Berlin is huge. Not quite London huge but definitely New York huge. For my very first visit, I was only there for a few days, so I don’t think I even began to scratch the surface of what the city is all about, and I certainly didn’t tick off a whole heap of tourist attractions, but that bit was on purpose. I did learn a few things though, so until I can get back there and spend a decent amount of time exploring, here’s a couple of suggestions and a few places I thought were definitely worth checking out.
Hire a Bike. Seriously. The underground and overground train systems in Berlin are extensive, but like with any huge city’s public transport, it was often crowded, trains were delayed and cancelled here and there, and being 30 degrees above ground when I visited meant it was even more hot and sticky down below. Berlin has an amazing network of bike lanes, the city is very flat and, best of all, the locals (as far as I found) don’t see cyclists as pests, so there’s no constant agro between them and the car drivers. It felt completely safe, even on the bigger, busier roads and such a welcome relief from the trains.
Whether you get a bike from a bike store to keep for a few days or sign up to a bike rent app where you can pick up and drop off all over the city is up to you, but if you go the app route, maybe sign up before you get there, or at least the night before you want to start taking the bikes. As is normal with these things, there’s always a bit of administration faff to get through first, which is even more of a faff when you throw in roaming and wifi if trying to set it up on your phone right at the bike hubs.
Get thee to the Berlin Tiergarden. And let me repeat… hire a bike. Tiergarten is huge – 520 acres huge (that’s just over half of Central Park) – and it’s beautiful and peaceful and you can see so much more of it on a bike. Just do it. And while you’re at it, if it’s total peace and quiet and relaxation you want, forget the huge beer garden by the lake on the west side. The food and drinks there are mediocre and overpriced (4.50 euros for a glass of Coke!!), the service is pretty crap and it’s not really the oasis of calm and cheerfulness I imagined. When I was there, so was a huge stag group singing football chants at the top of their lungs and a group of what looked like American Frat Guys who cheered and clapped when a poor girl tripped off the side of a walkway and crashed into a table. A-holes on both counts.
Urban Spree (Spree being the name of Berlin’s river) is a large, former industrial space by some railway tracks that’s been turned into a (mostly) outdoor street art/beer garden/live music/food and exhibition space. Think concrete, shipping crates, wooden pallet furniture and loads of graffiti. As well as a pretty cool gallery on site, there’s food, drinks, wall climbing, skating, clubbing and concerts, and anything you could think of that would promote urban culture.
There’s a couple of these kinds of places around Berlin, but I found this one the most chilled out and friendly. And even though this may sound like it’s geared to the younger generation, I saw people of all ages and walks of life there enjoying the beer gardens, the sun, the food and a chat with their friends.
One minus though is the super slow, super inefficient drink ordering system that can get pretty annoying once the place starts to fill up. Service is surprisingly slow to begin with (perhaps the chilled vibe of the place extends to service times) but on top of that all drinks are served in glasses that you have to pay one euro deposit for. Once you’re done, there’s no separate area to just drop off your glasses and get your deposit back, so you often have to join a very long, slow queue with all the other people wanting more drinks.
But that aside – if it’s a nice day, I think Urban Spree is the perfect place to come and hang for a few hours, see some art, people watch and recharge.
The downstairs permanent exhibition of Berlin’s Jewish Museum was quite simply the best museum/art installation I’ve ever seen. In their words, it’s ‘dedicated to remembering the persecution, displacement, and annihilation of the Jews of Europe’ and it’s done in a way that is just so utterly effective. It’s hard to describe but the way the space, or rather the voids (there to represent the emptiness left in the world by the Jewish who were killed), here are visceral in their emptiness. Most impressive was the Fallen Leaves installation which is a void space with 10,000 metal ‘faces’ representing the 6 million murdered Jews. It easily conjures up feelings of a mass grave and you’re allowed to walk over it, which is both horrific and utterly thought provoking. Two little girls who were there when I was remarked at how the 10,000 faces seemed so many, but 10,000 was a long way off from 6 million. There you go – even the little ones get it.
A couple of the temporary exhibitions were very good too, but I found the upstairs permanent exhibition a little like being stuck in IKEA and the hands on design of some things (pull out a drawer to read more, twist this handle to see a photo) just a little boring compared to the experience downstairs. Like IKEA it seemed to go on forever too and there was no way to get out without walking through the whole lot of it. If you’re into architecture, the modern, zig-zagging Liebskind Building part of the museum should interest you as well.
If you’re short of time and tossing up just which of the many brilliant Berlin Galleries to go too – make sure you squeeze this in. If you decide to try your luck upstairs – stuff your pockets with some snacks for the journey.
Cheap German Grub
Scheers Schnitzel is just down the road from Urban Spree, so if you’re in the area checking out Friedrichshain, the East Side Gallery or even Urban Spree when hunger hits but the budget’s tight, Scheers is a great option.
It’s a totally no fuss, grungy kind of place, sort of a German greasy spoon. Food is served on paper plates and you’re given an order number which is called out over the loud speaker system when it’s ready – in English and German. Inside there’s a couple of tables and two people behind the counter furiously taking orders and freshly frying your schnitzel to perfection, but you’ll most likely want to sit outside, for both the fresh air and people watching possibilities. It was pretty busy when I was there and the food took about twenty minutes to cook, so keep that in mind.
The schnitzels come with all sorts of sides – coleslaw, chips, fried eggs, potato salad, regular leafy salad, mushroom sauce, cranberry sauce – and they are, as declared by my Eastern European eating partner, commendably and authentically thin. I’m an Aussie who lives in the UK, so this was new to me. What we pretend is schnitzel in both of those places comes a lot thicker, so any Skippies or Brits who want to complain about that – stop it, you’re wrong.
It’s all very simple, fresh and cheap, and for something I earlier described as a greasy spoon, not really that greasy at all. In fact to me the food had a distinct home made quality to it.