Berlin: A Beginner’s Guide

Fernsehturm and Berliner Dom - Berlin
Berlin, where everything mixes.

Traveling to Berlin? Here’s our Berlin brainstorming guide to give you some approaches and ideas to get started.

We have found ourselves in Berlin this year for the third summer in a row. 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.

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Today's Berlin profile, sunshine and buckets of color
Berlin neighborhoods in all their color.

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.

Berlin Neighborhoods

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:

Kreuzberg
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.

Porsche corner #Berlin - midlife crisis or hipster hunting ground?
Kreuzberg street scene.

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.

Mitte
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.

Courtyard of the Art Gallery C/O in Mitte, Berlin
Industrial buildings turned art gallery in Mitte.

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.

Prenzlauerberg
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.

Sunday Karaoke in Mauerpark - Berlin, Germany
Sunday karaoke in Mauerpark. What an audience.

All Neighborhoods: Stumbling Blocks and Street Art

Stumbling Blocks: 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.

Stolpersteine (Stumbling Blocks) in Mitte, Berlin
Stolpersteine (Stumbling Blocks) in Mitte, Berlin

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.

Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery - Friedrichshain, Berlin
Berlin Wall turns into a collection of street murals at the East Side Gallery

Berlin Parks

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:

Tempelhof
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?

Bike Ride at Tempelhof Park - Neukölln, Berlin
Biking down the runway at Tempelhof.

Tiergarten
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.

Recommended:
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
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).

Recommended:
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.

Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park  - Berlin
Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park

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.

Picnic in Kreuzberg, Berlin
Late summer picnic gathering with beer and wine in a park in Kreuzberg.

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.

Berlin Base Flying - Dan About to Go!
Base flying off the top of the Park Inn Hotel at Alexanderplatz.

Dr. Pong
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

Ping Pong Roulette at Dr. Pong - Mitte, Berlin
Ping Pong Roulette at Dr. Pong in Mitte

DDR Museum
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

Berlin Food

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.

Cheese Spätzle in Berlin
When what you need is a big plate of spaetzle.

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:

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.

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:

  • Sugarhigh.de – a daily newsletter of events – artistic, culinary, funky. The weekend edition is chock-full of great stuff, much of which you couldn’t imagine if you tried. That’s how we found the daschund races, pug races and hay bale races.
  • 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.

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.
  • 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!!


We’ve taken all our Berlin tips — sites, neighborhoods and cheap eats — and put them into one nifty pdf guide! Click on the image to buy and download!
Berlin guide

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Comments

  1. says

    Ah we love Berlin too! “The magnetic personality that everyone wants to be around” pretty much nails it.

    You’ve recommended a couple of things that we’ve not done yet, so a third visit might be in order…

  2. says

    @Cosmohallitan: You’re welcome! Hope it comes in handy when you do visit Berlin. It’s a great city!

    @Sutapa: Glad you enjoyed it!

    @Rob: Thanks – that was one of my favorite lines of the piece as well! And this guide by no means covers everything, so there’s room for 3rd, 4th, 5th visits…

  3. says

    Great post, and very appropriate for my current situation. As it turns out, I am starting a post-doc in Berlin this September, hence this article would be a great start to orient myself with my upcoming move. Thanks!

  4. says

    Great guide! We stayed in Prenzlauerberg just a month or so ago and absolutely loved it. So many great restaurants (I highly recomment the Golden Buddha Thai restaurant), it’s lively but not too noisy, and there are lots of shops (food and otherwise)to explore. We would live here if we could :)

  5. says

    Thank you for sharing. I’m enjoying learning about fellow travel journalists and I appreciate the message you were trying to convey through this article.

  6. says

    @Stephen: Hope this comes in handy for your next visit to Berlin. Enjoy!

    @Jeruen: Congrats on your post-doc in Berlin! Glad the timing of this worked out so well and you find it useful when exploring the city when you get here.

    @Callie: Now you’ve got even more inspiration to visit! It’s a wonderful city.

    @Amanda: A lot of people visit Berlin and then find themselves living there – it’s that type of place. Glad to hear you had such a good time in Prenzlauerberg. We’ve heard good things about Golden Buddha, will need to check it out.

    @Turtle: And this is only the beginning for cool things to do and check out in Berlin. It’s changing all the time, which is what makes it fun.

    @Tonya: Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed this piece.

  7. says

    Berlin is definitely a place we are dying to visit! Great tips -especially like the one for great budget eats.. being a foodie and everything! :)

  8. says

    @Ciki: People are usually amazed at how reasonably priced food is in Berlin, and the diversity of choice. Now, it’s not Southeast Asia cheap, but it’s pretty darn good compared to the rest of Europe.

  9. says

    These are some great recommendations. Tempelhof park, in particular, was one of my unexpected favourites in Berlin. It’s free, which is a big plus. And I was just completely amazed with the unique way this space is being reused – very cool!

  10. DGH says

    Berlin definitely draws you in – I, too, visited for three consecutive Septembers beginning in ’09 (will be checking out Vienna this year). I rented apartments each time, and chose a different district each year: Mitte, Pankow and Prenzlauer Berg. I have to admit that I’m partial for the “former East” part of the city, probably because I had alreadly visited a few times before and after 1989, and feel that I know the former West part of the city very well. I would second your recommend about the Maybachufer Turkish market – it’s really wonderful.

  11. says

    @Steve: Don’t expect good sushi in Berlin like you’re used to in Japan :) I think Berlin is one of the top 5 most visited tourist destinations in Europe these days – and there’s good reason why. Hope you get to see it for yourself soon!

    @Jude: Our friends in Berlin joke that they know summer is here when we arrive and that winter is coming when we leave :) We have yet to experience a full winter here – yes, I imagine it is quite different. Will be curious to see how your summer/spring visit is different than your winter one.

    @Jules: For a Stag Do there’s lots more fun stuff to do in Berlin – tons of clubs and music venues. Hope this helps get you started on your planning.

    @Jessica: Also love how the space at Tempelhof has been reused, even down to having urban gardens in one of the corners. We haven’t been there for a festival, but imagine the building is a great venue for that.

    @DGH: So you knew Berlin when it was still a divided city. Must have been so great to return in 2009 and see the full city united. I can see how you’d be partial to staying in the eastern side – there are some great neighborhoods and fun stuff to do there. Although, I kind of feel that Kreuzberg & Neukolln are like the “eastern side” but placed technically in West Berlin – these neighborhoods are so different from areas like Charlottenberg or Schoneberg.

    As I write this I’m eating a big bowl of strawberries from the Maybachufer Turkish market – love going there twice a week!

  12. Nicola says

    Moving over in October, can’t wait! Great help reading this. Would also like to know where is cheap & cheerful to live, any help would be much appreciated! moving on my own for the first time so don’t know where to start! :)

  13. says

    Great post. If only I had your advice back in 2009 when I last walked (and got lost) in Berlin. Managed to have a good weekend still. Agreed that it is a great city, with so much to do a list to set some priority would be a great service.

    Thanks

  14. says

    @Erica: Woohoo!! Autumn is a great time to visit – still warm enough to enjoy biking and outdoor activities, but with all the colors of changing leaves. Just let us know if we can help with other information.

    @Nicola: Congrats on your move! Will you be here for a long while? Or are you looking for sublets? As for your question as to where is cheap and cheerful to live…

    Our favorite neighborhoods include Kreuzberg & Neukolln, but apartments here are not as cheap as they used to be. Penzlauerberg & Mitte are also popular, but more expensive. For less expensive areas you could look at Wedding, Moabit or Schoneberg. Good luck!

    @Taylor: I can imagine how much you’re enjoying photographing Berlin – there is fun architecture and street art almost everywhere you turn. Thanks for getting in touch – owe you an email.

    @Eric: It’s easy to get lost and walk a ton in Berlin – the city is pretty vast. Glad to hear that you had a good time anyway. Now you’ve got a bit of a list to help you on your next visit.

  15. says

    Great post, really good. I am coming to Berlin for the Bread & Butter clothing trade show held at the old airport with my job i am also an ex graffiti artist and looking forward to photographing the Graffiti and the architecture.

  16. Nicola says

    @ Audrey – thanks for the tips. I want to stay in Berlin for as long as possible. Have an interview for a job there tomorrow, so fingers crossed! Would really like to have a job sorted before I move, less worrying!!!!

  17. Nicola says

    I’m going to couch surf for a bit until I can find work so I don’t end up spending my money & have to go back home!

  18. says

    @Jason: We just rode past Tempelhof (old airport) yesterday on our bikes. Such an incredible and huge building. We’ve never been inside, so it will be fun for you to see the inside for the trade show. And if you are an ex graffiti artist, you’ll have a great time here – everywhere you turn there is some piece of street art.

    @Nicola: Yes, having a job sorted before moving here would definitely cut down on the stress. The Berlin couchsurfing community is quite close and strong, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding hosts for the first part of your stay. Sometimes Couchsurfers also post in the Berlin apartment forum when they have a room to rent – not as cheap as free, but usually reasonably priced if you don’t need your own flat. Good luck!

  19. says

    Hi Audrey! Great guide on an amazing city. My friend has been looking for one so I decided I’d send yours over to him. I really like the way you include the distinct neighborhoods in the writeup–something most guides overlook. They’re the cities within the city and can really make or break your trip if you don’t have the right expectations. Really great stuff.

    Cheers

  20. says

    @Jeremy: There are some great German dishes that go perfect with a perfectly pulled beer. Perfect after a long hike.

    @Brian: Thanks for sending this to your friend! The neighborhoods are one of the best things about Berlin – and you’re right, they can make or break a trip.

  21. says

    @Klaus: Berlin is certainly among the most affordable of Europe’s capitals and large cities. From our experience, it’s possible to experience multiple cities in one. That’s been one of our aims — to experience all the different feelings across all of Berlin’s neighborhoods — of each of our experiences and visits in Berlin.

  22. says

    @Rachel: Glad you found this useful for your upcoming trip. Just be in touch if you have questions on anything. Berlin is a huge city — and so different from one side to the other — so it’s good to start with a few things and allow time to explore and get lost.

  23. says

    Have you guys ever checked out the Spreepark? It’s this abandoned amusement park that looks like it has a really cool post-apocalyptic-like feel. I hear it’s going to auction soon and is going to be torn down :(

    Do you two locals have the scoop??

  24. says

    @Alena: Yes, we’ve been out to Spreepark a few times, including as part of our friend’s wedding weekend. It’s not possible to wander around the park on your own so it’s best if you can book a tour in advance to be sure you don’t have to wait long. It’s a very cool place with quite an interesting history – think one of the owner’s brothers might still be in jail in South America. Every now and then it goes up for sale, but until now I haven’t heard of a buyer yet. I have heard rumors that maybe the city might take it over.

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