Berlin is one of the most exciting European cities that I’ve been to. Being one of the cheapest cities in Germany (prices here are much lower than London), Berlin attracts young artists and start-up entrepreneurs from all over Europe, contributing to its youthful vibes. The city has a long history of being a hub of counterculture movements and alternative lifestyles, even as far back as the 1920s when Magnus Herschfeld conducted his research on human sexuality, giving birth to modern day gay rights movement.
I adore Berlin. These are 9 essential facts that I found out about the city:
Berlin is a new city
Yes, it is new, especially when compared to other European capitals. While the history of Berlin dates back to a few hundred years ago, much of the city was reduced to rubble at the end of World War 2. After the war, the city was divided into East Berlin and West Berlin. Berlin was reconstructed, and while some prominent structures were rebuilt to its pre-war design, other parts of the city were rebuilt in accordance with the mid-20th century design sensibilities. Urban landscapes in what was then East Berlin are still dominated by huge concrete apartment blocks befitting the socialist ideology of DDR.
While you don’t see any semblance of WW2 ruins anymore in Berlin, the Germans thoughtfully preserved the ruins of Gedächtniskirche to remind future generations of the extent of destruction and devastation a war could bring to a nation.
Berlin is cheaper than other major European capitals
If you’re looking for a relatively affordable experience in a world-class European city, Berlin is the place for you. Prices here are lower, to the tune of 30-40%, than London. Post-reunification construction boom in 1990s also culminated into real estate oversupply, the effects of which are still felt today. This means that the rent here is much cheaper than the rest of Germany. You may find street food for EUR2.5 here, or a sit-down meal for EUR7. A nice AirBnB accommodation in a good area of town may cost you EUR70, a fraction of what it would cost in London or Paris.
Berlin has an amazing public transportation system
Berlin’s public transportation system is impressive, and surprisingly cheap. One-day pass costs you EUR7. Tourists, however, may get confused as Berlin’s many metro lines make for a convoluted system- so it really pays to know what S-bahn and U-bahn trains are for.
U-bahn trains are akin to Metro trains, they have higher frequencies, and stations are located closer to each other. The S-bahn trains work like suburban trains, or in Malaysia, KTM Komuter trains. The frequency isn’t as high as U-bahn trains (but still much higher than our KTM Komuter), and the gap between stations isn’t as small as the U-bahn, but they make for excellent option if you wish to commute longer distance across town.
As with many other facilities in Berlin, the city’s metro system has ample capacity to serve the city of 3 million inhabitants, so chances are you won’t find yourself in a very packed train, even during rush hours.
If you don’t feel like taking the trains, Berlin taxis and uber cars are much cheaper than in London. A trip from the city to the Tegel Airport shouldn’t cost you much more than EUR20.
Berlin has an amazing ethnic food scene
Germany’s openness after World War 2 has made the country an attractive destination for migrants from all over the world. This makes it an amazing destination for culinary adventure. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are very popular, and they are pretty cheap, with a meal costing you around EUR7. I even had one of the best pad thai I had in a restaurant in Schoneberg.
For a more local experience, head to a German gastropub. Portions are huge here, and prices are upward of EUR10. If you’re a drinker, beer is extremely cheap here, often cheaper than mineral water.
One of the must-haves when in Berlin is their traditional breakfast set. I had a hearty breakfast of gravax, poached fish, eggs with caviar on top, local cheese, and fresh fruits for EUR9.
If you miss spicy food and sambal, head to Mabuhay, an Indonesian restaurant next to the Mendehllson-Batholdy metro station. Their ayam balado memang cukup pedas, and they make great soto too.
Berlin museums are impressive
Berlin has some of the best museums and galleries in Europe. Pergamon Museum even features the Ishtar Gate, reconstructed using actual material excavated in Iraq. Apart from the gate, the museum also boasts a wealth of other artefacts from the Middle East, from the ancient days to the Islamic era. There’s even an exhibition that features ancient Quranic manuscripts, some of them among the oldest in the world.
If you’re a fan of visual arts, head to the Altes Museum for its impressive collection of paintings, with a floor dedicated to artworks by German painters.
What I love about Berlin museums is that these museums are much less crowded with tourists, even during summer months, compared to those in Rome or London. You get to take your time and enjoy the exhibitions in relative peace and quiet.
If you’re a museum buff, it’s worth spending EUR24 on a museum pass, valid for three days.
Commie Berlin is worth a peek into
Prior to reunification, East Berlin was the capital of DDR, or more commonly known as East Germany. The communist East Germany was relatively isolated from the non-communist world, so life there was pretty different back then.
The DDR Museum is worth checking out. Walking into it is akin to delving into the everyday life of a DDR citizen.
It’s a fun exhibition, you may even sit inside the Trabant, a popular car model produced in the DDR, and “drive” the car. The Trabant is so flimsy that East Germans used to call it a “plastic car”. To get the most out of the experience at the museum, I suggest that you watch ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ beforehand.
Germans are very frank about their dark past
Germany has really come to terms with their dark past. Yes, they were instrumental in starting two world wars and were responsible for the destruction that these wars brought to Europe, but today’s Germany has learnt its lessons and is a very different nation.
There’s a big monument, recently constructed in Berlin, to remember Jews who were murdered in Europe during Shoah. The Nazis, in its plan to annihilate the Jewish civilisation, murdered six million Jews. Hitler didn’t stop there; he also sought to eliminate the Gypsies, who were deemed to be racially inferior, and systematically murdered homosexuals.
I’ve been to Auschwitz, which was a sobering experience, and this monument in Berlin is a manifestation of Germany’s regret for the sins of her past. It’s an excellent place to reflect on not only Holocaust, but also issues facing our world today too, from the rise of fascism in the West to the problem of racism still prevalent in many places, including Malaysia. Hate empowers humans to do inhumane things, which is why hate in any form, be it racial prejudice or homophobia, is dangerous.
Berlin has a large Muslim community
Yes, and they live pretty well here, with many of them taking up productive jobs in the economy. I was in Berlin a week before Eid, and the main shopping district of Wittenbergplatz was full of shoppers, many in their hijab, doing their Eid shopping. There are also plenty of refugees in the city, and many of them take up productive jobs in the economy. I went to a falafel shop in Schoneberg, and talked to the owner, a middle-aged Arab guy, who came to Berlin to flee war and violence in Iraq. The falafel was delicious, an upon finding out that I came from Malaysia, he warmed up to me instantly. At least, amidst the multitude of issues our country is facing currently, Malaysia is still looked up in the Muslim world as a success story.
The Muslim community here is also integrated, there are even female police officers donning the hijab here; which is definitely not a common scene anywhere else in Europe.
Summer in Berlin is just lovely
Berliners love summer days, and the city looks its best when the sun shines bright. Put your sunnies on, bring your picnic basket and sit on the lawn facing the river Spree, and trust me, you’ll instantly fall in love in Berlin (if you haven’t).