Top 10 things to do in Berlin

Usually when we visit a major European city we stay for four or five nights. We visited Berlin for seven nights in December 2010 and still hadn’t scratched the surface by the time we left. In keeping with the German theme of my last post, here are my personal top 10 things to do in Berlin to help you decide how to spend your time there:

1. Introductory walking tour. This will give you a good overview of all the main sights so you can revisit the ones that particularly interest you or spend the rest of your time seeing things that weren’t covered by the tour. I recommend Sandemans, a professional “free” (tips based) tour company that also offers other cool (paid) tours with themes such as Alternative City.

Berlin Cathedral

2. Pergamon Museum. There are a lot of excellent museums and galleries in Berlin but the Pergamon is particularly amazing. It was recommended to us as “a museum that houses ancient buildings – things that were never supposed to be indoors” and it has to be seen to be believed. The Gates of Ishtar (once counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and the Pergamon Altar are incredible.

3. DDR museum. An interactive museum dedicated to depicting what life was like in the German Democratic Republic. You’re welcome and encouraged to take photographs, open and through rifle drawers, even to try to start a Trabi! The exhibits range from the day to day reality of life under socialism to the darker side of informants and political agendas.

4. East Side Gallery. The longest surviving and most visually interesting section of the Berlin wall as well as the largest open air gallery in the world.

My God help me, this deadly love to survive

5. Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We didn’t go to Sachsenhausen as we’d only just been to Auschwitz and Birkenau the week before we arrived in Berlin but if you haven’t already been to a concentration camp it is a worthwhile albeit extremely sobering experience.

6. The Jewish Museum. A very well designed and curated museum dedicated to all Jewish history. (Not just WWII but it does of course touch on it.) Don’t underestimate its size, it is huge!

7. TV Tower. I do like scaling towers that offer overall views of the city I’m visiting and the iconic TV Tower at Alexandraplatz does exactly that. The wait can be quite long so as soon as you arrive in the area go and buy a ticket and if the estimated wait time is longer than 30 minutes there is an SMS service that can alert you 30 minutes before your ticket is likely to be called so you can go for a wander while you wait. (In winter there is a Christmas market at the base which is a perfect time killer.)

8. Eat some local delicacies. You can’t leave Berlin without eating a a doner kebab (reputedly invented in Berlin) and some currywurst.

Currywurst

9. Eat a really good German meal. Weihenstephaner is the best restaurant we ate at in Berlin. The staff were great, the food hearty and delicious, and the beer superb.

10. Hamburger Bahnhof. A modern art museum housed in what used to be a train station. When we were there they had a particularly bizarre art installation/science experience featuring live reindeer, mushrooms, urine, snowballs, flies and mice! They also have permanent exhibitions featuring Andy Warhol amongst others.

And there’s so much more than that! What are your favourite things to do in Berlin?

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Bavaria, Bremen, books and beer

We visited Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg on our 2010 tour of Europe but always meant to come back to Germany to see some of the south. On this visit (10-18 Aug 2012) we picked Munich (to tick the Bavaria box), Mainz (because we work in graphic design and print and wanted to see the birthplace of the printing press) and made time to see Bremen again (as we have a friend there).

Munich

We stayed in another Airbnb property in Munich, a lovely self contained studio apartment hosted by a well-travelled and kind photographer called Jörg. We didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing as, perhaps unsurprisingly, we spent most of our time drinking and eating. However, it felt like the things we did do gave us a nice overview:

  • One of Lenny’s Bike Tours is a great introduction to the history and sights of Munich, with a healthy beer garden break for lunch in the middle.
  • Any cycling tour will take you through the English Garden, a verdant, sprawling park, but it’s lovely to linger in and worth revisiting for more cycling, strolling or some sunbathing (even nude in one particular section). You can swim in the river Isar which passes through the park but it’s icy cold with a very strong current.
  • Climbing St Peter’s Church tower rewards you with a great view of Munich’s famous central square, Marienplatz.
  • Friends highly recommended the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest museum of technology and science but I’m afraid we just didn’t get around to it… perhaps because we were too busy exploring beer halls!

Overlooking Marienplatz

Speaking of beer halls:

  • Augustiner: our favourite brauhaus for well-priced, hearty Bavarian food and a festive but cosy atmosphere.
  • Weisses: good food and an excellent range of wheat beers, which I’m normally not too keen on but rather enjoyed in Munich.
  • Hofbräuhaus: a little more expensive with a significant drop in food quality. It’s arguably still worth visiting for a drink though, or at least a wander through its seemingly endless rooms. Note that a litre of beer is served by default – you have to specifically request it if you’d “only” like a pint. ;)
  • Chinese Tower beer garden: located inside the English Garden this is the second largest beer garden in Munich. We found the meals a little pricey for lunch: I’d recommend just grabbing one of the delicious giant pretzels with some butter to accompany your beer. (Or you can even bring your own food.)
  • Finding a table in a Bavarian beer hall: you’ll most likely have to share so as soon as you spot some empty seats ask the others at the table if it’s okay to sit there.
  • If you need a break from rowdy beer halls Goldmarie serves very nice food and it’s not too expensive but you may need to book.

Beer, beer, beer

Mainz

The highlight of Mainz for us was visiting the Gutenberg Museum. Not only is it home to three Gutenberg Bibles and a working reconstruction of Gutenberg’s press but it’s filled with oodles of old and beautiful books, other printing presses and exhibitions on printing in Asia (which actually developed much earlier than it did in Europe), paper making, book binding, the media, teeny tiny books and even things that were made to look like books but are actually something else. Not everything is in English but I believe they offer guided tours in English and audio guides are also available. It’s probably not for everyone but we really enjoyed it and ended up spending a whole day there. (We were able to leave for lunch and return on the same ticket which was very convenient.)

Apart from that Mainz is quite nice to wander, particularly the altstadt (old town), but 2 nights was plenty of time for us to feel like we’d seen everything.

Gutenberg, Mainz

Bremen

An unplanned bonus of travelling from Mainz to Bremen was that the train ride happened to follow quite a long section of the Rhine which rewarded us with some incredibly picturesque views of traditional little German towns and even some castles dotted all the way along the river.

Alex’s friend from uni, Nick, was our host and tour guide again on this our second visit to his hometown. Things to do in Bremen:

  • Admire the main city square and wander the cobbled backstreets of the altstadt (old town).
  • Go on a tour of the Becks Brewery – a working brewery and a much better experience than Heineken. Make sure you try Haake-Beck and Haake-Beck Kräusen while you’re there, unique beers only available in the Bremen area!
  • Enjoy a beer along Schlachte Embankment, lined with beer gardens and “the” place to be seen in Bremen.

Alex and Nick in Bremen

A note on German train travel

You can save a significant amount of money booking German train tickets in advance online. You can choose to receive a PDF ticket to print which can be handy if you’re on the road and don’t have a fixed address for receiving mailed tickets (although it can sometimes be tricky to get access to a printer). I recommend paying the €4 extra for a seat reservation as every German train I’ve ever been on has been almost if not completely full (but maybe that’s just my luck).

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A guide to Paris

When to go

I’ve been to Paris once in winter (January) and once in autumn (November). Both were lovely times to go. I think the city is particularly beautiful in the cooler months. Winter provides short-to-no queues (walk straight into the Louvre) and autumn covers the city with pure blue skies and colourful leaves. Paris seems to be one of those places that divides people and I suspect those that don’t enjoy it as much perhaps visited in the crowded summer.

Paris metro sign

Seeing the sights

The Metro is a fantastic way to get across town but Paris is also very walkable. You can see many of its iconic sites in one continuous stroll starting at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), crossing Pont d’Arcole to reach the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine river. Walk past the Notre Dame and cross another bridge to reach the Left Bank. Continue west past the bouquinistes along the Seine, crossing back over the river at the Pont Neuf so you can walk through the grounds of the Louvre. Continue through Tuileries Garden up to Place du Concorde which signals the start of Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and if you follow this to the end you will reach the Arc de Triomphe. Depending how long you take to stop and take in the views this route will take you about 1-2 hours.

Another lovely place to wander is the winding and hilly backstreets of Montmatre, particularly around Place du Tetre.

Montmartre

The best view

You’ll probably want to do it anyway, but the two disadvantages of going up the Eiffel Tower are: 1) It’s expensive, and 2) The most famous sight in Paris, the tower itself, can’t be seen from the top because you’re already on it! Personally, I think the best the best view of Paris is from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

If you decide not to go up the Eiffel Tower it’s still worth passing by to take some classic photos, and it lights up at night which is very pretty.

Cathedrals and churches

Sacre-Coeur. One of Paris’s many icons and particularly stunning sandwiched between blue sky and bright green grass on a clear day. Just keep your arms crossed when you’re climbing the steps out the front and don’t let anyone grab your hand! There are lots of scammers that will try to put a thin, thread bracelet on your wrist then demand money for it. You can refuse and say no, but some people find them a bit intimidating. (While we’re on the subject of scams, if anyone pretends to find a ring nearby you on the street and offers it to you, decline. This has happened at least once to someone I know and twice to us personally – we laughed at the guy the second time it happened because it was exactly the same routine from a different person almost 3 years later!)

Sacre Coeur

Sainte Chapelle. I think Sainte Chapelle is prettier than Notre Dame. It’s smaller but boasts stunningly beautiful stained-glass windows. There is a fee to enter though, while the Notre Dame cathedral is free. (There’s a fee to climb the Notre Dame tower where all the gargoyles and grotesques are.)

Paris Catacombs. Go underneath the city and see walls and sculptures made from human bones.

Museums and galleries

Louvre. The Louvre is MASSIVE and it would be impossible to see everything in one day even if you ran past every exhibit! Pick a couple of specific areas you’re interested in and spend your time in those rather than trying to see everything. The audio guide is very worthwhile – it has some highlight tours built in and I found the additional info on various artworks very interesting. Be prepared to queue to get in (unless you visit in winter) and note that it’s open late on Wednesdays and Thursdays but closed on Tuesdays. You could spend a whole day at the Louvre but my feet couldn’t take any more than 5 hours!

Musée d’Orsay. A lovely museum housed in a beautiful old train station, focusing on impressionist and post-impressionist art. Open late on Thursdays but closed on Mondays. Allow 3-4 hours.

Centre Pompidou. Modern art is not for everyone but it’s worth at least passing by the Pompidou to marvel at its famously unusual, inside-out architecture: it was designed with all the functional aspects, pipes, etc on the outside to maximise the exhibition space inside. The Pompidou audio guide is also very good as it helps to explain some of the more unusual art and why anyone should be interested in it. Open until 9pm every day. 3 hours is probably enough.

Parks and gardens

I’ve already mentioned Tuileries. The Luxembourg Gardens are a beautiful spot to grab a metal chair and scribble in your travel journal, Les Halles is a nice green place to munch on a lunchtime baguette or crepe and the Palais Royal gardens would be great to see in spring or summer. (Still nice but a little bare in autumn/winter!)

Jardin du Luxembourg

Food

If breakfast isn’t included with your accommodation buy treats from a local bakery/patisserie or clay-potted yoghurt from a local super/minimart.

You’ll find wonderful baguettes all over the city for lunch around the €3-4 mark or sweet and savoury crepes for €2-6 (depending on your proximity to tourist hotspots). Rue Rambuteau is an excellent spot for boulangeries, patisseries and fromageries (particularly between Rue des Archives and Rue Beaubourg).  I particularly recommend Pain de Sucre.

If you’re going to splash out on food I’d do it at dinner. Mathusalem and La Tartine are two great bistros offering hearty, traditional French cuisine with mains around the €17 mark.

Shopping

Across the river from the Notre Dame on the Left Bank is a famous second-hand English bookshop called Shakespeare and Co.

There are some very cool and trendy design or “concept” stores in Paris. I’ve collected their addresses, website links and opening hour info on a Google Map so you can where they’re located at a glance. I haven’t been to them all but out of those I have visited I liked uah^, Artoyz, Colette and Fleux best.

Marché aux Puces Saint-Ouen de Clignancourt is your place for antiques and random odds and ends. Head north from metro Porte de Clignancourt to find a sprawling collection of flea markets (surrounded by stalls selling tacky imitation brand name products – don’t give up when you find those, continue on to the proper markets). A great place to wander even if you don’t plan on buying anything. Stalls sell everything from retro plastic keyrings and old pieces of kitchenwear to samurai suits and eggshells from extinct Madagascan birds. Many of the shops look like little rooms from people’s houses. When we were there we passed one that contained an old grand piano and someone who had sat down at it to play tunes to entertain passers-by. Avoid the three card monte scammers on the outskirts of the market.

Note that the flea markets are open on Sundays but most other shops are closed.

An evening in Paris

[more photos 2009 / more photos 2011]

9 days in Greece

Alex and I spent 9 days in Greece earlier this month. We had a wonderful time but it was perhaps a little rushed because I wanted to squeeze in two islands: as well as visiting Athens we spent two days on Naxos and two on Santorini but it would have been great to draw it out and spent even up to a week on each. And to have seen more islands. :) Greece is such a great place for a relaxed, drawn out trip, you could easily spend a month or more travelling from place to place just taking it easy.

Staying in Athens

I highly recommend Athens Backpackers! The location is unbeatable – minutes walk from the Acropolis – the staff are friendly and helpful, they have a great rooftop bar with cheap drinks and a killer view of the Parthenon, wifi in the rooms, single beds instead of bunks (at least they did in our 4 bed dorm), air conditioning, and they run a fantastic walking tour for €6 per person. (Walking/cycling tours are my favourite thing to do on the first full day in a new city.)

The Acropolis

I’m not sure if this is always the case, but mid September around 6pm until 7:30pm closing seems like the perfect time to visit. We didn’t actually go up at that time – we were just wandering around the area – but there was hardly anyone about and the dusky light was beautiful. We went at 9am in the morning instead and it was packed – whoops.

Your €12 entry ticket comes with extra stubs to visit 5 other archaeological sites in addition to the Acropolis, including the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. You have 4 days to use up the stubs but because they are torn off I don’t think it allows multiple entry to the same site. (At least not into the Acropolis because that part of the ticket looks different. I guess theoretically you could enter the Agora twice, for example, but it would mean you’d miss out on one of the other 4 sites.)

Broken columns

By the way, I didn’t realise this until we got there because I didn’t know much about the history and I couldn’t find an exact answer online (probably because it’s obvious to everyone else) but in case you’re wondering, the Parthenon is on top of the hill that is the Acropolis – they’re not separate sites. Your entry ticket allows you access to the top of the hill with the Parthenon and other ancient temples on it but you can’t actually enter any of the buildings themselves, you just walk around them.

The nearby Acropolis Museum is a beautiful modern building which houses artefacts from the site with accompanying information about the history of the Parthenon and the other temples. It’s only €5 and it’s open 8am-8pm every day except Monday when it’s closed (and it stays open even later on a Friday) – recommended.

Great views

Two great places to look out over the city are Areopagus Hill (a huge lump of marble next to the Acropolis) and Lycabettus Hill. (Hill is bit of an understatement for Lycabettus.) It’s a very short climb (something like 10-15 steps) to the top of Areopagus but it’s a solid hike to the top of Lycabettus. If you’re not up for the hike you can take a funicular up and back, but they don’t sell one way tickets, which is a shame if you were thinking of compensating riding up by walking down. I think both are worth visiting but Lycabettus is particularly cool because it means you get to see the Acropolis from the above.

Athens from Lycabettus Hill

Great eats

Gyro and souvlaki places abound and generally cost about €2 for said gyro/souvlaki. There’s a great honey and yoghurt place near the Acropolis called Fresko which made me think of a Greek equivalent of trendy gelati bars in Melbourne (eg Trampoline) or frozen yoghurt shops in London (eg Snog). Probably the best restaurant we ate at in Athens was Scholarhio – they have a great set menu which costs €14 per person and for two people includes bread, mineral water, 5 meze dishes and dessert with an alcoholic drink each. When we went there were plenty of tourists but a decent amount of locals too, which is always a good sign.

For more places to eat and other Athens info and suggestions I highly recommend In Your Pocket’s latest guide which you can either download as a free PDF (to any portable device or to print) before you arrive, or find around town (such as in Athens Backpackers reception).

The islands

We weren’t interested in heavily touristy party islands. I picked Santorini for the famous blue domed white buildings and volcano cool-factor, and Naxos because it’s on the way and looked like it had some nice beaches. Having spoken to others we met along the way it sounds like Paros (also on the same route, before Naxos) would have been an even better pick for beaches – next time! You can search for and buy ferry tickets online and collect tickets at the port prior to departure.

Naxos

We got around Naxos using buses (you buy tickets at mini marts before you get on and the bus stops aren’t always marked) and visited Plaka beach and some beautiful little towns throughout the centre: Halki, Filoti and Koronos. Of course you could also hire quad bikes or scooters and see the island that way, which would be a great way to do it because the roads are quiet and the buses are not particularly frequent.

We ate at two great places on Naxos: Taverna Vasilis, tucked away in the rabbits’ warren of the main town’s little streets (beautiful to wander in the evening when all the trinket shops and restaurants are open), and a place with dolphins on the sign on the main street along the water. The dolphin place was run by a funny, very welcoming elderly couple who made eating there worthwhile just to meet them. (Plus the grilled seafood platter was fresh and delicious.)

Portara, Naxos

Santorini

We stayed a 20 min walk outside of the main town, Fira, in a tiny town (mainly just a street) called Karterados. Santorini has more frequent buses than Naxos (and you can buy the tickets on board) but we finally bit the bullet and hired a quad bike and drove down to Red Beach (stunning) and all the way up to Oia. Most pictures you’ve seen of Santorini were probably taken in Oia. It’s one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen.

Gathering for the sunset

It’s The Done Thing to gather in Oia for the sunset. However, the owner of the pension we stayed at in Karterados gave us a fantastic tip about watching the sunset over a tasting selection of wines at Santowines Winery. You can get there quite easily by bus (advisable if you’re going to sample lots of wine!) and the view is truly spectacular. It’s the highest point of the island and it looks out over the caldera and personally I think it’s even better than the view from Oia.

The other things we did on Santorini were go to Kamari, one of the black sand beaches (which might not look very pretty in photos but the water is beautiful – if I go back to Greece I’ll definitely take a snorkel), and a half day tour of the volcano and hot springs which Matador specifically recommends avoiding but I actually really enjoyed.

Back to Athens

We couldn’t find a direct flight back to London from Santorini so we took the ferry back to Athens and spent one last night and day there before flying home. The one thing we did on our last day was visit a hammam, which might not have been full-on as an actual Turkish bathhouse but was very enjoyable!

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