Biking in Berlin

Berlin is huge.  It’s made up of 12 boroughs – each with it’s own identity and feel.   Our itinerary was packed full of historical sites and great restaurants and had us visiting everything on foot or via public transit.

We stayed at The Westin Grand, Berlin in Mitte.  All my researched had pointed to Mitte as the central location for us as tourists.  I am a big fan of The Westin and The Heavenly Bed. We were in Berlin for my birthday, so I felt the splurge was justified. Daily champagne brunch, a full bar with indoor and patio seating, room service, and a pool, spa, and sauna.  Perfect.

After arriving at the hotel in the early evening, we decided to walk 2km to Alexanderplatz for dinner.   I honestly thought this would be a pleasant way to see our borough, the architecture on Museum Island, and get some exercise in after our flight from Norway.  Instead, it was torture for my husband with low blood sugar and my six year old who just wanted to sit down at the first restaurant we came to.  We strolled past Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft and eventually sat down for dinner at ALEX Berlin am Alex.

On the patio, you are underneath the Berliner Fernsehturm television tower and have the Neptunbrunnen (fountain) and St. Mary’s Church (St. Marienkirche) in view.  The food is delicious – we especially liked the beer, homemade crisps with truffle cream, and the Chicken Naan-Burger.

During our 2km walk back to the hotel, we discussed (more seriously) how we’d get around Berlin without our children inciting to mutiny.  Berlin is mostly flat and bike lanes are clearly marked, complete with traffic lights and turning lanes.   The city lends itself to a different mode of transportation and, therefore, allows for a different experience all together.

Our First Full Day (15km)

The next morning we found Fahrradstation (bike rental shop) not far from the Westin. (Friends of ours had visited Berlin a few months ago and used Donkey Republic bikes to see Berlin.  You get an app on your phone, find a bike, and unlock it with a code sent to your via the app.  Return it or drop it off somewhere else when you are done.  We needed bikes for our two kids, so we went to Fahrradstation’s central location for personal assistance.)  Fahrradstation has a huge variety of bicycles – cruiser, electric bikes, kids bikes, tandems, and child carriers. Thomas assisted us in choosing the right bikes for our family.  He was extremely patient as we tried several kids bikes and even a bike trailer. We settled on two urban bikes and the Babboe Big. The Babboe Big saved our trip! Our kids are pretty good bike riders. However, they would have been exhausted with the amount of riding we did.

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With our bikes, we set off on a 15km loop that first full day in Berlin.  Seriously, our itinerary was extreme!  We visited two museums, a memorial, city park with fountains and playgrounds, and ate twice.  First up, Museum für Naturkunde.  This natural history museum was small, but fun!  Our favorite exhibits were Tristan Otto (the only original skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex in Europe), Sielmann!, and Evolution in Action.

We rode up along the Berlin Wall Memorial next.  The displays outside were interesting and the museum was informative.  It was at the Berlin Wall Memorial that the perplexity of the holocaust a as heinous, surreal historic event was introduced to my children.  I am not disillusioned enough to think they fully comprehend the holocaust and the lasting effects it has had on Berlin and the world.  It was a matter-of-fact introduction to the autocracies of the world, and not in a sensualized, grotesque way.

Friends highly recommended District Mot, so we headed there for lunch.  This little restaurant is colorfully decorated, on the food tour circuit, and serves delicious food.  Lil Bao Wow burger is spicy, crunchy, and satisfying.  It was just what we needed to fuel the rest of our day.

The famed Fairytale Fountain (Märchenbrunnen) is at the entrance of Volkspark Friedrichshain.  We ran around looking at the sculptures of Hansen and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood while a dog played in the fountain.  We endured some short drizzles, but pressed on and rode along the paths of Volkspark.  It was beautiful.  We grabbed a snack at Thommy’s Imbiss and discovered a playground.  Some of us took a quick nap while others played.  It had turned into a relaxing, sunny afternoon.

Our very full day was winding down.  On the way back to the Westin, we stopped at DDR Museum.  I was a bit skeptical about this one.  It appeared kitchy in the brochure.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  This museum is hands-on, informative, and fun.  We drove a Trabant, dressed up, walked through apartment flats, and read about life in Socialist Berlin. The kids had a great time and I learned a ton.

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We’d heard great things about the food and beer at 12 Apostel Berlin Mitte.  On our way back to our hotel, we rode through Museum Island past the Berlin Cathedral, Lustgarten, and Altes and Neues Museums.  12 Apostel is a great hangout under the train tracks.  We scored a table street side.  Their signature pizza was covered with prawns, salmon, my new love – crème fraîche, and arugula.  It paired well with the 12 Apostel Pilsner too.  What a wonderful first day in Berlin!

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A Rainy Second Day (12km)

Having lived in Norway for exactly one year before embarking on our visit to Berlin, we’ve grown accustomed to carrying on with our plans regardless of some precipitation.  While in Berlin, we remained undeterred as well.  We awoke, dressed, ate, and unlocked our bikes.  It began as a beautiful, sunny morning as we rode past Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag Building.  We were hit with rain showers on our way to Großer Tiergarten.

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Tiergarten is to Berlin like Central Park is to NYC.  It is covered in paths, water features, gardens, trees, and lawns.  On the far end you will find Berliner Trödelmarkt, an antiques and flea market.  In my excitement, I missed the fact the market is only open on Saturdays and Sundays.  It was a bit disappointing to not experience this happening.  What can you do?

We pressed on to the next item on our itinerary – KaDeWe.  Just 10 minutes away by bike, KaDeWe was a welcome respite from the rain.  While there are quite a few shops surrounding this century-old department store, KaDeWe is a destination unto itself.  Hermès, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Laurèl, and other gorgeous things everywhere you look.

Paradise for us was found on level five – the toy department.  My children gasped and declared it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen.  Life-size WWF stuffed pandas lay before us as we stepped off the escalator.  Playmobil and Legos were aplenty.  We fell in love with a Steiff mole and almost also left with a Sigikid Beast.  Levels 6 and 7 are dedicated to food.  Luckily, we found a window-side table on level 7 and settled in for a cafeteria-style lunch at Le Buffet while it poured buckets outside.

There was a break in the rain, so we jumped back on our bikes for a quick pass of the Potsdamer Platz (we were tired of shopping and no longer hungry, so we missed what this spot may have to offer).  The monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe was a solemn end to our fun-filled day. The monument was seemingly small from the street and felt massive from within, silent and reverent, and simple and disorienting.  (I found it mesmerizing and, yet, void of direct reference to the identities of those murdered and by whom they were murdered.  I find the omission disturbing.)

To return to a happier subject, I will re-mention that we were in Berlin for my birthday.  The actual day is mid-July, but we celebrate my birthday ALL month.  When I heard U2 was doing a 30th Anniversary tour of their Joshua Tree album, I jumped online and grabbed two tickets.  With several tour dates and cities to choose from, I selected Berlin simply because we’d never been.

I’ll get the disappointing bits out of the way first. Our taxi’s card reader wasn’t working, so we had to use what cash we had to pay the fare.  They wouldn’t let me take in my handbag and the closest bag drop was full.  We walked to a side entrance of the Olympiastadion Berlin, traded my handbag for a ticket stub and headed for our seats on the opposite side of the stadium.  Every beer, currywurst, and t-shirt vendor took only cash.  There were no ATMs. The bathroom line was so long, men and women were peeing in the grass.  I decided I’d wait till the concert started and the lines disappeared before I would return to the loo.

Now for the good bits.  It was the most breathtaking concert I have ever attended.  Could have been because I knew every song.  It could also have been that I was there celebrating my birthday with my husband.  I suspect it was both and the pure nostalgia the Joshua Tree evokes. I was in the eighth grade when the movie ‘Rattle and Hum’ was released.  I found it inspiring.  U2 became my first band crush.  While many of my friends were listening to Tiffany and Debie Gibson, I was buying every U2 album I could find.  I hung U2 posters and even found a U2 War album cover flag in my bedroom.  I had always hoped to attend a concert.  This  concert was musically moving, visually impressive, and true to Bono and U2’s political and humanitarian passions, packed with messages of unity and equality.  It was worth the wait.  And it was worth the price.

Half Marathon Day (26km)

This was our most ambitious day.  We slept in, ate a good breakfast, and set off.  Not far from the Westin is Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful public square.  Französischer Dom (French Cathedral) and Neue Kirche Deutscher Dom (Deutscher Dom) are on opposite ends of the square and both are open to the public.  You can climb to the top of the Tower of the French Cathedral to the viewing platform.  Berlin’s Deutscher Dom houses an exhibition on the German Parliament.  It was interesting and, unfortunately, in German – still worth a look.

We continued on to Checkpoint Charlie.  We had planned to tour the Berlin Wall Museum to discover the significance of this “Must See” spot.  We quickly decided neither were worth our time and money.  Checkpoint Charlie with its actors-portraying-soldiers was a tourist trap similar to Rome’s Coliseum actors-portraying-gladiators.  We were embarrassed to be tourists when we saw this and quickly walked on to the Topography of Terror.

I did not linger at Topography of Terror either.  This is a very popular site.  The weather was beautiful and the outdoor exhibit Berlin 1933–1945: Between Propaganda and Terror, was crowded. If I’d had more time and wanted to understand more of Nazi motivation and tactics, I think a tour through the main exhibition and grounds would have been educational.

I opted, instead, to visit the Jewish Museum Berlin while the kids played at nearby Theodor-Wolff Park. The museum is architecturally impressive and packed with remarkable exhibits on Jewish history – not only the atrocities of the Third Reich.  The collective exhibits are powerful. Despite the continued persecution Jewish people have endured, they have prospered and maintained constant generosity and philanthropy to all groups of people.  The Jewish Museum Berlin showcases this in an inspiring way.

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As we are one hungry crew, we rode a little way to Curry 36.  I had read on a few blogs and Curry 36 was the most popular and delicious currywurst spot in Berlin.  This was confirmed by our airport shuttle driver and the food-tour-customer I’d met in the restroom of District Mot.  Nearby, is Mustafa’s Gemüsekebap.  The line to this extremely popular food truck is impressive and daunting.  This is not fast food, however.  Each dish is made to order. We bailed from the line after 30 minutes.  We did, however, make it through the Curry 36 line and devoured our currywurst and fries with a couple sodas and beer from Vogt’s Bierexpress next door.

On our flight from Norway, I read about raubdruckerin in the Norwegian Air magazine. raubdruckerin uses city drain covers (manhole covers) and printscreens the images to t-shirts and other clothe items.  It is quite a ride to the shop in Neukolln, but doable on bike.  Great little shop that also features jewelry.  (We ran into another family visiting the shop because of the Norwegian Air article).  Bonus: The raubdruckerin artist Emma usually attends the NuArt Festival in Stavanger, Norway and gives workshops there and around Europe. 

Having covered 16 km already, we needed to rest.  Back at the Westin, we napped and relaxed on the patio bar in the sunshine.  Around 7pm, we set off for Markthalle Neun for dinner.  There are events at Markthalle Neun Thursday through Monday.  And we attended on Street Food Thursday.  It was amazing how many food stalls were crammed into this space.  Even more impressive, was the number of attendees.  It took us quite awhile to find food (there were so many food stalls!!) and it took us even longer to find a place to sit.  We had so much fun looking around and eating that we didn’t take any pictures. Hint: there is a small children’s area with a few tables for families in one of the corners of the venue.   

We took the long way back to the hotel to view of the East Side Gallery.

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin

Even though we were exhausted Friday morning and the thought of leaving Berlin loomed, I had scheduled a 845am tour of the Reichstag Building dome.  It is free with reservations.  We grabbed audio guides and walked up the wide spiral walkway of the dome.  The views from the rooftop terrace were expansive and the audio guide described the surrounding sites.

We needed to return our bicycles by 1000am.  After the dome tour, we rode through Brandenburg Gate and along the tree lined boulevard Unter den Linden.   Luckily, after dropping off the bikes, we got back to our hotel just in time to grab a late brunch.  Our airport shuttle was due to arrive until 230pm.  We used our last few hours to swim in the Westin’s pool.  We had it all to ourselves!  The Westin Spa & Fitness Lounge was beautiful and tranquil. I wish I had taken advantage of it earlier.  I just packed too much into our Berlin trip to workout or get a massage.  Next time, perhaps.

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Lessons learned – Renting bikes and hiring a roundtrip shuttle service (Talixo) were the smartest things we did.  However, while we rode by four of the five museums on Museum Island, the Berlin Cathedral, and the Lustgarten, we did not spend time visiting them.  Nor did we climb the French Cathedral and the Berlin Cathedral domes.  We hope to do all of these things and visit the Berlin Zoo (it has more species than any other zoo in the world) and the Berliner Trödelmarkt on our next visit.  And we hope to be strong enough to endure the ridiculously long line at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap.

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