A few things to know if you go to Berlin. Don’t cross the street unless the crosswalk light is green (you’ll likely get a scolding), hardly anywhere takes credit cards (cash works everywhere—and people are happy to give change), the coffee is great (so drink as much as you can, since you’ll need it), and the city changes quickly, from being gray and bleak at one moment, changing into a sunny and inviting place just after you turn a corner.
Another thing to know is to remain on the constant lookout for laugencroissants, which I’ll get to a little later.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Berlin before I got there. I’d heard it was hip, perhaps a little wild, kinetic, and quite vibrant. I was only there for a few days, but I managed to ping from one side of the city to another, exploring the various districts and neighborhoods, and unlike a lot of other big cities, I found everyone to be relatively cool and not stressed out and frantic. Berliners seem to be trying to fit into their new skin, often appearing in different guises.
You can find everything from food shops that display sausages like fine jewels, to down-and-gritty snackbars (Imbiss), where the wursts are thrown on the griddle, and shoveled in with toothpicks while standing under a gritty S-Bahn station while the trains rattle overhead.
Although it’s a modern city, the past is always poking through contemporary Berlin. In the middle of the city, a bombed out church is a constant reminder of what happened just a generation or two ago. It’s a city that brings a lot of emotional responses, and the austere abruptness of the Holocaust Memorial, which has met with some controversy, seems like an odd choice. Still, it’s hard not to walk through the immense, dark concrete slabs and feel the sense of disorientation and sense of solitude that the monument is meant to evoke.
Someone asked me how I felt going to Berlin, and I had to respond that when I was younger, I didn’t understand Germany (or Europe) as I do now and we Americans haven’t had a war on our soil in over a hundred years. Whereas in Europe, there’s millions of people who’ve lived through having their countries occupied, been forced from their homes and businesses, experienced critical food shortages, and gone through ethnic cleansing and other atrocities.
So it’s interesting to walk the streets of modern day Berlin, where the future is uncertain and the city doesn’t quite seem to know where it will go next. But it is a city that is moving forward and there’s a good deal of construction, and a civilized, respectful attitude that permeated the city.
Sure, there’s pockets of hipsters, but they don’t have the annoying appurtenances that one finds in other places: they’re not glued to their cell phones, I saw few chain-smoking, and most were actually polite.
The city of Berlin is so huge that you can’t possibly walk around it all unless you have legs of steel. And even all the wonderful kaffee served at the coffee shops, which are everywhere, can only fuel you so much. Still, I tried to see as much as I could and if you go, buy a day pass (tageskarte) for the public transit, since I found myself hopping off and on it a lot.
Distances on the map, which might look miniscule, can take an hour to trek across—I’m not kidding. After even a half-day of walking around, I needed a break. And while I love to meander around new cities, to discover new places, it’s best to set out with a plan and a map…or stick to a neighborhood, like Mitte, and do some exploring there. Then relax in a cafe for a while, which in my case was often with a giant salted pretzel in hand, before tackling another.
I don’t know if Germany is a destination where people venture in search of gastronomic treasures, but I found plenty of very good, fresh food. Hearty German loaves packed with grains are my favorite kind of breads, and several hefty brote filled in any of the spaces in my suitcase to bring home. And it’s wonderful to go into a restaurant like Barcomi’s, and have a glowing, fresh salad and a glass of cold apfelsaft (apple juice) mixed with sparkling water.
And I also had the most wonderful käsekuchen, otherwise known as cheesecake, that I’ve had in a long time. (I dare say, it was better than what I’ve had in New York.) The wedge I had tasted like it was just made that morning with none of that stale, refrigerator taste. Instead, each bite was like eating fresh, tangy cream cheese, barely lightened with quark, snugly baked against a buttery, spicy crumb crust. It was excellent.
While I was reveling in the fresh food in the places that my friend Olivier took me to, I was also anxious to hit some of the spots that a few readers recommended when I put the word out on Twitter that I was heading to Berlin.
I was told not to miss Rognacki, in Charlottenberg. Walking up the mall-like shopping street, I was having a hard time imagining anything very interesting around there to eat. But when you reach Rognacki’s, and step inside, you immediately know that you’ve found somewhere very special. This all-edible-things-German shop was where I was told to be on the lookout for schillerlocken, or smoked shark neck. I guess I should’ve looked harder (er..or maybe not), but I loved the place, especially the cafeteria-style service where I had fried fish and a vinegary kartoffelsalat (potato salad).
When I was done standing at the counter, and how downed the last bite of crisp fish and cold traubensaft (grape juice), I put my empty tray on the knee-high shelf below, like I saw everyone else doing. As I headed for the door, on the way out, the pastry display yelled HALT!…and I couldn’t help it, and ordered a square of caramelized Bienenstich (Bee-sting cake) along with yet another fortifying cup of rich German coffee.
Berlin also means currywurst, which is the unofficial food mascot of the city. If you’re one of those people who needs to know what farm the pork is from or what the names of the pigs were, I can’t say you’re likely to find many place like that for currywurst in Berlin. (Although I did later find out that Witty’s on the Wittenbergerplatz is the place to go for that.)
Most people hit the Imbiß (snack-bar) places to get their currywurst fix. Two of the most famous are Konnopke’s and Ku’damm (Kurfürstendamm 195), with simmering sausages kept warm on the stainless steel bins in this little wedge of the place tucked in between the chic shops.
Konnopke’s is a holdover from East Berlin and located right under the S-Bahn station. With the train rattling overhead exactly at six minute intervals, it’s not the kind of place you linger, but it’s a lot of fun and a good place to catch a glimpse of old Berlin mingling quite well with the new.
Currywurst can either be sausage with curry powder sprinkled over, or made with curry powder seasoning inside. Either way, if your German isn’t very good, you’ll likely get a blitzkrieg of ketchup (ketchup) blitzed over the top. I’m not a big fan of ketchup, but since my comprehension of the German language is almost null (null), ketchup seems to be the universal accompaniment. Note to self: Memorize the German word for mustard, (senf), for next time.
I’d mentioned that English is a language where there’s often many words to describe something that other languages condense to one word. What German does is combine a string of words into one long, tongue-twisting mouthful. I guess it’s part of the famed German efficiency, but I had a little bit of difficulty with the language. However everyone was very friendly when I tried my hand at it, and usually responded in good English, except for the ketchup-wielding currywurst vendors, who were racing to keep up with the constant lines in front of their stands.
One word that I really needed to be certain to nail was laugencroissant, which is a pretzel-croissant, a hybrid that has the flakiness of a butter croissant, but sturdier, with the texture of a pretzel. And if often finished with a few sesame seeds and a bit of crunchy salt to bring the difference home. Laugencroissants are on my short list of best things to eat in the world, and worth the trip to Germany just to get them.
Another highlight of Berlin is the KaDeWe a chic department store with an immense food hall. Covering the entire sixth floor, Alec Lobrano, who lives in Paris, told me it makes La Grand Épicerie look “poverty stricken”. And boy, was he right.
When the escalator arrived at the sixth floor, I never saw food lined up like that, with things from all over Europe. There was obscure German baking ingredients, coffees from Italy and Columbia, Cuban cigars, separate cheese departments for Italy, France and Germany, rows of Swiss chocolates, and piles of German breads and pastries, stacked neatly in glass showcases.
(There were also plenty of rest rooms. Unlike Paris, Berliners seem to make it a point to have them easily located in most shops and public places, and don’t give you a hard time if you need to make use of one.)
Another department store food hall which is terrific, and a bit less expensive, is the Galeria in the Alexanderplatz. All sorts of wonderful things, from bright-green limequats to knobbly cords of fresh horseradish, were there. It was there that I picked up four pudgy German loaves of dinkelvollkornbrot and vollkornbrot to take back home with me.
Although the agents at EasyJet kept pulling me out of line, insisting that my bag was too long, until I snapped a picture of my bag tucked neatly in their metal carrier, they reluctantly let me go without paying one of those infamous surcharges.
(I don’t have a beef with EasyJet, or surcharges. But I am unclear why three different agents were hassling me about my suitcase, which obviously conformed to their standards.)
Speaking of airports, right before I left I was able to squeak in a kaiserschmarrn, an enormous broken-up puffy pancake, with Luisa, who just moved back to Berlin after a long absence. Our schedules didn’t quite jibe, but we caught each other for a nice chat and dessert at Cafe Einstein, before I raced to the airport on the very efficient train. I had just two hours before my flight, but as we were saying goodbye as we went our separate ways, and I expressed concern I’d make my flight, Luisa said to me, “Don’t worry. Berlin is a well-oiled machine.”
And sure enough—and in spite of the airline employees best efforts to thwart me, I made my flight, with enough time to grab a sandwich at the airport, made with bread that they made on the premises, as evidenced by their flour-covered counters and baskets of flax and sunflower seeds.
When I walked through the terminal, the smell of warm yeast infused the air, and my sandwich made of air-dried beef stuffed between the just-made bread with a handful of organic arugula, and a freshly-squeezed, pulpy glass of orangensaft, was a surprise, and a very happy ending, to this delicious trip.
A Few Trip Notes:
If you go, you’ll want a good map of Berlin, as well as one for the transit system. The BVG website (in English) has maps and fare information. Berlin has lots of bike paths through the city and I was planning on renting a bike for three days (which cost €9/day), but the rainy weather put a damper on that plan. I found the one-day pass (€6.10) useful, although there are others. Get one that covers zones A and B. (If coming or going to the airport, you can buy a single-use zone C ticket for €2.80.) All prices are subject to change.
If you’re looking for a separate map, I do recommend the Streetwise Berlin Map, which is designed to be easy to use when moving about.
My friend Luisa writes Berlin on a Platter, noting foods and places of culinary interest.
Visit the Berlin Tourism Website for additional information.