This weekend, my destination is Berlin and – given that I planned to meet up with a particularly wonderful Berliner who I had met on a previous holiday on the Sunday – I really only had Saturday to explore the capital of Germany.
Airport and Transfers
At 6:30am I am on a plane, chatting with a South African man named Duncan about the visit he is making to see his family in the Berlin suburbs. This is my favourite kind of flight – the type that is spent in the company of an interesting character and seems to pass in an instant (NB: It is a rule of mine to never choose a seat when checking in online for a flight – let the universe decide who it sends to sit next to you, I say). After landing, Duncan shows me where to find the bus and hands me over to the care of a passing German lady, who kindly helps me to navigate my way through the ticket machine menus, until the first €2.50 of my weekend is spent. There are a few choices of bus – the main link between Tegel Airport and the city being the ‘TXL’, which takes you directly to the centre of Berlin. On this occasion, however, I catch the X9, alighting at Zoologischer Garten, in the far West of the city.
First Ports of Call
Exploring Tiergarten, Brandenburg Gate, and the Reischstag Building
It is only 10:03 when I start my walk, map in hand. Here, I am relying on my Lonely Planet pull-out city guide to Berlin. I have highlighted a few museums and galleries to the South of Tiergarten, but so enchanted am I by the sight of the sprawling park on an unusually sunny Saturday morning in Autumn, and aware that I have only three hours until my first pre-booked activity, I decide to instead take a stroll through it. My new, unplanned, walk delivers me to Sowjetisches Ehrenmal Tiergarten, and onto the Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburger Tor.
Brandenburger Tor/Brandenburg Gate, complete with a multitude of fellow tourists
After devouring a pretzel and a coffee – and having survived my first stilted German conversation with a native, in which it has to be admitted I was not sure whether she was questioning the amount of Euros I had given her, asking whether I required a glass for my bottle of water, or possibly neither – it is time for my first ticketed activity, the Reichstag. Whilst it is possible to turn up unannounced and hope there will be space for you on a tour, it is advisable to register for a visit online
. It’s free, and guarantees you entrance at a pre-determined timeslot. During your visit, not only will you learn about the building, its history, and the German parliament, but also gain a great overview of the city as a whole, thanks to an audio-guide who makes the most of the panoramic view from the glass dome.
View from the Reichstag rooftop
Walking the City
Taking in the Spree, markets, Angela Merkel’s residence, and Berlin Cathedral
My head full of new facts, I set about walking in the direction of my hotel. Realising I will probably not have time on this trip to visit everything on Museumsinsel (Museum Island), I instead allow myself the luxury of wandering along the River Spree and enjoying whatever comes my way. I turn left to the river from the junction between Scheidemannstraße and Dorotheenstraße. On this route, I encounter several vibrant stalls and markets. After sadly confirming that I cannot fit any second-hand vinyl into my backpack, I settle on selecting a small painting to purchase. It is noticeable that, in comparison to other cities, there is a laid-back vibe, and the streets do not feel busy or crowded, which leads to particularly pleasant strolling conditions. Further along the river, I pass the remarkably modest and relatively unprotected home of Angela Merkel (it can be spotted opposite the Pergamonmuseum) and follow paths to the impressive Berliner Dom (cathedral). I had planned to enter and visit the rooftop of the building, but there is a sign on the door prohibiting those with backpacks from entering, so I instead walk onwards to my hotel. On this particular trip, I am not staying in a hostel. Remember the wonderful Berliner mentioned earlier? I’ll say no more. This weekend, I have splurged on a Cathedral-view room in the Radisson Blu. I literally squeal with delight when I enter the room and take in the view. Discarding my backpack and making a coffee, I feel like the luckiest tourist in the world as I settle onto my balcony for a brief rest. Four stories below me are people, boats, and music, and I bask in all of it.
The very definition of a room with a view. Radisson Blu, Karl-Leibknecht-Straße
Bike Touring and Eating Vegan
I realise I am enjoying relaxing and being smug (forgive me this; I promise you will find me huddled on the top bunk in a hostel on other trips) far too much, and have ten minutes to get to my next activity – a city bike tour with Fat Tire Tours. Nestled under the iconic TV Tower in Alexanderplatz (luckily, a very short walk from my hotel), Fat Tire HQ is the starting point for various tours within and around the city. I find my group and our tour guide, Sam. We begin cycling at 15:00 and spend four hours touring both well- and lesser-known sites of architectural, social, economical, and historical interest. The Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Hitler’s bunker, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Brandenburger Tor are just a few of the fascinating and thought-provoking stops, all brought to life with expert knowledge and skilled story-telling from Sam.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: heart-stopping, devastating, and beautiful.
As the light begins to fade, we make a stop for dinner at Schleusenkrug, a beer garden and barbecue restaurant alongside the river. Being vegan, I brace myself as I look at the menu, but am pleasantly surprised. Falafel salad, tofu stew, vegetable soup. I can’t decide, so I order it all, and it’s all delicious. At this point, I learn from Sam that Berlin is, apparently, the third most vegan city in the world. The home straight takes us along the river on the route I walked earlier. As we stop to admire the Cathedral, now lit up and spectacular in the dark, I resist mentioning that this is what I will see when I open my curtains in the morning. Now nearly nine o’clock, we take the obligatory group selfie and form our Whatsapp group, and retire our bikes after what I have to conclude really does have to be the best way to see and learn about any city. My 3:00am alarm call finally catching up with me, I head to a nearby supermarket to pick up some snacks and breakfast. Kaufland is a short walk across the road from Alexanderplatz and stocks a more-than-pleasing array of vegetarian and vegan products. Armed with various breads, tofus, fruits, and houmous, I have a marginally more successful German conversation at the check-out, and head back to the Radisson.