Warning: if you’re going to join me in this venture, you’ll sleep a little and walk a lot. It’s difficult to capture the soul of the city in two days, and I surely have barely touched upon it; nevertheless, it’ll leave you hungry for more. Berlin is what you’d call a European capital: with its painful modern history, it has risen back to an urban, artistic, optimistic place with people who mastered their ways of expression; a hipster dream – but who said hipsters weren’t cool, after all?
I love city breaks because they’re a form of escapism: you go somewhere for a day or two, and experience something different than what you already know. But if you end up in Berlin, the abundance of places to go to make the choice difficult – and I believe it’ll only leave you hungry for more. Iggy Pop and David Bowie have lived in Berlin and written there – and that’s only the beginning of the extensive list of reasons for visiting the German capital. Here’s my travel diary which is quite extensive: I always walk around a lot and try to make it as intense as possible. You’ll get the time to sleep on the plane back!
What to do in Berlin on the first day: from Alexanderplatz to the Museum Island
Starting around 9am, I’ve travelled from Shönefeld airport. To get to the city centre on the public transport, you can take one of the trains that’ll take you directly to one of the main stations. A daily travel pass will cost you €7.70. However, you can also get Berlin Welcome Card for €19.90, that’ll give you a travel pass for two days and a lot of discounts across the city. If you’re a student, make sure you’ve got your ID. It’s always worth asking for concessions, and sometimes they double with the tourist pass.
I spent my first minutes in Berlin in Mitte, the city centre. A massive TV tower is the first thing you’ll see, which overlooks the city (second tallest building in the EU!) and hosts the highest placed bar in Berlin. Just below, in Alexanderplatz, there’s World Time Clock topped with a solar system model that revolves every minute showing the time across all time zones. There’s also a fountain with an ultra-socialist name with a GDR past, Fountain of Friendship between Peoples, which is now a first look at the wonderful street art, present everywhere in the city. And that’s just an intro: there’s DDR Museum that allows you to understand the life in East Germany better – perfect to understand the post-War history of the city.
Just a short walk from there lies the Museum Island. The Berlin Cathedral welcomes you as you walk through the bridge. And that’s how a history lover’s dream unfolds: its most popular museum is Pergamon Museum that hosts the Persian Ishtar Gate and the Market Gate of Miletus. It’s also home to the Museum of Islamic art, which is upstairs. Neues Museum displays collections of prehistoric and ancient artefacts, alongside Altes Museum.
Alte National Gallery, on the other hand, exhibits a selection of the 18th-19th century art. From impressionists Monet, Renoir and Manet, through Cezanne to Romantic Friedrich, it’s another highlight for those who love art history. And hey, Germany was the mother of Romantics – we speak Goethe and his Young Werther and Faust, and those who coined the terms Sturm und Drang and weltschmerz. Although my Friedrich favourite, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog currently resides in Hamburg (I’ll make another trip for that!), there’s a couple of his Gothic-infused paintings, so it was well worth a visit.
The Museum Island is aperfect place to relax, too: on a sunny day, there’s plenty of people tanning, reading in the shadows, or simply walking around. As you step out of the area, you might want to pay a visit to German Historical Museum or Zeughaus, the old arsenal. There are lovely flea markets on the way: the one at Bode Museum on the riverside hosts a collection of books and antiques. And if you want to look deeper, there’s actually a handful. I enjoyed strolling through Berliner Kunstmarkt am Zeughaus on the river bank, slightly further down, which offers various artwork and merchandise – fashion, photography, sculpture, paintings, you name it. A couple are scattered around the city: in Charlottenburg, Shöneberg, Friedrichschain and Neukölln, with various opening days, so it’s good to check what fits your trip, is close to your accomodation, suits the dates you picked.
The key Berlin landmarks
Later, it was the time to see the biggest landmarks. Walking town Unter den Linden, I peeked into Gendarmenmarkt, a lovely square, and strolled down to the Brandenburg Gate. From there, I headed for the famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A massive grid structure filled with heavy blocks that resemble a graveyard will stop you for a bit and certainly make you think of the only outcomes of brutality and terror.
Later, I headed for a sunshine-filled walk to Angela’s. Reichtag building hosts Bundestag, the German parliament, and German Chancellery is just around the corner. Tiergarten, a huge park where it’s located, is a lovely place to rest for a while in the sunshine. And you can stroll right through it to the Victory Column with a cold drink, and then walk down Tiergartenstraße to Potsdamer Platz.
Film and Dali on Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz was destroyed in the Second World War, and during Cold War times the Berlin Wall divided the square in half; there are still a couple of wall remains and a line that marks the wall location. The S-Bahn train station located there was one of the ghost stations: the train lines that connected the edges of West Berlin would not stop due to the divisions. The train station itself belonged to East Berlin and was protected by armed guards.
Right now, it’s downright splendid. The rebuilt square hosts the skyscrapers of the Sony Centre with the Deutsche Bahn building raising to the skies. In one of the buildings close to the shopping arcade, Deutsche Kinemathek – the Museum of Film and Television – is another place worth seeing. Did you know that Weimar cinema was the second biggest film industry after Hollywood in the 1920s? That’s why it’s worth it to explore how it boomed and get to know the movie stars better: an exhibit on Marlene Dietrich is one of the most interesting in the museum. And it’s literally a short walk from where Berlinale takes place every February! If you’re a film junkie like me, you’ll come back with new knowledge and a handful of films to watch.
When you pass the S-Bahn station entrance, you can also spend some time in Dali Museum. Although it doesn’t have the major works of the Spanish artist, it does show the lesser known side of the surrealist: his interest in film and the illustrations he’s done for Divine Comedy and Alice in Wonderland, for instance. Nearby, GDR Watchtower which reminds of the dark post-war times stands on Erna-Berger Straße.
Roaming around Kreuzberg
The next day, I left the hostel early, too. Kreuzberg was the starting point – and it’s the city part that stole my fragile heart, but more about my hipster endeavours later (no Bloc Party references, I promise). If you haven’t booked your hotel yet while you’re reading this, find one there or in neighbouring Neukölln and thank me later!
No more walls
I’ve started the second day at East Side Gallery. Filled with street art created on the remains of the inner wall that was invisible to the Western side before, it’s now a place where peace, creativity and love thrives. The well-known murals stretch across the wall: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love that depicts the Brezhnev-Honecker “socialist kiss” on the mouth (you probably know the one from a history book photo), Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen (“It’s necessary to break down many walls”), Berlyn, and many, many more.
A longer walk awaited before I reached Checkpoint Charlie – the most famous crossing between the East and West side back in the day. The Berlin Wall Museum is located just to the little building in the middle of the road and the sign that informs you of “entering the American sector”. You might want to pay it a visit if you know little about the history of these times. If you’re in Berlin for only 48 hours, I’d try and pick between the DDR Museum and this place.
Jewish Museum was the next place to visit – and it hosts an emotional exhibition telling the story of Holocaust by the items that the victims of Shoah have left behind. It’s completely free to visit, and based around the modern structure that allows you to explore your own way around the lower ground floor. Then, you climb the stairs to understand Jewish culture more with the bigger, interactive exhibit on the upper floors.
A touch of art
A short walk from there, Berlinische Galerie hides in one of the smaller streets, presenting an absolutely outstanding selection of modern art on the ground floor and the permanent exhibition on the upper floor. While I was there, a thought-provoking exhibition of travel photography and photojournalism was on display. If you’re into snapping while you’re travelling, it’ll get you downright inspired (and it’ll give you a nudge for the pics that you take like a collector!). The collection above showcases the 19th-20th century artists, including Dada movement, cubism, and avant-garde.
From there, I headed to Topography of Terror – a museum which once used to be the Gestapo and SS headquarters. On one side, the longest outer section of Berlin Wall is still standing as another reminder of dictatorship and terror – and it has a fascinating outdoor exhibition into how propaganda and populism changed a multi-cultural, tolerant city into the place of fear and death. Inside, an exhibition takes a closer look at the secret police and SS. They’re on the ground where the former torture cells were located, which saw the last days of trade unionists, political opponents, and the others who were found “degenerate”. It’ll leave you with far too much to think about…
What to do in Berlin: bonus picks
Which places do I wish I had seen? I missed the Museum of Photography, which hosts a collection of images from the 19th century up to modern times, and C/O Berlin, which is home to many photographers’ works. They aren’t far from Zoologischer Garten Station (and that’s a quite big one in pop-culture, too; David Bowie acted in a hit film based on the book “We Children from Bahnhof Zoo” – an autobiography of Christiane F., who found herself addicted to heroin at just 13). I’d also make time for Contemporary Fine Arts, a place with various displays, which is also nearby.
When it comes to things to do away from the West side of Berlin, there’s a couple more interesting things to do. I didn’t manage to go to Hamburger Banhof, which is a contemporary art space in the old station building. I also wish I’d gone to Bauhaus-Archiv, which is the largest collections of Bauhaus school works (it’s not far from Potsdamer Platz if you want to work it into your trip somehow, i.e. swapping the Dali Museum for it). Trabant Museum might be one of the quirkiest ones I haven’t gone to as well: it’s on the way to Checkpoint Charlie, and it’s just what the name says it is: all about Trabant – a GDR car that was the coolest thing in the 1950/60s across the Eastern Bloc. In that area, there’s also Galerie Thomas Shulte that exhibits a handful of contemporary artists. If only I had two more days!
What to eat in Berlin?
Now, let’s skip to the part where I tell you why I fell in love with Kreuzberg.: basically, it’s my ideal
hidden hipster fantasy. There’s so many good places to sit down and have a bite or a drink that I really wish I booked a place to stay in the area in the first place. It’d have saved me from dropping my bags and boarding U-Bahn to get there instead.
You must be hungry after reading about all this walking! Well, I was too, after the serious legwork – as you’ve noticed, I barely used the public transport. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a portion of currywurst – it consists of pieces of fried sausage covered in tomato sauce and curry. It might sound unusual, but it’s actually tasty and filling. You can buy it in many street booths when you walk around the city. And it even has its own museum, believe it or not!
I’ve had dinner in Mitte on the first night before I set out to East Berlin. My pick was Boulevard Friedrichstraße just down the road from my hostel: it was typically German cuisine. There were some nice picks, depending on how much you’re willing to spend, of course: fried sausages on sauerkraut for €12, or roasted potatoes with bacon, eggs and gherkins for €9 which I felt was fair for the city centre. A pint of draught beer with that, and you’ve got your nice dinner.
Food and drink in Kreuzberg and Friedrichschain
As for Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, if you cross Oberbaumbrücke and go straight, there’s so many places to feast! (I told you.) As a rule of thumb, if there’s a queue and people speak the local language, you’re onto finding something good. That’s how I found Berlinburger International. It’s a tiny place with a couple more seats outside, which worked well on a sunny day. The staff are super friendly and chatty (I was challenged to “eating burger like a real man” haha), the food is real filling and delicious, plus you’ve got the selection of bear and cider, too. It’s a reasonably priced and tasty lunch stop: I paid less than €8 for a chilli burger and chips.
Aldemir Eis in Kreuzberg have phenomenal ice-cream: for €6.90, you get three big scoops of ice-cream of choice with the toppings. They’ve got yoghurt, fig, chocolate, rhubarb, vanilla and many more flavours. Later, they finish it off with fresh fruit, chocolate, whipped cream as toppings – you mix-and-match. There’s no place to sit, so pick them up and walk around a little bit more!
Oh, and don’t forget a bagel with sauerkraut (or whatever you wish) while you’re there. They’ll tell you that bagels are a New Yorker’s food, but you’ll know better: the Jewish communities mastered it first. That’s why such cities as Berlin or Cracow can also have secret spots with the best bagels ever – after all, that’s where they originated! Black Sheep is one of them – and they’re downright delightful! They’ve got bread from Fine Bagels, which you can also visit if you’d rather head to the other side of Spree. They’re in the Shakespeare and Sons bookshop.
Bars and clubs?
I’ve literally had one night and an evening to spare, so I don’t feel I’ve had enough of Berlin bars and clubs. I went to Das Hotel Bar, which was a really lovely place to go to for a cocktail. Really bustling even early evening, it has a very chilled down atmosphere about it – I’m happy I stopped by!
However, there’s a couple of places I’ve picked up in hostel conversations when I was trying to decide where to go. Berghain has a selection of live events. Somebody told me Limonadier is quite cool, too, and Cassiopeia apparently has a quite alternative feel. If you want to feel like Victoria from that indie film that smashed it last year, then Tresor is the place, as my common room conversational partner told me. Sadly, I couldn’t make it since I’ve had transport booked for 11pm that night… Apparently, it’s quite an experience and let’s be honest about it, this is what you come to Berlin for, too. And it’s regardless of you liking electronic music! Just remember that you can’t take pictures, try to look quite casual, be aware what’s on that night, and you should be fine. It will be a place to go to when I go back!
And I’m more than sure that I will go back. With its bustling heart and artistic atmosphere that balances the old and the modern perfectly, Berlin is a fascinating European capital that is hugely likely to steal your heart.