What To Do During A First Weekend In Berlin
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What would I consider the perfect weekend trip to Berlin for a rookie visitor? If it were my first foray into the German capital I'd want it to be an adventure that packs as many of the most iconic highlights as can fit into 48-hours, even if that means getting stuck into the more touristy activities. I don't mean this in a bad sense, we all need to be there and do it to get the t-shirt, and Berlin is certainly no exception.
What I must give the city credit for, however, is that even those attractions which might be considered 'touristy' have a very fresh and authentic air about them. For example, I personally wouldn't bracket the Brandenburg Gate with the Arc de Triomphe, or Charlottenburg Palace with Buckingham Palace. At least not in terms of fame.
I'd put it down to their individual iconicity, as well as the fact that Berlin only fully opened up to the world after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A particular section of which, funnily enough, was my first highly recommended suggestion. I didn't just do my own research, various travel bloggers and helpful locals whom I follow on Twitter also chipped-in a few brilliant ideas. Throw them all together and the result is a two-day itinerary that I would recommend to almost anyone.
What To Do In Berlin | Day-1:
For those who're unfamiliar with Berlin my first recommendation would be to book the City Bus Tour. This particular service has two main city centre routes, one on either side of the River Spree. The red-coded 'Classic Tour' mainly visits landmarks that represent the capital's political heart, such as the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. The buses on this route can also drop you off in the middle of Großer Tiergarten and show you Checkpoint Charlie. The northern 'Wall & Lifestyle Tour' is a journey through Germany's recent history. Its popular stops include the famous East Side Gallery, the Berliner Unterwelten and Mauerpark. Consider booking yourself a ticket and make your first-day transport a breeze.
1) After grabbing breakfast on your first day catch one of the Wall & Lifestyle tour buses (departures begin at 10:00) and head towards stop 6. The Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauerstrasse was suggested by travel writer Ali Garland (@AliAdventures7), an American expatriate currently living in Berlin. This poignant homage to the capital's recent history was revamped during last year's 25th anniversary celebrations, which in case you're unaware marked a quarter century since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
It's now been arranged into a fascinating open-air exhibition that stretches from the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Visitor Centre along the intersection between Gartenstraße and Bernauerstrasse), to the lower end of Mauerpark. Start yourself off at the Visitor Centre, where you can view a short introductory film on the history of the wall, then continue onto the new Dokumentationszentrum (Documentation Center). Here you'll be able to enjoy a fascinating exhibition entitled: "1961 | 1989. The Berlin Wall". As you stroll between the Visitor and Documentation Centre you'll see on the opposite side of the street a fantastically well preserved portion of the original wall itself. This area of the memorial is termed as the 'Death Strip', a monument intended to serve as a permanent reminder of the harrowing oppression that Berlin faced barely 3 decades ago.
Leading on from the Death Strip the memorial is split into three more sections. Area B, 'The Destruction of the City', relates the social cost of the wall and stories from people who made attempts to escape East Berlin. It's also where you'll find the Kapelle der Versöhnung (Chapel of Reconciliation), a symbolic structure that stood deserted between the no man's land for decades. Area C, 'Building The Wall', delves into two themes. On one hand it charts the wall's physical construction, but then also the ensuing surveillance of citizens in the border area and the people who carried it out. Area D, 'Everyday Life at the Wall', tells individual human stories whilst also providing insights into the politics and propaganda of both East and West Berlin.
Check out this link to the Berlin Wall Memorial site to learn more about everything there is to see at Bernauerstrasse. Once you're satisfied with your exploration of the memorial grounds either take a walk through Mauerpark, or catch the next tour bus and move onto the next location.
2) Stay on the tour bus until you arrive at stop 11, the East-Side Gallery. This iconic landmark was suggested by German travel blogger Clemens Sehi via Twitter (@anekdotique). Think of it as a free-to-access, 1.3 km long art gallery, one that you won't be chastised for bringing the camera along to. While stop 10 is the official hop-off point I'd recommend getting off at no. 11 next to Stralauer Platz, as it's from this point that you can walk the full length of the gallery. Keep an eye out for the famous "Fraternal Kiss", and the Trabant Car smashing through from East Berlin.
3) However long you choose to spend exploring the first two attractions it'll probably be around mid-day by the time you're done at the East Side Gallery. For lunch I'd recommend pitching up at the Café-Bar Datscha (Gabriel-Max-Straße 1, 10245 Berlin). This eatery specialises in traditional Russian cuisine and its lunch menu integrates a huge selection of seasonal ingredients. In a way, Datscha's flavours offer the perfect cultural contrast between what was once the East/West German border, and its interior décor sports all the quirkiness you'd expect from such an establishment. Follow this link to their own site and take a look for yourself.
4) After lunch jump on the next tour bus at stop 9, 10 or 11 (they're all about the same distance from Datscha's) and head over to stop 1 (Rotes Rathaus). Here I'd recommend snapping a few pictures of Berlin's stunning red-brick town hall and the nearby Neptunbrunnen (Neptune Fountain). After having a wander of the area cross over onto the Museumsinsel, Berlin's famous Museum Island in the middle of the River Spree.
The amount of time you spend discovering the island's incredible institutions is entirely up to you, but I'd say it's a place that you could easily spend two days or more exploring. You've got the Altes Museum (centred around the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome), the Neues Museum (focused on Ancient Egyptian art and prehistoric cultures), the Bode-Museum (Byzantine Art), the Alte Nationalgalerie, and my personal favourite, the Pergamon Museum. The Pergamon houses one of the world's largest collections of ancient Middle Eastern and Islamic Art. You'll see a gigantic recreation of Babylon's Ishtar Gate, the equally large Pergamon Altar, and thousands of original works by various Islamic cultures.
5) For dinner I'd take a leaf from the book of travel blogger Sophie (@SophieR). She got in touch via Twitter and suggested one of the restaurants at the 5-star Hotel Adlon Kempinski. Situated next to the Brandenburg Gate and with a lavish, classical interior it looks the perfect place to spend an indulgent evening right in the heart of the capital. Excluding the Lobby Lounge Bar there's three restaurants in total: the Sra Bua by Tim Raue, the Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer and the Restaurant Quarré. If you're up for spending a fair bit on fine dining then click here and have a look through their menus.
6) It's difficult to provide post-dinner/nightlife recommendations, but various locals on Twitter did suggest checking out one of Berlin's popular techno clubs. I was told about a specific venue, Club Watergate, by travel blogger Drew (@Drewbinsky7). Having read the reviews myself it seems a good one to try, if slightly difficult to get into due to a rather arbitrary set of admission rules. They don't seem to like formal ware, so say you did dine at the Hotel Adlon beforehand, I'd seek out somewhere else or change into something more casual. Here's a list of recommendations from a local travel professional that I'd trust- Travels of Adam.
What To Do In Berlin | Day-2:
1) Not too hungover come the following Sunday? Put a dagger in that early morning queeziness by digging into a traditional German breakfast at the Café Einstein Stammhaus (Kurfürstenstraße 58, 10785 Berlin). I chose this place for two reasons. The first and most obvious one has to do with the café itself. The building is delightfully rustic, choked full of history (supposedly once linked to Joseph Goebbels and the SS), and has great reviews as well as fair prices. Click this link to learn more about the venue and its intriguing story. The second reason I chose Café Einstein was its proximity to my second recommendation.
2) A Third Reich Tour with 'Insider Tour Berlin' was suggested to me by travel writer and all-round adventure seeker Amanda Williams via Twitter (@DangerousBiz). There's a few things I love about this one: first is the price, the tour lasts four hours and adult admission is only 12.00 Euros; second is its professionalism, their guides have advised National Geographic; and third is its booking policy, there is none!
Once you leave Café Einstein walk west down Kurfürstenstrasse and Budapester Strasse until you reach the McDonalds opposite the main entrance to the Zoologischer Garten Train Station. At 10:00 on Sundays you simply have to show up with a handful of cash and an awaiting guide will take you on a journey back to the final years of World War 2. Visit the bombed-out ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, see T-34 Tanks and artillery pieces at the Soviet Memorial, and stand at the spot outside the Führer Bunker were Hitler's remains were burned. Find out more by following this link to their own page.
3) Chances are that by the end of your Insider Berlin Tour you'll have worked off that hearty breakfast from Café Einstein. As I'm not sure whereabouts the Third Reich Tour ends my recommendation for lunch would simply be anything that's good and near. Alternatively, I'd be tempted to try out this place that was featured on Spotted By Locals: Balkçi Ergun (Lüneburger Straße 382, 10557 Berlin). It's a well reviewed Turkish fish restaurant tucked away beneath an S-Bahn bridge. If you happen to be sightseeing anywhere near the Victory Column then reaching it is a simple matter of crossing the Luther Bridge.
4) After lunch I'd dedicate some time in the afternoon to souvenir shopping. While there does likely exist a vast section of smaller trinket shops I'd save myself the wrangling over prices and quality and just head to the Kaufhaus des Westens, Europe's largest department store. Not only will you find a larger variety of goods on offer but your shopping trip will also double up as a fun sightseeing venture. For souvenirs you'll want to browse KaDeWe's 5th floor, and if you have enough cash and feel like treating yourself then you can find high-class accessories on the ground floor's 'Luxury Boulevard'.
5) How you choose to spend the remainder of your first Sunday in Berlin is a real matter of preference. I'd be tempted to have a look around the Deutsches Technikmuseum, just to get a better feel for the wonder of German engineering. It's open till 18:00 on Sunday's but if time's still short then you can always put it ahead of a visit to the KaDeWe. See the museum's permanent exhibitions here.
6) In contrast to the Saturday night I'd wind down on the Sunday evening with a visit to one of Berlin's atmospheric beer gardens. The one I'd recommend would be Schleusenkrug, a green and relaxing place located on the western end of Tiergarten Park. Here you can enjoy a fine Bavarian brew next to the Landwehr Canal and its surround canopy of trees. Another thing I like about this place is that during the Spring and Summer months there's no rush to drink up after sunset, with the bar being open until 23:00.