Our Berlin trip was….well…more challenging than we had hoped it would be. It was week one of what would be a three-week trip: Berlin first, then a week in Athens, finishing with a week on a boat in the Dodecanese islands. We landed in Berlin exhausted and jet-lagged, only to learn — after waiting in the baggage services line for four hours — that our luggage was, in fact, lost. We were told that it would likely show up in a few hours….or a few weeks.
Fortunately, our luggage was returned to us six days later — right before we flew to Athens — but dealing with lost luggage did put a damper on our Berlin experience. Additionally, Berlin, a city known for moderate temperatures even in the summer, was experiencing an intense heat wave. Berlin was actually hotter than Athens! Unlike Athens, however, Berlin is not equipped to deal with the heat. Our hotel wasn’t air-conditioned, and neither were many museums or restaurants. After a while, we found ourselves just wandering around like ghosts, not talking nor caring about what we were doing, simply seeking shade, each of us in our one sweaty outfit that — at this point — we had been wearing for days.
That said….we still found much to love about Berlin, especially for families (and the whole fam was there — including my mom, my brother (pictured in the photo above) and the rest of his sweet family). So. Here are a few of our trip highlights, the places we would highly recommend, even if we weren’t having such a crazy trip. And a huge thank-you to reader Julia, a Berlin local – your recommendations were fantastic.
(Side Note: If you are vegan, Berlin is shockingly vegan-friendly. Not only were there a ton of vegan restaurants, but most of the restaurants we visited had vegan options. Who knew?)
1. Stay at The Linnen Hotel
The Linnen Hotel is stunning, and is in a killer location for tourists who also like to pretend they’re local. It has an apartment sort of vibe — albeit a very, very stylish one — and a fantastic little cafe on the ground floor. (The staff is seriously helpful and fun, too.)
From the Linnen it’s an easy walk to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park, the first-ever beer garden in Berlin, numerous cafes and restaurants (it’s in the very stylish Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood), and there is a train station barely a block away.
As I noted before, there’s no air-conditioning, but that usually isn’t a problem. Our rooms did have huge windows that open completely at night, and all rooms were stocked with giant fans. Also? That bath.
Voloshin dress (xs for reference)
2. Have a Beer at The Original Beer Garden
We loved Prater Garten, the first beer garden in Berlin. It’s basically around the corner from The Linnen, and had such a cool, laid-back vibe. The food was delicious, too (bratwurst and kraut was my go-to). Just to warn you microbrew snobs — there’s virtually no IPA in Berlin (at least not any that Mike could find). And under no circumstances order the Raddler. Mike, flustered, ordered one hoping it was similar to an IPA….instead, it’s a rather horrifying mixture of beer and 7-UP. The look on his face!! Still cracks me up.
3. Take the Train Everywhere
Berlin’s train system is clean, efficient, and safe. (There was that one little incident where our train station closed due to a bomb threat, but that’s just the world nowadays, not Berlin in particular.) And most of the train stations were gorgeous. Download the BVG app to easily buy tickets and plan routes. NOTE: You need to buy a ticket to use the trains, but no one actually checks your ticket. Supposedly there are random checks on train cars (so keep your ticket with you), but Berlin found that it was more cost effective to have some people cheating on ticket fares than it was to put in a whole ticket-taking system. Fascinating.
4. Do the Tourist Thing and Take a Historical Tour
If ever there was a city where the history feels so…hidden, it’s Berlin. It’s a testament, I think, to the human ability to move on, but the history is one of the reasons we were drawn to Berlin. The differences between East and West Berlin are there, but they’re slight (at best), and much of the WWII historical buildings were destroyed in the bombings of Berlin. To really understand what Berlin was like during WWII, after WWII, and how it became the city it is today…one really needs a guide. The guide was able to explain why the Soviet statue looks so freaking oppressive (he’s meant to), why he’s still there at all (Russia insisted), where Hitler’s bunker was (we were standing on top of it), what they did with it (completely filled it in), and where his body was found (it’s now a small playground)…to name just a few of the fascinating tidbits we learned. Even my boys (ages 7 and 10) were enthralled.
5. Pay Your Respects at the Jewish Memorial
One of the stops on our tour was the Jewish Memorial in Berlin. It’s insanely well done, with a sobering, emotional influence that reminded me of visiting the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. Depending on your perspective, as you walk through the memorial, people suddenly disappear out of sight. It’s not to be missed.
6. Learn about East German Life at the DDR Museum
This museum is super-interactive and great for kids. You can drive an East German car simulator, visit a East Berlin Kindergarten, and walk through a mock East Berlin house — even virtually try on the clothes. I, however, was blown away by the exhibit on occupations: Picture a row of lockers. Upon opening a locker, you’ll find a name, profession (chemist or engineer or farmer or bricklayer, etc.,), salary, how many years of school was required for that profession, how many years of training after that, and a few artifacts (uniform, tools, etc.,). An engineer, for example, required far more schooling than a bricklayer, but made only a tiny bit more money. It was fascinating.
7. Walk Around with a Beer
This was one of our favorite parts of Berlin — walking down the street with a beer. An open one! Amazingly, you simply walk into a convenience store, buy a single beer, open it (they have bottle openers at the counter) and…walk out. You can drink it, right there on the street. I have it on good authority that parents often have a beer at the playground. *cough*Julia*cough* Genius.
8. Visit a German Bakery
We’re big doughnut fans over here, so we were pretty happy with the ‘Berliner’ doughnut, but German bakeries have a jaw-dropping array of deliciousness. Something we thought France had cornered the market on. Not. So.
9. Do the Local Thing and Row a Boat
On one of the insanely hot days, we got a tip from a local: go to Tiergarten. It’s another beer garden, but located in a park on the river, and you can rent boats by the hour. It was a perfect little diversion — both relaxing and fun.
10. Go Under The Berlin Wall (and learn about daring escapes from East Berlin)
The highlight of our trip was the Berliner Unterwelten tour. We did Tour M, Under the Berlin Wall, which includes daring stories of escape out of East Berlin. Not all of the stories had a happy ending, of course. This non-profit group is attempting to preserve these mostly unknown stories of heroes — some of whom are still alive, and will occasionally stop by during the tour. They’re in the process of building an actual tunnel to mimic the tunnels from the stories, to better illustrate the lengths people would go to escape.
I cannot say enough good things about this tour. It’s three hours long, but passed by in a blink. Both Pax and Raines were completely fascinated. And don’t be afraid of the warning language on the website — we thought the tours were fine for our kids. You are, however, underground for a major part of the tour….most of the stories are told as you sit in a WWII era bomb shelter. Another part of the tour goes into the subway tunnels. It’s an awesome experience.
11. Get an Amplemann Souvenir
One of the things I found fascinating about East Berlin is that they kept their cutesy little stoplight design, called Amplemann, even after the wall came down. Apparently, there was talk of changing the stoplights to be consistent with the rest of Berlin, but there was too much opposition. Why? Little kids loved him!
You can find Amplemann stores which sell Amplemann’s likeness on mugs, scarves, tees, etc.,
12. Walk Along The Berlin Wall
If you do any of the tours I mentioned above, there’s no doubt you’ll see some of the Berlin Wall. But I recommend going back on your own to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park, and following along the wall for a while. It’s really hard to comprehend that it happened, and even more so when you see it in person.
13. Sick of Sausage? Try Another Global Food
The restaurant scene in Berlin is pretty amazing. And yes, there’s plenty of delicious German food to be found. However, we were blown away by the other world cuisines available, too. There was an outstanding Vietnamese place we chose because they had air-conditioning (and — happy surprise — really good food), and my brother and his wife loved Long March Canteen; it was their favorite meal in Berlin. Sadly, we missed that one, but our favorite dinner (and a close second, according to my brother), was at Osmans Tochter, a Turkish restaurant run by two sisters. It was one of those meals where we sat there for hours, and everything was amazing: the food, the wine, the atmosphere. We all loved it.
14. Seek Air-Conditioning in These Museums
If you happen to find yourself in a similarly hot situation…here are the museums that did have working air conditioning.
This modern art museum does have A/C….in the art wings only (not the main building). But that’s where the good stuff is, anyway. Kandinsky, Picasso, and several interactive exhibits the kids loved. There’s also a section of drawings from a Japanese kindergarten during WWII that was really interesting to see (it was the only swastika we saw, which prompted a ton of discussions with the boys). The museum cafe is good and located on the river. Sitting outside and eating there reminded me a bit of Paris.
We only made it into the lobby (seeking A/C), but the building itself is just as much of a draw as the art. My brother and his wife spent an afternoon here, however, and reported that it was a quiet, gorgeous place to walk around….with a fantastic cafe.
History buffs will LOVE this place. Case in point? My nephew and brother spent hours in this one. Pax and I? Barely lasted an hour. It’s very dry.
My favorite part, however, was Napoleon’s actual hat, nabbed as he escaped from Waterloo. (He left it in a carriage as he ran off.) This museum also has a lovely cafe.
15. Walk Around Berlin at Night
Berlin is so safe, and its nightlife so vibrant, that one of the best parts of our trip was just walking around.
On My List for Next Time
It was too hot to check out Adventurous Playground Kolle 37, an insanely innovative playground for kids. Think: hammers, saws, treehouse building, firepits and…no parents allowed (except for family Saturdays). Not for the faint of heart, but my kids would LOVE it. I’d also love to see the Boros Collection, a private art collection housed in an old bunker. You need to make reservations far in advance.
For more up-to-date tips, we loved the Ceecee.cc blog.
The one thing we couldn’t quite figure out, however, were all of the rules. So many rules, Berlin! My mom was chastised at for opening an umbrella in a store, my sister-in-law for tucking her feet underneath her when she sat in a restaurant, my kids for lying down on a restaurant bench, and don’t even get me started on the dizzying array of rules surrounding our luggage situation. “Yes, some of your luggage is here, but it is not possible to deliver one suitcase, we can only deliver all suitcases, per regulation blah blah blah”…I mean whoa. So seeing signs like this made us giggle:
VERBOTEN is our new favorite word. We’re now using it all. the. time.
On our last day in Berlin, we were walking to the German History Museum because, ya know, air-conditioning. We had stopped in the shade outside the museum for a moment, and Pax noticed that one of the windows was open. Intriguingly, he could hear something — maybe a movie? — from inside. So he climbed up on the windowsill for a better look. Raines, after a week in Berlin, was understandably nervous. “Pax, get down from there! You’ll get in trouble, Pax. You KNOW you’ll get in trouble here…” I interrupted him. At this point, I had had enough of German rules. “Raines,” I said. “What is the worst thing that will happen? The worst thing is that someone will sternly tell Pax to get down. It’s fine. It’s FINE. It’s OK to break a few rules now and then. This is not a big de–”
A sudden snarl came from the open window, sounding like some demented cat. Pax lept off the windowsill in terror, while Raines and I jumped back. I may have even shrieked. The boys ran to me, and we looked back at the window, aghast. In the window was a museum guard, cracking up. We all started laughing — laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. Eventually, the guard closed the window, after throwing us a big wink and a smile. Those Germans, man. So stern, yet so funny.
Until next time, Berlin.
ps. We couldn’t figure out the drinking age in Berlin. My nephew, pictured above, was THRILLED.