One of the great things about writing a personal blog is you have no deadlines. One of the bad things about writing a personal blog is with enough procrastination you have no one to blame but yourself when you can’t remember the details of that thing you planned to write. This is especially dangerous when trying to write travel advice with fuzzy details.
I had to check my calendar to remember exactly when I was there. It was “this” month (refusing to believe to today is in fact May 1) so the statute of limited memory should allow for more or less accurate recall. I was also there for a 3 day weekend - with a nasty head cold – back in September 2014. Congested or breathing normally, the first trip was love at first sneeze so I decided to return “this” month for Spring Break solo with just the two little boys. (The big boy with the map skills was with his Dad on the East Coast doing college visits which is hard for all of us – more accurately 4/5 of us – to believe.)
I don’t know if it’s the Seattle girl in me or my low threshold for Bavarian food overload, but Berlin wins for best German city in my book. And I really, really like Munich. (See my post on Munich.) Berlin lacks the beauty of Munich but there is an energy about the rapidly changing city that you don’t have to be 21 years old to enjoy. You are constantly surprised by the amount of cool tucked behind ugly exteriors. And the city takes their coffee very, very seriously.
So how’d I do? Totally nailed it. Beyond being expertly caffeinated, here are a few tips for doing Berlin.
Tip 1: build confidence early by skipping public transportation on arrival and taxi to hotel. Never mind the cost or the glory of saying you caught the Airport Express to the U-Bahn followed by a 10 minute walk with luggage. No one will be greeting you at the hotel with a medal for it at 9:30am. And when you find out the cab fare is only 22 euros, you’ll wonder how big a tip is too big before the taxi driver asks for your number.
[We stayed in a very reasonably priced apartment hotel called Brilliant Apartments in Prenzlauer Berg on what may be one of the best gentrified streets in the neighborhood. It was a brilliant choice for what we needed never mind what my boys say about the wifi strength and the assaulting water pressure. The apartment is in the former East Berlin so modernity expectations should be appropriately checked. I wrote a review of it here if you are in the hunt for lodging while in Berlin.]
Tip 2: pick a hotel next to a great café with pancakes in the AM and wine in the PM. They don’t have to be good pancakes. The pancakes will be the siren call you need to wake your kids for a 7am flight. Be aware however that Europe is a place that loves bookings so even though you wouldn’t expect to need a booking for a weekend breakfast, build confidence and fill stomachs early by making one. We got the last non-reserved table. It was my day.
[Café Krone is the café affiliated with Brilliant Apartments. As of today there are 6,279 restaurants in Berlin on Trip Advisor. Café Krone is #13. You will like it. They have carrot cake.]
Tip 3: strategically select your neighborhood. Berlin doesn’t really have a center and it’s massively spread out so it takes some planning (or a bike, see below) to pick the area you want to explore. Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are both popular, creative chic places for great eating and shopping and pervasive use of English. Kreuzberg is gentrifying but more “edgy” and home to the live music scene. If you want evidence there are actual children in Berlin, Suedstern is a cute family-friendly neighborhood.
[We stayed at the Casa Camper Berlin in Mitte last fall when it was only my husband and I. It was a great location for a first visit to Berlin and the hotel was that perfect blend of down-to-earth but cool in a way that doesn’t require mood lighting and fruited water. Unfortunately for my snotty nose, the toilet paper – as in the rest of Europe – was not up to USA standards.]
Tip 4: pack biking shorts or your best biking dress. Everyone knows Amsterdam as a biking city, but that’s really for the locals who know the rules. Berlin (and Copenhagen) are better biking cities where you have a chance to blend in as a tourist and not be run over. There are extensive bike lanes and few to zero hills to remind you that you aren’t in shape. Also, finding a bike rental or guided bike tour in Berlin is as easy as finding a Starbucks in London. Maybe even similarly priced.
[On the first trip, we rented bikes from the hotel. It was a fantastic way to see the city and also means you can more easily ride through the Tiergarten in route to visit Tempelhof Park – a “park” on the site of an old airfield. There is something about seeing those wide empty runways that kick starts your brain. And if you are lucky enough you might see men rollerblading in speedos in not warm September. Now THAT I remembered.]
[On the second trip, we dared not speak of bikes. We are having ongoing issues convincing our 8 year old that he will EVER learn to ride a bike. This makes biking an uphill, downhill, and standstill battle with untied shoelaces. This is the child who will flail his body into the air to save a goal but who fears any *potential* encounter with pavement. Suggestions welcome.]
Tip 5: mix in a little fun with all the history. The history of Berlin is obviously something you can’t miss, but it’s also somber and best absorbed in doses. There is a surprisingly number of alternative non-history related things to see and do in Berlin.
[You will no doubt go to see the Berlin Wall Memorial – an outdoor museum that is kid/pet/germ phobic friendly. There is no better way to understand the barrier that divided a city than by traversing the ground where it was. The signage along a long stretch of the wall on Bernauer Strasse is excellently done. I wish I could say the same for Checkpoint Charlie. The only bright spot around the Checkpoint Charlie circus is the Asisi Panometer, an admission-charged impactful panorama exhibit of a part of the Berlin Wall with lights and sound as well as a collective of photographs from the period of the Wall and before its fall in 1989. Better yet is the The DDR Museum, a free interactive museum that shows what life was like in the first Socialist state in Germany. An absolute must do. Also on that must do list, but without young children, is the Topography of Terror – another free museum that shows an unforgiving look at the terror and persecution perpetrated by the Nazi institutions of the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office. When things start to get too heavy, head over to the Game Science Center (also near Checkpoint Charlie) - a totally fun, small space with 20 exhibits showcasing future interactive technologies. Good for all ages and for hands that like to touch things. The Berlin Zoo (for those not overly sensitive to animals in small cages) is an also nice change of pace.]
Tip 6: Prep the kids for grittiness. As long as you know to expect open containers, abandoned buildings, and unmanicured parks – it won’t be a surprise when you bring a basketball to Mauerpark for the third day in a row and the court is littered with as many open beer bottles as people waiting to play. (We did however have the court to ourselves plus one on the first cold morning.)
Tip 7: make a friend in the neighborhood. Local suggestions from the right person within the right radius is one way to cut down on marathon walks to dinner.
[Our friend was Sadie. Sadie runs The Juicery in Prenzlauer Berg (PB), right across the street from Mauerpark, serving some of the tastiest super food smoothies & juices. The boys were hooked and happy to follow Sadie’s suggestion by eating at two delicious restaurants on our street (Oderberger Strasse): the fancier Ky Sushi for Japanese/Korean and Vietnam Village for tasty eats with great outdoor seating. PB is a great neighborhood for eating and several food blogs (the best of which was Berlin Food Stories) and careful reading of Trip Advisor rightly pointed us to: Maria Bonita for hole in the wall Mexican, The Bird for a ridiculously right on American burger, Fast Rabbit for vegan wraps and hard core rap, Kochu Karu for Korean/Spanish tapas – who knew?, and Pastificio Tosatti for homemade pasta for take-away or eat-in at two small tables. Two places we wanted to try but ran out of time were Babel for Lebanese and Lecker Song for Chinese dumplings.]
Tip 8: If you don’t know what you want to eat, head to Mitte. It’s as central as you can get in Berlin and it has everything, including over 1,000 places to eat. Auguststrasse is the street name to know and explore.
[Some good ones we enjoyed: District Mot for Vietnamese street food (went there both trips), Cocolo Ramen for at-the-counter noodles, Mogg & Melzer Delicatessen – a modern deli in a former Jewish school with a fantastic rueben sandwich you’ll need help finishing, and Lokal for a high end, seasonal modern German dinner. Lokal, recommended to me by my good Lux friend and fellow eater Angela, is definitely worth crossing town for. Book ahead for sure.]
I asked my 8 year old what I should include about Berlin and he said: “Tell them Berlin is cool. The people have good English and most people are really nice and the zoo has animals you don’t see in every zoo and the Wall is cool and the Science Center is cool …
Like I said, cool.