Interested in moving to Berlin?
This post is an extract from my book The BreakingOut Guide To Moving To Berlin.
In this post I look at the practicalities on arriving in Berlin.
Check out my book The BreakingOut Guide To Moving To Berlin
Arriving in Berlin by Plane
Berlin’s brand new airport, Berlin-Brandenburg International (code BER) was supposed to open for passengers way back in 2010.
But the project has been plagued by a series of budget, project design, and construction errors. As a result, the projected opening date has now been put forward to 2018 – or possibly even later.
This means you definitely won’t be arriving at Berlin-Brandenburg Airport as yet, but instead at one of the two smaller Berlin airports: Tegel or Schönefeld.
Tegel (airport code TXL) is located in north-western Berlin. It’s a 1970s style airport, small in size as capital city airports go and with an unusual hexagonal concourse layout.
Surprising as it sounds, Tegel Airport does not have a train station, neither S-Bahn nor U-Bahn. Note that Tegel S-Bahn station confusingly is NOT situated at the airport.
This means the only way to get to and from Tegel Airport by public transport is by bus.
There are buses from Tegel to the S-Bahn and U-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz, as well as to the Hauptbahnhof central rail station and to Zoologischer Garten station (buses X9 109 and 128). These cost the standard ticket fare of €2.70.
You can take the bus X9 or 109 to Jakob-Kaiser-Platz which is about 5 minutes away and then transfer to the U-Bahn line U7
Alternatively take bus 128 to change onto the U-Bahn line U6 at Kurt-Schumacher-Platz.
if you want to change onto the S-Bahn, then Express Bus TXL stops at S-Bahn station Beusselstraße which is about 10 minutes away.
The quickest route into the city centre is to take the Jet Express Bus TXL to Alexanderplatz (City East) or alternatively the Jet Express Bus X9 to Zoologischer Garten (City West). It takes around 45 minutes from the airport to Alexanderplatz with the Express Bus TXL or around 30 minutes if you change onto the S-Bahn at the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof).
Zoologischer Garten station is about 20 minutes away by Express Bus X9.
Berlin’s other airport, Schönefeld (airport code SXF) is located on the edge of south-eastern Berlin. It’s also a small and old fashioned airport which is not surprising as it was the old Communist East Berlin airport. Schönefeld is situated right next door to the brand new Berlin-Brandenburg airport which is still being built.
Schönefeld Airport is better served by public transport than Tegel. Unlike Tegel, it has it’s own S-Bahn station and is also served by regional trains. S-Bahn trains run every 10-20 minutes from Schöneberg. The station is located in zone C so you’ll need a 3-zone ticket for zones ABC to get into the city centre which costs €3.30.
If you want to get to the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), Friedrichstrasse or Zoologischer Garten stations or beyond, you’ll save time by taking one of the regional express (RE) trains. Trains run roughly three times per hour and cost the same as the S-Bahn trains.
The quickest route into town is to take either the RE7 or RB14 trains (also called the Airport Express). These cost the same as the S-Bahn and take about 30 minutes to Alexanderplatz and about 45 minutes to Zoologischer Garten.
There are also a number of bus routes serving various destinations which stop just outside the airport terminal building.
Don’t forget to validate your ticket when you catch your train or bus!
One oddity of Berlin is that there are relatively few international flights beyond Europe to and from the city. It’s Frankfurt, rather than Berlin, which serves as Germany’s main international airport and connecting hub. This is a leftover from the old days of divided West and East Berlin.
Berlin may develop more transcontinental connections flying to the city when the new Berlin-Brandenburg International airport opens. But for the moment, if you’re coming to Berlin from America or Asia then there’s a chance you’ll be flying in via a connecting service from Frankfurt or elsewhere in Germany.
Schoenefeld and Tegel airports are due to be taken out of service when the new Berlin Brandenburg airport is finally opened for business.
Arriving in Berlin by Train
Berlin now has a smart new multi-level, all steel and glass central station known as Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
Berlin Hauptbahnhof is actually a through junction station with lines serving north, south, east and west, rather than an end-of-line terminus as such, but it’s where almost all long-distance express trains that serve Berlin stop or terminate.
The Hauptbahnhof is situated roughly halfway between Mitte and the Zoo Tiergarten area and this is where you’ll most likely arrive if you’re coming to Berlin from elsewhere in Europe or Germany.
From here you can easily transfer to local S-Bahn connections to most other parts of Berlin.
The Hauptbahnhof also has a U-Bahn subway stop on the line U55.
U55 is perhaps Berlin’s most pointless subway line. As yet it consists of just 3 stations and is not even connected to the rest of the U-Bahn system. At present it runs only as far as Brandenburg Gate.
An extension to Alexanderplatz is due for completion in 2017, also fairly pointless seeing as S-Bahn trains already cover that stretch.
If you have a national DB train ticket to Berlin, then it’s useful to know your ticket is valid for travel on the S-Bahn to your final destination on to anywhere in Berlin. But watch out, DB tickets are NOT valid on the Berlin U-Bahn, trams or buses!
The Hauptbahnhof is also served by a tram which stops just outside the station, the M5 line which runs to Hohenschönhausen via Oranienburger Strasse, Hackescher Markt, Alexanderplatz and further east long Landsbeger Allee.
Arriving in Berlin by Bus
If you’re coming to Berlin by long distance bus, then you’ll most likely arrive at the Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof (Central Bus Terminal) on Masurenallee in Charlottenburg in Western Berlin, some way from the city centre.
From there you can catch city buses in many directions of the city, or else walk the 5 minutes or so to the U-Bahn stations Theodor-Heuss-Platz or Kaiserdamm. Alternatively there is an S-Bahn station at Messe Nord.
Arriving in Berlin by Car
If you’re coming to Berlin by car, then you’ll probably pass at some stage along Berlin’s outer orbital motorway, known as the Berliner Ring, otherwise known as route A10.
Try to avoid rush hours if you can as the traffic can be heavy at those times.
Getting Your Bearings in Berlin
First thing you’ll want to know is, where exactly is the centre of town in Berlin?
Not surprisingly, for a city which was divided for four decades into east and west, Berlin even today has not one, but two city centres.
One is the Alexanderplatz/Mitte district in the centre of what used to be East Berlin. It still has an old Communist Eastern Bloc feel to it in parts.
The other centre is the area around Zoologischer Garten or Zoo Station, with the big Kaiser Wilhem Memorial Church and the Ku-Damm boulevard. This used to be the city centre of old West Berlin back in the days of the Berlin Wall.
But the main and official city centre district of Berlin is now officially Mitte, which is German for centre. Mitte stretches from the Brandenburg Gate to Alexanderplatz, although the governmental borough called Mitte actually covers a wider area and includes districts of what were once West Berlin.
The famous Brandenburg Gate or Brandenburger Tor is situated to the east of the large central park, called the Tiergarten. Alexanderplatz and the Fernsehturm are located a few kilometres further to the east.
Alexanderplatz and Brandenburger Tor are linked by the wide Unter den Linden boulevard, which is mostly lined with museums, hotels, government buildings, and the Humboldt University. The big redbrick Berlin City Hall is located opposite the Fernsehturm to the right when you are coming from Unter den Linden.
The TV Tower or Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz is an obvious landmark which can be seen for miles around.
The Government Quarter and the Reichstag (Parliament building) are situated just a little along to the west of the Brandenburg Gate.
The reconstructed Potsdamer Platz district which used to be the no-man’s land of the Berlin Wall is located due south of the Brandenburg Gate.
Over in western Berlin, the Zoo Station area, officially known as Tiergarten, the famous Ku-Damm or Kurfürstendamm boulevard stretches in a straight line from the Zoo area out towards the Grunewald forest to the south-west.
The Berlin Hauptbahnhof central station lies roughly halfway between the Brandenburg Gate and the Zoo station.
Prenzlauer Berg is situated a few kilometres to the north of Alexanderplatz, with Friedrichshain just to the east. Kreuzberg lies to the south-east of Potsdamer Platz.
An easy and practical way to get to grips with the layout of Berlin’s city centre is to take a trip on the 100 bus.
The 100 route is a double-deck bus that runs between Zoo station in the centre of Western Berlin, and Alexanderplatz in the centre of Eastern Berlin.
The bus passes through much of historic Berlin – and it’s much cheaper than travelling on the tourist buses.
My advice: take a trip on the 100 bus as soon as you can. The 100 bus is an ideal way to get a basic handle on the layout of the city centre when you arrive.
Getting Around by Public Transport in Berlin
Berlin has a population of around 3.5 million, and an area covering some 700 sq km. This compares to London with 500 sq km and about 8.5 million people. So Berlin is very spread out and the distances shouldn’t be underestimated.
Berlin is not a city where you can easily just stroll around from district to district. It’s not unusual for some people to spend up to an hour or more travelling to their place of work or study, in each direction.
Fortunately Berlin has an extensive underground train network, known as the U-Bahn, as well an overground train network called the S-Bahn.
There’s a dense network of bus services as well as night bus services covering most parts of the city.
Eastern Berlin has an extensive tram system. Only a couple of lines link up with the Western half of the city. West Berlin also once had a tram system some decades ago, but this was dismantled in favour of expanding the U-Bahn network.
There are even ferry services in Berlin, mainly in the outer West around Wannsee, and in Kopenick and districts in the outer south-east.
The city transit authority is called the BVG and they have an excellent website (also in English) at www.bvg.de/en/Welcome You can find plenty of info about the transport system in Berlin on the website, including map downloads and full ticket and travel pass details.
The BVG also have an online search engine at fahrinfo.bvg.de which provides detailed schedules for journeys including exact times, transfers and fares.
My advice: get yourself a free map of the BVG system when you arrive.
Fares are much more affordable than London’s and there is not usually the extreme overcrowding found on the London tube.
What’s the Difference Between the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn in Berlin?
The Berlin S-Bahn – “Stadt Bahn” or city overground railway is operated by the national German railway Deutsche Bahn. However, ticketing is integrated with the Berlin U-Bahn, buses and trams.
The U-Bahn is the underground or subway system and is run by the city transit authority known as the BVG.
One other way of looking at it: the U-Bahn runs underground – except when it runs overground, whilst the S-Bahn runs overground – except when it runs underground.
There’s also a network called the Metro which is also run by the BVG. Whilst in other cities, a “Metro” would mean a subway or underground railway, in Berlin it refers to a special network of selected buses and trams that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These are marked with a large orange sign displaying a white M.
At weekends most of the U- and S-Bahn lines run all night, as do the M-network buses and trams.
For historical reasons, the tram network only covers Mitte and the other eastern Berlin districts with just a few link-ups with the western part of the city.
There’s also a comprehensive network of night buses serving many parts of Berlin.
How Much Does Public Transport Cost in Berlin?
The Berlin BVG ticket tariff is based on a zone system consisting of three concentric zones labelled A, B and C.
In practice, there are no tickets available just for zone A or B. Instead there are just three combinations: AB, BC or ABC.
Unless you’ll going to be travelling to further away places like Potsdam or the airport at Schönefeld, you’ll most likely be spending all or most of your time within zones A and B.
You will most likely only need a travel pass covering zones A and B. This currently costs 79.50 Euros per month.
My advice: get yourself a monthly travel pass the first day you arrive. It will save you money and hassle.
Tickets currently cost €2.70 for zone AB.
They’re valid on all transport with unlimited transfers within 2 hours in one direction.
For short journeys there’s a short distance ticket (Kurzstreckenfahrkarte) which costs €1.60. This is valid for 3 stops on the U-Bahn/S-Bahn or six stops by bus or tram, but with no transfers.
There’s also a day ticket (Tageskarte) which starts at €6.90 depending on the number of zones.
A standard one week pass for the whole BVG network starts from €29.50, again depending on how many zones you need, and a monthly for zones AB costs €79.50
You can purchase tickets from automatic machines at all stations mostly situated on the platforms.
You can switch the ticket machines to English and the other major European languages. Staffed ticket counters are only found at the larger stations.
Make Sure You Validate Your Ticket!
If you have a single ticket, then you have to validate your ticket by stamping it using the yellow and white machines on the platform entrances and in buses and trams.
Both S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations are all open-entry with no ticket gates.
Watch Out for Plain Clothes Ticket Inspectors in Berlin
Some newcomers to Berlin from abroad think that as there are no ticket gates at stations in Berlin that they can easily get away with not buying a ticket.
Not so. Plain-clothes ticket inspectors patrol the trains, usually in groups. You’ll have to be the most sharp-eyed observer with a nose for seeing through their excellent disguises and spotting them before they spot you.
There’s now a 60 Euro fine (up from 40 Euros) if you’re caught with either no ticket or an unvalidated ticket. And these guys have already heard all the excuses, so don’t bother trying your luck.
My advice: always have a ticket and then you can travel around Berlin without any worries.
Cycling in Berlin
A great way to get around Berlin and get some exercise at the same time is to buy a bike.
Berlin is mostly flat and the city has excellent cycle lanes going pretty well everywhere, even with their own mini traffic lights and road markings.
Deutsche Bahn provides red and white coloured bikes for hire from the main stations throughout the city. Tariff is per minute or alternatively per day (€9-15).
You have to pay by credit card. The initial admin details can take several minutes to arrange by phone, but once cleared and given the ok, you can unlock one of the bikes and use it straightaway.
But a much better idea is to buy your own bike as soon as you can once you have arrived in the city.
My advice: get a bike as soon as you can, even if just a second hand one. This is what I did when I first arrived in Berlin.
You can buy a used bike in Berlin for between about 50 and 100 Euros at a market such as the Boxhagenerplatz market held on Sundays. You can also try the German version of eBay at www.ebay.de. You’ll need to select Berlin.
Alternatively you can buy a brand new bike in Berlin from bike shop or at one of the large stores from about 250 Euros or so upwards.
Taxis in Berlin
Berlin Taxis are usually Mercedes with a yellow taxi light on the roof.
You can hail a taxi cab or else find one at a taxi rank (Taxistand), usually located near the busier U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations A short taxi trip (Kurzstrecke) of around 2km or so will cost around 5 Euros.
Driving in Berlin
It’s not really necessary to drive in Berlin as the city has excellent and affordable public transport. There can often be heavy traffic jams especially in peak hours. And petrol or gasoline in Germany is not cheap. Nor is auto insurance.
Berlin has a low emission zone called the Umweltzone which extends broadly over the area within the inner S-Bahn railway ring. All vehicles within this zone are required to purchase and display a Feinstaubplakette or Emission badge. This includes cars with non-German registration plates. The badge costs around 5 Euros.
For more info visit the official city authority website at www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/umwelt/luftqualitaet/umweltzone/
Money in Berlin
Germany of course uses the Euro (divided into 100 cents). The easiest way to obtain Euros is to use your bank or credit card at ATMs to withdraw cash.
Euro banknotes are the same in all Euro zone countries, but the inscriptions on the reverse side of the Euro coins varies according to the country of issue. However, they are all legal tender in all Euro zone countries.
Berliners rely heavily on the electronic direct debit card system known as the EC-Card. As a result, credit cards are used much less in Berlin than in the US or UK. Only the very largest stores and some smaller ones accept them. Relatively few restaurants or cafes accept credit cards.
Banks in Berlin are open Monday to Friday from around 9am and usually close around 4pm.
There are bank ATMs to be found throughout the city. The banks belong to a couple of separate ATM networks. There is one covering the main big commercial banks such as Deutsche Bank, Dresdner and Commerzbank, and another for the Sparkassen and smaller banking chains.
This can be annoying. It means that if you want to use an ATM belonging to the “other” network, then you have to pay a fee of a couple of Euros.
Finding Arrival Accommodation in Berlin
The demand for accommodation in Berlin has gone up considerably in recent years as more and more people have been moving to the city.
That’s why I strongly recommend that you pre-book your first few nights – or preferably longer before you arrive. For example, in a pension, youth hostel, or perhaps an AirBnB room.
This is the way I have always done my moves abroad and it’s the way I moved to Berlin.
My advice: book yourself some initial visitor type accomodation for the first few nights of your arrival in advance.
From there you can then look for a short-term sublet of a room for a month or two or more.
This way you’ll allow yourself more time to get to know the city, sort yourself out, get to know people, and get to hear of potential apartments of the type and in areas that will suit you best.
This takes the stress and the pressure off and you will be less likely to end up taking something which isn’t what you really want.
My advice: check out airbnb in Berlin: www.airbnb.com/s/Berlin–Germany
Once you’ve got your initial arrival accommodation fixed up you will want to start looking for some short-term accommodation.
I’ll be talking about finding short-term accommodation in my next post.
Learning German in Berlin
One thing that should also be top of your priorities when you arrive in Berlin is to get started learning German.
Although most Berliners have some ability in English, in practice they’re not so willing to speak it all the time. You will also need to speak German in your dealings with government officials when it comes to things like registering and applying for a visa. Not to mention looking for a job and apartment hunting.
There are a number of ways you can learn German. The best approach is a combination of an MP3-based self-study course which you can use on your smartphone or tablet headphones, combined with a regular classroom-based course. This is also how I learned German,
There are many language schools in Berlin. The most expensive and prestigious is the government-run Goethe Institute in Berlin Mitte. There are also a number of privately run language schools. Perhaps the best known is the Hartnackschule in Schöneberg.
There are also courses offered by the VHS or Volkshochschulen. These are adult education centres run by the city boroughs. Classes are mostly in the evenings, but there are some classes on Saturdays or during weekdays.
The courses are subsidized and so relatively affordable and the teaching level is generally ok to good – even if some Germans tend to regard the VHS as a little amateur and not “serious” enough.
You need to register and sit an aptitude test in advance and the lower level VHS courses tend to fill up pretty quickly, though the subsequent drop out rate can be high.
Check out www.berlin.de/vhs for more information about VHS courses on offer in Berlin.
One thing you should beware of when you arrive in Berlin is to avoid getting stuck in an “expat bubble”, in which you socialize or hang out mostly or exclusively with people from your own country and speaking your own language.
You don’t have to cut yourself off completely from your native country, but do try to get to know Germans and get used to speaking German rather than English or whatever.
Also watch German media – TV, downloads, read German websites, magazines etc. The more exposure and practice you get listening to and speaking German, the faster you will pick up the language and be on your way to becoming fluent.
Don’t worry about making mistakes, particularly with the complicated German grammar endings and the der die das genders. Mistakes are inevitable when you are starting out. The number of mistakes you make will gradually diminish as your ability increases and you’ll find the der die das and all the rest of it will eventually fall into place.
About the easiest and most productive way of quickly learning German is to get yourself an MP3-based audio course to listen to on your mobile or tablet. There are now a number of these from very good to mediocre.
By far the most popular German audio course of all has to be the excellent GermanPod. This is now a best seller course around the world. Read more about GermanPod and how to get hold of it below.
But before that, one last thing..
Some Practical Tips on Safety in Berlin
Berlin has a bit of a problem with beggars, drunks, and nutcases hanging around some public places. All big cities suffer from this, but Berlin seems to get more than it’s fair share.
The last few years has seen an increase in Eastern European and other beggars and gypsies with babies, practicing various scams, hard-luck stories, tricks and ruses on unsuspecting newcomers.
These scammers can be thick on the ground in the tourist parts of town, most notoriously the Brandenburg Gate/Reichstag area, Alexanderplatz and the Zoo station/Kaiser Memorial Church area.
But they also pop up at the main train stations as well as some S- and U-Bahn trains and stations, particularly at night. For this reason security guards with dogs regularly patrol the system. Beggars, scammers and buskers also sometimes come into bars and cafes to try doing the rounds of the tables and cafe terraces.
The best approach is to remain firm and stonewall any attempts to wheedle money out of you.
Some areas of Berlin can be unsavoury at night, in particular some of the streets in Lichtenberg, Marzahn and Hellersdorf. Plus the northern end of Prenzlauer Berg and some parts of Neukölln. As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid deserted side streets late at night and stick to main throughfares as best you can.
If you’re a member of an ethnic minority, the sad fact is you will need to be more on your guard in these areas because of a tendency for extreme-right wing inspired violence from some groups.
Other than that, the usual warnings about pickpockets and street thieves in city streets and on public transport apply in Berlin just as they do in most other big cities.
Also make sure you get a good lock for your bike – preferably one of the fixed bracket iron locks. And always make sure your apartment door is securely locked and that no-one can get in through any of the windows.
One more thing…
Get the Best out of Berlin by Learning German
About the best thing you can do to get the best out of your stay in Berlin is to learn to speak German as soon as you can.
And there’s one German course in particular that stands out way above the rest. It’s called GermanPod.
Learn German Quickly With GermanPod
You can give yourself a head start in learning German by signing up for the self-study MP3 based course offered by GermanPod.
GermanPod is now one of the world’s most successful digitally based online language courses. It’s not hard to see why.
You can give yourself a head start in learning German by signing up for the self-study MP3 based course offered by GermanPod.
GermanPod is now one of the world’s most successful digitally based online language courses. It’s not hard to see why.
GermanPod – The Best Language Course For Expats in Berlin
GermanPod is THE ideal audio MP3-based German language course for expats in Berlin.
This is because with GermanPod you learn German quickly in your own time, as and when you want – and at your own pace.
And what’s more, GermanPod is VERY low cost.
You can use GermanPod on your smartphone and tablet, as well on as your laptop or PC.
So you can be learning German wherever you are – and whenever you’re on the move.
With GermanPod you can make the most of those spare moments of time that you have which otherwise just get wasted. When you’re commuting on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn. When standing in line, or sitting in a waiting room.
Learning German With GermanPod is Easy, Fast – And Fun
GermanPod teaches you modern, up-to-date German. The kind of German that people speak in everyday life in Berlin.
GermanPod comes with four different learning levels -Absolute Beginner, Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. So you can choose the level which suits you best.
That makes learning German with GermanPod very easy, fast and fun.
I myself learned German using the self-study audio method before I came to Berlin and I found it the fastest and easiest way of learning to speak and understand German.
GermanPod is Very Affordable
GermanPod is available on a monthly subscription basis. It’s “pay as you go”. Unlike some German courses, you don’t have to part with a large sum of money.
For just $8 a month you can get started with GermanPod.
For longer term advance subscriptions there are discounts of between 11% and up to 60%.
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This makes it very inexpensive to get started learning German with GermanPod.
And it gives you the flexibility to use as little or as much of GermanPod as you wish, when you wish – and according to your own budget.
In short, GermanPod is probably the best investment you can make to ensure the success of your move to Berlin.
My advice: check out www.germanpod101.com and get a head start right now with learning German
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