Two months. That’s how long I walked the graffitied streets of Berlin, dodged accidentally walking into the bike lanes, and hopped over the occasional shards of broken beer bottles. I also basked in the smell of fresh falafel around every corner, which is something I miss dearly now back in the U.S. Oh how life changes quickly!
To be honest, it’s not that long of a time to be in one place. I felt like I needed more to explore what Berlin truly has to offer because there was always something to do. I was just getting comfortable in July and by the beginning of August it was time to say goodbye. Time is precious and grad school is calling (year two lets goooo), but as I’ve been thinking about my time there, I wanted to share the list of things you should know about traveling in Berlin.
1. Never walk in the bike lanes
Europe in general is a biking continent more than North America (where I’m from and reside). Therefore, it took some getting used to as Berliners actually use the biking lanes more intensely than we do in the U.S. Amsterdam is probably the most famous city known for their biking culture. However Berlin, which is about an 8-hour bus ride away from Amsterdam, is big on environmental sustainability through biking too. Just be sure to look down to see if you’re in the lane or not, it’s normally marked with a picture of a bike or outlined with white lines), to avoid getting hit.
2. Falafel is everywhere (and delicious)
From what I experienced and what everyone told me, Berlin is the anomaly compared to the rest of Germany. There is no other city like Berlin in Germany, and that includes the food offerings. Berlin is an international city full of cuisine from around the world, however falafel is at the heart of it all. At as little as 3 euros per sandwich, it was my go-to meal for lunch and perfect for my budget! The refugee and asylum-seeker influx in 2015 diversified the city too, hence the variety of people, food, and culture. For more places to eat in Berlin, check out these 19 spots I visited during my summer traveling in Berlin.
3. Berlin has a housing crisis
As an International Social Worker, I’m always interested in what’s really going on in a destination outside tourism. How are the people living? What issues do they care about? Well, housing was an issue that came up quite often with my German co-workers and others I met in passing. Rising apartment costs due to gentrification have doubled rent around the city and people, including politicians and activists, are trying to figure out how to combat the crisis.
However, after traveling in Berlin I have learned they have a history of solving their housing issues in radical ways. For example, during my first two weeks I stayed in a hostel called Regenbogenfabrik. This hostel was a part of the squatting movement and is now a social entrepreneurial playground with a kindergarten, catering service, and wood-making workshop on top of being a hostel. While this may not be the solution to the current crisis, it’s always fascinating and helpful to understand a city’s history and where they’re currently at so you know what’s going on.
4. Refugees are welcome
In 2015, there was an influx of refugees who sought asylum in Berlin. This was partly the reason my university offered a class in Berlin, and it’s shaped the city’s social services, population, and societal, political, and cultural climate. While everything isn’t perfect, as issues such as racism, islamophobia, etc. still exist, Berlin is a relatively welcoming community for refugees.
5. The best time to visit is in the summer
Berliners told me summer is where you can see the most of what Berlin has to offer. There are markets, festivals, concerts, and plenty of time to enjoy the parks. If you’re a soccer (or European football) lover, you can also enjoy watching the games on live TV at a brewery outside. Everyone is out and living their best Berlin life in the summer, so book your trip then.
6. Go to the parks
Parks on parks on parks! There is no shortage of them, which makes parks a place you need to visit while in Berlin. There’s the former airport now park Templehof, Gorlitzer in Kreuzberg, Viktoria park, and many others in between. Grab some snacks, some friends, and a few beers if you’re into that, and head to any one near you.
7. Public transportation is life
There is nothing like a city with excellent public transportation! And traveling in Berlin does not disappoint. You can ride the tram, the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, REI, and buses. The U-Bahn also has free wi-fi which is perfect for tourists who don’t have international data plans! If you get lost or need to get in contact with someone, an U-Bahn stop is never too far away.
As someone who despises driving, this is one of the biggest things I miss most about Berlin. It’s so nice to know I can go anywhere via public transport in a reasonable time-frame. Good public transport in all cities is also an ideology I wish the U.S. would adopt to provide more people access to opportunities.
8. Violating public transport rules is expensive
As a follow-up, please pay when you use public transport! While traveling in Berlin, you need to validate your ticket once—not every time you get on. Berlin has people dressed as average passengers, in plain clothes such as jeans and t-shirts, who check randomly. A day ticket is only 7 euros, which is a lot cheaper than the 70 euro fine you get for not having a ticket. If you’re a student, and staying for a few months like I did, invest in the 60 euro monthly ticket. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth and not have to worry. Just remember to have your student I.D!
9. It’s an international city, truly
After traveling in Berlin I met more people who aren’t from Berlin than those who were born and bred in the city. I befriended an amazing visual artist from Poland, who also studied abroad in Granada (as I did) and is creating an art exhibition in Berlin. Plus, all of my co-workers at my internship were from German cities outside Berlin. It’s a multicultural environment so be ready to hear multiple languages, in addition to German.
10. You can charge your phone on (some) buses
Germans are nothing if not efficient and this is a solid example of how. Traveling in Berlin, on a few buses, I noticed there were charging stations via a USB. As someone who used Google Maps to navigate cities quite often, sometimes my portable But, I didn’t see this on every bus so I don’t know if it’s widely practiced.
11. Yes, Germans are forward but not mean
One of the biggest stereotypes I heard from people in the U.S. about Germans were their “rudeness” or “mean.” This isn’t to say there aren’t rude or mean Germans, because rude and mean people are everywhere. However, as I traveled in Berlin, I think what people pick up on Germans is their straight-forwardness. They get to the point, no fluff or anything. I think for some that comes off as mean, hence the stereotype. I didn’t mind it.
12. You should explore the history
To be very blunt, a lot of s*** went down in Berlin during World War II and during the years of the Berlin Wall. There’s a lot of history to be explored and I would be wrong to not include some of it on this list. From Museum Island to the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag Dome, there is tons of learn in Berlin, even if you aren’t a history buff.
13. There’s a strong Black Lives Matter presence
One of the ways I wanted to learn about Berlin, was learn about their Black population. As an African-American, I think about identity a lot and in Europe the diaspora is strong. Full of African-Americans, people from the Caribbean, Africans, etc. I found out that BLM is also an issue close to the heart of Black Berliners, and allies of the movement. Definitely check out their events if you’re interested in learning about BLM in Berlin!
14. YAAM Berlin is a must-experience
The Young African Artisans Market, or called YAAM for short, was one of my favorite places in Berlin. With a blend of Jamaican, Senegalese, Gambia, Sudanese, and other various Black nationalities, YAAM is a one of a kind space. You can hear reggae in one area, and techno in another, in true Berlin fashion. Support the local vendors by buying some food and hang out all night.
15. Markets are life
One of my favorite pastimes in Berlin was walking around and hopping on the U-Bahn to the markets. I visited in Hackesher, Boxhagener Platz, Mauerpark, YAAM, Holzmarkt, and a few random ones around the East Side Gallery and other pockets of the city. Market hopping is something I truly miss and highly recommend for your Berlin adventures.
16. Vintage over everything
Walking around Berlin is like walking through a 90s vintage Goodwill. Everyone is wearing or selling their clothes, specifically oversized jean jackets and matching denim on denim. I had to restrain myself from shopping because I personally love a good jean jacket. If you are a lover of all things 90s, you’ll love this city. Vintage shopping is a must for what to do in Berlin.
17. Hit up Urban Nation Berlin
Berlin is known for their art and if you didn’t know that, you will once you have walked the streets for a bit. Street art rules and you can find it everywhere, as you should! However, Urban Nation is a free art space that changes every so often depending on the exhibit. Located near Nollendorf Platz, Urban Nation is one of the coolest and best places to visit in Berlin.
The bathroom is full of graffiti, there are stairs with inspirational messages, and were even a few fake-robbers hanging from the ceiling when I was there. It’s an art fanatics paradise. You never know what you’ll get, so visit soon!
18. Rooftop bars are one-of-a-kind
Though I didn’t go to as many as I’d hoped, Berlin is crawling with cool bars to check out. And everyone loves a good rooftop bar in the summer! My favorite was Klunkerkranich that’s located on top of a mall. It costs a few euros to get in after 5pm, but the views and atmosphere are worth it. To avoid the line and get a good spot, go a little earlier with just enough time to hang out before the sun sets so you can actually see it set from above.
19. Hang out at The. Word. Berlin
Looking for a cafe, gallery, bookstore, event space, all in one in Berlin? Well check out The. Word. Berlin for all these needs and more. From Black Lives Matter events to pop ups with African food from across the diaspora, The. Word. Berlin is full of positive vibes and some of the best energy you can find in the city. It’s a one of the best places to visit in Berlin.
Berlin is a one-of-a-kind city and I am honored to have lived and learned there for a summer. I hope to you, whoever is reading this, that you are able to experience a few of my favorite things I’ve mentioned in this post. I wanted to outline things you may or may not heard of, so I hope you are able to enjoy all of the magic and realness Berlin has to offer. It’s a place I hope to return to one day.