“The wall” and the East. Along the Spree and Unter den Linden. Sprawling and flat, Berlin is a massive city with a heavy history. But today’s Berlin is a city of neighborhoods and the people that live there. It’s an understatement to call Berlin a city reborn, but it is. It’s probably wildly unfair to claim that Berlin intends to move on with its story, but it does. Our visit explored Berlin’s history, but our experiences — the food, celebrations, music — are inextricably linked to its wonderful neighborhoods.
Mitte for the Tourist
Berlin’s central district. We made Mitte our home base at the Ritz Carlton Potsdamer Platz because we wanted to be located near all of the main attractions of the city center: Tiergarten, Brandenburg Gate, Gendarmenmarkt, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Reichstag, Museum Island, and Checkpoint Charlie.
The Mitte is walkable, if you like walking, and a pleasure to walk Unter den Linden from Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island, a tree-lined pedestrian walkway linking up many of the Mitte’s main attractions.
Berlin’s Museum Island is a familiar feeling for us coming from Washington, D.C., with most of our museums all centrally located around the National Mall. Within a few minutes walk of one another, the
Altes Museum: Neoclassical in its architectural style, the museum houses classical antiquities. The visit here is marked as much by the architecture as the classical busts and statues inside.
Neues Museum: Massive in scale and a combination of neoclassical and renaissance revival styles, the museum houses Germany’s Egyptian artifacts.
Pergamonmuseum: Maybe one of the coolest museums we’ve been too, it houses the incredible Pergamon Altar, Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way of Babylon, among others in vast scale very much like the British Museum in London.
Bode Museum: Feels very much like stepping into a parlor show, where like items are collected in small rooms. Surprising fact, thus museum contains the world’s largest numismatic collections.
In order to make the visits enjoyable (read: by-passing lines), the 3-day Berlin Museum Pass was well-worth the investment.
We were fortunate to have a friend contact a colleague of his to obtain for us a tour of Germany’s Reichstag. The building is spectacular in its late 20th century rebirth from the neglect of the Nazis and targeting by the Soviet Red Army during World War II. The Reichstag is reunification in building form, but it is impressive in the art preserved throughout the complex (including the co-located office buildings). Some fascinating parts of the building include the building’s dome, which allows for air to funnel into the main chamber, Cyrillic graffiti left by Soviet soldiers after the siege of the Reichstag in 1945, the “Archive of German Members of Parliament” art installation, which includes members that were Nazis, and the various architectural features that are enjoyed by members of the German government and staff on a daily basis. The walk to the top of the dome offers spectacular viThis special tour allowed us to see the inner workings of a truly remarkable building.
Mitte for the Feeling of a Local
As soon as we wanted to feel like locals, it was somehow extremely easy in Berlin’s center. Our hotel was located just south of Torgarten, Berlin’s massive central park. This made getting Jump bikes extremely easy to cross the park and head to the other side of the Spree. The paths are well marked and well lit, even late at night. It has such a feeling of a little oasis that was there for just us, a few others, and lots of dogs. We also found a little “beach” with chairs across the river from Berlin’s glittery Hauptbahnof.
Beyond Torgarten, we spent a lot of our evenings walking along the Spree River and in the former Jewish quarter north of the Spree. The restaurants, bars, and secret little courtyard passages felt very familiar, but also new. We found passageways that led us to concert venues. It was the Berlin we’d been hearing about — the funkiness, the brand new, the grunge. Very cool.
Further afield to Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, and Schöneberg
We biked Berlin. It was easy with ample bike paths in between the main road and the sidewalks. Everything is well labeled. Directions are straightforward. Jump bikes were plentiful and it was easy to get into various neighborhoods away from the center given Berlin’s relative flatness.
Prenzlauer Berg showed us historical Berlin, with many of the buildings withstanding World War II bombing raids. We rode past Alexanderplatz and the high energy there uphill to a lovely tree lined neighborhood. The buildings are predominantly five-story in closed blocks with wide avenues. A favorite street for strolling downhill back to Mitte is Kastanienallee, with many bars and restaurants on both sides of the street.
Friedrichshain has seen recent redevelopment (Mercedes Benz Arena and Plaza) but remains unique in very punky ways including the public art on display at one of the longest portions of the Berlin Wall still intact (East Side Gallery), several funky houseboat hostels, and beautiful and castle-like Oberbaumbrucke, a road and rail bridge connecting to Kreuzberg.
Kreuzberg is a hip area of the city and super multi-cultural. Art and artists abound. Further beyond Kreuzberg is the dilapidated Flughafen Tempelhof, a former military airport that is now a park and event space,
Schöneberg is an eclectic neighborhood known for its galleries and gay-friendly atmosphere. We were in Berlin during PRIDE and it was amazing.
The Food of Berlin
No matter how many places we travel, when we travel to Germany, people are amazed that we find fantastic restaurants that serve something other than pig roast and sauerkraut. But three nights of dinners proved that Berlin has more than just curry wurst and doner kebab (although we loved that too!).
Lokal: located in the Mitte, its small, simple, wooden tables, and small flower arrangements. Somehow this feels like a neighborhood favorite spot. The food is a fresh take on farm-to-table German cooking and the wine list is extensive.
Cordo: located in the Mitte on a quiet residential street and one star in the Michelin guide, this restaurant packs a punch with a set menu in a casual setting (think comfy high tops near a dimly lit bar and inner courtyard or front room with fireplace facing the street) the stark white and grey plates are topped with a colorful panoply of ingredients showing off the kitchen’s refined technique.
ZENKICHI: admittedly, we stumbled into this oasis of sake and omakase, and had not planned on it ahead of time, but we are so glad we did. This felt like a secret garden and was one of the most romantic meals we’ve had insofar as our seating was was behind a grass curtain. Not previously Sake fans, we quickly grew to become Sake fans upon our visit.
We’d go back to Berlin tomorrow if we could. From the energy of the Mitte to the grittiness of the neighborhoods, we felt very much at home.