Berlin signified my last ‘luxury’ trip away i.e. residing in a hotel rather than a hard-sleeper train and eating ice cream rather than mutton stew (‘just without the mutton, please..’). My friend Lydia and I were very excited at the prospect of jumping on the train to Gatwick, hopping across to the European mainland and finding our way to the Adina Hotel in Berlin’s centre.
We perhaps shouldn’t have been so confident. After lingering at Gatwick Airport’s Wetherspoon’s over a cooked breakfast (which included an unmentionable sausage), we found ourselves running to the gate with our oversized hand luggage, with just three minutes until our gate closed.
Once in Germany, we decided to bypass the taxi rank and make the journey to our hotel in Alexanderplatz by public transport. Future travellers – decide on your priorities before embarking on this journey. To save time or money? Ah, yes – to save your precious Wiener Schnitzel spending money, as Lydia and I chose! Of course. Well, let me ask – are you the person who prefers to take the ‘scenic route’ on a long car journey? That has enough spare time to iron your bedsheets and fold your socks? Do you enjoy climbing up broken escalators in your leisure time, just for a laugh? And would you like to undertake a trek as arduous as Frodo’s to Middle Earth? Then I would certainly recommend public transport to you.
On the plus side, a one-way travel card costs a mere €3.30, whereas a taxi will set your German beer fund back a considerable €40. Just be aware, there is no immediately obvious way to find public transport from Berlin Schoenefeld airport, but if you follow signs for ‘DB’ (referring to a regional train of the Deutsche Bahn area) and hop on the first signed train, you will be driven straight to the centre of town. Just steer clear of the seemingly abandoned warehouse at the end of the station tunnel…
(Note to future visitors – your €3.30 travel card will grant access to any public transport within the city, so long as you purchase for the ABC zones. Public transport in Berlin is made up of the U-Bahn (underground), S-Bahn (suburban trains), and trams and buses. Berlin’s system is one where you must authorise your own ticket after purchase, by stamping it with the machines located on the platforms. You may then use the authorised ticket for up to 2 hours after stamping – unstamped tickets will be considered invalid.)
A few hours – and new pair of comfy shoes – later, we arrived at Adina Hotel in Hackescher Markt. The hotel was located in a fantastic position, just a five-minute walk away from the Fernsehturm (the Berlin TV tower) and a twenty-minute walk down to the Brandenburg Gate, along the central plaza, through the Mitte district. The hotel was lovely, and included its own bar and hot tub – both of which we immediately took full advantage of.
For our first evening out, we were planning to attempt entry to the terrifying-yet-intensely-intriguing Berghain, aka the self-christened ‘Church of Techno’ nightclub. However, after recommendations from friends, we chose to avoid the renowned queues there, and head to Simon Dach Strasse. We were told that this street had a slightly more chilled vibe with bars and cafes, although it certainly livened up later on. We had an amazing first night at Badehaus and Neue Heimat, which included delicious cocktails and some seriously dodgy dancing (Lydia and I even created a new dance move called the Snake Charmer, which was much more innocent than it appears now that I’ve written it down).
Feeling ever so bright and breezy the next morning, we walked down to the Brandenburg Gate to sign up for the free walking tour that we had read about online before arriving. I would strongly recommend this to any visitors, since it is a fantastic way to get your bearings within the city, learn about Berlin’s fascinatingly tumultuous history – and oh, and did I mention that it’s free? The tour visits the Holocaust Memorial, Hitler’s suicide bunker, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and, very importantly, also points out the exact spot that Michael Jackson infamously dangled his baby out of a hotel window! Since we were there on the anniversary of the Nazi book-burning in Humboldt University, our tour ended up in Bebelplatz – a town square in which hammocks and beanbags and piles of books were laid out for public use. A special shout out to our guide (and my future husband), Sam Noble, who had a incredible knowledge of Berlin and really inspired an interest in its history. Beware of a particularly devilish lady who likes to walk around Bebelplatz shouting, frankly-hilarious-at-the-time, obscenities at everyone.
That evening, we decided to go on a boat tour of the city; this costs around €10 and can be caught from outside the DDR Museum. Although the tour had been recommended to us by a few friends, we found that, ultimately, it was much more relaxing and leisurely than it was informative. In fairness, we’d caught the last boat of the day with just two other passengers so, although we only learnt the odd fact sailing along, it was very pleasant to sit back with a drink and watch the waves lapping up against the beach bars which are situated all along the river bank. In fact, we were so inspired by the riverside scenery that we decided to spend the rest of our evening on a deckchair at one of these beach bars, sampling our first bottle of German beer. By chance, we seated ourselves at Strandbar Mitte by the beautiful Bode Museum; under the open night sky and fairy lights, crowds of people came dressed up and danced the tango, waltz and salsa. I believe the dancefloor is open every night throughout the summer, so definitely worth paying a visit to – whether you fancy an old-time boogie by the river, or just to observe some great footwork from your deckchair.
The next day, we caught the train out to the city limits to visit Potsdam – the leafy area of residence to the Prussian kings and the German Kaiser until 1918. Around Potsdam, there are a series of interconnected lakes and green spaces, in particular the parks and palaces of Sanssouci, the largest World Heritage Site in Germany. We hired bikes for the day and were extremely proud of our cycling proficiency, despite being overtaken by every German person in the land. I also made friends with a snail called Bob and we all ate bananas splits in the sunshine together.
(To future visitors, I would recommend paying for the Hop On Hop Off bus from the train station to get into the town centre, if only for convenience. The walk otherwise is around 40 minutes and the bus only costs €6; in addition to the lift, you benefit from having all the sights pointed out en route. Just be aware, you literally have to jump off the moving bus – Lydia and I sat very politely for the full 90 minute tour, shrugging patiently as we missed our stop – ‘we’ll get off at this next one’…and the next stop…and the next stop…).
For our final day, we had booked a reservation for lunch at the Reichstag – the seat of the German parliament and one of Berlin’s most historic landmarks. We had been recommended to make the lunch booking by a friend and I would certainly suggest it is worthwhile doing so if you wish to visit the top of the glass dome for 360 views across Berlin. Regardless of lunch, booking a table means that you are whisked past the long queues at the door and taken straight up to its rooftop restaurant. Warning – if you do order the €25 four-season potato main course, you will be presented with a single new potato, a single roast potato, a single spoonful of purée and a single crisp. Yes, a crisp. A single one. €25.
Berlin is a fascinating place for history and a crazy place for nightlife. Visit the memorials and museums, and soak up the endless information about the country’s turbulent past. Practise your techno dance moves before arriving, or be forced to create a new one such as the Snake Charmer. Oh and the ice cream. So much ice cream. I literally had a dream on our third night where I was stood in an ice cream parlour begging for less topping on my ice cream because I literally couldn’t handle it anymore.