When it comes to being right in the midst of history, few cities can rival Berlin. In the last century alone Berlin has seen it all, from the decadence of the Weimar days, to the lamentable rise of Facism, the division of the city along staunch idealogical lines and perhaps the most potent symbol of Communism’s decline in Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Getting around Berlin
There is certainly a lot to see and thankfully the city makes it easy for visitors with an enviable integrated transport system. One travel ticket can be used across the well planned network, comprising overground S Bahn trains, underground U Bahn (although large sections of it are actually overground, along impressively built, green iron bridges), trams and buses. Most run late into the night too.
There’s a variety of tickets to suit travellers. One 2.30 Euro ticket can be used for a single journey within a 2 hour timeframe, letting you change as needed. You can even use it to get there from Schonefeld Airport for 3 euros, which puts our frankly extortionate airport transfer trains in the UK to shame. (Of course there are no ticket barriers on the U Bahn, so whether you fancy risking the 40 Euro fine is up to you.)
It’s a fairly compact city, with the most interesting stuff concentrated largely in the East, so those who prefer walking can take advantage of Short Journey Tickets once feet begin to tire a little. These cost 1.40 Euros in the AB zones (which easily covers the city centre) and can be used for journeys of up to 3 stops on both U Bahn and S Bahn trains. City strollers will need to keep their wits about them though and their bodies out of the pavement cycle lanes as Berlin’s legion of avid cyclists take no prisoners!
If you’re the type of traveller who likes to really conquer a city and tirelessly tick off sights and attractions, then the Berlin Welcome Card could be what you’re after. These are offered with great flexibility, being available for 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 day durations, starting at 6.30 Euros for a one day pass. My 5 day pass cost 29 Euros and although I walked a lot I still got reasonable value from it. You can also use the welcome card to get discount entrance (usually 25-33%) to most of the city’s key attractions, including Checkpoint Charlie and a trip up the Television Tower.
Concessionary fares apply too. To review all the options in depth check out the Berlin Transport Authority site.
Schonefeld Airport Express near miss
So far , so good, but of course nothing’s perfect so part of me is a little pleased to scotch a myth about stereotypical ‘German efficiency’ when it comes to the Schonefeld Airport Shuttle service. This delivers you from Schonefeld Airport to Alexanderplatz in 20 minutes and Hauptbahnhof in about 25 minutes respectively. Once I had figured out the correct platform, it did its job perfectly well on the way in, but when it came to getting back.
The train arrived 10 minutes late and was then delayed twice for a further 20 minutes. There were announcements made but sadly my German was not up to deciphering them. It struck me as odd that bi-lingual announcements are made on the U Bahn but not on this service, where I’d imagine there to be a greater need for them.
All this meant I finally got to Schonefeld just 30 minutes before my flight was due to leave. Fortunately I was travelling with Ryanair (now there’s a sentence you don’t read every day!) Thanks to their parsimonious insistence on you checking in online to avoid one of their numerous surcharges I was able to barrel through security straight to the gate, but I would’ve almost certainly been left high and dry had I needed to check in at the airport. Obviously this was just one person’s unlucky experience, but a transport system stands or falls on such tests.
My second slight niggle is with the S Bahn ticket machines at Schonefeld, which turn a 5 minute queue into a 20 minute one, thanks to needlessly cumbersome and lengthy menu options which had everyone scratching their heads and re-starting their transactions. Still, besides these niggles Berlin’s public transport was fast, reliable, affordable and well looked after.
Trip planning pals
I made use of two great resources planning this trip. The first was Berlin Tripbod Arja, who put together a customised plan of where to go and what to do across a series of emails. I took up most of her recommendations and found them spot on, more of that in the next post. (I have a minor vested interest here, seeing as I’m an Edinburgh Tripbod myself, but it’s always nice to try these things for yourself and find them worthwhile!)
Essential Printed Bumpf
In tandem with my virtual trip planning buddy, I drew on Oxygen Books’ Berlin City Lit Guide. These guides are a fantastic concept, as they compile many short pieces of writing about a city, both fiction and factual, which really gets you under the skin of a place and can be easily read and digested while you’re actually exploring it.
The Berlin one includes accounts of David Bowie and Christopher Isherwood’s time in the city, reports from the frontline at the fall of the Wall and the oppressive lives of ordinary ‘Ossies’ when the Stasi seemed sinisterly omnipotent and omnipresent, alongside more recent accounts of the city’s multicultural flourishing from Ian Walker, Chloe Aridjis and Simon Cole. My only minor quibble with the book is that some of the passages are a little too short, but it definitely offers a great, immersive introduction to this very vibrant city.
Stay tuned for my city highlights in part two!
My trip was partially hosted byVisit Berlin who kindly provided accommodation at the excellent Hostel Meininger Prenzlaur Berg, directly opposite Senefelderplatz U Bahn station. My double room there was better than many hotels I’ve stayed in.