We have read so much about Berlin, saying what an amazing city it was. It certainly didn’t disappoint. In fact, probably the opposite – Berlin over-delivered.
Berlin feels like a teenager compared to the rest of Germany, perhaps the black sheep of the family too. A talented, beautiful individual still maturing – slightly awkward, but all embracing. Where the rest of Germany feels controlled, organised and regimented, Berlin is uninhibited, non-conformist and free.
The mix of people that live in this city is quite amazing, a large amount seem to be arty types. We even met an opera singer! Perhaps it’s the ‘vibe’ of the city, or perhaps its because it is really cheap to live there – not entirely sure – probably a bit of both.
We loved cycling through Berlin, especially the Tiergarten – a very large park to the south of the city centre, we had excellent weather while we were there and the buds on the trees were bursting into bloom, Spring was finally here! Our friend Nicci, from South Africa, had been shooting a TV commercial for a Polish beer in Gdansk – so she met us in Poznan en-route to Berlin, where we spent the next three days exploring the city together.
Berlin has a huge cycling culture and well-developed cycling infrastructure. It’s very flat and has super wide streets or cycle paths. Drivers are accustomed to cyclists, are respectful and leave plenty of space. Cyclists are also allowed to ride in the parks and take bikes on the public transport system with the purchase of a bike ticket. Bikes are everywhere, chained to every available pole and railing. Wikipedia estimates that there are 710 bikes for every 1000 people. Visit Berlin puts the number of daily cyclists at 500 000, accounting for 15% of total traffic.
We also used the public transport system a lot and it is amazing. S-Bahns, U-Bahns, busses, trams… Integrated ticketing. Ahhh, Sydney – when will you learn?
We used Airbnb again to find accommodation in Berlin. While Nicci was with us, we rented an apartment in the Moabit area (a little out of the main hub, but more bang for your buck), and after that we rented a room in Neuköln from Oliver and Roanne, a lovely expat British couple (he is a playwright and she is writing a novel – more arty types!). We had a fantastic meal one night with them and a couple of their friends. As an example of the cycling culture, both of their friends came to dinner by bike!
A favourite area was Prenzlauer Berg, where there are cool cafés on most streets and the atmosphere is cheerful and welcoming – the nearby Mauer Park markets were a spectacular event with live music, delicious food and a bit of anything and everything you can imagine for sale (including stolen bike parts!). The crowds at the markets were quite phenomenal, when we went the weather was good and it felt like everyone had crawled out of hibernation to thaw. We ate our first official bratwurst there, utterly delicious, having since tried the curry-wurst, which Berlin is renowned for, I would definitely recommend sticking with the bratwurst!
The suburb of Mitte, for the most part felt a little touristy, perhaps a little too ‘clean’ compared to the rest of Berlin, however some of its streets were simply beautiful with cutting-edge boutiques and irresistable cafés. Other suburbs, such as Kreuzberg and Neuköln were more eclectic, with grungy cafés, street markets and slightly more subversive feel.
The streets are filled with music in this city, buskers are on the trains, in the markets and in the town squares. While we didn’t partake in the late night music scene, it was clear the city thrives on it – with Berlin DJs given celebrity status. In Mitte, we visited the famous Clärchens Ballhaus, a retro dancehall with a delightful outdoor dining setting. Most nights there are different dance themes – Wednesday being Swing night, which seems very popular in Berlin!
The wall still remains in the Berlin consciousness, although mostly now just in fragmented memories (and memorials). There are a number of places where it still stands, including the famous Bernauer Strasse area where a memorial park has been created – there you can remember those that escaped and those that weren’t quite so lucky. It’s quite an experience to stand in the green grassy park and imagine what it was like as a desolate dusty ‘deathstrip’, watched over by barbed wire and watchtowers. The East Side Gallery showcases a large part of the wall, and was painted in 1990 by 105 artists from all over the world – definitely worth a visit.
Overall, Berlin feels vibrant and energetic – everywhere, people of all ages share parks, canals and riverbanks… to socialise, to play, to sleep, to cycle, to eat and drink and simply enjoy life. Berlin is a city that people truly ‘live’ in.
Time in Berlin: 8 nights
Best things about Berlin:
- The friendliness of the people.
- Food and accommodation are very affordable.
- The transport network is fantastic – you can get everywhere you need to by train or tram in a short space of time.
- It is very cycle friendly (and flat!).
- Berlin is the most multicultural city in Germany, with long-term inhabitants from over 180 countries. Out of 3.5 million residents, almost 500,000 are foreigners.
- Berlin has more than 1500 bridges, way more than Venice.
- Around one third of Berlin is green-space.
- Berlin is 9 times larger than Paris.
- Berlin Hauptbahnhof is the largest train station in Europe.
- Hundreds of bunkers and tunnels built by the Nazis still lie beneath Berlin, although most are inaccessible due to flooding and erosion.
- If you are looking to hire bikes, shop around for prices – we found that places a little out of the main tourist areas are a little cheaper.
- Bicycles abound in this city and cyclists are respected, we cycled a lot over the course of a few days and found it extremely easy to navigate. Bikes can be taken on public transport however you need to buy a separate ticket, but it is wise to try and avoid peak times as manhandling a bike within a busy carriage can be quite a task.
- If you are travelling in a group, you can buy a daily transport ticket for up to 5 people for just €15.50.
- If you wish to travel by train outside of Berlin, train prices are cheaper if you book them more than 3 days prior to departure.
- Remember to validate your ticket when travelling on the rail network – undercover officers patrol consistently.
- Carry cash with you, a lot of places do not accept credit cards.
- All shops (except restaurants and cafés) close on Sundays.