Berlin, I finally got around to visiting a city that has been on my wish list for many years and boy was it worth the wait!
The atmosphere in Berlin is almost palpable. Walking around the city you cant help but be taken by the enormity of what happened here. The Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, all the various memorials and of course the numerous museums are all fascinating, even to someone who is not that up on her history! It is also renowned for amazing nightlife and must rival New York for the title of ‘the city that never sleeps‘. There are basement nightclubs, cocktail bars, craft beer houses and even beer cabins. You name it, Berlin probably has it.
What to see:
So where do I begin, there really is so much to see, I had four full days and really could have done with another four. Before you do anything, buy the Berlin Welcome Card. This allows you free transport on all buses, trains and the underground. It also gives you 25-50% off many top attractions and even some restaurants. If you are smart you can even use it to get to and from the airport to save on taxi fares. The train system is great and you will use it, as the city is too large to navigate on foot.
I would start at the Brandenburg Gate, it is the only remaining city gate which used to represent the separation of the city between east and west. It is extremely well kept and was one of the highlights for me. From there walk to the Reichstag building (German parliament) which has a spectacular glass dome with incredible views over the city. TOP TRAVEL TIP: You need to register to do this online to gain access otherwise you will have to stand in line for over two hours.
From here you can walk to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial complete with 2,711 concrete slabs, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. Then on to the west side of the Berlin wall. Depending on energy levels you may be able to continue on to Checkpoint Charlie where you just have to get the obligatory photo with the American ‘GI’s”! Incidentally Check Point Charlie was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War.
Would you believe there are 175 museums in Berlin so I think it is safe to say you won’t get to see them all! The visit berlin website is worth checking out as it is best to try to plan what museums you want to see before you go. Museum Island has five world renowned museums and is considered part of UNESCO world heritage and that is probably the most popular choice. However if you are looking for something a little different try the museums of technology, science, the spy museum or the interactive DDR museum.
One of the things most people do when they tour a city is find a high point to get an aerial view. In Berlin there are several of these. The TV tower is the most popular. It is now an icon for Berlin and is the highest publicly accessible building in Europe. Try to book online for the best choice of tickets. Failing this you can see a similar view from “Panoramapunkt” at Potsdamer Platz – it’s outside so might be windier than the TV tower, but still very nice. It’s also only €6.50 to enter, so also cheaper than the tower which starts at €13.00. The view from the dome of the Reichstag is very impressive too so try to plan in advance which one you want to see and it may save you some time and money.
The east gallery of the Berlin wall for me was another of the highlights. It is a 1.3 km-long painted stretch of the former Berlin Wall and is the largest open-air gallery in the world, with over one hundred original mural paintings. The murals represent freedom and reconciliation and it is well worth a visit. I really enjoyed the experience and the combination of the bright coloured murals and the riverside setting makes for superb photographs.
Berlin is full of wonderful squares too or ‘Platz’ as the locals call them. Alexanderplatz has plenty of market stalls and a typical beer house with outside tables and sometimes, live music. It is a great spot to relax and enjoy a German beer and take in the atmosphere. On the quieter side is Gendarmenmarkt, a square with stunning buildings and remarkable architecture. There are plenty of good restaurants here and lots of places to enjoy an alfresco coffee. Last but not least if you get nice weather, a boat trip along the Spree river is a nice way to see the city from the water.
Where to stay:
One thing that I did underestimate was the size of Berlin and how much there was to see. Yes, the underground system is remarkable and the S and U Bahn trains take you all over the city. For me though, I like to walk around a city and discover places that are not always in the guide books, I found it difficult to do this in Berlin. The tourist area close to the Brandenburg Gate is walkable and I would recommend staying near here if sightseeing is your main objective. Likewise if you are visiting for nightlife stay in east Berlin, Mitte, Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg are the most popular choices. I stayed in West Berlin near the famous Kurfurstendamm shopping district but I felt it was too far out of town, if I was to return, I would choose to stay in a more central location. The Adina Apartments at Checkpoint Charlie are a good choice, they are spacious and come with a kitchenette and have an indoor pool too.
What to do with the kids:
This was the first ‘proper’ city break that I have brought my kids on and although I would definitely do it again I would probably resign myself to the fact that you wont get to see everything you want to see. My kids are 7 and 4 so I couldn’t exactly drag them into the holocaust museum and there is only so much sightseeing kids can take!
On the other hand if you are looking to bring kids to a city, Berlin is a great choice as there is plenty for them to do too. Choose a hotel with a swimming pool, it is a great start to the day or else a great way to finish off a days sightseeing. The Lego discovery centre was a big hit with my two, mind you they are lego fanatics! You could not compare it to Legoland though, it is really only somewhere to spend one and a half to two hours at a maximum. Don’t bother with sealife and the aquadom, the one in Bray is just as good!
The aquadom is one of those things that sounds great in theory but is really just a lift that lasts five minutes so trust me, don’t waste your money! The DDR museum is a good choice as it is an interactive museum so unlike most museums, kids are encouraged to touch things and interact! The National History Museum has three huge dinosaur skeletons, including the largest skeleton in the world, and let’s face it, kids love dinosaurs! The Zoo is one of the most popular in Europe and there are numerous technology and science museums that are very child friendly. My kids loved the Holocaust Memorial, obviously not for what it represents but because it is maze-like and they navigated their way through it.
Where to eat:
There are numerous eateries all over the city but as I had my kids with me, we probably played it a little safe. Vapiano is a place you have to try, there are lots of them in Berlin, it is fast food but with an edge. There is a strong emphasis on fresh food with pasta, pizzas, antipasti and salads all ordered directly from the chefs in front of you, and prepared as you watch. Ask for your favourite dish and they will try to provide it. The modern interiors make you feel like you are somewhere special but the prices certainly don’t. A great choice for a quick stop or a leisurely lunch.
Another good find was Amici on Gendarmenmarkt square, excellent value for such a prime location and the food and design was very good. If you are short on time and trying to fit in some extra sightseeing you could try a currywurst (like a hotdog but with tomato /curry sauce), they are on every street corner and are the staple street food in Berlin! The 12 Apostles, close to museum island is a nice family restaurant if you have kids with you, good pizza, pastas etc. Just be aware that the 12 Apostles and other restaurants we found only accept cash and no credit cards! If you are planning to visit the Reichstag building the roof top restaurant here is excellent and is a good way to gain access to the dome, you will need to book in advance.
Berlin has so much to offer that I can safely say I would recommend it for everyone. Over the last one hundred years, this is a city that has seen the rise and fall of the Nazis, was destroyed, rebuilt, and then divided into two very different ‘cities’. You get the distinct impression that the residents of Berlin both past and present can handle anything that is thrown at them, they just live for the moment and enjoy life. That is something that will resonate with me for a long time to come.