Nobody should visit Berlin without acknowledging the past and taking the time to learn about East Germany’s harrowing history. The city is full of world-class museums, memorials, and sites of historical significance, all of which are fascinating and emotional places to experience. Since this wasn’t my first trip however, I kept these activities to a minimum and dedicated most of my stay to experiencing modern day Berlin – the uber-cool, artistic, affordable and sprawling urban capital.
I visited in October 2020, when a small gap in lockdown restrictions allowed travel between a few European countries. This obviously impacted some elements of the trip and Berlin had many Covid restrictions in place including a strict curfew from 11pm until 6am – that’s why you won’t see any mention of the infamous nightlife scene below! Luckily, two of my favourite things to discover in any city I travel to are street food and street art, both delightfully Covid-safe activities and things Berlin happens to excel at.
On my first day I set off to explore the most recognisable tourist spots in the city. After a pleasant stroll through Mitte I arrived at Museum Island, which is exactly as it sounds – a small island in the Spree river, home to five historic museums. The museums were opened under Prussian rule, almost destroyed during Nazi rule, and then lovingly restored after the fall of the wall. The island is also home to the magnificent green-domed Berlin Cathedral which is a must-see.
From there I headed south-west to see Checkpoint Charlie, the best-knowncrossing point between the West Berlin and East Berlin. You could easily think that this is now just a popular photo opportunity for tourists, however an open-air exhibit of gallery walls running along Friedrichstrasse provides an excellent level of Cold War history and context.
Next on my list was the Topography of Terror, a museum and memorial space which gives a complete and heart-wrenching look at the history of the Third Reich, from the rise of the Nazi Party to life after World War II. Truly a must-visit site in Berlin, there is probably nowhere better to learn about such an important time in our modern history. I found the setting especially powerful, with the remains of the former Gestapo headquarters surrounding you. While you walk around this part of the city, look out for the “Berliner Mauer” plaques on the pavement – reminders of where the Wall once stood. If you can read the writing you are in West Berlin, if the writing is upside-down you are standing in the East.
In need of a rest, I continued towards the entertainment hub of Potsdamer Platz and stopped for a doughnut and coffee at Brammibal’s, a delightful millennial pink café. It gave me a chance to not only to decompress from the morning’s history lesson but also to escape the chilling wind!
From here you could walk north to see the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and unmissable Holocaust Memorial. But having visited all of these on a previous trip, I decided to head south instead in search of Urban Nation, a non-profit and museum dedicated to urban art – both creating and preserving it. The building itself is a giant canvas, with murals adorning the exterior walls, and the gallery features a new exhibition each year. When I visited, the space was dedicated to the life’s work of photo-journalist Martha Cooper, whose work has documented graffiti and street art since the 1970s. As I learned throughout my stay, urban street art and graffiti have helped to shape Berlin in the recent decades, so to have such a museum feels truly unique to this city.
Prenzlauer Berg & Mitte
While not a neighbourhood with many tourist attractions, I chose to base myself in an apartment in stylish Prenzlauer Berg rather than at one of the large city centre hotels, to get more of a local Berlin feel. Along with being walking distance to Mitte and Alexander Platz (and therefore an easy commute to the airport) the area has plenty of cool and casual neighbourhood restaurants. Kastanienallee is at the centre of the action, a long boulevard lined with bistros. You really can’t go wrong in this area, especially if you enjoy Asian food – Prenzlauer Berg has an abundance of wonderful Vietnamese and Asian-fusion restaurants.
Good local beer can be surprisingly hard to find in Berlin (in part due to poorer water quality than Bavaria, Germany’s beer producing giant) but luckily there is a new wave of craft beer bars, many of which are in and around Prenzlauer Berg. BrewDog and Mikkeller are both growing in popularity and have recently opened new brew pubs in the area however I was looking for something more unique to Berlin. Luckily, I discovered BRÄUGIER, a perfect fusion of German and American beer culture. Ex-pat owner Brian was extremely welcoming and happy to provide recommendations, my favourite being the delicious and crazily named Double New England IPA “God-Dam-Zilla!”.
Near my apartment as I crossed the invisible boundary into Mitte, boutiques started popping up everywhere and the crowd seemed younger and more fashionable. Mitte is the place to come for designer shopping in Berlin. There are trendy cafés on every street corner – Röststätte quicky became my favourite spot for a morning coffee, with serious baristas, pavement seating and a never-ending stream of passers-by for perfect people watching.
Mitte is something of a contrast when it comes to food. It has many upmarket restaurants with price tags to match its designer retail counterparts, but like most of Berlin, it also has an amazing selection of diverse street food. While staying in the area I decided to sample as much as I could, picking up incredible takeaway bites such as a slice from Magic John, a New York style pizzeria. I thoroughly enjoyed their Ottolenghi-inspired “Butternut” with squash, caramelised onion and zaatar.
Another highlight was the falafel – the streets surrounding the beautiful New Synagogue and bustling Oranienburger Strasse have no shortage to choose from, but I selected Dada Falafel and was not disappointed. Perfectly cooked falafel, light fluffy pitta, and a sharp citrus flavour running through. And of course, no visit to Berlin is complete without trying a currywurst! This classic German street food consisting of sausage covered in ketchup and curry powder may sound simple, but it is much more delicious than the sum of its parts.
Kreuzbert & Friedrichshain
On a dull grey morning I once again put on my most comfortable shoes – Berlin is a city for sensible footwear! I headed to Alexander Platz to meet with a guide from Alternative Berlin for a walking tour taking in some of the city’s best street art. Although we began in Mitte, joining a tour like this is an amazing way to explore some of the less touristy areas of Berlin and learn some great local insights.
After seeing the hugely popular graffiti of Dircksenstrasse, we took a short U-Bahn (underground train) ride to the residential neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. This area is much more diverse than the likes of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, with lower rent prices attracting people from all walks of life. While I won’t give away all of my guide’s secrets and knowledge, I will say that one of my highlights in this area was learning more about the infamous Berlin subculture of squat houses.
In terms of street art, Kreuzberg is home to one of the most recognisable murals in the city – the house-sized Cosmonaut by Victor Ash. Kreuzberg is also hub for nightlife and bars, which sadly I didn’t get to experience during this trip thanks to the Covid restrictions. There is also a fantastic Turkish market which runs along the canal every Friday, selling everything from börek to jewellery.
Our walking tour ended on the edge of the Friedrichshain neighbourhood at the East Side Gallery, leaving us to explore it ourselves. Running parallel to the river Spree, the longest still-standing stretch of the Berlin Wall was turned into a permanent open-air gallery in 1990 when a group of artists from over 20 different countries were invited to create murals, most of which have highly political themes. Many of the works were restored or repainted in 2009. The gallery includes art by many well-known names such as Thierry Noir, however the most famous piece must be the Fraternal Kiss mural (titled “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love”) by Dmitri Vrubel.
From the end of the gallery, it is a short walk to RAW at the heart of Friedrichshain. This former railway repair yard (the name RAW is an abbreviation of ‘Reichsbahn-Ausbesserungs-Werk’) is now a sprawling multi-purpose space for culture and arts, with numerous bars, a skate park, a Sunday flea market, and hundreds of examples of local street art. It’s a great place to stop for a drink and enjoy the grungy, “only in Berlin” type of atmosphere. The city excels at these kind of spaces – outdoor market compounds celebrating subculture. YAAM on the river Spree is another great example.
Naturally after a few drinks my thoughts turned to food. Berlin has a reputation for being the “vegan capital of Europe”. Many Berliners also claim that, although Turkish in origin, the döner kebab was invented here. Surely then there is no place more Berlin than Vöner, probably the world’s first and only vegan kebab shop?! They have been serving up delicious fresh kebabs for over 20 years from their casual Friedrichshain snack bar. I loved the kebab’s light fluffy bread, creamy garlic sauce and the side of fries topped with caramelised onions.
Friedrichshain is an extremely cool, alternative, and young neighbourhood so the choices of bars are endless. Looking for something fun but casual, I finished my evening at Hops & Barley, a friendly pub with in-house brewery. In contrast to the American / IPA focused craft beer bars of Prenzlauer Berg, Hops & Barley offer unfiltered classic styles such as Pilsner and Weizen. I selected a pint of the deliciously dark Dunkel, in my opinion the king of German beers, and a fitting end to another day of exploring Berlin.