Berlin is one of those cities where to find the real gems you need to be with someone who either speaks German or lives in the city to show you the cool places. I am neither, but I did live there for just under 3 months, so I managed to get a pretty good idea of some of the cooler things to do in the city. I figured I’d document them for future travelers. You can thank me later.
Day 1 is your chance to get all of the super-touristic things out of the way, so you can spend the rest of your time experiencing the real Berlin. The city has had a turbulent but extremely interesting history, and a lot of that is showcased in the numerous monuments, museums and grandiose buildings dotted mostly around Mitte. So many tourists think this is all there is to Berlin – but it’s so much more. Believe it or not, the best way to see the sights is not on one of those prison tourist buses, but on one of the fantastic (and free!) new Berlin walking tours. I’ve done plenty of these around Europe now, and Berlin is by far the most fascinating. It takes almost 4 hours (!), but you cover pretty much all of the major sights, with excellent commentary from the guides. I don’t work for them, I swear.
If you still have any semblance of energy after the tour, take an S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Warschauer Straße to see the East Side Gallery. It’s the longest remaining stretch of the wall, and after the wall fell artists from all around the world were commissioned to paint on the eastern side of the wall (the communist side). Some of it’s a little cheesy, but there are some excellent artworks there (including the famous one of Russian president Leonid Breshnev kissing Eric Honecker, the East German Central Committee secretary for security matters).
Alternatively, if you’ve had your fill of walking or the weather’s not so great, there are plenty of museums worth checking out. Up until a few years ago most museums were free, but then Berlin realised that they were broke and Tourism was one of the few industries left, so now you’ll have to fork out – but usually it’s worth it. Museum Island in Mitte has the lion’s share of museums, including the Altesmuseum and the Neuemuseum (old and new, respectively)…but there are some other great ones dotted around the city as well. Underneath the Holocaust Memorial is the Holocaust Information Center, which is free and a must-do if you’re interested in that side of European history. It’s pretty haunting though, so grab an ice cream or something on the way out to brighten your spirits. While we’re on the topic, the Topography of Terror is another good (free) museum all about the Gestapo and the Secret Police during Nazi reign. Again, you don’t exactly come out of that one all smiles, but fascinating nonetheless. Then there’s the Jewish History museum, which covers pretty much everyone about Jewish history, ever – we expected to take an hour or two for this, but ended up spending almost a whole day here, so plan accordingly.
Now that you’ve done most of the ‘checklist’ tourist attractions, it’s time to explore the real Berlin. If you’re feeling fit, hire a bike from one of the countless bike rentals scattered around the place. Otherwise, spend a morning in Kreuzberg exploring the street art, abandoned buildings, squats and more kebabs than you can poke a stick at. If the weather’s nice make it mitnehmen (takeaway), and sit in Görlitzer Park and people watch ’til you’re heart’s content. Just down the road near Schlesiches Tor is Passenger Cafe, Berlin’s best coffee – funnily enough run by Australians. If you haven’t had your fill of tours just yet, Alternative Berlin offer a free walking tour taking you to all of the more alternative parts of the city. It’s also free (well, tip-based) and well worth doing if you don’t have much time. But some of the best parts of Berlin are the things you stumble across by accident – the little art gallery behind a Spätkauf or a crazy turkish market (near Kottbusser Tor for those playing at home).
Then take an U-Bahn to Mehringdamm and explore a different part of Kreuzberg. This area’s much more upmarket (and trendy to boot), but is filled with excellent little vintage and second hand shops. While you’re here, you absolutely must try a kebab from Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebaps, a little kiost just above Mehringdamm station that makes hands down the best kebabs you will ever eat in your life. A big call, perhaps, but I’ve had my fair share now and never have tasted one as delicious. Don’t let the long line deter you either – people are waiting for a reason.
Jump on the U-Bahn again to Potsdamer Platz, something you’ll inevitably hear about a lot but is worth missing (unless you want to check your facebook on the free wi-fi). Bypass the tourist trap (complete with Australian restaurant) and head straight to the Tiergarten, the biggest park in Berlin. About 35% of the city is parkland, and Berliners use almost every square metre of it. Do as the locals do and spend an afternoon grilling. Don’t fear if you don’t have the equipment either – you can buy disposable grills from most supermarkets. It’s that popular. Other great locations for a chilled afternoon is Treptower Park by the Spree, or anywhere along the banks of the Landswer Canal in Kreuzberg. Don’t forget to bypass a Spätkauf (convenience store) and stock up on 70c beers on your way.
If it’s any time between Wednesday and Saturday, when 6pm rolls around head to the Treptower Park S-Bahn station, turn right out of the station and walk across the bridge (admiring the molecule men watching over the city as you go), and take the first right after the bridge. On the left is a small nondescript bar that could be just about any bar in the world, except for one small factor – out the back is a crazy soviet-era labyrinth that will be just about the strangest thing you will ever do. Go up to the guy sitting at the counter on a laptop (he looks just like any other customer), pay €10 and he will lead you out the back, where you have to insert an oversized gold coin into a slot in the wall. It’ll then open up and you’ll spend the next half an hour or so exploring rooms filled with old car parts, crawling through oversized vaginas, sliding down slides and just generally being awed by the sheer craziness of it all. A couple of tips: don’t do it on drugs, and don’t leave when you see the exit – there’ll inevitably be plenty more of it to explore.
Depending on how long you’re in Berlin for, you may want to make a short trip to one of the surrounding towns of Berlin; particularly Potsdam or Oranienburg, home of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Sachsenhausen was the first concentration camp to open under Hitler’s command, and was used as a model for all other camps around Europe. If you’re not making it out to Auschwitz, this is a must. It takes most of the day (and even if it doesn’t you’ll probably need the rest of it to recover from the shock of it all), but it is definitely worth the trip. You can explore it by yourself for free, or numerous companies run tours for around €10. For a more relaxing day, head out to Potsdam and check out one of the most incredible palace and gardens you will ever see. Pack a picnic and stop by Wansee, Berlin’s biggest lake for a swim (clothing optional).
On the way back, check out Tempelhof, which up until 2008 was Berlin’s oldest running airport, but has since been decommissioned and turned into a public park. In true Berlin style most of the original fittings have been left to their own devices, so you can walk down the actual runway, check out some old planes and have a look at the hanger – one of the largest buildings on the planet (and now houses a museum).
Here’s where the fun really begins. One of my favourite things about Berlin is its abandoned buildings. They’re everywhere – from offices, hospitals, apartments, Iraqi embassies – and of most interest, amusement parks and spy towers. Most of the abandoned buildings stem from after the war, when the city was left in ruins; and as Berlin is in billions of dollars in debt (their official slogan is ‘We’re poor, but sexy!’) most have never been rebuilt or inhabited. If you’ve got the time and feel the need for a bit of adrenalin, spend the day exploring one of Berlin’s hidden wonders.
First off there’s Spree Park. Part of the former GDR, Spree Park was East Berlin’s only permanent theme park, complete with rollercoaster, ferris wheel, mini-car rides and other stock standard amusement park rides. However, after the fall of the wall the owner was caught smuggling copious amounts of drugs from South America by hiding them in the new merry-go-round rides he was importing. He was thrown in jail, and ever since the park has been left to rot. To get in, take a S-Bahn to Treptower Park and walk south along the Spree (you can’t miss the Ferris Wheel). My advice would be to take a bit of a reconnaissance mission around the perimeter – sometimes it’s guarded (but it’s big enough to go unnoticed, and really where would the fun be if it wasn’t?). When I was there there was a big hole in the north-west side of the fence, but they seem to be patched up pretty quickly so you may need to find another one. Once inside stay away from the fence, keep quiet and explore until your hearts content. You can even still sit in the tea-cup ride and pretend you’re on one of the creepiest rollercoaster rides ever.
On the otherside of the city, slightly easier to get in but just as interesting, lies the Teufelsberg Spy Tower. Literally meaning ‘Devil’s Mountain’, Teufelsberg is the highest point in Berlin – although it wasn’t always that way. It’s actually a man-made mountain, constructed from thousands and thousands of tonnes of rubble left over from the war. Fittingly, they decided to create the mountain on top of a Nazi training camp – why knock something over it when you can bury it in 300m of rubble? Anyway, during the cold war it was part of the American sector of West Berlin, and in true US style they built a spy station on the top to listen in on the happenings of East Berlin. Of course after the wall fell it was rendered useless, and has sat empty ever since. If you catch an S7 out to Grunewald, it’s a leisurely half-hour stroll to the top. We were super-cautious and went around the back way, only to find out you could waltz on to the main entrance and slip through the gaps in the bars in the gate – super easy. Make sure you make it all the way to the top of the tower – the acoustics in the old listening dome are the most incredible I’ve ever seen. The view of Berlin is pretty wonderful as well.
Keep in mind though that as always, trespassing is illegal and there’s always the risk of being caught. Being a tourist certainly helps though, and at most all you should receive is a little bit of a slap on the wrist and a kick on the ass to hightail it out of there.
There’s also a few things to do on specific days, so depending on when you’re in Berlin you may want to check these out. If you’re around on a Sunday, Mauerpark is an absolute must. It’s a massive flea market filled with clothing, food, bikes and some of the most incredible trinkets left over from the GDR. Come for the markets, but stay for the karaoke. From about 2pm in the open space next to the market, some budding entrepreneur has set up an outdoor karaoke system in a natural amphitheatre. Spend the afternoon with a few beers watching fearless locals and tourists belt out tunes to 2000 of their closest friends. Easily one of the best Berlin experiences.
If you’re in Berlin on a Tuesday, be sure to head back to Görlitzer Park in the evening to play some flourescent mini-golf and check out some excellent jazz in Eidelweiss, one of the old warehouses-turned-bars in the centre of the park. Jazz starts from 10pm, head around the back of the bar and knock on the door for the bouncer to let you in. Get early to grab a seat (it gets very crowded) but if you can handle the smokiness of it all make sure you stay until after midnight – when they open it to the floor and things really start to kick off.
No matter what night of the week you’re in Berlin, there will be something happening at night. The city’s known as the clubbing capital of the world, and for good reason. Things kick off late (and I mean usually around 2-3am), and keep on well into the next afternoon. Here’s a selection of some of the best:
Berghain: This is the club in Berlin. Touted as the best club in the world, it’s certainly an experience. Hard-core techno mixed with boys dressed in leather doing things in darkrooms you would never want to see, plus some of the world’s best DJs equals a night you’ll probably never forget (depending on the strength of your chosen poison, of course). There’s strictly no photos though – partly because it’s a regular haunt of Berlin’s (openly gay) mayor, and he really doesn’t want any compromising photos. Beware though: At peak times you may be waiting for an hour minimum, and sometimes up to 3 hours. And that doesn’t even guarantee you entry – the bouncers are notorious for turning just as many people away as they let in for no reason at all – just because they think you won’t fit the ‘feel’ of the club on that particular night. Go with someone who speaks German, it’ll probably help. S-Bahn Ostbahnhof.
Watergate: Smaller version of Berghain, less gay but more upmarket – amazing views over the Spree. Expect waits here as well. U-Bahn Schlesiches Tor.
Kleine Reise: Literally meaning ‘little holiday’ this club is not your typical Irish joint. Less wooden panelled walls and Guiness and more techno and Club Mate. Fun though. U-Bahn Görlitzer Bahnhof.
Cassiopia area: Probably my favourite area in Berlin, this old bombed out train depot houses a number of clubs, from the techno orientated RAW and Suicide Circus, to Cassiopia itself – a jamaican hip-hop club. Very fun, but be prepared to get high purely off the second hand smoke. U/S-Bahn Warschauer Str.
Ping Pong Bar: Berliners love their ping pong. So much so they made a bar that revolves around it. This tiny place is easy to miss, but worth the search – a ping pong table is the main attraction, and you can rent a bat and participate in the around the world tournament they have every night. Beware though – the locals take it very seriously. U-Bahn Eberswalder Str.
Club D’Visionaire: This relaxed open air bar sits on the corner of the Landswer Canal and the Spree, has great music and plenty of places to sit and admire the view.
Oranienstr., Kreuzberg: This is the main nightlife street in Kreuzberg. There aren’t as as many clubs as such here, but plenty of cool little bars. In particular check out Luiza. U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor.
Yaam: An awesome little Jamaican beach bar on the side of the spree, right next to the east side gallery. Grab a beer in the late afternoon for an awesome view of the Berlin sunset. U-Bahn Ostbahnhof.
Festsaal: Cool little gay bar in Kreuzberg, often has live music. U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor.
Farbfernsehen: Just down the road from Festsaal, this tiny little place is ridiculously popular with the locals. U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor/Görlitzer Bahnhof.
Whether you’re in Berlin for 3 days or 3 months (or even 3 years), there is still so much more you’ll never get to see. The city itself is changing so rapidly that you could go back every two years and it would seem almost completely different. So my biggest advice: get there as soon as you possibly can, and take in this beautiful, ugly, disintegrating paradise for yourself.