Traveling to Berlin? Here's our Berlin brainstorming guide to give you some approaches and ideas to get started.
After spending three summers in a row in Berlin, we found ourselves moving there. Berlin draws us in, like the school kid who may not be the best looking in the class but has the magnetic personality that everyone wants to be around.
Berlin for us is a place of openness and open space, physical and mental. The history of the city is one of destruction and creation. From our first visit over 10 years ago, it has always felt like a place in flux, in full evolution, always trying to figure itself out, reinventing along the way. This is what leads to its entrepreneurial feel, its inimitable style.
Given our enthusiasm and the amount of time we have spent in Berlin these last years, we’re often asked to give advice on how we approach the city — what to do, see, eat and enjoy. I’ve given this advice often by email, so it’s about time to share it in one place.
- Berlin by Bike
- Berlin Neighborhoods
- Berlin Parks
- Random Berlin Activities
- Berlin Food and Restaurants
- Berlin Resources – how to find out what’s going on
- Recommended Tours in Berlin
- Moving to Berlin Resources
- Even more advice on Berlin's food, art, nightlife and culture scene
Visiting Berlin, a Brainstorming Guide
Berlin by Bike
Our number one suggestion to anyone coming to Berlin: rent a bike. Even if you’re not a big bicycle person and haven’t been on one for years, get over your fear. Hop on a bike to see the city. You can thank us later.
Berlin is perfect for cycling – the land is flat, bike lanes run throughout the city, and cars are respectful of cyclists (with perhaps the exception of taxis). And while we love Berlin’s fantastic public transportation system, exploring Berlin by bike is the best way to take in the different neighborhoods as you absorb the subtle changes between one area and the next. The whole Berlin-by-peddle-power experience is just plain fun.
Bike rentals in Berlin: Many guest houses and hotels rent bikes, as do many bike shops. The standard rate is about €10/day. If you rent one for several days, ask for a discount if one isn't already offered. Be sure to lock your bike everywhere you go as bike theft is unfortunately commonplace in Berlin.
When we think of Berlin, we think of its neighborhoods. From gallery-flush Mitte to hipster Kreuzkolln to the country feel of Spandau, you can feel like you’ve visited multiple German cities in just one day. Cafes, restaurants, shops, architecture, and people — it all changes rather noticeably from one place to the next.
A few Berlin neighborhoods to consider checking out:
In full disclosure, we’re rather biased to Kreuzberg as we've sublet a place here for two summers. Traditionally a Turkish neighborhood, Kreuzberg is full of great food, vegetable stalls, independently-run shops, street art and people. Over the years Kreuzberg has become more gentrified (Berliners will shout “understatement!”) but poke in and around Kottbusser Tor and you’ll still see a few lingering grungy roots.
Recommended: Turkish market at Maybachufer on Tuesdays and Fridays (12 – 6 PM). Piles of fresh (and often cheap) vegetables and fruit, plus Turkish delis serving up all kinds of spreads, olives and flat breads. The Maybachufer market also features a few takeaway food stands, street performers and even the odd haircut-on-the-street.
Once the historic center of old Berlin, Mitte was East Berlin central and home to the DDR's Checkpoint Charlie. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the area and vast swathes of nearby no-man's-land has turned into pockets of hip and creation. Although rents have increased, pushing some art studios further afield, Mitte remains home to many art galleries and few unpolished bits of the city's not-so-distant and divided past.
Recommended: Take a walk down Auguststrasse and Linienstrasse, dropping in on art galleries along the way. Most are free and you never know what you may find — even a human-sized pig on an exercise bicycle.
Now the Park Slope of Berlin, this neighborhood was transformed from ordinary eastern workaday neighborhood to hip yup enclave within a few years. No shortage of cafes, shops, vintage stores, and baby carriages.
Recommended: On Sundays, Mauerpark becomes packed with people for the weekly flea market. Whether you’re looking for clever t-shirts or grandma’s teacups, you’ll be able to find it all here. Be sure to stick around for afternoon karaoke in the park. Check here to be sure karaoke is happening that weekend and get your courage on to take the stage in front of hundreds of people.
All Neighborhoods: Stumbling Blocks and Street Art
As you walk around, keep your eye out for “stumbling blocks” (stolpersteine) on Berlin sidewalks. These small brass-covered blocks reflect the names of people (mostly Jewish) who used to live in that house prior to World War II and what happened to them (to which concentration camp they were sent, if they died or survived, etc.). For as small as these memorials are, they are exceptionally moving, particularly as you note that you'll find them all over the city.
Graffiti and Street Art
Berlin's graffiti and street art will greet you almost everywhere you go in the city. Be sure to look up to catch murals on the sides of buildings – they're easy to miss. Sometimes they're political, sometimes they're funny, sometimes they just are. But they almost always make you think.
Just open a map of Berlin (you know, the old fashioned paper kind) and take a look at the amount of green staring back at you. Berlin is among the world's greenest urban spaces. When the weather is good (a rarity some years) in the spring, summer and fall, parks are full of people picnicking, hanging with family, cooking, drinking, and just enjoying the space. Urban parks, happy places, happy spaces.
A few Berlin parks to recommend:
If the name Tempelhof sounds familiar from your history classes of years past, it’s because it was the airport instrumental to the Berlin Airlift (June 1948-May 1949), when American and British forces delivered food, fuel and other supplies to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade.
Today, this bit of history is a park open to the public and offers the possibility of riding your bicycle down one of the airport runways, as free as a bird, hoping that you just might take off. Now where else can you do that?
Tiergarten, Berlin's largest and most famous park smack in the middle of the city, seems to stretch forever, scattered with little paths, teahouses, and gardens. It used to be the dividing point between East and West, with Brandenburg Gate marking the East and the iconic Siegessäule monument the West. The whole thing is made for a bicycle.
Soviet War Memorial: The memorial to Soviet soldiers between Brandenburg Gate and Siegessäule is worth visiting not only for the sculpture (especially when you think that this was in West Berlin), but also for the large-format black and white photos of the city contrasting what it looked like before and after World War II.
Teehaus Tiergarten: Located on the northern edge of the park, the Teehaus Tiergarten offers a nice little place to rest your legs, get lunch or have a beer. On summer weekends, it offers free music concerts featuring jazz, world music, pop and more.
Treptower Park took us some time to discover, but now that we have, it's one of our favorite parks, particularly on the weekend along the Osthafen Spree (East Harbor of the Spree river).
Soviet War Memorial: This is one of the biggest Soviet war memorials outside of Russia. Translated: if you’re looking for Soviet grandeur, style, and propaganda, you will not be disappointed. The memorial is dedicated generally to the Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, but more specifically to the 20,000 Soviet soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin. Around 5,000 Soviet soldiers are buried inside the memorial.
Beer gardens along the Spree: As you walk towards the Spree river you’ll notice several beer gardens with great views of the water. Our favorite of the bunch is Zenner, for its beer on tap and the weekend afternoon polka-meets-disco that takes place on the outdoor stage. A little down home. When in full glory, this place will make you feel like you’ve gone back in time.
Random Berlin Recommendations: Museums, Ping Pong and More
Beer in the Park
One thing that surprises Americans when they come to Berlin is that people walk around drinking beer openly. And this is legal; there are no open container laws in Berlin. If you'd like to feel like a local, find your nearest spätkauf (bottle shop), pick up a couple of beers and either sit outside on their benches or go to a park and enjoy. Don’t forget to return the bottle for a refund.
Base Flying at Alexanderplatz
It may sound crazy to voluntarily jump off the top of a 37-story building. And it is. But it's also a lot of fun. Don't worry, you'll be attached to the building by a wire contraption that makes the process worry free (terrifying, but worry free). See for yourself in our 11th wedding anniversary base flying experience. Open on weekends, weather permitting. Go early (10-11 AM) for a special discount.
Round-robin ping pong doesn’t get any better than this. Rent a paddle for €5, grab a beer, and take part in the fun of running around the ping pong table trying not to miss your shot. Address: Eberswalder Strasse 21, Mitte
The goal of this museum is to give you a feel for what life was like in Berlin during communist times including in all facets of life, from fashion to secret police to a love of nude beaches. The whole museum is interactive, so have fun getting your fill of the DDR, then exiting to a new era. Address: Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, Mitte
Eating in Berlin is easy. Have no fear, Berlin isn't only about sausage; you won't find yourself confined to currywurst and bratwurst. Creative and ethnic cuisine abounds. In fact, it’s often the ethnic food that makes eating in Berlin so fun, and so reasonably priced.
We’ve already written tomes about food in Berlin and some of our favorite places that fall into budget eating €5-€10 category so we won't bore you with repeating it all here. Our Berlin food recommendations:
- Berlin Food: Favorite Neighborhood Meals Under €10
- Berlin Cheap Eats: Top 10 Under 5 Euros
- Berlin Food Rally: Beyond the Plate
- Berlin Hot Sauce Tasting: Hurts So Good
Recommended: Use food, and your search for it, to aid your exploration of Berlin's collection of neighborhoods. Choose a restaurant or café in one neighborhood for lunch and in a different part of town for dinner. As make your way around, either by bicycle or public transportation, stop in random cafés, shops, and art galleries along the way.
Recommended Berlin Guides, Maps and Websites
For a city that is changing as much as Berlin is, it's sometimes hard to keep up as a physical guidebook. But, it is sometimes nice to have a physical map and book to help guide you through the city, especially the historical and other sites that won't be changing quite so much. Here are a few recommended Berlin guidebooks and maps.
- Stil In Berlin Map: One of our favorite websites for Berlin restaurant and cafe recommendations has come out with its own map highlighting these small neighborhood and local places.
- 100 Favorite Places: Not your traditional guidebook, in a good way. This book is almost like a collection of essays from different writers about their favorite — and often unusual — spots in Berlin. Go for the printed version as the photos and layout are quite beautiful.
- Time Out Berlin: We have an older version of this guidebook that we still loan to friends and family staying with us. A good overview of all the different main sites, museums, public transport, etc.
- Lonely Planet Berlin: We're quite used to — and enjoy — the format, style and maps of Lonely Planet guides. If you're the same and like this familiarity, then their Berlin city guide is for you.
Online Resources for Berlin Events and Activities
Berlin is a great place to seek out quirky events and festivals, especially on weekends. These events are often free and they offer an opportunity to get a feel for the city's neighborhoods and to hang out with locals. Summertime is especially chock full; it overwhelms and it inspires discovery.
For more recommendations from locals check out our Berlin Resource Page put together with advice from a group of longtime expats living in Berlin. Also includes a fun Google Hangout discussion all things Berlin.
A few sites and newsletters to help you find out what’s going on:
- Cee Cee: A good weekly newsletter resource, particularly for Berlin food events happening around town. Cee Cee Berlin now has a Facebook page, too.
- Slow Travel Berlin’s What’s On This Week: A nice overview of what's going on in Berlin in the arts, theatre and music fronts. The rest of the Slow Travel Berlin site serves as a great resource for cultural and culinary reviews and happenings around Berlin.
- VisitBerlin: It’s impossible to keep track of everything happening in Berlin, but the official tourism board hub visitBerlin does a pretty good job trying to lay out upcoming festivals, concerts, and exhibits. Their blog usually has weekend or seasonal roundups of what's going on around the city.
- Savoteur Berlin – a regular newsletter of events – artistic, culinary, funky.
Recommended Tours in Berlin
- Context Travel Tours of Berlin. We can recommend the walking tour of Kreuzberg. Although we had spent a lot of time in this neighborhood, we learned so much historical and cultural context during this tour. Also good is the Story of Berlin and Topography of Terror: Nazi Berlin tours. Use this link to get 10% off Context tours.
- Refugee Voices Tours: If you are interested in learning more about what led to the war we have today in Syria, the refugee influx into Europe, and what it is like for a young Syrian refugee to integrate into life in Berlin, this is the Saturday evening walking tour is for you. All of this is told with the backdrop of four Berlin historical sites to show the connection with Berlin's past — uprisings, living in fear, secret police, walls, yet also peace and unification. The evening ends with a meal at a Syrian restaurant in Wedding. Tour fees=donation.
- Street Art Workshop and Tour with Alternative Berlin. Spend a couple of hours walking around Kreuzberg with a street artist to learn more about the graffiti and street art scene in Berlin. Then, finish with a workshop on how to create your own stencil at an abandoned bread factory. Lots of fun to create your own street art.
- Canoe tour with Berlin on Bike and Backstage Tourism. We took the Wind of Change tour that starts from Treptow and goes south to the former DDR Radio Station Building.
- Berlin Wall Bike Tour with Berlin on Bike. This 2-3 hour bike tour takes you to historical spots along the Berlin wall, from the place where the border first opened on 9 November 1989 to monuments dedicated to those who died trying to get out of East Berlin. The best thing about this tour are the personal stories, as each tour guide is a Berliner and shares what life was like before the Berlin Wall fell and what it was like in the early days. Really a great way to explore Berlin's recent history.
- One of our favorite Berlin websites, Slow Travel Berlin, also offers walking and photography tours of different parts of Berlin like Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Neukölln. We haven't taken one of these yet, but we've heard great things about them and the guides.
Resources for Moving to Berlin
Update: We've gotten quite a few emails on what it takes to move to Berlin — to find an apartment, sort out visas and residence permits, health insurance, etc. — so we decided to add this section on resources that help you make the move to Berlin.
- Finding Your Feet in Berlin: A Guide to Making a Home in the Capital by Giulia Pines. A comprehensive, practical and well written guide that covers all the details you need to know to create a smooth landing in Berlin. Written by an expat who has lived in Berlin since 2008.
- Expath offers workshops and courses on how to find a flat in Berlin, where to look for a job, how to secure health insurance and more. We used their consulting service to look through our paperwork before applying for residency and found it useful. We've also enjoyed their intensive German language course.
By no means is the Berlin Beginner's Guide a comprehensive list of things to do and see in Berlin. Instead, it's meant to be an orientation of what we think are some of the best bits of the city so that you can create your own Berlin adventure. Enjoy!!