The flight to Berlin was nice and short, and they even gave us a little chocolate Easter egg. When I landed, it was a pleasant surprise to see that each gate had there own baggage claim right at the end of the jet bridge. I only had to wait about 5 minutes until I had my suitcase and followed the signs to public transportation.
Even though I was tired, I was determined to get to the hostel using the buses instead of taking the easy way out and hailing a cab.
It was actually super simple - transfer and all. The weather was cold and rainy which was unpleasant, but even the bus stops have countdown clocks for how long until each bus will arrive.
A theme of the trip was - "NYC public transportation is really archaic and horrible and I feel bad for any tourist trying to navigate the city." I would never recommend that a tourist get on a NYC public bus - I have enough trouble myself since there's absolutely no way of knowing what stop is next, they skip half of them, and you could be stuck waiting 20 minutes in between buses.
By around 8:30 I made it to Wombat's Hostel and was greeted in the lobby by Allison!
TIP: I really enjoyed our stay at Wombat's Hostel. Though the rooms weren't huge, the double room had it's own private shower. All of the common spaces were super chill and seemed to encourage socialization. There was self-service laundry, a bar with happy hour every night, a cafe attached, and a rooftop with a beautiful view of the TV tower! Free WiFi, luggage storage, towels included, and a decent area with plenty of bars and restaurants around!
Finally united in Europe, Allison and I set out to find our first dinner and beer.
We ended up at Weihenstephaner Berlin at the Neue Promenade mainly because I recognized it as a German beer and all the other restaurants in the area seemed pretty deserted (to be fair, it was Easter Sunday at 9 PM).
I ordered the Ofenfrischer Schweinsbraten - "Fresh from the oven pork roast with crackling - from the shoulder – in original Weihenstephaner dark beer sauce, sauerkraut and potato dumplings."
Not a very light meal - but very, very delicious.
We walked back to Wombat's and made our way up to the "WomBAR" since we had received two free drink vouchers at check-in. The bar was packed with people and we found a spot to sit with our red wine.
I wish we could say we were social and joined the groups playing beer pong (since I am an International Beer Pong Champion and all) but we just sat by ourselves in a corner chatting up a storm and catching up on life. We quickly changed the game plan from "just one drink" to "might as well get another - it will help us fall asleep."
The wine was a good call - we both fell asleep before our heads hit the pillows on that first night.
I was up early on Monday morning and excited to attend a class at BECYCLE - an English speaking fitness studio a quick half mile walk from our hostel.
I had pre-registered and used their new student deal, so I had two classes for the price of one! Monday's class was HIIT and as soon as I walked into the studio I felt at ease. It was GORGEOUS and everyone was incredibly sweet and welcoming (and spoke fabulous English).
There's an adorable cafe attached, the lockers have USB chargers in them, and everything is ridiculously clean.
Our instructor was upbeat, friendly, communicative, and the workout itself was great. We did a tabata-style workout and to end the class, we partnered up to complete a ridiculous number of burpees, push-ups, lunges and sit-ups. My partner and I crushed it, if I do say so myself!
After class, Allison and I got ready at the hostel and set out for our first full day of sightseeing in Berlin.
We leisurely strolled to the Reichstag (I must confess we stopped for coffee from Dunkin Donuts along the way) where we had a 12:45 PM tour booked (it's free, but you have to apply online!)
Headphones were provided which could tell where you were in the building and pointed out interesting information about the structure as well as lots of facts about the skyline and buildings that you could see outside of the glass domed building.
The Reichstag building that stands now was built in 1999 after being destroyed in WWII. The concept behind the design is transparency of the new German republic. From inside the glass dome, you can look down on the German Bundestag (Parliament) when they are in session.
As we continued our sightseeing we strolled a little bit through the Tiergarten and stopped for a picture at the Brandenburg Gate.
Next was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - which you should definitely walk into the middle of to get the full effect.
It doesn't look like much when you first arrive, but once you make your way into the labyrinth of tall concrete towers, you realize that the ground undulates and the 90 degree grid of the columns gets pretty trippy.
The line was long to get into the museum underneath the memorial. but it's free if you've got the time!
Next up was the site of Hitler's Bunker. It was only recently that they put any type of plaque up signifying this spot - but now there is some information and pictures and there were quite a few people there when we arrived.
I never realized how huge the bunker was! It was like an underground palace!
Another stop on my DIY walking tour (it was more of an unintelligible route weaving back and forth across the city due in part to the fact that Allison and I could only pronounce the first three letters of any given "strasse") was to Bebelplatz.
Bebelplatz is a square in Berlin where the Nazi book burning took place in May of 1933. Now, the square has an understated memorial that would be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it! There's a glass plate built into the ground, and when you look through it, you see down into a room with empty, white bookshelves, which would have held 20,000 (the number burnt by the Nazis).
When we arrived, a tour group was also walking up to the memorial and we were all saddened to see that the glass was so dusty and dirty that we couldn't see down to the bookshelves. We pooled together our resources of water and tissues and the tour guide cleaned off a portion of the plate, joking that he was pretty sure he wasn't defacing a historic monument. I'm glad we got to look down - I thought it was a perfect commemoration.
Later, I read that the plaque in Bebelplatz reads, "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." This is a line from Heinrich Heine's play "Almansor" which translates to, "That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people." So fitting, and so chilling.
As we made our way back across Museum Island and across from the stunning Berlinerdom, we noticed a group of people setting up balloons and rose petals and stopped to watch an incredibly "extra" proposal. Extra, but still made us AW and clap along with the rest of the crowd that had gathered.
That morning, we had passed a long strip of restaurants with outdoor seating right along the water at James-Simon-Park and made our way back there to find lunch. We chose Olla - Grill & Orient Lounge where I feasted on a delicious platter of falafel and grilled vegetables with tahini and tzatziki.
The service was typical of most European cities - disinterested at best and what would normally have been a 45 minute lunch in the states was a leisurely hour and a half ordeal but we couldn't complain much considering the fact that we were sitting outside in the sunshine in Berlin.
Allison headed back to the hostel to do some work and I continued my somewhat aimless wanderings in the direction of Hackesche Höfe - a giant courtyard complex of absolutely stunning building facades. On a typical day, this would have been packed with tourists visiting the various restaurants, shops, cafes, galleries, and offices housed inside Hackesche Höfe - but since it was Easter Monday (apparently a holiday in many European countries - and...North Carolina?) almost everything was closed.
This was good for my wallet, and my camera - though I wouldn't have minded checking out some of the shops! One store that was open was "Ampelmann" and I'm so glad that it was. It put a name to the funny little men on the crosswalk signals that Allison and I had immediately noticed! Prior to the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, West German streetlights used a generic human figure while those in Eastern Germany featured the Ampelmännchen - a male figure wearing a hat.
The Ampelmännchen is one of the few East German features to survive the end of Communism and has since been adopted across the city.
After weaving my way through Hackesche Höfe I headed towards Haus Schwarzenberg - a really interesting area to walk around. Referred to as a "street art gallery" - Haus Schwarzenberg is a ~bohemian~ hold-out in the heavily gentrified area. Upon further research, I learned that Haus Schwarzenberg is run by a nonprofit organisation.
It's definitely worth a visit - and I highly recommend stopping at the free exhibit about Otto Weidt and his efforts to save Jews from persecution during the Holocaust. Weidt ran a factory which employed the blind and deaf- they made brooms and brushes. When Nazis started deporting Jews, Weidt used his factory as a hiding space. The museum now exists in what used to be the factory! It was myself and two other people when I stopped by!
On my walk back to the hostel, I noticed my first brass cobblestone in the ground. These Stolperstein ("stumbling stone") are placed outside residences of Holocaust victims. Each plaque lists the names and life spans of individuals killed by the Nazis. The project was started by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992 and since then, Stolperstein have been placed in 22 different countries worldwide.
It's interesting to note that Munich has not allowed Stolperstein to be placed in the city.
After a quick refresh at the hostel Allison and I headed out for the oldest beer garden in Berlin - Berliner Prater Garten. Thankfully, it was open, but the fact that it was Easter Monday meant that we had the typically lively beer garden almost entirely to ourselves.
Despite the chilly temperatures, we decided to sit outside and enjoy our big mugs of Hefeweissbier. I can't imagine how awesome it would be to sit outside in this beer garden in the spring or summer with hundreds of people!
A very strange thing happened while we sat on the patio - a girl walking by with headphones on suddenly started yelling like she was performing a monologue and then promptly collapsed onto the ground.
To Allison and I it was pretty obvious that she had done it on purpose, but then a group of people walked by and saw her on the ground and panicked thinking something was wrong. We looked like uncaring asshole Americans. As they gathered around her to see if she was OK, she started freaking out and eventually stood up and screamed at them. They, rightfully, got really weirded out and just kind of walked away.
It was the oddest thing.
Brushing that off - we walked back in the direction of our hostel but made a stop at one of my favorite finds of the trip. Weinerei - a pay what you wish wine bar!
Allison had the genius idea upon entering to ask the bartender if she spoke English before we just started speaking at her in English and the woman was SO RECEPTIVE! She couldn't stop saying how nice it was that we asked instead of assuming (a tip we would take with us the rest of the trip). From that moment on we were in- which was great considering this was definitely a place that seemed to be filled with locals.
For 2 euro we each got a wine glass and then we were free to sample the wines of the night. They just ask that you pour a little taste to make sure you like something before pouring yourself a full glass. We sat and enjoyed three glasses each in this lovely space (there's also food you can help yourself to) while wishing that we had a deck of cards.I was so excited that they had a Portuguese red wine!
When you're ready to leave, they ask that you pay what you think the night was worth (there are recommended prices on the bar as well).
I don't know that this concept could ever work in NYC - but it was such a unique Berlin experience!
On our way our, we asked the bartender how to say, "Do you speak English?" in German and spent the entire walk back working on our dismal pronunciation of "Sprichst du Englisch?"
The last stop of the day was at the late night Middle Eastern spot (Luxa) around the corner from the hostel where I utterly confused the employees by asking for cauliflower, eggplant and beets. They couldn't understand why I didn't want a pita - so eventually I just got a pita with meat, cauliflower, eggplant, beets and hummus. It was BALLER - pretty sure they fried the pita or something because it tasted like crack.
I think they were entertained by us, and the feeling was mutual as they tried to get Allison to reach for her food THROUGH the glass counter.
We enjoyed our food in the Wombat's Hostel kitchen before another night of immediately falling asleep.
The next morning I was up and at it again early for my second class at BECYCLE - this time, a 45 minute spin class.
As I was getting ready for class, my partner from the day before sat down next to me and said hello which made me feel like a ~local~ and was a super cool moment of the trip. This is why working out everywhere I go is always on my to-do list. You meet the best people!
Class was great- the music was fun, varied, and the instructor was upbeat. The bikes were SO SMOOTH and they even had gears that altered the resistance when you turned them left and right.
After class I showered and got ready at the studio before heading back to the hostel where we paid the affordable price of 4.50 euro for an amazing breakfast spread! They even had a panini press.
We packed our things and navigated the U-bahn to bring our luggage to the next hostel, where our tour group would officially begin that night.
TIP: U-Bahn = urban rail and S-Bahn = suburban rail. The U-Bahn is the subway and the S-Bahn goes outside of the city)
At Cityhostel Berlin, they were able to give us our rooms even though it wasn't the official check-in time which was a pleasant surprise.
Our next destination by way of the S-Bahn (which was incredibly easy to navigate) was the East Side Gallery.
TIP: When you purchase metro/subway tickets in many European cities, you'll need to "validate" your ticket - this is a machine that stamps the date and time on your ticket and while you don't need to present your ticket to board the subway - officers may board at any time and ask to see your validated ticket! If you haven't validated your ticket, don't have a ticket, or are using an old ticket - you'll be fine!
Digression: The woman from California who was working at our hostel in Cesky Krumlov told a story of getting caught on a bus without a validated ticket and getting out of the fine by listing as many NHL hockey teams as she could!
The East Side Gallery was an Instagrammer's dream. Sure, there was the historical significance of seeing a remaining portion of the Berlin wall in what is now the world's largest open air art gallery - but the real delight was in taking pictures with the murals.
And we shamelessly made our way down the wall stopping for photo shoot after photo shoot.
When we made it to the end, we decided we might as well start walking back in the direction of our hostel since it was such a nice day outside. We may have accidentally walked through a construction site - which became glaringly obvious as a bulldozer crashed to the ground just as we passed.
For the past few days we had passed a lot of places that looked like part playground, part tree house, part homeless shelter. We had begun to affectionately refer to them as "shanty towns" and on our walk we happened to pass one that lured us in to take a look around. Turns out, it had a bar, a bakery, a hair salon, and a beautiful view of the water!
There was no question as to whether or not we were staying here for a drink - it was simply way too cool of a spot to leave. I was especially happy to find that they had a local beer that was hoppier than anything else I had managed to find. And they served Somersby! My European obsession which I basically forced Allison to order.
Sitting in the shanty town, drinking our drinks on the water, the sun shining down, wondering where the hell we were - was one of the highlights of Berlin for me.
When we finished, we wandered around for a bit and decided this place would definitely have been a little creepy at night but during the day it was just plain awesome. We discovered a slide, a trampoline, and tons of other oddities on the property.
Post-vacation I looked up where we were - and it turns out that it was part of Holzmarkt which The Guardian describes as and "alternative cultural complex, "on the banks of the Spree river in Berlin." This "urban oasis" is a MUST SEE while you're in Berlin!
The entire area is just really out there and as we continued walking back to the hostel we even passed a door under a highway overpass that clearly led to some kind of secret club because there was music bumpin' through the door.
Foreshadowing: we would end up exploring a similar shanty town in the evening hours later that day and it didn't disappoint!
After a long walk, we made it back to our hostel and freshened up in anticipation of meeting our tour group - the people we would be spending the next 11 days with. Would there be 14 of us? Would we be the only 2? All girls? All younger than us? We had been talking about it for the past 3 days and were excited to finally find out.
We got to the lobby and weren't exactly sure where our "orientation" was taking place but made our way to some comfy looking couches where we quickly spotted another guy who looked like he was searching for a group.
"Are you here for the Gecko's meeting?" we asked and sure enough - it was Josh. Our first Aussie tour-mate. We chatted for a little bit about our few days in Berlin and what we had discovered and then another guy appeared and we asked if he was in the group - turns out this was David - our tour leader.
He let us know that we were just waiting for one more person - and that we would be a small group of just 4 people. Soon enough, Heidi joined us and our group of two Americans, two Aussies and a Scottish tour leader was complete.
We went over a bunch of information, told some fun facts about each other, and pretty effectively broke the ice with talk of doughnut obsessions, dreadlocks, and food allergies. I very quickly could tell that we would get along as a group when we unanimously decided that dinner would be a trip to a street side currywurst window.
Allison and I grabbed a beer from the hostel lobby to take on the road with us (just because we were exhilarated by the fact that we could drink beer on public transportation) and we all headed to the celebrated Curry 36 (right next to the cult-favorite Mustafa's Gemüse Kebap whose line looked like Halal Guys in NYC!)
David talked us through what we should order, and Allison and I decided on splitting both the classic Curry Wurst (two sausages with curry ketchup and french fries) and Curry buletten (think of a burger/meatball combo) also served with delicious curry ketchup and more fries.
This was my favorite street food of the entire trip (and we ate a lot). I am fairly certain that I ate more than anyone else.
I'm still not sure what about this made it so delicious - all I can say is that you cannot leave Berlin without eating currywurst! I will also say that I was not as opposed to mayo on my french fries as I had anticipated.
Please observe the below picture for my feelings re: currywurst.
After stuffing ourselves silly at Curry 36, we chatted about a bar crawl we had seen advertised in our hostel and decided we would all go and check it out. David said he would bring us there to make sure we made it OK since it was about a 20-30 minute journey by subway to the starting point.
When we arrived at the first bar, it was completely dead. The bartender told us to hang out and that the guy in charge would show up soon. So - we thanked David for accompanying us and waved goodbye through the window yelling, "Bye Dad!" It was a nickname that would stick for the remainder of the trip.
It was an awkward wait for the bar crawl to get started but slowly, people started showing up and though the bartender acted as if this was the first time something like this was ever happening in the establishment (it supposedly happens 6 days a week...) eventually we settled into a table in the back with a fun group of people from all over the world.
The most memorable parts of this conversation had to have been learning that the translation of "Cheers" in Indian is "Take it in the mouth" and the group's chant of "Prost" devolving to yelling "Prostate!"
Eventually the bar crawl got under way and we left the first bar with giant beer bottles in hand as we walked to the next stop. We milled around in a park finishing our "roadies" and talking as a group (and realizing that the bar was about to close and our bar crawl leader was in the midst of trying to talk them into staying open a little longer).
TIP: In Berlin, people leave bottles and cans on the ground around garbage cans so that people can collect them and make money on returning them. So if you're drinking in a park, it's totally acceptable to leave the bottle on the ground next to a garbage can instead of actually throwing it out.
The next bar started with a shot a palinka which we would again encounter in Budapest. It's a Hungarian liquor fermented from fruit and it was strong as hell.
The group mingled outside the bar until we realized there was a back room that was Breaking Bad themed so everyone went in to check it out.
Next, we headed towards another shanty town for a more "club" like atmosphere - only to find out that the club was closed (our bar crawl leader was striking out left and right, and was also getting increasingly intoxicated as he drank his hidden bottle of jägermeister).
Luckily, the shanty town had other options, and he talked the group's way into Cassiopeia which we ended up absolutely loving! Once we got through the bouncers, we were expecting to walk into a building, but instead walked into a tree house/courtyard. Beyond that lay the bar, a dance floor, and an upstairs with people playing video games and foosball. It was bizarre in the best way and we spent a decent amount of time dancing there.
It's worth noting that this "shanty town" was actually the RAW complex - home to many bars, restaurants and clubs in the trendy, artsy, up and coming, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighborhood.
The last stop of the night was the famous nightclub Matrix that I had heard so much about, but unfortunately we were very disappointed. The worst part was that it felt like a heater was blowing on us on the dance floor! And the fact that the bar crawl leader had reached peek creepiness and would not stop dancing with us.
At that point, we decided to call it a night and got an Uber home.
We woke up feeling pretty decent the next morning and made it down to the hostel lobby for the included breakfast buffet. Then, we made the executive decision to be lazy and get an Uber to our destination for the day - Teufelsberg. On the ride to Teufelsberg we marveled at the size of Tiergarten - we seemed to be driving next to it forever (although, I have since confirmed that it's smaller than Central Park).
I had seen tons of pictures on Instagram of Teufelsberg - an abandoned United States spy station about 8 miles outside of the city center that has been turned into a graffiti artists playground.
Situated on the top of "Devil's Mountain" we were grateful that our Uber could drive us straight to the top. We paid for our tickets and started wandering around - in awe of how unique and strange the place was.
Of course, we had many photo shoots, and a lot of laughs at the "sassy cat" graffiti and random things we discovered. One of the coolest parts was a big dome shaped room that created the craziest echos - it really messed with your head!
There's really no way to describe this place - except to go explore and experience it yourself!
It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the walk down the mountain and took the U-Bahn back to the hostel.
That afternoon we would be leaving Berlin and starting our journey to Krakow so we wanted to get in a decent meal. We walked to Chipps, a vegetarian restaurant where I ate some of the best soup EVER.
We picked up some provisions for our overnight train ride (peanut butter, corn cakes, avocado, baby carrots - the usual suspects) and met the group at the hostel, sad to bid Berlin adieu but ready to see where this adventure would take us next!
If you have more time in Berlin - here are a few other places I would have liked to check out!
Berlin Wall Memorial which accurately shows what the wall looked like - including the grounds behind it.
Mauer Park is a destination in itself - and on Sunday's, Berliner's flock to the park for the popular park karaoke sessions!