I’ll admit upfront that I didn’t love Berlin. I didn’t find any of its neighborhoods charming and the entire city feels… cold and grey. It might have had something to do with visiting at the end of October, but either way, Berlin and I just never clicked.
It’s important to note that part of the reason why the city isn’t so attractive is that much of it was destroyed during World War II. There are still bullet holes in many buildings, and construction sites abound – chilling reminders of what took place there under Nazi rule.
Places like Nikolaiviertel, the square pictured above, have been completely reconstructed.
Even though I didn’t fall in love with Berlin, I’m still glad I visited. Learning about the city’s history from within its limits was eye opening, and something I’d recommend. While it is a huge city, I only had 48 hours in Berlin – here’s how I spent it.
Things to do in Berlin
Take a History Tour
With such limited time, I decided one of the first things to do in Berlin was to sign up for a 6-hour walking tour to help me get my bearings and provide a refresher on Berlin’s history. A day-long walking tour can be tiring, but on the plus side, you can ensure you get to all the major sites. I signed up for the Brewer’s “Best of Berlin” tour. At just €15, it was a pretty affordable way to spend the day. If you’re thinking, six hours of walking?!? fear not – there were plenty of breaks for coffee, snacks, and lunch along the way to rest our feet.
I love small group tours where the guide has a personality, and the Brewer’s tour didn’t disappoint. Our guide was quirky and had an affinity for semi-inappropriate jokes, but when you’re on a 6-hour tour filled with some of the world’s most depressing history, a little bit of humor comes in handy.
The tour took us everywhere from the Gendarmenmarkt (one of the most architecturally interesting squares in the city) to the Berlin Cathedral, Checkpoint Charlie, what’s left of the Berlin Wall, and the Holocaust Memorial.
While of course I studied the Holocaust and World War II throughout high school and college, being in the place where all of these things actually happened was a sobering experience.
I always pictured it in my head as a group of bad guys terrorizing all the normal people – but as our guide pointed out, Hitler was elected and many German people embraced or passively accepted his nationalist ideologies. Scary stuff. It was especially jarring to learn that so many of the people heavily involved in the Nazi reign of terror were either not prosecuted, or released early from their sentences.
Our guide explained that there’s still a feeling of shame – or collective guilt – felt throughout Germany, and that in the very recent past it was taboo to discuss the Holocaust and Nazis.
Before the tour ended, we visited the place where Hitler died. Or rather, the parking lot that’s above where he died, because he killed himself in a bunker that’s completely sealed. Our guide pointed out something pretty ironic: the bunker site today is just a block from a gay club, and here he is, a Jewish tour guide, earning money by bringing tourists there. All the things Hitler hated most and spent his life trying to destroy now surround the place he spent his final moments in.
The tour wrapped up at the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most famous attractions in Berlin. It’s one of the older things in the city – built in 1971 – and is surrounded by iconic buildings like embassies and the iconic Hotel Adlon. It might be a familiar scene if you remember Michael Jackson dangling his son out of the hotel’s window in 2002. Or, more recently, President Obama dined there with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
On a lighter note, I should also mention that one of the breaks we took during the Brewer’s “Best of Berlin” Tour was at Fassbender & Rausch, a famous chocolate store. They have some really cool sculptures made of chocolate – chocolate Titanic, chocolate Brandenburg Gate, you name it!
Explore the Neighborhood: Prenzlauerberg
The first day’s walking tour was focused on the Mitte neighborhood, which is the center of Berlin and the most “touristy” area of the city. If you’re only in town for a short time, it’s a good place to stay as you’re near most attractions. But if you can, you should definitely venture out and explore another Berlin neighborhood. On the recommendation of a friend who lives in Berlin, we set out for Prenzlauerberg.
Locals might say that this neighborhood is “over” because it’s become gentrified, but as an outsider I thought it was lively with plenty to do. On Sundays, there is a famous flea market at Mauer Park. You can have brunch at the picturesque Cafe Anna Blume. And Prenzlauerberg is home to the oldest beer garden in Berlin. Which brings me to my next recommendation…
Visit a Beer Garden
Berlin isn’t known for its beer halls – that’s Munich – but it does have a few that are worth visiting for a taste of traditional German culture. Prater Garten is the oldest beer garden in the city, and if you’re looking to try German food, it’s a great place to go for classic dishes. For example, you can order Konisberger Klopse (meatballs in caper sauce – one of my favorites), Wiener Schnitzel (veal cutlet), or a seasonal specialty (when I was there, it was wild boar).
We ate at Prater Garten in late October which meant we dined inside, but in the summer, there’s a huge outdoor area with live music. Definitely a fun place to spend a nice afternoon!
Eat Street Food
The best thing about Berlin has to be its plethora of cheap and delicious street food. Seriously, I wouldn’t need a kitchen if I lived there.
One of the most popular street food items is currywurst, which is basically sausage covered in curry ketchup and topped with curry powder. While it was tasty, I can’t say I understood the hype. But some people do – there’s a whole museum dedicated to currywurst near Checkpoint Charlie, and supposedly Germans consume 800 million currywursts each year.
My favorite street food item was the Doner kebab, which is made of Turkish rotisserie meat in a pita and topped with a variety of vegetables. Rumor has it that this delicious late-night snack was invented due to the high concentration of Turkish restaurants in Berlin – they had to differentiate themselves with unique toppings. It was seriously so yummy – I could eat these every day!
Go Out for Vietnamese
After the Doner kebab and the currywurst, the next thing on our to-eat-in-Berlin list was Vietnamese. Berlin has a huge Vietnamese population for two reasons. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, thousands of refugees fled from communism and landed in West Germany. But there were even more Vietnamese people who came to communist East Germany as temporary contract workers. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, these workers lost their jobs and residency status. Many of them stayed and started small businesses, like specialty shops and restaurants. It’s interesting that these two groups of Vietnamese immigrants – the refugees and the workers – started off in two very different Germany’s.
One of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin is Monsieur Vuong, a trendy spot that doesn’t take reservations and serves tropical cocktails alongside its pho. We didn’t have to wait long, and the food definitely hit the spot after walking around all day in the cold.
Berlin Nightlife: 48-Hour Parties (or Not)
If you so desire, you can actually spend the entirety of your 48 hours in Berlin at the same party.
One of Nick’s friends who lives in Berlin tried to explain the city’s nightlife to us. Basically, parties last all weekend, and you can head out whenever. Don’t bother getting dressed up: you want to look too cool to try. A hole-y t-shirt might get you in the door. His favorite time to stop by is after a morning run.
As you can imagine, a lot of drugs are involved for the people that are actually partying for 48 hours and raging to techno music at 8:00 a.m.
This brings me to the final reason I didn’t fall in love with Berlin: I’m just not cool enough for the city. We didn’t make it to a 48-hour party (because let’s face it: we probably wouldn’t get in), but we did walk around at night and observe the Cool People in their natural habitat. For example, while wandering near our hostel searching for something to eat, we came upon a convenience store that was absolutely hopping. This place was literally like a 7/11 with tables outside, and it was packed with young people smoking cigarettes and wearing dark lipstick. I remain mystified as to its allure.
If a drug-fueled weekend of staying awake for days on end isn’t your thing, but you’re also not that jazzed up about the convenience store thing, there are more things to do in Berlin at night! A couple places that I liked:
- St. Oberholz – It’s actually a coworking space slash coffee shop, but at night they turn up the music, dim the lights, and serve some pretty decent cocktails at the bar. There’s free wifi in case you want to upload photos or check in with friends and family at home while you unwind from a day of touristing.
- Old CCCP – We were drawn to this place because of its name, and stayed because the DJ was playing some awesome 80s music all night. The interior is dark with plenty of sofas and lamps that look straight out of 1985. It’s the perfect place to watch people dance (or join in!). The only negative was all the smoking inside, but unfortunately it’s something you still run into a lot in Europe.
So there’s my guide to Berlin. I know I didn’t see everything – how could I possibly explore such a big city in a mere 48 hours – but I left feeling like I’d learned a lot, and maybe gained a couple extra pounds thanks to all that street food and beer.