Greetings, Internet Stranger! So you want to have a perfect Berlin itinerary? Well, get ready to take a walk on the alternative side. To get to know the Berlin Wall, you need to visit East Berlin, aka Communist Berlin. Remember that East Berlin was the poorer half of the city, so its citizens needed to get creative when it came to having fun.
The neighborhood-formerly-known-as East Berlin still has a strong alternative tradition of street art, music, and outsider communities. But any perfect 24 hours here has to start with its main attraction The East Side Gallery, which is all that is left of the Berlin Wall.
Where to Stay?
Berlin is the kind of city that has a hotel at every price range. I was on a strict budget when I was in Berlin, so I stayed at a hostel called Excellent Apartments Kreuzberg. It was conveniently located next to the subway station, and I got a private room to myself. Plus I loved staying in the funky Kreuzberg neighborhood. It reminded me of what the East Village back in New York City used to be like.
What to Pack?
The weather in Berlin is unpredictable, and it definitely rained several times during my Berlin itinerary. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Berlin.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them to a museum without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or British plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
Morning: East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is all that remains of the Berlin Wall that used to separate Communist East Berlin from Democratic West Berlin. It has since been covered with murals celebrating the struggle for freedom.
I would say that the East Side Gallery is the number one thing you must be sure to see in Berlin. It is a powerful symbol of the power of hope, art, and love to fight oppression and terror. Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to sarcasm, but the East Side Gallery knocked all that out of me, at least momentarily. Don’t worry! The sarcasm doesn’t stay away for long.
approximately top five: the east side gallery
1) “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love”
This is a painting by Dmitri Vrubel based on a real photograph of a fraternal kiss between Leonid Brezhnev, then leader of the USSR, and Erich Honecker, then leader of the GDP (Communist East Germany).
Apparently this was a fairly common way for socialist leaders to greet each other, but to those of us who are not socialist leaders, the image is surprising. I suppose the image and title are meant to underline the oppressive effects of the close relationship between the USSR and East Germany on the ordinary people of East Germany.
I must say that I do get an icky feeling when I look at it because a giant closeup of two old people kissing is flattering to no one.
2) Vaterland by Gunther Schafer
It was touching to see the German and Israeli flags combined in this way. It’s remarkable to think of what the sight of a Jewish star would have meant in Berlin just 75 years ago. Every time I get depressed thinking about how horrible people can be to each other, a sight like this can give me faith that we’re capable of making some progress as a species.
I feel like maybe there are better spots for Free Palestine graffiti.
3) “International Walls” by Alexej Taranin
I liked this one mostly because of that cute rabbit in a rocking chair. He seems so happy! Can’t we all just love each other and make the big bunny smile?
4) “All Open” by Rosemarie Schinzler
The doves are lovely, but I’ve never seen doves that could lift up the Brandenburg Gate before. Those must be some pretty strong doves!
5) Amour, Paix” by Herve Morlay
If you’d asked me who the last person whose image I would expect to see on the Berlin Wall was, I might have answered, “French film actor Jean Reno”. And yet here he is in glorious red and purple. Life is just full of lovely surprises.
6) Klingenstein’s “Detour to the Japanese Sector
This gets my approval because I love anything to do with Japan. After WWII, Berlin was divided into different sectors, each controlled by a different country. The main sectors were the British, American, French, and Soviet sectors. Of course, there was no Japanese sector as Japan had also lost WWII and wasn’t likely to be given a piece of Germany.
But this image represents Klingenstein’s childhood desire to escape from East Berlin and explore the outside world. Apparently Klingenstein did get to live his dream and travel in Asia, so yay for stories with happy endings.
7) Gabriel Heimler’s “The Wall Jumper
I love the striking look of the jumper’s elongated legs and prominent facial features. It makes me think that he’s the most vivid person in the picture because he’s the one taking the risk to jump for freedom. The people staying behind look like indistinguishable blobs.
8) “It Happened in November” by Kani Alavi
Here we have an opposite effect, where all the people streaming through the Berlin Wall come together in a sea of colorful humanity. This mural makes me reflect on the connectedness of all mankind. As the song says, “One of us are chained, none of us are free, some of us have blue faces”.
9) “Tolerance” by Mary Mackey
Finally, a mural by an American. USA, USA, USA! Also I wish I could get my lips to hang off my face like that.
24 Hour Tip
Keep an eye out for any interesting buskers along the Berlin Wall. I met a guy aptly named The Neighkid Horse. Please remember that if you are going to take a busker’s picture, you should give him/her some money. That’s just polite.
He was cool, but I want to point out that he’s wearing little pants behind his guitar, so he should really be called the Semi Neighkid Horse.
10) Lunch at YAAM
YAAM has nothing to do with a misspelled sweet potato. YAAM stands for the Young African Art Market. As you would expect from the name, there are often art shows or music performances going on here. Check their events schedule for more details. YAAM also has its own “BEACH” pictured above that makes for a lovely spot to sit and relax.
But we are not here for the beach at the moment! We are here to eat! As soon as you enter YAAM, you will see plenty of shacks selling different kinds of food, from Jamaican to West African.
I chose a West African stand and ordered an amazing plate of deliciousness called the Sweet Mama. The trilingual chef (German, English, and French) chatted me up by asking me questions about my trip before presenting me with this beauty.
This fabulous melange consisted of spicy chicken wings over plantains covered with a fragrant peanut sauce. It was one of the best things I ate on my trip through Europe and it only cost about 7 Euros. Just be sure to get water with it! The flavor has a bit of kick so you’ll need some liquid.
24 Hour Tip
YAAM is a fun place to hang out and you may want to return here later. But keep in mind that you’ll have to finish your lunch rather early. Our next stop begins at 12:30 on the dot. Let’s go!
Afternoon: Alternative Berlin Walking Tour
Berlin, like Melbourne, is known for amazing street art and a strong alternative culture. I didn’t think that I, as an American tourist, would be able to find many of these underground spots by myself, so I decided to join an alternative tour and I was not disappointed. It’s pay what you wish, but the guides work for tips, so don’t forget to bring cash!
Our guide was an Irishman living in Berlin. I will call him Sean because that might actually have been his name. I’ve forgotten. Also on the tour were a Scotsman, an Englishman, a Swiss man, and an Australian young woman. That sounds like the opening for a joke that perhaps a Welshman or New Zealander might tell.
I can’t divulge all the tour secrets, but I can start with…
approximately top 5: Street Art Tour Berlin
1) Backjump, by Blu
Blu is a famous Italian street artist–I had seen a different piece by him in Buenos Aires. What is your interpretation of this piece? I think it represents an evil collective (like Nazism or an oppressive Communism regime) swallowing up the rights of the individual. If you’ve got something better, bring it on, Internet Stranger!
2) Squat life
But street art wasn’t the only focus of the tour. We also learned about some other important elements of Berlin’s underground culture. This field pictured above used to be a squat, which means a place where homeless people could live and form a community without paying rent. It became a popular “tent city” and the wall on the back was even covered with a large-scale mural by Blu.
Sadly the squat was shut down so that condos could be built instead. In protest Blu had his mural painted over so that the people selling the condos wouldn’t be able to get a higher price by advertising that the building had views of a Blu mural. DAMN THE MAN!
3) Gemini’s twin!
Our tour continued with this mural by a pair of Brazilian artists named Os Gemeos (which means the twins in Portuguese) who are famous for painting yellow faced people. I think the scarf is pretty cute, but I don’t know how well it goes with that skirt. But maybe Os Gemeos aren’t known for their fashion sense.
4) cheap beer
Did you know that you can get a decent beer in Berlin for about 90 cents? I learned this when we all stopped at a convenience store for a bit of refreshment. But what is even better than that is that Berlin has open carry laws, so we could all just walk down the street with our beers. When we were done, we placed the glass bottles by the side of the street. That seems like littering to me, but Sean said that they would get picked up for recycling.
5) Street Art Yogis
We next learned about an artist named Josef who places these tiny little figurines called Street Art Yogis on street signs around Berlin. Josef does this instead of painting because it doesn’t deface property. They’re super cute and they promote peace, love, and understanding! What more could you want from a little metal doohickey? Can you find the two Yogis in this picture?
24 Hour Treasure
This girl was my favorite because she is pretty. I can’t always be full of deep thoughts! I love the look on her face and the colors in her hair. Sadly, the work wasn’t done by a major artist, so I can guarantee that she will be gone by the time I go back to Berlin. But part of the fun of street art is that it’s ephemeral.
6) hatin’ on the Buddy bear
This is the probably the least alternative thing we saw on the tour. He is a Buddy Bear, which is a fiberglass bear sculpture that is supposed to be the symbol of Berlin. According to Sean, lots of Berliners make fun of him. I feel like it should have a plaque underneath that says Berlin: Absolutely No National Socialists Here because that’s clearly the message this cartoonishly cheerful bear is trying to send.
The tour ended by all of us stopping at an empty park and going down a swing just for laughs. I feel like that is the ideal ending to any alternative walking tour. Take note, other cities!
24 Hour Tip
You won’t find a lot of toilets on the tour, so make sure to bring some loose change. Your guide will direct you to a restaurant and most of them will let you use the bathroom for about 50 cents-1 Euro.
Late Afternoon: Karl Marx Allee
This intimidatingly broad boulevard is the most prominent street in former East Berlin. But I guess if you’re going to name a street after Karl Marx, go big or go home. It is interesting from an architectural standpoint to stroll along and check out the monumental examples of communist architecture.
Why did the communists like building everything so big and ugly? I assume their reasons were philosophical, but what were they? I refuse to subscribe to any philosophy that involves deliberately creating ugly things.
24 Hour Tip
You can always tell if you are in former East Berlin or former West Berlin by looking at the streetlights. The streetlights in West Berlin are ordinary, but the ones in East Berlin have a funny looking plump little man wearing a fedora on them. This figure also goes by the name Ampelmann, and he’s so popular in Berlin that there are even stores dedicated to Ampelmann merchandise. I’m not making this up.
Naturally, I bought some Ampelmann earrings here. You can also get some decent gummy candies.
24 Hour Treasure
If you need to rest your feet, why not stop at Cafe Sybille on 72 Karl Marx Allee? This is the only cafe/museum I’ve ever been to. I don’t mean that the cafe is in a museum; I mean that the cafe is a museum. Cafe Sybille was founded during the Communist period of German history, so the museum is dedicated to the history of the cafe and Karl Marx Allee.
You can stop and get a sweet and then look at some artifacts from the GDR. I enjoyed a sweet-tart fruit tart and coffee.
Then I got to see the exhibition in the back of the museum on the history of East Berlin. Here are some old cups and candlesticks from the cafe during the 1960s.
I had no idea that you could find a cute little cafe with candlesticks and adorable white cups in Communist East Berlin. It just goes to show that you can find some beauty and charm in any place if you look hard enough.
Schneeweisse is an excellent place to go for upscale German/Austrian food. If you want to try some schnitzel, but you don’t want it too bready or fattening, this is the place to go.
I began with a lovely carrot soup. Whereas traditional German carrot soup would be chunky, this was light and pureed with a delicate garnish on top. It was a refreshing start to the meal. I knew I was going with something heavy for my main course, so I wanted a light appetizer.
24 Hour Treat: Putting on the Schnitz
My main course was just about the most Austrian thing I could think of: Wiener Schnitzel. This is a breaded and fried veal cutlet, and it was served over a rich potato salad and with a side of light cucumber and dill salad.
The schnitzel was perfect because it was not breaded too heavily, so I could really taste the veal. The slice of lemon was the perfect refreshing accompaniment. And everyone knows that Germans make amazing potato salad. It’s so rich and creamy. Potatoes may well be nature’s perfect food.
After dinner, you can walk around and see any fun sights that may strike your fancy. You can see anything from a glorious sunset behind TV Tower:
to a croissant that someone has abandoned on a bridge.
It all depends on you!
Further Reading: Berlin Itinerary
Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Berlin right now? Then allow me to help you with some suggestions for further reading. I like Lonely Planet’s guide to Berlin for further suggestions for things to do. The chapters are organized according to neighborhood, which makes the book easy to use.
My favorite book set in Berlin is probably three books: the Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr. If you like mysteries, you’ll love this series about a detective in Berlin…in the 1930s. This historical fiction will teach you about Berlin’s sad history while keeping you on the edge of your seat.
And if you think life is a cabaret, old chum, read Christopher Isherwood’s account of being a young, gay expat in Berlin between the two world wars, The Berlin Stories. This touching and funny memoir was the basis for the famous musical Cabaret.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Berlin. Don’t miss my other 24 Hours in Berlin itinerary with Museum Island.