What to Do in Berlin, Europe’s Coolest City
The thing about Berlin is you want to live as much like a local as you possibly can. Sure, you don’t have to party in a club till Tuesday every weekend, and you definitely have to do the tourist thing at least once, but you’ll find the heart of the city in the middle of a farmer’s market, whilst dancing in the street to live music and when sitting with a friend, legs hanging over the edge of the canal, sharing a wurst and bier (sausage and beer, of course).
So after you take that selfie in front of the graffiti-saturated Berlin Wall, after you visit the Brandenburg Gate and after reflecting upon the city’s significant history at the Holocaust Museum, it’s time to get gritty and see what today makes Berlin, Berlin.
First things first, there are many different boroughs of Berlin. There’s downtown Mitte, a business district of sorts, full of upscale shopping and restaurants, posh apartments and lots of the must-see Berlin landmarks. There’s Prenzlauer Berg known for being family friendly, and Charlottenburg known for its snazzy palaces and old money. But whenever I go to Berlin, there’s a certain area that calls to me. It’s New York’s Brooklyn, it’s LA’s Venice Beach: Kreuzberg and Neukölln are edgy and hip, diverse and accepting of everyone.
They are where you’ll feel the most at home, and with these insider tips, you’ll be giving directions to the nearest U-Bahn in no time — a right of passage for any true Berliner.
If you’re really trying to get the local aspect, I’d recommend staying in an Airbnb. There are so many options and you can really pick and choose depending on your personal preferences. There are places that provide free bikes (a must in Berlin), and ones that provide use of their cuddly kitty (for me, another must) and then there are those that merely provide a place to sleep and brush your hair (shoulds, but maybe not necessarily “musts” in these parts). I kid… kind of.
Another good bet for local living is the Michelberger Hotel. A small boutique hotel oozing with character, it was originally started by a couple who wanted a big space to collaborate and create with friends, and then, after realizing just how many interested friends they had, decided to turn it into a hotel. Ranging from one-person single rooms about the size of an extra large Porta Potty to large(r) rooms packed to the brim with plenty of beds, perfect for families. There’s even a room called the Hideout — which is basically the best fort you’ve ever set eyes on (or seen in any childhood dreams).
For an even more peculiar experience try your hand at “houseboating.” The Modern Houseboat allows you to discover what life is really like on the water, 24/7. Located on Lake Rummelsburg, just a 15-minute taxi from Berlin’s city centre, the houseboat features a kitchen, living area, shower and master bedroom, complete with a fireplace for the winter and AC for summer.
Because of the diverse and colorful history of Berlin, vintage shopping is a gold mine. The Good Store in Neukölln has vintage pieces that range from hip (Acne) to couture (Gucci). Another good spot to get your second hand goods is RepeateR. Committed to selling pieces at a reasonable price, they specialize in American folk vintage. It’s basically Berlin’s take on LA, which guarantees you like 100 extra cool points in either city.
For some eco-conscious goods hit up FOLKDAYS in Kreuzberg. The fair-trade fashion label sources their goods from various countries in South America and the Middle East, with a focus on creating high quality, unique home and wear items that reflect traditional craftsmanship and modern simplicity. They source their products from artisans they view as experts and honor the story behind each product with a card explaining its background. To really feel like a local, spot the bright yellow VW convertible bug roaming the streets and give a honk and a wave. Fun fact: it’s originally from San Diego!
Not into vintage but still want that rare statement piece? The innovative Voo Store will step up to the task. Connected to the equally artsy cafe Companion Coffee, the space carries a hefty arrangement of both German and international art and fashion magazines, books and art. At this scene shop, you’ll find unique pieces from brands like Helmut Lang and Marni to Reebok and YEEZY.
As if being one of the cutest coffee shops around wasn’t enough, it’s what Refugio Cafe is doing behind-the-scenes that really counts. Volunteers that work in the coffee shop donate their time and skills in order to help those in need. Whether that’s through providing them a place to stay or offering a job, Refugio is a mix between coffee shop, home and event space. There’s always new people to meet and something going on, so pop on by… especially if you’re on a mission to make friends!
For a classy night out give Gaststatte Am Ufer a try for some Austrian-meets-Kreuzberg cuisine. The small, dimly lit space has a minimalist vibe but is chock-full nightly with locals trying dishes like octopus or veal cream goulash. The restaurant is known for hiring only the most experienced of cooks and waitstaff so expect great service and even better schnitzel.
There’s bound to be at least one of those nights where you inevitably feel like eating again long after dinner. Those nights where the time gets away from you and suddenly it’s 2am, 3am… or you know, really early and you just really need a greasy Turkish kebab. Hands down the best one in town is from Imren Grill. They have a few locations spattered throughout Berlin so you’re covered wherever you go out. In addition to their amazing döner kebabs, they make their Turkish pizza fresh, from scratch. Which, at 3am is a perk you didn’t even know you needed.
In Berlin there are no big grocery chains monopolizing the food market. With the occasional Aldi spattered scarcely around town, locals tend to get their groceries either at local liquor shops called spätkaufs (spätis for short) or farmer’s markets. Some of the best of the latter are the Turkish Market along Maybachufer that happens every Tuesday and Friday and Markthalle Neun, which, almost 130 years after its original opening, still hosts traditional weekly markets most days of the week. Check out their site ahead of time to see what events are planned for the day because the offerings are vast and diverse — we’re talking everything from Nigerian fufu to cheese spaetzle to macaroons and coffee.
Once an airport for the Nazi’s during WW2, Tempelhof now serves as a public park for Berliners. Every day you’ll find runners and bikers cruising along the runway, picnickers joyfully popping beer bottles on the grass and then — something that provides a breath of (really, really fresh air) in the middle of the city — Tempelhof’s very own urban garden, the Allmende Kontor. Occupying a space that was left without purpose after the airport closed down it has become a community of gardens, boasting over 300 beds. Spend a whole afternoon meandering through the unique plots, some that even provide benches, chairs or thrones to sit on as their guests revel in their creations.
What may look like a small unassuming bridge over the canal in the winter, Admiralsbrücke on a warm summer day or night (or basically anytime the sun is shining) becomes Kreuzberg’s hottest destination. Grab a beer or “ClubMate” (Berlin’s version of an energy drink) from the späti down the path and sprawl out in the middle of the bridge and stay till your heart desires — the sun doesn’t set until 11pm in the summer! It’s guaranteed there will be singing, dancing and lots of laughing. And then, once you’re ready to move on, hop on over next door to il Casolare for some of the best pizza you’ve ever had in your life. The patio is akin to a beer garden… with pizza. And if that’s not true Berlin-style, you’re talking to the wrong pizza-loving Berlinster.
And lastly, this brings us back to those all-night nightclubs. Even though you’ll be feeling it for days after, you’re in Berlin and you’re living like a local, so you might as well lace up your dancing shoes and make your way to the dance floor. The “it” clubs are constantly on rotation but if you can get into Berghain you’ve officially made it in Berlin. Tschüssi!