June 17-19, 2022
After several fun-but-exhausting weekends in a row spent hosting different groups of friends and family in London, Andy and I were excited to get back on the road (in the air?) with a quick trip to Berlin. Andy hadn’t been to Germany before and I had only been to Munich, so we were both really looking forward to finally exploring such a legendary city.
We got in town late on a Friday night and we didn’t really do anything that night beyond checking into our hotel and heading straight to bed so that we could wake up bright and early the next morning for a full day of sightseeing. We stayed at Sir Savigny Hotel, a super cool boutique hotel near the Savignyplatz in Berlin’s trendy and bohemian Charlottenburg neighborhood, and I was so happy with our choice to stay outside of Mitte, Berlin’s central district. Berlin has a fantastic (and cheap) public transportation network so it was extremely easy for us to get around the city, and it was really nice to stay in a slightly more down-to-earth area.
After grabbing some coffee and pastries at one of the charming cafés around the Savignyplatz, we headed to Hackescher Markt (which had an extremely cool open-air market set up) to meet our tour guide. Anyone who knows how I like to travel might be surprised that I wanted a professional tour guide since I normally prefer to explore things on my own, but on the other hand…anyone who really knows me is also aware of how fascinated I am by World War II history. Obviously, Berlin is a pretty important location for a lot of the key moments of World War II, so I felt like there were just way too many places to try to tackle all of it on our own in one day. However, I also felt like I would probably be highly annoyed by a group tour targeted at an audience with a more standard awareness of World War II (AKA normal people who haven’t read hundreds of books on the subject), which is how I ended up booking the GetYourGuide Berlin During the Third Reich & WWII private tour.
Our tour guide, Rob, was a British ex-pat with several degrees in European history and he absolutely exceeded my expectations for the experience and walking tours in general. He completely customized the itinerary based on our preferences and in just four hours, he introduced us to so many important sites and taught both of us so much about life in Berlin leading up to and during the Third Reich. He left us at the Topography of Terror with plenty of excellent recommendations for how to spend the rest of the day. We had lunch at Yarok, a phenomenal Syrian restaurant directly across the street from the Topography of Terror entrance, and then spent an hour or so exploring the indoor-and-outdoor museum built on a site that was previously home to the headquarters of the Gestapo, the high command and security service of the SS, and the Reich Security Main Office. It was absolutely fascinating, and I would highly recommend prioritizing a visit to this free museum for anyone who is visiting Berlin.
We spent the rest of the day enjoying the absolutely beautiful weather and casually exploring some of the other key points of interest in between drinks at some of Berlin’s fantastic bars. I particularly enjoyed strolling through the Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest and most popular inner-city park, on the walk back to our hotel and the wonderful dinner we had at Fes Turkish BBQ. Everything about our weekend getaway in Berlin was truly perfect, and I’m already looking forward to planning our next German adventure.
If you’re planning a trip to Berlin, click here to access and download my Google Maps list of saved locations in Germany.
Food & Drink
- Fes Turkish BBQ: Its large population of Turkish immigrants means that Berlin is absolutely teeming with kebab shops and Turkish restaurants, which was particularly exciting for Andy. We had dinner at one of the newer Turkish dining concepts in the city, which has Korean-style in-table barbeque grills where you can grill your own meats and vegetables. Despite the barbeque focus, the mezze and desserts we had at Fes were the real standouts for me—especially the beetroot hummus and the Turkish ice cream with apricots and cinnamon butter.
- Yarok: There are two locations of this fantastic Syrian restaurant serving some of the best cheap eats in the city, but we had lunch at the location directly across from the Topography of Terror—it was so perfectly placed among a sea of touristy-looking restaurants that we walked in before I even realized that it was actually the restaurant I had planned on going to that day. The menu was full of simple but perfectly spiced and absolutely delicious classic Syrian dishes, including some of the best falafel I’ve had in a while.
- Cookies Cream: This super-chic vegetarian restaurant in Mitte was once an exclusive nightclub, which is clearly reflected in its current décor and the fact that it’s located in a somewhat sketchy alley. Between its Michelin star and very trendy vibe, Cookies Cream is a perfect option for an upscale, unique meal while in Berlin.
- Monkey Bar: Located on the tenth floor of the 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin within Germany’s first “concept mall”, Monkey Bar is a large rooftop terrace with incredible views of Zoo Berlin and the western half of the city. It was the perfect place to take a break from the heat and enjoy some cocktails at sunset.
- Coffee Drink Your Monkey: Despite its slightly odd name, the coffee shop and café around the corner from our hotel on the Savignyplatz was super cute and had a lot of surprisingly good options for takeaway or dine-in breakfast.
Activities & Attractions
- Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate): One of the most iconic monuments in Berlin (and perhaps all of Germany) is an 18th-century neoclassical gate at the junction of Unter den Linden and Ebertstraße, just a block or two away from the Reichstag building. It’s a beautiful monument, but it’s primarily famous for being the site of several major historical events. It was used as a party symbol by the Nazis and somehow survived World War II still standing, only to be closed off in the Soviet occupation zone after the Berlin Wall was constructed, thus becoming the location for the famous “Berlin Wall” speech from Ronald Reagan in 1987 (e.g., “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). Following the demolition of the wall, the gate symbolized freedom and the desire to peacefully unite the city of Berlin.
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is one of the most thought-provoking memorial sites I’ve ever visited. The memorial’s architect has said that the sculpture aims to represent an “ordered system that has lost touch with human reason”, and the 200,000-square-foot site contains a grid of 2,711 concrete slabs of various heights arranged slightly askew in rows across a sloping field in a way that definitely produces an uneasy, confusing atmosphere for visitors. It’s hard to describe just how powerful it was to feel lost in the maze of concrete slabs right in the middle of the city, but I would personally rank it with the reflecting pools of the National September 11 Memorial in NYC in terms of powerfully putting the scale and destruction associated with a tragedy into perspective.
- Topography of Terror: Everything about this indoor-and-outdoor history museum was fascinating and unique—I would highly recommend prioritizing this museum during a visit to Berlin. Although the buildings themselves were largely destroyed during and after World War II, the present-day museum is located on the site that housed some of the principal agencies of Nazi persecution and terror: the headquarters of the Gestapo, the high command and security service of the SS, and the Reich Security Main Office. It was free to enter the museum and we honestly could have spent all afternoon indoors learning about the horrifying (but incredibly interesting) history of the building and the Nazi reign of terror. The outdoor part of the museum was just as interesting, though. The section of the Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terror is the longest extant segment of the outer wall that would have been visible from West Berlin, and today it is accompanied by exhibition panels that explain the high-level history of Berlin in the Weimar republic and its transition to life under the Nazis and during the war.
- Reichstag: The building now known simply as “the Reichstag” is a historic government building that originally housed the Reichstag parliamentary bodies assembled during the German Empire, Weimar Republic, and German Reich. The building was famously set on fire in 1933, but the rebuilt building contains a large glass dome with a 360-degree view of the city and is now home to the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, as well as several fantastic restaurants.
- Unter den Linden: Running from Museum Island to the Brandenburg Gate, this beautiful boulevard in the central Mitte district was named after the linden (lime) trees lining its median and carriageways. It was the grandest avenue in 19th-century Berlin and therefore is still home to many of the city’s landmarks, including the absolutely stunning Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera); the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s Palace), a former Royal Prussian residence; the first building associated with the prestigious Humboldt University, the Prinz-Heinrich-Palais; and Neue Wache (New Guard), a former royal guard house that now serves as the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny and contains an enlarged replica of Käthe Kollwitz’s powerful Mother with her Dead Son sculpture that symbolizes the suffering of civilians during World War II.
- Museumsinsel (Museum Island): The UNESCO World Heritage Site in the historic heart of Berlin contains one of the most important and impressive museum complexes in all of Europe. Prussian kings oversaw the construction of a complex dedicated to art and science on the northern part of a small island in the Spree River from 1830-1930, and the collections of art and archeology housed in the museums are now maintained by the Berlin State Museums. The site officially consists of the Altes Museum (Old Museum) containing the Collection of Classical Antiquities; the Neues Museum (New Museum) containing the Egyptian and papyrus collections, including the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti; the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) containing one of the largest collections of 19th-century sculptures and paintings in Germany; the Bode Museum containing sculpture collections and Byzantine art; and the Pergamonmuseum containing Middle Eastern and Islamic art, as well as the Antiquities Collection. We didn’t go inside any of the museums, but it was still really cool to walk around the island, which also includes the stunning Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral).
- Bibliothek (The Empty Library): One of the most powerful memorial sites in the city is inconspicuously located in the middle of the Bebelplatz, a large and otherwise very lovely public square next to the opera house on Unter den Linden. A glass plate set into the cobblestones provides a view of a collection of empty subterranean bookcases that are large enough to hold all 20,000 books burned by the Nazis in the Bebelplatz on May 10, 1933. It was such a provocative piece of art and I really appreciated visiting it with our tour guide, but it would have been very easy to miss while walking by on our own.
- Checkpoint Charlie: This might be a hot take, but I could have really done without visiting Checkpoint Charlie, which served as the single crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin for members of the Allied forces during the Cold War. As the most visible Berlin Wall checkpoint, it quickly became a popular and well-known symbol of the Cold War, especially after Soviet and American tanks briefly faced each other at the location during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and John F. Kennedy visited in 1963. Although the historic value of the site (which now includes a copy of the guard house and the sign that once marked the border crossing) was very easy to appreciate, the present-day area was the most crowded and touristy place we went to while in Berlin. It was overrun with chain restaurants and souvenir shops that seemed to focus a lot more on U.S. involvement in the Cold War than anything else, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and BlackBox Cold War Exhibition weren’t terribly interesting compared to the other museums in Berlin.
- Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church): We saw this church while having a drink at the Spreegold rooftop and were immediately intrigued by its uniquely unfinished appearance. It was badly damaged during an air raid in World War II and instead of fully restoring the original church in the center of the Breitscheidplatz, the city chose to preserve the remnants of its spire and entrance hall as a memorial to and reminder of the devastation of the city during World War II.
- Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church): Originally Roman Catholic, this 13th-century church near the Alexanderplatz has been a Lutheran church since the Reformation in 1539. In addition to being one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in Berlin, it is also home to a particularly striking statue of Martin Luther and has a really great view of the Fernsehturm (the iconic East Berlin television tower).
- Hackescher Markt: In addition to being an important transit hub and a popular area for nightlife, this public square at the eastern end of Oranienburger Strasse in Mitte also has a fantastic open-air market and is surrounded by excellent boutiques and galleries.