I’ve loved Germany since I was a 90s teenager, visiting with the school to practice our language skills. I studied German all the way through school right up to A Level, and my love of the language combined with the history geek inside me meant my obsession with Germany grew and grew. I finally got to visit Berlin aged 17, and the city was as overwhelming and interesting and quirky as I’d hoped it would be.
It took me 16 long years to visit again – this time, better prepared for what would await me. Combining my love of Berlin and Christmas, we visited for just two nights in December and embraced the cold, the markets, the history – and the magic something that Berlin has which is indescribable.
Here’s my full Berlin City Guide – how to spend two nights seeing all the main attractions, eating sausage and falling in love with one of Europe’s most interesting destinations.
Berlin is an incredibly cheap city to get to, to get around and to stay in. All the major budget airlines fly there, and we grabbed a deal for less than £200 for flights and two nights accommodation via my BFF of travel booking, Holiday Pirates. We flew with Ryanair from Stanstead to Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport which is located to the South East of the city. Berlin’s Tegel Airport is located North West, so depending on where you are staying you can choose which airport is best for you.
(Sidenote: Berlin are building a brand new airport at present, due to open in in late 2017. Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport is likely to replace Tegel, but will be located South of the city).
Using buses, trams & trains
Once you arrive at your airport of choice, getting into the city is really easy – sure, you can grab a taxi, but the train system in Berlin is second to none. Cheap, easy to use and not particularly crowded. As well as a regional train system, they have the S-Bahn (overground) and the U-Bahn (underground) as well as trams and buses and you can use the same ticket on them all.
Just like in London, Berlin is split up into zones, and you can buy single, short distance and all day tickets from any station. All you need to do is buy a ticket from the machine, and then validate it for travel by punching the physical ticket into the weird yellow/red boxes on platforms. You only have to do this once a day.
The most we ever paid for a ticket was 7 Euros, so we stuck to walking or the public transport system the entire time we were there.
WHERE TO STAY
There are so many awesome places to stay in Berlin, catering for all budgets and all tastes. The best way of planning your stay in Berlin is to think about what you want to see and do, and then pick a neighbourhood area which is in easy reach of these things. We mainly wanted to visit/hang around in East Berlin so we stayed in the Kreuzberg district – but we still travelled way out west to Charlottenburg and the Olympic Park whilst we were there.
We stayed at the Novum Select Hotel Berlin Checkpoint Charlie, where we were just a five minute walk from Checkpoint Charlie and a U-Bahn station. The hotel was clean, bright and the rooms just big enough for a weekend stay, with a cute little bar/seating area in reception. It didn’t have the most character of any hotel I’ve stayed in, but we were barely there. It provided us with a great place to lay our weary heads each night!
A guide to the districts of Berlin
Before I went, a German colleague of my Mum’s gave me a basic run down of all the districts in Berlin so I could get a feel for each area – this may also help you decide where you want to stay:
- Kreuzberg – Shoreditch like area, can be very edgy but is definitely a hip area these days. Think cafe culture, art shops, street art.
- Friedrichshain – lots of personality and a mix of architectural styles such as high-rise buildings and 19th century town houses. Popular with students.
- Charlottenburg – a bit like Chelsea, this is definitely a wealthier area of the city. Kurfürstendamm is a popular designer shopping location too, and you’ll find the Palace here too.
- Mitte – holds some of Berlin’s oldest buildings and huge tourist attractions such as Museum Island. Plenty of good shopping.
- Prenzlauer Berg – a trendy area with a huge art scene and thriving nightlife.
Neukölln – the area that locals don’t want tourists to know about! According to Time Out this is the centre for all things “hip”, and Google Maps won’t help you find the top spots as the place is changing so quickly.
Berlin has so much to see. SO MUCH. You could go five times and still not see all it has to offer. WWII history, Communist era sights, modern Berlin, shopping, sport, art, food, beer – it has them all. We planned an itinerary which would allow us to get a real flavour of the city, whilst also focussing in on my favourite historical spots.
As I do in every new city, we started our trip with a 2.5 hour free walking tour run by Sandeman’s New Europe to get our bearings and to take in many of the top spots. This tour is completely free, but the guides work for tips and will also tell you about paid for tours they run. I CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS MORE (and they don’t even pay me. Sigh.)
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is also known as the international memorial for freedom, and is situated on a one mile stretch of the Berlin wall. Consisting of 105 paintings from artists all over the world, this outdoor gallery is one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks. Documenting a time of change and hope for Germany, it’s definitely a place to visit for history buffs and art lovers a like.
This is the largest palace in Berlin, and extremely pretty. It was built at the end of the 17the Century so it’s architecture is quite different to the rest of Berlin. It’s surrounded by huge woodland and landscaped gardens which would be beautiful in the Summer (it was a bit breezy in December mind you!) and it’s a lovely place to wander.
You can visit inside Charlottenburg Palace, which is pretty cool because each resident has updated it to reflect their own tastes and the style of the time. We didn’t have chance to go inside, but there are many ticket options and guided tours if you decide to take a peek.
Cost: Free for the gardens, from 12 euros to visit inside
If I had to pick just one place to visit in Berlin, I would pick the Olympic Stadium, hands down. It was originally built for the 1936 Olympics, its construction ordered by Adolf Hitler, who planned to use both the stadium and the Olympics themselves for propaganda purposes. It is a huge, imposing building, built to look like a creepy replica of the Coliseum in Rome. And it is creepy.
Nowadays it plays host to Hertza Berlin, the local football team and whilst the inside has been modernised, the outside of the stadium looks extremely close to the original. There is SO much to see and understand about the history of this stadium, and whilst you can walk around alone I’d really recommend a guided tour, which runs daily.
Cost: Free to enter alone, or 11 euros for a tour
topographie Des Terrors
An outdoor and indoor history museum which is based on the former site of the SS and the Gestapo. Here you can see some of the only remaining parts of the Berlin Wall as well as learn more about the SS and Gestapo.
The focus of the main exhibition in the Topographie Des Terrors are the crimes these insitutions perpetrated throughout Europe, looking particularly at each of the many specific victim groups of the Third Reich, and the ways in which they systemised terror and order. Sure, this is quite a depressing place to visit, but it is important to understand this very important part of European history so it’s well worth a look.
berliner dom (+ Museum Island)
There is a whole section of Berlin, near Alexanderplatz called Museum Island, which is exactly what sounds like. An island full of Berlin’s main museums. We didn’t stop inside any of them, but it’s worth a visit even if you are not planning any museum trips this time as the architecture of the museums is absolutely beautiful.
You’ll also find Berliner Dom here, a wonderfully gothic cathedral which is insanely beautiful both day and night. We didn’t visit inside (you can, for free) but it is quite possible to sit and stare at this building from the outside for quite some time and not get bored.
Cost: Free – Museum prices vary
Reichstag Building + Dome
Where better to see than the seat of the German Parliament? Well that is exactly what the Reichstag is, and it has an interesting history. The original building was burnt down in 1933 (much rumoured to be part of the Nazi propaganda plan) and Germany’s parliament only returned there in the late 1990’s. It another awesome building in and of itself to see, but the main tourist attraction is its glass dome, designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster.
You can visit the dome and look directly into the parliament chamber for free, but you do need to book in advance here.
Cost: Free, but you must book.
An iconic part of Berlin, one of the most photographed locations and possibly the quickest visit you’ll make to a tourist attraction in Berlin. Honestly, you’ll need about 5 minutes, tops (unless you choose to visit the museum, which I did when I was 17, but decided not to visit this time around).
Checkpoint Charlie (or C), was the name given to the best known crossing point of the Berlin Wall by the Western Allies, set up in 1961. There is a TON of history behind this crossing point, which you’ll learn all about if you head on the free walking tour I suggested but nowadays it’s sandwiched between a KFC and MacDonalds. Ironic really, and fitting given the communist connotations of the site. Head there, take your photo, then move on.
Cost: Free (or 12.50 Euros for the Museum)
The starting point of many walking tours, the Brandenburg Tor (or Gate), is an 18th Century Monument, now a symbol of peace and unity. Also in this area are a few of the embassies, and the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled baby blanket from the window. Huh.
Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This fairly new memorial in Berlin is around 19,000 square metres and made up of 2,711 square pillars of different heights with uneven floors. You can enter and walk through at any direction and it is unlike any memorial I have ever seen. It feels sombre (especially in the rain) and it will certainly give you plenty to think about.
There is also a memorial museum underground, which gives the history of the holocaust and the memorial itself. There are plenty of other memorials to other groups impacted by WWII which you can visit independently or via a walking tour.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
There is one word you need to know about, one word only. And that word my friends is sausage. Oh the sausage in Berlin is so so good. Whether it was a sausage at the Christmas Markets or a delicious bowl of Currywurst (sausage in a curry sauce, practically impossible to recreate at home), all your sausage dreams will come true in Berlin.
Now I’ve got that out of the way, there is plenty of good food and drink to be had in Berlin, and we barely scratched the surface. As it was Christmas, we also partook in a whole heap of Gluhwein whilst we were there, and of course got stuck into German Beer.
This is a small chain micro-brewery and we headed to the one near Hackesher Markt to escape the cold and eat some hearty food. And for the beer, obviously. Whilst Andrew tucked into a goulash with dumplings, I headed for the sausage platter which came with roast potatoes and a huge steaming pile of Sauerkrout. It was amazing.
We washed that down with a couple of pints of their Hopfenweisse, and then cursed ourselves when we realised we could have gone for a tasting menu of all over their Lemke beers. Next time!
Just opposite the Topographie des Terrors is a tiny little non-descript cafe named “Typisch Berlin” on Google Maps. It’s on Wilhemstrasse, it’s tiny but we loved it for so many reasons:
- Ideally located for food after/before visiting the museum.
- Such friendly staff. Like truly lovely people who were super happy to help you out.
- The best currywurst (and cheapest, about 2.80 Euros) I have ever tasted
- Amazing amaretto filled gluhwein
This isn’t trendy, star quality eating, but bloody hell it was delicious.
We couldn’t head to a place in Europe without heading to a food market, so off we rambled to Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg for a look. Much like Mathallen in Oslo, it was full of food and drink stands where you could grab a slice of pizza from one place, a glass of wine in another and settle down in the middle for a good old fashioned feast.
It comes alive at night with street food events and there are often speciality events focussing on the three main food groups – coffee, cheese and beer.
The fourth main food group would of course be donuts, and luckily Berlin does a great job of this in the form of Brammibals. Located on Maybachufer 8 (and not far from Markthalle Neun), these vegan donuts are absolutely delicious. Light, flavourful and insanely moorish, we stopped by their cute cafe for a donut and a coffee on our first afternoon.
The founders started this project from the kitchen of their apartment, and the cafe has a really friendly and homely vibe. I would definitely make a pit stop there if you can!
If the last 2,500 words haven’t sold a Berlin weekend break to you, I’m not sure what else will but please, visit for yourself. Sure this city is a perfect place to visit if you have even a passing interest in the last 100 years worth of European history, but its quirky character, friendly (and down right hilarious) locals and solid 5* beer makes it so much more diverse than just another GCSE field trip.
We barely scratched the surface this time – more museums, the telephone tower (and insane cocktail bar at the top), a visit to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (I’d highly recommend this – won’t be an easy trip but it will be important), traditional Kegelbahn (9 pin bowling) and visiting more than one of the awesome photoautomats could have easily been added to the list. Berlin remains one of my favourite cities in the World – from aged 17 to aged 33 that fact hasn’t changed!
Let me know what your favourite parts of Berlin are in the comments below – or whether you plan to visit soon!
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