Quick tips for a weekend in Berlin

A friend recently asked me for some tips for a weekend in Berlin, so I thought I’d make the most of the opportunity and write a quick blog post. This list is by no means exhaustive; Berlin is one of those cities where there is an almost unlimited number of things to see and do, but here are a few of my favourites:

Berlin Free tour

I first took this free tour of Berlin back in 2008 when I was practically penniless. The tour hasn’t changed much since, and importantly is still free, but that’s not why you should take it. The tour starts right next to the Brandenburg gate and explores sights such as Checkpoint  Charlie, the Jewish Memorial and some of the few remaining examples of the Third Reich architecture such as the oppressive Luftwaffe headquarters. It’s the best way to get your bearings if you’re visiting Berlin for the first time.  

Berlin Free Tour

DDR Museum

Located nearby the TV tower where the Berlin free tour ends, the Berlin DDR Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in the GDR controlled East Berlin. 

DDR Museum

East Side Gallery and Michelberger Hotel

Even though the Berlin Wall came crashing down well over 25 years ago there are still a surprisingly large number of stretches of the wall still standing. One of the best places to see the wall is the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. It’s a 1.3KM stretch of wall plastered in artwork by over 100 street artists from all of the world. Once you’ve taken in the art, what could be better than sipping a cocktail at the incredibly hip Hotel Michelberger? They have a great selection of cocktails and the coolest menu design I’ve ever seen.

 

Homework - The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor 

No trip to Berlin would be complete without taking a walk along one of the last remaining sections of the wall, but to get a bit of background to Berlin I’d recommend reading Frederick Taylor’s Berlin Wall book. It’s a fascinating account of Berlin from the end of World War Two right up to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Having a sense of what the city has been through in the last 70 years makes sightseeing so much more interesting.

Book pick - The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor

Climb the dome of the Reichstag Building

From the top of the futuristic dome crowning the Reichstag building you can peer down into the German Bundestag (parliament) and see a 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin skyline. What’s more it’s free, provided you book in advance. It’s particularly captivating if you visit at night.

Book Tickets to visit the Reichstag Dome

Late Sunday Brunch at the Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg

I won’t say too much about this incredible palace of delicacies other than it has to be the best place to get breakfast in Berlin on a Sunday. Markthalle Neun is a vast indoor market is crammed full of stalls selling delicious breakfast items. Check opening times though, as the market doesn’t open every weekend. If you’d like to read more about breakfast places in Berlin, check out Joe’s blog post:

Galloping Ghrelin - Brunching in Berlin

How to spend half a day in Amsterdam

I recently found myself with a free morning in Amsterdam. 

After a week of gruelling 14 hour days at a conference I had a 6 hour oasis of free time before I needed to catch a train to Belgium where I planned meet some friends.  Sure this wasn’t exactly the ideal amount of time to explore Europe's most vibrant and liberal capital, but there’s a lot you can do in 6 hours!

Here are my top tips for how to spend half a day in Amsterdam:

 Trying to look like a local.

Trying to look like a local.

1. Rent a bike

First things first - rent a bike! It’s undoubtedly the best, and most enjoyable way of getting around Amsterdam.  Cycling is the preferred method of transport for Amsterdam locals, so the roads are generally quiet, and cycling lanes abundant.  I was able to rent a bike for the morning for around 10 euros from the Yellow Bike rentals right next to my hotel. It was worth every cent. Amsterdam is a lot bigger than it appears on a map, so cycling saves you a lot of time and gives you a pretty unique perspective of the city.

2. Skip the big attractions

I know it’s tempting to visit Amsterdam’s biggest attractions, especially if it’s your first time there! While the Ann Frank House and Van Gogh Museum are must-sees, they almost always have waits of an hour or more, so much better suited to a longer stay in Amsterdam. On the morning I visited, both the Van Gogh Museum and Ann Frank House had lines trailing right round the block. 

3. Check out some of the lesser-known museums and galleries

Amsterdam is full of gems such as the Stedelijk Museum or Droog design studios. If you’re cut up about skipping the Van Gogh Museum, visit the Stedelijk. It's crammed full of everything from impressionist works  (including Van Gogh and Matisse) to more recent experimental pieces like Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube.

4. Discover Amsterdam's street art

Amsterdam boasts some incredible street art, and a great place to start is Spuistraat. Spuistraat is a street with a history of squatting and incredible graffiti. I parked up my bike, and wandered around the neighbourhood taking in the art before grabbing a quick coffee and pastry at one of the many alternative-style cafes.

5. Just explore!

Amsterdam is a great city to just explore without much of a plan (or even a detailed map). I could have happily spent a whole day cycling along the winding canal side streets. Let me know where your bike takes you.

A pop-up BBQ on Spuistraat - a great neighbourhood for street art, cafes and quirky shops.

Arman, Couleur Tracante , 1967 at the Stedelijk Museum.

A classic Amsterdam scene near the Red Light District.

Never pay for an observation deck again - how to get that amazing view for free

Observation decks suck. I really can’t stand them. They’re expensive, they almost always have horrendous queues and are often crowded beyond belief. 

  A crowd scrambles to join the queue for the queue in the Empire State building.

A crowd scrambles to join the queue for the queue in the Empire State building.

A perfect example of this is the Empire State building in New York. In order to get to the observation deck you have to work your way through four queues, take multiple lifts, partake in a cheesy theme-park style photo shoot and finally lug yourself up several flights of stairs. When you do eventually get the the observation deck it’s a scrum to secure a fleeting view of Manhattan’s skyline. Observation decks simply aren’t worth it.

So, how do you avoid observation decks and get that amazing view for free? It’s simple, next time you visit a skyscraper, don’t pay to visit the observation deck, check if the skyscraper has a bar. Skyscraper bars are awesome - they are almost always higher than the observation deck and generally free to enter. So instead of forking out a huge wad of cash for a view you can spend that money on a tasty cocktail or overpriced beer with the view thrown in for free.

I first discovered this in Boston while waiting in line to visit to the Prudential Center Skywalk. The Skywalk on the 50th floor costs $16 and a cocktail at the restaurant on the floor above costs a mere $11.

I initially thought this must just be a fluke, but so far pretty much every tall building I’ve been too since has a similar set up. So far this year I’ve pulled this trick off at The Shard in London, The ICC tower in Hong Kong,  and the Bitexco Tower in Ho Chi Minh.  

Here's to drinks with a view!

Cocktails at Ozone on the 118th floor of the ICC Tower Hong Kong

And the accompanying view