Flew: London Heathrow > Berlin Tegel with British Airways
As airports go, Tegel is a spartan affair. Don’t expect a traditional departure lounge, here you are corralled into your gate immediately after security with just one cafe and one shop. If you need to buy a souvenir at the airport, do so at the stores pre-check in, there is a larger selection.
Date: July 31st to August 4th 2017
Reason for trip: Holiday. My bff, Sara & I were in Germany to attend a friend’s wedding in Hannover, so thought we should take the opportunity to check out the capital city beforehand.
Stayed: Berlin Pestana Tiergarten (4 nights, Mon to Fri) -I booked this hotel because I found a great rate on a deluxe room for our dates of travel. Located on the edge of the Tiergarten park, the nearest U & S Bahn station (Zoologischer Garten – U2, U9, S3, S5, S7 & S9) is around 15 minutes walk away, but it’s also possible to take the 200 bus from a nearby stop to the city centre, Mitte, Alexanderplatz etc. It’s not the most characterful of hotels, but it was clean, modern & quiet at night due to being in an area mainly populated by foreign embassies. The main elements of the ‘Deluxe’ room over standard seemed to be the addition of a kettle & slightly increased size. No bath, but there was an amusing electric blind in the bathroom which caused endless entertainment.
Amenities: The hotel has a tiny pool which we didn’t use & a very small gym which we did. There’s a treadmill, cross-trainer, static bike and free weights. It was adequate for a quick workout but got very crowded at around 5 pm when we visited.
- If you can live without your room being cleaned daily, you will receive a token for €5 per day to use in the hotel bar.
- The room has a bottle opener but no corkscrew. Either bring your own or take care if you purchase wine to buy a screw top. We did not & had a hilarious half an hour researching ways to break into the bottle on YouTube & hacking at the cork with a variety of objects.
From the airport to the hotel we took Express Bus X9 (€2.80) to Zoologischer Garten station then walked. There is also an express service that goes to the central train station and on to Alexanderplatz. When buying tickets at Tegel, I recommend avoiding the human-staffed kiosk with its long lines and head outside onto the forecourt to use the self-service machines.
Apart from the airport journeys, we only used the bus on one other occasion, the 200 to go to Mitte. From Tiergarten where the hotel was located, this was a scenic journey from the top deck, so I’d recommend doing it once. Here we were able to purchase our tickets from the driver.
The rest of the time we used the U & S Bahn or walked. You can buy a day travel ticket for €7 but we used the €2.80 singles because we were usually only taking 2 public transport trips each day.
I’d recommend having a good variety of change to use in the automatic ticket machines as they seemed to be highly idiosyncratic about which coins they would accept.
For general getting our bearings and finding the closest train station we used City Mapper.
What we did/saw:
Original Berlin Walks, ‘Discover Berlin’ Tour: Seeing as it was our first trip to Berlin, we were keen to visit all of the important & (in)famous sites early on in the visit. Doing a walking tour seemed like a good way to get this done and ensure that we learned the history behind them. There are a lot of different tour options available in Berlin, many of them free. As it was peak summer season, I was concerned that the free ones would be overcrowded so chose this €14 very comprehensive 4 hour tour.
I was right to worry about the busy free tours when we saw several groups of 40+ people straggling after a guide, many at the back looking bored as they clearly weren’t able to hear or get any context on what they were hearing. This wasn’t an issue on our tour. There were around 12 of us and we were always able to hear our excellent & informative guide, Ysanne at all times.
We set off from opposite the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn at 2pm on a scorching Tuesday afternoon, (bring a hat in the summer, there isn’t much shade to be found) and embarked on 800 years of Berlin’s history.
Stops on our tour included:
Museum Island & the cathedral, to admire the architecture of Karl Freidrich Schinkel.
Bebelplatz – The square outside Humboldt University & site of a 1933 Nazi book burning. There is a poignant memorial inset into the cobbles here, you look down into the glass plate and see rows and rows of empty bookshelves, enough to hold the 20,000 books which were destroyed.
Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz & Reichstag – A Prussian built, 18th-century monument, the Brandenburg Gate is probably the most iconic symbol of Berlin. Un-passable during the cold war, it has become a symbol of unity and hope, post-reunification. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we only saw the glass dome of the Reichstag from a distance but we were given some background of the design’s intended symbolism, that the people are above the government.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – This will likely be the thing which sticks with me the longest from the tour, if not the entire trip. The 2711 concrete blocks seem almost coffin-like when standing on the outside of the memorial and while walking through I felt claustrophobic & disorientated, I just wanted to push forward and reach the other side. There are a lot of different theories on what the memorial is trying to evoke and when the tour guide asked the group, everyone seemed to have their own interpretation. It certainly made me consider how devastating and frightening the lead up to & the events of holocaust must have been for those caught up in it. It’s not something that should ever be forgotten.
The site of Hitler’s bunker – Now a car park and children’s playground.
The Former Nazi Ministry of Aviation – Now the Ministry of Finance, this is one of the few examples of 3rd Reich architecture still standing in the city (over 90% of Berlin’s buildings were damaged by the end of WWII) it’s a stark behemoth of a building. There is also a mural from the 50s depicting life in GDR Germany which is worth a look at.
Berlin Wall – There was not a lot to see at the section we visited near the Topography of Terror Museum.
Checkpoint Charlie – Also not a lot to see here and extremely touristy.
Gendarmenmarkt – Home to the French & German churches (both now museums) & the concert hall.
Altogether the walk took around 4 hours. There is one short break in the latter half of the tour at an inexpensive cafe (make sure you have cash as they didn’t take cards for small purchases!) I like to walk and am in decent shape but in the hot weather, I was struggling by the end.
I’m glad we did the tour as we learned a lot more historical background than we would have on our own, allowing us to truly appreciate what we were seeing. A few of the places by themselves wouldn’t have been worth a visit but were more interesting in the wider context. Obviously, there are limitations in that we were just seeing the outside of all these sites but it helped to clarify which would be the most interesting to check out in more depth in the future.
East Side Gallery: Because we didn’t get our fill of the Berlin wall from the walking tour, we headed over to the Friedrichshain district to the longest continuous portion which is still standing. Standing beside the river Spree, it also happens to be the longest open-air gallery in the world with the 1316 metres covered in colourful murals depicting political and social commentary on the events of 1989/1990. We spent a pleasant hour walking along, observing and trying to make sense of the symbolism in the art.
Volkspark Friedrichshain: This is a lovely neighbourhood park on the edge of the Friedrichshain & Prenzlauer Berg districts of the city. On a Wednesday afternoon, it was full of locals going about their everyday lives: running, taking their kids to the playground or just generally hanging out. It was a nice respite from the more touristy areas which we’d frequented up to that point and I felt able to get a sense of what real everyday life might be like in the city as we strolled through. Also, a great area if you are a fan of fountains, the Märchenbrunnen (fountain of fairytales) is particularly stunning.
Berlin Dungeon: It’s perfectly permissible to visit at least one slightly cheesy tourist attraction when you are in a city and it’s fair to say that I’m a bit of a Dungeon fan having been in London (multiple times,) York & San Francisco. I had to add Berlin to my collection. This one follows a similar formula as other incarnations but is of course tailored to Berlin’s local history of a darker nature, though wisely they steer clear of using any Nazi era stories as entertainment. It takes 70 minutes or so to walk through, featuring mini shows with live cast members and a couple of rides, though the raft one wasn’t working when we visited.
The Dungeon is a good rainy day option but if possible, I would advise booking in advance because you will save significantly on the door ticket price.
Shows in English are twice per day: 2:30pm & 4:45pm
KaDeWe: (Kaufhaus des Westerns) i.e the second largest department store in Europe after Harrods. Ever since I was little, I’ve been a lover of department stores. So many things, all under one roof! This one also happened to be about 20 minutes walk away from the hotel so we had to check it out. I’m spoiled by all the amazing options in London, so I didn’t personally find it in the league of Harrods or Selfridges. I do always enjoy a mosey through a shoe department so it was still worth a visit.
Where we ate:
Spreegold, Charlottenburg: Our first night in Berlin was spent sitting on a roof terrace, sipping Moscow Mules & munching on a mountain of quinoa. Located at the edge of the Bikini Berlin shopping mall, the top floor is the perfect spot to relax on a warm summer eve. I loved the atmosphere and the view of the lit up Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The menu is a combination of classic comfort food – burgers, pasta and healthier salad options. I’m disappointed that we didn’t have a chance to return in the AM to try out some of the Vegan breakfast options & smoothies.
Creasian, Mitte: Pre-walking tour fuel stop. This place serves a fusion of Vietnamese, Thai & Korean dishes in an industrial style atmosphere with a few classic Asian decoration touches. I had Pho with tofu & while it wasn’t the most flavoursome I’ve ever tried, the portion was enormous and the price was incredibly reasonable. There was a nice looking cocktail menu but as we were about to embark on a 4-hour walk in the 30C heat, it didn’t seem like a wise decision so we plumped for some fruity cocktails instead. I’d recommend this as a lunch option if you’re looking for something fresh, inexpensive and dished up quickly. But remember to bring cash, they don’t take cards here.
Vapiano, Charlottenburg: I know, I know, I can and have eaten here in the UK. We were tired and lazy after traipsing around in the heat all afternoon, to the point where the idea of having to sit upright and not being allowed to flop onto the bed was traumatising. Solution: Vapiano takeout eaten in the hotel room while watching GLOW on Netflix. Despite specifying a pickup time, we still had to wait a while when we arrived to collect, also they were a tad skimpy on the sauce. On the whole, the Penne Arrabiata hit the spot and at least Vapiano is a German chain.
The Bowl, Friedrichshain: Located about 10 mins walk from the end/start of the East Side Gallery (depending on how you approach, we came from the Ostbahnhof side) The Bowl is a ‘clean eating’ restaurant, i.e vegan/gluten & sugar-free. It’s located above a branch of Veganz – a natural supermarket and next to a vegan shoe shop, so the building is somewhat of an ethical enclave. We both had big bowls of plant-based goodness, Sara went for the California quinoa with sweet potato, guacamole and apple & carrot salad. I had beetroot falafel with grilled veggies, aubergine cream, cabbage & alfalfa. Kombucha was the drink of choice. There were some appealing sounding desserts on offer but we were too stuffed from the main course to take advantage. I did, however, pick up some Karma Turmeric drink in Veganz on the way out, which I sipped when we sat in the park. The Bowl is a great choice if you are vegan, veggie or just like eating fresh and healthy food.
Dudu 31, Charlottenburg: Another day, another Asian fusion restaurant. This one was a half hour walk from the hotel but it was so worth it, even when we were stuffed to the gills at the end of the meal. We arrived at around 9pm and the place was packed out on a midweek evening, so we had a short wait for a table. I’d recommend making a reservation if pre-planning to visit. Like the walk, the wait was worth it. I had a starter size bowl of pho with tofu to begin. (Yes again, but I love it and wanted to compare and contrast.) This one was by far the winner, so much flavour packed into the broth. Post soup, Sara and I shared some sushi including some exceptional tuna rolls. I have eaten a lot of sushi in my time, of varying quality but it’s hard to think of any that I have enjoyed more than these, they just melted in the mouth. I’d happily eat this meal all over again, anytime. Service overall was good until right at the end where our server seemed to forget about us right when we wanted the bill but not a dealbreaker, I 100% recommend this restaurant to any sushi fan.
Peter Pane, Mitte: So initially, the plan was to go to The Bird for a lunchtime burger, but alas, I then realised that they only open in the evenings. We already had an eve reservation at NENI for the final night, so that idea was off the table. Still craving a burger, we discovered a branch of small German chain, Peter Pane, a short walk from the Berlin Dungeon. We arrived right at the beginning of lunchtime so had no trouble finding a table, but by the time we left, just after one, it was full. This place is very popular and I can understand why: the fun botanical decoration, a good cocktail list of fruity concoctions (try the South Sea) and an extensive range of burgers including a couple of vegan options. I had the ‘Happy Nature’ burger with a bulgar wheat patty, guacamole, spinach and garlic mayo, plus a side order of sweet potato fries. Sometimes vegan burgers can be on the dry side and taste like cardboard, this one was soft & full of flavour. Service was also incredibly speedy. This is a great choice for a casual & inexpensive lunch with something to satisfy all types of different dietary requirements.
NENI, Charlottenburg: Our final dinner in Berlin. We made a reservation here having heard that it’s consistently popular. Even booking several days in advance, we were only able to get a slot at 10pm. NENI is situated on the 10th floor of the 25Hours Hotel at Bikini Berlin. The restaurant is encased in glass with fantastic, panoramic views of the city and is accessible from an elevator in the hotel lobby – tell the people at the desk if you have a reservation, when we came in there was an enormous line for the next door Monkey Bar, but if you’ve booked you can head straight up. The menu is broadly middle eastern with the occasional Asian influence and focused on fresh, flavoursome ingredients. I had a mung bean salad with avocado, beluga lentils, prawns and pomegranate. Tasty and a big portion for the price. Considering how buzzy NENI is, the meal was surprisingly inexpensive. I’d advise coming earlier both in the day and in the week if you want to head to Monkey Bar afterwards. On a Thursday after 11pm, the place was completely rammed.
Also if you are looking for a cheap & healthy meal while passing through the Hauptbahnhof, I recommend Dean & David. We ate there both on the way to Hannover & when we arrived back in Berlin, before heading to the airport. They have a wide range of different ingredients that you can use to build your own salad and great smoothie options.
All in all, it was a successful first visit to Berlin. We found a vibrant and modern city which is shaking off its dark past. Despite a packed few days, I feel like we only just scratched the surface and there is so much still to see and experience.
I would love to write a guide to our time in Hannover, but truth be told we didn’t see much of it. After an amazing time at our friend’s wedding at Marienburg Castle (do visit, it’s beautiful,) we were too exhausted to do any sightseeing the next day. I hope that I’ll have an opportunity to return and see more of the city in the future.