I’m at a loss for how to describe Berlin. While we were there, I felt it was a little dark and dreary… maybe even depressing. It’s not what you would describe as traditionally ‘pretty,’ in the same sense as many other European cities I’ve visited.
It didn’t feel like Germany to me. It reminded me a bit of South Korea and evoked feelings of what I imagine Russia to be like.
It’s a huge city (8x the size of Paris). The public transportation is excellent but getting across town is a bit of a challenge.
The history is dark. As a tourist and first-time Berlin visitor, I tried to learn as much about Berlin’s past as I could, but it wears on you after a few days.
But since I’ve left Berlin, I’ve realized how much I liked it. I ate some of the best food of the trip, learned about incredible world history, and drank delicious beer. The people were friendly, the city was clean, and we never ran out of things to do. Oh, and even though it’s on the Euro, it’s pretty cheap.
Even though I was worn out by the end of my stay, writing this post has made me realize how much I enjoyed Berlin.
I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
Sunday, September 18, 2015
We left Amsterdam entirely too early and caught an EasyJet flight to Berlin. EasyJet is great but what you save in money, you may pay for in inconvenience. I used to fly it frequently when I studied in Toulouse, and it was wonderful there. Maybe it was an off day because it was a bit of a mess flying from Amsterdam to Berlin.
EasyJet flies into an airport that is a good hour outside of the Berlin city center. Once we made it to Berlin, we had to leave the airport, walk to the train station, wait for our train, ride the first train for about 45 minutes, switch to another train, walk about 10 minutes to our Airbnb apartment, then go up two flights of stairs. The voyage doesn’t sound terrible but when you’re hauling luggage and hungry, it’s a bit of a struggle.
I’ll be honest and tell you right now that I am TERRIBLE at packing. I consider myself pretty good at most other aspects of travel, but I am a chronic over-packer. With every trip I try to improve but I’m just a lost cause. No matter the size of the suitcase, I can manage to fill it with 50+ pounds of things. Every trip I think I’ve learned my lesson but then by the next trip I’ve forgotten everything and do it all over again.
Somehow on our 45-minute train ride I managed to find the seat that was on top of the train heater. It was, without exaggeration, about 95 degrees in my seat. It felt like I was sitting in a sauna. While uncomfortable, it was quite funny until I started sweating profusely and felt like I was going to pass out.
Next time, I may just pay for a taxi.
We finally made it into town, checked into our Airbnb and headed straight to Prater Garten for a sausage, a pretzel, and a big beer.
While we were at the biergarten, we got the bright idea to do one of those big bus tours that you see in every major European city. It was a bit rainy and we thought it would be an easy way to see a lot of sights. Let me tell you, these bus tours always sound like a better idea than they actually are. Basically, we got on the bus and all intermittently fell asleep for different parts of the trip. It was a nice (expensive) nap.
Our first day in Berlin was also Biff’s birthday, and we chose to celebrate by going somewhere to watch the Cincinnati Bengals game. We researched online and found the two bars in Berlin that play NFL football. I called them both in advance and after experiencing a major language barrier and communication issues, we took a chance and went to a bar called Salamas.
We showed up early and tried to ask the staff if they would be playing the Bengals game. The owner did not speak any English and used one of the patrons at the bar as a translator to tell us to come back in an hour and he would play whatever game we wanted. We killed time at a cafe and came back to find the bar packed full of American expats. Apparently this is THE place in Berlin to watch American football and there is a group of expats that have been coming every Sunday for years. Unfortunately, none of them were Bengals fans and the regulars had already chosen the four games they could show. We decided to stick around and ended up having a nice time interacting with the fellow football fans. They must have liked us because they gave in and played the 4th quarter of the Bengals game.
I’m not a huge sports fan (I mainly like the fanfare and excuse to eat pub food) but I tend to travel with people who are. I’ve watched several major sporting events abroad and it’s always a great time. You tend to meet fellow travelers and it’s interesting to see the local culture and perception of American sports.
Monday, September 19, 2015
Earlier this year I read the book My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss. After some exploring on her popular blog, The Wednesday Chef, I found out that Luisa does private food tours in Berlin. Luckily I have very wonderful friends who are willing to go along with my crazy food-focused ideas and they agreed to book the tour with me.
Berlin is enormous and our first stop happened to on the exact opposite side of town from our Airbnb. It was a journey to get there (especially after our late night of football) but it was completely worth it when we ended up at Weichardt Brot. We met Luisa in the front of the bakery and she immediately took us next door to check out the stone mill that was hard at work grinding wheat berries into fresh flour. Luisa ordered a selection of the famed whole grain breads and we started learning about German food over breakfast.
The bakery is family owned, and while well-known for the variety of whole grain breads, the Schokosahne Torte is supposed to be magical.
Our next stop was Rogacki, a famous old-school Berlin delicatessen. This place was incredible and worth a visit. It felt familiar, like a deli at home, but so different at the same time, filled with foodstuffs we don’t typically see in the US. The perimeter of the store is lined with cases of fish, meat, prepared salads, cheeses, and baked goods. The center has a snack counter that is a favorite lunch spot for Berliners.
Rogacki is famous for its smoked fish and Luisa ordered us a variety to sample. I’m not the biggest smoked fish fan, but when I travel, I make an attempt to try everything. Except the little whole fish. I just couldn’t do those. We had salmon, halibut, eel, and monkfish.
We also tried a weisswurst. A few years ago in Munich, Graham and I ordered weisswurst at one of the beer halls. We sat at a communal table that was full of Germans and we were completely out of our element. The Germans were kind of laughing at us and we never could figure out why… until Luisa asked if I knew the proper way to eat a weisswurst.
I learned that you split the sausage vertically down the middle and then make small horizontal slices all the way down to cut it into small pieces. To eat it, you peel each small piece out of the casing and dip it in mustard.
Needless to say, we had no idea this was the case when we ordered it in Munich. I’m assuming our German tablemates were laughing at the dumb Americans eating the sausage the wrong way, casing and all!
When I think of Berlin, the first food that comes to mind is currywurst. There is a debate among Berliners about the best currywurst stand, and Luisa took us to her favorite, Witty’s.
Witty’s is known for organic sausages and fresh cut fries. The sausage is deep fried and topped with curry powder and curry ketchup. I’ve spent enough time in Europe that I’ve learned to love mayo with my fries.
Currywurst is one of those foods that grows on you the more you have it. And when in Berlin, it’s a must have.
Berlin has an enormous Turkish population (the most Turks living anywhere outside of Istanbul) and is lucky to have delicious Turkish restaurants. We stopped for “lunch” (I don’t know how we could reasonably call it lunch when we had been eating all day) at Doyum Grillhaus.
Lunch at Doyum was my first taste of true Turkish food and the bold flavors blew me away. I love European cuisine but it tends to be on the richer, blander side. This lunch woke up my palate and excited me for my upcoming visit to Istanbul.
The case was full of skewers of meat that are grilled to order.
Our last stop of the day was Konditorei und Cafe Buchwald. This bakery and pastry shop has been making their signature baumkuchen for over 150 years. Baumkuchen is a traditional German cake that is made by painting layers of cake batter on a spit, glazing it with apricot jam, and covering it with sugar icing. We don’t see baumkuchen often in the US but it’s definitely worth seeking out in Berlin (or contact the bakery because they ship worldwide).
Luisa taught us all about German cuisine and the Berlin food scene but also made us feel as we had a German friend. We learned about the culture, daily life in Berlin, and heard a ton of fun stories about what it is like to be an American in Berlin.
It may be surprising, but I’ve learned more from food tours than I have from any historical or city overview walk.
We were in a bit of a food coma after our tour, but we managed to drop off our laundry at a nearby laundry service and then we went for a long walk to help our digestion.
We walked past the Berlin TV Tower which was given as a ‘gift’ from the German Democratic Republic to the people of Berlin in hopes that it would become the symbol of Berlin. It’s the tallest structure in Germany and the second tallest in the European Union.
Next time I’m in Berlin I want to go to the top of the tower. Luisa told us the views are amazing but the restaurant is awful. So have a drink but avoid a meal!
Then we walked to the Brandenburg Gate. Just to the left of this photo is the Hotel Adlon, famous for being one of the nicest hotels in Berlin and also the scene of the infamous incident where Michael Jackson held his baby Blanket over the railing.
Tuesday, September 20, 2015
It would be a shame to go to Berlin and not learn a least a little bit about the significant historical events that took place in the city. I will say that it is possible to go a bit overboard and (unless you are a major history buff) the history is heavy and it’s possible to overdo it. Try to find a balance.
We did a 4 hour Cold War walking tour with Jan of Insider Tours Berlin. It was informative and mostly entertaining, but I quickly learned that my attention span does not last for 4 hours of Cold War history.
We saw the remaining portion of the Berlin Wall and the watch tower and ‘dead zone’ that divided the East from the West.
This apartment complex was an example of traditional East German architecture. Drab, boring, ugly.
After the tour we decided to head to the German History Museum. It’s an impressive museum and a great place to visit when in Berlin but I do not recommend doing it after four hours of Cold War history. Let’s just say I was a bit burnt out on history and my blood sugar was dangerously low. Annie and Biff found me on a bench at the museum exit.
I don’t often trust restaurant recommendations from Rick Steves, but one of the listings in his book got my attention, and some online research confirmed it was a solid option.
We headed to Zum Schusterjungen Speisegaststatte, described by Rick Steves as a “classic old-school, German-with-attitude eatery that retains its circa-1986 DDR decor.” We didn’t find any attitude, but we did find a fantastic casual restaurant with hearty traditional German cooking.
I started with the potato salad. It was phenomenal. I wish I could explain why but I ate a lot of food in a short amount of time, and my memory is failing me with the specifics. I’m hoping to email the owner and figure out the recipe.
A common cliche used when describing casual European restaurants is that there are “grandmas in the back cooking.” I’m not sure how many grandmas are actually working in kitchens across Europe, but the saying is meant to describe food that is local, traditional, and not fussy. In this case, we could see in the kitchen and the women cooking really did look like they could be grandmothers.
The food was exactly what we wanted. Flavorful, rich, and unpretentious. This was surprisingly one of the best meals I had during my entire month in Europe. I ordered the schnitzel with a creamy mushroom sauce and fried potatoes. We also had a side of potato dumplings that were topped with bread crumbs fried in brown butter.
Towards the end of our meal, a group of French travelers were sat at our table with us. Sometimes communal tables are awkward; sometimes they are really fun. This time, it was fun. We had a great time chatting with fellow travelers and advising them on what to order.
I struggle with strudel. I want to love strudel but I usually find it disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s me or the strudel. However, this strudel was excellent with a warm apple filling, flaky crust, creamy ice cream, and sweet vanilla and chocolate sauce.
The owner of the restaurant was waiting tables and we enjoyed chatting with him. Towards the end of dessert, he brought out a bottle of schnapps and three shot glasses and left them on our table, saying he appreciated us coming in and to enjoy ourselves, on the house. Schnapps are not my thing but it was a very nice gesture.
Judge me all you want, but I’d take a simple meal like this over a prix-fixe tasting menu any day. This is the kind of food I like — delicious, flavorful, made with care, and completely unpretentious. It was just damn good.
Wednesday, September 21, 2015
On our food tour, Luisa told us about Bäckerei Balzer, a must-visit bakery in Berlin that wasn’t too far from our Airbnb. We headed there before our walking tour on Wednesday morning.
Backerei Balzer has been around since the 1920s, and it still runs out of its specialties by mid-morning every day.
The bakery had an enormous case of donuts, buns, rolls, cakes, and every pastry you could ever want. We were overwhelmed by the selection and when that happens my strategy is always just to get as much as possible. We tried 5 or 6 different doughnuts and ate them during the day for sustenance throughout our Nazi tour.
Our Third Reich tour was led by Insider Berlin and took us to every site in Berlin that was relevant to the Nazi rule. We met our guide at the meeting point and he made a condescending comment about our “healthy” breakfast of doughnuts. I instantly didn’t like him. Luckily the group was so large that they had to split us up between two guides and we quickly made our way over to the other guide who did not judge our food choices.
Our guide was a friendly Irishman named J.J., and he did an excellent job dealing with a rare public transit shutdown and obnoxious group members.
Speaking of obnoxious group members, let me rant about the behavior of someone pictured below. I’ve encountered mostly friendly, gracious people on tours but every so often you come across a bad apple. It’s important to remember that your behavior on a tour affects the other group members. If you are an ‘expert’ on the subject, do not take a general walking tour and completely hijack it with your own questions. The person on our tour never let the guide finish a thought and constantly interrupted him with highly detailed questions that pertained to no one else. I get that you’re interested and you have researched but please book a private tour and do not ruin it for everyone else. Just practice a tiny bit of self-awareness.
It was painful. I held my tongue, but now I wish I wouldn’t have.
At the end of the tour, this person came up to me and asked, “Are you going to be a typical American and tip the guide?” I replied with, “I don’t know what that means, but I sure am.”
Pictured below is the Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest and most popular park. It was nearly destroyed during World War II, and many trees were cut down for firewood during the Cold War. Since its restoration, the park has become a lush, gorgeous area within the city. It’s amazing that all of these trees were planted after 1945-ish, and it is this dense and beautiful.
A house covered in bullet holes from World War II
There are Holocaust and Cold War memorials all over Berlin. Some of them are conspicuous; others understated. Had Luisa not told us about these memorials in the sidewalks, we never would have known. Each brick is in rememberance of a holocaust victim and says their name, birth year, how they died, and where they died. They are placed in front of the victims former home or another relevant location. You can find them all over Berlin if you pay attention.
This was Hitler’s bunker. It’s now a parking lot on top. Much of the former bunker has been destroyed and the remains are sealed off from the public. It may open some time in the future but we were told they have to be very cautious that it doesn’t become some sort of Nazi or Hitler shrine.
Our next stop was the Reichstag building. Annie made an advanced reservation so we could go to the top of the dome. When we arrived, they told us the dome was closed because Chancellor Angela Merkel was in the building. We did as told and killed some time and came back in an hour.
The dome is interesting and a highly recommended experience in Berlin. You have panoramic views of the city and can look down into the German Parliament Room.
Underneath the structure in the center is the German Parliament’s meeting room. The building is supposed to symbolize the people looking down on the government.
Given our breakfast of six donuts, a four hour Nazi walking tour, and the winds at the top of the dome, we look pretty darn good.
Our last stop in Berlin was KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe. We went straight to the top floor and explored the food hall. If you like food, this is a must-do. It’s incredible. Many of the food counters also have a bar where you can sit and eat while they cook directly in front of you. I wish we would have had a meal there and I definitely plan to next time I am back in Berlin.
I love looking at the American section when I am in a grocery store abroad. It’s both hilarious and embarrassing/terrifying. Pictured below is just a small selection of what they offered but I remember bottled salad dressings, Jello, boxed cake mixes, marshmallow fluff, and lots of other processed junk food stuff that I (and most Americans I know) never eat.
We ended our time in Berlin with a doner kebab. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was certainly good.
If you’d like to read about my stops before Berlin, check out the following posts:
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