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A taste of Berlin – Our first impressions

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Over the last couple of years, it seemed like everyone was raving about Berlin. Fellow travelers were stopping there for a few weeks or a few months at a time and we started to feel a strange pull to the German capital, as well. But did we really need to go to Berlin now?

Dani is from Germany. Even if we don’t permanently settle, there is always plenty of time to go to Berlin in the future. Why spend the summer there now? Just because it felt like everyone else was?

brandenburg gate at dusk

Plus, neither of us had really loved Berlin the last time we were there. Granted, this was in 2004, nearly a decade ago and we weren’t even together then. Back and forth, should we go, should we not – we toyed with the idea for ages.

Why not spend the summer in Greece (shouldn’t every nomad live on a Greek island just once?) or somewhere in Spain? On the water, somewhere relaxing and romantic? In the end, however, Berlin pulled us there with this pulsing magnetism she seems to have at the moment. Those five weeks ended up being the perfect summer getaway for us and the best choice we could have made.

berlin sunsetWe immediately felt like this was a city we belonged in, and we never stopped moving the whole time we were in town. It took a while, but we have finally processed it and are sharing with you here those first impressions we had of Berlin, with more in-depth pieces of the city to come.

We compiled this list of our initial impressions of the city over a lazy brunch one of our first mornings in Berlin:

berlin breakfast
One of many wonderful Berlin breakfasts

1. Berlin is green
A city of 3.3 million people could be covered in cement, but Berlin is one of the greenest cities we have ever visited. The beauty is not just about all the sprawling parks and open spaces, but how the people use these spaces to relax and enjoy the fresh air that really struck us as interesting.

berlin tiergarten from above
Tiergarten, Berlin’s biggest park, from above

2. Berlin is alternative
To anyone who has been to Berlin, this is as obvious as saying the sky is blue, but in Berlin, alternative is the new normal. There are so many ways to be alternative and in Berlin you find them all. Artists, writers, creative types, punks, hipsters, foreigners, intellectuals, hooligans, you name it and that subculture probably exists in Berlin. Fiddle-playing Spanish monks – there is probably a club night just for them somewhere in the city.

berlin kapitalismus zerstoert3. Berlin feels significant
No matter how of-the-moment this alternative culture feels, it is impossible not to be constantly aware of the significant historical moments that took place and all that these city streets have seen.

berlin wall bernauer strasse 1961
A reminder of the beginning of the wall construction in 1961

4. Berlin is divided
Most obviously, Berlin is the home of the Berlin Wall – this city was once home to two entirely different countries. And yes, we all know that only-in-Germany famous American celebrity who sang as the wall fell and unified the city. Today it is a sprawling metropolis, but east and west Berlin are architecturally and culturally distinct – the attitudes of the people who are drawn to the neighborhoods on either side is impossible to ignore.

berlin wall5. Berlin is full of flavor
Eat Vietnamese for lunch, Sushi for dinner and have Thai and Indian tomorrow. Shop at the Turkish market or eat Doner Kebabs every day but no matter which cuisine we seem to find, it’s always prepared authentically and full of flavor.

Berlin food6. Berlin is bike-friendly.
Amsterdam still tops European cities in terms of sheer numbers of cyclists, but Berliners cycle by the thousands down wide bike lanes. There are plenty of places to lock your bike, pedestrians and cars respect your right of way and expect you to respect theirs and bikes are welcome on public transport – for when it rains or you’ve just ridden too far that day.

berlin jess cycling7. Berlin is an island
Put simply, Berlin is an unGerman city surrounded by Germany on all sides, like Lesotho and South Africa. In Berlin, you hear more English than German on the streets, almost never eat German food, and find a default positive attitude not found in other parts of the country.

das ist so berlin
That’s so Berlin!

8. Berlin is cheap
Although locals will tell you gentrification is ruining the city, our rent was only €550 for the five weeks we stayed in Berlin, lunch specials were always under €5, a large bottle of beer in the supermarket is €0.65 and this giant brunch we ate as we wrote this was €10 each – including baskets of good bread, slices of cheese, cubes of cheese, cheese spreads, eggs, salads, juice and coffee.

Cheap market finds in Berlin
2 boxes of strawberries for €1, a watermelon for €2, a box of kakis for €2 – just a few of the cheap market finds in Berlin Kreuzberg

9. Berlin juxtaposes old and new brilliantly
How one city can be so cutting edge on the one hand, and yet so entirely connecting to history on the other is fascinating. How often these two things happen within one photo frame, even more so.

berlin cathedral and tv tower10. Berlin is Fun
No matter what you call fun, Berlin has it. Clubs are open 24 hours (if that’s your thing), you can sign up for a Trabi Safari and cruise around in a typical East German Trabant car. Quirky shops, independent museums with odd collections, markets, Sunday funday karaoke in front of thousands, laying on a river bank all afternoon drinking beers with friends, playing mini-golf just off the 5km landing strip at a decommissioned airport in the center of the city – there is an intellectual sense of humor and joie de vivre in Berlin unlike most other cities in the world.

Berlin fun11. Berliners seem to have a lot of free time
There are downsides to Berlin, one of which is sky-high unemployment rates. Many people live ‘on the dole’ here, and gladly it would seem. But because Berlin is also a place where artists, musicians, designers, media folks and entrepreneurs all call home, there are so many people wandering the streets at all times of day, it seems like there are endless amounts of free time to be enjoyed in the city.

Berlin Spree River Beach12. Berlin is gritty
This goes along with being unGerman. Unlike other cities, like Munich – where you could eat your bratwurst off the street, Berlin has it’s dark and gritty sides. There are still lots of abandoned buildings and many in need of restoration. Often times, a beautiful cafe or concert space sits behind one of these abandoned looking buildings, too, so you come face to face with the grit, rather than it being relegated to a certain area of town.
gritty berlin

Have you been to Berlin? What were your impressions? Share in the comments below!

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30 Comments

  1. Zab and I were just talking about Berlin this evening…and making plans to be there at the beginning of March next year. Hopefully that’ll be the first of several visits in 2014 as we scope it out as a likely future base! We’re both really impressed you managed to rent an apartment for a month in Kreuzberg during summer for just €550! How did you find that?
    Sam recently posted..300 Days of Travel

    1. Oh, exciting! I hope next March won’t be as freezing as this year, when it was still snowing all month and too cold to do anything. About the rent – just don’t go with AirBnB or another international rental website, but a local (German) one. We used a website that specifically offers sublets, and since there are so many students in Berlin who leave for the summer, there are a lot. They are not looking to make a profit of renting it out, but simply not having to pay rent while they’re gone, so they don’t charge extra. We were shocked to hear that friends who had booked their apartments through AirBnB paid THREE TIMES as much as we did!

      1. Is there any local ones you could recommend? I’ve been looking at Airbnb and other international sites but if there’s a way to save money then .. yes please 😛

    1. Thanks, Jeff 🙂 It was much more diverse than we remembered it from our last visit almost a decade ago. I feel like Berlin is changing all the time, which also keeps it interesting.

  2. Berlin is my favourite city in the world and I’m so glad I read your post, because the reasons why I love it are all listed above! I just adore the fact that there’s something happening all the time, there’s so many layers of history and anything really goes. Very jealous that you got to spend so much time there!
    Caitlyn recently posted..Belgrade, the Balkan let-down

    1. Thanks so much, Caitlyn! We did spend quite a while there, but realized that it was still way too little time to uncover all the layers this city has. A long return trip has to happen for sure 🙂

    1. We have yet to see the light festival but I actually just saw pictures from this year’s festival and thought it looked amazing. I guess one year we’ll have to stay for at least part of the winter in Germany – light festival AND Christmas markets! 🙂

  3. YES! Berlin is definitely all of these things and more. I especially agree with what you said about it just feeling significant. The history buff in me could not get enough of Berlin!

    And as for Berlin’s alternative side… I tell people all the time that I could probably move to Berlin quite easily as a freelancer, but that my boyfriend would be hard-pressed to find a finance job there! Haha.

    Seriously, though, LOVE Berlin. I already can’t wait to go back.
    Amanda recently posted..My Big Fat Greek Islands Photo Essay

    1. Amanda – you are so right about the job situation! A paradise for freelancers, but a nightmare for bankers 😉 I remember when back in my days as a recruiter people kept asking me to find them a finance job in Berlin and it was almost impossible.

    1. Gemma – I have to admit that Berlin is not one of those cities that reveal its beauty instantly, you have to go look for it 😀 And it sure can be ugly in some parts. We are hoping to return next summer for a few weeks, so if you fancy another trip, we’d love to show you the Berlin we love! 🙂

  4. I’ve been considering Berlin more and more lately as a possible base if I can’t continue living in London after my program ends. After reading this I’m thinking I should just move there regardless as it seems like it has everything I want in a city and is a thousand times cheaper than London 🙂

    Now to start learning German!

    Also, the first two photos are absolutely amazing.
    Amanda Slavinsky recently posted..Afternoon Tea in London: Round 2

    1. Yes, definitely move to Berlin, Amanda!! It’s also not too hard to get a visa there (you should talk to Adam about it) You don’t even need to learn German to live in Berlin 😉 But of course it does make things easier.

  5. Great round up of some of the best things Berlin has to offer. I guess it might not be one of those “love at first sight” cities (it wasn’t for me, at least), but it definitely grows on you. It helps to have local friends – actually, it makes an immense difference, as I’ve learned. Berlin is now one of my favorites cities – vibrant, gritty, sprawling but cozy, hectic yet suffused with a deeply relaxing vibe. Oh, and don’t get me started on those gorgeous brunches… Good luck!
    Lunaguava recently posted..Blue Lagoons and White Glaciers in Iceland

    1. I agree, Berlin is not a city to fall in love with at first sight. I was more impressed with all the things that the city revealed to us over time than the obvious sights that everybody who spends a few days in Berlin visits.

    1. Haha, that’s hilarious. We heard that bouncers in Berlin are very picky!! We have yet to explore Berlin’s club scene but people seem to LOVE it!

    1. Oh, you’re going to Germany – exciting!! 🙂 I hope you’ll make it to Berlin!! You’ll have to keep us updated on your plans – we might be there around the same time & it would be great to finally meet you!

  6. Great post. I ”went” to Berlin tens of times but always ended my trip at the train station or one of the airports. Really cannot wait to spend more time in this fascinating and culturally diverse city.

  7. I love the alternative vibe that Berlin has and for me as a very creative, chaotic and alternative (in one word: untypical) german who loves to write and who dreams of a nomadic lifestyle this city is just perfect to find like minded people.

    “Berlin is an unGerman city surrounded by Germany”. With this sentence you described why I love Berlin so much. It is not typical German and therefore a nice place to live (hey, I am allowed to say that as a German 😉 )

    As I lived in South East Asia and currently in London I could never imagine myself to live in another city of my home country than in Berlin.
    Sebastian recently posted..Dec 5, Bangkok Women: Thai Beauty with Western Influences

    1. Well, the apartment we stayed in is actually 400 per month and having looked at apartments in Berlin for the last month I have to say that they’ve got a pretty sweet deal!! Rent seems to have gone up like crazy over the last couple of years!! Still amazingly cheap compared to London, our last permanent base 🙂

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