Berlin: A quick guide to a truly world-class city

Most Winnipeggers prefer to head for the sun and sand when they leave town. But if you’re one of those looking to get away from the museum-like hush of deeply provincial Winnipeg for the fun and excitement of a cosmopolitan big city, consider saving up a little bit more than usual for a week in Berlin.

The reunified capital of a reunited Germany has lots to offer the urban tourist. It’s a party town that likes to stay up late, and it has everything the tourist is looking for, from museums, art galleries and concerts for culture lovers to an aquarium and zoo for those traveling with children. And it’s a bargain compared to more expensive gateway cities like London, Paris and Amsterdam.

Video: Scenes taken around town, Aug. 15-22, 2012

Berlin: A quick guide for the would-be visitor

Q: When should I go?

A: The city is lively all year long, but the warmest months are mid-May to mid-August, when average daytime highs are in the 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F) range.  Late March to mid-May and mid-August to early October are also mild, with average daytime highs in the teens. Rain is typically not that heavy, and happens occasionally all year round. As Berlin is at the same latitude as the northern end of Lake Winnipeg, the heat is seldom oppressive.

Cooler weather with average daytime highs of less than 10°C/50°F (though usually above freezing) takes over the city between the second half of October and early March, so these might be the months to avoid unless you are comfortable wearing a coat or sweater around town all day.

Q: How much does it cost to go?

Seat sales throughout the year by Air Canada, Lufthansa and Air France-KLM (which partners with WestJet on flights between Winnipeg and its Toronto and Calgary gateways) typically offer prices of about $1,200 per person. United, Delta and Swiss also offer itineraries via the United States.

Hotels are fairly inexpensive by European standards. Smaller independent hotels can be booked for $60 to $80 Cdn. per night and chain hotels catering to business travelers are available for $100 to $125 Cdn., with some offering lower rates during the summer when business travel declines. Luxury hotels are a little more expensive at $150 to $250 Cdn. per night.

Restaurants are fairly affordable, with many bakeries (German: bäckerei) selling sandwiches for 2 to 5 Euros ($2.50 to $6.50 Cdn.) and cafes selling a meal plus a German beer for 10 to 15 Euros ($13 to $20). Portions are a bit smaller than they are in North America: expect a plate with a sensible amount of food on it, not a heaping platter.

Q: Where do I clear Customs and Immigration?

A: You will need to clear Immigration at the first Schengen state you enter, where you will be given a visa or entry stamp that is good for travel in all other European countries within the Schengen zone. In Berlin, you still need to clear Customs on arrival from outside Germany, even if you’re arriving on a connecting flight from another Schengen country such as the Netherlands. (You will not have to clear Immigration again if you’ve already been admitted to the Schengen zone at another European airport en route.)

Customs and Immigration processes are fairly unobtrusive for Canadian visitors. Immigration officers are primarily concerned with illegal immigrants from poorer countries, and hence take little interest in Canadian tourists. Customs in both Germany and popular connecting points such as the Netherlands works on the Red Channel/Green Channel system — go through the Red Channel if you have anything to declare, or through the Green Channel if you don’t. (Depending on your routing, you probably won’t even be asked to fill out a declaration or arrival card.)

Customs reserve the right to stop travelers entering the country through the Green Channel for spot checks, but these are said to be rare. Signs will tell you in English what kinds of items need to be declared.

Q: Where are the best places to stay?

A: A hotel within walking distance of the Zoological Garden train station in the city’s west or Alexanderplatz or the Brandenburg Gate in central Berlin will put you within walking distance of anything you need.

Q: Which areas should I avoid?

A: The eastern suburbs of Neukölln, Marzahn and Lichtenberg seem to have the shadiest reputation, but are off the beaten track for most visitors and, as with graffiti-marked Kreuzberg, are probably quite safe during the day due to the high population density.

Berlin is generally a safe city, with a murder rate per 100,000 about half of what Winnipeg experiences in a good year, so you need not worry much about your physical safety. As in any large city, remain alert however against opportunistic petty crimes such as pickpocketings and bag-snatchings.

Q: Do I need a car?

A: No, unless you are going out into the countryside. BVG, the local transit authority, can get you practically anywhere in Berlin quickly without having to navigate the city’s streets, which do not necessarily follow a North American-style grid format. Full-network day tickets (sold as the “Berlin ABC” ticket) are available from automatic dispensing machines at any train or subway station or from the BVG kiosk at the airport for 7 Euros ($9 Cdn.), and can be used after validation on any bus, train, tram or subway line. Seven-day cards valid for seven consecutive days (e.g., Friday through Thursday) are available for 34.60 Euros ($45 Cdn.)

Do not get caught on public transport without a validated ticket, or you will be fined 40 Euros ($52). Tickets are validated by inserting the top of the ticket into the small yellow boxes at every purchase point and possibly some bus stops. While bus drivers will check your ticket at the door, trams, trains and subways work on the honour system, with plainclothes inspectors carrying out random spot checks on passengers throughout the day.

Q: Is it easy to get by in Berlin without speaking German?

A: Yes, quite easy. You will not have to worry about having “a knife in my back for speaking English walking down some street or on the U-Bahn one night”, as one visitor-to-be was perversely afraid of. Many younger and middle-aged urban Germans have either a working knowledge of English or complete fluency, and those who know little or no English are very understanding. Berlin is within a day’s drive of other major cities in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland and Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, so Berliners are used to dealing with non-German visitors. Those who start a conversation in German will often switch immediately to English at the first sign of hesitation.

That being said, it pays to be familiar with basic German niceties such as entschuldigen Sie mich (pardon me), bitte (please), danke (thank you) and Ich spreche kein Deutsch (I don’t speak German). (Click on the links to hear the pronunciations).

Q: Is tipping customary in restaurants?

A: Yes, in restaurants with table service. Ten percent is generally considered sufficient, 15 percent a bit better than average. Instead of leaving money out, however, you should ask your server to round the bill up so that it includes whatever amount you want to tip.

Q: How do people dress in Berlin? Will I look out of place in jeans and a T-shirt?

A: Berlin is an individualistic, come-as-you-are kind of city, so you will likely look alright in whatever you wear in Winnipeg as long as it’s clean and in good condition. Unless you wear sweatpants or spandex in public or go for the “gangsta” look, all of which will stand out as being a bit odd.

Q: Finally, what is there to do in Berlin?

A: Berlin is a vibrant city of 3.5 million people (six million across the wider metropolitan area) packed into an area not much larger than the inside of the Perimeter Highway, and often considered one of Europe’s Top 10 destinations, so it’s a city with just about something for everyone. To find things to do that suit your individual tastes, check Frommer’s attraction and nightlife listings or Virtual Tourist’s Berlin travel guide.

But if I can make a recommendation, take a walk just after dark from Alexanderplatz down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s grand boulevard, to the lit-up Brandenburg Gate where East and West Berliners celebrated the Berlin Wall’s demise on Nov. 9, 1989. It’s a truly memorable experience.

The Brandenberg Gate at night

The Brandenberg Gate at night

The Jewish Memorial

The Jewish Memorial

Die Welt's hot air balloon

In addition to the usual tour buses, you can also see Berlin from a hot air balloon (though not the best value at 19 Euros for a 15-minute flight).

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to Berlin: A quick guide to a truly world-class city

  1. John Dobbin says:

    It looks like a marvellous trip to make.

  2. Paul Hesse says:

    Thanks for writing the review! But no visa is required for Canadians. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time in Neuköln and Marzahn and I never felt unsafe. Be careful and you can have a lot of fun in this great city!

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    Oops — thanks for catching that, Paul! (Should have been visa/passport stamp.)

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