We hopped on a quick, 45 minute flight to Berlin just a few days after our Isle of Skye adventure in Scotland. Despite living in Lux just 15 minutes from the border of Germany, we had yet to visit Berlin. To us, Berlin seemed like a city with a great weight to it, where the dark history might be palpable. Berlin is a city of duality. East and West. Royal palaces and seedy underground. Both gritty and grand. How do you explore a place without truly celebrating it? We flew north to find out.
A Palatial Welcome
We arrived, dropped our bags and started out on foot to check out some of the main sties in former West Berlin, starting with the Holocaust Memorial. Instead of the very solemn atmosphere we expected, we found kids playing around, skateboarding and climbing all over the installation. We moved on to check out the famous Brandenburg Gate, which was used as a party symbol by the Nazis but is now a symbol of peace and one of the major landmarks in all of Germany. We continued our walk in the palatial, classic part of town and headed to the Reichstag building, the most famous German government building. We hoped to visit the glass dome atop the building which provides 360 degree views of the city, but doing so requires pre-registration, so we made plans to come back later in the trip.
Markethall - Finding Asia in Berlin
For dinner, we headed to the gritty, hipster Kreuzberg area to a markethall that features "street food Thursdays." The entire market hall was filled with food stands, wine bars and communal seating areas, all draped with fairy lights and with trendy music thumping. We have so few good options for non-European food in Lux, so we eagerly jumped from stand to stand, feasting on Tibetan momo dumplings, spicy black bean tacos and Korean buns all washed down with German beer and wine. Our first night in Berlin made us feel like we were in LA or New York, with young, fashionably dressed people around just enjoying life in a cool, eclectic space. We immediately decided we liked Berlin.
The House of Small Wonders
We woke up the following morning and started our day with a trip downstairs to our hotel gym, spa and hammam. We headed out after a quick work session to brunch at The House of Small Wonders, an Instagram-worthy spot featuring a plant-filled, greenhouse-like entrance with a spiral staircase. They serve delicious acai bowls and healthy breakfast fare. The place was filled with girls taking pictures for social media along with their supportive boyfriends. The food was good though, so Dave was happy to hang out. While waiting to sit down for brunch, we explored down a nearby staircase and found an authentic looking Japanese dinner spot, so we promptly made reservations for later in the evening.
Museum Island - The Ishtar Gate
After brunch, we headed to Museum Island, a collection of art, history, architecture and science museums located on a small island in the river in the center of town. We started with the Alte Nationalgalerie, where we took in three floors of paintings from world masters - Dave particularly enjoyed a few landscapes, and was fuming mad when a man walked in between him and the painting to take several pictures of the work. We then moved on to the Neues Museum, where we saw the original, world-famous bust of Nefertiti along with other relics from Egyptian, Roman and other ancient cultures. We finished up our museum visits at the Pergamon Museum, which houses monumental historical buildings such as the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (which was painstakingly recreated from ruins shipped to Germany in crates of dirt), and the Market Gate of Miletus, also reconstructed from ruins and moved to Germany. We completely nerded out at the museums and were really excited to take in such epic historical structures.
Omakase - Portal to Japan
We ventured out to the far west side of the city for Thai massages, and we followed that up with a traditional Omakase Japanese dinner that was some of the best Asian cuisine we've had in Europe. It felt like we stepped through a portal to Japan. We opted for the spring omakase, an 8 course Japanese tasting menu. Over the next three hours, we feasted on tuna sashimi, scallops, arctic char, homemade tofu, fish and vegetable tempura, monkfish, black cod, seabass, waygu beef, salmon and black sesame gelato. Each dish was presented beautifully, with edible flowers and sculpted vegetables. This type of eating is meant to be celebrated and taken slowly, and we found each dish to be unique and delicious. Although minimal, we enjoyed using our Japanese language repertoire with the servers.
The Glass Dome
The following morning we made it to our 8:30 am reservation and wound our way up the glass dome at the Reichstag which gives 360 degree views of the city. The fragmented, hanging stalactite evokes the feeling of many eyes watching you, which echoes the surveillance state of the modern era.
The East Side
We dedicated most of our last full day in Berlin to former East Germany, starting with the East Side Gallery, a stretch of the Berlin wall decorated with commissioned graffiti art. We walked along the tall, thick walls trying to imagine what it must have been like to be stuck on one side. Both of us recall the wall coming down when we were young, but didn't really have a deeper understanding of life in Berlin until visiting, and observing the lingering differences between the two halves of the city. We spent hours walking the streets of East Berlin, stopping for vegan brunch at The Bowl. We observed the over-the-top hipster, 90's fashions. Everyone of the younger generation in East Berlin dressed like a malevolent hacker from a 90's movie.
Badeschiff- Beach in the City
We strolled through the graffiti lined streets to Badeschiff, a makeshift beach bar with a pool set in a sunken tanker in the river. We hung out in the sunshine and had a few drinks before exploring more abandoned warehouse streets, watching artists create street art and discovering a bayou-esque, ramshackle brunch spot situated on one of the river tributaries.
Spontaneous Scooter Ride
Imagine walking through a city and walking up to any motorcycle you see with the ability to ride it for as long as you wish. It's something out of the Matrix or Grand Theft Auto. But Berlin has it. We discovered Coup, a scooter company that allows you to download an app, scan your driver's license and use any of the hundreds of random scooters parked throughout Berlin. Within minutes of downloading the app, we grabbed a helmet out of the underseat compartment, scanned our app, and were scooting along the treelined streets of Berlin, passing tons of pedestrians and residents hanging out along the river enjoying the sunny weather. On the recommendation of a co-worker, we stopped at Brammibal's and picked up a box of vegan donuts for a planned donut taste testing in our hotel for lunch. We drove our scooter to the famed Checkpoint Charlie, but we left quickly after realizing that it was a tourist trap with its own KFC, kind of like the Times Square of Berlin.
Hammam & Donut Tasting
We headed back to our hotel for the afternoon. After a quick workout and hammam session, we had a bed picnic in our hotel, trying a bite of each donut and ranking them. Doing so was delicious and fun but caused us to need an immediate nap. We woke up and headed out for dim sum, enjoying our faviorite Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings in an authentic spot. We aren't too into German cuisine, but there are so many options in Berlin to have great international food.
On our final morning, we planned to head to an abandoned former Nazi turned Allied spy listening station outside of town, which is now turned into a graffiti spot, but it ended up being the morning of the Berlin marathon, so we were totally trapped in the city, which we would only learn after driving in circles in an Uber trying to find a way out of town. Once we were 50 Euro into our ride, we gave up and hung out at an outdoor cafe for a brunch of granola bowls, smoothies and shakshouka.
We headed to the airport in the afternoon and worked in the lounge before our flight. The airport lounge was just a sweaty room with a tub of even sweatier hot dogs, so we headed out quickly and waited for our short flight back to Luxembourg. Berlin definitely exceeded our expectations - especially the trendy, cool parts of the city which felt unique amongst the stately, classic European capitals.
Check out our Berlin travel edit
Next up, business in London and checking out Brighton, known as the "Portland of Europe".
Expat Adventure Blog