You’re right, I’m not a Berliner. But last weekend we were lucky enough to spend two days in east Berlin with Matt’s friend Richard, who has been living in Berlin for the past year. If you’ve ever taken a city break with a local, you know how much of an advantage this is. So here’s a post chock-a-block with recommendations and tips from our weekend!
Where To Stay
As usual for our city breaks, we stayed in an airbnb. We chose it because it was near our friend Richard’s flat in east Berlin. It turned out to be an amazing location anyway, both for things to do in the area and for getting into central.
I literally could not recommend this airbnb apartment more. It was really spacious, stylish and comfortable. Plus, our airbnb host was really welcoming and had tons of recommendations for bars and restaurants nearby.
How To Get Around
Getting around Berlin is super easy. There are rentable bikes and scooters everywhere, but the public transport is also really painless to use. Just download the BVG app. It lets you buy day tickets or single fares on your phone to use on the trains and buses. You don’t have to tap in or out, just have your phone to hand in case a plain clothes ticket officer asks for it.
When it comes to navigating you can use Google Maps obviously, or you can use one of my favourite apps – Citymapper. I use it in London constantly, so I didn’t think twice about switching it to Berlin. You can even save your airbnb or hotel as your home address to make it super simple to find your way back.
Breakfast: Silo Coffee
What a cracking start to the trip! Our breakfast at Silo Coffee was exactly the fuel we needed to tackle the climate strike march. I ordered the mergez sausage, which came in homemade spicy tomato beans, poached egg, salad, pickled onion and garlic bread. I was suffering from a cold on our first day, and this warming pan of spicy goodness was exactly what my sore throat needed.
Heads up: Silo is really popular. Our first day in Berlin was a Friday so it wasn’t too busy when we ate there. Expect to queue if you want breakfast on a weekend!
On our visit to Berlin the central streets were teeming with protestors for the climate strike. Richard was attending with some friends, so we tagged along for the start of the march by the Brandenburg gate.
Berlin Wall Memorial
The best place to learn about the Berlin wall is the memorial on Bernauer Straße. Today it’s an open air museum, with a combination of plaques, wall remains and open green space. It’s pleasantly quiet, with a respectful atmosphere, despite lots of locals relaxing on the grass around the installations. The Nordbahnhof station on the S-Bahn is the best way to access it.
In the middle of the lush green lawn of Gedenkstätte Bernauerstraße there is a stark metal barrier, too tall to see over. The only way to catch a glimpse at what lies within is to climb the tower across the road. It’s free to enter, and once you’ve reached the viewing platform at the top you can look down at a section of the preserved wall. There’s even a recreation of border fortifications.
The other sight to see in this area is the Chapel of Reconciliation. This modern day church marks the site of Versöhnungskirche, a church that stood directly over the Berlin wall. It came to stand for the division of the city, so the Soviets knocked it down. The fallen metal cross that used to sit at the top of the steeple still lies, twisted, in the grass.
The Reichstag building was originally built in the 19th century to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. It was reconstructed in the 90’s, and is now the meeting place for German parliament. Today there is a huge glass dome on top where you can get 360 views of the city.
You can climb up the inside of the Reichstag dome. Entry is free, but you have to register 3 days in advance. Security is intense – they were very unsure about me in my Extinction Rebellion t-shirt!
Once you get inside the building, the group of tourists in your time slot will all be escorted to the lift. At the top you can collect free audio guides in your language. I really recommend grabbing one of these. They’re automatically triggered by where you stand inside the dome, and give you loads of information about the part of Berlin you can see from that vantage point.
The glass dome symbolises the reunification of Germany and that the people are above the government. You can look down from it right into the debating chamber of parliament.
The good news is that it’s really environmentally friendly! It was built with loads of eco-efficient tricks in mind. The mirrors inside the dome reflect sunlight into the building itself, which reduces its carbon emissions. The top of the dome is open to the outside air, and releases stale air from inside the building as well as collecting rainwater.
There’s a restaurant and cafe on the roof outside the dome, with a flashy menu – and prices to match. If you’re suffering from an energy crash (which I certainly was at this point) you can buy drinks and snacks from a kiosk inside the dome to enjoy on one of the stone benches outside.
The Brandenburg Gate is the Eiffel Tower of Berlin. One of the best-known German landmarks, it was built on the site of a former city gate.
The gate also marks the entry to Unter den Linden, the boulevard leading to the royal City Palace. At the centre of this boulevard is where Matt persuaded me to try my first ever currywurst. I’d always though currywurst was more sophisticated, but I was wrong. It’s literally grilled or fried frankfurter sausages swimming in ketchup and curry powder.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Matt persuaded me (/instructed me) not to take any photos of this. The memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is one of the most striking things I’ve seen. It opened in 2005, sixty years after the end of WWII in Europe.
The final design, approved on 25 June 1999, envisages around 2,700 concrete slabs (stelae), arranged in a grid pattern. They are 0.95 cm deep and 2.38 m wide and vary only in height. The stelae stand on gently and unevenly sloping ground covering 19,000 square metres. The public is able to enter and walk through the field from all four sides. They experience the wave-like form differently from each different position.Stiftung Denkmal
I’m going to try to describe the feeling of this memorial. Even though we visited during the very loud party atmosphere of the climate strike, I was still extremely moved by it.
The shadowed sloping floor of the memorial makes you feel like you’re walking into deep water. The rows on rows of concrete slabs deaden the noise as you walk into the centre, and the slabs lean back and forth in a disconcerting way that make you feel slightly sick. Like you’re being swayed on water. Even though there are loads of other people in there with you, they are hidden by the maze-like pathways, creating a profound feeling of solitude. The result is a confusing combination of mournful silence and dark isolation, of a concrete forest where the trees are bars of a prison or rows of graves. Finding your way out, you emerge to sunshine and the vibrant noises of the city.
Don’t miss it.
Checkpoint Charlie has the slightly weird tourist atmosphere of a theme park. It’s framed with a McDonald’s on one side and a KFC on the other. Tourists pose in front of it with people dressed up as Soviet and American soldiers. Our favourite part of the area was the row of boards running along Friedrichstraße (framing a weird area called “Charlie’s Beach”). The boards are all covered in photos and really interesting history.
Checkpoint Charlie was so named by the Western Allies, and was the best-known crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. It was the only crossing point (on foot or by car) for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. The Soviets just called it the Friedrichstraße Crossing Point. The structures there now are reconstructions – you can see the originals at the Allied Museum.
Dinner: Hako Ramen
This is where I had one of the best ramens I’ve ever eaten in my life. I knew Hako Ramen would be good when we had to join a queue to get in. It’s a tiny place, packed with diners. The menu is all in German, so I went for something with the words “Tantan” in. It turned out to be a sesame based ramen with pork mince, pak choi and bean sprouts, with an egg and chilli oil. It was absolutely phenomenal, intensely salty with a mild kick, and so richly meaty that I couldn’t even drink the broth after the noodles were finished.
Flohmarkt Boxhagener Platz
Boxhagener Platz near our airbnb is full to the brim with places to eat – not least the food market on Saturday morning. The pathways of the park filled up with stalls selling all sorts from fresh produce and baked goods to craft gin and homemade plant pots.
Breakfast: Neumanns Cafe
Another trendy coffee shop near Boxhagener Platz, Neumanns Cafe is worth the wait. We were told to come back in 10 minutes so we strolled around the food market. Once we were sat down, we all ordered the same thing – sourdough with bacon, poached eggs and salad. It was superb.
East Side Gallery
The preserved Berlin Wall along Mühlenstraße has been turned into an open air gallery that is now a protected landmark and serves as “a monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people”.
There are 105 paintings along this stretch of wall, by artists all over the world who came to make their mark in 1990. Since then there have been lots of issues with vandalism and graffiti being sprayed over the top of paintings. Some have been restored, but as you walk along the wall you’ll see many that have been completely covered up.
We walked along the wall from Oberbaum Bridge to the Ostbahnhof train station, where we caught the S Bahn to S Hackescher Markt.
There are loads of boat tour companies in Berlin, but our friend Richard took us on his tried and tested favourite which sets off every 15 minutes from the Pier Alte Börse by James- Simon Park. It takes an hour, winding down to Mühlendamm and then turning back to go up to Lutherbrücke.
This tour was definitely one of the highlights of our trip for me. After a really active packed day on Friday it was nice to sit back and watch the scenery. Museum island in particular is perfect to observe from the river, with Berliner Dom, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Bode-Museum right on the water.
The tour was broadcast over speakers in both German and English. I found the English one quite endearing, as the directly translated German phrases sounded so funny – things like “this is the oldest bridge in Berlin by the way.” or “from this building it’s obvious we’re going into the west of the city.”
Berlin TV Tower & Currywurst
After our boat trip we set off in search of some lunch, and ended up at a currywurst kiosk with an amazing view of the TV Tower, Fernsehturm. Built in the 1960’s as a symbol of communist power, it reaches 368m (the Eiffel Tower is 324m) and is the tallest structure in Germany, and the third-tallest structure in the EU.
As the name suggests, the TV Tower is a TV and radio broadcasting station, but it also has an observation deck at 203m, and a rotating restaurant.
The Jewish Museum
Next we travelled to the Jewish Museum, which Richard highly recommended. Tickets to get in cost €8, and boy was it worth it. Guys, I’ve never been to a museum like this one. You enter through an old Baroque building which is more what you think of when you picture a museum. Next door is the Libeskind building, a deconstructivist-style metal block which you enter underground.
The space inside the Libeskind building experiments with the concepts of voids, symbolising the empty space left in German society when the Jewish population was wiped out and exiled. There are a few displays of items left behind by Jewish families, along with individual stories which help bring some reality to the statistics.
The part that hit me the most was a room called “The Memory Void”. It’s an interactive space which uses sound really effectively. I don’t want to reveal too much about it and ruin the impact – you’ll need to go and discover it for yourself!
In the garden of the museum there was a temporary installation by James Turrell that was really cool. After taking your shoes off and putting on plastic sound-reducing covers, you climbed into a large space-age style compartment which was flooded with bright light from the other end. The light changed colour at different speeds, and the longer you stared at it the more disconnected you felt from reality.
How cool is this deserted airport?? Built in the 1920’s as one of the first airports in Berlin, Tempelhof ceased operating in 2008. The main building used to be one the top 20 largest buildings in the world, and is now used as a venue and sometimes an emergency refugee camp.
One of the most historical moments of the airport was when it served as the location of the Berlin airlift in 1948-49. The Soviet authorities were blocking all traffic into West Berlin, including vital supplies, so British and American airlines started daily supply drops of food, coal and other essentials into Tempelhof airport.
Today it’s a city park, with fairs and other events often held in the hanger. When we were in Berlin, Tempelhofer Feld was hosting a kite festival, and was teeming with young families running around with kites, having picnics, and playing games. The huge runways are perfect for riding bikes and go karts, as well as skateboarding and roller blading.
Saturday night we decided to try some of the recommendations from our airbnb host.
Simon Dach Str (by Boxhagener Platz) has lots of bars and restaurants. My favourite being CafeDachKammer (upstairs is very Berlin).Our airbnb host
Simon Dach Str was a lovely street, lined with trees and lit with string lights from the awnings of restaurants and bars. It almost felt Parisian! We managed to find DachKammer easily, but unfortunately the upstairs was closed. Instead we ordered our drinks and took them outside.
Dinner: 1990 Vegan Living
Recommended by Richard, the vegan Vietnamese restaurant 1990 in Boxhagener Platz is extremely popular, so make sure you book your table ahead of time! We weren’t so lucky – we failed to book and were too hungry to wait in the 30 minute queue, so we went to Papaya nearby, which was a bit of a let down by comparison.
Dessert: Delabuu Ice Cream
I spotted this ice cream place on our way to dinner, and made a mental note to return there afterwards. Luckily, our evening was saved by this absolutely delicious dessert. They create the ice cream by pouring milk onto a frozen metal surface, then they mash it up with your chosen flavour as it freezes. After spreading it out, they then scrape it into a roll with a metal spatula. I had rees’s mixed into mine, and then they spread nutella and peanut butter on top before rolling it up. Divine.
Berlin is such a chilled out city, even when it’s protesting, especially compared to the stressed chaos of London. We’re not really clubbing types, so we didn’t take advantage of the abundant night life. But of course, as history lovers, there was absolutely tons for us to do and see.