20 things to do in Berlin: visit like a local
Author: secure travel backpack designer Sarah Giblin
TripAdvisor will tell you the obvious things to see - like Brandenburg Gate, Berghain, the TV tower and all the museums - but Berlin has wonderful, simple and less obvious things to do if you’re visiting for the first time. You can see them as underground Berlin tips, but around here they belong to the texture of every life and culture.
Which city is good for vegans?
Where can I visit a naked sauna?
Which city has an amazing history?
Are there low cost things to do in Berlin?
Here are 20 ways to enjoy the less well known corners of life in Berlin.
1 Hire a bike
Berlin is a dream by bike. There are cycle paths everywhere and cars are primed to give way to two-wheelers.
You’ll see the great sights - Karl Marx Allee, Alexanderplatz, Under den Linden and Potsdamer Platz - whilst feeling the Berliner Luft (air) rushing through your hair and get a bit of exercise whilst you visit. Don’t worry about feeling exhausted. You’ll feel sun kissed, energised and delighted as you sit down to enjoy a beer in the evening.
2 Get an Airbnb
Berlin’s flats are a world unto themselves. Every alt-bau (pre-1900 old buildings) has a story to tell, with its thick walls, high ceilings and extended wooden framed windows. I’d choose Airbnb to book over a hotel any day. It’ll also mean you can head to the local supermarket - Netto, Lidl, Aldi, Rewe or Edeka - and enjoy a few home cooked meals with Berlin’s famed low living costs in supermarkets.
Get £22 off your first Airbnb booking with this link
3 Go to the supermarket
Berlin’s supermarkets seem like any other. That is, until you get to the check out. Nothing will prepare you for the speed that Berlin’s check out assistants expect you to pack your bags.
It takes years of practice, but you should have been just once. Also, Berlin may be on the world’s stage, but the check out assistant is most likely not going to speak anything other than German and will give you some attitude - so good luck!
4 Grab a car share
Berlin is a green city. As a consequence, Berliners have taken to sharing cars rather than all owning their own. The company Car2Go is available for foreigners like us to sign up who don’t officially live in Berlin. Download the app, sign up and head to the Car2Go shop to prove you have a driver’s licence valid in the EU.
Then, find one of their cars - there is basically one on every street - jump in and drive around Berlin. Leave the car wherever you wish, log out and then someone else will grab if when you’re done. It’s a weird and wonderful experience just jumping into a car that isn’t yours - akin to GTA - but it’s the core of the sharing economy.
5 Eat at a Vietnamese restaurant
East Germany partnered with other communists powers like Russia, China, Vietnam during the cold war. Owing to their recent history as communist comrades, many Vietnamese families came to Berlin since the 1970s. This means there’s a great Vietnamese restaurant on every street. The best thing is, the vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters can all enjoy a meal out together. And you’ll be eating a piece of German international relations history.
Details: Nyom, Gabriel-Max.Str. 17 / Krossener Str. 11, 10245 Berlin, Germany
Open: 12pm-12am every day
6 Jump on the U-Bahn
Once you’ve worked out the ticket machine, grab a day ticket (tageskarte) for the zones you’re interested in - probably just zones A and B - and jump on the beautiful yellow underground trains.
There are no barriers so just glide straight on. Once you’re on, enjoy snaking over red brick bridges, slicing through the Berlin Wall and winding through the city. The doors don’t open automatically so press the button when you want to get in or out.
Pro tip: Remember to stamp your ticket before you get on. If you're using a ticket that hasn't been stamped, it's like you didn't buy a ticket. And you'll get fined :(
7 Drink on the train
Whether it’s an alcohol free one or not, in Berlin, it’s quite normal to find someone making their way home on the train after work with a beer bottle in their hand. In fact, you’ll also find those who set out in the morning with an beer, but that’s another issue. The point is, if you buy a beer at the Spaeti (the newsagent, liquor shop) feel free to open it there and take it to your next social appointment. No one’s going to stop you.
8 Drink in the streets
The same goes for walking down the street. There’s a rather nice German term for this kind of beer: it’s called a “Weg-Bier”. That means, it’s a beer for on the way.
9 Drink in the park
Since you can drink on the trains and on the streets, you might as well take yourself and your bottle of beer to the park.
There’s nothing quite like heading to one of the city’s extensive parks - Treptower Park is my absolute favourite - and just taking in the space. In the summer, grab a BBQ, a few drinks and enjoy the parks that way too.
10 Recycle your bottles
Don’t throw your beer bottles, or plastic water bottles, in the bin. There are two options in Berlin: 1) Return them to a supermarket to get about 20 cent back (Pfand) per bottle. Head to one of these machines, place your bottles in and take the receipt to the check out. They give you the cash there and then. Or 2) leave your bottles by a bin and someone else will return them - often those who are homeless or on a lower income. This way you're part of a city that recycles itself.
11 Get naked in the sauna
Don’t bring your swimming costume because they simply aren’t allowed. It’s no joke. This luxury sauna and spa which will totally change your life and teach you to enjoy nakedness without any strange vibes. Bring a towel, a bathrobe and some flip flops and get ready for a day of sitting around naked with men and women whilst you sweat to your body’s content.
This peaceful haven is unlike anything you’ve every experienced. You’ll be so concentrated on trying to handle the heat that you’ll barely notice all the bodies around you. It's €40 for the day. And it's worth that many times over.
Details: Vabali Spa Berlin, Seydlitzstraße 6, 10557 Berlin, Germany
12 Drink coffee
Coffee is the life blood of the world’s cities, and Berlin is no different. No matter which type of milk you drink - cow, oat, almond or soya - Berlin will whip you up a coffee to your liking. There are great cafes - those for pondering and reading, those for enjoying a vegan bite to eat, those with spectacular views and the ones where you can do some excellent people watching. It's not a cop out - it's the german way of life. Hunt through a few and find your favourite.
13 Wander through a cemetery
Living near cemeteries is seen as a good thing in this city. Berliner cemeteries, with their towering silent trees, are some of the most peaceful places to spend time.
You’ll see family members tending to their loved one’s graves, refreshing plants and flowers, trimming bushes and sitting in the dappled shade. And many of Berlin's cemeteries are home to the great lates.
14 Mind the gaps
As a city which had its fair share of action in the wars of the past century, Berlin hasn’t had a chance to to rebuild everything that came down. You’ll still find the odd playground between two building which should make up a whole road of town houses. Or a row of buildings which just stops for no reason.
Another mark of war are the bullet holes you’ll find on older buildings. Berlin has a way of momentarily making understand that history happened here. Right where you’re standing. Then you get back on with your day, enjoy a coffee and realise how much can change within the lifetime of a person.
15 Go to the best bakery
Bread is a staple in Germany, and Berlin is no different. But my absolute favourite bakery is the turkish bakery at Schlesisches Tor. It’s a dream.
Whether you’re strolling past at 04:00am or 16:00 in the afternoon it always smells heavenly. And you must must try the acibadem.
Details: Salut Bakery, Schlesische Str. 1, 10997 Berlin, Germany
16 Take a stroll around Tempelhof
It’s not often you get to walk, run or ride around a real airport field. Since it shut in 2008, Tempelhof - an airport built but never used by the Nazis - has turned into a vast city park. You’ll find joggers, cyclists, picnickers, BBQs, allotments, kite flyers and those just enjoying the vast views.
17 Understand Plattenbau buildings
Don’t judge a book by its cover - the same goes for buildings. While most visitors like to the see the old fashioned buildings of the 19th century in Berlin, the newer plattenbau blocks have their place in the city for a reason. Built by the Russians, these practical buildings offered a modern way of life, space, great storage, central heating - not coal ovens - and double glazed windows. They are an historical mark. And they were greatly loved by the population when they arrived in the 1970s and 80s.
18 Do karaoke
I grew up thinking karaoke was some kind of useless sin. In Berlin however it’s a completely reasonable part of a night out. When it gets to 03:00am, there is no shame in heading to a karaoke bar and singing anything from Oasis to Donna Summer wrapped around a pole on stage. It's fun, it's alcohol fueled and the audience will love your rendition of Common People at 06:00am. I assure you.
Details: Monster Ronson's Ichiban Karaoke, Warschauer Str. 34, 10243 Berlin, Germany
Open: 7pm-4am Mon-Sun
19 Eat the tastiest cake
Coffee and cake. It’s the German way. I've watched this cake shop grow from a very nice hole in the wall to the place to be for cake eaters.
Mr Minsch’s white kitchen is a shop front where you can peer through the glass and see chefs in their whites making big, beautiful cakes in style. Eat them outside and enjoy LIFE.
Details: Mr Minsch, Yorckstraße 15, 10965 Berlin, Germany
Open: 11am-6:30pm Mon-Sat
20 Go to the cinema
Berlin’s cinema scene is alive and kicking with independent cinemas as well as those showing blockbusters. My person favourites are the York Kinos, especially International.
The buildings themselves are stunning, the atmosphere alone is enough to go for. If you have an evening without something to do, head to the cinema on your own and enjoy strolling the dark streets if Berlin as you come out.
Details: Kino International, Karl-Marx-Allee 33, 10178 Berlin
Enjoy your trip to Berlin! It's a fantastic city which great transport, cheap living costs and the kind of history that crackles with energy. I hope these tips help you get to know Berlin a little better whether you're coming for the first or seventh time. Viel Spass!