.
10. Prepare for all weather
When I first arrived, I was woefully unprepared at just how quickly the weather changes. It can be sunny in the morning and raining by the afternoon. So these days, I always have a raincoat and an extra jumper in my bag. It means I will never be able to go around with a tiny purse, but at least I’ll never be caught out in the rain again. Even in summer, the evenings can get a tiny bit chilly so a cardigan could come in handy.
Pro tip: You can never go wrong layering your clothes so you can easily peel them off or put them on. When it rains, it’s usually a steady drizzle, never a huge storm. Most times, a raincoat or waterproof parka will suffice – I don’t even own an umbrella.