East Berlin is in the German Democratic Republic.
As a result of quadripartite occupation by the allied powers (USSR in the East, USA-France-UK in the West), Berlin holds a special political status. The highest profile of the few points where East meets West, East Berlin is by far the easiest spot to visit behind the Iron Curtain.
The de facto capital of the German Democratic Republic or "East Germany", East Berlin is also its most populous city at just above a million inhabitants. The city is proudly displayed as the glistening show piece of a glorious socialist workers' paradise which the régime presents to the wider world with slightly fuller shelves, modern Plattenbau housing estates and the meticulously maintained Karl Marx Allee where parades are frequently held.
A word to the wise regarding border controls: East German custom and border officials are notorious for their lack of humor or even common courtesy. Expect to be picked for an especially thorough search for no other reason than they don't like your face. Apart from the "obvious" like hard currency, goods only available for hard currency and illegal goods, customs agents are particularly on the lookout for what they deem "political literature" — particularly if written in German. You might consider your Spiegel or Stern a harmless read on the train — the GDR customs officials will certainly consider it an attempt to bring down their régime or worse.
Citizens of most nations require a visa to cross into East Germany or East Berlin. For obtaining visas for the GDR or visas for longer stays see the GDR section. A one-day Visa for East Berlin can easily be obtained at the border, passport required (ID-card and visa voucher for West Berlin citizens). A charge of 5 DM applies except for West Berlin Citizens. One-day visas are technically valid from midnight, practically from 7 am, as this is the official opening time of the checkpoints, until midnight (2 am for West Berliners). Usually day visa are given out until around 8 pm. Since checkpoints are open until 2 am for West Berliners (Checkpoint Charlie 24/7 for diplomats and allied patrols), the adventurous might try to enter just after midnight to get a visa for the new day and jump into the East Berlin nightlife.
Overstaying will almost certainly result in a fine. The only chance to spontaneously extend the stay is a booking of a hotel room in the Interhotel "Palasthotel", "Grand Hotel" or "Metropol". Expect prices around 200 DM per person per night, hard currency only. After receiving the payment the hotel will take care of the visa extension.
Entry points include:
- Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, all nations, pedestrian only. From the west, Bahnhof Friedrichstraße can only be reached by U-Bahn (Line 6) or S-Bahn (Lines 1 and 2).
- Bornholmer Straße, West Germans, West Berliners, GDR only. Pedestrian or car
- Chausseestraße, West Berliners, GDR only. Pedestrian or car
- Invalidenstraße West Berliners, GDR only. Pedestrian or car
- Friedrichstraße ("Checkpoint Charlie"), third nations, GDR, pedestrian or car.
- Heinrich-Heine-Straße, West Germans, GDR only. Pedestrian or car
- Oberbaumbrücke, West Berliners, GDR only. Pedestrian only
- Sonnenallee, West Berliners, GDR only. Pedestrian or car
Berlin (or rather a suburb) is home to East Germany's best and largest airport, Schönefeld Airport (SXF IATA). The airport is located outside the city limits in the town of Schönefeld in the southeast. It is not subject to the four-power-regulations (which impose a limitation of only allowing carriers of the four allied nations) and thus receives flights from more carriers. The airport is served by all major eastern airlines, as well as GDR flag carrier Interflug. Schönefeld also offers flights to some Western European (but not West German) destinations for more affordable prices than the West Berlin airports and thus attracts passengers from West Berlin as well. Due to flights to/from Schönefeld sometimes being hijacked by Easterners wishing to defect, security is tight and there are rumors of Stasi officers on every plane (though whether that only applies to Interflug or to all airlines is unclear). From Schönefeld Airport take the S-Bahn into town.
One cannot obtain visas for East Germany at the airport (except transit visa). All visa requirements have to be met beforehand.
The West Berlin airports of Tempelhof (THF IATA) in the American sector and Tegel (TXL IATA) in the French sector have flights from all major West German Airports and Paris, but not to other destinations (flights to UK or the US would be possible under four-power-regulations, but are not offered). From there use the West Berlin inner-city transport to get to the border checkpoints. Flights to West Berlin are a special experience, since the allied air corridors allow a maximum altitude of 10.000 feet, which gives much better ground visibility.
From East Germany
East Berlin is well connected to the East German network run by Deutsche Reichsbahn and the steam trains are a cool way of getting around although they're not all that fast — riding East German trains can be an adventure all by itself. However, given the state of the roads and the low car ownership rate they are rather popular with the locals and train remains the main way cargo is moved around East Germany — in sharp contrast with the west, where trucks clog the roads.
Train stations for long distance trains are Berlin Hauptbahnhof (formerly known as Schlesischer Bahnhof and then Ostbahnhof) or Berlin-Lichtenberg. Both stations are connected with the S-Bahn and Buses. Lichtenberg is also served by U-Bahn and tram. Depending on your final destination in East Berlin there is also the possibility to change to the S-Bahn at Schönefeld Airport Station, at Bernau or Erkner, depending on the starting point.
From West Germany
All trains from West Germany to Berlin pass West Berlin before they reach their terminus at Berlin Friedrichstraße station. This means, you do the standard transit procedure to West Berlin and enter East Berlin as a pedestrian (see below).
While the GDR government has ceased its earlier cancellation and blockade of "transit" services from West Germany to West Berlin, they do the bare minimum maintenance of the transit rail lines and even though the transit passengers are a source of hard currency, travel times of several hours even for the shorter routes aren't out of the ordinary. Add seemingly random delays at the border and the unfriendly and harsh border police and many West Germans and West Berliners vastly prefer flying to get around the hassle. There are currently talks between the West and East German governments to expand the Hanover-Berlin transit corridor with Western money to remedy the issue and hopefully one day run a high speed train — currently undergoing extensive testing under the tentative name "Inter-City Experimental" — over the yet-to-be-built route, but given the difficulty of all types of negotiations and the seemingly random tightening of "border security" measures by the East Germans don't expect it to even start construction before 1995.
From East Germany
There are motorways from Frankfurt/Oder, Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Schwerin and Prenzlau to Berlin. All meet at the Berlin Orbital, the world's longest ring highway, which is mostly due to the fact that it was completed in the 1970s in a way to avoid touching West Berlin and it only slightly grazes East Berlin in one point. There is a tree known colloquially as the "Stundeneiche" ("hour oak") as it marks a point from where central Berlin is roughly an hour away. Unlike the famed West German Autobahn, East German highways are often still in the state in which the Nazis built them (if worse for wear) and some are actually paved with cobblestone. Unfortunately the roads in and around Berlin are also the lone exception to the general low traffic congestion in the East.
From West Germany
If you want to get to East Berlin directly from West Germany (or other bordering countries of the GDR), you have to meet visa requirements beforehand. There is no chance of getting a visitor visa at the border. Otherwise do the standard transit procedure and travel to East Berlin from West Berlin (see below).
Traffic from Western nations must clear a series of three checkpoints:
- Checkpoint Alpha (the Helmstedt–Marienborn border) guards the crossing out of West Germany on the main transit road, Bundesautobahn 2 (A2)
- Checkpoint Bravo (Grenzübergangsstelle Drewitz-Dreilinden) controls main autobahn border crossing points into West Berlin
- Checkpoint Charlie controls access from West Berlin to East Berlin for foreigners and armed forces of the quadripartite occupying powers
The transit roads into East Berlin are in a better state than other highways in East Germany, but that isn't saying much. If you are only transiting, you are expected to make no stops except at designated rest stations and, as your transit visa is timestamped, it is highly advisable to bring proof of any rest stop lest the border guards start asking questions. It is rumored that, like pretty much anything else, rest stops are infiltrated by plain clothes Stasi officers, so don't say anything you'd not want the Stasi to hear.
Crossing the inner-city Berlin Wall
Please note that you can cross the border only at designated border crossing points by foot or by car. There is no public transport crossing the border. Using public transport always means exiting the western transport, cross the border by foot and rejoin eastern public transport and vice versa. Please note also that it is forbidden to use motorcycles to cross the wall, also bicycles are not allowed (you may take your bikes in your car though). Taxis likewise can bring you to the border, but not cross it.
Access to the border checkpoints are as follows:
- Bahnhof Friedrichstraße: From the west: U-Bahn (Line 6) or S-Bahn (Lines 1 and 2). Please note you can change between those lines without crossing into East Berlin. There are duty free stores Intershop on the platforms which sell cigarettes and liquor cheaper than West Berlin high-street prices. There is, however, no allowance to bring cigarettes and liquor, if you hadnt actually crossed the border. From the East: S-Bahn, tram (tram station Am Kupfergraben 200 m away), buses, taxi or by foot.
- 1 Tränenpalast, Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, Reichstagufer 17. The annex building with blue steel and with a rounded glass façade next to Friedrichstraße station serves as the exit border control building. It incorporates lots of glass and light as the architects intended the voyager equate socialism with enlightenment and openness. Known colloquially as Tränenpalast (tear palace) due to tearful farewells often observed at this border crossing station.
- Bornholmer Straße: From the west: Bus, taxi or by foot. From the East: Tram, bus, taxi, foot. The S-Bahn-Station Bornholmer Straße is closed. Trains from both sides pass the station without stop.
- Chausseestraße: From the west: U-Bahn (Line 6, Chausseestraße Station), bus, taxi, by foot. From the East: Tram, bus, taxi
- Invalidenstraße: From the west: Bus, taxi, foot. From the East: Tram, bus, taxi, foot
- Friedrichstraße ("Checkpoint Charlie"): From the west: U-Bahn (Line 6, Kochstraße station, 150 m), bus, taxi, foot. From the East: U-Bahn (Line A, Stadtmitte station, 400 m), bus, taxi, foot.
- Heinrich-Heine-Straße: From the west: U-Bahn (Line 8, Moritzplatz station, 150 m), bus, taxi, foot. From the East: Bus, taxi, foot
- Oberbaumbrücke: From the west: U-Bahn (Line 1, Schlesisches Tor station, 500 m), taxi, foot. From the East: S-Bahn (Warschauer Straße station, 500 m), taxi, foot.
- Sonnenallee: From the west: Bus, taxi, foot. From the East: S-Bahn (Sonnenallee station, 500 m), taxi, foot.
After you choose the correct queue at the first booth, your will be asked to fill in a registration form in two pieces with some of your personal and passport data. Also there are questions on the purpose of your stay and, if applicable, the name of the person you're visiting passports will be checked and your visa issued. The passport inspector will take your 5 DM fees, inspect your passport by comparing the photograph with your face. Once satisfied, you will receive your passport with the second registration card (they keep the first) and the visa as a separate sheet of paper, which you should guard carefully — trying to exit without it will get you into deeeeep trouble.
Next is the minimum change, 25 DM into 25 M at a rate of 1:1. Sometimes the eastern money comes in a plastic bag with a 20 M note and coins (quite handy, if you need change for public transport), but sometimes you get away with a 20 M and a 5 M note.
At the next booth is the customs inspection. You will be asked to fill in a customs declaration form. All items which you import into the GDR (as presents e.g.) have to be listed as well as the money you take with you. Bringing hard currency is allowed without limit, but needs to be declared and you will be asked on differences at the exit.
You have to exit at the same checkpoint you used for entry.
A guard will inspect your papers to allow access to the checkpoint. You will be asked to the customs inspection first. They check your customs declaration form, ask for any leftover eastern currency (correct answer: none), items bought or received as presents. You might have to produce the amount of declared hard currency.
Last step is the passport inspection, again there is looking at you.
Leave your favourite tapes for the car radio at home. You won't get them across the border.
In addition to your personal documents, you need car registration papers and a green international insurance card. You also have to pay a road use charge of 10 DM (not applicable for West Germans and West Berliners).
Mobile car-phones will be sealed or otherwise made defunct during the stay. Please note that Western car rentals usually forbid taking rented cars to the East.
When exiting, your car will be searched thoroughly, until the officer is satisfied that you did not hide any defectors. It means opening the hood, trunk, rear bench, inspecting the tank, roll mirrors under the car. Assume they are well informed on any car types and how to remove anything. Most of the procedure you can wait sitting in the car, but you will be asked for assistance in opening the hood and trunk (or simply to do it yourself, removing luggage and so on at the orders of the officer).
Do's and dont's
The atmosphere with uniforms, heavily armed guards, roadblocks, and so on is intentionally intimidating. Keep cool.
Bringing East German currency in and out is strictly forbidden. Also do not bring any printed items which the GDR might consider as negative. This can, for example, be a calendar with the anniversary of the June 17th uprising marked as a public holiday. Also all magnetic tapes, cassettes, floppy discs — and of course, as with any international border, any kind of weapons, explosives, or drugs.
Some items may not be taken across the inner German frontier, mainly anything that is subsidised. These include textiles, shoes and some food (although the last woman reported to have gone handbag shopping in the East is now kept in an asylum).
A single journey is 0,20 M. You can buy tickets in advance in blocks of 5 for 1 M at ticket counters in S- or U-Bahn stations, or pay on the train using mechanical ticket dispensers. Just throw the money into a wheel behind a glass, and pull the ticket. No change given. Tickets are for a single ride, without transfer (which requires a new ticket).
Day tickets cost 2 M and can be used on all public transport within the city limits. They are also available at U- and S-Bahn stations.
The S-Bahn was the first of its kind in the world, opened in the Weimar Republic and expanded by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. It is one of very few things better maintained in the East than in the West mostly due to it being operated by (East German) Deutsche Reichsbahn even in the Western sectors and consequently boycotted by many Western anti-Communists. The S-Bahn runs nearly 24 hours a day, with an operating break between approximately 2 and 4AM. The S-Bahn is the best choice to cover large distances, as the trains are fast and run very frequently during daytime. Also, it is above ground and often allows nice views. Note that most S-Bahn lines also cover suburbs outside Berlin, which may not be covered by your visa. If you have an East Berlin-only visa, the S-Bahn grid and the last stations within the Berlin city limits are mapped on the back of the visa sheet. There are random patrols on the trains to enforce that.
The East German subway network has hardly been expanded since the end of the war, and many stations show signs of aging. It's still fast and a good way to get to the places where it does go, but — unlike in the West — it's not the main mode of transport. Indeed, two West Berlin U-Bahn lines, U6 and U8, pass under East Berlin through a series of Geisterbahnhöfe, or ghost stations, that have been closed since the city was divided. The one exception is Berlin-Friedrichstraße on the U6 line, which is also served by several East Berlin S-Bahn lines, though you must pass through border control to transfer between services. Note that East Berlin transit maps do not illustrate these U-Bahn lines.
In East Berlin there are two lines: Thälmannplatz to Pankow Vinetastr (Line A) and Alexanderplatz to Friedrichsfelde Ost (Line E). They meet at Alexanderplatz, where you can transfer. Trains run every ten minutes between 4AM and shortly after midnight.
East Berlin has a well maintained tram network (probably the best in the GDR and one of the best in the Eastern bloc) mostly running Czechoslovakian Tatra wagons. No matter where you're going, the tram will get you there faster than a car.
If you find an empty taxi, flag it down and take a photograph, as it is a rare sight. The ride is comfortable in Russian-built Wolga-Limousins. Taxis are organised under VEB Kraftverkehr Berlin and work as socialism works: they pretend to pay you, you pretend to work.
There are taxi ranks at traffic hotspots, but rarely any taxis there. If the yellow taxi sign on the roof is lit, you can flag it down in the street. Prices are moderate, approximately 1 M per mile.
By black taxi
If there is a market, there will always be somebody to serve it. Socialism is no exception to that. Thus many private drivers of the Schwarztaxe cruise the streets and pick up passengers, especially at night. Just stand at the street and give a sign. Many claim this is the only properly working means of transport in East Berlin. Just tell the driver your destination. Prices are negotiable. 1 M per km is considered appropriate, though convertible currency certainly won't be rejected either.
In short: don't. The locals can get mind-boggling horsepower out of their two stroke Trabant (derisively or affectionately called "Trabbi" or "Rennpappe" - literally "running cardboard") with homebrew repairs and tuning. They need petroil, leaving any sane driver in the dust and a cloud of oily gasoline fumes. And don't even try to contend with the upper echelons in their Ladas and Wartburgs that think their party membership means the road belongs to them. While the régime is careful to keep potholes in Berlin to a minimum, they do crop up here as well, though they are less common than in provincial cities like Karl Marx Stadt or Rostock. East Berlin is also a big exception to the rule of East German cities being spared the worst traffic jams.
Still, if you do: Don't drink and drive. There is a zero alcohol policy, which is strictly enforced. It might even detect residual alcohol from the night before. Unlike West German rules, you may turn right on red traffic lights, if there is a green arrow signposted and you are certain not to interfere with others' right of way. There are plenty of traffic police along the way who are eager to fine you for even the slightest breach of regulations.
There is no such thing as a pleasant stroll in Berlin. The smell of lignite and oiled gasoline is overwhelming and the overall drab exterior makes few places worth exploring. That said, the parades lead to streets being shut down and checking out the latest in military marches and hymns to the inevitable victory of Marxism Leninism is as good a way as any to spend a day with nothing else to do (literally, everything else is closed).
Ampelmännchen (literally "little traffic light men") are a common symbol on pedestrian signals in the German Democratic Republic. This distinctive socialist traffic icon displays a male figure wearing a Communist hat.
As the historical centre (district Berlin-Mitte) is part of East Berlin, many buildings of the old Prussian capital are here, concentrated along the Baroque axis Unter den Linden and its side streets. Though the communists demolished the Stadtschloss of the Kaiser to replace it with the Palast der Republik (see below), still many of the imperial buildings are left, including
- Berliner Dom, 19th century representative arcitecture for the Kaiser
- Guard House (Unter den Linden 4) with guards. Changing guards at noon shows military discipline performed by soldiers of the people's army (NVA), which would make every Prussian officer proud.
- Opera House (Unter den Lindes 7) with statues of the 1813 Prussian war heroes Bülow, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Yorck.
- Main building of the University (Unter den Linden 6)
- Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great (opp. Unter den Linden 9)
- Brandenburg Gate, located directly on the eastern side of the border within the sealed-off area. Not readily accessible from either side, but most easily seen from West Berlin
A bit off Unter den Linden is the Museum Island with the treasures of the Pergamon-Museum, the Bode Museum and others.
To the south there is the Gerndarmenmarkt with classicist architecture of the concert hall, with German and French Churches on either side
The Fernsehturm (TV tower) is perhaps the most notable piece of GDR architecture and one of the highest buildings in Europe. It is visible throughout town, and unlike imperialist propaganda in western capitals, mapped on city plans. The sphere, which holds the observation platform on 669 ft, a restaurant at 681 ft and technical platforms, is encased with a special type of tiles, which in sunshine reflect the sun as a cross (Pope's revenge). If you want to enjoy the view from above, the elevator will get you up (and down) in 38 seconds. Admission: Observation deck 3 M, Restaurant (Price Stage S) 5 M.
The TV tower sits amidst an ensemble designed by the GDR with the Weltzeituhr a frequent meeting point. The Nikolaiviertel is also close by and despite being the oldest neighborhood of what is now Berlin, the buildings actually date to an attempt by the GDR régime to imitate a genuine old town feel.
The Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) is probably the thing the régime wants you to see most and it definitely has some architectural value to it. Built on the site of the former Stadtschloss, this building exhibits the best and most modern aspects of Eastern architecture as well as the newest in lamp design, giving rise to the derisive nickname "Erich's Lampenladen". It holds a large hall, where the East German parliament meets, but also concerts are staged. There are 11 entertainment places from restaurants, coffee bars to a bowling arena and discotheque.
In front of the Palast der Republik is the recently completed Marx-Engels-Forum, a public square named for the two most influential thinkers of the Communist Movement. A pair of larger-than-life statues of Marx and Engels sit at the center of the square. Behind them is a relief sculpture depicting the struggles of the German Socialist Movement, illustrating workers' exploitation under capitalist rule and their subsequent liberation in a Socialist society.
Eastwards there is the 3 miles long boulevard of the Karl-Marx-Allee with the best of socialist 1950s wedding-cake-style architecture, added by some 1970s concrete buildings. Walking the whole stretch might be a bit boring, but luckily the subway line E runs underneath it to shortcut. Best walk is between tube-stations Strausberger Platz and Weberwiese, as there are some shops, cafés and restaurants in the base floor of the 8-story and sometimes higher apartment blocks.
At the beginning of the Landsberger Allee there is Leninplatz with some 1970 high-rise apartment blocks and a giant 19 mtrs Lenin-statue.
In Treptower park, south of the city, there is the Soviet War Memorial, rising some 30 m into the sky. The memorial is also grave to 7.000 soviet soldiers, who fell during the battle of Berlin.
If you want to follow the traces of Erich Honecker & Co., try the Protokollstrecke (protocol route). It is the route they take from the ministries and Communist Party Headquarters to the gated compound Wandlitz north of Berlin. Just follow the streets Grunerstraße/Alexanderstraße/Otto-Braun-Straße/Greifswalder Straße/Berliner Allee to the motorway and see, how neatly the facades are done — until one house into the side streets, from where the standard gray begins. Mostly in the mornings and in the afternoons an armada of policemen come out of the nowhere to allow a fleet of speeding Volvo-limousines to pass.
The Berlin Wall
Though the erection of the Berlin Wall is celebrated by propaganda on stamps and in speeches — even an army march was composed — the eastern authorities do their best to hide the wall from their own population. In fact you best see it from the western side or from the S-Bahn en route to Bhf. Friedrichstraße, when you cross it. From the east the border area is widely fenced off and patrols galore eagerly observe everyone lingering around there: Don't even think of taking photographs. Visibility to the actual border is mostly interrupted by concrete or stone walls. At the Brandenburg Gate the view is open, but from a distance. The best way of looking at the wall is from the S-Bahn between Schönhauser Allee and Pankow stations. The trains are cut through the entire death strip until it makes a curve at the very last concrete wall, which is the last obstacle to the west. Trains run at maximum speed and the train dispatchers continuously sweat out of every pore to get the trains out of the critical zone. After 20 seconds that Cold War rollercoaster regains East Berlin ground. Well worth the 20 Pf.
The GDR is well-known for the manufacture of photographic equipment, with the Praktica line exported far and wide. One would therefore expect it to be a focal point for budding photographers. Achtung! Be very careful what you photograph, or you will be imprisoned and interrogated as a Western spy.
Dynamo Berlin is the best in GDR soccer. It regularly attracts the best players playing the Oberliga and thus is a championship contender most of the time. The fact that the head of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Erich Mielke is an avid fan has nothing to do with this and any accusations of match-fixing are filthy propaganda of revanchist renegades, supporters of Dynamo Dresden or Union Berlin. They score however surprisingly often penalties in the 89th minute or injury time. Home matches are played in the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark, Eberswalder Str. with a capacity of nearly 30.000. As this stadium is next to the Berlin Wall, some risk-matches are played in the Stadion der Weltjugend.
The second Berlin club is Union Berlin, home arena is Alte Försterei at Berlin-Köpenick, capacity 20.000. It is the largest single-purpose football stadium in the GDR. Union supporters are mostly in opposition with the regime and f*ck SED-singing is often heard.
The biggest and best stadium is Stadion der Weltjugend which has been host to the World Festival of Youth and Students twice (the only stadium in the world to hold that distinction). It is often used for athletics and regime showcases of all kinds, also cup finals are staged there.
Ice hockey is played at Sportforum Hohenschönhausen, Konrad-Wolf-Straße. Home team is SG Dynamo Berlin, their only competitor in the Oberliga is Dynamo Weißwasser. They play each other 10 to 15 times a season (depending on modus) to determine the champion. Given the limited entertainment value, often there are tickets available.
In addition to the official championship there is the "Bestenermittlung" with true amateur teams competing in their free time.
In general the GDR regime prefers sports that can get them lots of medals at Olympic games and as team sports only get them a small chance at one bronze or silver at best, those are generally relegated to second fiddle compared to athletics, swimming and the likes. Of course Western accusations of doping are entirely unfounded and the claim that many female athletes look surprisingly "male" is a filthy imperialist lie.
There is harness racing at Karlshorst (Trabrennbahn Karlshorst), Hermann-Duncker-Str., near the S-Bahnhof Karlshorst. Races are two or three times a week and you see the workers on Paradise level with their horses and full purses for the betting (no hats though). There is Perimutual betting available on win, place, exacta and trifecta. Remember, even if you win big you'll be saddled with loads of non-convertible East German currency that you can't take West, so better play it safe with your bets.
A flat racing course is at Hoppegarten, which is outside the East Berlin City limits.
Unfortunately you'll have to be forced to exchange your hard currency (called "Zwangsumtausch" in German) for almost worthless "Mark der DDR" depending on the length of your stay. The going rate is 1:1 even though a West-Mark can fetch black market rates of up to 5:1. There is no way around this and you might have a hard time getting rid of your eastern currency which you are not technically allowed to take out of the GDR. Booze is always an option (though be mindful of the import limits of your home country).
While shelves are slightly fuller than in the rest of the country, this is still a command economy and many goods — particularly those that have to be imported for hard currency — are sparse or unavailable. While locals make do with barter and a lot of waiting in line (rumor has it that queuing early and then bartering the space in the line is a "job" of some), owners of hard currency can shop in Intershops that have a reasonable assortment of products at or close to Western standards. Some products sold in Intershops are actually identical to Western brands license-produced in Eastern factories and the chocolate is made with actual cacao, not whichever "ersatz" the Industriekombinat came up with this time for their Schlager-Süßtafel.
If you stay at one of the hotels aimed at Western foreigners, you'll likely be given ample opportunity to spend your hard currency as the GDR goes to great lengths to extract as much DM as they can from the Klassenfeind.
Note that in this guide, unlike otherwise noted "M" stands for (non-convertible) Mark der DDR or Ostmark whereas "DM" stands for (fully convertible) Deutsche Mark or Westmark.
Nothing says Ich bin ein Berliner quite like a dozen fresh jelly doughnuts, which come highly recommended by John F. Kennedy. Oddly, these are called "Berliner" everywhere (well except where they are known as Krapfen) *except* in Berlin, where they are "pancakes" ("Pfannkuchen"). Pfannkuchen meanwhile are known as Palatschinken in Berlin. Confused yet?
In addition to that, the GDR government would like to inform you about the latest culinary advancements of Socialism, including:
- Goldbroiler (rotisserie chicken), a proud and well-fed socialist bird, suitable for any coat of arms. Not those shabby rotten western-style birds.
- Ketwurst (a wiener with ketchup in a hollowed out bread roll totally not the same as a "hot dog")
- Grilletta (a pork-based patty on a bread roll with sauce totally not the same as a "hamburger")
- Krusta (rectangular, bread based dish with various toppings depending on availability totally not the same as a "pizza" and totally superior to this inferior imperialist copy)
All of them are available at Imbiss stalls at or near Alexanderplatz.
Note that "Jägerschnitzel" is not a Schnitzel in the Austrian or West German sense at all, but rather a sausage. In general, East-German cuisine is quite influenced by its "brother peoples" in the East, particularly the USSR and Hungary.
Restaurants in the command economy are divided into several price stages from I to IV and, top class, S. Price stage I does not exist in reality, price stage II are simple, often shabby, restaurants. Beginning with price stage III you may expect table linen. Prices for a meal are 4 M to 6 M. A beer, 0,5 l is 1,12 M. Price stage IV are the wait to be seated class and price stage S is reserved for high-end (in socialist standards) cuisine. You find them in the Interhotels or at touristy spots like the top of the TV-tower. Please note that restaurant menus have only narrative character and can be far away from what really is on offer. If the waiter mumbles some Hamwanich (we don't have [that]), try something else. Repeat if necessary.
The Palast der Republik has several restaurants that are better stocked than average and you have a higher chance than in other GDR restaurants to get otherwise scarce foods like bananas or oranges, though the top restaurants are hard-currency only.
- Imbiss, Alexanderplatz. There is a choice of fast-food stalls around Alexanderplatz offering Ketwurst, Grillette and Bratwurst.
- Konnopke's Imbiss, Schönhauser Allee opp. 44a (near tube station Dimitroffstr). 5AM-8PM. One of the few family-run businesses left, this food stall located under the elevated U-Bahn line A is dating back to the 1930s. They're famous for their Currywurst (Bratwurst with Curry ketchup), which they created in 1960. Long waiting lines all day through. Price Stage II.
- Gastmahl des Meeres, Spandauer Str 4, ☏ 212 3286. Fish specialties, if available. Price Stage III.
- Café Moskau, Karl-Marx-Allee 34, ☏ 2794042. 11AM-late. Café, restaurant and nightbar are included in this showpiece of concrete-architecture Price stage IV.
- Haus Warschau, Karl-Marx-Allee 93, ☏ 436 3128. 11AM-11PM. Polish cuisine. First floor of a Stalinallee-tenement with terrace overlooking the street Price stage IV.
- Brechtkeller, Chausseestraße 125. 5PM-10PM. Small and cozy restaurant in the basement of the house, where Berthold Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, born in Austria, lived. Austrian cuisine after Weigels recipes. Book well in advance, 8 wk minimum. Price stage IV.
- Zum Goldbroiler, Prenzlauer Allee 177. 11AM-9PM. Rotisserie chicken available most of the times. Also Friedrichstraße 78, and at other places Price Stage II.
Alcohol is cheap and plentiful. Prices in bars are hardly higher than in supermarkets. Favorite choices (always available for hard currency but sometimes unavailable for Mark der DDR) include:
- Radeberger Pilsner (beer) — about 50% of production is exported, mostly to the West
- Nordhäuser Doppelkorn (liquor)
- Pfeffi (peppermint liquor — tastes like toothpaste)
Coffee is a favorite with the locals, which means you're out of luck looking for quality in tea. That said, the GDR is hard pressed to import enough for hard currency and despite some recent attempts to get the "brother people" of Vietnam into the coffee growing business, coffee is still scarce and a favorite in the Westpaket that West Germans send their East German relatives, due among other things to Western tax breaks. In restaurants aimed at foreigners you might get actual 100% coffee, but in the cheaper places expect anything from 49% to the whole stuff being ersatz. Blech.
- Prater, Kastanienallee 7-9. 11AM-8PM. Beergarden, which dates back to the mid 19th century. Sitting under old chestnut trees on a warm day might be a good alternative to booze away the minimum change. With a half liter beer at 1,12 M, this is a respectable 8-hours shift. Snacks available. They close at 8 pm, so plenty of time to walk back to the border checkpoint Price stage II.
- Mocca-Milch-Eisbar, Karl-Marx-Allee 35. Lovely 1960s-concrete building, where coffee, milkshakes and ice cream is served Price stage III.
- Metzer Eck, Metzer Str. 33. 10 to 10. typical Berlin corner pub. Just browse the 19th century streets of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain or Lichtenberg, you find them always at corners, but not at every corner. Price stage II.
In theory, the real existing socialism has reached the final stage in women's liberation and emancipation. Therefore prostitution is not an issue and outlawed by state regulation. In practice, scouts of peace (German: Kundschafter des Friedens), take care of the residual desires of reactionary capitalist subjects. To be found usually in the hotel bars of hard-currency-only-hotels. Junior politicians with career ambitions, real estate developers and others beware — hotel rooms are usually tapped and the ladies are quickly writing reports on everything you did, said and desired to be added to your file with the secret service. They are collecting everything to use as Kompromat (compromising material) for further use at their discretion.
Many cafés and restaurants open late evening as Nachtbar (night bar), dancing or disco, some with DJ, others with live music, too. Tickets are usually sold well in advance, so expect long waiting lines for a spontaneous visit. The doormen execute a strict regime. Hard currency might be an argument, but may give you some hardship with the waiting crowd. Hotel guests usually may jump the queue, if its in the same house.
- Clärchens Ballhaus, Auguststr. 24-26. 8PM-4AM. A traditional Berlin dance house with live music. Classical dancing only. Very communicative Price stage III.
- Ballhaus Chausseestraße, Chausseestraße 102. 8PM-4AM. Original from the 1920s, this traditional Berlin dance house even has table telephones. Live music. Classical dancing only. Very communicative. Price stage III.
- Sinus-Bar, Karl-Liebknecht-Str 1-5 (in the "Palast-Hotel"). 9PM-5AM. Classical discotheque. Reportedly the hottest and most expensive girls in East Berlin Price stage S.
- Yucca-Bar, Wisbyer Str 51. 9PM-5AM. Recently opened, modern style discotheque. Regulars include the staff of the nearby embassies in Pankow, competing with Sinus-Bar on the hottest and most expensive girls in East Berlin Price stage S.
- Cafe Nord, Schönhauser Allee 83. 9PM-5AM. Cocktail bar with dance floor Price Stage IV.
- Hafenbar, Chausseestraße 20. 9 pm to 4 am. Discotheque in the first floor of an old berlin tenement. Always long waiting lines. Preisstufe III.
Most people in East Berlin speak German, some of them with the distinctive Berlin dialect. Despite media portrayals — and the weird half-Saarland/half-Saxonian accent of Erich Honnecker — nearly nobody speaks Saxon and any attempt at a Saxon accent is bound to draw very unfriendly responses, especially when you should find yourself talking to a Stasi officer. Russian is commonly taught in schools, though results vary. Due to scant opportunities to practice them and low emphasis on them in schooling, other foreign languages are rarely to be found. Stasi agents are surprisingly good at foreign languages, however, so don't think speaking in English or French will protect you.
Apart from dialect, East Berlin language usage is also influenced by the sometimes cumbersome and overly bureaucratic coinings of the régime and in some cases the humorous responses of common people to those rather absurd terms. A whole list of "GDR-German" would be too long, but the usual suspects in the West German press can recount dozens of examples from memory.
Be advised that Western governments maintain that East German hotels — especially those catering to foreigners — are employed to spy on foreigners in audio and video-controlled rooms. Keep your secret documents to yourself, don't partake in prostitution (which in addition to being illegal under GDR law is rumored to be a tool of the régime to extract intelligence) and avoid getting too drunk.
- Interhotel. Six well-appointed hotels (Grand Hotel, Palasthotel, Hotel Metropol, Hotel Stadt Berlin, Hotel Unter den Linden and Hotel Berolina) controlled by East Germany's Stasi state security service under the Tourist Department. Four-star hotels such as Stadt Berlin primarily serve guests from Comecon countries including the Soviet Union. Five-star hotels serve guests from non-Socialist states. Stasi monitors activities of international tourists, with a focus on hotels where political decisions are discussed.
Note that all modes of communication into and out of East Berlin are likely to be read, tapped and otherwise spied on by the Stasi, so do not try any communication which you don't want the Stasi to get wind of through this route.
For using public payphones you need 20 Pf-coins. From payphones it is possible to phone within East Berlin, East Germany (but it is a well-kept secret to find out the appropriate area code, which varies, depending from where you call) and West Berlin, area code 849. Direct calls to West Germany or other countries are only possible with the aid of a post office, as they have to be registered.
While the days of Westerners being abducted in East Berlin have passed, you should still under no circumstances say anything that might be construed as a criticism of Marxism-Leninism, the East German government, the East-German-Soviet relations, the Berlin Wall or the general superiority of East Germany and its leaders over its western counterparts.
According to official reports, crime does not exist in Socialism, and the only way East Germans know of criminal activity is through the popular Polizeiruf 110 series — an original creation of GDR television and not at all similar to West German Tatort. According to
West German propaganda reports in Spiegel and FAZ, criminal activity does exist even in East Berlin, but violent crime is extremely rare and the Volkspolizei is quite efficient in dealing with "regular" crime in addition to their role of keeping the peace politically.
Do you plan to go to the West next? This may be anything from a major hassle at the border to impossible, depending on your nationality. While soldiers of the allied powers in uniform are to be allowed free movement in all four sectors of Berlin under old 1940s treaties, the East German authorities might still try to hassle you and no such protection applies for any non-military member of your party or soldiers from other countries.
The GDR government has draconian laws against what it calls "Republikflucht" (desertion of the republic) and any — supposed or real — border violations. It is a matter of public record that firearms are employed to stop any unauthorized crossing of the border and while a shoot to kill policy cannot be verified at this time, many people have died trying to cross the border. Furthermore anything that can be construed as aiding third parties in crossing the border illegally — including detailed maps showing the border or "suspicious" interest for the border — is likely to attract the attention of East German authorities and you do not want their attention.
The logical place to go next is the GDR in general:
- Potsdam is extensively touted by the GDR as a good day-trip from Berlin. It has a lot of Prussian heritage and was the site of the Potsdam conference where Stalin, Truman, Churchill and his successor Attlee negotiated about the future of the world, including Berlin partition
- Eisenhüttenstadt, which was never called Stalinstadt — no, that's fake news — is one of the most beautiful examples of 1950s GDR architecture outside East Berlin
- Mödlareuth is known by the Americans as "Little Berlin" as it's on the GDR border and divided by a wall.
- Bautzen, if you overdid it. This city is home to the notorious Stasi jail.
|This city travel guide to East Berlin is a Red Star article. It is an export-grade article complete with maps, color photographs, and exemplary information including hotels, restaurants, attractions and details of substantial value to fellow travellers. It has been distinguished as an example for its collective to emulate in the struggle to catch up to and overtake other travel guides. If you know of something that has changed, please plunge forward and help it grow.|
Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!