Berlin Insider Tips: 10 Reasons We Love This City

How do we love Berlin? It’s difficult to count the ways, but we’ve narrowed it down to 10 Berlin insider tips.

For other destinations, check out our August 2021 Destinations post.

To dig into the food of Berlin, read our August 2021 Global Cuisine picks.

berlin insider tips: This photo, taken from atop a Ferris wheel at the Alexanderplatz Christmas fair, shows the city brilliantly lit up against the night sky.
Atop a Ferris wheel at the Alexanderplatz Christmas fair in December 2014; photo by Nan Bauer.

Our Berlin insider tips are especially geared toward slow, immersive travelers.

But they’re also handy if you only have a weekend—preferably a long one—to spend in this vibrant, energetic northern European city.

This post is one of our August 2021 Destinations.

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Berlin Insider Tips, #1: Planning Your Time

Of course you can blitz through Berlin in an action-packed weekend.

We, however, propose a minimum of 5 days.

A week is better. 10 days is better still.

A month? Heaven!

Why? Well, for slow, immersive travelers, Berlin is simply wonderful.

And why do we say this?

Well, we’ll get into that as we go along. For starters, though, keep in mind that Berlin Is Affordable.

According to Nomaden Berlin, the city is one of Europe’s easiest on the wallet.

In fact, though Nomaden Berlin is geared to those considering relocating to Berlin, it’s a fine source for slow travelers, offering spectacular deals on furnished apartments if you have the luxury of settling in for a month.

You probably don’t. So where should you stay?

Berlin Insider Tips, #2: Best Neighborhoods

Off the bat, people will tell you to stay in the heart of the action: Mitte, right in the middle of the city. (Hence the name.)

We say: Don’t listen.

Don’t hate us. But we think Mitte is noisy and expensive, and a bit charmless.

Instead, we point you to these great neighborhoods:

Friedrichshein mural; December, 2014, Nan Bauer
  • For a Park Slope-esque family vibe, choose Prenzlauer, replete with pre-war buildings spared by bombs, breweries, the city’s oldest beer garden, the Prater, and Mauerpark (which hosts a massive flea market on Sundays), and the Bearpit Karaoke Show. Miss Malvina’s YouTube tour provides a great way to get to know the neighborhood. The tour starts around 1:45 on the video, btw.
  • Finally, we make no bones about the fact that we love staying in suburbs, usually about a 15-20 minute train ride from the city. We enjoy the chance to decompress after a day of Berlin’s intensity on our trip home to Pankow.

With many pre-war, unbombed buildings that provided homes for higher-ups in the East German government., Pankow is wonderfully quiet and calm, and you can easily adopt a corner coffee place and bar if that’s your thing.

Like Friedrichshein, above, it’s replete with opportunities to experience ostalgia, the sentimental longing for the former GDR (East Germany) that seems to glide over memories of the dreaded Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, and spend an inordinate amount of time swooning over Ampelmann, the little guy who shows up on crossing lights.

berlin essential tips: a streetlight in Pankow, a fine suburb to make as your home base when visiting Berlin, features Ampelmann, the little green figure in a hat who signals when it's ok to cross the street.
Streetlight in Pankow featuring Ampelmann, December 2014; photo by Nan Bauer

For even more in-depth info from someone who’s spent multiple years in the city, we love this post on Berlins neighborhoods from Blogger Kristin.

Berlin Insider Tips, #3: Eat Your Way Around the World. For Super Cheap.

Eating Great and Cheap: Germany welcomes immigrants. So not only will you find, naturally, hearty German cuisine and lots of cake, you can feast on street food, fast food, and cheap sit-down meals from around the world.

You will, of course, want to try some wurst, particularly kurrywurst.

You will also want to be sure to snap a hilarious and risqué picture of you sampling said kurrywurst. For private purposes only.

(Alas, I do not have the refreshing lack of vanity required to post My Hilarious Kurrywurst Eating Picture on the Interwebs. You’ll have to make do with my delight at seeing my name writ large.)

Berlin Insider Tips: Head Roamer in Chief Nan Bauer stands beneath a "Bauern Grill" sign on a food stall in a Berln Christmas market. "Bauer" means "farmer" in German.
Head Roamer in Chief Nan Bauer stands beneath a “Bauern Grill” sign. “Bauer” means “farmer” in German. Photo by Steve Hoekman.

Of course, Germany is also about spectacular sweets. And if you think you’re going to get away with not eating any, you, my friend, are either deluded are disturbingly saintly.

Stop that.

A Christmastime display case of German treats. Berlin, December 2014, Nan Bauer

As in many large cities with huge immigrant populations, much of the best food is the native food of those immigrants. Superb Middle Eastern, like this falafel, as well as East Asian food, is easy to find and cheap.

Falafel in Berlin: Pretty much guaranteed to be tasty and cheap. Berlin, December 2014, Nan Bauer

We particularly like this guide to great cheap food from tip berlin, a great site with tons of insider info on everything from clubbing to current exhibitions to the top ways in which tourists annoy Berliners. The English translation alone is worthwhile for gems like “They pour money into the tight coffers of the metropolis.”

Indeed we do!

Berlin Insider Tips, #4: Museums, Museums, and More Museums

Culture Heaven: Berlin has 170 museums. They’re wonderful.

If museums are your thing in any way, if you love to learn, you will not be bored.

Museum-shy?

I beg you, try just one.

Of those 170, you’re sure to find one you love.

My advice? Don’t miss the DDR museum. You get to pretend to drive a Trabi, the funniest little car EVER.

Behind the wheel of a Trabi, as rendered on the Berlin Wall. Berlin, December 2014, photo by Nan Bauer

For short-term visitors, I recommend picking one museum—say the Pergamon, which is magnificent—and truly savoring it.

High above recreated Babylonion walls in the Ishtar section of the Pergamon Museum. Berlin, December 2014, Nan Bauer

Or the DDR museum, where you can pretend drive a Trabi—ending in disaster—and see how well you fit into an East Berlin apartment for a medium-to-high-ranking Friend of the State.

Also, East German children apparently were subjected to terrifying puppets as toys. Were these rewards or punishments?

Puppets in the DDR museum. December 2014, Nan Bauer

Of course, you still have another 168 museums to go.

Berlin Insider Tips, #5: Ya Love the Night Life. Ya Like ta Boogie.

Nightlife: If you want to party, Berlin is the place. I go to bed early. Perhaps you go to bed early, too—like 8 a.m. Either way, you’ll be happy.

Head Roamer Nan’s young American in Berlin contact had this advice to find the best clubs: “Know People.”

Truthfully, it is not hard to meet and know people in Berlin. Start with your host wherever you’re staying. If clubbing is important to you, choose a place that’s in a clubby neighborhood, like Freidrickshein.

And meanwhile, this super handy guide from Berlin Clubs tells you everything you need to know, from the best days to go to door policies.

Jetzt geht’s ab! Which is German for “party like it’s 1999,” except more like whatever The Kids are saying.

(Head Roamer Nan is old. It would be unseemly at her age to be caught sporting about in a Berlin club.

She fears it might end like the clip below.

She would be the guy in the hat. Take off the hat, Bill!!)

I shall now go and watch an episode of Murder She Wrote while drinking a cup of Sleepytime tea. Jetzt geht’s ab, indeed!

Berlin Insider Tips, #6: Learning from the Past

In Germany, the Nazi era is NOT the elephant in the room.

There are monuments throughout the city emphasizing the need to learn from and not repeat history.

Right by the Brandenburg Gate, you’ll find the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. On first glance, you simply see a lot of concrete rectangles.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, December 2014, Nan Bauer

What you can’t really see until you begin walking down the rows is how the rather extraordinary design takes you deep….

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, December 2014, Nan Bauer

….and deeper….

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, December 2014, Nan Bauer

On a chilly winter night, the experience is particularly powerful, and frightening. You wonder how the hell you’re going to get out.

There are memorials to the victims of Hitler’s regime throughout Europe, and this article from DW.com offers a list as well as interesting insights.

In particular, we found the Berlin Anne Frank Centre moving. Its modest scope emphasizes the ordinariness and tranquility of Anne’s life prior to the family’s hiding in an Amsterdam attic. Juxtapositions of Hitler’s ideas of the Perfect Germany with the reality of Anne, her family, and the millions of others persecuted and annihilated by the regime quietly devastate.

Berlin insider tips: an image representing Hitler's ideal of Aryan childhood is juxtaposed with photos of Anne and Margot Frank as children, gazing out at the sea. From the Berlin Anne Frank museum
Images representing Hitler’s ideals are juxtaposed against photos of Anne Frank’s family at the Berlin Anne Frank museum. Here, Anne and her sister Margot gaze at the sea; photos by Nan Bauer, December 2014

In the same building, the unassuming Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind Museum tells the remarkable story of Herr Weidt, who risked his life helping German Jews hide and escape to safety. Of all the stories I’ve encountered about the Holocaust, this one hit me the hardest.

A now nearly-empty room in the Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind Museum in Berlin served as a hiding place for Jews during WWII.
A room in the Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind Museum in Berlin served as a hiding place for Jews during WWII. Photo by Nan Bauer, December 2014

Berlin Insider Tips, #7: The Wall

It is nearly impossible to comprehend the bizarre state of living in a city divided down the middle by a hideous wall.

Which is why you need to watch Eric Stange’s documentary, The Wall: A World Divided.

And then, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for this city, and for the glorious grafitti that has turned a symbol of oppression into one of resilience.

A colorful panel from the Berlin Wall. Photo December 2014, Nan Bauer

There’s huge variety of art styles, from this expressionistic panel….

A colorful panel from the Berlin Wall. Photo December 2014, Nan Bauer

…to this photo-realistic rendering of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honnecker. (Learn about the original photo in I Heart Berlin’s blog post.)

Perhaps the Berlin Wall’s most famous panel, featuring Brezhnev planting a passionate kiss on DDR President Erich Honecker. The caption reads, in Russian and German, “My God Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.”

Look, how can you not? I like to think of myself as Brezhnev and Steve as Erich. As my friend Deborah Green noted, “Talk about typecasting!”

Berlin Insider Tips, #8: The Great Outdoors

Germans, at least the ones we know, are BIG on fresh air.

This is, after all, the home of Freikörperkultur, aka the Free Body Movement. And also of keeping your windows open at night even when it’s freaking freezing.

Of course, you aren’t required to be naked.

As Nomad and In Love point out on their blog, you just need to take advantage of Berlin’s countless opportunities to have fun in nature.

Amir will now give you a tour of his favorite Berlin parks.

Why have I off-loaded this job to Amir?

Because I have been to Berlin twice, both times in the dead of winter. It is Sehr Kalt, which is German for colder than a [your colorful analogy goes here].

A ferris wheel in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, post-Christmas, 2014. The Berliner Dom looms in the distance. Photo by Nan Bauer.

You know what? I still loved it. Freezing 7-hour days and all.

So I can’t wait to get back there in summer, when the days stretch out way past 12 hours.

And when I go, like Berliners, I’ll be kicking back in a park, soaking up that glorious northern sun.

Berlin Insider Tips, #9: The Music

Prior to Nena and her Luftballoons and Rammstein, German music meant Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, and a bunch of other composers.

So you can go from the Brandenburg Gate in the city center…

The Brandenburg Gate, December 2014, photo by Nan Bauer

…to listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, performed live by superb musicians.

(Excuse that on-the-nose segue. It saved me from using a stock photo.)

We get it if you’re all about the Klubs. But if you’re instead—or also—all about the Klassical, wilkommen.

We love Bachtrack for classical music listings. For more intimate concerts combining art with music, check out Framed.

Berlin Insider Tips, #10: The Germans

We know the stereotype of the stony-faced German refusing to crack a smile.

As well as the one of hearty, rosy-cheeked folk frolicking in lederhosen, a sausage in one hand, a massive stein of beer in the other.

Want to know the truth from the falsehoods? Check out this excellent post by German Nick Schäfferhof about which stereotypes of his countrymen are true—and which aren’t.

We admit that, to an outsider, Germans often seem serious, intense, and anal-retentive in the extreme.

But if you complement a man on his elaborate mustache, you will get a big smile and an explanation. This happens to be a particularly fine example of a Kaiser Wilhelm.

berlin insider tips: A Berlin man proudly displays his Kaiser Wilhem mustache. December 2014, photo by Nan Bauer
A Berlin man proudly displays his Kaiser Wilhem mustache. December 2014, photo by Nan Bauer

So be friendly. Don’t be offended that Germans think Americans are weird for smiling at strangers.

Because it’s completely fine for you to admit that you think it’s weird that Germans stare at strangers.

Then clink your massive steins of beer together and bellow, “Prost!”

You, meine freund, just got a little tiny bit German.

Love Berlin? Have your own Berlin Insider Tips? Let Us Know!

Leave a comment and/or get in touch!

Thank you!

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About Me

Welcome to Head Roam! I’m Nan Bauer. Join me in rethinking travel in the world we live in now. Learn more about how I got here.

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