The first tip for reading this guide is to keep in mind that compared to the rest of Germany, Berlin is like an island of multicultural influences and cross-genre creativity floating in stark contrast to its surrounds. You can’t expect to get by the same way in the rest of the country as you would in its capital city, although there are some guidelines you should know to help you survive a trip to Germany, no matter the area in which you find yourself.
Respect the rules
Germans like to play by the rules, and when you’re on their turf, so should you. For starters, always wait for the traffic light to go green before crossing the road. People will disapprove and shake their heads at jaywalking, so practice a little discipline and respect the code of conduct. Secondly, if you’re planning to ride a bicycle (and you should) you always need to have a back and front light for safety reasons. Being caught in the dark or running red lights both result in hefty fines.
Pay for AND validate your train tickets
Most newbies in Berlin are especially surprised, even giddy at the fact that there is no security gate or person checking tickets as you enter the train stations. Be warned, this is not a free pass to ride the underground, as ticket checkers (wearing plain clothes) are also riding the subway and could pounce at any moment, costing you at least a €60 fine and a lot of embarrassment. Furthermore, there are endless stories of people who have diligently bought their train tickets, but alas, forgotten to validate them. Don’t forget to validate your ticket before jumping on the train! The ticket checkers pay no sympathy to that, and you will still be fined.
Know your transport zone
You need an appropriately zoned ticket depending on where you are travelling in the city. Generally, going farther away from the city centre might see you crossing into a different zone. Always read the zonal maps in the station if you are not sure. For example, going to and from Schönefeld Airport in Berlin is a different zone to travelling within the city and requires a different ticket and price. Again, ticket checkers won’t have sympathy for the unknowing tourist, no matter how sorry you are.
Being on time for social and business appointments is part of the German etiquette; there is no such thing as being ‘fashionably late’ here. Let your trip to Germany be a lesson in the importance of time-keeping that you can bring back to your own community.
Recycling plastic and glass bottles is big in Germany, and when you do, you get a small refund for the deposit (Pfand) originally paid for the bottle. Check the bottle label to see if it can be recycled; an arrow usually indicates this. All of the major supermarkets have recycling machines where you can drop of your bottles, and collect some pocket money. The refund for plastic bottles can be up to 25 cents, while glass is a little less. This can add up quickly, and some people living close to the streets make their entire livelihood in this way. If you’re really not going to recycle, then instead of throwing your bottle in a public dustbin, place it on top or next to the bin. It will be collected in a matter of minutes by someone who will be pleased to claim its worth.
Cash is king
Many small business vendors, bars and restaurants don’t have card machines. If they do, some only accept German cards. Have your euros ready, or familiarise yourself with the ATMs in your area that charge the least interest when you draw. Always have cash on your person. You don’t want to be walking countless blocks and wasting time searching for a place to draw money, only to be charged a heck of a fee for doing so at some obscure cash machine.
Unlike most places in Europe and around the world, smoking in bars and restaurants in Germany is generally allowed, so do not look flabbergasted when the guy next to you lights up and pollutes what you think should be clean air. New non-smoking laws did pass a few years ago, although many people have simply disregarded them, and you’ll notice that a smoker will find it intrusive if you ask him or her to refrain.
Everywhere in Germany, shops, supermarkets and pharmacies are closed on Sundays, so make sure you have all you need before Sunday rolls around. Cafés and restaurants, however, are normally open all weekend.
No matter where you are in Germany, you’re bound to find a street with a place to eat. Note that in smaller towns, you’ll probably only find sausage and meat on the menu, while bigger cities like Berlin have a thriving vegetarian and vegan culture. If you’re eating on a budget, look out an ‘Imbiss’, a cheap snack shop that can be found on almost any busy street, train station, market and even parking lot.
Getting the best of German beer
Ah, the joys of Germany’s beer-loving nation, where it’s totally cool to drink beer in public, and where having a cold one during lunch break is completely normal. With so many brews on offer, it might take a while to find your perfect taste. Don’t mistake Bavaria as the only place for good beer; Munich’s Paulaner and Löwerbräu are also contenders that have achieved international fame. Berlin is at the centre of a craft-beer revolution, while further north in Alpirsbach, Erfurt, Bamberg and Görlitz, smaller breweries are creating gold in a glass.
While Berlin is full of the world’s languages, from Spanish to Arabic, and most people speak English, that is not how it goes in the rest of the country, so it’s a good idea to have command of some basic phrases to help you feel not entirely lost. Phrase books and phone apps come in handy here. Remember, all road signs, shop signs and businesses are written in German, so get to know your staples like pharmacy (Apotheke) and the police station (Polizeistation).
Get out of town
Big cities like Berlin and Munich are great to experience nightlife, creativity and beer festivals, but Germany is also a land of magical wonders and hidden gems. From the mystical Black Forest to the plethora of fairytale castles dotted around the countryside, there is a whole heap more to explore than just the novelty of being allowed to drink beer on the street. Germany is an old land, with a number of glorious historic towns and natural wonders to discover. If you have a valid EU driver’s license, then opt to rent a car for the freedom it brings. Alternatively, plan your trip using the efficient and friendly German railway system.
Travelling around Germany
Germany is known for its fast efficient transport and popular high-speed trains that zip around the country. However, this is also the most expensive option, with a train ticket from Berlin to Munich costing up to €180. If you’re on a budget, opt for the slower, intercity trains going for half the price, or the even more cost-effective overnight bus. Booking tickets in advance also ensure better fares so it helps to know your schedule.