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55 hours in Berlin

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6 October 2009

Joe Legate, Wexas Partnerships Manager, travelled to Berlin for a long weekend in September. Here’s his account of what he got up to.

Saturdays in August are without doubt the worst time to be flying. With that in mind check-in desks, security and departure halls can make for (avoidable) nightmares. I arrived early for my flight to Berlin and whizzed through check-in and security before flopping in an airport lounge to avoid the crowds. A light breakfast, a quick coffee and a newspaper later, and I’m on board. Feeling surprisingly fresh.

Arriving in Berlin it can be very tempting just to jump in a taxi. But those of you happy using public transport and who wish to save at least €20, get the train. For just €2.80 you can get right to the heart of Berlin in around 15 minutes. Bargain.

Berlin is compact, friendly and safe. Most people speak english to an extremely competent level – indeed if you do speak some German they are more than likely to respond in perfect English. All of this tends to make you instantly feel very comfortable with your surroundings. And so feeling at ease I settled down to a late breakfast in Gagarin on the corner of Knaackstraße and Rykestraße in Prenzlauer Berg. This café is very laid back; in the summer it is the perfect place to enjoy the sun and a traditional german breakfast of cured meats, cheeses, boiled egg and various breads; and in the winter you can spend an evening on its heated forecourt, wrapped in one of the many cosy blankets provided, sippping a hot drink.

Next to Gagarin is a synagogue kept constantly under armed guard, even in this very liberal part of Berlin; it is a very quiet reminder of the Holocaust. As are the many brass square plaques on the pavements in East Berlin. Each one tells you who lived in the nearest building, when they were taken and where and when they died. More poignantly most say ‘ERMORDET’ – murdered.

These little details make Prenzlauer Berg. Wandering around the many wide streets it’s easy to see why many British people have emigrated here over the last few years. There are few cars with most people preferring to walk or cycle. On a Saturday some streets close to allow the weekly markets space; not just for shopping but music, meeting people and the legendary, but utterly vile, Currywurst.

My afternoon was spent shopping in the more central area of Mitte – the Covent Garden of Berlin. It has a great mix of boutique and high street shops both modern and retro. Many of which choose to integrate small cafes into their shop. For those that get dragged along on shopping trips I can assure you this provides the perfect solution!

A trip to Germany could not possibly be complete without a Schnitzel and a Stein of beer so I headed to Pratergarten – a traditional German beer garden that has not moved locations since 1837. The food here is traditional and warming. Of particular note is Weiner Schnitzel and Spätzle (similar to fried egg noodles), served in a Chanterelle sauce. This, with some beer and some social locals, made for an excellent start for the evening ahead... A story best left in Berlin.

Following breakfast I ventured for a coffee – the choice is nearly endless in Prenzlauer Berg – especially on a Sunday when only bars, cafés and restaurants are open. From there I ventured onwards to several of the city’s flea markets which crop up all over Berlin on a Sunday. I first stopped at the small market in Arkonaplatz where I found postcards with Nazi postal franks and all manner of ‘retro’ furniture - most of which looked like it had come direct from a communist school.

This was just a taster of things to come, as 10 minutes walk away is the Mauerpark or Wall Park, a former ‘death strip’. Originally kept empty to allow a clear view of any people trying to leave from the East to the West. Today, the park not only hosts the largest flea market in the city but has a performance amphitheatre, significant sports facilities and on a sunny Sunday, simply one of the most uplifting atmospheres. From brass bands to clowns, the park is packed with performers. For me, this was a real highlight; nothing beats relaxing in the sun with good company and some light entertainment.

My final morning in Berlin and it was time for Culture, Culture, Culture… and history. I am what you might call a culture ostrich – rather than a culture vulture. It’s not that I bury my head in the sand while on holiday, more that when I do go sightseeing I like to do it quickly. And the rest of the time I can normally be found in a café, restaurant or simply wandering around. So with just a morning to spare I thought it was about time I whizzed round the sites and took some snaps. The beauty of Berlin is definitely discovered when trying to get around quickly. The travel system is well integrated and you can more or less get to most places in the city within 15 minutes, which as a Londoner is a welcome relief.

To start with I caught a train to Ostbahnhof station. Just a two-minute walk from the station is the East Side Gallery – the largest open air gallery in the world covering a 1.3km section of the wall. The 106 or so murals and paintings on the wall are well worth a visit.

From here I travelled straight to Friedrichstraße Station – where a pleasant 15-minute stroll along the river Spree will take you right to the steps of the Reichstag – the seat of parliament for the German Empire until 1933. The building was given a much needed renovation post-reunification when renowned architect Norman Foster put his stamp on the building. The centrepiece of which is the Reichstag Dome, which offers amazing 360-degree views of the city. The queues for the dome were extraordinarily long and time was not on my side so I settled for a few photos outside before heading for the Brandenburg gate.

It’s not a monument you marvel over. It’s perhaps not even particularly interesting to some who don’t know its history. But for a photo to remember your trip by, the Brandenburg Gate is a must. A hop skip and a jump from there and you can visit the Holocaust Memorial too.

Checkpoint Charlie is also popular on the tourist trail and is again a quick photo stop, unless you stop in one of the museums in the area. I chose to visit the Topographie des Terrors an outdoor museum on the site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters, which documents many of the individual lives that were repressed by the Nazi regime.

Soon I found that I’d run out of time. And so I made the short train journey to the airport and before long I was high above Germany and on my way home, thinking of returning.

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