Although significantly younger than many of its European neighbours, Berlin is a capital with a rich and varied history. It’s a complicated city with no physical centre – or, perhaps, many – and collision point of various cultures, languages, cuisines and political ideologies. Capturing its essence, therefore, proves particularly difficult. Prussian palaces, austere East German architecture, avant-garde art scene, world-renowned nightclubs, chic restaurants: all these compete to embody the city. In fact, David Bowie once described Berlin as ‘the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine’ and it’s not difficult to see why.
Here are some of our top tips to make sure you experience this great city like a true Berliner:
1. Stores are closed on Sundays
This is a really important, very German fact that every tourist should know: all retail and grocery stores are closed every Sunday. There are exceptions for some of the bigger train stations, where grocery stores and some small retail shops have limited hours. There are also four special Sundays (called Verkaufsoffenen Sonntage) per year where shops can be open, but typically, you should plan on hitting up flea markets on Sunday if you’re looking to shop.
2. Berlin is vegan and vegetarian friendly
German food is often thought of as a ‘meat and potatoes’ kind of cuisine, and while this is true, Berlin is special in that it’s incredibly vegan and vegetarian friendly. Just about every restaurant (from small takeaway spots to fine dining) offer a few options for vegans or vegetarians.
3. Don’t jaywalk
If there’s one thing that might get you bad looks (or worse, verbal assaults) it’s jaywalking, especially in front of children. Germans take the pedestrian traffic lights very seriously and look down on jaywalkers, so work on your patience, and just wait.
4. Cash rules everything
While card payments are becoming more and more available around the city, it’s not uncommon to run into shops, spätkaufs (small convenience stores), or restaurants that are cash only. Some supermarket clerks have even been known to give you a bad look or long sigh if you ask to pay with a card. So keep some cash on you – bonus points if you have plenty of kleingeld (small change like €1 or €2 coins).
5. Service is functional
While this isn’t true of all places of course, it’s quite common in Berlin to get little to no friendly, quick service at restaurants and cafés. Think of it more as a transaction, and don’t let it bother you. Also, unless there’s a sign asking you to wait to be seated, always feel free to just grab a table for yourself; otherwise you may find yourself waiting forever, servers passing by without a second glance.
6. Know how and when to tip
Since the hospitality industry in Berlin is not very service focused, tipping is lower than many other big cities. If you’re at a café just grabbing a cup of coffee, it’s not uncommon to round up to the nearest whole euro as a tip. Otherwise, use 10-15% as a rule of thumb. When you’re ready to pay, flag your server, otherwise they would likely let you sit as long as you want. When they tell you the total, decide how much you want to give (including the tip) and tell them the amount. They will give you the change. If you’re paying by card, you need to ask to add the tip to the total, but some places will only accept tips in cash – another great reason to have some cash on you at all times.
7. You can drink in public!
One of the great things about Berlin is that you can drink in public. From a bottle of wine or beer, to cocktails on the go, the freedom to have a drink at a picnic or while sitting by the river is awesome, especially on those long, warm summer evenings. Nowhere is off limits, so visit your favourite spätkauf, grab what you want (they have openers in the store or can open bottles for you), and find a place to chill. Most glass bottles have a Pfand (or bottle deposit), so don’t throw them away or recycle them: either leave them under a bin for bottle collectors to grab, or bring them to the bottle deposits in grocery stores to get your Pfand back.