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  • Karin Zeitvogel

Berlin for people who don't live there. Yet.

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

I first went to Berlin when I was a kid. The Cold War was at its height, and Berlin and Germany were still divided. The trip was a gift from my parents to me and three of my siblings – the other sib was 4-years-old at the time so probably wouldn't have gotten much out of the trip. We lived in Hamburg, flew into Berlin, and went on a guided tour that included crossing into the east, if I remember correctly.

My abiding memory of the trip was something the tour guide said as we drove down the tree-lined Unter den Linden in East Berlin: she said that people in the east could come to the west using the underground railway. Not the tube or the subway or the underground, but the underground railway. I was 14, spoke German and knew about the U-Bahn – the ‘U’ stands for underground – but wondered if she was referring to divided Germany’s answer to the Underground Railway that Harriet Tubman was a conductor on. I remember shooting the guide a look; it drew no reaction.

The next time I went to Berlin was roughly 20 years later. The Wall had come down six months earlier and there were massive traffic jams on the roads leading to Berlin as everyone and their Onkel drove to the city in their Trabants and Beemers.

I drove up through former East Germany from Switzerland (not in a Trabant or BMW) for an event. My abiding memories from that trip were the layers of black gunk from factory smoke and diesel engines, caked onto the sides of buildings; the hint of entrepreneurship as handmade signs outside homes announced there was a room to rent, and the clusters of skinheads hanging out on street corners. When I got to Berlin, I stayed in a Soviet-inspired architecture building in the east of the city. I don’t remember much about it, other than the room and the building were practically empty and there was a lot of formica.

The time after that, it was for the World Cup final in 2006, and I drank pink beer on Unter den Linden as my then 9-year-old son in his Italy jersey waved one of those giant foam hands in the air and we watched Italy beat France.

Another 15 years elapsed before the next visit, when my son flew in from the U.S. just before Christmas 2021, and I caught a train up from southwest Germany to check out the Christmas markets and do some touristy things, in spite of the omicron variant. There have been two other visits since then.

Where to stay

When I went to Berlin in December 2021, I looked for a hotel that wouldn’t break the bank and wouldn’t require us to change trains on the way into town from the airport. We ended up staying in an Ibis Hotel, practically opposite the Ostbahnhof. Not only was it a straight shot from the airport and a three-minute walk from the train station, but it was also right near part of the Wall that was left standing and turned into an outdoor art gallery.

The East Side Gallery, Berlin

Some of the murals painted on part of the Berlin Wall in Friedrichshain on the Spree River, in former East Berlin, that was left standing and turn over to artists from around the world.

The hotel offered breakfast for a fee but we went out in search of coffee after visiting the East Side Gallery. Our caffeine choices were limited because of omicron, but these days, there are plenty of options near the Ibis Hotel that are cheaper than the breakfast they offer.

I’ve always stayed in the eastern part of the city. It’s not like you’re far from where things happen, way over where the sun rises – east and west in Berlin were defined by where the Wall went up, which was pretty much in the heart of the city, including along the Spree River. I think hotels are a little cheaper in the east and there's plenty to do there or a public transportation ride away.

TIP: If you sign up for Accor Hotels' loyalty program, you get 10% off the Ibis Hotel near the Ostbahnhof, and other hotels that are part of the Accor group. And you get points. I'm a member and have used my discount in Germany, France and Morocco.

Getting around

I bought a 24-hour ticket for all the zones (there are 3) in Berlin when I got there, and then bought the same ticket for my son at the airport. That was the complicated way to do it because the tickets are valid for 24 hours from the time you validate them in one of the little machines on the train platform. You can use them on U-Bahns, S-Bahns, buses, regional trains, trams, anything that’s part of the public transportation network. A 24-hour ticket for all zones costs around 10 euros.

You can also buy four normal tickets for cheaper than buying them one at a time, or a 4-pack of “Kurzstrecke” tickets, which are valid for three stops and are cheaper than the normal ticket. All tickets have to be validated in the little machines on the platforms. Buy tickets from the machines in train stations, or from an agent in the ticket office (which isn’t always open). The agents take foreign credit cards, but the machines often don’t. Good reason to have a 24-hour ticket or a handful of single tickets.

The Ibis is in the Friedrichshain neighborhood. The nearby Ostbahnhof is two S-Bahn (S stands for “schnell”, or fast) stops from Alexanderplatz, which is a must-get-off-the-train stop for fans of or those curious about postwar Soviet-inspired architecture. Alexanderplatz is a Kurzstrecke ticket from the Hauptbahnhof, or main train station.

TIP: Most supermarkets in Berlin are closed on Sundays, but not the Rewe in the Hauptbahnhof. So if you get a sudden craving for yogurt or a packet of sliced cheese and a roll on a Sunday, head to the Hauptbahnhof. The Rewe at the station is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. It's open 24-hours on other days, so also useful for late-night snacks or a bottle of beer or wine.

Using your mobile phone

If you have Verizon in the U.S., they may offer you ‘free’ data (you’re paying for it every month) for a limited number of days when you’re overseas. I think it’s a day for every month you’ve been a subscriber, and the days accumulate over the course of a year but don’t carry over to the next year.

If you don’t have that deal or similar, or if you are going to be in Germany or anywhere else in Europe for longer than your allotment of free days, and if your phone is unlocked, you can get a German/European SIM card when you arrive in Germany.

If you’re flying in, head to the train station concourse and look for The Wall Store. They’re essentially a souvenir shop, so also useful when you’re heading back home and realize when you get to the airport that you forgot to get your mum a present. I got a SIM card there with 10 gigabytes of data, unlimited calls in Germany, free roaming in the EU and Brexitland,[1] something like 250 minutes of free international calls, including to the U.S., and other stuff.

To get a German SIM card you have to show your passport. It’s allegedly an anti-terrorism thing. Not sure how it helps to catch terrorists, but I'm sure someone knows. There’s a small charge to activate the card but the guy at The Wall Store added that to the very reasonable overall bill, put the card in, securely rehomed my U.S. SIM in the holder he’d taken the German SIM out of, and made all the phone calls and filled in the forms required to activate the number. It didn't take too long. He put the shop’s address as my address – putting in a U.S. address will pose problems if you have to do this yourself.

[1] The EU abolished roaming charges in 2017. They might be back, but not before 2032.

TIP: If you forget the little pointy thing for opening the compartment on your phone that holds your SIM card, or if you can't find it, use a paperclip. Unfold it and use one of the ends to open the compartment. A deformed paperclip and a small shoehorn (for putting my shoes back on at the airport) are my two must-have travel accessories.

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