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Thanks to your suggestions, I had a great time during my recent trip to Berlin! And now you'll get to see just how many of your suggestions I didn't use because I fail at planning. [flashes a thumbs up]
...Well, you're supposed to relax on a vacation, so I've heard. Aside from do stuff. And that necessary step of planning the "stuff" stresses me out, a skill I haven't developed well due to a spoiled life of, well, not having to plan much. I usually rely on the friends I'm traveling with to figure out our activities, or cling to locals like they're my seeing-eye dog—both of which happened in Berlin. But out of all the vacations I've ever taken, I think this is the one I've done the most planning for. And this is what I learned: I need to learn how to plan better.
Since I never know if a series of posts about a vacation will take a few weeks or a few months (...nah, I'm lying; it'll definitely be the latter), I'm starting this series of Berlin posts with a Table of Contents of sorts, a list of my major activities in handy, not photo-laden (but really long) bulleted-list form. Hopefully this can help someone plan a trip to Berlin.
To clarify a few things, I flew to Berlin with my friend Diana (travel buddy to Norway and Iceland), where we met up with my boyfriend Kåre, who flew in from Norway. Kåre and I stayed in a different hotel from Diana, and we spent about half the days apart, meeting up at nights for dinner.
Aaaaand here we go:
Day 1 (Thursday, April 5th)
- First shopping destination after Diana and I arrive too freakin' early to Berlin: Kaiser's, a major supermarket chain.
- While roaming aimlessly near Diana's home for the next week, Hotel-Pension Bregenz, we end up on the Kurfürstendamm, not knowing it's Berlin's fancy-pants shopping street. AIN'T NOTHING FOR US HERE. Moving on...
- Hang out/collapse for a bit at Diana's pension before meeting up with Kåre; his flight arrived a few hours after ours. Not walking around feels sooo gooood.
- Meet up with Kåre at our hotel, Hotel Berlin near Nollendorfplatz. Diana leaves to meet up with a friend. Take a nap until mid-afternoon.
- Kåre and I meet up with Berlin friend/TGWAE reader Annette in Prenzlauer Berg at bakery Werkstatt der Süße for first real food of the day (HOORAY!), which happens to be dessert (...HOORAY!). Follow Annette as she leisurely guides us around the neighborhood.
- Eat post-dessert snack sandwich at Cafe Fleury, a cute French cafe.
- Visit Haus Schwarzenberg, a backyard/courtyard of cafes, shops, museums, awesome street art, and other stuff that I'm only reading about now because we don't get to spend much time there. Many thanks to Annette for leading us there. Very neat; I recommend it.
- Head back to Prenzlauer Berg to eat dinner at Weinstein, a lovely wine bar (not that my teetotaling self imbibes) with a cozy, rustic feel and a menu of refined German-inspired dishes. Reasonably priced for the quality. Recommended, especially if you like wine.
Day 2 (Friday, April 6)
- Get breakfast from the bakery stand in the Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station: €1 ham sandwich with lettuce, cucumber, and mayo on a mini baguette. I almost forgot how much I loved sandwiches—really simple ones on satisfyingly chewy bread with a bit of crust—since I had cut down on eating wheat over the last few months. Also, ONE FREAKIN' EURO. (I didn't stick to my diet during the trip. The unfortunate consequence is that I haven't been able to get back on my diet since getting back from Germany.)
- Head to Brandenburg Gate for Sandeman's free Berlin tour. I won't list every place we visited here, but you see loads of major landmarks during the three-hour tour and if your guide is awesome and you're as history-dumb as I am, you'll learn a shizzload. Do it; it's free (aside from the optional tip for your guide).
- Head down to Kreuzberg for the Turkish Market, only to be met with nothing Turkish or market-like, then find out far too late it had taken place on Thursday because of the Easter holiday weekend. FFFFFFFFFF
- Redeem the journey with an ice cream sundae at Fräulein Frost. Or, if you're like Diana, with a freshly made waffle. Definitely worth checking out if you're in the area.
- Take a nice stroll to Hasir Ocakbasi for Turkish dinner. It's an unplanned, Yelp-guided decision (thanks, Diana's iPhone!), but a pretty good one. I fill up on grilled lamb chunks and crisp, chewy flatbread washed down with tea.
- Return back to hotel with Kåre, but roam around the neighborhood a bit, discovering from the not gaudy sex shops and bars that it's Berlin's major gay district.
Day 3 (Saturday, April 7)
- Breakfast is, again, a €1 sandwich; this time I go for hard boiled egg instead of ham. I kind of love this bakery stand.
- Head to first museum of the trip: Computerspielemuseum (Computer Game Museum)! Not exactly a Berlin necessity, but Kåre and I like computer/video games (I'm no game buff, though). You could spend a long time here if you want to play all the games and fully delve into each exhibit.
- Browse Ostpaket, a store that specializes in East Germany-era products. Somehow I end up only getting a bar of Schlager Susstafel, despite the wide food selection. Probably should've done more research beforehand on what to buy.
- Browse the Pergamon Museum for a few hours!...no wait, that doesn't happen because the line to get tickets is crazy-long, at least 45 minutes. This is when Kåre finds out you can buy tickets online; we do that later, but methinks the main reason the line is so long is because it's a holiday weekend, in which case getting tickets shouldn't be as time-consuming on other days.
- Head to the Humboldt Box because it's nearby and we don't know how else to kill the few hours before dinner (we consider other Museum Island museums, but we mostly want to go to the Pergamon). Not a must-visit, but we get a nice view out of it and learn about what the heck the building is for, which I'm guessing is what most people would think when they see it because...it looks funny.
- Meet up with Diana for dinner at Zur Letzten Instanz, the oldest restaurant in Berlin. Since we don't have reservations we're given a time limit to be out by 7:45 p.m. I eat a ginormous, delicious grilled pig knuckle.
- Museum #2: DDR Museum, which stays open until 10 p.m. on Saturdays. The well designed interactivity of the exhibits is pretty genius for keeping the attention of kids and short attention spanned adults (me). Definitely visit if you can.
- End the night with taro bubble tea from the stall in the Nollendorfplatz station (there are loads of bubble tea places in Berlin, although I'm guessing most of them aren't very good). Unintentionally end up with "popping" bubbles filled with litchi-flavored liquid. It is...not something I would get again.
Day 4 (Sunday, April 8)
- Spend the afternoon north of Berlin in Oranienburg at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial on a tour by Sandemans (€15 per person). Totally worth going if you have over five hours to spare. Our guide is awesome. We learn tons of horrifying things and see where such horrifying things occured, but that's how history goes.
- On the way back to Berlin, attempt to go to a German restaurant but encounter some S-Bahn poopery when, after transferring twice, realize the stop we want to go to is inaccessible. (Advice: Read those service advisory signs carefully.) Time to make new plan on the fly.
- But it's all for the best; we head to Charlottenburg to go to Schnitzelei for dinner even though it's one of the farthest choices, and we have an awesome meal. Everyone's happy with super friendly service and bellies full of Austrian foodstuffs.
Day 5 (Monday, April 9)
- The plan: Try Curry 36 for currywurst and Mustafa's for doner kebab. The reality: Mustafa's line is crazy long (about an hour; still on the Easter holiday, d'oh) and we don't have that much time. I grab currywurst and fries from Curry 36 as Kåre waits in line at Mustafa's. Curry 36 is crowded, but the line moves quickly. I can't tell if their currywurst is especially great, but hey, pork sausage things smothered in curry-flavored ketchup accompanied by fries fulfills many savory fat and carb cravings, and it's super cheap. A good first meal of the day.
- Why we don't have all the time in the world to wait for Mustafa's: because we need to head to the Pergamon museum and actually get in this time. We stroll in right away because Kåre already bought tickets online, although the ticket line isn't nearly as long this time compared to Saturday. Like at The Met or The Louvre, you could spend a gazillion hours in here. We rush through in about two and a half hours. Better to plan for more time.
- Meet up with Diana at Die Feinbäckerei for dinner. Kåre and I share a Swabian sampler for two, which is a massive, carb-laden pile of Swabian Cuisine 101. Diana's plate of spatzle is probably for two people. Crazy amount of food for the price. We are fans.
- Diana and I share a cup of bubble tea, this time at a bubble tea shop close to our hotel. It is not good. D'oh.
Day 6 (Tuesday, April 10)
- Buy sandwich from the Nollendorfplatz station bakery stand to eat later for lunch.
- Head to Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central train station) to meet up with Diana for our trip to Dresden. Buy pastries from Le Crobag, a major bakery chain, for breakfast.
- After nearly four hours, arrive in Dresden. Get on a bus to Moritzburg, about 20 minutes, during which I eat my sandwich. Mmm, ham on a pretzel roll. Pretzel roll, you're a winner.
- Head to Moritzburg's main attraction: Schloss Moritzburg, a baroque castle/palace/hunting lodge famous for its collection of red deer antlers on display pretty much everywhere in and outside the castle. You'll never forget that loads of deer died here. (It's also famous for being featured in Three Nuts for Cinderella.) A bit bummed that photos aren't allowed, but it's probably a good thing because the last thing I need to do is take more photos. It's beautiful, but I have a hard time standing overbearing opulence.
- Back in Dresden, roam around the Old Town, seeing Dresden Castle and Dresden Frauenkirche, among other things.
- Eat dinner at Freiberger Schankhaus just off the main square, Neumarkt. For a restaurant in a major tourist area, it's reasonably priced and the food's not bad. The outdoor seating in pleasant weather don't hurt either. There are surely better restaurants in Dresden, but if you don't want to hunt for a restaurant out of the center, this is perfectly fine. My half order of roasted pork knuckle is freakin' huge. Kind of dry, but good enough.
- We give bubble tea yet another go at Bobo Q, the most "hip"-looking bubble tea shop I've ever seen, with a steady stream of dance music coming out of the speakers. They offer loads of jellies and other mix-ins. My tart latte (sans bubbles) is satisfying enough. Diana and I might be the only Asian people in the shop, which, in my experience, is a first.
- During our two-transfer, over four-hour train ride back to Berlin, we run into a group of football fans in Falkenberg and take their photo. I wish these things happened more on vacations. One of the fans, Paul, comes our way on the train and sits by us to chat. We have a great time talking to him (he is endearingly excited about using English), especially when he informs us, guiltily perhaps, that we could've saved a lot of money by buying unlimited train passes for the day. Epic fail for us.
- I stay up hella late planning to next day's activities down to a T. Since it's the last day, I need to shove in everything I can that I can feasibly do. I look up all the subway routes, how long they'll take, and what times we need to leave places.
Day 7 (Wednesday, April 11)
- Crazy productive day, stop one: KaDeWe, famous, ginormous, fancy-pants department store with an extensive food floor. I give us a comically short time here, about half an hour (we wake up later than I planned, unsurprisingly). You should give yourself at least an hour, probably more. If supermarkets fascinate you, you'll probably want to look at everything.
- Kåre doesn't ask for much, but he loves coffee, so the next stop is for him: DoubleEye, a coffee shop recommended by one of Diana's friends for having the best coffee in the city. Kåre is very happy, indeed.
- Back to Mustafa's! The line is much shorter this time; we only wait about 15 minutes. This is one of my favorite bites of the trip, worth going out of your way for. I'm guessing doner kebab isn't this good in most places. Mustafa's may be overrated, but for my only doner of the trip, I'm very happy.
- Meet up with Diana at Cafe Buchwald for their famous baumkuchen and other pastries, accompanied by tea. This is another food highlight of the trip: great cake in a relaxing setting at a friendly price.
- Time for currywurst number two, this time at Konnopke's Imbiss. Again, I don't know how great the currywust is without much to compare it to (well, just Curry 36), but I enjoy the heck out of it, along with mayo-ed fries (I love mayo, in case you didn't know) and a bottle of Fassbrause.
- Walk to Onkel Philipp's Spielzeugwerkstatt, a toy store I found through this blog after a quick Googling for toy stores in Berlin. There could be no better toy store to fulfill my toy-loving needs. This place is haphazardly packed with piles of toys—not that practical if you're looking for a specific toy—but fantastic for browsing. As would be the theme for the day, I don't allot enough time here, in this case because I don't expect to spend so much time in the store's basement East German Toy Museum (€1 admission; you've gotta do it).
- Hurried stop at old chocolate shop Fassbender and Rausch, which features chocolate sculptures and...craploads of chocolate. It's inexpensive. I quickly browse and pick up a bar of chocolate for Diana and one for myself.
- An even more hurried stop at the nearby Ritter Sport Store, which I figure is worth a peek since it's within walking distance. If you want cheap Ritter Sport bars of all kinds, this is your place; €0.85 bars, man. I frantically buy a bunch of mini bars to give as gifts back home.
- Why all the hurrying around? To meet with Berlin-based Serious Eats contributor Conor, along with Diana, at Schwarzwaldstuben for dinner. I happily get another dose of schnitzel. Great choice for German/Austrian eats (thanks to Conor's rec), aside from the dessert taking forever to come out for some reason. Which cuts into the last destination of the night...
- Take a cab to The Reichstag for our reservation at 8:15 p.m. It's free to visit; you can pick a time when you register online. I wouldn't say it's a must-visit, but it's free and comes with an audio tour—a tour I don't listen to because I unintentionally grab the German audio tour thingy instead of the English one. The dome is neat, if you're into stuff like cool buildings (I am).
- Final stop at Kaiser's to pick up any last minute grocery items to bring back to the US. I don't have the foresight to buy more Haribo gummies, which are only €0.89 a pack. I guess my teeth are better off.
Day 8 (Thursday, April 12)
- Kåre and I only take a short nap before waking up stupid early, around 5 a.m., to get to the airport. (I stayed up painfully late doing Serious Eats work I forgot to do earlier.) Leaving Berlin and Kåre makes me sad.
- BUT AT LEAST I GET ONE LAST SANDWICH AT NOLLENDORFPLATZ.
...Wait, should I even bother writing real posts?
...Okay, I'll still do that. Eventually.
Things Worth Knowing Before Visiting Berlin
These aren't all things you have to know—you'd figure out a lot of this stuff right away—but some of these points may be useful to know beforehand, and I didn't know 'em all. I didn't do much research, admittedly.
- You can get fined for jaywalking, and thus most people don't do it (or maybe they're just super cautious). It's disarming as a New Yorker when you're in a big city where people don't cross the street even though there are no cars in sight. If you want to blend in (and...you know, be safe), don't jaywalk.
- There are no gates/turnstiles in U-Bahn/S-Bahn stations; you must validate your ticket at a machine before you ride a train, in my case just a one time-validation for a week-long pass. A friend of a friend mentioned how she used the trains without buying any tickets during her vacation in Berlin—not that it's worth the risk of being caught and fined €40, in my opinion (a 7-day A/B zone ticket costs €27.20). Although we did see a few transit police, disappointingly no one checked our tickets the whole week.
- You have to press a button on the train doors to open them.
- Transfers between the S-Bahn and U-Bahn may not be that close to each other (not that they're really far either, just not seamless).
- Tipping in restaurants is 10-15% (as opposed to 20%).
- Prostitution is legal. Another thing I knew before I went, but it was still a bit surprising to see a handful of prostitutes meandering around the main road to our hotel. It wasn't anything sketchy, but I imagine some tourists would be caught off guard.
- If you feel like you're waiting a strangely long time for a crosswalk light to turn green, you probably just have to press the crosswalk button. (I guess this sounds dumb, but I don't encounter crosswalk buttons much in NYC. Many of them may not even work.)
- Bike lanes are often part of the sidewalk. Yeah, what a nice, not-deathly way to bike around the city. Avoid walking in the bike lane.
- Lots of places are closed during Easter Weekend. You'll still have plenty to do (major museums stay open), but keep in mind that many places (like supermarkets) may close the Friday before Easter, on Easter, and on the Monday after.
- You can save a lot of money when taking the regional train if you're in a group and you buy unlimited day passes. I can't find the exact info at bahn.com (knowing German would help), but Paul told us it's €42 for the first person and €6 for each additional person. I'd assume this depends on where you're going. Talk to a ticket agent before you buy anything.