Here are 7 tips to make the best of Berlin’s quirks, on your Germany vacation.
Recent decades have seen Berlin fast become one of the most international cities in Europe. On top of its own immigration history, and open borders with its Schengen Zone neighbours, Berlin has become a hot spot for young people from across the world, looking to work, play, study, immerse themselves in the artistic scene, and ideally, learn German (Uh…best intentions, right?).
Yet the city remains resolutely, steadfastly German in many respects. For travellers, this is mostly a good thing. Who wants to visit new countries and cities just to have all the same experiences they can have at home? But to fully appreciate and enjoy the city, there are some little quirks to be aware of.
A year after a short trip to Europe, I decided to come back to Berlin and stay for two months. While that’s far from enough time to learn all its ins and outs (and nowhere near enough time to master German), I did come away with an insight and appreciation for the city that I’d missed on my first Germany vacation. So, here are just a few of the cultural quirks travellers can expect when travelling to Berlin.
1. For everything else…use cash
Credit cards? Nein, danke. Germans tend to resent unnecessary debt in any form, and similarly prefer to avoid leaving a financial paper trail. So while your credit card will probably pay for the essentials of your Germany vacation at your hotel or in mid to upscale restaurants, cash is king in Berlin. Supermarkets, bars, clubs, local restaurants, and the BVG transit system will often only accept cash or German debit cards.
That doesn’t mean you should carry vast amounts of cash around every time you go out. Your card will be fine in larger retailers, including KaDeWe, the grand old dame of Berlin department stores. Just don’t be surprised if you see another customer pass hundreds, or even thousands of Euros in cash over the counter for a big purchase.
Privacy and credit card security are also taken very seriously in Germany, and many agencies will not accept a credit card payments over the phone.
2. If it isn’t for fun, it’s closed on Sunday
On a Germany vacation, you won’t have to worry too much about what to do in Berlin on Sunday. All the museums, tourist attractions, bars, restaurants, and so on will be open. Just don’t plan on making it a shopping day, even for a quick visit to the nearest pharmacy. Department stores, grocery stores, and specialty shops of any kind will all be closed. In Berlin (and in most of Europe), this is a day for relaxing or enjoying time with family and friends.
Our Guide to Musuem Hopping in Berlin, Germany
One popular place to land on a Sunday is the Mauerpark, just west of Eberswalder Strasse U-Bahn. Markets take over the park every Sunday with food, stalls with some great souvenirs, free live performances in the park, and a surviving section of the wall where it’s not unusual to find several new graffiti art creations every weekend.
3. English isn’t as common as you might think
You’ll probably hear more English in Berlin than in most cities in Germany, and a good part of the population is fluent. Just don’t assume everyone is fluent. This isn’t Scandinavia or the Netherlands. German is the most common ‘first language’ in the European Union, and many Germans get by just fine without ever having to learn English. As with the use of credit cards, the more local you go, the less English you’re likely to encounter. In Prenzlauer Berg, I found that among staff at my local café, bakery, grocer, several nearby restaurants, convenience stores, and even a doctor’s office, very few spoke English. Staying in the more tourist-friendly Kurfurstendamm district has been a different story.
Those in Berlin on a Germany vacation have little reason to worry. The city is becoming more popular every year, and so the demand for English is growing. But dusting off your high school German will almost certainly smooth a few rough conversations. Even your worst attempt will be appreciated.
4. Cross when the Ampelmänn is green, not before
The little rules matter in Germany, so if you’re the kind of traveller who likes to get around on foot, take note. Jaywalking really isn’t done in Berlin, which can feel odd when you consider how uncongested and pleasantly walkable the city is. But just as pedestrians tacitly agree not to walk in bike lanes (unless you want to hear some of German’s more ‘colourful’ phrases), Berliners simply don’t cross against the light, even if the way is clear.
The distinctive light in question, by the way, is Ampelmännchen, wearing his instantly recognizable hat. The figure is one of the few cultural icons from the former East Germany to have not only survived reunification, but to have been adopted by the west as well. He even has his own small chain of souvenir stores in Berlin.
5. Always buy and validate your ticket on the BVG
There are no checks or barriers on Berlin’s public transit system, which keeps U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations relatively congestion-free, even in rush hour. It might sound obvious, and we know you’re going to obey the rules anyway, but you must have a validated ticket, ready to show attendants at any time while on the BVG.
On station platforms, and on buses and trams, you’ll find a machine that stamps a time on the designated spot on your ticket, validating it. This works for individual tickets or passes, each of which will only need to be stamped once to be good for its entire validity.
Don’t risk travelling with an expired or un-validated ticket. During my stay, I saw more than one foreigner, presumably on a Germany vacation, waving a blank ticket with futility after being detained and fined by a smiling Berlin transit officer. I also recommend investing in one of the passes if you’re staying more than a couple of days. Individual tickets are weirdly pricey (and yes, you’ll need cash for the machine).
6. Nobody can quite agree on what “German food” is
To be fair, do you know what “Canadian” or “American” food is? You can probably name individual dishes from certain regions, but what defines a country’s cuisine? In some cases it’s clear. In others, like Germany, it’s not.
This is a huge country by European standards and the variety of German cuisines reflects this. The heavy dishes of Bavaria have very little in common with the seafood popular in the north, or popular dishes in North-Rhine Westphalia, or the Potsdam region, where Berlin is located. As a major international city, there are restaurants in Berlin for most every region in the world.
Perhaps the closest you will get to a “German” restaurant is one of the numerous Austrian restaurants in town, which tend to specialize in the heavier cuisine found in southern Germany. The big exception is around May, aka spargel season. This is when Berlin’s restaurants go crazy for white asparagus, usually served in a delicious Hollandaise sauce with fresh ham and potatoes.
If you want to try a dish that is 100% Berlin, order up a currywurst from an imbiss or cheap food stand (don’t pay twice the price for one at your hotel). This uniquely Berlin snack of chopped up sausage smothered in curried ketchup and curry powder, is served with fries and enjoyed by pretty much everyone from students to celebrities. If you’re on Kurfurstendamm, one of the most famous avenues in Berlin, consider dropping into Bier’s Kudamm 195. This is where the celebs go for theirs during the Berlinale, and it’s entirely possible to order up a 300 Euro bottle of Dom Perignon here, alongside your 5 Euro currywurst.
7. Berlin nightlife is wild, unpretentious, and does not like your cell phone
Berlin attracts thousands upon thousands of young people from across the world, looking to immerse themselves in the famed wonderland of Berlin’s club scene, while on their Germany vacation. Many wind up turned away at the door, or worse. Berlin’s nightlife is everything its reputation claims and more, but there are a few important differences that might surprise would be club-goers from other countries.
This is a city prepared to turn almost any abandoned space into a party, so the nightlife is vast and endlessly varied. There are venues for drinking, venues for dancing, venues for live performances, and a lot more. They just aren’t designed to be mixed. If you go to a dance club in Berlin, it’s expected you’re there for dancing. Dress down in neat, comfortable, dark clothes (unless there is a dress code), don’t stand around talking too much, and keep your phone tucked away. This is all good advice for the queue outside as well. Photos are also strictly forbidden in many clubs, so don’t count on keeping a visual record of your big night out.
Berlin’s party reputation attracts a lot of rubberneckers out to see or be seen, which is precisely the clientele most Berlin clubs don’t want. They tend to disregard conventional standards of beauty, wealth, age, celebrity, or status, in favour of guests who will fit in with the club’s individual flavour. Of course, this creates a nightlife culture enjoyed by people of all ages, backgrounds, sexualities, and identities.
If security does refuse you entry, it’s often because they believe you aren’t looking for what the club has to offer, and so won’t have a good time. If that seems unfair, remember that this culture has created one of the most fabled nightlife scenes in the world. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.
By the time I returned home, Berlin had secured itself among my favourite cities in the world. A major international city whose influence only continues to grow year on year, it still feels unmistakeably European, and German. Adapt and embrace its little differences, and it can be the highlight of any trip to Europe.