‘Here in Berlin, one cannot help being aware that you are the hub around which turns the wheel of history’. – Dr Martin Luther King
Berlin has always been on our must-see list of places to visit. We both enjoy history and have friends who have visited Berlin and highly recommended it. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but Berlin definitely exceeded my expectations.
We flew using Norwegian airlines, a very affordable and comfortable low cost airline option. We arrived at Schonefeld airport which has easy access to the city centre. We took the S-Bahn overground which runs every 10 minutes and then an underground tube to reach our accommodation, with a journey time of about an hour. There are also buses and taxis stationed outside the airport but the taxis can be quite an expensive option depending on your destination. For more information, click here.
We pre-booked at the Mondrian suites near Checkpoint Charlie which was perfect as we were very near to a lot of the major sites and within easy walking distance to the underground/metro. My best friend Claire joined us for this trip and because there were three of us we opted for a self catering apartment to give us a bit more room. I would recommend staying here – the hearty breakfast and sauna were a definite plus.
We arrived around midday and because our room wasn’t ready, we headed for the nearby Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie is the name given by the Western Allies to the notorious Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin, during the Cold War. Across the road from this significant site, is a very informative exhibition where you can read the entire history of the Berlin wall, including both successful and unsuccessful escape attempts. For lunch we opted for an obligatory Currywurst – a popular Berlin fast food – you’ll find these at various stations dotted around the city.
That evening we visited the Markethalle Neun to sample its street-food Thursday market. This was a highlight of the trip – I absolutely love markets and this is one of the better ones I’ve been to, offering delicious and authentic food, from mouth-watering burgers, Chinese Dim Sum and Mexican delicacies to pastries, excellent cocktails and wine aplenty – you’ll be spoilt for choice as you wander the aisles. It is a great place to grab a bite to eat, soak up the atmosphere and do as the locals do in this eclectic city. I would definitely add this to your list if you happen to be in Berlin on a Thursday. They apparently also offer a fantastic breakfast market on Sundays in the same location.
On Saturday morning we went on a walking tour with Sandeman Tours. I would highly recommend this free tour. You don’t need to book in advance but they do offer online booking. The tour itself is roughly 3 hours in total with a 15 minute break half way. All the major sites are covered including; Hitler’s bunker, the Holocaust Memorial, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate, SS headquarters, Pariser Platz, Luftwaffe HQ and the Gendarmenmarkt – home to the famous Christmas markets.
Our tour guide, Kyle was brilliant and really made the tour that much more enjoyable with her informative and knowledgeable take on Berlin’s history. Despite the cold, we were engrossed throughout the entire tour. See my TripAdvisor review here. You are encouraged to tip at the end of the tour based on whatever you feel to be appropriate.
I found the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe‘ (also known as the Holocaust Memorial) the most poignant. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman the design has been left ambiguous, with no symbolic significance – so that people can interpret it as they wish. Some thought-provoking interpretations are, that the structures represent an ordered system; a sense of rising up or hope; anonymity or a cemetery – it is left up to you to decide your interpretation.
After the tour we went to House of Small Wonder for some lunch, just off the bustling Friedrichstrasse. The unusual décor was what drew us to this restaurant, as well as their interesting Japanese influenced menu. From here we wanted to visit PrenzlauerBerg neighbourhood to see some more of the remains of the Berlin Wall, but because of the size of the city, you need to know where you are going and before long we decided it was time to head home and freshen up.
That evening we visited PrenzlauerBerg again but this time with a plan and maps – the neighbourhood is definitely worth exploring a bit, as it is a newly gentrified area of Berlin – full of restaurants and bars. We visited Becketts Kopf bar, a speakeasy bar on Pappelallee street, serving interesting cocktails in a dimly lit, intimate space. With no signage, you will find the picture of a face illuminated on the window and have to ring the doorbell to gain entry. Berlin nightlife only really gets busy from 10pm onwards so we were a little early. On our way there we’d walked past Blackbeard BBQ so decided to make this our dinner stop. After some delicious wine, burgers and friendly service plus 18km of walking, we went to bed satisfied with a successful day in quirky Berlin.
On Saturday morning, our first stop was East Side Gallery. This is a memorial to freedom – a 1.3km long section of the Berlin wall now full of thought-provoking and colourful graffiti. The actual border at this point was the river Spree.
One of Phil’s friends, his neighbour from Cape Town joined us from Hamburg, where is he now based. We were lucky enough to visit him two years ago in lovely Hamburg (more on that in another post). From this point onward, our trip took a turning point, as we were no longer tourists, but effortlessly wandering the streets of Berlin like locals with our very own interpreter showing us the streets we’d narrowly missed and the places we wouldn’t have found on our own.
We wanted to visit the Holocaust museum beneath the memorial we’d seen yesterday and as it was raining, it seemed like the perfect time. With free entry, this museum is a sombre but wonderful tribute. Our tour guide said that if we had to visit only one museum, this should be it and we were glad to have listened to her advice.
We walked from here to Museum Island. On the island sit five world-renowned museums in the central Mitte district of Berlin. A UNSECO World Heritage Site, here you see more of old-world Berlin and some magnificent architecture. Even if you don’t visit any of the museums, a walk around this area is recommended.
From here we crossed into Mitte. I’m so glad we explored this area as this really feels like the heart of Berlin with some of the top boutiques, restaurants, cafes and bars. For the rest of the day and evening we explored this area, visiting Transit for lunch – a unique and casual dining experience where you share plates of Southeast Asia. We also visited East & Eden for coffee and designer feel; Meine Bar – a wine bar full of character and authenticity; Amano hotel bar – a sophisticated hotel bar serving delicious cocktails; Buck and Breck– a cool speakeasy bar behind a laundromat (don’t be fooled by the closed sign) and to end off, Odessa bar – a stylish and trendy bar where the Berlin locals were gathering before a night on the town.
Berlin is full of top café’s so here are a few others I came across on my research and would add to the list.
- Ora café – in an old apothecary
- Bosco – for dinner
- Roamers – for Sunday brunch
- Distrikt coffee – for breakfast or coffee
- Neni – for lunch or dinner and Monkey bar
- Tante Lisbeth bar – for drinks
- Flea market at Mauerpark
After a busy weekend we slept the entire way home. Berlin is captivating – full of history and is a city with a dark past, juxtaposed with a culture today that shouts freedom. Trendy and quirky places lie on every corner next to memorials or tributes reminding us that Berlin and Germany have come a long way from the days of the Berlin Wall. As the late David Bowie (a big fan and advocate of Berlin) put it ‘Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine’. He lived there during the cold war and recorded three of his albums in this city – you can see several tributes and murals around the city.
Trips are always special when shared with friends and I was lucky to have shared another adventure with my Bear and be shown around by Pat – making it a weekend to remember, filled with the (very) best company.