So it turns out it’s pretty hard to fit every recommendation for Berlin into one blog post. I’d thought it would be relatively easy to sum up since Oslo took up a mere one post to itself, but y’know, sometimes it’s only when you start writing that you remember everything else that you did.
There’s so much to do and see in Berlin that, even after two trips (for me) and three (for Ally), we still haven’t covered everything. The museums, for example. Berlin has an embarrassment of them and it’s hard to narrow ’em down. The Spy Museum (my personal choice) and the Computer Spiele Museum (Ally’s choice) just missed the cut. However, at the latter they have a game where you and a partner have to see who can hold on to a joystick the longest while it shocks you and that appeals to everything in me. We did manage to get to The Dali Museum near Potsdamer Platz though, which was pretty awesome.
It sounds like we missed out a lot, and we did, but we also covered a serious amount of ground. As in both times I’ve been here I’ve beaten my own step target. On our first visit we pretty much walked everywhere just to get a feel for the place, something I’d always recommend. Once you get used to the public transport system though, it’s also ridiculously easy to reach further flung parts of the city. For newbies, even the U-bahn (underground) is pretty straightforward. I’ve done so many trips to London that navigating an underground map is actually something I enjoy but, if you’re not so experienced, everything is pretty well signposted. However, even seasoned travellers would probably get freaked out by the towering monolith of the Hauptbahnhof. It’s the city’s main station, encompassing undergrounds, trains and trams as well as a multi-level shopping mall. It. Is. HUGE. Pro tip: if a board says the platform you’re at is the right one for your train, it might not be. There are information services abound. For the love of god ask them.
Mitte is a good bet if you want somewhere a li’l edgy, but still fairly central (the name translates as ‘middle’ so you can probably guess its location). Berlin doesn’t really have a city centre as such- not in the same way as, say, Glasgow. It’s compact like Glasgow, but divided into districts in a similar way to London. In saying that, Mitte is a great starting point if you’re looking to venture outwards. We didn’t get a chance to visit Museum Island (it’s exactly as it sounds- a cluster of five museums on a small island on the banks of the Spree). However, we did take a wander around a nearby antiques market and took in a walk of the nearby area. For all its trendier vibes though, it’s actually a pretty substantial district, and home to some of Berlin’s most iconic landmarks.
We hit a lot of the tourist traps on our first visit, purely to say that we’d done it. Tiergarten is one of the biggest urban parks in the city, and after taking a stroll through it we arrived at the Siegessäule (Victory Column): a huge statue on top of a monument in the middle of a friggin’ roundabout. On the same stretch was the equally impressive Soviet War Memorial, which can be found after a meander through Tiergarten.
We also hit the Reichstag (impressive enough even without going inside, although hoachin’ with tourists) and the Brandenburg Gate. When we visited in November, the avenue leading to it was filled with flowers, candles and French flags, which was a really lovely touch of solidarity. I’d recommend going at night time when it’s all lit up: it’s still worth seeing in the daytime, but it’s just not as dramatic.
Also on the tourist trail is the Topography Of Terror museum, based in the former headquarters of SS head honcho Heinrich Himmler. Detailing the story of the SS and the European Jews they persecuted up to and throughout World War Two, it’s a sobering visit and there are some moments which are scarily reflective of the world we live in now. Checkpoint Charlie was kind of underwhelming at first- I was expecting a smaller version of the Brandenburg Gate- but once you stroll around the area, see all the old signs and read a little of the history it’s really cool. It’s in the middle of an active (and busy!) road crossing, and next to a McDonalds, which is really surreal. I did get my passport stamped and got the grimmest Christmas bauble ever from the museum shop, so if you’re in the area it’s worth passing- even just for an Insta-worthy shot of the American sector signs.
Away from tourist central, you want to head to East Berlin for a more authentic view of the city. Friedrichshein and Kreuzberg were two favourite areas for me. The buildings are covered in street art and graffiti but one thing we noticed was that none of it’s malicious. We even saw a few ‘happy birthday’ shout outs! The latter is more of an up and coming area, and apparently is quite popular with young parents, but overall it still maintains its cool, artsy vibe, with independent coffee shops, record stores and street markets depending on what day you’re there. We went to a Turkish market near Schonleinstrasse that sold literally everything from food and drink to clothes, jewellery, hardware and accessories, and they love a bit of haggling. It’s apparently a secret of the locals for picking up fresh fruit and veg, and on our first visit in November we got to try mulled white wine (amazing).
The East Side Gallery is based in Friedrichshein, and it’s definitely worth a wander. It’s the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin wall, and artists from around the world have been commissioned to adorn it with amazing graffiti and messages of peace. There’s even a remainder of the ‘corridor’ (the space between the dividing lines of the wall) and you can take a seat along the banks of the Spree as well.
There aren’t as many sights on this side of town per se, but it’s definitely worth taking an afternoon or so to wander around. It’s not as laden with tourists and it’s definitely got more of a laid back, local vibe. It was a teensy bit unnerving walking the area at night though, especially if you don’t know it: being off the beaten track there’s not much in the way of signposting and it’s easy to get lost. However, if you want to see the real side of the city you can’t go wrong way down east.
On both visits to Berlin, I left with a heavy heart. I didn’t feel too sad after our first trip, since I knew we were coming back in June. Our trip in June was barely three days, and it left me realising how much we still have to explore. Will I be back? Well, I have about €150 leftover and the way things are going in Britain, anywhere else is looking like a pretty intriguing option…
TL;DR Pro Tips
Berlin is pretty big, with a lot of things to see being spread out across different districts. If you want to cover a lot of ground, PLAN AHEAD.
We found a lot of markets along the banks of the river, but most of them only run at weekends. They’re worth finding out, even if it’s just for the experience.
Public transport is fast, frequent, reliable and pretty cheap, but we found so many more places by walking. In Mitte especially, there are loads of landmarks within pretty close proximity to each other.
Some of the bigger museums can be pretty steep for admission, which might not be that much of an issue for some folks. If, like us, you’re doing it on a budget, you might have to pick and choose.
No matter how much ground you cover though, you’re not gonna see everything in one visit. No biggie though. Whatever part you make it to, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a vibrant and friendly city, steeped in history but thoroughly modern at the same time.