Full disclosure, I spent 4 days in Berlin and so maybe I don’t have the right to decide which are the true bests of Berlin, but I’m going to give you a taste of what I saw and did, and which places I thought were most worth the visit.
Best Tourist Tour
Free Alternative Walking Tour: better than a common tour showing the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, this one will give you some insight into how Berlin’s culture has been rapidly changing since the end of the second world war and the fall of the wall via the incredible street art spread throughout the city. This tour is great if you’re on a budget since it’s a free tour where you only have to pay what you feel the guide deserves at the end. Plus, if you’re traveling on your own, this tour, along with other free walking tours, gives you a chance to easily meet other solo travelers.
(This was the tour I took, but there are several that are pretty similar.)
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka Holocaust Memorial): there are dozens, if not hundreds, of amazing sights to see in Berlin, and while on vacation you might not want to visit the most depressing of them all, but to go to Berlin and not see the Holocaust Memorial would be a complete shame. It only takes about an hour and is right in the center of the city, ironically not too far from where Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. After walking through the memorial above ground, descend to the museum below, which traces the years of the Holocaust and shares in a remarkable way a magnitude of personal stories.
The memorial is made of over 2,000 concrete blocks and, originally rejected as a design, is still not completely explained by the artist. Some say the blocks ressemble graves, above all unmarked graves, while others say this design mirrors the experience that Jews suffered during the Holocaust, where you enter and are immediately split from those you came with, forced to walk one after the other, and chilled to the bone in the shadow of these concrete stelae, only to emerge on the other side completely disoriented. Still others say the lack of explanation enables those who visit to interpret the memorial each in his or her own specific way.
U-Bahn stop: Brandenburger Tor
Best Outdoor Market
Flea, vintage, food, and music mixed into one, Sundays at Mauerpark are a must. You can rummage through stands of used furniture, browse through stalls of old records, or enjoy cheap (and tasty) eats. The most impressive part of this huge market spread throughout Mauerpark is the karaoke that continues all day. With hundreds of strangers cheering you on, you can jump on stage and sing your heart out, which really encapsulates the vibe of Berlin post the awful traumas of the 20th century, where today the only people in Berlin who will be judged are the ones who are trying to be anything other than who they truly are.
U-Bahn stop: Eberswalder Strasse or Bernauer Strasse
Best Rooftop Bar
Klunkerkranich is the type of place you would only find if you were specifically looking for it. To get there, enter the mall and take the elevator to the top level parking lot. Even then, you might wonder if you’re in the right place, but continue up the ramp onto the roof and you’ll find a spectacular view of the city. I went after sunset, but I can only imagine the incredible sight of the sun setting on Berlin from this rooftop bar.
U-Bahn stop: Rathaus Neukölln
Best Chill Hangout
Yaam is an African beach themed bar, snack shack, music refuge. Situated just along the Spree, Yaam welcomes everyone with its laid-back and reggae atmosphere. Buy a beer and fried plantains and lounge in a beach chair, and suddenly you’re in a world from away from Berlin.
(On your way there from the station, walk along East Side Gallery to have a view of the remnants of the Berlin Wall, now covered in art and graffiti.)
U-Bahn stop: Warschauer Strasse
Best Vegetarian Restaurant
The Bowl: Did you think I wouldn’t include a vegetarian restaurant on this list?! First of all, Berlin is a vegetarian’s heaven, especially for me coming from Paris. One of the first things I did upon arriving in Berlin was to search the best vegetarian/vegan restaurants, and I found this one, the Bowl, an organic, clean eating, vegan restaurant on the floor above an organic food store. Their concept? all the main dishes are served in different themed bowls (Californian, Mediterranean, etc.). But be warned: a glass of water costs 2.50
U-Bahn stop: Warschauer Strasse
Everything is farther than it seems. Normally I’d say that walking is the best way to get to know a city, but in Berlin, that’s not the case. Don’t let me stop you; go ahead and try walking from this monument to that museum, this restaurant to that park, but you’ll end up wasting too much time and having extremely sore feet. Give yourself 30-40 minutes to get from one place to the next by U-Bahn. And if you’re staying more than a few days, consider a 7-day pass.
This was my second time traveling to a city completely on my own, staying in a hostel, not speaking the language, and trying to find my way around. The first time was last August when I spent three days in Barcelona. I loved Barcelona as a city, but I did feel lonely and sometimes uncomfortable exploring and eating alone. Maybe because I’m older now, maybe because I’ve had the experience of spending days exploring Paris on my own, or maybe it was simply the hostels I stayed at in Berlin, but I found it crazy easy to make friends and enjoy my time on my own. I met such interesting, fun, and friendly people through my hostels and the free walking tours, and was even able to practice my French with some _____. (If you don’t know, French French and Quebec French are very different, at least for someone like me who’s spent the past 7 months speaking the French of France.) So my personal best? The people I met, and how easy it was to make friends, but maybe that makes sense since we were all traveling, we all have similar mindsets.
In all honesty, Berlin isn’t my favorite city. I enjoyed the culture and learning about its development over the past couple decades in reaction the turmoil of the 20th century (World War I, World War II, the division of the city and nation, etc.), but it’s not the most aesthetically beautiful city, and just as you can’t help but fall in love with some cities, there are others that sometimes you just can’t help not loving. And there’s really nothing wrong with that because then you love the cities you love much, much more.