Last summer, my son, Harrison and I broke up our trip to London with a two night stay in Berlin, Germany. We wanted to go to a place we’d never been that would be a quick and easy trip from London.
The flight from London to Berlin was a short 1 hour 40 minutes. We took a chance and stayed at Hotel Zoo at the recommendation of a stranger I sat next to on the flight from New York to London. The hotel was a quick 15-20 minute drive from Berlin Tegel airport (TXL), so it all played right into our quick trip plans.
Hotel Zoo has a great location right near, well, the zoo or Tiergarten (in English, garden of animals) on one of the Berlin's grandest boulevards, KURFÜRSTENDAMM (KU’DAMM) in City West. In the 1920s, KU'DAMM was a magnet for artists and Bohemians, and it still carries that crowd with plenty of restaurants, galleries, shops and bars.
The first day we arrived, we set out to see the Berlin Wall before dinner. Existing sections of the Berlin Wall are more elusive than I thought. The area we went to had literally two slivers of the wall by a small “museum”. It was across the street from Checkpoint Charlie…which was right next to McDonald’s. Needless to say, the area was over-the-top commercialized. We still paid the Checkpoint Charlie “guards” their $5 photo fee though. It was no doubt $5 worth of entertainment.
NENI GRILL + MONKEY BAR
That night for dinner, we tried a restaurant called Neni Grill with outstanding views of the zoo below. It sounds like something out of a theme park, but it’s not that vibe at all. The restaurant is very hip and the zoo below is an expanse of lush green trees surrounded by a buzzing city. I would recommend getting a reservation in advance and asking for a seat by the window.
Next to Neni Grill is their sister concept, Monkey Bar. It’s a cool space with stadium, throw pillow style seating so that you can look out over the zoo through the floor to ceiling windows while you sip your cocktail. Sunset is a gorgeous time if you can swing it.
THE EAST SIDE GALLERY + THE FERNSEHTURM
The next day, after a little asking around, we found the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence at The East Side Gallery. It’s the longest open-air gallery in the world with 105 paintings by artists from all over the world.
We also tackled The Fernsehturm: a TV Tower that was built in the 60s. It’s the tallest building in Berlin, and has 360 degree views of the city. The elevators take you up 203 meters (666 feet) in 40 seconds. That's fast. You need a reservation to get to the observation deck. We didn’t have one so had to wait for a couple of hours, but there were restaurants nearby to pass the time. You can also book a lunch or dinner reservation in the sphere. You can book tickets and reservations here.
A short walk from Hotel Zoo was a concept mall called Bikini Berlin. It’s full of great stores and food. A restaurant group called Spreegold has three different locations in the mall that progressively open during the day from the ground floor up. On the ground floor, they have a counter service cafe that is open first thing in the morning for breakfast and all day for lunch and snacks. On the first floor, is a restaurant that opens late morning for cooked breakfasts and lunch. On the second floor, is a bar and rooftop terrace serving dinner and drinks.
We stopped by the ground floor location almost every time we passed it for smoothies and coffee. Then we had dinner on the rooftop around sunset which was magical. The menu was casual and extensive, and the buildings surrounding the rooftop make you feel like you’re in the cool, architecture-eclectic city that you are.
The architecture in Germany has been shaped by each of the governments that were based in Berlin during the 20th century: the Kingdom of Prussia, the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany and the reunified Federal Republic of Germany. From the Bikini Berlin Spreegold rooftop, you see Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The original church was built in 1890, but was damaged in a bombing raid in 1943. Berliners kept the damaged spire as a reminder of WWII. The new church was built in 1953. By day, it looks like a cold, honeycomb concrete building but at sunset you start to see the windows glow blue. We watched it turn from an unnoticeable building into a magical glowing blue box.
Eliot Stein, a writer for Condé Nast, summed it up perfectly in his article last year, How Berlin Became the World's Coolest Capital City, "In 1987, Berlin was a divided city, cleaved in two by a concrete wall and treated like a political pawn in the Cold War freeze separating Western capitalism from Eastern communism....Thirty years later, the German capital has leveraged its legendary climate of cultural experimentation, DIY creativity, and free-wheeling spirit born from repression to become one of the most achingly hip places on the planet."
Berlin, we'll be back.
P.S. I would recommend getting to Berlin Tegel airport with plenty of time to spare. Checking in was very different from other European cities I've travelled to/from. You wait in line at a security gate at your particular gate, but the line was undefined and felt disorganized, which caused us some stress. It was just a little unclear where you needed to be and when you showed your boarding pass. It was fine in the end but just to keep things going smoothly, give yourself time.