From time to time I hear that a friend is going to one of my favorite destinations. My skills as the finder of all things good and cheap do extend out of this country. I am excited to help point them in the direction of the best, cheapest, and most inspiring things to take in in town. Let me know if you ever would like me to write a mini-guide for you. For Libby and Mary J, here's a Berlin Primer.
My first tip is to pack warmly! But you probably knew that, no?
First, stop by a hostel on the City Spy list to pick up a Mr. Gordonsky's City Spy Map. It's funny, useful and fits in your pocket. It was a valuable reference for me in many European cities. Do this right away!
Do you like art? Well, free museum day is Thursday. 4 hours before closing time everything is free. I think Pergamon Museum was my favorite--it had a giant Athenian temple. Most of the museums are on MuseumIinsel (Museum Island) so you can hit up most in the 4 hours.
I went through an WWII obsessive phase when I was younger, so Berlin to me was also the place of so many unbelievable stories from my youth. But Berlin made them all come alive. If you're into WWII, I highly recommend Checkpoint Charlie--one of the places where folks would cross between the East and West. Outside is often an American and German soldier (or actors, rather) and the museum is full of objects and stories of the people that tried to escape and resist. I read The Fall of Berlin 1945 right before I got there and I recommend the book to get you in the mood.
The East Germany Museum isn't free on Thursday, but is a new, well-done look at life under communism.
You must go to the Reichtag Building. This is Germany's parliment. It was in use until 1945 where it was one of the last stands of Hitler's Youth. Needless to say, the building was pretty bombed out. As soon as the Wall came down, Germans rebuilt the building and is now in use again as the parliment. Today Germans and tourists alike can tour the top of the building for free which now has a beautiful glass dome. You can look down on the desks of the representatives, symbolizing that Germans are now watching their government and will not let anything like the Third Reich happen again. Get there early as lines can be long. Buy some currywurst, a favorite Berlin snackfood to eat while you wait.
Only thing better than cheap is Free Tours! We took a free tour from a student--they work for tips and therefore, work hard. It was really wonderful and probably the most educational and entertaining thing I did on my whole trip.
Get your passport stamped in East Germany. Over where the hostel boat is, is the last longest stretch of the Berlin wall. Follow it down for a bit and you'll find a tacky gift shop, that will stamp your passport with the DDR (Democratic Deutschland Republic) mark. The boat also has a bar on it, which is quite swanky if you need refreshments.
Also nearby the hostel boat is the Friedrichshain & Kreuzberg districts, which are hip and up-and-coming. Filled with youth, artists and Turks there are beautiful city streets to get lost in and cheap restaurants abound with not a tourist in sight. For other hip neighborhoods and restaurants check out this great article in the New York Times about hidden dining spots.
Overall Berlin is just about as perfect combination as you can get. The city is easily navigable and cheap. It's a hot spot for radical politics and artists. This city is full of history and trying to remember it, so as not to repeat it. But at the same time it is trying to reinvent itself to leave all that nastiness behind. So double wrap that scarf around your neck, pick up your beer (I recommend the Heffeweissen mixed with banana juice, a Berliner favorite) and start exploring!