I once heard some rosy-cheeked American college students at a hostel kitchen in Prague discussing their various backpacking journeys through Europe on their study abroad year (really fascinating stories, let me tell you; did you know the beer in Munich is really good and Germans are very serious people? Illuminating). While they were comparing notes on every city they had been to and giving each other absurd advice (like how “cheap” it is to rent a car in Ireland when you’re 20 years old lol, don’t hate me for hating on them, I’m old and I get hangovers now so I’ve earned the right to make fun of college co-eds), they start talking about Berlin and how it wasn’t that great, there wasn’t much to do, you should only spend a day there or just skip it entirely.
Now, I mean, that is totally within their rights. When you have limited time and funds (although maybe not so limited if you can afford to rent a car for 800$ a week in Ireland) to see as much of Europe as you can before you have to go back to drinking illegally in the US, you can decide which places are or aren’t worth your time. Berlin may not be one of them. After all, it’s not exactly the most beautiful city. It’s not Paris or Prague or Vienna. There are some museums and landmarks but mostly Berlin is kinda ugly and hard to see in a short amount of time, because one does not go to Berlin to see Berlin, but to experience Berlin.
So how does one experience Berlin? You experience Berlin when you start drinking at 11 p.m. and before you know it, it’s 6 a.m. and a man who claims his name is Hans is trying to unload free drugs on you, or you’re at a cumbia party where they start playing Hava Nagila, or you’re walking down the street and some guy makes a demeaning, sexist comment and your German friend starts yelling at him in German and calls him a Nazi pedophile. Berlin is experienced by walking down the streets and counting how many languages you hear besides German, or grabbing your friend’s purse when some guy tries to take it, claiming he’s looking for his bag that looks similar and he thinks he left here because he was sitting where you’re sitting just a few minutes ago, he promises. Berlin is experienced when you go for a drink at a beach bar on the river and end up treated to a firework show put on for a Turkish wedding. You experience Berlin when you get a falafel at 3 a.m. and the kebab shop employees give you free grapes, just because. You experience Berlin in weird dive bars, concert venues under U-bahn stations, and goth clubs.
Berlin is not a place you go to understand German culture. If you want to practice your German, good luck. Berlin is not really Germany, like London is not really England. You can honestly be in Berlin and forget what country you’re in. Every meal I’ve eaten in Berlin was decidedly un-German, except for the few times I ate currywurst which is still, like, the least German of all the wursts. I can’t tell you how many times this weekend my friend Wiebke went up to someone and started asking them a question only to have them reply that they don’t speak German.
So should you go to Berlin? I think you should, because Berlin is undeniably cool. It is a place to find art and culture and anarchists and street art and bars and lots and lots of parties (and also drugs). It’s not the kind of place that is unsatisfying as a 1- or 2-day stop on a fast-paced European tour, because Alexanderplatz and Museum Island are wholly underwhelming and not what you should come to see anyway. Take your time to see Berlin, and by ‘see’, I mean get super drunk and do something crazy and have a proper story to tell your friends back home.