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The Newbie Traveler in Berlin: Hot Currywurst and Heavy History

Where: Berlin, Germany
August 14, 2012 at 10:09 AM | by | ()

What would your life be like if you hadn't yet traveled to Europe? If you'd spent years reading travel novels and fantasizing over guidebooks, but hadn't made the big leap? This is the case for Andy Miles, who in his late twenties just embarked on a trip to hit most of the cities for the first time. He's walking us through the emotions and observations of a true Newbie Traveler.

I like to think that I'm pretty well versed in Berlin's history, but this first visit to the city still hit me a little harder than I thought it would. If you let it, the Berlin Wall, Holocaust memorials and museums and seemingly unending grey weather can really weigh heavily.

After taking the train in from Prague, I exited Berlin's Hauptbahnhof (main train station), which feels like a multi-level shopping mall, and got right into a cab. This particular cabbie spoke very little English, which I always love (no, but really, I do), so instead of trying to TALK LOUDER at him until we miraculously understood each other (does that ever work?), I just pulled up a map on my phone to show him where I needed to go.

He grabbed my phone, put it so close to his eyes that I thought his cornea may have rubbed against the screen and proceeded to say, “forgot my glasses.” Not exactly what you want to hear a cab driver say before peeling out and taking you to what you hope is your hotel.

First observation: Berlin is under construction. There are cranes on every horizon and I have no idea what they’re actually doing, but apparently they’ve made a collective decision to do a bunch of construction at once.

Another observation: Bathrooms in Berlin, and most European cities for that matter, are fantastic for a few different reasons:
· Most of them seem to be downstairs, so navigating a 100+ year old stone staircase is the ultimate sobriety test.
· If nature is truly calling, you’ll find supreme comfort. There are clean stalls with toilet paper and properly tightened seats.
· Privacy is valued, as most bathroom stalls have doors from floor to ceiling. You rarely find bathrooms like that in the U.S. except at the likes of Barneys or Bloomingdales.

If it’s your first time in Berlin, as it was for me, the area you’ll probably want to spend the most time in is Mitte. It’s where you’ll find the majority of the major clothing stores, excellent magazine shops (like Do You Read Me), art galleries, and everything in-between. While our hotel claimed to be in the heart of Mitte, it felt a bit like a hotel in New Jersey saying they’re located in Times Square.

Yet another observation: While wandering around Berlin I came across not one, not two, but at least six bicycles on the street and, get this, not locked up! Even bike shops in San Francisco have to lock their bicycles when they put them outside (or even inside). At first I thought it was a fluke, but after seeing the fourth unlocked bicycle, we got it, along with a reaffirmation that there is still good in this world.

Even though I didn’t want to leave, eventually I had to continue on, so I had my hotel arrange for a cab to take me back to the Hauptbahnhof, which was about a 3-4 mile drive. My one requirement was the cab driver had to accept credit cards and, as I was assured numerous times, it wouldn’t be a problem.

The morning of my departure the cab pulls up right on time, I double-check with him that he’ll take a credit card, we get into the cab and I tell him where I'm going. Now, I don’t speak German, but if I had to take a guess as to what he started yelling at me it would be, “Credit card?! To the train station? You want to use a credit card?! What’s wrong with you?” Then he started to shake his head and repeat “credit card” in English over and over again. I did make it to the train station and I paid that cab driver with a credit card (teehee), and I walked inside to wait for my train to Amsterdam.

The train pulled into the station a little early as it’s not just a commuter train, so it gives you a little more time to board. Because we had first class tickets, we had to find the first class car. Incase you too end up with first class tickets on a train, please know that 80% of the time they aren’t marked, so it’s better to ask someone which car it is.

Eventually we found out the First Class car was all the way at the front and, at the door, I had my girlfriend get on first and I turned around to grab her bag and threw it onto the train. When I turned around to get my bag...I found the train door had closed! When I say closed, I mean c-l-o-s-e-d. It wouldn’t open and we were staring at each other through the window without a clue as to what to do.

My first idea was to Spider Man-it on the side of the train until we reached the next station, but that wasn’t going to work, so I ran towards the middle of the train just to see if, for whatever reason, there was an open door. Sure enough, the door was still open and I jumped in literally as it was slamming shut. Catastrophe averted.

I celebrated with some tasty train cafe Currywurst and a well deserved beer, then enjoyed the journey toward another first for me: Amsterdam.

Tomorrow: The Newbie Traveler in the Red Light District.

[Photos: Andy Miles]

Archived Comments:


Berlin has been under construction every time I have been there - at least half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. You get used to it but I think it also makes for a far too sterile city. Friedrichstrasse used to be no-man's land now it's one high end retailer after another with banks interspersed. I wonder if any of the squats are still there - that was interesting. Also if you head to Berlin, I highly recommend Kadewe's food halls. Really terrific.


Hi Michael, I had no idea Berlin has been working on the city for 20 years! A food hall? That makes me want to book a trip back right now.