What you shouldn't expect in Berlin

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Since everything else on our website is about what you can do and should expect, we thought it's a good idea to add a page about things that people often wrongly expect when visiting Berlin...

Don't expect medieval architecture

Many people expect to see old-style half-timbered houses like in some other German cities and towns, but even before the war, Berlin didn't keep much of its old infrastructure. It was often replaced with newer buildings over the centuries. And naturally, the air raids during the Second World War didn't help either. What you will get to see in terms of pre-war architecture are modern 19th-century brick houses.

Don't expect to see “old Nazis"

Although a few of those who were young adults during World War II are still alive in nursing homes, it is hard to imagine you'll come across them. The old people you'll actually see around you were typically born after the war had ended or during the war. And even if they were born before the war, they were only children during the war. So you shouldn't spend time thinking if that old man sitting next to you on the train might have been a Nazi soldier.

Don't expect an Eastern European Jewish story

At the very peak, before the Nazis came to power, there were about 520,000 Jews in Germany, amounting to about 0,7% of the general population (in Poland it was about 10%). In other words: Hardly anybody was Jewish in Germany. Even in Berlin, the largest Jewish community in Germany, Jews were less than 4% of the city (in Warsaw Jews made up about a third). So as you'll be walking around, you shouldn't imagine pre-war Berlin as if it were an Eastern European city or town. We've all seen movies about Eastern Europe's very substantial Jewish world (“Schindler's List” is probably the most famous one) - but precisely because of the strong effect these images have on our mind, we should be aware of how much smaller the Jewish scene was in Germany.

Don't expect a neglected East Berlin

Yes, some parts of East Berlin were quite neglected during communism, but not everything. And in the last three decades, a lot has changed. The former East has really become the place to be. Specifically in the central neighborhoods, almost everything got renovated and gentrified.

Don't expect a substantial Kosher scene

Berlin is not New York, London or Paris. The vast majority of Jews in Berlin are not observant (and thus also not visibly Jewish). Jewish restaurants are not a common thing here.

Don't expect clear differences between East and West

The city has healed its wounds pretty well. The former border system has been replaced by new buildings, squares and streets. More often than not, you will be crossing the former borderline without even noticing. And everyday life is basically the same in both parts.

Don't expect a “Holocaust museum"

It seems so obvious that Berlin should have a Holocaust museum like Jerusalem or Washington D. C. - except it doesn't. There is a pretty small and basic “information center" at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe; there's a chapter about the Holocaust in the Jewish Museum; and there are quite a few other places that deal with it, such as the Topography of Terror and the House of the Wannsee Conference. But there is no Holocaust museum per se.

Don't expect a lot of cars

As locals we always complain about it, but Berlin actually has a very good public transportation system. Many people don't own cars. In fact, almost everybody at our age doesn't. Instead, we have subscriptions for car pools and use cars whenever we want or need to, which isn't very often. So although Berlin has its fair amount of traffic, don't expect the streets to feel as if it were NYC.

Don't expect tap water at restaurants

We were very positively surprised to be served tap water in NYC, where even fancy restaurants proactively suggest tap water as an option, not to mention the refills. This was a surprise to us, because practically no restaurant does so in Berlin. Instead, customers are very much expected to order bottled water or other beverages. Restaurants don't suggest tap water as a legitimate alternative and when you simply order some water, you'll be asked “still or sparkling?" to indicate that you're going to get bottled water. Even if you explicitly ask for tap water, there's a fair chance you'll be told that they just “don't serve tap water". If you do get tap water, it will usually be in a small glass (no refills). This, however, has nothing to do with water quality - Berlin's tap water is absolutely fine.

Don't expect free WiFi

Another positive surprise we had in NYC was how common free WiFi is - not just in the subway stops, but even in restaurants and museums. This is very different in Germany. While some places (like Starbucks) do have WiFi for their clients, many do not. Especially in museums, memorials etc. you shouldn't expect this kind of service.

Don't expect sudden additions when you pay

Unlike the American habit of displaying prices before taxes, German price tags always include all applicable taxes. In stores, restaurants, supermarkets and anywhere else: What you see is what you pay, period. No surprises when you get the bill. This, by the way, also affects tipping: Instead of tipping about 20% on the amount before taxes, Germans add around 10% to the total amount.

Don't expect a modern airport (Update 2020: The new airport is finally done!!)

Berlin's shiny new airport was supposed to be opened in 2012. But, to put it simply, Germany isn't “what it used to be" (which is probably a good thing). In light of corruption, embezzlement and lots of mismanagement, the airport's opening has been postponed ever since, time and again. If we had to make a bet - it probably never will. You will arrive / depart at either one of two old airports: Schoenefeld on the former Soviet side or Tegel in the former French sector (who said the Cold War is over?).