Every person I’d spoken to that had been to Berlin had nothing but fantastic, encouraging things to say about this city. Stories of epic nights out partying, rich cultural experiences and historical sights made me super excited to visit the German capital.
As I was soon to find out, Berlin is unlike any city I’ve been to yet. It’s a city that has undergone many changes and social upheavals in the last 100 years, and continues to evolve into a haven for the creative, the adventurous and German/Soviet history buffs.
Things to See and Do
Berlin is chockers with significant attractions that tell the stories of the Nazi years and Soviet occupation; but itâ€™s also home to a rich cultural tapestry thatâ€™s worth seeking out.
On Pariser Platz, at the end of Unter den Linden (basically the big main historical drag of Berlin) and before Tiergarten lies the Brandenburg Gate. As probably the most recognisable icon of Germany, itâ€™s the last 18th century gate through which Berlin was once entered. Itâ€™s great to walk around the base and check out the visible bullet holes in the pillars from the Battle of Berlin at the end of WW2 and get a feel for the size and significance of it. Itâ€™s easily accessible by U-Bahn/S-Bahn, get off at Brandenburger Tor station. Watch out for gypsies loitering around Pariser Platz doing their â€œdo you speak Englishâ€ spiel to try and get money out of you.
This was definitely up there on my list of stuff to check out in Berlin. I was fascinated by the history behind the East and West Berlin separation and was stoked when I finally laid eyes on the wall. There isnâ€™t much of it left, but a large section can be found on NiederkirchnerstraÃŸe (the below photo was taken there), near the Topography of Terror (see below). Dotted all over Berlin are signs with small anecdotes about the wall and the people it affected; how many died and how daring they were to get into West Berlin to see their families.
The path of the wall is commemorated throughout Berlin by cobblestones, and youâ€™ll see them in weird places as to trek around the city. Another great place to view the wall and the graffiti adorned upon it is at the East Side Gallery, easily accessible for Ostbahnhof train station.
Located just down the road from the Brandenburg Gate, this is a haunting reminder of how many Jews were killed during WW2. Thereâ€™s no official explanation as to what message itâ€™s meant to convey, itâ€™s more about immersing yourself in it and working it out for yourself. As you walk into it, you canâ€™t really tell how deep it goes and how high the pillars become until you get right amongst it. You start to feel really isolated and you canâ€™t see around the corners. Definitely donâ€™t miss it.
So Checkpoint Charlie was one of 3 Allied checkpoints between East and West Berlin, Charlie being the American one. Thereâ€™s nothing original left here at all, everything you see in the below picture is fake for tourist purposes. The sign, the guardhouse, the lot. Have a look around and keep going, not really worth more than 5-10 minutes.
On the other side of the big signpost with the American soldier on it is a Soviet Union soldier and itâ€™s meant to signify America looking into the Soviet Union and vice versa. Itâ€™s basically a huge tourist trap really. One cool story is that one day whilst the wall was still up, an East Berliner got a convertible, low enough to fit under the boom gate and gunned it through the checkpoint into West Berlin to his girlfriend. After that, they installed a chicane, heh.
Itâ€™s located on the corner of FriedrichstraÃŸe and ZimmerstraÃŸe and you can get there by taking the U-Bahn to KochstraÃŸe.
Topography of Terror
The Topography of Terror is built upon the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo and provides a chilling insight into the sheer scale of genocide that occurred under Nazi rule, of not only Jews but homosexuals, Communists, gypsies and basically anyone that couldnâ€™t work for the good of the people.
The witness stories, photographs maps of concentration camps really put it into perceptive and help you understand the gravity of what went on. Itâ€™s totally free and is located at NiederkirchnerstraÃŸe 8.
Berlin TV Tower
Located on Alexanderplatz, the Berlin TV Tower (or Berliner Fernsehturm) is the crowning architectural achievement of Soviet East Berlin. Built in 1969 to showcase the strength and awesomeness of the Soviet way of doing things and to provide transmission of all GDR television. Funding was actually provided by the people of Berlin after they gave money they raised to the GDR government to rebuild a destroyed church. The GDR instead took half, built the church to poor standard and the rest was spent on building the TV Tower.
I didnâ€™t go up it, but did circle around the bottom and got a good idea of how tall it is. Apparently when the sun shines on the sphere, a cross appears, signifying the Popeâ€™s revenge after the money raised for the church was instead used to build the tower.
Another attraction just near the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag, which houses the German Parliament (Bundestag). Itâ€™s the site of the Reichstag fire in 1933 which became the catalyst for Hitlerâ€™s rise to power.
Be prepared for a massive wait, itâ€™s a hugely popular place. I went at about 8pm and still had to wait over an hour to visit the dome at the top.
Youâ€™ll get great views of Berlin (probably the best) from the top of the dome, and the included audio guide tells the stories of a lot of city landmarks as you walk up the spiral staircase.
Berlin is well known for its underground techno scene; basically regarded as the mecca of the dance music genre. Clubs with names like Tresor, KitKatClub and Berghain are legendary. Most are located in East Berlin near Ostbahnhof and are worth it if you want to see a totally different side of the city. Be advised that door policy can be quite strict (in my example, I befriended some Germans and managed to get into Berghain by keeping my mouth shut at the door and letting them do the talking), so be prepared to potentially do some club hopping.
Cassiopeia is also worth checking out, located near the train line at Warschauer StraÃŸe (just follow the music) along with Matrix, also not far from the train station.
By far the first thing you want to hit up is a currywurst. It’s cheap and you can get one everywhere. It’s basically a wurst (German sausage) sprinkled with curry powder and doused in ketchup. Tastes unreal and it’s super cheap, coming in at under â‚¬2 each.
Get yourself up to Prenzlauerberg in the north of the city toÂ The Bird. It’s an American themed diner/bar, staffed by a few Aussies and run by an American. They serve incredible steaks and burgers, and they will put you away for the night no worries and have a good selection of German beer to hook into. Happy hour on weekends till 8pm, 2 for 1 beers. Get the â€œDa Birdhouseâ€ burger, as seen below, itâ€™ll put you down for a few hours, a few thousand calories heavier.
Take the S-Bahn to Schonhauserallee, then down to Gleimstrasse to Am Falkplatz 5. More details on the website.
You can also hook into pretzels, available in most train stations, and the ubiquitous doner kebab (which apparently started out in Berlin from Turkish immigrants).
Berliners get right on the cans as soon as the sun goes down, so join in and get yourself a few from the nearest convenience store and go for gold.
How to get there
Airlines flying from London fly to both Tegel and SchÃ¶nefeld airports in Berlin. Unless you’re in the middle of a trip through Europe currently and can easily get to Berlin by train (e.g. you have a Eurail pass), you’d fly in.
Tegel (TXL) Airport
Personally I snapped up a cheap fare from bmi as part of theirÂ bmifriday sales campaign, run on the last Friday of each month. These guys fly direct from London Heathrow to Berlin Tegel, alternatively you could grab an Air Berlin or British Airways flight. A bus runs from Tegel airport to the Hauptbahnhof (central train station), where itâ€™s then easy to find your digs.
SchÃ¶nefeld (SXF) Airport
Ryanair fly from London Stansted airport to SchÃ¶nefeld, but beware that this airport is a fair way further out of Berlin (it’s actually out of the city limits, in Brandenburg) than Tegel. It does however have a direct S-Bahn train link unlike Tegel. Just another one of those Ryanair “we can kinda get you to “that European city” but we’ll dump you 239040 miles away from the actual city” specials.
Where to Stay
I stayed true to my trend of booking the highest rated, best located hostel in the city I’m visiting on hostelbookers.com, and stayed at theÂ Baxpax Downtown Hostel (at ZiegelstraÃŸe 28, closest S-Bahn station, Friedrichstrasse or Oranienburger StraÃŸe) for the 2 nights I was there.
All the staff were super friendly and told me everything I needed to know about the place. I met a cool Croatian couple in my room, but never met the other 4 people staying there as apparently they’d left for the day 3 days ago and hadn’t returned? Weird.
There’s a bar and cafÃ©, along with a really cool backyard to hang out in and smash some beers with mates or new ones you’ve just met. There’s even a little kiddie pool to get your splashy frolic on after a hard day treading the pavement.
Get around in Berlin
Berlin has a super efficient public transport system. Using the U-Bahn (underground trains), S-Bahn (overground trains) or trams will get you anywhere in the city. Get yourself aÂ Berlin CityTourCard, which is broken up into days of validity and tariff zones, available from most train stations. I got a 48 hour AB zone version, which set me back â‚¬15,90 and allowed me to travel on all public transport the entire time I was in town. Youâ€™ll only need the C zone in addition to the AB zones if you want to go out and visit Potsdam (Germanyâ€™s Versailles equivalent).
Another AWESOME thing about Berlin is that all the trains run 24/7 on weekends, so getting back from a heaving techno club at 4:30am is a piece of cake.
Berlin is a pretty cheap city as far as Europe is concerned. A beer (0,5cL â€“ 500mL) will cost you about â‚¬3 in a bar, or â‚¬1,50 a can in a convenience store. A meal including a beer from The Bird will set you back â‚¬10-â‚¬15.
Budget for about â‚¬75 per day, depending on your drinking habits!
As far as European capitals go, Berlin is one of the most significant and culturally rich you could visit. Thereâ€™s so much to learn about, from the democracy of the Weimar Republic, to the Nazi era to Soviet occupation. Not to mention all the cool bars (especially around OranienburgerstraÃŸe) and clubs to check out. Berlin will keep you going all weekend long and will leave you wanting to come back for more. I didnâ€™t get home till 5:30am both nights I was there, be prepared for a good time.