This list is highly subjective and in no way definitive.
Best Walking: East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, across the bridge, and around the Kreuzberg neighborhood.
You can follow the sidewalk along the entirety of East Side Gallery taking in the art renderings on remains of the Berlin Wall or you can cut away from the wall and traipse along the river with both granting spectacular views and insights into what was once a divided city. Once you reach the end you can cross Oberbaum Bridge into Kreuzberg where you are greeted by more street art on the buildings as well as sculptures that appear to be a part of grounds. The neighborhood’s vibe was decidedly young and eclectic, a stark alternative to the more historically kempt neighborhoods we had left on the other side of the river. If I were to live in Berlin, this would be the neighborhood – it recalled my fondest memories of San Francisco, only the public transportation was cleaner and the locals were more likely to acknowledge you with a smile.
The walk between and around these neighborhoods was charged with history, charged with new beginnings, charged with vibrant colors and equally vibrant people yet somehow entirely at peace with what was to come. Kreuzberg seemed to welcome everything and everyone with a sort of laidback charm that stood at odds with the frenetic energy of Berlin as a whole.
Also, this route has the distinction of including the previously-mentioned Burgermeister, which really, makes the walk worth it by itself.
Best Food: Vegetarische Spätzle mit frischem Gemüse at Tiergartenquelle.
It is difficult for me to judge the “best” food in Berlin because not only do I genuinely like almost any food after a long day of walking in the rain but I also don’t eat red meat. Since Germany as a whole is big on the red meats, I relied heavily on J to try those, especially the beloved currywurst. His favorite: Curry36.
That said, I tried a slew of vegetarian dishes – the braised cucumber at Sophieneck was absolutely perfect – but decided that the best food must also include the environment in which it is served.
Tiergartenquelle is dim (dark wood and candlelight) but decidedly not romantic and is located directly under the Tiergarten S-Bahn station. Its atmosphere is ripe with beer, multiple languages, delicious meals, and understated electricity that wafts throughout the tavern. It has a local hole-in-the-wall feel (especially in the off-season when we went) and the food is both inexpensive and authentic. The portions are large; not too large that you feel stuffed or as though you’re wasting food, but just the right amount after a few hours of traversing Tiergarten’s several pathways. The vegetarian spaetzle – an egg noodle and vegetable dish served in a cast iron skillet – is expertly seasoned in such a manner that lets the fresh peppers and broccoli control the flavor without hiding behind any of the old stand-bys (salt, pepper, garlic, etc.).
Best to Skip: Bode Museum.
Unless you’re really into architecture as shown above (I am) or religious artifacts this place will disappoint you. The building is beautiful and there are a few pieces that resonated with me in an aesthetic sense but if you’re pressed for time or don’t want to spend the entire day wandering through museums (especially if it isn’t raining) then this would be the one to skip.
Best Moment (or Most Poignant): Bebelplatz
Now, perhaps it is because I am a writer or maybe it is because I had just watched The Book Thief on the plane ride over (yes, I have also read the book), but the Book Burning Memorial struck a nerve.
When walking from Unter den Linden to Bebelplatz you will probably see a tour group or just a bunch of people seemingly staring at the ground. The installation, entitled “Library” by artist Micha Ullman, is an inaccessible white room of empty bookcases below ground that is covered by a piece of square glass wedged into the cobblestone. The bookcases would hold roughly 20,000 books and represent the loss of those works destroyed by the Nazis because they were thought to undermine their ideology and the “German spirit.”
“That was just a prelude, where books
Are burnt, people will eventually burn too” – Heinrich Heine (1821)
The installation is commemorated by two bronze plaques (inscribed with the quote above) and is more thoroughly explained on the wall across from it. The site affected me: to stand in a place where former leaders (a loaded title, to be sure) attempted to burn conflicting information and to keep knowledge from the people causes reflection. It is thought-provoking, overwhelming, and something I think anyone who visits Berlin must do.
-M. Ray Hall