What do you need to know about Berlin? Everything and nothing.
Berlin has so many idiosyncrasies which are uniquely its own, and (also) uniquely German. Here are some basic guidelines to get you through your day/week/semester/life in Berlin:
To Germans, silence truly is golden. You notice this very quickly. People do not talk on the U-Bahn, or the S-Bahn, or the bus or the tram. Berliners sit in near dead silence. This rule especially applies on the streets or in buildings at night. Save your loud shenanigans for the club. The featured photo is graffiti I saw. “Bitte sehr sehr leise” means “please be very very quiet” in German. It speaks for itself in that way.
This silence rule, working in tandem with the more reserved nature of Germans compared to Americans, means that Germans will not usually strike up a conversation with you if you’re waiting in line for a coffee or for your train to come. This does not, however, mean that they will not warmly reciprocate if you do.
Prepare yourself to see a lot of white people with dreadlocks. A lot. It’s very normal here.
On a related note, while there are POC here, there are few and they noticeably get attention.
Almost all Berlin dogs have free range of motion, untethered to their owners by leashes. Their freedom does not mean you can pet them whenever you want, it will likely annoy their owners.
Berlin is not New York
You will see glass bottles and cans left under trash cans. This is not rude, nor is it littering. It’s so that the people who collect them to hand them in for money don’t have to dig through the trash to find them. You should also practice this.
The streets are often lined with small, golden plaques called “stumbling stones,” each of which commemorates a Jew living in Berlin who was murdered in the Holocaust. You should stop at each one, even if you’re in a rush. Even though you’ll see dozens, remember that each one represents a human being who had a life, one entwined with other people’s lives, and one with a daily routine just like yours.
People smoke cigarettes all the time, everywhere.
Always try to speak in German. Even if you fail, Berliners will take the effort into consideration when judging you, which they certainly will do.
Berlin has open-carry laws, it’s very normal for people to walk (or sometimes bike) around beer in hand
Germans love Christmas, and the halls will already be decked with bounds of holly by early November. Be sure to get some Glühwein and Lebkuchen (mulled wine and gingerbread) and pause to enjoy the smell of pine
Berlin wildlife is not repulsive, but in fact, quite cute. Instead of dog-sized rats, cotton-tailed bunnies run the city. You can also see foxes and woodpeckers if you keep an eye out
There is a brick line that runs throughout the city marking where the Wall stood. You should try to look out for it, or at least try to be conscious of whether you’re in the east or west (you can probably tell anyway)
Get a bike, and use it as often as you can. Keep in mind, though, that if you’re wearing winter gear, which you’ll almost definitely need to do once it gets brutally cold, you’ll be sweaty by the time you reach your destination. So also get a travel-sized deodorant/perfume.
There’s no real way, I think, to prepare for Berlin other than to come here and see for yourself how things are. In that way, it’s like New York; you can hear stories, look at photos, meet locals…but you’ll never really get it until you’re here. And Berliners like it that way.