As a first-time visitor, planning a trip to Berlin can be overwhelming. From navigating the public transportation to choosing a place to stay, there is a lot of information to sift through. And that’s not even considering all of the things to see and do. I was certainly overwhelmed on my first visit in 2020 – my custom Google map had over 150 pinned things on it! I had no idea how to organize my time, and I didn’t prioritize what I wanted to do. We wound up spending a TON of time moving around on public transportation between different activities.
I learned my lesson on our second visit to Berlin in 2022. With so many things to see and do, it’s essential to have a plan in place to make the most of your trip to Berlin. I showed up with a list of the things I wanted to do, and made intentional choices about restaurants and accommodation to minimize time on public transit. I’m here to share all of my secrets with you! Whether you’re going for a couple of days or a long weekend, this blog post will cover all the essential travel tips that first-time visitors to Berlin need to know.
From the best ways to get around the city to insider tips on where to find the best food, I’ve got you covered. I want to help you make the most of your trip (and avoid the mistakes I made) with this blog post detailing all the essential Berlin travel tips, including when to visit, where to stay, what to see, how to get around, and how to arrive in Berlin. So, pack your bags and get ready for an adventure in one of Europe’s most exciting cities!
The Ultimate Travel Guide to Berlin for First Time Visitors
Arrival to Berlin
Being the capital of Germany, Berlin is a major city with lots of different ways to arrive. For international travelers, one of the most convenient arrival options is flying. Berlin has a long history of airports opening and closing, but currently the main airport is Berlin Brandenburg Airport (code BER) which opened in 2020 in Schönefeld. To get from the airport to the city center, there is an airport express train running from station T1-2 to Berlin Central Station. In addition, the S-Bahns S9 and S45 run from T1-2 to Berlin city center.
Another popular option for arriving to Berlin is train. This is the only way I’ve ever traveled to Berlin, because I love traveling in Germany via rail. The train from Cologne takes about 4.5 hours on the ICE (express) train. The primary train company in Germany is called Deutsche Bahn. Berlin has three main train stations: Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Berlin Ostbahnhof, and Berlin Südkreuz. These train stations offer connections to major cities across Germany and Europe, making it easy to reach Berlin by train from almost anywhere.
For people looking for a more budget-friendly option, arriving in Berlin by bus is also possible. Several bus companies, such as FlixBus and Eurolines, offer regular service to Berlin from other cities in Germany. The bus station is located at the Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof (ZOB) which is located in Charlottenburg on the west side of town.
Distances in Berlin
The distances look deceiving on a map, but make no mistake – Berlin is a sprawling city. I knew it was big prior to my first visit, but it wasn’t until I started plugging the walking and biking directions into Google Maps that I realized just how big it is. Berlin spreads out across a gigantic area, so it takes a while to move around between the different attractions and neighborhoods. Make sure to always check the times before heading out, because it is likely to take longer than you thought.
When it comes to planning a visit to Berlin, I think it is really important to group activities together based on their location, and then prioritize your schedule so that you aren’t spending too much time getting around. Trust me, walking all around it will leave you feeling haggard so it’s good to balance your transit options.
How to Get Around in Berlin
Berlin has a fantastic public transportation system, called BVG. This is a fully integrated transit system, so you can bounce between S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and buses on the same ticket. While it might seem overwhelming at first, it is actually pretty easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. Download the BVG app to make things even simpler, because it will show you accurate times and alert you of any delays.
The S-Bahn (Stadtschnellbahn, or rapid railway) is a suburban rail network that connects the central Berlin with the surrounding suburbs. The U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn, or underground railway) is a metro system that runs both above and below ground. This is a quick and convenient way to travel around the city center. The bus network is extensive and covers most of the city. Buses are a good option for reaching places where the train does not go.
Berlin is divided into different fare zones with the basic fare set at €2.90. The price increases if you travel to more than one fare zone. There are also different kinds of travel cards available that can save you money if you’re planning to use public transportation a lot. Just FYI that there are no ticket barriers at stations in Berlin, so you can board trains and buses without showing a ticket. It’s an honesty based system, in which you need to validate your ticket once on board. Ticket checks are fairly common, albeit random, and the fine is high for fare-skippers.
Personally, my favorite way to get around in Berlin is by bicycle. This is the primary way I get around in Cologne too, because it is incredibly easy and fast with well-marked bicycle lanes that make even novice riders feel confident. Most bicycle rentals start at 5 EUR per day with the bike-sharing programs like Nextbike. There are stations throughout the city, making it super simple to pick up and drop off the bikes.
When to Visit Berlin
Berlin can be enjoyed year-round; however, the best time to visit Berlin depends on your personal preferences and interests. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds and save money, visiting during the off-peak seasons like the fall and winter can be an advantage. During these seasons, you’ll have a better chance of getting discounted hotel rates and avoiding long lines at popular tourist attractions. Additionally, the fall season offers the chance to see the changing leaves in the many parks and gardens throughout the city. Of course, the weather is not ideal in winter.
If you’re interested in experiencing Berlin’s vibrant nightlife, summer is the perfect time to visit. The warm weather means that many bars and clubs have their terraces open, and the city hosts a variety of festivals and events. Personally, I am a huge fan of Christmas Markets, and I think visiting Berlin in December is magical. You’ll experience some tourist crowds at the markets, but otherwise the museums and tourist attractions should be fairly open.
Good to Know Tips
Unlike other large European countries, Germany still has a strong cash culture. The pandemic has certainly made contactless payment more common, but it is by no means ubiquitous. You shouldn’t be surprised if there are cash only places, or if bars and cafes prefer to have payment in cash. Because of this, it’s important to always make sure you have enough cash on hand or ask if they accept cards before you order.
Tipping in Berlin
Speaking of cash, it’s common to tip around 5-10% at cafes and restaurants (if the service is good). When paying with a card, you need to tell the server how much the total charge should be. They typically won’t hand you the card machine to enter the tip yourself. For example, if you want to tip 5 euros on a 50 euro bill, you would need to say “make that 55 euros, please”. In bars and nightclubs, it’s common to tip the bartender a small amount, such as rounding up to the nearest euro. When it comes to taxi rides, tipping is not common. It’s not considered necessary, but rounding up to the nearest euro or leaving a small tip will be appreciated.
In Germany, Sundays are quiet. Virtually all shops, supermarkets and even some bars and restaurants close on Sundays. It is really meant to be a rest day. While many tourist attractions, such as museums, are likely to be open, you’ll want to be cognizant of Sundays in your trip planning. Thankfully, there are some special events that only happen on weekends, such as flea markets in Mauerpark or Boxhagener Platz.
What to Eat in Berlin
You will be spoiled with great restaurant choices in Berlin – there are so many delicious places to try! I would definitely recommend trying some street food for lunch at least one of the days, such as currywurst, döner, or falafel. For dinner, making a reservation is typically recommended, especially if you want to go somewhere a little bit nicer. I summarize all of my favorite Berlin restaurants in a separate blog post, perfect for foodie travelers looking to enjoy the best food that Berlin has to offer.
Where to Stay in Berlin
When it comes to accommodation, there are a wide range of options to choose from, including hotels, hostels, and apartments. Berlin has a lot of issues related to short-term vacation rentals like AirBnb and there are a number of somewhat arduous regulations. As such, I would recommend opting for a hotel or hostel. Thankfully, Berlin is absolutely full of stylish hotel choices ranging from budget to luxury. Depending on your budget and preferences, you’ll be able to find something that suits your needs.
On a short visit, I would recommend choosing a location strategically based on what you want to see and do in Berlin. This will help you cut down time traveling around on the metro. Personally, I think Mitte or Friedrichstadt would be good choices. These aren’t exactly the coolest neighborhoods to explore, but they are really central and well-connected. Another option, especially on a multi-day visit like a long weekend, is to switch hotels. This will give you the chance to see different corners of the city. I did this on our second visit to Berlin, and I really enjoyed it.
What to See in Berlin on Your First Visit
Steeped in important history dating back hundreds of years, Berlin is a city for culture vultures with a seemingly endless number of historical attractions to visit. On your first visit to Berlin, I definitely recommend exploring some of the culturally significant places, such as the Berlin Wall Memorial, East Side Gallery, and Reichstag. Berlin is the birthplace of some of the world’s most influential art movements. At the same time, Berlin was at the center of some of humanity’s darkest moments. I highlight the best historical attractions in Berlin in a separate blog post.
On our first visit to Berlin, my husband and I were overwhelmed by the sheer number of museums to visit in Germany’s capital city. With more than 150 museums, Berlin is a treasure trove full of fascinations for any interest. There is something to suit everyone! A few of my favorite museums in Berlin include:
- Jewish Museum
- Topography of Terror
- Memorial to Murdered Jews Visitors Center
The Museum Pass program is an excellent way for visitors to experience some of the city’s most popular museums all on one pass. Costing €29 for adults, the pass is valid for 3 consecutive days and gives you access to 50 different museums throughout the city. It also eliminates the hassle of having to wait in line to purchase tickets and ensures that visitors will have guaranteed admission to each museum.
One of the coolest parts of Berlin is the dynamic neighborhoods. Each corner of the city has a slightly different vibe, and it feels like a patchwork of fascinating places. As a first-time visitor, it would be a shame to stick only to the central areas. Dive into the neighborhoods to discover some of the quirky characteristics that locals love about Berlin. A few neighborhoods that I think would be worthwhile as a first time visitor are highlighted below.
Neukölln is a popular neighborhood for foodies and nightlife lovers. There are tons of cool bars and restaurants in this area, and it would be a great place to go out for a night. Neukölln will give you a sense of the hip and alternative scene that Berlin is so well-known for. For dinner in Neukölln, grab Turkish cuisine. Follow your nose or look for the spots with a line, because locals always know best!
Prenzlauer Berg is a vibrant neighborhood known for its bohemian atmosphere and lively arts scene. This neighborhood is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. With its tree-lined streets, charming cafes, and independent boutiques, there is a unique blend of history and modernity in this neighborhood. Prenzlauer Berg is also home to a number of excellent restaurants, bars, and cafes, offering a wide variety of cuisines and flavors.
Friedrichshain has an alternative feel to it with lots of street art, hidden gems, and unique shops. There are a number of nice coffee shops around Friedrichshain, which I summarize in my Berlin coffee shop guide. You’ll also find a number of cool second-hand boutiques in Friedrichshain, if you want to dig for amazing vintage clothing and accessories.