“You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.”Franz von Suppe.
You don’t have to travel very far across Europe to see the scars still present from the two world wars past; and, that being the case, all roads historical lead naturally to Germany.
So it would be easy to have expectations about the country and it’s long divided capital. Whatever mine were – my recollection is uncertain on this point – by the time I left Berlin I only had one position on that city.
I damn well loved it.
Coming away from Germany I realised how overlooked it is by so many people who travel. I think there are cycles of trendy places to visit – for example, Iceland currently seems to be the destination du jour – and classics like New York, London, Paris etc, but no one seems to mention Germany when they talk about amazing places to visit. Which is such a shame because I absolutely adored it and the incredible mix of culture, great food and lovely people it offered.
Berlin is such an interesting city with an incredible past, and they’ve done a good job of preserving the lessons history has taught them there. But it’s also more than just a war capital; it’s fresh and modern and vibrant and eclectic.
Whatever type of Berlin you want, I promise you will find it.
I spent three days there and would easily have filled one or two more. The city is BIG and there’s so many different parts to explore. They have some really incredible museums, historical sights, restaurants and shops. I didn’t go out while I was there but I’m reliably informed that the Berlin night club scene is crazy good too.
I think the city is one of Europe’s often overlooked gems and if you’re planning an adventure in the area any time soon, then I implore you to add Berlin. Sure, Paris is always lovely, Copenhagen is cool, London is exciting and you’ll be well fed in Rome… but Berlin somehow manages to combine all of that in a package that is distinctly it’s own.
Where to stay.
Unlike previous cities I’ve posted about, I’ve only been to Berlin the once so I’m not able to compare different areas. I stayed in a private room at the Pfefferbett Hostel which is between the Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg areas of Berlin. It’s in a revamped brewery complex that’s set a way back off the street, so you don’t get too much noise. I found it super easy to get to and to get around from there – the Senefelderplatz U station is directly across the road and in about 20 minutes you can walk into the heart of Berlin’s museum district. There’s a scattering of restaurants around the place, with plenty more within walking distance radius, and I felt really safe there at all times. I paid about AUD $73 per night for the private room on weekdays, so it was a really inexpensive choice. My room came with an en suite bathroom and the hostel has a breakfast buffet, 24-hour bar and free wifi in the common areas. I would highly recommend Pfefferbett for anyone looking for a quality budget stay.
Where to eat.
Firstly, the Berlin specialty is currywurst, a sausage grilled and chopped up, then smothered with curry sauce and often served with chips. Did I love it? No. But you are going to see these stalls everywhere in Berlin and so you have to make an effort to try one. (It’s not terrible, just not my favourite.)
That said, there is far more to Berlin food than just currywurst. I found the options here really diverse; a bustling modern cafe scene and great Asian food just for two examples. If you’re coming to Berlin expecting nothing more than sauerkraut and schnitzel, then think again.
The Barn Roastery was only a couple of hundred metres from where I was staying and I went there every morning for their outstanding cold brew coffee and pastries.The space is really open and modern, with benches at the front window perfect for people watching. Plus when I heard the Aussie accents on the staff I knew the coffee was going to be good…
I had two great dinners in Berlin. The first was at a place called Angry Chicken in Kreuzberg, which was a recommendation from a friend. Kreuzberg is a grittier part of town and reminds me a bit of somewhere like Fitzroy or Brunswick in Melbourne. Angry Chicken is Korean fried chicken, the servings are huge, the quality is great and it’s fairly cheap as well. I ended up getting a larger bowl of the fried chicken and some chips, and didn’t come anywhere close to finishing it (in fact I gave the rest of my chicken to two blokes sitting in there). You can adjust the level of heat in the dish to suit, plus they serve beers and other drinks. Really cool place.
The second place I’d recommend is called SixtySeven and serves a range of Asian food, including bao burgers, in the Mitte area. The interior is insane and filled with all kinds of neon lights, lanterns and signs in a deep red tiled setting. Basically an Instagrammers dream. The bao burgers were excellent and super filling, plus they had free wifi. A really great low to mid priced dinner.
What to see and do.
As I said before, Berlin is a BIG city – this isn’t some tiny old town you’re going to easily be able to stroll around. The public transport system is excellent but if you’re there to play tourist then I highly suggest initially jumping on one of those red hop on/hop off buses which will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go and sight see.
If you’re into museums of any kind then you’re gonna want to start with Museumsinsel aka Museum Island – five museums all in the one location, with some incredible architecture to boot. The best part is that you can buy a combined ticket that will let you visit all five for a fairly significant discount. The Pergamon Museum is filled with ancient Middle Eastern antiquities, the Alte Nationalgalerie is Berlin’s biggest art gallery and has a fantastic range of 19th century artworks, the Altes Museum is home to Roman, Greek and Estrucean pieces, the Neus Museum is dedicated to Greek pieces, and the Bode Museum is filled with Byzantine artefacts. They all have their own speciality so if you’re running short on time (or don’t want to get museum-ed out) then just pick what your interests are.
While you’re in the area, it’s only a short walk over to the Berlin Cathedral which would have to be one of the most stunning buildings in the world. You can also pay to go up into the massive dome for some incredible views over the city – well worth it.
For those keen on more historical museums, the Topography of Terror charts Germany’s Third Reich and does so in a fairly unflinching manner. It’s a pretty brutal museum and doesn’t shy away from detailing the Nazi horrors of WWII. It’s free to enter and built at the site of the old SS Headquarters, with remnants of the Berlin Wall still in place here as well. It’s a really thorough museum that you’ll want to give yourself a good couple of hours for, however it is fairly brutal and confronting as well. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka the Holocaust Memorial) is also a must visit in Berlin. Again, it’s fairly brutal in content and tough to go through. The museum is located below the memorial, which are rows of concrete blocks of various heights that change as you walk through. Keep in mind that museum is quite small and there’s often a line to go in.
It’s easy to walk from Museumsinsel up to the Brandenburg Gate for a very Berlin photo opportunity, then across to the Topography of Terror and Holocaust Memorial museums. Also relatively close by is Checkpoint Charlie which is really just a couple of signs and a small museum, though this area is filled with souvenir stores if that’s your kind of thing. They have some interesting information about the Berlin Wall here and a memorial to those who died trying to escape to the West. Something I didn’t realise is that people still died trying to get over the Berlin Wall in 1989, the year it was eventually torn down.
For anyone wanting to take a good look at the Berlin Wall, then the East Side Gallery is the longest stretch still remaining. The concrete wall here is painted with all kinds of different murals over a 1.3 kilometre stretch. The artworks were painted in 1990 to document a time of change in Berlin and it’s really fascinating to walk along and take them all in.
The Berlin TV Tower is probably the only thing I wanted to do that I ran out of time for – though if you’ve alread gone to the top of the Cathedral then you’re only really getting a different perspective on the view over the city. Potsdamer Platz comes up a lot when searching for stuff to do in Berlin but to be honest, I’d skip it. It’s just a big touristy space in the style of Picadilly or Times Square that doesn’t really have anthing special to do or see.
Where to shop.
To be honest, I didn’t do a heap of shopping in Berlin. However if it’s something you’re keen on, then there are hundreds of stores along the
Kurfürstendamm, starting in the area just below the Berlin Zoo. You could easily spend a good couple of hours wandering along and browsing. Otherwise there’s a lot of smaller boutique style places in the Mitte area or around Alexanderplatz.
Berlin: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: I wouldn’t give yourself any less than three full days in the city, four or five would give you plenty of extra time to get around and make the most of being there. Keep in mind that Museumsinsel is closed on Mondays and lots of shops, restaurants and other things shut on Sundays.
Getting around: As you might expect in Germany, super easy and super efficient. The S-Bahn is the trains, the U-Bahn is the underground/subway, and there are also trams and buses. Simple to buy tickets on the platforms and a daily ticket goes for about 7 Euro, which will let you jump on any of the public transport. Berlin is an easy city to walk around it but it is big and spread out, so you’re gonna be getting public transport at some point.
When to go: I was there in autumn/fall and the weather was perfect. If you can stand the cold then I’m told it’s utterly magical during December for the Christmas markets.
Key places for first timers: Topography of Terror, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral and then whichever of the museums best take your fancy on Museumsinsel.
Underrated gem: Berlin Cathedral is stunning inside and outside, with incredible views for those willing to climb up into the dome.
If you could ony eat at one place: I would have happily eaten my breakfast every day at The Barn Roastery so I’m passing on that tip to you.
Best photo opportunities: Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral, East Side Gallery. If you’re taking photos at either the Topography of Terror or the Holocaust Memorial, please please please keep in mind that these are incredibly sombre places of mourning and memorial and it’s not really appropriate to fill your camera roll with smiling selfies showing you flashing a peace sign or acting silly. Please be respectful and mindful of what these places represent.