Germany, let alone Berlin, was never high on my list of places to visit. It was never a consideration if I was planning my two week summer holiday and so I got well into my adult years having never been. Although I think as a child, I did venture across the border for about an hour during a family trip to The Netherlands – does that count?
Roll on to being almost 40 and given many of my childhood friends were turning 40 the same year, we decided to plan a trip abroad for a girlie weekend. Suggestions were made and the final choice of destination was Berlin. If I’m honest I wasn’t exactly excited about it (Edinburgh or Lisbon were my preferences) but my experience, back in September 2016, couldn’t have been further from my expectation. We had a great time. So much so that when my husband and I suggested we try to plan a few city breaks for the kids to experience the culture of other countries, Berlin made it to top of the list. Here’s how we got on:
We booked (and paid for ourselves) a package with the online travel company Click and Go. I had never used them before, but the process was simple. Within a matter of minutes, I was booked. The flights were with Aer Lingus, travelling at 0710 (ouch!) on a Tuesday morning during February midterm break and returning at 2130 on the Friday evening. Three nights but almost four days in Berlin.
If I’m honest, I hate those crack of dawn flights. I never sleep well before them and then I arrive at my destination exhausted and in need of a nap, so half the day is gone. This trip didn’t change my opinion and in future I would avoid those flights if I could.
The flight was fine, it’s only about 2 hours, although we ended up having a missed approach into Berlin and having to go around again which, as a nervous flyer, I could have done without.
Once landed, we headed off to get to the city centre. As a family of five taxis are often hard to come by (and costly) so I had done my research and found that for €2.80 per adult (€1.70 for a child) we could get the express public bus (Route TXL) direct from the airport into the city centre. A sum total of €10.70 for the five of us. Just follow the signs for the bus when you exit the arrivals area and it will lead you to the bus stop. We bought our tickets from a machine at the bus set down area and a bus arrived within a few minutes. It worked a dream and gave us the opportunity to go through, and see, some of Berlin’s suburbs. The journey took about 30-40 minutes.
Where We Stayed in Berlin City Centre
Click and Go gave a number of options for accommodation with our package and I picked Residence Hotel Nikolai as it looked nice and modern, seemed clean, was right in the city centre and had great reviews online.
The hotel is accessed by buzzer system and then you take a lift up to reception but once you have your key you can unlock the hotel’s front door yourself and are free to come and go as you please.
We checked in efficiently and thankfully our room was ready when we arrived at about 11.30am. The room was on the reception level and was what they call a “Large Family Room”, designed to sleep six people. The room was cleverly divided into three separate areas that you could close the doors between if you wanted.
There was a double bed in the first area, twin beds in the middle and another double at the end. There was an en-suite bathroom (no bath, just shower) off the first area and this first area also had the only TV. There was a tablet to connect to the Wi-Fi on the desk and a mini bar (paid) and free tea and coffee making facilities. The other areas were just sleep areas with nothing extra. The final treat when we opened the wardrobe was five bathrobes, which the kids loved! Very nice touch.
The one thing to note is the hotel has no restaurant facilities, so we had to eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Images of our room from Hotel Nikolai Residence website
Eating out in Berlin
As there were no eating facilities in our hotel we had to figure where to eat for each of our meals. If I’m honest eating out was the bit of our trip that was a struggle particularly, for the kids but we managed ok.
Breakfast we stayed close to our hotel and ate around Alexanderplatz. It ranged from a Dunkin’ Donuts the first morning, a quirky cafe in Alexanderplatz train station the second morning, which we loved, and a little cafe looking onto the square on the final morning. Very functional but did the job.
We ended up with four lunches due to our flight times. The first day we had lunch in a restaurant in Alexanderplatz. The menu consisted of fairly significant main courses – burgers, pasta dishes etc so we got a couple of mains and shared them. Mammy and Daddy got a glass of wine which was probably a mistake given how tired we were from the early morning flight. I was only fit for a nap after that meal. The next two days we were out and about exploring and touring and grabbed lunch wherever we were when lunchtime arrived. Our final day we had checked out of our hotel and found a lovely little place in Hackescher Markt. A really lovely spot full of restaurants and eateries.
For dinner on the first day we headed out after a quick nap. We had already had main course type food at lunch so we really only needed something small but there wasn’t really anything around to fit the bill and we didn’t want to venture too far as we all needed an early night. We found a traditional German restaurant that thankfully had a kids’ menu with hot dogs and nuggets. For the adults there was schnitzel and bratwurst. While it was a nice restaurant and the food was good, I must admit, I am not a big fan of German food.
On our second night we ended up in a Mexican restaurant called Cancun Restaurant (funny when we look back given, we ended up booking our summer holiday to Cancun a couple of months later!) which had a nice atmosphere and the food was fine. On our final night we went to another restaurant nearby called Restaurant Piazza Rossa which we just got a couple of pizzas to share among all of us which did the job.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would have gone over to Herkshermarket earlier in the trip and tried some of the many restaurants in that area.
What We Did in Berlin
With only a short amount of time we decided to go for the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour and use it as our means of getting around the city. We booked a two day ticket with Grayline City Tours to cover the two full days (Wednesday and Thursday) we had in the city. It cost €64 for 2 adults and 3 children. We only had tickets for the Best of Berlin tour, or yellow line as indicated on the map below but you can buy tickets for just the purple line or incorporate a boat tour with the ticket.
They give you headphones and it is multi-lingual including English. To be honest the kids were less interested in listening to the audio and more interested in just getting off and exploring so we found the second day we stayed off the bus more than on it.
We tried our best to catch all the best that Berlin has to offer by getting on and off at the key points but genuinely there is so much to see and do we could have done with an extra full day as there were a number of museums on the list that we would have loved to have seen.
What we did see included:
A must see in Berlin is the iconic Brandenburg Gate, or in German Brandenburg Tor. It was the first stop we got off during the bus tour and a tourist haven. It is a reminder of the divided city Berlin once was but thankfully now you can just walk right through it and much of the area around it is pedestrianised. You will certainly see those in search of the perfect Insta shot!
Right across the road is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe so we popped across to check it out. It is like a concrete maze with square blocks of varying heights and sizes and the kids had great fun running around it but the purpose of the memorial is a stark reminder of the horrors of the past. You can go into an underground information area but we didn’t on this occasion.
The Reichstag Building is the home of the Bundestag, the German Government, since reunification and has a vast history including being badly damaged by fire back in the 1930’s. The building, now fully restored, has an impressive glass dome on top that visitors can go up to but you must register in advance for security reasons. We hadn’t registered so we just got to see it from the outside. I would definitely book in advance to go up inside the dome if I was in Berlin again. If you are on the bus tour it is only a short stroll from the Brandenburg gate so it’s a good idea to see it when you are off the bus at that point.
- Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie was a well-known crossing point of the Berlin wall. While the crossing point was removed after reunification, a mock-up of the original guard hut has been constructed as a memorial and tourist site around the original. You can get your photo taken with the “guards” for a price.
- Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany from 1961 until it fell in 1990. There are still pieces of the Berlin Wall around the city so there are quite a few places you can go to see some. While there are some pieces near Checkpoint Charlie, including a Berlin Wall Museum, a few minutes up the road there is a larger piece and an exhibit with information called the Topography of Terror.
Berlin Cathedral, or Berliner Dom (known as The Dom), is a beautiful Cathedral Church right in the centre of the city. The day we visited we couldn’t get inside the main church, but we bought tickets to walk up the viewing deck and visit the crypt in the basement. The walk up is great fun and there are exhibits along the way. Once you are at the top you can go out onto the balcony and the views of the city are fantastic. Given we didn’t get to go up the dome in the Reichstag this was a great way to see the city from a height.
One of the main squares in Berlin, Alexanderplatz is a busy and lively area with bars, restaurants, shops and a large train station. Our hotel was in easy reach of Alexanderplatz and so we found ourselves walking through the square regularly during our trip. One of the key features near Alexanderplatz is the Berliner Fernsehturm, or TV Tower.
Worthy of it’s own section the Berliner Fernsehturm or the TV Tower as we knew it, is a huge television tower just near Alexanderplatz. It’s a great landmark if you are getting a bit lost! You can book tickets to go up the tower and there is a restaurant at the top and I am sure the views are stunning however we did not take the trip up and just admired it from the ground. I’d definitely take a trip up if I was back in Berlin.
- Shopping District
Over in the West of Berlin is The Kurfürstendamm, one of the most famous avenues in Berlin and home to many shops including high end designer stores such as Louis Vuitton – it is my daughter’s dream to own a Louis Vuitton handbag. This avenue is also home to KaDeWe, a large department store in Berlin, second largest in size in Europe after Harrods in London.
- Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz is a modern part of Berlin and the area is home to the LEGO discovery centre and the Sony Centre. A key historical point is that the first ever set of traffic lights used in Europe was in Potsdamer Platz back in 1924. On the subject of traffic lights, you will notice that the green and red men on the pedestrian lights around Berlin are different to the ones used in other countries. This little man, known as Ampelmännchen is iconic in Berlin. You can even buy merchandise with his image on it!
On our second day, after we had seen the Reichstag, we decided to take a walk through a large park nearby. This park is Tiergarten and makes for a lovely stroll and includes some more historic sites and war memorials. It’s a huge space with a big main road – Str 17 Juin – running through it and leads to the famous Victory column. Berlin Zoo is also located in Tiergarten Park, though we didn’t visit it I am sure it would be a great spot for kids.
- Boat Trip
Our flight home was in the evening, so we had a number of hours to occupy ourselves after we checked out on our last day. Having had really pleasant memories of a boat trip down the river Spree on my girlie trip (think warm sunshine and glasses of white wine) and given it was a clear sunny day, we decided to see Berlin from the water. We had not pre-booked it with our bus tour, so we just turned up and bought tickets on the boat. There are a number of options along the river, just beside the cathedral. It was great and a fantastic way to see the city from another angle, but it was really cold given the time of year we were there – so just bear that in mind if you do a boat trip. Either wrap up really warm or save it for a summertime trip!
Berlin is a great city. Definitely worth a visit. It is so rich in history and culture. We were slightly disappointed with the food options, but it certainly didn’t take from the trip – really down to a matter of taste and we probably should have researched our eating out options better.
There is so much to see and do. If you are on a short trip like us, you probably just need to decide on what your must see attractions are and make sure you tick them off your list. I would certainly have no hesitation recommending the hotel we stayed in and would definitely consider going back at some point – though for now we have many other cities on our list that we’d like to visit.
*Just to note, no part of this trip was sponsored in any way. We booked and paid for everything ourselves and all opinions are mine (and of the rest of my family).