I’d never really thought much about travelling to Germany. It’s not that I wasn’t keen on it, it’s just that it was never on my ‘bucket list’.
That’s not saying I didn’t know anything about Germany. I studied German history in high school, taught by a German lady as well, and I found it quite a fascinating country. Still, it never crossed my mind to make an effort to see the place.
Berlin itself was crazy – in a wonderful way. I don’t think you can compare Berlin to any other city in the world; it’s so unique that it’s almost impossible . I’ve heard it compared to Melbourne, Australia and I can understand why, with all of its distinct neighbourhoods, but I still think that I could travel all over the world and never find a place like Berlin.
I would never recommend anyone do Berlin in 24 hours – you’d be totally robbing yourself of an opportunity to soak up the culture, history and excitement of this tempestuous city. However, I don’t want to bore you with a complete list of everything I did so here’s a snapshot of my highlights.
0800: Head over to Scheunenviertel, Berlin’s unofficial Jewish Quarter, in Berlin-Mitte for breakfast at Sauer’s Cafe. A hip little spot on the corner of Rosa-Luxemburg Straße, it’s a great spot for people-watching and seeing this little area come alive. The staff are super-friendly and the coffee is pretty amazing. The food is very German, which is not surprising but pleasant, as it’s quite rare to come across a hip cafe not selling your usual muesli-and-yoghurt or typical Eggs Benedict. There’s also free wifi so a good time to download some maps and other information you’ll need for the rest of the day.
1000: From Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, make your way over to Hackescher Markt for the Insider Tour, which is a walking tour throughout the main areas of Berlin. Laura and I chose the Famous Insider Walk which is a great way to see all the key sites in a few hours while also helping you get your bearings around this city. There are two meeting points but if you’re in Berlin-Mitte, the closest one is at Hackescher Markt. There’s no need to book in advance – simply turn up, let the ticket seller know which language you want to do the tour in, buy a ticket (€12) and she/he will show you where to wait. The tour starts at 10.30am sharp so get there early.
Our guide was Nickolai and he was ah-may-zing! He was so knowledgeable, humorous and attentive to our needs that I can confidently say he and the tour were the highlight of my Berlin trip. The tour takes four hours, including time for lunch, and you walk at a steady pace so travellers of all ages can participate.
Some of the sites you’ll see include Berliner Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Checkpoint Charlie, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Hitler’s bunker (well on top of it), Reichstag, Brandenburg Tor and of course, the Berlin Wall (adjacent to the Topography of Terror). What struck me the most about this tour was the realisation of what a young city Berlin is – the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 (only 26 years ago) and the city is still healing from its Cold War-era wounds and rebuilding itself into a new, unified, modern Berlin.
1400: The tour ends at Brandenburg Tor, at Parisier Platz which is a central location so from here you can go anywhere. However, I would recommend going down Unter den Linden back towards Hackescher Markt. You can walk; or if you’re sick of walking, take a bus or a train.
Once you’re back where you started the tour, walk up Rosenthaler Platz and explore all of its little alleyways. The street itself is a mix of cafes, high-street stores and specialty shops but its alleyways are where all the cool kids hang.
Not far into your walk you’ll see a small, indie cinema and an alleyway – go down here and you’ll be welcomed by an explosion of street art (actual street art, not graffiti). Spend some time here – there is the Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind Museum, where Mr Weidt employed blind and deaf Jews during WW2, hence saving their lives. They run tours here however I’d save your euros for the next bit.
Further ahead you’ll see a beautiful mural of Anne Frank (painted by an Australian too!) and that frames the entryway to the Anne Frank Zentrum. I highly recommend visiting this exhibition which is based on Anne Frank’s diary. It tells the story of the rise of Hitler and Holocaust juxtaposed with excerpts from Anne’s diary, as well as memorabilia from Nazi Germany. It can get quite hectic on weekdays, as I discovered, due to the number of school groups who come here for excursions. There’s also a fun interactive area which is catered towards teenagers, but I enjoyed it too. It’s a 360 degree video and audio experience where children from all over the world talk about growing up in a multi-cultural world and how they would react to the situations that Anne Frank faced. It gets you thinking about how lucky we are to live in a society where we are more accepting of other cultures and what lessons we can learn from the Holocaust.
Once you’ve finished in the Anne Frank Zentrum, walk further down the alleyway and there’s a funky little bar and an underground museum called Monsterkabinett. I didn’t go into Monsterkabinett because I hate small spaces and the sign looked pretty freaky, so those two things together are not my idea of fun!
1600: All this exploring is bound to make you peckish, so grab some coffee and cake at the cafe located at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art on Auguststraße. It’s pretty busy at all times of day so if there are no chairs, you need to employ the ‘hovering’ technique. The coffee here is pretty good and there are a lot of delectable cakes to choose from (my pick would be the carrot cake). I never went into the gallery itself, but it is open till 7pm so if contemporary art is one of your interests, by all means, take a peek! Across the road from the KW Institute is a dance hall, which is one of the few remaining original buildings in Berlin that’s survived two world wars.
1700: It’s almost dinnertime but still full of coffee and cake, it’s time to burn those calories with some shopping!
Take a train to Potsdamer Platz, the commercial area of Berlin. The main attraction here is the Mall of Berlin and Arkaden Mall, two giant shopping complexes, which has all the normal high-street and high-end stores you get in major cities, plus some restaurants and a great gelato place. Outside of the malls, there is the Sony Centre which has a big cinema and is one of the few major English-language cinemas in Berlin; as well as a mini open-air Berlin Wall exhibition, with parts of the wall and information about its erection and eventual tearing down. It’s somewhat ruined by all the gum on there (don’t make my mistake of touching the wall) but I guess it’s an expression of the German attitude towards the wall itself.
There was a great Christmas market behind Arkaden Mall so I was spoilt for choices for dinner. If you’re not in Berlin during Christmas time, don’t fret – as Potsdamer Platz is the commercial hub you have plenty of restaurants within a stone’s throw away. There are some fancy high-end restaurants if that leans towards your taste, or you can check out the cute cafes near the mall which are just as good.
2100: Once you’ve had your share of shopping and food, hop on a tram or train and get off at Warschauer Strasse, which will land you in Friedrichshain, the Williamsburg of Berlin. If street art, hipster boutiques and funky bars and cafes are your style, then head to this neighbourhood.
Laura and I stayed in an apartment in Friedrichshain, so I have a soft spot for it. It does turn a bit creepy once the sun sets, as it attracts a more… eclectic crowd, shall we say, but they’re pretty harmless. It pays to have a map because you can get easily lost in Friedrichshain as all the buildings look the same (a relic of East Berlin architecture).
Most of the eateries and bars are located on Wülischstraße (accessible via the Libauer Strasse tram stop), and if you go a bit further up on Krossener Strasse, you’ll stumble on some one-of-a-kind boutiques, including my favourite of them all, Victoria Met Albert. For dinner you have to eat at AGÜEVO! Tacqueria Cantina on Wülischstraße, which had some of the best Mexican food I had ever tasted. You can also walk along Revaler Strasse for some more hip dining and drinking options.
Laura and I mainly got around using their metro (train) which was pretty easy to figure out, although you do have to remember to stamp your ticket after purchasing it, or you can get a hefty fine if caught. Berlin is surprisingly pretty walkable and because there is just so much to see, you’ll have walked through a few neighbourhoods without even realising it.
There is so much more to see and do in Berlin than what I’ve included in here – you could spend a whole day exploring the Holocaust history, as well as simply exploring a single neighbourhood and its alleyways. I’d recommend a week at Berlin, minimum, because you could not possibly get bored in this exhilarating, cosmopolitan and fierce city that Berliners are extremely proud of.
Have I missed anything? Let me know your favourite spots and activities in Berlin in the comment box below!