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Berlin is a city in eastern Germany and its capital city. It has a rich, colourful history, world-class museums, galleries and orchestras, a multi-national community and a liberal attitude to enjoying life. It’s the largest city in Germany, with a population of 3.8 million inhabitants. Famous for the notorious Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate, modern Berlin is a buzzing, creative city with world-class dining, cool pop-up bars and street food stalls, and excellent car access.
The history of Berlin dates back to the 13th Century and it’s prime position on two trade routes. As part of the Berlin-Brandenburg Metropolitan Area in the 1920s, Berlin was the 3rd-largest municipal area in the world. After WWII it was quartered into zones controlled by US, Soviet, British, and French forces, and then in August 1961 the Wall went up, dividing the city into East and West Berlin, split between East and West Germany. East Berlin was the capital of the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic, while Bonn was the de-facto West German capital until German unification in 1990.
Berlin is a reasonably priced city compared to others in Europe, which is reflected in the car hire deals available. For a Fiat Panda (mini) prices start at just €17.91 a day when you book off-season, while the Skoda Fabia (economy) is only €19 € a day and even a premium estate car such as the Audi A6 Avant—great for comfortable trips with the family—is just €47 a day. Get yourself a great car with Enjoy to explore Berlin and Germany for mobile, independent travel, but first, here’s some more about this lively, modern city.
- About Berlin: Berlin is just over 150 km from Poland and is quite hot in summer and very cold in winter, with lots of snow, biting winds, and well-defined seasons. The city is the most populous in Europe with a population of 3.8 million people, while the greater municipality (including Potsdam, Brandenburg etc.) is 6 million inhabitants. However, many parts of Berlin don’t feel busy or crowded due to their airy ambience and expansive boulevards.
- Airports and Access: Berlin has two airports ̶ Schöenfeld Airport (SXF) is 18 km (11 miles) southeast of the city centre and serving airlines include easyJet, Ryanair, and Germania. Berlin Tegel “Otto Lilienthal” Airport (TGL) is in the city and is a hub for Lufthansa and Eurowings, handling 22 million passengers in 2018. The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) is still under construction and will gradually replace Schö
- Driving Around Berlin: There’s no shortage of nice drives and fascinating destinations in and around Berlin and Brandenburg ̶ here are some of our favourites:
- Famous Berlin: Famous sons and daughters of this city include Frederick the Great, Erich Mielke, (Stasi head), Kaiser Wilhelm (of WWI), The ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen (WWI fighter pilot), Walter Gropius, Andre Previn, Jürgen Prochnow, Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich. However, perhaps the most famous of all Berlin’s progeny is the Berlin Wall. As intertwined with the legacy of the German people and state as it physically was with the streets, it was torn down in November 1989 and its demise marked the end of the Soviet Union. You might even still be able to buy a piece in some tourist shops (although most sold now are fake).
Foreign residents of Berlin come from about 190 countries, and the city has the largest number of Turkish or Turkish-German inhabitants outside of Turkey. The city has a long history of national and international immigration, with at least 20 communities of non-indigenous residents boasting 10,000 members or more each, and an immigrant population of about 800,000. Recently, Berlin has become a hub for entrepreneurs, start-ups, tech firms and software engineers, although the associated price rises haven’t hit Berliners’ pockets quite yet.
Potsdam is the capital of Brandenburg region and a previous residence of Kaisers and Prussian kings. It was specifically designed to be a balance of calming nature and architecture: in the palaces and gardens of Frederick the Great’s Sanssoucci, the city proudly displays its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Situated on the river Havel and on five interconnected lakes, it’s incredible that such a lush natural place is so close (25 km and about 40 minutes) to Berlin.
Just under 100 km (60 miles) south of Berlin is the Spree Forest (Spreewald), a beautiful biosphere reserve of forested meadow and wetlands/canals, it’s a favourite of Berliners. You can take a boat tour or hire a canoe to explore the waterways, where you’ll find plenty of B&Bs and even secluded swimming spots and beaches! There are museums, castles, and even an old steam train in the nearby town of Lübbenau, and (of course – Berliners love cycling) there’s a superb cycle route network throughout.
Thanks to the borderless travel within the EU (and also thanks to the fact that Berlin is within a day’s drive of a dozen countries), the destination choices are endless. As an example, Szczecin in Poland is two hours’ drive (150 km/93 miles) north of Berlin. Famous for pierogis (a delicious dumpling filled with anything from pork to sweet cream cheese) it’s a lovely port town with a jumbled architectural history. Don’t forget, Poland has excellent vodka, too!
Wannsee is located in the southwestern Berlin neighbourhood of Steglitz-Zehlendorff and is a popular summer trip for Berliners. Connected with Potsdam via the Glienicke Bridge, it has the largest inland beach in Europe. It’s basically two lakes connected by a river, with palaces set in stunning grounds and too much history to mention here. Suffice to say it’s a crucial part of the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Strandbad Wansee (the beach & lido) gets crowded – go a bit further to Kladow (by ferry) to escape the crowds.
Guide to Berlin
History and Hipster
Berlin is a haven for hipsters and hippies, but it is also chic, inventive, and tons of fun. It’s safe, reasonably clean, with wide boulevards, excellent public transport, loads of green spaces and ample amenities. The roads are in good condition, German drivers are generally considerate (but fast, more of which later) and there’s a city-wide, highly developed cycling infrastructure which further adds to the city’s Green credentials. There are a lot of cyclists in Berlin, so drivers need to be extra careful!
For the coolest hangouts in Berlin go to Neuköln, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. Mitte and Prenzlauerberg are similarly cool but a bit more chic. Generally the ‘centre’ of Berlin is a triangular area between Checkpoint Charlie in the south, the Brandenburg Gate in the west, and Alexanderplatz in the north, where the Alexanderplatz TV Tower (check the rotating restaurant near the top) is a prominent landmark that helps you navigate the city.
Although not as obvious as it was, it’s still clear where the East-West divide was in the city. Compare the green and wealthy Tiergarten and designer Potsdamer Platz with the muted colours of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, for example. However, those areas previously in East Berlin have been seriously refurbished over last 30 years since unification and many areas in the former East, such as Prenzlaur-Berg, have tree-lined boulevards of tall town houses. Apartments in the former East Berlin became prized in the 90s for their cheap rents and spacious flats with high ceilings. Rent prices have close to equalized now though, especially as costs are were being pushed up by AirBnB lenders throughout Berlin.
Sports and Pastimes
Berlin is a sporting city, and pastimes are plentiful (in summer, 10-person table tennis is popular). The ‘Old Lady’ Hertha BSC is a founding member of the Bundesliga, Germany’s top football league, and 1st FC Union Berlin has also climbed into the top tier. The city also has top teams in ice hockey, basketball, and handball, among others. There’s lovely swimming in the city’s lakes (or swimming pools!) besides which you can find almost any sport, from golf to black-light mini-golf.
What to do in Berlin
The main tourist sites have their own magnetic charm, but the larger Berlin area has so many more diversions. Here are a few essential Berlin excursions:
Wall and Gate
Berlin has many historic sites, but at the top is the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). Built between 1788 and 1791, it was Germany’s first Greek revival building, supported on two rows of Doric columns. It was crowned in 1793 with the iconic Quadriga – a statue of the goddess of victory riding a 4-horse chariot (which Napoleon stole in 1806). Subsequently during the Cold War it became a symbol of division – a literal exclusion zone within the arc of the Wall, off-limits to all – and then a symbol of German unity after the Wall fell in 1989.
Checkpoint Charlie was the main east-west crossing point after 1961, and the only place foreigners such as tourists and diplomatic staff could enter Soviet-controlled East Berlin. The Allied side’s ‘building’ was just a shack, which is actually now in the Allied Museum (there’s a replica for tourists on site) but the checkpoint was the site of spy-era prisoner exchanges, military standoffs and daring escapes by East Germans.
Museum Island is one of the city’s World Heritage Sites, and its magnificent collections span 6,000 years of art and cultural history. Home to four museums and a national art gallery, you can buy a 3-day pass for €29. The Stasi Museum is also a must-see ̶ it was said that 1 in 3 people were informants for Germany’s infamous secret police during the Soviet era and the literal kilometres of files kept in their old headquarters (now a museum) in Lichtenberg, or the offices which remain untouched and like the set of a 70s spy film, attest to the Stasi’s power.
Berlin’s club scene isn’t just techno (although it’s almost revered here) but a world-class bastion of the genre is Berghain in Friedrichshain. It’s one of the world’s top clubs which is notoriously hard to get into at peak times, has a strict no-camera policy, and is basically open from Friday night until Monday morning. Friendly, eccentric, and tolerant, it exemplifies clubbing in Berlin.
Eating out in Berlin
Berlin has the multi-ethnic, international variety you’d expect in a city of 190 nationalities, from fine dining to moreish street vendor snacks. Here’s a few of Berlin’s best eateries:
Nobelhart and Schmutzig in trendy Mitte pioneered Berlin’s popular food sustainability movement and everything comes from within a 125-mile radius. Everyone sits around one long table, giving the restaurant a less formal feel than equivalent eateries.
Next is the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, a beautiful 19th-century hall in which local vendors sell cheeses, charcuterie, organic vegetables and more. Grab a bottle of wine with your food then claim a table to enjoy it. Thursdays feature weekly food events showcasing international grub like tacos or Vietnamese banh mi.
Berlin has a large Turkish expat community, and Fes might be Berlin’s best Turkish restaurant. Just 15 minutes’ walk from Checkpoint Charlie, its grilled meats, roast vegetables and proper salads mean it is popular so book at least four weeks in advance.
Mercan is nestled between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain and is a top Turkish restaurant similar to Fes, but with a more casual, late-night clientele and excellent vegetarian options.
You must try German food while in Berlin! Try Zur Gerichtslaube near the River Spree. It’s an eatery serving Berlin/Brandenburg cuisine, set in a 13th-Century vaulted building with beer garden. Pork in various forms features heavily on the menu, but there is much more. Try the frittered pear stuffed with blue cheese on a bed of salad.
Berlin has two airports, Schöenfeld Airport (SXF) and Berlin Tegel “Otto Lilienthal” Airport (TGL). Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) is still under construction and will eventually replace Schöenfeld. Enjoy partners with trusted car hire providers like Enterprise, Alamo and Europcar at these air hubs.
Buses and Trains
Public transport in Berlin is excellent and services are frequent on all modes. The U-bahn is the underground, the S-bahn is overground suburban rail, and there are extensive bus and tram networks (the trams are only in old East Berlin). Tickets are all still paper and can be bought at U-bahn/S-bahn stations or on board the bus or tram. Don’t forget to validate your ticket before boarding in one of the red or yellow boxes on platforms.
Drive on the right-hand side of the road in Berlin. There are two default speed limits in Germany ̶ 50 km/h (30 mph) in urban built-up areas and 100 km/h (60 mph) outside urban areas. The autobahn speed limit is 130 km/h (80 mph) in certain areas for safety, but there are areas without any speed limits. You should always be in control of your vehicle, and be ready to get out of the way of other drivers, some of whom will drive at speeds in excess of 200 km/h (125 mph) or more.
If from the EU, drivers must only carry their driving licence of their home country. Drivers from other countries should carry their passport, insurance documents and car hire documents.
Speeding more than 3 km/h over the limit is considered an infraction which may yield a fine.
Using your phone while driving is illegal.
There are cyclists everywhere in Berlin, so please drive with consideration.
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