Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.
Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.
Traveling Simply: For the Budget
The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.
Ride the Rails
Berlin is a big city. Housing over three and a half million people in 890 square kilometers, it’s also a city of neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood has its own history, monuments, and restaurants worth checking out, and walking from one to another is no small jaunt. For example, Brandenburger Tower is about 2.5 kilometers from Alexanderplatz. It’s a great walk, covering a lot of main sites, but that alone only covers part of the city. To best explore the city, I’d suggest getting a daily transit pass. At 7 Euros until 3 am that morning (so you can properly enjoy your Berlin stay), it’s makes traveling around the city much easier and the metro system is very well-connected. Plus, the tile-work is terrific.
If you feeling like skipping the ticket to truly save your Euros, be careful. I’m two-for-two for trips to Berlin and having my ticket checked by an inspector. You don’t want to be that awkward tourist who tries to feign ignorance to try to get out of a ticket. (Why yes, I did try that in another city. And no, it did not go well.)
I would imagine that a bike, in the right weather, would truly be the ideal way to meander around the city. Next time, Berlin, next time.
Right on Top of the Reichstag: For Free!
The gleaming glass dome sitting atop the stone Reichstag represents the transparency of German democracy. As a Canadian, I value democracy. Yet, the struggle for democracy and personal freedoms is something relatively recent in Berlin. The city was divided and this striking building was abandoned for years under Communist rule. The dome is not a crown but a window for the people.
It’s thoughtfully built with the environment in mind as well. The inner cone opens to the sky and provides natural air conditioning for the building. Three-hundred and sixty mirrors reflect light into the chamber below, reducing the need for artificial lighting.
In a kind offering, Norman Foster’s architectural beauty can be seen for free. You can register online or simply line up at the Visitor Service center across the street from the security entrance to the Reichstag. With your name and ID, you’ll be given a delightfully official letter stating you date and time of admission. It even includes an audio-guide, which for those who know me well, can appreciate how exciting this revelation was. I highly suggest registering online (give yourself at least one week in advance), as the registration line was, well, as long as you would imagine a line for a free tour might be. Be savvier than I and register online.
Climb a Schuttberg (Debris Mountain)
Berlin is built on a marshland, which is where its name is derived. So, finding an impressive view of the city can be only be found on the small natural hills (‘bergs’) in the city, or atop a Debris Mountain. Head to
Head to Humbolthain Park and start walking the winding pathway. Each step is trodding on a hill made of World War II debris. Berlin was all but destroyed in the bombings at the end of the war, leaving huge amounts of rubble. In addition, there were a number of bunkers remaining, including a huge one that still sits in this park. The Allies were each required to destroy the bunkers in their sectors. The bunker is half destroyed by the French. Some say that half was left undestroyed to lessen the risk of impacting the neighbour railway; some say the German construction was so solid it was impossible to destroy. Either way, the bunker is buried deep within a now forested hill and the top offers an impressive, almost 360-degree view of the city.
I wouldn’t have discovered this un-natural feature without the help of the Berlin Unterwelten Tours. The tour #1 was recommended (thanks, Ty and Johnny!), and I can definitely recommend this recommendation. The tour of the bunker was not only interesting but incredibly well told by a guide involved in the non-profit. The organization preserves underground monuments through tour admission fees and a lot of volunteer hours mucking out underground structures.
Traveling Simply: For the Spirit
Eat (Less) Meat
As a flexitarian, I avoid eating meat to reduce my environmental impact and only do so when traveling to sample the local cuisine or when prepared with love for a special occasion. When traveling to Berlin, I was expecting that meat would be a lot of the fare on offer given German cuisine. I was pleasantly surprised to find a serious number of vegetarian options.
Every restaurant offered a vegetarian option, and unlike many Western cities, they didn’t suck. For example, I was excited to try Burgermeister. A burger shop nestled under a U-bahn line had great reviews. Yet, it’s a burger joint, what could they do for a (quasi-)vegetarian? The menu was simple yet had a veggie option, and when our number was called, I savoured a fresh, peanut-sauced tofu burger. I’ll admit I was very tempted by D’s beef burger (and, can confirm it’s quite tasty after requesting a bite), but my burger was a truly tasty veggie option. The strong vegetarian community in Berlin has done very well in providing a great range of delicious options for diverse diets.
Quietly Feel the Weight of History
Berlin takes the weight of its history seriously. There are impressive monuments and memorials to mark the range of very recent, often tragic history. The most well-known and solemn is the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas or the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The undulating concrete slabs cover a city block and separate you from your surroundings and from others to reflect and mourn. Here, the title is particularly important, as to use the word murder in this public memorial publically acknowledges the terrible chapter in German history. It moves from the grey and into the black and white, and you can wrestle with the tragedy of the genocide as you get lost amongst the pillars.
Another potent memorial is the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism just two blocks away. It’s an oasis of lush quiet in the centre of the city, reached by passing a wall outlining the chronology of the genocide surrounding World War II. The dark pool is calm, peaceful and haunting. Powerful words line the wall and the pool, but can only be read slowly with quiet contemplation.
And these are but two of Berlin’s memorials. I greatly appreciate that the designs of these memorials are all so intentionally allowing space for reflection, sorrow and thought. There is a stillness even in the bustling urban centre that is essential for processing the weight of this history. With the rise of nationalism across the Western world, it was an apt time to remember our history, so that we not condemned to repeat it.
Berlin is a rapidly changing city, both heavy with history and light with the shift to modern ways. Don’t wait. Visit it again and again as it shifts and grows, and simply explore.
Also published on Medium.