07 June 2019

A Long Weekend in Berlin: Bex's Guide

While exploring last-minute city breaks just before the recent UK bank-holiday-weekend, I found a great deal on a two-night trip to Berlin on astminute.com, a site I've never used before. Return flights with BA (going out on Saturday lunchtime, returning on Monday night) and two nights at a boutique hotel in Alexanderplatz cost me about £325; the same flights alone were £100 more on the BA website. I'm not usually very spontaneous when it comes to travel, preferring to research and plan every last detail, but I hit the purchase button on Friday morning, and just over 24 hours later, I was on my way to Berlin.

I last visited the German capital on a brief and frosty work trip in December, and before that, I was last there on a school trip in 1998. My main memories of the latter are: stumbling upon the Love Parade with our history teachers; sneaking out to see Sylvester Stallone at Planet Hollywood; and, perched on the window sill of my hotel room, watching celebrations of France's World Cup victory. I was a vegetarian at the time and the veggie options were pretty poor; happily, Berlin is now one of the most veggie- and vegan-friendly cities in the world, according to the guide of the walking tour I took.

Forty-eight hours in Berlin is nowhere near enough time, but I made good use of the U-Bahn and managed to see a lot of the city and its diverse — and dispersed — neighbourhoods. I've already written about the speciality coffee shops I visited, but here are some of the other things I enjoyed.

Discover Berlin walking tour. Last time, I squeezed in a free tour of the Reichstag dome, and briefly visited the Brandenburg Gate and the chilling and thought-provoking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. For a more comprehensive overview of central Berlin's sights and history this time, I booked a four-hour Discover Berlin walking tour with Berlin Walks (€14). Our guide Sam Z, a wry Scot expat, was informative, entertaining and very knowledgeable. We covered a lot of ground — and a lot of Berlin's history — but the route allowed Sam to walk us through the city's history (literally) from its early origins, through the Prussian era and the darker times of the 20th century, to its regeneration since 1989. If you're short on time and want to see many of the city's key historic sights, I would recommend this tour.

Berlin Wall Memorial. This interactive outdoor memorial extends for 1.4 km on Bernauer Strasse and includes photographs, audio and displays that describe the history of the Berlin Wall, from its construction in 1961 until it was taken down 28 years later, as well as various pieces of public art. I started at the eastern end, near Mauerpark, and walked west almost all the way to the end, stopping to climb the viewing platform for an aerial view of the site border strip. If you're further east, in Friedrichshain, you can also visit the East Side Gallery, a long remaining section of the wall painted with many murals.

Exploring Prenzlauer Berg. I spent several hours in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, with its beautiful, colourful buildings. Although the excellent shops in the area are closed on Sundays (like most shops in Berlin), the craft and flea markets in Mauerpark are in full swing, while many of the eateries are bustling with the weekend brunch crowd. I really enjoyed browsing the markets, and had my first currywurst at one of the street-food vendors. The sun was out and there were buskers and street performers entertaining visitors of all ages. I also stopped by Kulturbrauerei, a brewery turned arts and street food venue.

Bergmannkiez and Tempelhof. Soon after arriving in Berlin on Saturday afternoon, I took the U-Bahn to Bergmannkiez, a small neighbourhood with many independent shops and interesting eateries, south of the central Mitte district. Bergmannstrasse, the main drag, is a particularly good spot for wandering, and the gorgeous architecture on Chamissoplatz is also worth a visit. A few minutes' walk to the south is Tempelhofer Feld, a former airport that is now a large public park. There were many Berliners soaking up the evening sunshine in the park, and if you're an airport aficionado, you'll enjoy the disused buildings too. Just outside the park is the Luftbrückendenkmal — the memorial to the Berlin Airlift.

Tiergarten. Speaking of parks, the sprawling, 520-acre Tiergarten runs from the Brandenburg Gate west to the Berlin Zoo. I wasn't staying close enough to go running there, but I did enjoy strolling through on Monday afternoon. The park was in fine form, with pink and purple flowers in bloom, birds singing and even some bunnies hopping across a tranquil lawn (well, Tiergarten does mean 'animal garden'). If you'd like to peek into the zoo without paying the entrance fee, head to the rooftop of neighbouring Bikini Berlin, a shopping complex with pop-up stores, for a great view of various primates.

A colleague recommended that I visit Peter Schlemihl, a cosy neighbourhood restaurant just opposite Chamissoplatz in Bergmannkiez. With great cocktails, very reasonably priced modern takes on classic German dishes and friendly staff, it is a lovely spot. Do note that there are no English menus, so you may need a bit of help from Google Translate. And it can get busy on weekend evenings, so try to book, if possible; they do also have tables available for walk-ins, though. I had some meatballs, served with a spicy condiment and a sweeter one, followed by a pork belly burger with two salads. The food was tasty and the portion sizes generous.

After Peter Schlemihl, I had a couple of hours to kill before my 10:30 pm reservation at CODA, a fine-dining dessert bar in Kreuzberg. During the late-night shift, diners can order either a three- or four-course dessert menu with drinks pairings. I limited myself to three courses (€54) and each dish was delicious, with creative combinations of flavours, textures and tastes. I started with a tarragon ice cream with poached rhubarb, tofu and biscotti (paired with a drink that combined sherry, a distilled-juniper liquor, lemon and celery). Next up was the baked apple with apple and shallot jam, smoked salt ice cream and biscuit crunch. Finally came the Amelonado cacao with cashew and a sort of sweet, congee rice. "I'm just going to grate some bonito on top," the server said, "but don't worry, it won't taste of fish; it just adds some umami." He was not wrong and this was my favourite course, although the apple and shallot jam was my favourite element. Impeccable service and wonderful presentation make this is a special and unique place to dine.

While shopping in Mitte on Monday, I stopped for lunch at Mädchenitaliener, a casual modern Italian spot on Alte Schönhauser Strasse. I enjoyed the fried gnocchi with sage butter I ate at one of the pavement tables — great for people-watching. There are plenty of eateries on this street, so if you're in the mood for a different cuisine, you'll have no problem finding something tasty.

Out in West Berlin, the unassuming Preussenpark turns into ThaiPark on weekends from April to October. For many years, Berlin's Thai community have gathered here at weekends to cook, eat and be merry. Although I arrived slightly late on Sunday evening, there were still several stalls in place and I was able to purchase a huge and delicious bowl of pad thai and watch the sun set over the city.

For lighter bites and cakes, the coffee shops I visited had a great selection of sweet treats. I also stopped by Black Isle Bakery, a minimalist cafe on Linienstrasse in southern Prenzlauer Berg, for breakfast one morning. The hazelnut banana bread really hit the spot. I just had a pretzel at the luxurious food hall at the KaDeWe department store, but there were also many sweeter, richer and generally more decadent options too.

Although I was travelling light — and saving space in my small backpack for coffee beans — I did plenty of window shopping in Berlin, and ended up buying two large cushion covers that I managed to squeeze into my bag. Do note that almost all shops are closed on Sundays in Berlin — even many larger grocery and food shops.

My favourite area to shop was the northern part of Mitte and southern part of Prenzlauer Berg, where there were lots of independent stores, including plenty of design and lifestyle shops, and fashion boutiques. My favourites included: Amazing Crocodile Design Store (design concept store; pictured below); Atheist Shoes (handmade shoes); Blumenfisch (unique, Berlin-themed souvenirs); Broke + Schön (fashion); Fundamental Berlin (furniture and homewares); Motel a Miio (gorgeous ceramics; pictured below); S.Wert (stylish Berlin-themed gifts); Schee (homewares); and Spreeheidi (clothes and homewares).

Bergmannkiez, as I mentioned above, is also a good place to shop. There's a branch of Picknweight, a pay-by-the-kilo vintage store, and a nice gift / homewares store called Herrlich ('gloriously').

Further west, the historic Kaufhaus des Westens department store (AKA KaDeWe) reminded me a lot of Selfridges and had a similarly good food hall. A few minutes' walk away is a newer development: Bikini Berlin. The complex of pop-up shops and eateries is a bit like Shoreditch's Boxpark, but with a view from the rooftop of excited young primates strutting their stuff in Berlin Zoo.

I stayed at the Hotel Indigo Alexanderplatz, a small boutique hotel a short walk from Alexanderplatz. My room was on the small side but comfortable, stylish and quiet and the hotel staff very friendly and helpful. Although Alexanderplatz is very commercialised, I was ten minutes' walk from several excellent speciality coffee shops, and the area is very well connected with several bus, tram and U-Bahn lines, which makes it easy to zip across the city. Last time, I stayed at Fjord Hotel, which is sort of near Potsdamerplatz. The hotel itself was fine but I made the mistake of assuming that because it was in the middle of lots of interesting neighbourhoods it would be a good place to stay; instead, it was mainly residential and very quiet.

Arriving and getting around
From Tegel airport, you can take the frequent TXL bus to Alexanderplatz, which takes about 40 minutes. On my previous trip, I took the 109 bus and then transferred to the U-Bahn to get to the area just south of the Tiergarten where I was staying. In both cases, you can buy a single AB zone ticket (€2.80), which lasts two hours and includes transfers onto all public transport types. You can pay with a credit card at the machines at the airport; just don't forget to validate your ticket before boarding (on my way back to the airport, I witnessed a rather unpleasant encounter between a ticket inspector and a ticketless passenger — there is a hefty fine even if you have a ticket but forget to validate it). I bought one-day tickets (€7) on Saturday and Sunday, which are worth it if you make more than two journeys per day. I walked a lot (about 15 miles per day!), but Berlin is a big city and so I took the U-Bahn several times each day.

I speak a little German and understand a bit more, but many Berliners, especially those in the tourism and hospitality industries, speak excellent English.

Germany's currency is the Euro and although credit cards and contactless are becoming more common, especially in the hipper establishments, cash is still king. I was able to pay by card in most places but was glad I had cash with me for smaller shops and casual eateries.

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