An honest opinion about Berlin: Expectations vs. Reality

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When it comes to travel, the inconsistency between expectations and reality is more common than you think. There is a number of reasons why our perception of a destination can be altered even before we get there. The media can highlight the worst of it, while travel bloggers might tend to paint a non-realistic, overly positive image of it. Then, there are the prejudices that society makes sure to assign to every nation in the world.

Before I visited Berlin I was so eager to get there. First, because I wanted to get in touch with my German roots (my grandfather was German). Second, because I grew up hearing and learning so many things about the country, the people, the history, that it just sparked my interest. People around me kept praising so much the German ways of doing things, that I didn’t even questioned what I’ve been told. I must admit that I didn’t think much about choosing my first destination there. The capital seemed the obvious starting point. During my stay in Berlin I realised things are a little different from what I imagined.

So here is a list of things that I expected versus what I really encountered there. Please note that the list is solely based on my subjective observations and keep in mind that different people can have different perspectives. Also, I hope you see the touch of humor. I wanted to be honest, but in a positive note. Not because I am trying to sugar coat the truth, but because I am grateful for all my experiences that I can turn into life lessons. Keep calm and don’t take everything too seriously.

1. Stereotypes

Yes, yes. No matter what corner of the world you are from, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. The whole world knows that Germans are efficient and hardworking. And punctual. And precise. And I could easily find another ten similar attributes, but you get the point. The problem is that the minute you get to Berlin you will see literally everywhere construction sites that have such low activity that they usually seem deserted.

Cranes. Cranes everywhere!
Cranes. Cranes everywhere!

The pavements aren’t squeaky clean like I expected to, the roads aren’t perfect and some streets have a weird smell. Good news though (ahem!), there is one stereotype that Berliners cling on to: grumpiness. You will rarely hear a joke from their part or see a smile on their face, but paradoxically that stereotype doesn’t apply to the rest of Germans. So far I’ve met people from all over Germany, like Leipzig, Munich or Frankfurt and they have a good sense of humor actually. I guess Berliners just like to be different no matter what, but that’s the beauty of this world. We don’t have to be all the same.

2. Architecture

Truth be told, Berlin is far from being an architectural gem. The city doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new. It’s somewhere in between. Moreover, the architectural styles are all mixed up in a not very aesthetic way sometimes.

The German version of 50 shades of grey
The German version of 50 shades of grey

Sure, it has it’s fair share of landmarks, but overall it doesn’t have what it takes to stand out from the vast pool of European cities. Considering it’s communist past, it’s mostly grey and dull, but luckily, here’s where the street artists stepped in and added some color in the urban landscape, embellishing the walls with creative ideas. Huge graffiti can be seen everywhere in the city, with an incredible frequency. As a fan of all forms of art, I must admit this won me over.

Example of incredible grafitti in Berlin
Example of incredible grafitti in Berlin

3. History

My personal opinion is that a city/country must accept its history, no matter if it’s good or bad, glorious or shameful. To be honest, I was expecting WWII to be a taboo subject in Berlin, but not quite like it really is. Imagine my surprise when our guide took us in a random parking lot somewhere around Mall of Berlin and told us that we are standing right above Hitler’s bunker.

Mall of Berlin - a place very close to Hitler's bunker
Mall of Berlin – a place very close to Hitler’s bunker

I was puzzled. I looked around and there was not even an itsy bitsy teenie sign that would confirm his story. Apparently, after Hitler’s death, Germans filled the bunker with sand and covered everything with cement. I know many will not agree with me and I am well aware of the fact that the guy was not a saint, but let’s be real: what is the point of pretending he never existed? How can we learn from past lessons if we never talk about them? If every nation in the world would be defined by its ancestors, then we would all have to burn the history books, don’t you think?

4. English speakers

When I go in a foreign country, one of my main concerns is the language. From what I previously knew, France and Germany were two countries with some kind of aversion towards English. Although I have some basic knowledge of the German language, that didn’t stop me to search information about whether Berlin is an English-friendly space and from what I have read I thought I would be fine. Everyone said that Berlin is full of expats and that here you might even hear English more often than German. Unfortunately, my experience was quite different. There were a few times when I tried to use English to make conversation with a Berliner and a long pause and a death stare followed. Ok, maybe I exaggerate a little bit, but you get the idea. This had a good outcome though: willy-nilly, it forced me to strengthen my German skills.

Is language a problem? Not when you just want to have some drinks!
Is language a problem? Not when you just want to have some drinks!

5. Traditions

First thing I’ve seen right outside of the airport was some sort of bar. It was a wooden hut, with a wild boar head (a real one!) above the entrance. Everyone seemed to be drinking beer inside and listen to German music. You don’t expect to see that in an airport. Especially the wild boar head part. So I thought: if the airport is like this, then the city must be like this too. Imagine my disappointment when I faced the truth. You can hardly find any traditional restaurants, bars or pubs in Berlin, but if you have precious information regarding the matter, I am willing to go back and dig in deeper.

A wild boar head: A strange thing to see in an airport.
A wild boar head: A strange thing to see in an airport.

6. Size

Current statistics say that Berlin is #74 on the list of the largest cities in the world considering their land area, and it’s #5 among the cities of the European Union. I imagined that Berlin will be a large city, but I discovered just how big in my first night there. I was looking for a bar or a club, so I Googled a bit and found a list, picked a random bar and started walking. Long story short, it took me almost 5 hours to get there! It’s true that I got a little lost and walked in circles for a bit, but I actually loved the experience of having such a long midnight stroll because seeing the city on foot helped me learn my ways around much quicker.

7. Safety

Everyone knows about the immigrant “issue”. Media made sure of that. But I can tell you that everything is blown out of proportions. There is no “issue”. Like I said, I walked a whole night from one end of Berlin to another and I didn’t feel unsafe. Not even once. The streets are extremely quiet compared with what I’m used to. So if you previously had doubts about safety or held back from traveling in Germany or any other place in Europe that made headlines for immigrants problems and terrorist attacks, make sure you don’t limit your sources of information to the news from TV and Internet. Remember that one incident does not change things overnight and that news are not always true or accurate. Besides, bad things can happen anywhere.

So this is that I experienced in Berlin. To be honest, it didn’t matter that it was different from what I expected. I kept my mind open and I made the most of my time there. But what about you? Have you ever been to Berlin? What did you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments section below!

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5 Comments on "An honest opinion about Berlin: Expectations vs. Reality"

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6 days 3 hours ago

But I always say – you must FEEL Berlin :) It is not place where you go explore city a tourist. You must go there and enjoying what is going around :) it is a peacful place but with many things going around :)

6 days 3 hours ago
Berlin is one of my fav city, maybe it is because I have strong connections there. But I love the atmosphere there and also – the city was destroyed during the WWII then divided into 2 political sides – communistic and western part. So yes you feel the old socialistic and 60-80’s architecture there but you can also see how Berlin is changing all the time, how they re-novate houses and the city is full of great archiutecture. Also it has so many charming parts but you just have to go out of Alexanderplatz :) But I have to admit… Read more »
6 days 6 hours ago
I’m German :D I kind of want to explain it. Not that I’m petty, it just has historical facts why Berlin is so and such. Berlin is an ex-communist capital! It doesn’t just look like it. The former dictatorship GDR was so anti-fascist that they destroyed everything WW2. People even had to change the way they were writing. No relict, nothing to learn from, except in the western part of the city, like the Emperor Wilhelm Memorial Church. Same goes for English. There wasn’t the possibility, or rarely, to learn English at school, just Russian. That’s why a lot of… Read more »
6 days 10 hours ago
Your opinion of Berlin is like a breath of fresh air! I visited in 2009 and it was not at all like I expected either. It was like I visited a different Berlin to everyone else I had spoken to! Many things you say I completely agree with: The buildings are very communist era, there are many areas of open concrete spaces, hard to talk get to know Berliners and there was LOTS of graffiti. One thing I disagree with however was Germans not accepting their history. Did you get the chance to visit the Deutsches Historisches Museum? The sections… Read more »
6 days 14 hours ago

You can’t love everywhere you go. Especially when you expect one thing and get another.
I’m glad you’re able to take away good parts of the trip even though it was more of a disappointment.