3 Days in Berlin
Last week Mike and I returned from an amazing 2 1/2 week trip to Germany. Mike studied and worked in northern Germany for several months in college but this was my first time in the land of beer, pretzels, and wurst. Although we did have a LOT of all three of those things during our trip, there is much more to Germany than its stereotypes and we were lucky enough to have the time to explore much of the beauty this country has to offer.
We started our trip with 3 days in Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city. Berlin’s mantra of “poor, but sexy” has attracted many artists, writers, musicians, and the like in recent years and you can definitely feel the creative spirit running through the city. Berlin is frequently ranked as one of the top 3 gay-friendly cities in the world, a title I wasn’t aware of before visiting but was very happily surprised to see. The city is also steeped in history; from the dark history surrounding Germany’s part in World War II to the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, there is much and more to take in. We knew that with only 3 days in Berlin we were going to have to hit the ground running…
We arrived in Berlin at 7am on a Saturday morning, quickly settled into our Airbnb apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood (fantastic spot!), and headed to Alexanderplatz for the All-In-One City Bike Tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours. We figured this would be a great way to get acquainted with the city and see some of the main highlights right off the bat, and we were 100% right. Berlin is a super bike-friendly city so this tour really was the easiest way to see a ton of stuff in a short amount of time.
With our tour guide and group of about 10, we set out from Alexanderplatz and hit some of the major sights including Bebelplatz, the site of the Nazi book-burning in 1933; Gendarmenmarkt, the site of the French and German Cathedrals; Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War; the Topography of Terrors, the site where the Nazi Gestapo and SS headquarters once stood; the Berlin Wall, one of the small sections still standing; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial); the Reichstag, home to Germany’s parliament (the Bundestag); and Brandenburger Tor, the gate that is a well-known Berlin landmark. Much of Berlin was destroyed during World War II, so you don’t see as many beautiful old buildings as you might in other European cities. This makes Berlin a little less quintessentially “pretty”, but still distinctive. Because Berlin was under Soviet rule for 44 years after World War II, Communist or Stalinist architecture can be seen in many buildings and monuments in what once was East Germany. Like I said – not the prettiest, but interesting nonetheless.
In the middle of our tour we spent some time riding through the Tiergarten, a large, beautiful park in the center of the city. If we had more time in Berlin this would have been a great place to return to, likely with a picnic basket and a bottle of wine. You could spend hours exploring and relaxing in this park, I highly recommend checking it out.
For lunch we stopped at Schleusenkrug, a (cash only) beer garden in the Tiergarten. I was a little worried that because of its location it might be a bit on the low-quality, touristy side, but it was actually really good. We got our first taste of German beer and pretzels (don’t miss the 2 types of mustard they have in pumps off to the side), had our first of many sausages, and had a sampling of more German cuisine. We ordered some kind of ground meat that was stuffed with bacon, gherkins, and mustard, and served with red cabbage and potatoes. I know it sounds
really, super, incredibly kind of weird but it was SO GOOD. This was definitely a fun stop and the liter of beer we each downed also made the rest of the ride that much more interesting. I highly recommend a Fat Tire Bike Tour if you’re in Berlin, they offer several different tours so you can choose one based on your interests. We found it to be a very fun, informative, and active way to see the city.
After our bike tour we headed back to our apartment to recharge. Berlin’s public transportation system is fantastic and was our exclusive mode of transport while in Berlin. Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood where we stayed, is just north of the city center and fit us perfectly. It is a family-friendly neighborhood that is still central but a bit quieter and less touristy than Mitte, and it has tons of great options for cafés, bars, restaurants, and nightlife. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend, we found a great beer garden called Prater Garten just a short walk away from our apartment that we visited twice during our stay. I tried an interesting variation of German beer here – Berliner Kindl Weisse grün (grün is German for green). Berliner Weisse is a low-alcohol wheat beer that they add syrup to, either raspberry or a German herb called woodruff. It tasted a bit like sour apple, Mike wasn’t a fan but I kind of liked it!
Later that night Mike was fighting a bit of jet lag so I headed out by myself to return to the Reichstag building and check out the dome. Visiting the dome is completely free of charge and something I highly recommend. You don’t necessarily have to book in advance but doing so will help you skip major lines and the possibility that you might not be able to get in during your stay, especially if you’re only in Berlin for a short period of time.
You have a few options when booking a visit to the Reichstag: 1) Lectures in the visitors’ gallery overlooking the plenary chamber followed by a visit to the dome, 2) Guided tours followed by a visit to the dome, or 3) Visit to the dome. Mike and I did #2 and #3 on separate days. I really wanted to see the dome during the day and at night, but I wasn’t able to book a guided tour around dusk that would have covered both bases. I booked the tours over 2 months in advance, which tells you it can be difficult to get in. Option #3, just a visit to the dome, was much easier to book and had many more openings compared to the guided tour, so if you just want to visit the dome on your own you probably don’t need to plan as far in advance.
So…on our first night, Saturday, I visited the dome at 8:30pm. The views from the terrace at the base of the dome were great and I loved seeing the city lit up at night. Once you get off the elevator at the base of the dome you can pick up a free audio guide that plays information on the Reichstag, the German Bundestag, and Berlin as you wind up the dome. Mike and I returned together the following day for the guided tour at 3:30pm. The guided tour lasted about 90 minutes and we definitely learned more about the German parliament and the rest of the Reichstag building and we also were able to go into the visitor’s area of the plenary chamber. This was cool, but about 45 minutes in I was a bit bored. If I had to do it all over I would probably just go to the dome at night with the audio guide. As someone who is not all that interested in the German parliament, this would have been sufficient for me, and the dome was more crowded in the afternoon than at night. To each their own, but definitely worth a visit in Berlin!
Over the next two days we went back for a more in-depth visit at several of the stops we made on our bike tour and tried to soak in as much of Berlin as we possibly could. We went back to the Brandenburger Tor and visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum and the Topography of Terrors. We tried some of Berlin’s popular street food (more on that to come), had a fantastic dinner at Caffé Bocconi, visited the impressive KaDeWa department store (a visit to the 6th floor Gourmet section is a must!), and spent the rest of the time just wandering the streets, finding other neat spots in Prenzlauer Berg like Beakers for a nightcap, Hokey Pokey for ice cream, and Pizzeria Aviano for sidewalk sitting and pizza eating. Our time in Berlin flew by, and there was definitely more to see had we of stayed longer, but 3 days gave us just the taste we were looking for and we enjoyed every second of it.