After the beauty of Amsterdam and Paris, our visit to Berlin provided a shock to the system. Berlin is real. Berlin is creative, messy, gritty, full of secrets and darkness and hope. It’s cash poor, but culture rich. The unemployment rate is twice as high as the rest of Germany, but that’s just because everyone is too busy trying to make art and music, plus disappearing into a club from Friday to Monday, to bother with a salary.
It’s also, because of its history, quite left-leaning. So you’ll see a lot of grassroots environmental initiatives and small businesses with a collectivist, sustainable ethos. Vegan and vegetarian options are everywhere, sustainable fashion abounds, community gardens are the cool thing to do. And yes, there is a great park.
A tip: I preferred Kreuzberg, though Mitte is prettier and has some great restaurants. In general, Kreuzberg has its roots in the far-left movement, so you won’t find Starbucks, but independently owned shops with smoothies, coffee, pastries, vegan and vegetarian food, plus street art and really cool fashion. It is the gritty, sustainable side of the city, while Mitte offers museums and upscale food and shopping.
That out of the way, here are my recommendations:
Boxhagener Straße 83, Friedrichshain
This upscale hotel is centrally located, making it the perfect starting spot for your touring around Berlin. Each room is decorated differently – ours was simple, classy, quiet, and really comfortable.
The next morning, we helped ourselves to the large, continental breakfast, which was organic, local, and vegetarian, with vegan options, too. Then we rented a bike for touring around. I thought about booking a massage in the rooftop spa (all the dancing and walking I had been doing left me foot-weary) but we simply didn’t have enough time. They also recommend a hot yoga studio nearby. Other small sustainable things they do including purchasing renewable energy, having non-toxic paint and sustainable wood floors and furniture, using non-toxic cleaning products, and working with partners that emphasize eco and fair production. We really liked this hotel and would recommend it to any friends looking for a comfortable experience that still felt like you’re in the real Berlin, not in a tourist-y district.
Berlin has an overabundance of public transportation. We didn’t rent bikes for the first two days we were there, and for the most part, we didn’t miss them. You can choose from the below-ground metro, the above-ground metro, the tram, or the bus, and all are governed by the same public transportation card.
You might be confused, because they don’t make you swipe a card at any point to enter the stations or board the buses and trams. Turns out Berlin is on the honor system. Buy yourself a card at a station or on the tram, and just keep it with you as you travel. Undercover employees will board trains and trams and do random checks to make sure everyone has paid. This happens often enough that I really don’t suggest you try your luck!
Berlin is a big city, as in, it’s very spread out. Neighborhoods – Kreuzberg and Mitte are the most prominent ones – are also big here, as are the blocks. So if you’re in Kreuzberg and someone says, “It’s in Kreuzberg!” don’t assume it’ll be within walking distance. What looks like a cluster of points on a map really might denote locations that are all 20 minutes’ walk away from each other. That’s all to say that we were glad we rented bikes the third day when we decided to go shopping. What could have taken five hours with all the walking only took two.
There are several bike share companies in Berlin as well. We dowloaded the Lime Bike app to our phones, and it’s been a really helpful and affordable way to get around. They even have electric assist! Hot tip: just be careful when crossing the tram tracks to go at them perpendicular – you don’t want your wheels getting stuck inside!
If you’re a vegan, you will be in heaven in Berlin! I can’t even list all of the vegan restaurants out here. But it’s not hard to find them. Here are some other sustainable restaurants you might enjoy.
Linienstraße 160, Mitte
We showed up to this restaurant our first evening about 15 minutes after they opened. They were exasperated that we didn’t have a reservation, and gave us a table outside, warning us we only had an hour. But what an hour it was. The colorful, artistically plated, locally sourced dishes were a delight, and watching the light fade in this pretty neighborhood while Berliners walked and biked by was a wonderful welcome to the city. They didn’t kick us out before we were done, even though we went over by twenty minutes. Still, I would make a reservation here if you want to really relax and enjoy.
Bergstraße 22, Mitte
For our final dinner to thank our host and say goodbye to our dear friend who is seriously pondering moving to and staying in Berlin, we chose this upscale restaurant, which uses local ingredients whenever possible. (Our choice was affirmed by a local music label head.) We walked through a charming quiet courtyard into a lively and full restaurant, on a Monday, no less. We had the last reservation, and our friend was late, so they put the pressure on us in terms of ordering. But even though we didn’t have much time to consider before throwing out some dishes for sharing, we got the sense that whatever we ordered, it would taste wonderful. And yes, if you wonder when you see it, the giant chandelier is indeed made of ping-pong balls.
Other places to eat:
The Bowl, Warschauer Straße 33, Friedrichshain – Clean eating restaurant
DingsDums Dumplings – A award-winning sustainable restaurant
Hermann’s – A lovely cafe/restaurant with designated laptop tables. Food is categorized according to different types of conscious foods: those that support your microbiome, locally-sourced, vegan, and gluten-free.
Daluma, Weinbergsweg 3, Mitte – Smoothies and juices
The Juicery, Eberswalder Str. 2, Friedrichshain – Superfood smoothies and juices
Nobelhart Und Schmutzig, kreuzberg – Locavore-obsessed, with interesting forage ingredients incorporated into the one menu an evening (though most dietary restrictions can be accommodated).
Cookies Cream, mitte – Vegetarian fine-dining restaurant above what used to be a club called Cookies.
Our schedule didn’t permit us to take this tour until our second day, but if you can, I recommend taking this as soon as you get there. We absolutely loved it. We learned a fascinating recent history of the city – including squatting, street art, and why Berlin is so different from the rest of Germany – got some tips for navigating around, and walked away with a list of really cool places to visit. It’s free, you just tip whatever you think it was worth at the end. There’s also a Green Walking Tour, if you prefer!
Hauptstraße 15, Kreuzberg
We came for the nightlife, and had a huge night out that I will probably remember forever. As our host put it, “People come to Berlin to push their limits, to tap into the dark side of their selves.” Now, I wouldn’t recommend this if you are squeamish about alternative lifestyles, but if you do want to see some great Berlin nightlife, then put on some sneakers (and biodegradable glitter) and get in line at Sisyphos. We arrived at 1 am and waited for two hours to get in, but it was worth it. It’s a summer club with a quirky, beautiful, outdoor space complete with little streams with bridges going over them, a piano in a gazebo, and other little magical hangout areas, plus several different indoor and outdoor dance floors with techno and house music. As of 2018, they also have a sauna and spa!
I have no pictures because they are not allowed – they put stickers on your smartphone’s camera when you get inside. But the vibe is wonderful and the people are incredibly friendly. Plus, they have a deposit system. Buy a bottle of beer or water – everything is glass, but the way, not plastic – and when you bring it back, you get a euro back. Why can’t we have a system like this in NYC?
An der Schillingbrücke 3
If you want to go light instead of dark, check out this fun beach-style collective. Standing for Young African Art Market, this outdoor space has Jamaican and African food (vegetarian options available), art, and a sandy backyard overlooking the river with beer and cocktails. The cocktails are sugary, though, so I would go with a cold beer.
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, Mitte
I recommend learning a little bit of history before you go here, because there’s no introduction at this museum, you walk in and are immediately plunged into the culture of Berlin back when it was split into East and West, and East Berlin had a top-down, controlled economy. There are state-manufactured everyday items on display, plus a recreation of a typical state-built apartment. It’s all very kitschy and bizarre.
In a former Natzi bunker, this is supposed to be incredible. Unfortunately, it’s booked more than a month in advance, unless you have enough money/people to book a private tour with them. So make your reservation as soon as you know you’re going to Berlin!
East Side Gallery, kreuzberg – It has the largest portion of the Berlin wall and a long series of murals. A must-see.
The Tiergarten, mitte – Like Berlin’s Central Park, this huge green space provides a welcome counterpoint to the grit and difficult history of Berlin. The Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate are at different entrances to the Tiergarten.
There are so many sustainable fashion stores in Berlin. (Blame that leftist bent). However, there is a big difference between the crunch old guard (organic t-shirts printed with tree motifs, maroon jersey dresses) and the new guard (impeccably tailored sustainable fashion from all over Europe). I researched them all before going to choose the most promising ones, then visited as many as many as I could. You could choose to go on the Green Fashion Tour but the following list is a little more curated according to my style.
Dieffenbachstraße 15, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg
This was by far my favorite. A beautifully curated of familiar and brand-new-to-me brands that creates the perfect artsy/classy Berlin style. I bought a few things (I would have bought more if I had room in my suitcase), and Illich even found a pair of sneakers he loved. Never before have I had a conversation with someone who is so well-versed in techno and sustainable fashion, like the hot dude working there that day. I might have swooned a little bit.
Tellstraße 7, Kreuzberg
A really cool store featuring only Berlin-made fashion and accessories, you’re sure to find something here you won’t see anywhere else. I ended up getting a bodysuit after having a great time trying on all sorts of avant-garde pieces.
Schönleinstraße 10, Kreuzberg
A women’s fashion store featuring classics from brands like Veja, Kowtow, o my bag, and more, this is a great place to go to top out your capsule wardrobe.
Weserstraße 191, Kreuzberg
This store showcases an eco-friendly, simple, very Berlin style of structured, mostly black items. I personally can’t wear these styles because my curvy figure doesn’t play well with loose forms, but you should definitely check it out.
Weichselstraße 59, Kreuzberg
This store features graphic, modern pieces from four different Berlin labels.
Other places to shop:
Wertvoll, Marienburger Str. 39
Rotation Boutique – sustainable men’s clothing, Weinbergsweg 3, Mitte