In Europe

Berlin, Germany | A Local’s Travel Guide

things to do in berlin

Berlin can be a polarizing place. Some love it. It’s the place they’ve been looking for their entire lives. The sense of freedom that you can be whoever you want to be is palpable. Others hate it. They describe it as a sprawling mess of concrete, devoid of sunlight and teeming with grumps.

If you’ve never been, then it’s hard to say where you’ll fall on the spectrum. Either way, you need to visit Berlin. And eventually, you’ll decide for yourself.

Where is Berlin?

Considering how dense western Germany is, Berlin can be a bit lonely. Geographically speaking, of course. The German capital sits about an hour west of the Polish border in the northeastern chunk of the country. You’re also about an hour (or a little more) south of the Baltic Sea and east of the Harz Mountains.

Want more Germany? Check out these things to do in Munich or read my guide on the places to visit in Germany off the beaten path.

How to get to Berlin

The BER airport fiasco has been just that… A fiasco. Just look it up. It almost sounds legendary just how screwed up Berlin’s new big city airport is, how delayed it was, and how expensive it ended up being. Except, it’s not legendary, because it’s all true.

Anywho, that’s how most folks will get here! Truth be told, I think some of the complaints about the airport are overblown. People tend to pile on here. For example, it’s a stereotype that German doctors will prescribe tea for actual ailments that could be treated with drugs. I’ve never had this happen to me in my nearly eight years of living here. But I hear smartass comments about it all the time. (Hell, I indulge in them myself.) So it’s easier to pile on and join the mob than, well, say anything nice about the airport.

The most annoying thing about the airport for me is that it’s a bit of a schlep from the city. They built a new train line called the FEX, but it’s no faster for me than the regional trains that already exist. (There’s no cost difference, FYI, so just take whatever Google Maps says is fastest.)

Ultimately it depends on where in the city you’re staying that will determine how long it takes you to get from the airport to the city. Because Berlin is a sprawling town. If you live near the southern edge of the city, then the airport is probably pretty convenient.

Alright, enough about the airport. My favorite way of getting to Berlin is by train. You’ll hear Germans complain plenty about the train, but it’s still the most comfortable way to travel and it actually drops you off in the city. Read more about understanding the German trains here.

Want to visit a charming medieval village nearby? Check out Quedlinburg.

Best time of year to visit Berlin

Any season outside of winter. I’ve come to loathe winter in Berlin. The best thing anyone can say about it is the Christmas Markets, but I kinda hate the Christmas markets.

It’s not the cold I hate. It really doesn’t get that cold, especially if you’re from someplace (like me) that regularly dips below-freezing temperatures. It’s the darkness that gets me. The sun starts going down around 4 p.m. –– and that’s if you were able to even see it.

Summer is usually everyone’s favorite time to be in Berlin. I tend to agree, so along as the weather cooperates. Berlin is not immune to climate change and there’s usually a week or two that’s just wildly uncomfortable. And remember, my fellow Americans (and my Canadian friends), air conditioning isn’t really a thing here. Plus, it’s when most tourists come. So if you’re coming to see the tourist favorites, it might be a bit crowded and annoying.

My favorite season (in Berlin, anywhere) is the fall. So late September into October (just before the clocks change into what feels like permanent darkness). It’s generally warm enough to walk around comfortably with a light jacket and you still have plenty of daylight with which to play.

Ultimately, the best time of year to visit Berlin will likely depend on what you usually like. If you’re a runner, you might consider coming around the Berlin Marathon.

Things to do in Berlin

Berlins is known for its clubbing culture. That is, indeed, a thing to do in Berlin. It’s a wildly popular thing to do here. So if you’ve come here looking for confirmation, I have good news and bad news.

The good news: Yes, clubbing is Berlin’s thing.

The bad news: I know bupkis about it. It’s not my jam. One of my least favorite things about Berlin (about Europe in general) is that smoking is still a thing. That in and of itself doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that many bars and, yes, clubs allow it. So even if it’s just one schmuck who decides to light up, you and all of your friends are going to smell like shit because you’re trapped in the same space with them.

All that said, clubbing does not have a monopoly on Berlin. Like I said before, you can find your crowd here and be whoever you want to be. My favorite things to do in Berlin are eating and being active. That’s not the stereotype about Berlin, but you can do both of those things quite well here. So my list of things to do in Berlin will lean heavily in that direction.

Berlin Wall

The scars of the Berlin Wall are still pretty prominent in the city, especially where they’ve left pieces of the wall up as a memorial. I run by one of them (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) regularly. And I never get sick of it. I don’t stop every time to do the touristy thing of reading the signs and taking pictures. But I take it all in nonetheless. To think that within my lifetime, the places where I go on a casual run were incredibly dangerous. It gives me a sprinkling of hope in the future of other places that people today say, “Oh, you’ll never be able to go there.”

Besides living here and running by the wall, one of my favorite ways to learn about the wall and experience it was to do a tour with Berlin on Bike. They do great Berlin Wall tours (I wrote about it for BBC Travel). If you’re feeling extra sporty, the “Berliner Mauerweg” (Berlin Wall Trail) traces the entire 160-kilometer (100 miles) former border of East and West. You can, if you so choose, run large chunks of it or cycle the entire thing.

Berlin Parks

Berlin is a sprawling city, yes. But it’s also a green city with some wonderful parks. One of my favorite things to do in Berlin is planning a little picnic or grab a Wegbier (beer on the go) and hang out in one of the parks. I’ll also plan a lot of my runs through them as well. Here’s a list of my favorite parks in Berlin in no particular order:

  • Volkspark Friedrichshain
  • Volkspark Humboldthain
  • Treptower Park
  • Viktoriapark
  • Schlossgarten Charlottenburg
  • Tiergarten

It’s worth noting that Tiergarten is larger than a typical park and sits right at the edge of Brandenburg Gate. So I always tell first-time visitors to visit Brandenburg Gate early in the morning (to avoid the crowds) and continue with a little jaunt through the park.

Also, some Berliners might be wondering: What about Tempelhofer Feld? Tempelhofer Feld is a former Nazi airport-turned-site of the famous Berlin Airlift-turned-city park. People love it. Just not me.

I love a park for its trees and the opportunity to be surrounded by nature from the convenience of the city. Tempelhofer Feld is cool, in theory, but it is a former airport. So although it has some tree cover on the periphery, it’s mostly a large, uncovered field, which can be wildly uncomfortable on a hot summer day. Not for me.

Grunewald

Grunewald is much larger than a park, as the name indicates. (The name literally means “Green Forest.”) I fear I sometimes take for granted just how splendid this slice of greenery is. That might be because it does take me a bit of time to get there from the eastern part of the city. But it’s always worthwhile and makes me feel like wild spaces are closer to me than I can ever remember when I’m left lamenting my concrete confines.

This forest sits on the western edge of the city on the way to Potsdam. And it’s huge (for a city). You can truly get lost here, exploring trails all to yourself, especially if you come before noon. It’s one of my favorite places in the summer. I’ll go for a long run and then meet friends along the edge of one of the lakes for a beer, maybe even hopping into the lake to cool off. (Krumme Lanke, Schlachtensee, and Grunewaldsee are some of the most popular spots for this, FYI.)

And if you’re into a bit of history, this is where you can find Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Hill, the ruins of a Cold War-era US listening station.

Berlin Museums

Museums aren’t typically my jam, especially when I’m visiting a city for the first time. That said, Berlin is pretty well-known for its museum scene. You can find the famous Nefertiti Bust at the Neue Museum, for example. But for me, my most memorable museum visit was the DDR Museum or GDR Museum. This gives you a look at life in the former German Democratic Republic, including reconstructed apartment rooms. If museums are your thing, I’d put this at the top of the list since it’s unique to Berlin and Berlin history.

Restaurants in Berlin

Narrowing down Berlin’s restaurant scene to a handful of selections is nearly impossible. I’ve written for a few outlets about the dining options here, most notably how vegetarian or vegan-friendly this city is. In fact, I argue this just might be the mecca of vegan dining in the Western world. If you’re vegan, you will find entire restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops that are explicitly vegan. But even better, for at least social reasons, is that non-vegan restaurants almost always have excellent vegetarian or vegan options on their menu, because that’s what’s demanded in Berlin.

So if you’re a vegan or vegetarian traveling with carnivorous friends, you can rest assured that anywhere you end up will have something for you. Even better, the vegan dining is so excellent, it’s part of the experience of visiting Berlin. In other words, even if you still eat meat, you should make a point of trying out the city’s vegan scene. I’ll share some of my favorites below. (Yes, they have a major bias towards being close or close-ish to my neighborhood.)

Night Kitchen

Night Kitchen is an Israeli restaurant with two locations: Berlin and Tel Aviv. I’ve been several times and always get the “Dinner With Friends” option where you pay a flat rate, but basically eat until you tell them, “No more!” You can also share any dietary restrictions you have and they’ll take care of you.

Berta

Berta has an Israeli chef, but I’m not sure I’d call it an Israeli restaurant, per se. It’s a mishmash of Jewish culinary influences, mirroring the chef’s own background. The restaurant’s namesake, Berta, was his grandmother –– a German Jew who fled when the Nazis took power. So you’ll get a mix of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Middle Eastern Jewish food. It’s wonderful and wildly unique. It’s an expensive meal for most, so the two times I’ve gone have been for special occasions. But it’s well worth it.

otto

This one makes the list almost exclusively for their rehydrated beet salad. Look, I usually hate salads. But this was phenomenal. Plus, it’s what I argue German food actually is. The stereotype of massive cuts of meat is out there in the wild, for sure, but otto shows visitors that German food is regional and fresh. They take care to show that all of the ingredients are from the surrounding region. If that’s not German, then what is?

Knödelwirtschaft

Speaking of German, this is where I take folks who specifically say they want German food without spending the kind of money you’re likely to spend at otto. Knödel are simply bread dumplings. Or as one friend called it, Oh, it’s a matzo ball without the soup.” But of course, it’s more than that. You can pick from six different kinds of dumplings: Bacon, cheese, kale, pumpkin, or a vegan mushroom dumpling –– making it a great spot for folks traveling together on different ends of the omnivore-vegan spectrum.

rocket + basil

I’m not a brunch guy. But I came here for brunch and now all brunches are measured up against this. rocket + basil takes influences from the owners’ Persian-German background, and you can see that on the menu. Of course, if brunch isn’t your thing, you can come by in the afternoon for a sandwich instead. But it was the mascarpone pancakes with the caramelized bananas that left me with heart palpitations of joy.

Bräugier

Okay, not a restaurant, but this craft beer bar in Prenzlauer Berg is my local watering hole. So I have to give it a special shout-out. I don’t miss much about living in the US, but I do like that American style of craft beer pub. Bräugier scratches that itch. Plus, you can order takeout here and they’ll supply the silverware. So if you ask me, it counts!

Hotels in Berlin

I’m not super partial to any particular hotel in Berlin. Not just because I live here. Remember, my first years in Germany were spent living in Düsseldorf. So I visited Berlin a handful of times and stayed at hotels. My favorite in that case was…

Michelberger Hotel

If you’re a Bourdain fan, then you might recognize this hotel from his Berlin episode. I’ve stayed here two or three times and quite enjoyed it, especially where they serve breakfast in the morning (you can see a shot of it in the aforementioned Berlin episode). My only knock on this hotel is the location. It’s right on busy Warschauer Strasse. That said, it’s just a short walk north to Friedrichshain (one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city for people-watching and food), south across the Spree River to Kreuzberg, or to the East Side Gallery –– arguably the most famous place to visit for the Berlin Wall with its legendary graffiti.

Hotel Oderberger Berlin

This is another one I’ll mention for two reasons. One, it’s in my favorite neighborhood –– my neighborhood! –– of Prenzlauer Berg. And there aren’t many hotels in this neighborhood for whatever reasons. It’s usually where my in-laws stay, so I’ve had a look inside and would be perfectly happy staying there if I were visiting. Plus, it has a slice of Berlin history with its indoor pool. The other hotel is…

Myer’s Hotel Berlin

My in-laws will switch it up and stay here from time to time. It looks like a lovely hotel, and like Hotel Oderberger, it’s in a great, walkable location for Prenzlauer Berg. It’s one of those hotels so seamlessly integrated into the neighborhood, you can feel like you live there instead of just visiting.

Ackselhaus

This, folks, was my first Berlin hotel. I stayed here before I even moved to Germany, not knowing that one day, I’d live in this neighborhood. It’s a wonderful boutique hotel, also well-integrated into the neighborhood, with great access to public transit.

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