48 Hours in Berlin - Discovering Berlin in Two Days
Throughout this experience in France I am seeking a healthy balance between routine and the feeling of actually “living” here in France—and becoming so established in said routine that I forget to take full advantage of my time in Europe. I want to see as much as possible, but I don’t want to exhaust myself doing it— nor do I want to burn straight through the savings I slaved for all summer. Thus far, I have unintentionally skipped town at least once a month—to the U.K. in October, Paris in November and now Berlin in December. I’m starting to like this pattern. To avoid the slump of routine I’ve decided hold myself accountable for traveling at least once a month and if I end up doing more—well I'm sure I can live with that.
Recently my friend, Montana, and I were holed up at Ras la Tasse—one of my favorite coffee shops in Toulouse—and we both were itching to hop on a plane (thanks to weekly strikes travel by train is nearly impossible for the December). When nearly all of Western Europe is easily accessible for a weekend trip the “where” aspect of planning is far less important than the “how much?” Luckily, Europe is full of low-budget airlines—something the U.S. utterly lacks. Aboard Ryanair, Easy Jet and Volotea you can fly roundtrip between some of the most desirable cities in the world for less than the cost of filling up the tank of your Ford Escape.
So, Berlin. We booked two seats on Ryanair and two bunks for two nights at St. Christopher’s Inn Berlin Alexanderplatz hostel without spending more than 100€ per person. After so many recent solo travels—I was equally excited for the company as well as being nervous that traveling with someone else might make me feel like I was forfeiting the things that I wanted to do and see in order to accommodate them.
In the moment—booking a 7am flight seemed smart. “We’ll land so early, we’ll have the full day to see the city,” that was what we enthusiastically decided from over steaming vats of hot cocoa at Ras la Tasse. Yes, I know it was actually smart (and the only way to snag dirt cheap airfare)but I just wanted to take a moment to complain about how much I hate waking up at 4:30am. But, we landed by 9:30 and hit the ground running.
Beyond a shadow of doubt the day could not start until we grabbed breakfast—the secret to my my fastidious travel abilities is lots of caffeine and simple carbs. We started the day with fluffy cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven and frothy almond milk cappuccinos at Zeit für Brot or "time for bread." The bakery provided a cozy atmosphere to map out the day.
From there we threw ourselves into a whirlwind of walking and sightseeing. It was brisk day—it actually felt glacial—but sunny which is apparently rare for Berlin. We had arrived so early in the morning that we still had hours before we could check into our hostel and drop off our backpacks—so we took to the city backpacks in tow. St. Christopher's is located in the Mitte neighborhood, Berlin's central hub. This panned out marvelously because just about everything was within walking distance. Side note—we both really like to walk so the term "walking distance" should be read subjectively here. Tourists we were, we started with a marathon of some of Berlin's most well-known sites—Berliner Dom, the Evangelical cathedral perched on museum island—The Brandenberg Gate for a fast and touristy photoshoot—and a moment to ogle at Reichstag, Germany's parliament building.
Not unlike many other European cities, you need to climb something tall to get the best views. There are many landmarks in Berlin that give sightseers a vast panorama of the city and since we are apparently masochists, we chose the one without an elevator. The Siegessäule (Victory Column) was built in 1873 to commemorate Prussia's victory in the Franco-German War. Tickets to the top are just 3€, so the only cost of this monument is the toll of the 285 winding steps required the top. We were ascended the tower with impressive speed considering we were still schlepping our backpacks around.
Before and after the Victory Column workout, we serenely meandered through the Tiergarten, one of the largest urban parks in Europe.
As someone who is morbidly fascinated by World War II and the Holocaust—especially after traveling all over central/eastern Europe last year—my favorite landmark of the day was the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). The memorial is conceived as 2,711 concrete "stelae" or slabs to represent the six million jews killed during the Holocaust. It's meant to invoke confusion and abstraction—there is no singular way to interpret the maze of stelae. As you go further in to the exhibit the stelae grow taller and you find yourself enveloped in shadow. To me they resemble coffins or graves and invoke the feeling despair. In all honesty this is not the most stimulation monument that I've seen—but I appreciate Germany's efforts to confront the history and atrocities of the its past.
To recuperate from such a sobering exhibit and refuel for the rest of the day, we indulged in kaffee und kuchen. Kaffee und Kuchen is the sublime German tradition of coffee and cake, served between 3 and 4pm. Similarly, France has le goûter, Sweden has fika and the Brits have high tea.The tradition of afternoon sweets and coffee to help you power through the rest of the afternoon is a European concept that I stand behind one hundred percent. So, we decided to fuse the traditional kaffee und kuchen with Berlin's renowned coffee shop culture at Father Carpenter. Tucked away in a cute Mitte courtyard, Father Carpenter is minimalistcally cool. Their menu was simple and the interior was speckled with blue accents—including their signature blue mugs. For two serene hours, we recharged our phones and tired legs. We shared good conversation over thick slabs of banana bread and lemon poppyseed cake. Moments like these remind my inner loner girl how nice it is to travel with company.
Feeling revitalized after dumping our backpacks at the hostel and jolting our systems with more caffeine and sugar, we took to the streets of Berlin once again.
I've made an intentional effort to distance myself from anything "Christmasy" this season, it's hard for me to feel festive knowing that it will be the first of every Christmas from now on without my dad.. But, Germany's middle name is Christmas and last is party so if you're in Berlin in December festivity is not an option. The WeihnachtsZauber Christmas market at Gendarmenmarkt inevitably left me feeling more holly jolly than I have in a long time. Entry on the weekends is 1€ and it's worth every centime. The elaborate market takes place every year at Gendarmenmarkt, a stunning square in Berlin. Within seconds of entering our senses were titillated by thousands of baubles and twinkling lights and ornamental arts and crafts stands at every corner. The highlight was the plethora of cozy tents emanating the intoxicating smells of hot melted cheese, savory bratwursts and spicy Christmas cookies. As to be expected two short Saturdays before Christmas, the market was packed with revelers. After one tedious lap to assess our surroundings, we warmed our fingers on steaming mugs of glühwein (hot wine), listened to german holiday carols and watched the Christmas chaos unfold before us.
The market was exciting and lively—but loud. After being awake for 20 hours and accomplishing nearly 15 miles of sightseeing on foot, we were ready to eat our first meal of the day whose main ingredients weren't processed sugars and flour. Throughout our zig zag travels to and from the hostel all day, we had passed a California-inspired burrito joint called Dolores multiple times. Dolores is nestled in a fragrant corner of Mitte sandwiched between a vegan falafel cafe and a Korean fried chicken restaurant. While all three eminated the promise of a good meal, you could smell the fresh corn chips and guacamole from three blocks away. The fragrance, our empty bellies and the amazing reviews lured us in and after a long day of traveling, two massive burritos the recovery we needed.
We said we were going to wake up at 8am—it ended up being more like 9. What can I say, we were tired and travel-worn from the previous day. Breakfast was a special edition morning kaffee und kuchen—it's vacation, okay?—at The Barn Coffee Roasters. The Barn is an industrial chic coffee shop in Mitte serving up specialty coffee and sweets. I sipped an oat milk Christmas flat white (told you Germany brought out the festive in me) and nibbled at a hazelnut cake. It was no Father Carpenter and I'm not sure how I feel about cayenne sprinkled on my coffee, but it was still good. I'm living for the amazing cafe culture in Berlin.
The weather was much more Berlin-esque on Saturday—it was colder, grayer and we were assailed by a persistent drizzle. While it didn't stop us, it definitely slowed our pace. Out of self preservation, we did cut back on the walking. We took a train a few stops away from Mitte to see the East Side Gallery—a large, preserved piece of the Berlin Wall. Now it is adorned with commissioned street art from artists all over the world. It's a cross between an open-air gallery and one of the most important landmarks in Berlin. Once a symbol of division and restriction, the art on the wall meant to be a spirited celebration over the end of the harsh division imposed by the German Democratic Republic.
In continuation of our tour of "things that make people sad" we made our way to the Jewish Museum Berlin. While I'm sure this is completely circumstantial, but this museum was terrible. When we got there, we found out that the permanent exhibition was closed for renovations. The renovations were not clearly indicated on the website, and the price of admission was not adjusted to reflect the limited displays. But, since we walked all the way there in the rain we gave it a shot. Overall the couple of temporary displays were lacking in substance and history and as much as I hate to say it, the museum felt like a waste of time—especially in a city that's home to so many consequential museums and galleries. That being said, I would unquestionably give the museum another chance the next time I find myself in Berlin.
Since we'd now had the pleasure of seeing some of Germany's most pivotal sights, it seemed fitting to indulge in some hearty German cuisine. SAUSAGE. We made our way from the remnants of Germany's grim past back to its cheery present at the WeihnachtsZauber Christmas market. This time around we maneuvered with ease through the market as seasoned experts. Okay, it was also 3pm on a cold and bleak day and the crowd a fraction of the size as the night before. After a quick lap and a cheesy pretzel appetizer, we feasted on hearty, well-earned bratwursts.
I hate to plague you with more drool-worthy pictures of food—but we were cold and travel worn and mostly done with the sightseeing portion of the weekend. Basically—we spent our last night enjoying the food and nightlife in Berlin. Montana's boyfriend's best friend happens to live in Berlin and was kind enough to show us a fantastic night out. We met up in Hackescher Markt—a cool conglomerate of shopping restaurants and nightlife in Mitte—for a delicious non-German pasta and wine dinner at Piccolo Giardino. Though it was brisk, we slurped burrata-coated pasta pomodoro and chestnut gnocchi al fresco and kept warm under heaters and fleece blankets.
To walk off dinner, we headed toward the famed Checkpoint Charlie. Located on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße (don't ask me for pronunciation 😉), Checkpoint Charlie was the former border crossing between east and west Berlin. The checkpoint has been a site of numerous tense moments in history and later an element of many historical spy movies. While I can't and don't claim to have a wealth of knowledge of Cold War history, it was still interesting to see—especially since the modern tourist site is an exact replica of the original checkpoint.
After dinner with a side of history—we constructed some homemade cocktails, listened to music and hit the town. I take a lot of pride in remembering and registering all the details of where I go in my travels, but I couldn't even begin to tell you what bars we went to that night. Not for that reason!! We were out Berlin locals, and we were merely along for the ride. We weaved in and out of a lot of crowded, industrial looking bars all blasting house music. It was a cool scene and that's all I can say with any authority. While I don't normally make nightlife a priority when I travel, it was worth taking advantage of Montana's local connections to enjoy a night out with real Berliners.
Being the food-obsessed traveller that I am, the evening obviously ended with some late-night bites. We ended Berlin at Burgermeister. Burgermeister is iconic in Berlin. This joint is situated under the U-Bahn rails in what used to be an old public toilet. The menu is basic burgers and fries done well—and they quickly churn out burgers to the masses who show up at all hours of the day and night. In the cold, at 2 AM and after drinking a concoction of different alcohols, this perfect cheeseburger and fries was all I could have wanted and more.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Some of the best trips that I've taken have been spontaneous decisions that take away the burden of overthinking and over-planning. Sometimes it's serendipitous to just buy the tickets and go.