Photo Courtesy of Oliver Mark
Whether your interests lean toward history or culture or shopping or out-all-night fun or, even better, a mix, Berlin is sure to become one of your essential vacation spots. The city is loaded with writers and artists who are driving the conversation about the history city forward. The once divided …city has turned into one of Europe's cultural hot spots, where the fun goes on into the early hours of the morning before kicking right back off again. But Berlin's ultra-modern present sits side-by-side with Germany's history--most notably the country's role during the 20th century and World War II. The city doesn't shy away from its past, with sites including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Other worthwhile history stops include Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate.
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Berlin is famous for its summers—not that they’re especially warm, but there is just so much to do. The summer season can be wet, so it’s best to pack an umbrella—though rain doesn’t stop Berliners from enjoying their city. May is often considered the best time to visit, with good weather and plenty of festivals and events. Winters in Berlin are cold (below freezing in January and February), but the cultural events don’t disappear. Locals stay busy with seasonal festivities and quirky adventures like skiing on the grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, which is now a giant city park.
Berlin is served by two main airports. Tegel (TXL) is conveniently located within the city limits. Public buses (20 minutes; 2.80€) run from Tegel regularly to Berlin Hauptbahnhof and Alexanderplatz. Schonefeld Airport is connected to the city by S-Bahn and regional trains (30 minutes; 3.30€).
Berlin’s transportation system, the BVG, is reliable, convenient, and vast, and it includes buses, trains, and trams. Single-journey rides (valid for two hours) cost 2.80€, or a day pass costs 7.00€. As in many European countries, the BVG runs on the honor system, so make sure to validate your ticket before boarding. At random times, officers check the tickets of each passenger. The U-Bahn trains (underground lines) run until late and are round-the-clock on weekends; S-Bahn trains (commuter lines) traverse the city, making them best for fast connections. Taxis in Berlin are readily available, as are services like Uber.
To really get a feel for Berlin's cultural life, it’s best to visit one of the many parks and public spaces on a sunny afternoon or early in the evening. Görlitzer Park is one of the most popular hangouts, but you’ll find more locals at the Volkspark Friedrichshain. There’s a beer garden, a small hill for hiking, and even a fairy-tale fountain (the Märchenbrunnen). Museum goers should head straight to Museum Island, where five exquisite museums (all on one ticket) await.
For an overview of all that happened before, during, and since the Holocaust, seek out the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum). The museum is a challenging but extremely worthwhile place to spend time.
Food in Berlin runs the gamut—from cheap street foods (don't miss the ubiquitous doner kebabs) to fine dining. Each Berlin neighborhood, or kiez, typically has its own food market. Fresh vegetables, produce, and bread can be bought at the markets, and many have small stands selling lunch or snacks.
Though, years ago, few people would have shouted "Berlin!" if asked for one of the world's best food cities, things have changed. Trendy brunch spots, Vietnamese restaurants, and traditional German fare all play a role in today's Berlin. Most tourists flock to the bars around Görlitzer Bahnhof and Schlesisches Tor, but there are plenty of other areas worth exploring. Branch out into Neukölln for the freshest crop of good bars. And rather than hitting the restaurants on Simon-Dach Strasse in Friedrichshain, go a few blocks east to Boxhagener Platz.
With hundreds of independent galleries in addition to its many city-owned museums, Berlin has history and culture in spades. Museums cover everything from typography (Buchstabenmuseum) to film (Film and Television Museum). Art galleries in Berlin have a solid reputation among enthusiasts. Berlin was a hotbed for culture in the 1920s, and in recent years the city has again embraced its creative classes. Get some deep background on what life was like in Berlin during the Cold War by participating in Divided City, a private walking tour led by a local historian or architect from AFAR’s partner, Context Travel.
Artists, musicians, and innovators have made Berlin home in the past 15 years, changing the very face of the city—sometimes quite literally. Street art and graffiti in Berlin is often ranked among the world’s best thanks to Berliners’ need to speak up and be heard.
In a city as diverse as Berlin, festivals and events happen all year long. Summertime sees an influx of music festivals: watch out for MyFest, Christopher Street Day gay pride, Carnival of Cultures, and Berlin Music Week. The winter has its fair share of festivals as well, most notably the star-studded Berlinale indepedent film festival.
American citizens who have a passport can spend up to 90 days in Germany, no visa necessary. The first language of Berlin is German. There's a good chance you'll run into English speakers in the city but a translation app or German language guide is definitely helpful. Germany is a member of the European Union and uses the Euro as its currency. The country's standard voltage is 230v. Power sockets throughout the country require a type F adapter (though type C and E plugs will also work).
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Paul Sullivan is a Berlin-based writer, editor, and photographer. Covering music, travel, and culture, his words and images have appeared in a broad range of international publications such as The Guardian, The Sunday Times, National Geographic Traveller UK, BBC Travel and more. He has also written, photographed and contributed to over a dozen guidebooks for publishers such as Time Out, Wallpaper, Rough Guides, Cool Camping, Fodors, A Hedonist's Guide To, and has written three books on music including a recent book on dub. He is the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin and is currently working on a National Geographic Walking Guide to Berlin.