For the sake of the next generation of DAADers, I thought I’d contribute a list of my favorite Berlin haunts. I’ve been here nearly a year—unbelievable! And it has been a wonderful year. I’ve sorted out my discoveries per the season in which I discovered them, though their usefulness to you will likely depend on your location in Berlin and personal interests.
Fat Tire Bike Tours- leaving from Bahnhof Zoo and Alexanderplatz. These are a wonderful way to get to know the city when you first arrive! Our tour guide was hilarious, and the trip included a stop at a biergarten in the Tiergarten for lunch.
Aufsturz- a cozy bar/café/restaurant recommended to me by a fellow DAADer last October. Aufsturz is on Orangienburgerstrasse, directly opposite one of the S1 SBahn stations. The food is cheap and delicious, there are innumerable delicious beers served (I highly recommend Belgian Kwak), and you can get a code to use free Wi-Fi!
Friedrichstrasse Train Station- Berlin shuts down on Sundays, except for a booming restaurant, café, and entertainment business. In desperation, however, one can always count on a train station—such as Friedrichstrasse or Hauptbahnhof to have an open grocery store where you can buy that much-needed ingredient for Sunday Kaffee and Kuchen time, or a Rossman where you can buy more credit for your Handy.
Potsdam- definitely visit the Sans Souci gardens in the fall! The trees are golden and beautiful, it’s free, and there are always families with small children visiting the ducks and swans in the many ponds. Stop by the Potsdam Altstadt to know where you ought to return once the Weihnachtsmärkte come to Berlin!
If you are Protestant and looking to get plugged into a local church, I loved going to the International Baptist Church Berlin (IBCB). Expect more Africans and Brazilians than Americans, but revel in the international community and sincere worship. Nearly everyone speaks German, but services are in English. It’s a ten minutes’ walk from Rathaus Steglitz on the S1 line.
Your main pre-occupation, of course, should be visiting all the Christmas markets and the Weihnachtsmann at KaDeWe. (Last year, he wore pink!) Look for a possible sledding hill at Potsdamer Platz, ice skating at Alexanderplatz, make the best of the tourist rush, and sort through the souvenir gifts for a few Berlin classics to bring home. Incidentally, the best Christmas market I went to was in Leipzig— take a bus for a day or weekend trip. It’s not that far away, and very worth it! Wherever you participate in the Christmas frolic, be sure to eat lots of Marzipan and sip hot Glühwein while you meander past the many stalls.
Once Christmas is over, buy as many large blankets and as many varieties of tea as possible and hole up in your apartment. Baking and cooking are some of the warmer ways to pass the time. If you get antsy, as I did, in the negative temperatures, join a gym. McFit (yes, it does exist!) is the cheapest gym membership you can buy and entirely adequate for most workout routines (plenty of treadmills, stair-steppers, elliptical trainers, rowing machines, weight machines, yoga mats, and locker rooms).
This is also a good time to catch up on your German literature: Goethe’s poetry and Herta Müller’s Herztier were two of my favorite reads, although re-reading a book you’ve read in your native tongue over in German is an enjoyable way to improve your German skills. For example, I re-read some books by C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which he wrote in German anyway!), and a Harry Potter book just for kicks.
This brings me to some commentary on Berlin life that I have been mulling over for quite some time: It is my heartfelt conviction that the Berlin SBahn was not a project conducted to simplify traffic patterns or even to make transportation more environmentally friendly. On the contrary, it is secretly funded by the FFGGL (the Federal Fund for General German Literacy). I have drawn this conclusion after nearly 12 months faithful observation of community reading time on the SBahn, as well as the implicit rule of library-like silence that your fellow travelers prefer you to observe. (What the deeper meaning of the secrecy surrounding these practices is unknown to me, but it must be very important… I can guarantee that you will not find the FFGGL listed in any list of German public agencies.)
This is a fairly short season in Berlin, or else it resembles winter very strongly. The temperatures should merit emerging from your blankets and teapots for a bike ride through Penzlauerberg. Look for the English secondhand bookstore, the playground near Käthe Kollwitz Platz, and eat lunch in one of the many outdoor cafes near the Spree.
The Uni will now be in full swing, so visit the following locations if you’re looking for a café with free Wi-Fi and cheap, delicious food in which to study:
– Café Bilderbuch (aka, Café BiBu)- Julius-Leber-Brücke SBahn, on Akazienstrasse. Take the opportunity to sit outside or in the back room with plush couches and live piano music daily. You can get a full breakfast spread of bread, cheese, fruit, veggies, and/or meats, ranging from 3-8 Euros all day long.
– Oberholz- Rosenthalerstr. UBahn, directly across the street. Two stories, lots of windows, chairs and tables in abundance, the Wi-Fi ALWAYS works, and there are delicious quiches, sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes, cakes, and a variety of drinks, which are all delectable. The Chai tea is particularly delicious! (No EC or credit cards accepted.)
If you are studying at the FU, I would recommend the Philologische Bibliothek (PhiloBib) for studying and the Universitätsbibiliothek (the “UB”) for checking out books. There is also a lovely little café on Thielallee called Cross, great for a break from the Mensa, a cappuccino and an hour or two of reading, but there is no internet.
Regardless of your gym membership, start running outside again. Run around the Schlachtensee if you live in Zehlendorf or Dahlem, or in Tiergarten if you are directly in the city.
By this time, I was definitely ready for a German speaking church. For those interested, try the Berlin Projekt, which meets twice a day on Sundays in Bablyon, an old movie theater in Rosa Luxembourg Platz. It’s a passionate evangelical congregation of such size and youth that it shocks most Germans I know, accustomed as they are to empty cathedrals. It’s also a very artsy community, which engages up-and-coming musicians and also has an art gallery.
Visit Berlin’s many flea markets with friends. Check out the Mauerpark (near Nordbahnhof SBahn) for kitschy garage sale items, fresh flowers, and unique, start-up designer clothing. My personal favorite, however, is the flea market between Friedrichstrasse Station and Museum Insel. Look for cheap German classics, paintings, jewelry, and random DDR mementos.
Keep all windows open and don’t complain that there’s no air conditioning… do you remember how cold you were two months ago?!? (When you’re desperate for air-conditionning, your best bets are museums, Dussmann’s bookstore on Friedrichstrasse, or Starbucks.) Write your Hausarbeiten outside, if you have that kind of self-discipline (I don’t), or else get up early to work so that you can play outside in the sunshine in the afternoon.
If your allergies bug you, discover Cetirizin at your nearest Apotheke. It’s the generic version of Zyrtec, and you can buy it over the counter. Even better, you can buy a pack of twenty (take one per day) for less than 4 Euros. And it works!
Make the most of Berlin’s many lakes! I lived within a five-minute walk of the Schlachtensee and swim every day after class. It’s one of the most popular Gymnasium-student hang out spots in warm weather, but don’t let that deter you. The lake is small, so it warms up quickly, and the water is clear no many how many swimmers flock to the shore. Be sure to eat at the Biergarten or the restaurant at the Fischerhütte on the side of the Schlachtensee closest to U-Krumme-Lanke.
If you go to the Humboldt University, or even if you just happen to be in that part of town, stop by a new frozen yogurt shop on Zinnowitzerstrasse (very close to the UBahn). Think PinkBerry. Otherwise, a Kugel of ice cream is available for about 80 cents on every street corner, at least as often as you could find crepes and gingerbread hearts at Christmas time.
Strandbad Wannsee is also worth a trip. Yes, it’s crowded, but the entry fee is low (2.50 for students), there’s real beach, and the lake is huge. Check the website first, to make sure that it’s not closed for an exclusive event. Contrary to intuition, don’t take the SBahn to Wannsee to get there. Take the S1 or S7 to Nikolassee, then find the bus that runs directly to the Strandbad every ten minutes all summer.
That’s all (for now), folks! I hope someone down the road finds it helpful.