How to describe Berlin, after living there for almost two years? Many say it's a “cool” city but in my opinion that’s a bit of a euphemism for what it really is: rough around the edges, not in the least because of its painful history.
Walk around town and you’ll see graffiti everywhere. Dirty, windy subway stations. Weird family attractions like Tempelhofer Feld, which is an abandoned Nazi airport. Museums about Nazi terror, the persecution of Jewish people, concentration camps, and the Cold War. Memory plaques for people shot while trying to climb the Berlin Wall. Gold-colored bricks in front of houses where Jewish people lived who were deported and killed. Facades of buildings and churches that were never rebuilt.
Half the city is a monument to its terrible recent past. Berlin is not a happy city, if you pay attention. Yet it’s surprisingly livable.
Berlin is an outdoorsy kind of place. Not because of pretty hills or mountains, because there aren’t any, or particularly nice weather. But there are lots of parks, lakes, and forest areas with trails. Berliners just like being outside; to walk, drink beer, run marathons, and sunbathe, sometimes naked. Kids play outside no matter how cold it is wearing snowsuits, adults gather around flea markets and food stalls. Fresh air is good for you seems to be the motto here.
The food in Berlin is not great. It’s certainly no food destination, unless kebab and falafel fulfill your culinary fantasies. But it can generally be summarized in two extremes that suit me well. On the one hand, the food culture largely revolves around pork sausage, french fries, and sauerkraut. Delicious, but not healthy. On the other hand, the vegan movement is so big you can get vegan dishes anywhere, from street food to haute cuisine. Delicious, and healthy!
Berlin is affordable. Parking costs about a dollar per hour, if you have to pay at all. A big bottle of cold beer (which you may drink in public, no problem) at a food stall is $2. Everything is very reasonably priced. The only weird thing is that they really rely on cash in Berlin, so you can’t go out with just a debit or credit card.
Berliners are a quiet kind of people. Please don’t yell in Berlin. Children aren’t supposed to be loud either, unless they’re at a playground. But even there my kids are far louder than the German kids. After 10 PM it is verboten to make any noise. If the neighbors hear loud footsteps or the sound of your laundry machine, there’s a good chance they'll complain and you get in trouble.
Berlin is not very capitalistic. On Sundays all the stores in Berlin are closed, including the supermarkets (so annoying!!). The only places to shop on Sundays are flea markets, mini markets, and gas stations.
Berlin is still partially destroyed. Maybe there was beautiful architecture in Berlin before 1945, but there isn’t any now except for a few restored mansions and a couple of spectacular new buildings, like the federal government’s. The rest of the city is largely innocuous apartment buildings to house the 3+ million people who live here—it's the second largest city in Western Europe, after London—and facades without buildings, and parts of bombed-out churches.
Berlin isn’t Germany. Germany is a pretty big country with a different look and feel depending on whether you’re in the east, the pretty Hanseatic north, or the beautiful hilly and occasionally mountainous south and west of the country. In terms of personality, I never make broad claims about Germans when I'm talking about Berliners because they are their own kind of people, perhaps a little bit more closed and big-city-rude than in the smaller cities.
Berlin is a happy place for fancy cars and driving in general. From what I see on the road Berliners prefer their own car brands: almost everyone drives a Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Opel, Audi, or Volkswagen. This might be the last big city in the world where you can drive without really ever hitting traffic and park for free almost anywhere.
Berlin is a great city to travel around Europe from, but let’s not get carried away. Prague is a four-hour drive and Amsterdam takes at least seven hours by car. Other European capitals are much further. You can certainly fly places for cheap, but Berlin is not an air hub so you often have to transfer through Frankfurt or even Munich (which is half Berlin's size).
Berlin is a fairly international city. I hear people speaking English, Russian, Spanish, Hebrew and Turkish often. I think most Germans know some English, but I noticed a certain reluctance to use it. I only ever asked doctors to speak English to me, just so I could really understand my ailments, but as soon as they found out I know German they immediately switched back to that.