Berlin is often referred to as the “poor, but sexy” city that is the political and cultural capital of Germany. You won’t find much of the “typical” German things in Berlina aka beautiful old houses, beer halls, and historic buildings. What you will find is a wonderfully diverse city that is a true melting pot between Western Europe and Soviet culture. After living in Frankfurt, Germany for a few years, visiting Berlin felt so different than the small city life in Frankfurt.
After World War II, Germany was defeated and in shambles. Berlin was controlled by the Soviets and the Eastern section of it (East Berlin) was Soviet occupied until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nowadays, it is super modern city with all the makings of a 21st century city but is contrasted with noticeable remnants of its dark past. The city owns up to its past instead of hiding from it and it’s all on display with its many WWII monuments.
Berlin is hard to describe. It is the least “European” of the cities I’ve visited in the sense that you are not constantly surrounded by Baroque architecture, showered with museums, and “old towns”. Yes, it certainly has its share of impressive buildings like the Berliner Dom, the Reichstag building, and the Brandenberg Gate, but the city’s Soviet influences can be felt as neighborhoods in the hip and happening Eastern half are gritty and lively. It’s a city of continual rebirth as so much was damaged during WWII, and so much has been rebuilt since. You can really feel that aspect in this city as it’s not engulfed by the old, but never taken over by the new. The best thing is that it’s one of the cheapest cities in Europe.
Berlin is still very much a walking city but it is far more spread out and overall larger than other cities. It’s a perfect melting pot of Western and Eastern European influences. I can’t think of any city in Europe which has a more cutting edge scene.
Getting In And Around
Berlin goes against the mold of other European capitals. It is very spread out and while it is still a walking city, the sheer size of the city makes taking the metro imperative to a 2-3 day visit.
Transportation Honesty Policy
The one thing that blew my mind about Berlin, and Germany as a whole was the lack of security at its transportation stations. Berlin’s U-Bahn (subway/tube/underground). Everywhere else I’ve been in Europe had gates, swivels, or some sort of device to make sure you swiped a card, inserted a ticket, in order to get to the train. Welcome to Germany where you can choose whether you want to buy your ticket or not. Okay, let me rephrase. You are obviously supposed to buy a train ticket, but there is NOTHING preventing you from walking straight from the street into the train. It’s completely based on the honestly policy. There are little boxes somewhere in the entrance of the station where you can stamp your ticket.
From all the locals I met, they all seemed like honest people which means clearly there’s something wrong with me as the first thing that came to my mind when I discovered this were joyous thoughts about saving money. Nevertheless, there are occasional train employees that will check your ticket but I did not see any during my entire 4 days in Berlin. Hustle at your own risk!
Airport to the City
Berlin’s airports may be the worst airports I’ve seen in Europe. Compared to Munich and Frankfurt, Berlin’s airports might as well be third world. Thankfully, the transport to the city is easy. At Schonefield airport, it’s an easy walk (follow the path) from the airport to the train stop. There are clearly labeled signs guiding you to the train station. The fare is €3.30 from the airport to anywhere in the city and the ride to the city is about 30 minutes.
I was lucky enough to sit with a group of Scottish guys on a Stag party. Turns out the entire country of Germany has an open bottle policy and these guys were pounding the beers sparingly. Of course I couldn’t say no when they offered me a beer, and actively partook in the day drinking that ensued.
Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn
Berlin is a big city, and very spaced out, not unlike London. The train system is expansive and can get complicated. There are two types of train, the U-Bahn (underground train) and S-Bahn (overground). Both are essential for using Berlin’s transportation system. Fares differ depending on the distance traveled but is between €2.70 and €3.30. There is also the cityCard option that combines train fare (unlimited for either 48 or 72 hours) and full access to numerous museums and sights with entry fees.
Where to stay?
Traveling by myself, there’s no reason to waste money on a nice hotel in my (relatively) young age. There’s a large selection of hostels in Berlin as it’s popular with the Europe backpackers crowd to choose from. I ended up booking a bed at the Generator Hotel in the Mitte district (central). It’s a hostel in the sense that I was in a small room with 3 other guys in bunk beds but as far as hotels go, this was the nicest place I’ve ever seen. The lobby, cafeteria, and cleanliness of the rooms match that of 4* hotels.
Hostels have certainly changed with the times, and this place might as well be a poshstel. Met some cool people at this place, including guys there for Berlin stag do (turns out the German capital is a hot spot for British bachelors) who ended up asking me if I wanted to go party with them.
Where to eat?
German food is vastly underrated in my opinion. Sure it might not be the most sexy, have the most unique flavors, or come out served in some fancy arrangement but for those that love hunks of tender meat, sausage, hearty soups, and more meat, this is the cuisine for you. Oh did I mention the beer? Germany is world famous for its beer and for good reason. I was blown away by how delicious and how cheap the beer is. Beers are served standard in half liter glasses, and cost around €3-€5.
I sampled numerous beers, and my goodness how good it was. Their version of Bud Light would be a special treat of a beer in America I didn’t even get a chance to get into the craft brews but just their mass produced beer is incredible. After drinking copious amounts of weissbier (wheat beer) and dunkel (dark), I settled on Erdinger Dunkel as my go to.
As far as German food goes, the German food we all think of: bratwursts, sauerkraut, haxn, and leberkase is actually native to the Bavarian region in southern Germany. While it’s not difficult to eat that food in Berlin, it is not readily available like one might think. Munich is the city that more so fits that purpose. Berlin is a cosmopolitan culinary city with all types of cuisine. Berliners and Germans as a whole love to try different cuisines and eating German food doesn’t seem to be prominent thing especially among the younger generations. German food isn’t the healthiest of culinary options so I can’t blame them. While in Berlin, I had a few German meals but I spent most of my meals eating kebabs and currywursts knowing I would chowing copious amounts of German food in Munich.
Mustafas Gemuse Kebab
One of these culinary influences is Turkish food. There’s a large Turkish immigrant population in Germany and they brought their delicious food with them. There are Turkish restaurants everywhere, including countless doner kebab places. I can’t say I was expecting to eat so much Turkish food but this was perfect with all the sightseeing I was doing and how spread out the city was making it harder to find good restaurants. For around €3, you can get a filling doner kebab and I must had them dozens of times while in Germany.
One of the standout places in Berlin was Mustafas, a little store on the sidewalk in Mehringdamm. It’s no secret of a place either as there was a line down the sidewalk of people waiting for meat on a stick. Surprising enough, I thought the doner kebabs were amazing in Berlin. I actually think the doner kebabs here were better than the ones I had in Turkey. They may not be.
For all those keen on local cuisine, do not miss out on Haxe, a delicious tender piece of pork hock (pig thigh?) that is slow cooked to be tender and roasted until the skin is crispy and juicy. It’s widely eaten in Austria and Switzerland as well.I visited Zur Haxe for lunch and my goodness what a great sampling of Haxe it was. The restaurant has a cool and rustic interior; befitting of the “German” experience, and their food is just fantastic. Washed it down with a weissbier and I was a happy man.
Probably the most touristy restaurant in Berlin and you may think of give it a skip in Berlin if you are visiting Munich as the original location resides there. Hofbrau is a brewery in Munich and are famous for their giant communal seating beer halls with traditionally dressed workers serving you those large 1 liter beers. It’s an experience that’s well worth it in my opinion and the traditional German food is delicious as well. They have live Bavarian music most of the time, and I saw more drunk stag parties getting out of control than I did any locals. Nevertheless, just the experience of drinking out of those 1 liter beer glasses was alone worth the visit!
Where to go?
There’s a lot to see and do in Berlin. It’s a big city with a lot of history, old and recent. While most people flock to Europe to admire its history from centuries ago, it is Berlin’s history in the last 100 years that are most interesting to me. Once you’re done seeing the sights, I’d recommend hitting the Berlin nightlife. Berliners, and most Germans I met, are incredibly crazy party-goers. They embrace a very Spanish style of nightlife where clubs don’t open until 1am, and routinely party on until the morning. I even saw some places that hold multiple day parties. Yes, people will party for more than 24 hours in one go!
Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower
At 368 meters high, it is the 4th tallest freestanding structure in Europe and is a landmark in Berlin’s skyline. It’s hard to miss and turned out to be a good point of reference for me as I navigated through the city. I never went up to the top but this is a popular attraction and easy to buy tickets for going up to the top where 360 degree views of Berlin await.
This century old building is the German parliament building. It’s an impressive building that was severly damaged in WWII and reconstructed in the 90s, and now is a can’t miss sight within Berlin. There is a large glass dome at the very top of the Reichstag that was completed during its renovation that offers an awesome 360 degree view of the Berlin landscape (although I think the best views are at another site).
Likely Berlin’s most iconic sight is the former city gate. It was built in the late 1700s and was the sight of many historical events, including being half destroyed in WWII. Even today, it serves as the grand entrance to the city, and you are bound to find many of your fellow tourists here. There’s not much to do here besides take pictures, maybe have a beer, and enjoy the view. At the end of the day, how much time can you really spend at a gate, even as grandiose as this one?
This, the Brandenburg gate, and the Berlin wall were the only sights I really knew of in Berlin before visiting. A short walk from the Brandenburg gate, the Holocaust museum serves as a somber reminder within this beautiful city that atrocities were committed, and to never forget. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete slabs of varying sizes, and are arranged in a grid pattern that likens this place to a claustrophobic labyrinth. Nevertheless, it’s a cool walk and a great photo opportunity. There is also a subterranean underground museum with free entrance which reveals the painful and disturbing history of the Holocaust victims. The museum also has a database of all the victims and visitors can go on their computers and search for names.
Located near the TV tower, the Berliner dom is a huge renaissance cathedral that really sticks out among the more contemporary and modern buildings that surround it. It’s a beautiful building that is worth a visit inside. There is an entrance fee of 7 euros which is steep considering I’ve been to countless free cathedrals around Europe but this one is worth it. Not only is the interior fantastic, but the views panoramic views of Berlin from the top are brilliant.
Victory Column and the Tiergarten
From the Holocaust memorial, walk through the Tiergarten, a huge public park in the middle of Berlin (like Central Park in NYC), to the Victory Column. This tall structure was constructed in the mid 1800s to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prusian War. It was originally built near the Reichstag building but was moved to its current location before WWII and therefore, came out unscathed by its destruction. It’s quite the impressive building, and the views from the top are the best in the city in my opinion. Unlike the TV tower, there is no elevator here. Instead, narrow and windy stairs are the only way to get to the top of this 70 meter high structure. Totally worth it however!
Easily one of Germany’s most famous sights is the Berlin Wall. We all know the Berlin wall was used to divide Berlin in two during the Cold War (Eastern half under the Soviets, and Western half under the Germans) and it came down in 1989, signaling the end of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, what’s left of the wall can be seen at the East Side Gallery where artists from all over the world have left their creative stamp on this 1.3km stretch. What was once a symbol of repression and war is now a monument to freedom. There are some truly unique pieces and I spent a solid hour taking in all the art. Beautiful views of the Spree river can also be had as well.
Treptower Park Soviet Memorial
So it turns out there is plenty to see and do in Berlin! Perhaps 48 hours is a bit aggressive to see all these things. Thankfully I actually had 72 hours. After finishing up at the Berlin Wall, I walked through the old Eastern block neighborhoods to Treptower park, a beautifully maintained park with what is in my opinion, Berlin’s most impressive monument, the Soviet Memorial. This place is huge, and the monument extra dramatic. It was erected by the Soviet Union to commemorate the 80000 soldiers that died in the battle of Berlin in 1945.
Across 100,000 square feet of memorial, there are statues, sarcophagi , and plaques. Each monument is seeped its own message but the most stunning piece for me was the huge statue in the middle of the park. A Russian soldier is holding a child in one arm, and a broadsword in the other cutting a swastika in half. I thought America had some nice war memorials but this one is in a league of its own. This was my favorite sight in all of Berlin.
Potsdam day trip
For those that have more than 48 hours, Potsdam is a worthwhile visit. It’s a town 40 minutes train ride to the south that was once the home of the imperial dynasty and the German Kaiser. It is the city of gardens, parks, and palaces around Berlin. For those thinking Berlin was going to be like Vienna and were let down, take a day trip out to Potsdam and you will not be disappointed.
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