In May, Rémi and I decided to take advantage of one of the many public holidays in France to spend five days in Berlin – a city that I never really had a desire to visit until recently. Seeing the city on TV shows like Rick Steves’ Europe (which is how I got 90% of my information about Europe before the age of 20!), it seemed like a very gray city with an equally dark and depressing history. However, after hearing so many friends rave about how cool and creative and cheap Berlin is, I eventually came to believe it would be the perfect place to do a short city vacation!
Day 1: Cruising Berlin by bike!
We arrived late at night on a Tuesday and the next morning I started Googling breakfast places in our neighborhood of Mitte, which is pretty much in the center of Berlin (mitte apparently means “center” in German, so it is very appropriately named!) I found a place called House of Small Wonder that served traditional “Western” breakfast food with a Japanese twist. While eating some delicious eggs benedicts with wasabi, we decided to book a 3.5 hour bike tour for later that afternoon with Fat Tire bike tours. Berlin is such a spread-out city that it seemed like the best way to get an overview of its geography and history. Since we had a bit of time before the tour, we decided to head to the Brandenburg Gate for our first non-food-related stop of the trip.
It was pretty crazy to see the Brandenburg Gate for the first time and realize that my main connection with this place was not the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or that oft-quoted speech by Ronald Reagan, but rather watching TV and seeing Barack Obama give a speech to over 200,000 people here during his first campaign for president. This was actually a feeling that I got a lot throughout this trip – that for me, the Cold War was “history”, but for most Germans/Europeans/people alive today it was a real, tangible part of their lives.
We were going to start heading in the direction of the bike tour, which was beginning at Alexanderplatz under the famous Berlin TV tower, but these plans were put on hold when Rémi spotted his secret weakness: a Dunkin’ Donuts. 😀 It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip to see him so enthused by the prospect of eating what can only be described as the embodiment of American culinary excellence. 😉 You can see why I love him so much. 😊 (Side note: They had a curry donut that was amazing!)
Anyway, after enjoying our donuts it was time for the bike tour! Our guide was a really nice British student that was studying history at Humboldt University and we learned so much from him, including the location of East Berlin and West Berlin (basically, all the major sites are in East Berlin, we only went into West Berlin on two brief occasions, which was a shock for me!) and the German love for giving literal names to buildings and streets. (Examples: the town hall is called the “red town hall” because it’s red and it’s a town hall, “French street” is so named because a lot of French people lived there, etc.)
On the tour we saw an incredible number of sites: Checkpoint Charlie, one of the largest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall (where our guide told the story of how one East German government official built a zip line that allowed him and his family to escape into West Berlin!), the incredibly moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the site of Hitler’s bunker, which is now a parking lot. It was crazy to see just how embedded with history Berlin is. It doesn’t feel like a museum but all these places and stories are still very present in the fabric of the city. I also enjoyed the tour for a very egotistical reason: I remembered the name of an architect that our guide had mentioned at the start of the tour, and won a piece of the Berlin Wall as a prize! Thank you Karl Schinkel! 😛
After the tour we were WIPED OUT, so we went to a traditional German restaurant that Rémi’s friend Marco, who lives in Berlin, recommended to us called Gaststätte Sophieneck. We feasted on bratwurst and schnitzel, and then took a little walk around the neighborhood before collapsing in our Airbnb.
Day 2: Lunch at a two-star Michelin restaurant and reconnecting with friends
Day 2 was absolutely magical, because Rémi and I decided to be a little indulgent and celebrate our 1.5 year anniversary at a two-star Michelin restaurant. (It really does sound excessive when I say it that way haha! :P) The restaurant, Restaurant Facil, is located in a hotel in Potsdamer Platz, which used to sit in the “dead zone” between the West and East sides of the Berlin Wall and was completely redeveloped in the 90’s. (As we learned from our bike tour, there wasn’t one single Berlin Wall, but rather two parallel walls with a dead space of varying widths in between for soldiers and guard dogs to patrol). I had never been a two-star Michelin restaurant but I learned they can actually be an incredible deal if you go during lunch. When we sat down, our waiter asked if we wanted some sparkling Riesling, which I had no idea existed but was DELICIOUS. I think I prefer it to champagne! (Don’t hurt me, French people!) Then Rémi got up to go to the bathroom (I thought) and a few minutes after he returned, the waiter presented me with a little box, saying it was from “Monsieur Ulaanbaatar”. I was really confused and thought it might be some fancy bread sticks or crackers, and then maybe a gift mistakenly offered by a rich Mongolian oligarch. But then I looked at Rémi and realized that it was more likely a gift from him. 😛 Inside was a beautiful necklace that we had seen at a shop together that had an Egyptian motif, even though it was made in Thailand. I was totally surprised, although Rémi does sometime go to the “bathroom” and return with presents for me, so I need to be a bit more observant I guess. 😉
Anyway, our meal was incredible: for the starter I had beef tartar with juniper, white beetroot and goji berries, and Rémi had the Hamachi ceviche with sesame, mango and coriander. Then for the main course, I got the “neck of wool pig” with chicory, cinnamon and blood orange, and Rémi got the world’s MOST TENDER octopus with miso and salted lemon. Honestly, that octopus was just unreal, I love octopus but I thought it was just supposed to be a bit rubbery. Umm nope, apparently not! For dessert, we each got the waiter’s favorite: “Clouds”, which were these little meringue poofs with different flavors inside: passion fruit, litchi, coconut and white chocolate. The whole meal was basically mind-blowing and I would 100% recommend it for a special occasion – or just any occasion you feel like inventing for yourself! 😀
I don’t know how we didn’t just immediately fall asleep after all that food, but we actually had a full slate of activities planned for the rest of the day – most importantly, having dinner with my friend Alisa, who used to be an intern at UNESCO and now works in Berlin. Before that we spent a few hours at a really great contemporary art museum called the Martin Gropius-Bau, which was showing an exhibition of a dozen Berlin-based artists who take inspiration from traditional crafts, as well as an exhibition of photos from Jet magazine.
Then it was time to meet Alisa and her boyfriend Bartosz, who is a fellow Pole like me! (Except that he was actually, you know, born in the country). Alisa chose this AMAZING German dumpling restaurant called Knodelwirtschaft in the Neukolln neighborhood. It was so nice to catch up with them and hear all about their work and life in Berlin. I’m always sad when one of my friends leaves UNESCO, but the upside is I get to visit them and discover amazing new cities at the same time! Afterwards, we got ridiculously cheap drinks by Paris standards at a nearby bar and talked about gender norms and football culture (or something like that :P). I was sad to say goodbye but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing her in Berlin (or Paris) again soon!
Day 3: A combination spa-disco and a restaurant that only serves dessert!
Day 3 was a day I had been looking forward to for months, ever since my friend Lindsay told me about Liquidrom, a spa in the middle of Berlin where they play electro and other forms of club music under the water! It sounded like the most Berlin thing imaginable (besides maybe going to an actually club, which Rémi and I actually never got around to doing haha!) Since Rémi is a big spa fan, it seemed like the perfect activity! The spa was super nice: there was an indoor and an outdoor section and they gave us these waterproof wristbands that allow you to order food and drinks from the bar (very dangerous teehee!) There were many different kinds of saunas and pools, but the main attraction was the huge saltwater pool where they played music above and under the water, as a multi-colored disco ball-type light show played overhead! For us, the music wasn’t really techno, more like jazzy versions of pop songs, but it was still so great and unique and relaxing! After the spa, we walked along the Spree River and stopped at a boat that was moored there for some beer. This was in anticipation of the main event of the evening – a trip to CODA Dessert Bar, a one-star Michelin restaurant that serves only dessert! (Going there was obviously my idea haha!)
At CODA, normally you have to pay for a seven-course tasting menu, but if you go after 10pm, you can take three or four courses, so we made a reservation for 10:30pm. Upon arriving in the dark, super trendy-looking restaurant, our waiter proceeded to explain that they don’t use “industrial sugar” and that they make their own chocolate, saying confidently “We have a machine in the back.” Was it a bit pretentious? Maybe, but I honestly did not care with the prospect of 4 courses of dessert and matching drinks before me! Each course looked like a dessert and had dessert-like elements, but used savory ingredients as their basis. I took a picture of the menu so I could remember everything:
Plate 1: Pineapple with cilantro and cacao butter.
Plate 2: Eggplant with pecans, apple, balsamic vinegar and licorice salt.
Plate 3: Elstar apple with sultanas, shallots and smoked salt.
Plate 4: Trintario cacao rice with cashews and grated bonito (a type of dried fish) on top.
And that doesn’t include the drinks, which were honestly way too complicated to describe (one included, according to the waiter, the juice of a leaf from a tropical plant from Thailand, or something). Overall, it wasn’t quite as nuanced as Facil, but I love eating foods with unusual ingredients and would still recommend it if you are a dessert lover. 😊 We finished eating at midnight and normally this would be the time to go dancing…but we took an Uber home instead and had zero regrets haha!
Day 4 & 5: The German History Museum and rock-climbing with some new friends!
On Day 4 we finally got our hands on some currywurst (so delicious) and explored the German History Museum. We only made it to the Reformation, however, as we had made plans to see Marco, Rémi’s friend from his year abroad in Istanbul, his partner Louisa and their two daughters Olivia and Alice (who is just a few months old!) It was so much fun to meet them and see the life of two young architects in Berlin. They seemed so relaxed and creative and completely unfazed by having two tiny children to take care of. To give Olivia some time to play, Marco, Rémi and I took her to an indoor rock-climbing place that had a children’s play area and a bar, so we could chat while she ran around (and obviously we eventually joined her, it looked like too much fun!) We spent the rest of the evening with them and met up again the next morning for our final half-day in Berlin, where we walked along the East Side Gallery!
So that was my attempt to (quickly?) describe everything we did in Berlin over the course of 5 days, and now that I read everything we did and ate, I have to say that it was a pretty opulent trip, in so many ways! Not just when it comes to all the food we ate (which was a lot haha!) but also all the amazing experiences we had and the history that surrounded us and the friends we saw and discovered for the first time! I completely regret ever thinking of Berlin as “grey” and “depressing”. If anything, it is one of the liveliest, most creative cities I’ve ever visited! 😊