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Berlin, Germany


If you've read the very first chapter of 100 Flights, you'll know that my relationship with Berlin started off a bit rocky.


It also ended that way too. (But it's just so hard to quit you, baby.)


Berlin is easily one of humankind's goofiest creations. For a city with such a tumultuous past, it's just so weird that modern Berlin is what it is today.


What is modern Berlin, you ask?


It's weird, I answer.


I honestly don't really know how to explain it in a way that satisfies me.


It's a city where young people go to find themselves and old people go to lose themselves (or vice-versa), and it's where I went to live for almost two years because it sounded like a good idea at the time.


People in Berlin are free to do absolutely anything they want to do without fear of judgment, but they also end up doing so in a German city with all of the German rules and German norms of German culture, which is kind of a living contradiction.


Example: a great deal of my friends (both German and foreign) prefer to pay the fine for not having a bus/subway ticket rather than buying a ticket every time because it's almost always cheaper in the long run. (Unless you're super duper special like me and get ticket checked an absurd amount. I'm still compelled to buy the tickets every single time because they can smell my fear.)


Anyway, here's my guide to Berlin.


Getting in:

Gone are the days when you could fly into the (now closed) Tegel Airport and bus to the city center in 20-something minutes. Here are the days when the long-awaited Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg "Willy Brandt" (BER) is finally open 14 years after construction began, only to replace the old Berlin-Schönefeld Airport, which sits a solid 50-minute drive from downtown in most cases.


Last I checked, Uber was still VERBOTEN ('forbidden' in shouted German) in Berlin because it goes against German law for 'independent contractors' to be driving people around in their own cars (as opposed to Uber making them true employees with benefits and whatnot), so the app only hails a standard taxi service for you.


That said, if a 50-minute taxi is out of your price range, follow the signs for the train station that's more or less connected to the terminal. It's about a 40-minute train ride to either the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) or Alexanderplatz (another main transit hub in central Berlin).



Getting around in Berlin:

You'll notice very quickly that the public transportation system in Berlin is extraordinary. It's so good that you'll get annoyed by cars without even being on a bicycle. (Berlin is great for cycling as well, btw.)


So yeah, you can get anywhere you want via the U-Bahn (underground), S-Bahn (overground), the tram, and buses. You can buy tickets at the machine or via the app, but I would look into the seasonal monthly pass deals that may become a permanent thing. I guess that depends how long you're staying. If you have any single use tickets, make sure you validate them by sticking them in the machines that throw a timestamp on them. For buses and trams they are inside, for trains you have to do it on the platforms before you get on the train.



Where to stay in Berlin:

I'm gonna do this one as a description list of the primary usual suspects for first timers in no particular ranking but in clockwise order.


Mitte.

The name means 'middle' and it's appropriate. This is the historical heart of the city center, home to the famous Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate), alone with various other popular Sehenswürdigkeiten (aka 'attractions' but it's one of my favorite compound words in German. It literally translates to 'see worthy opportunities').


Mitte is clean-cut, bougie, and well-located. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 2 out of 5.


Prenzlauer Berg

Part of the Bezirk (a scary German word that just means district or borough) known as Pankow, Prenzlauer Berg is one of the prettiest and most popular areas in the city. Although it was once filled with post-WWII squatters, it has since been restored (aka gentrified) into a vibrant and charming neighborhood filled with young professionals and budding families.


Prenzlauer Berg is charming, picturesque, and has a bit of everything. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 3 out of 5.


Friedrichshain

Another post-war rebuild, Friedrichshain is an artsy, semi-nocturnal, and 'cool' neighborhood on the East side of Berlin. This is where you'll find a bunch of the techno clubs, and therefore a bunch of students as well.


Friedrichshain is clubby, industrial, and highly sought after. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 4 out of 5.


Kreuzberg

On the south side of Berlin's river (Die Spree), Kreuzberg is a famously multi-cultural and international neighborhood that's almost always buzzing. It's home to Kottbusser Tor, which is basically little Turkey, and it's also the neighborhood with two of Berlin's biggest festivals, Ertser Mai and Karneval der Kulturen.


Kreuzberg is diverse, bohemian, and used to be relatively affordable. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 5 out of 5.


Neukölln

Seemingly always called the up-and-coming neighborhood of Berlin, Neukölln is already a hotbed for trendy foreigners who can't be bothered to foot the bill for Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. Instead they opt to overspend at nearby vintage clothing stores and vegan cafes, but that's all good and well because the attitude is chill.


Neukölln is alternative, interesting, and vibey. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 4 out of 5.


Charlottenburg

Over on the west side of town, Charlottenburg is a higher-end kind of place where you'll find far less action and far more peace and quiet. In addition to some nice palaces, parks, and gardens, this is where you'll find many upscale restaurants, hotels, and major fashion boutiques.


Charlottenburg is ritzy, out of the way, and nice. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 1 out of 5.


Wedding

Last on this particular list, Wedding is a fairly affordable but not terribly popular part of town that's seemingly been in development for as long as the new airport. That means it's great for activities like biking and/or running outdoors (because there's not a lot of interference), but that comes at the cost of fewer nice restaurants and a longer commute into the city center.


Wedding is residential, cheap(er), and still full of potential. Its hipster score for Berlin is a 3 out of 5.



What to do and things to see (and things to do and what to see) in Berlin:

The first thing you should do in Berlin is take out some cash. Yes, I know what year it is, but a lot of Berliners still don't. I hope you like carrying around cash and doing math during every transaction to make sure you get the correct amount of dirty coins to put somewhere inconvenient.


The next thing you should do in Berlin is find your nearest convenience/corner store called a Späti aka Spätkauf (which literally translates to "late buy") and buy a bottle of beer to walk around with. My personal choice is a super popular lager called Augustiner, which does in fact come from Munich for those who are calling me out for the photo choice at the start of this city guide. I'm not changing it.


Note: when you're done with your beer, please place the bottle on the ground NEXT TO the public waste bins and NOT inside the bins. Most tourists make this mistake because they don't know how well Germany recycles. That bottle will get picked up and exchanged for money at a grocery store or recycling center before you can finish the next one.


I'm a big park lover, so my first recommendation is to check out the Tiergarten that sits behind the Brandenburg Gate. A decent touristy itinerary would be to check out the gate and the Tiergarten together after passing by the Reichstagsgebäude (parliament building) and the maze-like Jewish Memorial made of 2,710 stone columns. Just make sure you don't end up on that blog of people who take insensitive content for social media at it. (Also, this is different from Berlin's Jewish Museum, which is the largest of its kind in Europe.)


Anyway, once you're inside the labyrinth of the Tiergarten, you might get a sense of why it was there that I decided to move to Berlin. It's the city's largest and oldest park, filled with pleasant trails, gardens, and various ways to get lost in green nature. If you're looking for civilization within the park, try to find Café am Neuen See, a little beer garden with a view across a lake.


If you're looking for a park with more action, Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg is the place to be on Sundays. There's a tiny amphitheater with public karaoke, which is a must-see (though not a must-do) at least one time. Afterwards you can enjoy the rest of the park by grabbing a bite to eat and wandering around the flea market.


Down by the Spree is another place I recommend called James-Simon-Park. This is a fun little park along the riverside where you can hang out with a drink from the nearby bars and cafes, resting in lawn chairs to watch the colors of the sky and the river change in the evening.


Within and/or next to this park is also a bar called Strandbar, which is one of the most well-known salsa spots in town. The Germans aren't very well-known for their dancing, so go ahead and show em what you got without fear of being any worse.


Just across the water is the Museumsinsel (Museum Island), which is home to a unique collection of five museums that you can visit during the day, as well as the iconic Berliner Dom cathedral that you can see from a mile away.


If street art is your thing, one of the must-sees in Berlin is the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain. (This is a good compliment to the Berlin Wall Memorial and North Side Gallery up in Mitte near Nordbahnhof, which I also recommend). The East Side Gallery is a conserved art project of graffiti art displayed on the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall.


If you want to do the most touristy thing and see the giant bubble tower thing (aka the Berliner Fernsehturm), head over to the Alexanderplatz marketplace. I actually went up the tower a few times for drinks during my time in Berlin, and I didn't hate it up there. Not sure what it's like these days, however.


When it comes to other things to do in Berlin (as long as it's warm enough), I can't say enough about how many great cafes and brunch spots there are in this city, no matter your dietary restrictions.


Unfortunately, I don't have a refined enough palate to distinguish between good and bad coffee, so I can't really make any reliable recommendations here. That said, an unreliable recommendation would be Balzac Coffee, which I believe re-branded to Espresso House for obvious reasons. (Because Deez Nuts Coffee was taken, of course.)


Anyway, all I can say is trust the process and do the very Berlin thing of hanging out at cafes.


Also, I love German supermarkets. Rewe is awesome, Lidl, Aldi, and Edeka are classics, and I would've lived inside of a Kaufland if Angela Merkel had let me.



Where to go out in Berlin:

It's so funny to me that Berlin of all places has such a high level of discretionary door policies at bars and clubs to decide whether or not you can get in on a given night. It's like, I get that your bouncers are trying to maintain the right kind of vibe at your establishment, but isn't that kind of arbitrary, and isn't this the exact city where little hints of discrimination should be avoided, let alone celebrated?


"Hey man, you can do whatever you want and dress however you want because this is Berlin, but oh yeah if you want to come in here you better be wearing black shoes, black jeans that are a little too short to show your white socks, a black shirt or jacket that's either denim or black leather, a beanie that's a little too small for your head, and you better be drinking a Club-Mate or smoking a hand-rolled cigarette." Lol.


Nevertheless, Berlin is still lauded as having some of (if not) the best techno clubs in the world. Hell, even the gym I had a membership at was essentially designed to be like a techno club, which was ridiculous.


Anyway, clearly I'm not a techno addict myself, because in two years living there I never even stood in line at Berghain, but I did stumble into Sisyphos a few times.


And as usual, I won't pretend I'm a club expert for any of my city guides, but some other popular one's during my time living there (pre-Covid) were Club der Visionäre, House of Weekend, Tresor, KitKatClub, Watergate, and Kater Blau.


Note: absolutely make sure you do some research on the dress codes and/or specific kinks of each club before going, and prepare to stand in line for a long time with the chance of not getting in.


I also need to give a shout out to Prince Charles, which used to run a night called Burgers and Hip-Hop, where the music was self-explanatory and the food was a rotating assortment of burger vendors depending on which ones got the most (or fewest) votes from the last event. Those were so fun.


If you're looking for some fun at a more reasonable hour, one of the classic sunset spots is called Klunkerkranich down in Neukölln. This is a cool rooftop place that you should probably show up early to if you wan to find a table.


For a bad-and-bougier rooftop feel, Monkey Bar is a good bet because it has views over the Tiergarten and the Berlin Zoo. This is also true of the nearby PanAm Lounge (an event venue styled after the airline of the 50s), which is really cool to see if you're lucky enough to go.


Another place I recommend is a food court style venue called Markthalle Neun in Friedrichshain. This is an indoor market with a food truck vibe to it, with various events going on depending on the week.


For an outdoor complex with shows and events in an old brewery, Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg is an interesting place at night. Similarly, the nearby Prater Biergarten is a nice place to get a classic German experience of beers and brats.


My favorite cocktail bar in Berlin used to be Melody Nelson in Mitte. It has since moved to a new location and I don't know what the new one is like. (The same thing happened with one of the most charming breakfast/brunch spots, House of Small Wonder, which apparently had to move because Google bought the building it was in.)


As a general area to check out at night, Rosenthaler Platz is pretty cool. There's a bar called Mein Haus am See which has a small DJ setup and a very unusual seating arrangement.


My list could be longer, but I'll stop with one of my favorite wine bars, Weinerei Forum. At least historically, the way things worked at this bar was that they served you wine, and you paid however much you wanted. Of course, you might get some extremely dirty looks if you act like a cheapskate, so that's why you don't.



Where to eat in Berlin:

Berlin does such a good job with food and drink. From coffee to brunch and dinner to late night, there's really nothing that this city misses. It's also one of the best cities in the world for vegans and vegetarians, hands down.


One of my absolute favorite under-the-radar restaurants in Berlin (and probably the world) is called Salamat. I even hesitated to give up this secret, because it may be my best one. The Babylon Platte and the Salamat Platte (both vegan) are fantastic, as are the Hühnerschawarma (chicken shawarma plate) and the Rinderschawarma (meat shawarma plate). I could seriously rotate between those every day for the rest of my life.


A lot of people will say to try the Currywurst in Berlin, but as for me, I'm all about the Döner Kebabs. With 4,000 kebab shops, Berlin is the döner capital of the world. That's more than Istanbul, where they essentially came from.


If you're looking for a good place to get one, just look around and pick any of them. If you really wanna do some döner tourism and get a famous one, you won't be disappointed with Mustafa's Gemüse Kebap, although the line can get disappointingly long.


For currywurst, I hear that some of the currybest are at Curry 36 (a chain) and Bier's Kudamm 195. The former is lower end, the latter is higher end.


Moving on, in case you're too good for a döner or a currywurst (newsflash: you're not), I think I'm simply gonna run down a list of some completely unrelated places I can recommend in Berlin. You know, just to give an idea of how much random goodness the city has to offer.


DJIMALAYA - Hummus & Grill for Israeli food is superb. (Also has good vegan options.)


AMRIT is a solid spot for Indian food, there are three locations.


Cocolo Ramen is a really popular place for ramen, so watch out for the line out the door. I think they've expanded to more locations as well.


Another Japanese place is 893 Ryōtei, which is over near Kurfürstendamm (aka the Champs-Élysées of Berlin). You'll find several good Japanese places over there, mostly out of my price range.


For Polish pierogis, hit up tak tak - polish deli. Mostly within my price range.


Tadım Ocakbaşı for Turkish that goes beyond the döner.


If you want Greek food in gigantic portions, Asteria is a funny option because they'll also pour ouzo down your face for free.


For American portions at an American place, how about going to, umm, Five Guys, lol. (No joke I was at the first Five Guys in Berlin the week it opened.) Anyway, for burgers in Berlin I recommend The Bird, but if it's too crowded you can swing over to Tommis Burger Joint.


I'm not sure if I can recommend Santa Maria for Mexican food anymore because I hear they've either downgraded the menu or gotten rid of Taco Tuesdays, or both, but maybe I can. Either way the burritos from a place called Dolores shouldn't disappoint.


If you've ever wondered what that Dong Do, it does Vietnamese food in Prenzlauer Berg, although I've never tried it. (I just needed to make that joke for my friend who lives next door to Dong Do.) A Vietnamese place I have tried is Monsieur Vuong, which is legit. Zeit für Brot is a reliable German bakery chain. I mean, the name translates to "Time for Bread." What more do you need?


Lastly, my vegan friends should look into Kopps, or Daluma, or 1990 Vegan Living, or Goodies Deli, or Tribeca Ice Cream.


PS, don't forget that half (or all) of these places I mentioned probably won't accept credit card. They do this specifically to keep my relationship with Berlin on the rocks. It's working.


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