Travel
4 min

Seven rules for not being ‘one of those’ expats in Berlin

Are foreign ‘artists’ and other short-term residents ruining Berlin?

In their rush to find revitalised Ostalgie, some expats are missing out on Berlin's best neighbourhoods.  Credit: Christian Baines

For all of its political turmoil and change, “poor, but sexy” Berlin has been a creative hub for most of the past century. Today, it lures more artsy types than ever before, all looking to escape the rising prices and conservatism in their home cities.

Still, not every Berliner appreciates this surge in popularity. By adding pressure on rents and having a perceived unwillingness to engage with “the real city,” foreigners can easily outstay their welcome. Keeping a few simple rules in mind can keep you from becoming a cliché and help you stay on Berlin’s good side.     

1.  Learnen the Deutsch
Germans know that their language is hard. They don’t expect you to master a mountainous vocabulary of composite words within your first few weeks, nor the three genders, multiple cases and the strict, unyielding grammar that governs it all. But if you’re staying for more than a few months, make the effort. Start that online course early and soak up as much German media as you can find before reaching Berlin. Then enroll in one of the many language schools and let the mind-boggling confusion of it all fall into place. This is not Amsterdam. Many Berliners don’t speak English, and while those that do will usually be happy to accommodate you, they’ll eventually want to see some effort. Be bold. Even your worst German will be appreciated and assisted. Sheer laziness will not.

2.  It’s not that cheap
The phrase “Omigod it’s so cheap!” has been tempting Berliners to slap well-meaning North Americans since the Wall fell. In that time, Berlin has more than reasserted itself as the cultural and political heart of Germany, and that growth has inflated its price tag. Be realistic. It’s Montreal cheap, not Prague or Budapest cheap, and Berliners — painfully aware of what gentrification has done to former “it” cities like London, Paris, and New York — would like to keep it that way. Your very presence is putting pressure on rents, so don’t go crowing about your two-bedroom Friedrichshain loft that’s costing half of what you paid for that shared bathroom cupboard in Williamsburg you left behind. Not only do you sound incredibly condescending, but the only people who want to hear how much you could be paying are Berlin’s landlords. Your fellow renters will rightly resent you for it. Do the research and make sure that what you’re paying is fair for Berlin. Then remember what your mother told you about discussing money and keep the figures to yourself.

3.  There are other clubs
You’ve probably already heard Berghain described as the world’s best nightclub, and it’s quite possibly true. The club’s ambivalence to its own hype is part of its appeal, but for many Berliners, the party ended once the label stuck, bringing the so-called “Easyjet set” in droves. For techno heads, Berghain’s still an essential stop, but there are plenty of other clubs you can and should check out. They include old-school legends like Tresor, the hedonistic KitKatClub, plus dozens more you’ll only find with local help. Some will be more dance-focused, gay or sexual than others. Just remember that, as a rule, Berlin nightlife despises narcissism (hence Berghain’s lack of mirrors), so focus on the music and leave the designer threads and cameras at home.

4.  Go West!
Some unspoken hipster code sends Berlin’s visitors scurrying east, determined to unearth “the real” Berlin from under a mountain of currywurst and Ostalgie. Prenzlauer Berg is lovely, but if you’re skipping the west, you’re skipping many of Berlin’s coolest neighbourhoods. Yes, this means venturing further west than Kreuzberg. To forego a lazy afternoon in Tiergarten or to pass on a few hours browsing through KaDeWe is to skip an iconic part of Berlin, and despite the protestations of affected hipsters, you really can’t snub Schöneberg without snubbing the historic heart of gay Berlin.

5.  Don’t say “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Western Germany’s jelly doughnuts will no doubt appreciate your solidarity (look it up), but unless you’re President Kennedy, this (in)famous phrase just sounds presumptuous. You’re not a Berliner. You’re a guest in Berlin, and that’s perfectly okay.

6.  Lose your sexual hang-ups
Yes, we all know Germany has a very grown up, matter of fact attitude toward sexuality while America still loses its shit whenever some diva pops a boob. That’s another tick in Berlin’s favour. But if you want to explore the sex club scene, leave your scandalised face at home and embrace the experience like the adult you are. Nothing kills the mood like some tourist giggling their way through the darkness; Berlin’s high season already brings more of those than you’d think.

7.  Be part of Berlin
You know the expat who treats the city like an amusement park, spending all their time in expat bars and cackling over local idiosyncrasies with others from their own country? Yeah. Don’t be this person. Please. For the love of all that lured you to Berlin, do not be this person.

If the other points on this list are guidelines, consider this one a cardinal rule. If you want to make Berlin home, treat it that way. Get involved with local clubs, sporting teams and community organisations that interest and are open to you. Born-and-bred Berliners may seem like an endangered species, but mix with Germans whenever possible. Go with them to German language events and shows. No matter how bad your German is, there really is no better way to prove you’re not just here for the cheap rent. Even if you never earn the right to call yourself a Berliner, you’ll at least be able to count some among your friends, and hold your head high knowing that no one in the city is secretly wishing you’d get out.

For more on gay Berlin, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide