Maria Boyle enjoys a first-time long weekend in Berlin to learn about its rich history and discovers it really is Europe’s coolest city.
“It’s one of THE best cities I have ever visited and you just have to go!” declared my 18-year-old daughter at the end of her month-long, nine-country Eurorail trip this summer.
FOMO* (*fear of missing out) got the better of me so I immediately took her advice and booked a weekend in Germany’s capital, Berlin, for our family of four (minus said eldest globetrotter who was settling in to university life).
While very much a weekend of sightseeing was planned, we were also conscious that, for our two teen daughters who are both studying history, a visit to Berlin would deepen their understanding of the city which was at the centre of many key events in modern European history.
Hotel Berlin Mitte
We chose to stay at the Hilton Berlin, located in the Mitte (central district) of the city due to its excellent location plus nine out of the top ten visitor attractions in the city are all within walking distance. The 601-room hotel directly overlooks Gendarmenmarkt, one of the capital’s most attractive and historic squares which houses Berlin’s concert hall and French and German churches.
The hotel is perfect for families of all ages and our extremely comfortable and spacious inter-connecting rooms provided a bit of independence for our two teens. Amenities include an indoor pool, 24/7 gym, saunas, and the first hotel spa in Berlin to offer a range of Elemis treatments in its three treatment rooms.
While aware that Hilton is a global hotel group, we were particularly impressed with its all-day dining Listo café which served foods made up of ingredients sourced regionally; the well-stocked buffet breakfast offered a wonderful selection of local made jams and the hotel bar offering Berlin’s finest gins.
Berlin By Bike
Since the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin has become a visitor hot spot. It boasts hundreds of world-famous cultural and historical sights which can be viewed on foot, on bike, on e-scooter, by boat on the River Spree, and even behind the wheel in a classic East German Trabant car.
As Berlin is quite a flat city, we opted for a guided bike tour . We took in the Unesco-protected Museum Island with its five world-famous museum buildings and amazing architecture, the impressive Berlin Cathedral, the capital’s largest church, Berlin’s TV Tower, its most visible landmark at 368 metres high, and Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between East and West Germany during the time of the Berlin Wall.
We then cycled on to The Reichstag, where the lower house of Germany’s parliament sits with its honeybee glass dome designed by Sir Norman Foster, then went on to see the incredible, Potsdamer Platz, one of Europe’s busiest squares in the Weimar era, and Brandenburg Gate. It was brilliant.
Walking Tour of Berlin
Another day we choose a guided walking tour on Third Reich Berlin, Hitler and World War II. Led by Tom Williamson, a trained guide and historian – he also does private tours – we spent three hours learning about the series of events that culminated in the final German surrender. It was fascinating to visit memorials to those who opposed the Third Reich and hear about their bravery. The tour also stopped at one of the original above-the-ground bunkers Hitler ordered to be built, each of which was intended to house 4,000 Germans during the war, and ended at the site of Hitler’s former underground bunker where he died on 30 April 1945.
Topography of Terror Museum
All four of us were really impressed with The Topography of Terror history museum. Built on land once occupied by the former Nazi Secret Service and Gestapo Secret Police, it is now an indoor and outdoor museum with a section of the 13-foot Berlin Wall visible to one side. Admission is free and its excellent audio guide (bring headphones if you remember) takes visitors around the exhibition that focuses on the SS and police during the Third Reich and the crimes they committed.
German Spy Museum
One of our family’s favourite afternoons was spent in the German Spy Museum. It tell the story of 3,000 years of espionage from past to present, boasts some seriously fun interactive hands-on exhibits ranging from unmasking liars and finding bugs to cracking the safe and laser mazes. It was the only museum we had to pay for but was well worth it.
Follow Mark Bibby Jackson on his sustainable walking tour through Spreefeld, Berlin.
East Side Gallery
Berlin is known for its art scene and the East Side Gallery located in the Friedrichshain district is one of the most visited in the capital. A 1300m section of the Berlin Wall is now the longest open-air gallery in the world featuring more 100 different paintings from artists. It is also the longest continuous section of the Wall still in existence and is worth a visit in the day.
Food and Drink in Berlin
Berlin has a diverse choice of food and during our stay we ate at restaurants and cafés serving Bavarian, Korean, Turkish and Italian dishes. It is definitely a city for meat lovers although we did find most accommodated a non-meat eating teen in our party. The thriving city square of Hackescher Market is a great spot for lunch and dinner with numerous bars and restaurants – we visited 1840 for hearty and traditional food, beer optional.
If you are looking for a zero-waste, vegan restaurant in Berlin, you could try FREA.
Umami on Bergmannstrasse is a great Vietnamese restaurant with chilled vibes, and if you head to the Sunday flea market at Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg, Gosu serves excellent Korean street food (the fried chicken with chilly sauce is a must) and Café Anna Blume is a great spot for brunch.
While we did not get to experience the Berlin’s world-famous clubbing scene given we had two daughters in tow, we hired a babysitter for a few hours one evening and discovered one of Berlin’s best independent bars, Bellboy, which is hidden on the ground floor of the Hilton Berlin. It is not really a bar, more a wonderland for adults, where the experience starts as soon as you enter through a curtained doorway. The cocktails – which can take up to a year to end up on the menu – are sublime and presented in the wackiest of ways. Book a table for a great way to end a brilliant weekend in Europe’s coolest cities.
Top Tips for a Weekend in Berlin
- Ditch the taxi from the airport and buy a ABC ticket and catch a train into town – takes the same amount of time for approx €35 cheaper.
- Get clued up on Berlin rules and regulations – it’s frowned upon to cross at a red light even when no traffic for example.
- Berlin has 126 museums – do research ahead of your visit and choose the ones you really want to do.
- There is A LOT of history to take in so it is advisable to do one historically important tour each day – they are incredibly powerful and content needs time to digest.
Hotels in Berlin
Hilton Berlin: Call +49 30 202300 or book via the website. Prices from €249 for a double room or €288 including breakfast.
Flights to Berlin from UK
There are flights to Berlin via British Airways, Easyjet and RyanAir.
What To Do on a Weekend in Berlin
For further ideas on day tours and Berlin weekends and tourist attractions, click here.