You probably already knew that. Or you’ve read that elsewhere. Or you’ve heard people talking about how cool Berlin is.
It’s all true.
I thought I loved a lot of cities in Europe, but I really fell hard for Berlin. It’s old and new. It’s full of history, some of which you’d think Germany would rather forget. But that history is front and center, reminding everyone not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It’s vibrant. It’s cold. (I was there in November, but I am pretty sure that cold German vibe lasts all year). It’s beautiful. It’s big. It’s under construction. It’s full of bicycles. The public transit is incredible. The food is incredible. It’s just really, really awesome.
I spent 5 nights in Berlin which felt like an appropriate amount of time. It’s a big city and there is a lot to see so it’s nice to have more time to 1) see as much as possible 2) but not feel overwhelmed like you have to jam everything into a short amount of time.
The U-Bahn is incredible and I very quickly fell in love with Berlin’s public transit. It’s also a very walkable city, but depending on where you are going (or what the weather is like), you might opt for a tram or subway. It’s super easy and convenient. If you are going to be in Berlin for a few days and using public transit during your stay, I would recommend getting the Welcome Card (I purchased mine at the airport when I arrived) – this provided me with a 5-day ticket and discounts on entry to some sights.
Getting There: Tegel (TXL) is the main airport in Berlin and easily accessible from other major European cities. I flew in from Frankfurt which is about an hour-long flight (Lufthansa has flights operating hourly between the two cities).
You can also take the train into Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Europe’s largest train station), as many long-distance trains pass through here. The station is extremely massive and a bit intimidating at first, but be assured that you can find a helpful employee if you are in a jam and don’t speak German (Ahem, this was me trying to get to Prague!)
Where to Stay:
My friends recommended that I stay in Mitte, a very central neighborhood which is close to many sights, easy access to public transport but also very walkable. There are many cute restaurants, shops, etc. Staying near Rosenthaler Platz offers many restaurants in the area, close to transit and sights (Oranienburger Strasse has a lot of great restaurants). My friend recommended Circus Hotel, but it was sold out while I was in town. As this was my first solo trip, I liked the idea of staying in an Airbnb and found a room available in Mitte which was perfect for 1 person. My hosts were very friendly and helpful (and also offered me a lot of their fantastic red wine)! I loved staying in an Airbnb as I felt like a bit of a local, but since I was on my own, it would have also been nice to stay in a hotel where I could have perhaps met some fellow travelers.
Around Mitte are a few other neighborhoods worth checking out:
Prenzlauer Berg – More upcoming/trendy neighborhood, feels like a nice neighborhood vibe here (probably best for Airbnb option). I really liked this area and would definitely consider staying here next time I am in Berlin. Lots of cafes, restaurants, shops, as well as a Sunday flea market which is worth checking out.
Friedrichshain – You can stay at the Michelberger Hotel which is super hipster, but is still kind of cool. This area is a bit further from sightseeing, but very close to all the major clubs in Berlin if that is your thing. At a minimum, I would suggest checking out the hotel bar and having a few drinks here – the people-watching is excellent.
What to Do:
There is so much history in Berlin, it’s insane. And overwhelming. One of the reasons it’s nice to have more time in the city is to take advantage of seeing as many sights as possible…without doing too much all at once. I definitely overdid it on sightseeing while I was there!
I didn’t do any official tours in Berlin, but used the Rick Steves Walking Tour app to see some of the main sights in Berlin on my first day. This is an easy way to see a lot of places in Berlin, learn a bit of the history (takes 2 hours or so). You can easily see many of the main sights at the same time as they are close to each other: Reichstag (you have to make a reservation in advance to go inside), Brandenburg Gate, Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe. Then walk down Unter den Linden and take in the grand buildings and construction as you approach Museum Island. From Museum Island, keep walking and you will find yourself at Alexanderplatz (and where Unter den Linden becomes Karl Marx Allee).
Insider Tours came recommended as a good option for tours – there are different types of Berlin tours offered by most of the companies (Third Reich, Cold War).
I would suggest skipping the Museum Island pass. BUT if you think you want to visit a number of museums and use public transit while you are in town, get the Berlin Welcome Card. The Welcome card enabled me to visit many museums at no or little extra cost.
- Pergamon Museum – This is the best museum on Museum Island to visit. Prioritize this one. Part of the museum is closed off for renovations until 2019, unfortunately, but you should still go. You must go actually. Included in Berlin Welcome Card.
- Neues Museum – See Nefertiti’s bust. And the Golden Hat. Then you can leave. Included in Berlin Welcome card.
- Skip the rest of the museums on the Island. Check out the Berlin Cathedral, also on the Island, for some gorgeous photos.
- DDR Museum – This is the museum dedicated to history of East Germany and Communism. I skipped it per suggestion from my Airbnb hosts, but heard it’s not bad.
- Germany History Museum – Large museum providing interesting story of German history to date. Not my favorite, but a good spot to hide from the cold rain. Felt like I was back in high school European History class! Discount if you have the Berlin Welcome Card
- Jewish Museum – Probably my favorite next to Pergamon Museum. It is really large and offered engaging exhibits about Jewish history, primarily in Germany. The space itself is beautiful and the Holocaust exhibit on the bottom floor is not to be missed. Included in Berlin Welcome Card.
- Topography of Terror – This is a really powerful “museum” focused on the Third Reich and located in the place where they had their headquarters. Very powerful indoor exhibit coupled with an outdoor exhibit. (FREE)
- Checkpoint Charlie – I walked by here. That’s enough.
- Berlin Wall Memorial – This is part museum, part outdoor exhibit. Definitely worth visiting and walking along the wall, exploring the indoor exhibits. (FREE)
Other Things to Do
- Turkish Market – Tuesdays and Fridays in Kreuzberg. The day I was there was cold and rainy and I was a bit disappointed. Not sure if that was because of the weather, but seemed like fewer vendors that day. The best part is the Turkish food available for sale – buy something to snack on and wander the market for a bit.
- Prenzlauer Berg flea market – Sundays. It reminded me of the Brooklyn Flea complete with vintage items for sale, food and drink offerings, live music, and lots of hipsters. I had a lot of fun at the flea market and ate some delicious sausage with sauerkraut. Since I was there in November it was a bit smaller than usual, expect that it’s bigger in the summertime. You can come here easily after visiting Prenzlauer Berg or from the Berlin Wall Memorial. More on Berlin’s markets here
- East Side Gallery – This is a large portion of the wall that is still standing in Friedrichshain and painted by various artists. Really fun to walk around here, can pair with a visit to Kreuzberg and/or grab a drink at the Michelberger Hotel.
- West Berlin – I only went to West Berlin for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon at the suggestion of my Airbnb host. She told me to check out KaDeWe, the large department store in the West. It’s massive and very cool to see. The top (6th) floor has a nice cafeteria/buffet and on the 5th floor there are many different little restaurants/counters offering various types of food and drink (cheese plates to Italian to burgers to French cuisine to asian noodles to traditional German sausages). You can also buy various food products here and there is a small grocery store. It is kind of expensive and bougie, but worth a visit.
Eating & Drinking (A Lot) in Berlin:
You must eat the following things in Berlin: currywurst, kebabs, and sausage. Because it’s a big city, there are a lot of great restaurants offering various types of cuisine. I had fantastic meals throughout my stay in Berlin.
Currywurst – There are many, many places to get it. I went to Curry 36 which was recommended as the best. Also recommended: Konnopke’s Imbiss in Prenzlauer Berg (note that it’s closed on Sundays). This is a delightful dish and I don’t understand why we don’t eat it in the States!
Kebabs – Mustafa’s (near Curry 36) is the most popular place and apparently has the best kebabs. I didn’t make it there for a kebab, but had one elsewhere which was still awesome (T’unas Gemuse Kebap in Kreuzberg).
Sausage – The best sausage I had was at the Prenzlauer Berg flea market where it came with a mound of sauerkraut and a choice of 17 flavors of mustard. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong with sausages sold by street vendors!
Turkish food – I really wanted to get Turkish food while in Berlin, but never made it to a restaurant. I did pick up some Turkish street food at the Kreuzberg Turkish market (gozleme, borek). Check Trip Advisor/Foursquare for some good recommendations around the city.
Schwarzwaldstuben – More traditional German food in a trendy spot. This was probably my favorite place in Berlin, came here for both dinner and breakfast. Both meals were fantastic. Felt like eating at my German grandma’s house!
Lokal – Trendy restaurant, focuses on local ingredients with a changing menu daily. Make reservations. Ask the servers for recommendations and trust them. I had probably the best vegetable dish of my life in this restaurant.
Factory Girl – Cafe/Breakfast spot, eggs and meat/cheese platters, good coffee.
Alpensteuck – South German/Austrian restaurant, also has a bakery across the street. Didn’t make it here, but came highly recommended for traditional food and good breakfast/baked goods
DUDU – Japanese restaurant, very trendy. Make reservations. Sushi, sashimi, etc. Try the seafood bowl which is a unique blend of sashimi, shrimp tempura, rice, guacamole, salsa. It was delicious
Milchhalle – For coffee and pastries
Mein Haus Am See – Bar/coffee shop that has bands and DJs nightly. Recommended, seems like a bit of a crazy spot at night (I walked by on a Monday night and it was packed!)