I have been visiting Berlin almost annually since my brother moved there over 10 years ago. Between all of the trips, I’ve had the chance to really explore the city, its culture and food and I’m delighted to be able to share my recommendations with you for your next trip.
The first thing to remember about Berlin is that, unlike a lot of capital cities, there is no singular city centre. The official centre of Berlin is the district called Mitte, which literally means middle, and this is where you’ll find lots of tourist sightseeing landmarks such as the Brandenberg Gate (Brandenberger Tor), Alexander Platz, where you’ll find the Berlin TV tower, and the Reichstag parliament building. There are 12 districts in total in Berlin city, so lots to explore.
Getting there and around
There is only one airport in Berlin now, Brandenberg Airport. It’s accessible to the city by train and, honestly, while a taxi may seem like an easier option, you’ll save money and time thanks to a very regular train schedule. In fact, the train is legitimately the best way to travel around Berlin.
The wonderful U Bahn (underground) and S Bahn (city rapid railway) train services span the city, even out to the suburbs, and they are very reliable. You can buy one-day or three-day passes from ticket machines and they work out very reasonably, with endless travel for the period within the main city zones. One thing that tends to catch people out, though, is that you have to validate your ticket before getting on the train by punching it in a standalone machine on the platforms. You’ll see other people doing it, so just follow suit.
Where to start in terms of Berlin’s vast number of museums, exhibitions, theatres and venues for all types of music and entertainment? One thing I have found is that I haven’t ever run out of things to do and there is always a new exhibition starting or a concert announced that I want to go to.
You might not think about attending a concert in Berlin, or another country for that matter, but I highly recommend it. It’s nice to see your favourite artists perform to different crowds, in different venues. Generally, Germans don’t rush out to buy tickets for gigs the way we do, so even if a gig is sold out in five minutes in Ireland, you can often still get tickets in Germany. Plus, they’ll often be cheaper.
Berlin has some excellent venues, from the Mercedes-Benz Arena (quite like The Point in Dublin) to small intimate venues – I went to see the band The National in the very cool Colombia Theatre (Colombiahalle), which used to be a sports hall for stationed US soldiers. Concerts are also held in an open-air amphitheatre in the middle of a forest, known as Waldbühne. It’s one of my favourites and it’s at the western end of the Olympiapark in the Westend district in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. I went to see another band, Arcade Fire, there a few years ago.
There are so many museums (and too many to mention) but one of my recommendations is Museum Island (Museumsinsel), a UNESCO world heritage site on an island that is home to five museums and an exhibition space, the James Simon Gallery. It’s here you’ll find one of my favourite museums in Berlin, the Pergamon Museum, home to a huge collection of antiquities that are more than 2,600 years old.
Walk along the Processional Way of Babylon and behind the Ishtar Gate and you’ll feel like you’re in another world.
For first-timers to Berlin, the historical remnants from World War II are no doubt of interest and there are so many things to see, in this regard, and museums to visit. The East Side Gallery is a must-see. This is the part of the Berlin Wall that is still intact and sections were painted by various artists. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is haunting, or for something slightly different, perhaps the DDR Museum, which is the Interactive Museum of East Berlin Life.
My recommendation for a permanent exhibition is Dark Matters. Described as “a parallel cosmos of expansive light installations in which the boundaries between the real and the digital world become blurred” this is a mind-blowing interactive experience that is also a lot of fun. You’ll have to travel to the suburbs for this one, but again, it’s all easily accessible by train.
Checking out markets
Berlin is a haven for second-hand shopping, from furniture to clothes, vinyl to anything you can think of. However, it’s not just vintage finds that you’ll discover in markets, there are so many food, drink and craft markets.
While I am reluctant to mention it in September, Berlin is also known for its Christmas markets and you’ll find large ones around Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and AlexanderPlatz. Enjoy some Glühwein (mulled wine) and Baumstriezel (sweet chimneys).
Berlin’s food scene is as diverse as its population. There is great value to be had and I think what’s refreshing is there are so many casual spots with excellent food dotted all over the city. It’s hard to direct you to one particular district for restaurants or cafes, but my favourites definitely include Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Neukölln.
Some of my go-to spots are: Adana Grillhaus (Kreuzberg) for amazing Turkish grilled food; Krasselt’s Imbiss for classic currywurst; House of Small Wonders (just off Friedrichstraße) for a Japanese-influenced brunch menu; Korean fried chicken from Angry Chicken (multiple locations); Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant (on Herrfurthstraße) and one of the best falafel wraps I have ever had in my life can be bought from a street food kiosk on the corner of Volkspark, where it meets Fontanestraße (Neukölln).
Good news, too, for fans of the doner kebab, as it is the official street food of the city due to the large Turkish population. There are kebab shops on almost every street and they even have their own version of it called the Berliner Kebab, which is the usual doner ingredients but served in a pitta bread pocket.
If you’re a coffee fan, Berlin will be a mecca for you and your tastebuds. The Barn is probably one of the city’s most famous brews that has made its way to Irish shores, but you can visit their lab and experience a coffee tasting like no other.
While you can be kept busy with the wealth of things to do – and you can party all night and day if you wish (that’s a whole other feature, but look up Berghain to hear about the city’s world-famous club) – I think Berlin’s biggest charm is its vibe. It’s a great city to simply hang out in, and you will definitely get to experience the city as a local if you do. There are so many parks to go to, and luckily the weather in the summer months is great, so there’s no excuse not to just grab some kebabs, a few drinks and sit and enjoy the atmosphere. Check out the canal banks (Landwehrkanal), Templehofer Feld, Mauerpark, and Görlitzer Park, to name but a few.
Another great way to spend a sunny afternoon is to take a boat trip on the Spree river and you’ll pass by lots of the landmark sites, plus you can eat and drink on board.