Beginner’s Guide to Berlin

By Rebecca Cox

Berlin, once a divided city, is now a welcoming capital of commerce and culture. Located in northern Germany near the Polish border, Berlin is easily accessible from Eastern and Western Europe. Home to nightclubs, museums, government, and business, Berlin is the city with something for everyone. Berlin offers new and exciting experiences whether its your first time traveling or you’re a seasoned veteran.

GET GOING

Getting around the city is easy, too. Berlin’s U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and bus system are extremely user-friendly and all stations have instructions in English. If you’re going to be in the city for more than a few days, consider the 7-day unlimited pass – it’s valid on all forms of transportation in the city, and costs between 25 and 30 Euro. Berlin has one of the best underground systems in the world, but be warned: you MUST remember to validate your ticket before boarding.

GET BUSY

With the entire city at your fingertips, where should you start? A nice way to familiarize yourself with Berlin is to walk down Unter den Linden, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. It will lead you across the River Spree and all the way to the famous Brandenburg Gate, the site of President Reagan’s speech regarding the iconic Berlin Wall. Check out the nearby East Side Gallery, one of only three remaining sections of the Wall (take the U-Bahn to Ostbahnhof).

If you’re at all interested in history, art, or architecture, take advantage of Berlin’s many museums and churches. Some of the best are the Pergamon Museum (antiquities and Islamic art), the Gemäldegalerie (13th-18th century European art), and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (no relation to Harry Potter, but a beautiful building nonetheless). Or if you’re just a kid at heart the Berlin Zoo, located in the Tiergarten, is a great way to spend an afternoon. Knut, the baby polar bear there, is a local celebrity to Berliners. When he was first born, he was all over the news and television, and is still featured in ads across the city. Berliners seem to be obsessed with him, and for good reason: he’s adorable. And of course, you can’t visit Berlin without going to KaDeWe, the largest department store in continental Europe. It boasts several floors devoted solely to food, a great chance to sample local specialties. You may immediately associate Germany with foods like bratwurst and sauerkraut, but don’t overlook treats like gourmet chocolate and – my favorite – apple strudel.

GET OUTSIDE THE CITY

German history, particularly in the 20th century, is quite dark, but the German people do not try to hide from their past. Indeed, they have made great strides in preserving history, even – or perhaps, especially – that which is painful to remember. If you have time for a day trip while in Berlin, I highly recommend the 45-minute train ride to Oranienburg, where you will find Sachsenhausen concentration camp. This is an extremely important memorial and museum that should not be missed. Original and reconstructed buildings house exhibits on the atrocities that occurred there, and there’s a free audio guide available at the visitor center.

Today’s Berlin is a blend of old and new. Some people may still picture Berlin as it was after the war, but it’s replete with all the conveniences of a modern capital city. As a major transportation hub, it has several train terminals (including Hauptbahnhof, the largest in Europe and worth a visit for the views alone) and major airports (Schoenefeld, Tegel and Tempelhof). It is home to world-renowned art collections, classic architecture, and the footprints of history, but also has a thriving nightlife, a fanatic sports scene, and the bustle of commerce. Go for the old, but stay for the new.

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