What makes for a cool city? Cool people doing creative work. Berlin right now is in the midst of a tech start up boom, like Silicon Valley, but much less corporate. Go to any coffee house and you’ll find lots of young people, men and women, huddled around their beat up Macs working on some start up idea. Unassuming places like Betahaus in Kreuzberg cater to these people.

There are also a lot of artists – often producing terrible art, but, hey, you need the artists to keep the clubs in business. As we cite below, Berlin is also full of families, and any place with kids riding bikes is kinda cool.

The kind of tourist that a city attracts is also indicative of the city, and right now Berlin, despite cries of “Berlin is over” by the hipsters, is still attracting a lot of young Americans and Europeans, but hasn’t yet been deluged with the camera toting hordes from China and Japan who are colonizing Paris and London. And the ugly American; he of the tee shirt, shorts, and baseball cap, is in Berlin, but only in the most touristy parts, which you’ll want to avoid in any event.

Berliners aren’t stylish; they tend to dress down and aren’t terribly fashionable, but there’s plenty of creativity simmering away. You’ll find a lot of people in Berlin who aren’t really trying to get rich, but are trying to create something cool. And that’s what makes a place interesting.

So, what’s different and really worth a visit? Below we’ll explore some myths and realities about Berlin now. None of the old stereotypes are true, at least not in Berlin; Germans are not fat, women are not buxom, no one seems to be drinking all that much beer, service is not slow and curt, and anything related to World War Two is just history.

Perception: Berlin is a crazy city full of wild nightlife and parties, right? That is what you hear about and that is the history of the city, going back to the Weimar Republic. It’s even part of Berlin’s self-image – the mayor has famously said that “Berlin is poor but sexy”, a quote that has really caught on with the locals.

Reality: Our guess is that the nightlife is past it’s prime as the squatters get kicked out and things settle down.  Sure, you’ll see kids heading home at 6AM on Sunday morning after a night of dancing, but the basic overall vibe is one of family and friends. Berlin seems like a great place to raise a family, and you’ll see parents with young kids all over the place:

  • There are a lot of small pocket parks integrated into the city, many specifically designed for kids.

  • The Berlin obsession with biking works great for kids; you’ll see kids riding their bikes to school, riding alongside their parents, riding in baskets in the front of their parents’ bikes, walking their bikes alongside their parents, etc. You’ll see lots of cars, but they’re generally parked. What is really moving are the bikes. which means that streets are safer, although we have to admit with trams going down the middle of streets, we do sometimes wonder about street safety for kids. But the thing you really need to understand about Berlin transportation is that bikes are an integral part of it, not a means to exercise, but a normal part of getting to work, taking kids to school, and going to the grocery store.

  • The low-rise nature of the vast majority of the city means it’s a kinder, or at least less intimidating environment, both for kids and adults. The scale of the city works for families.

Perception: Berlin has a reputation for curt, slow restaurant service

Reality: service is generally fine, friendly and, if not speedy, reasonably timely. The notable exceptions to this, for some weird reason, appear to be Asian restaurants. The only two places where we had rude service was at a Vietnamese restaurant and a Thai place, and in both it was so notably rude as to be laughable. But both places were busy and were hustling to get the orders out.

There are lots of food choices; Russian, lots of Vietnamese, and other Asian, French, not very good imitations of American fast food, and loads of pizza. The food is generally passable, if not great; Berlin isn’t where the foodies go, but you’ll certainly have lots of choices at reasonable prices.

Speaking of food, what is going on with all the wasps? In August and September they seem to be everywhere, especially eating the pastries at cafes and bakeries all over Berlin. Sure, they’re more attractive than flies, but still, why are they everywhere? Could it be the preponderance of sweets throughout Berlin? There’s also a story, or perhaps urban myth, that the wasps are a result of the attempt by eco-sensitive locals to raise wasps to offset their general decline. Not surprisingly, many escape from their hives and apparently head straight to the nearest bakery.

And while discussing restaurants, this might be the place to mention my inner, existential battle with Starbucks, in this case one very near Alexanderplatz:

Day One:  Hate to see it, as it represents the dark side of globalization

Day Two:  I’ll reluctantly go in, as I’m too tired to keep searching for an authentic place. But only this once.

Day Three: This place is pretty nice; new, nice design, much nicer than the scuzzy ones I know from the US

Day Four: Okay, I’ll go again, but only because it’s the only place open before 8AM

Day Five: Capitulation; it’s nice, the food and coffee is just as good as at the other local places, and they have more comfortable chairs. I’ve been corrupted.

Perception: Europe’s strict labor laws and slack labor market means that restaurants, shops, and bars will be overstaffed;

Reality: That may be true for other parts of Europe, but certainly not Berlin, where nothing is overstaffed. Most restaurants have a single waiter or waitress; even public facilities like the zoo don’t have people standing around. Hotel workers seem to work long shifts; generally, there are fewer workers everywhere and they are working longer and harder than you might expect. Berlin has no minimum wage, but that doesn’t mean workers are cheap. A hotel bartender might make 10E an hour, about $13US.  Berliners are generally not big tippers, far less generous than Americans. An expected tip for a waiter or cab driver is around 10%, but locals might only tip 5%.  In terms of service staff, one thing that will surprise Americans – used to middle aged Hispanic women comprising almost all housekeeping staffs at hotels, is that the housekeepers at Berlin hotels are often young, fit, Caucasian, male or female, and occasionally quite good looking.

Perception: Germans are a hardworking, industrious people;

Reality: this might generally be true, (see above) but you’ll be very hard pressed to find a cup of coffee for sale anywhere in Berlin before 8 AM; or to find any Berliners out and about early. School starts at 8, and despite its family nature Berlin is not an “early to bed, early to rise type of place. Even an American institution like Starbucks, which opens at 5:30 or 6 in the states, won’t open until 7:30 on a weekday and as late as 9:30 on the weekend.

Perception: The buxom fraulein, the beefy German strongman

Reality: At least in Berlin, probably the least traditional of all German cities, the locals simply look European, not notably Germanic. The women are not particularly buxom – and we’ve given this matter exhaustive research – and the men look like those in any other European city.


Best tine for Berlin is summer which is normally not too hot, although beware that because of that many hotels – even quite nice ones like the Circus apartments which we recommend, don’t have air conditioning. Safest bet may be September in terms of the weather, although there are a couple big conventions in town that month that can play havoc with hotel rates and availability.

If you have a choice, probably best to avoid Air Berlin, with tiny seats even by current airline standards, and dubious service.

Yes, most people speak English, but Berlin is still not all that easy to get around, in large part because it’s the combination of early villages, and when they were pasted together streets kept their original names, so it’s quite common to be walking down a street and have different street names if you take a right or take a left.

You’ll hear a lot about Kreuzberg which is supposedly the hip area, and that’ saying something in Berlin, the capital of European hipness. But Kreuzberg is overrated. Yeah, it’s still a little gritty, and we get that that’s supposed to make it cool, but sometimes lack of polish and refinement isn’t really all that interesting.  Yes, many of the new galleries are headed here, but neither the art nor the hood are worthwhile.  The real place to be is in the Rosenthaler Platz area of Mitte – the best hotels, lots of cafes, good boutiques, easy access to Museum Island, and a generally central location.

Throughout Berlin, You’ll see lots of bikers as the day progresses, and some joggers in the evening, but very few early in the morning. Yet, despite the fact that every other retail store seems to be selling chocolate croissants and cappuccinos, there are far fewer fat Berliners than in a typical American city. Michael Bloomberg could take a lesson.  Is it all the biking, the walking, the smaller portions? Who knows? If Berliners are slimmer than Americans, it’s certainly not because they’re generally healthier, in fact, they smoke far more than Americans, especially the young people. Their health care system will pay for yoga classes because they are “preventive medicine”, but 95% of adult Berliners don’t bother wearing a helmet when they bike, even as model for their kids. (On the other hand, the vast majority of kids are wearing helmets.)

Another thing you’ll notice as you walk around is that Berliners are looking down at their phones when they’re alone, but not in groups, which is the sad state of American “social” life.  In groups, remarkably enough, Berliners are actually engaged in real live conversation!


How did so much beautiful architecture survive? If you visit Tokyo you’ll see very little pre-World War Two architecture due to allied bombing, and you might expect the same in Berlin, given that it was the heavily bombed capital of the Third Reich, but not so. Some credit, in part, the economic failures of Communist Berlin and then the squatters, who took over buildings that were empty and “stateless” after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. According to this argument, many historically valuable buildings would have been knocked down by developers except that they were occupied by squatters. Eventually, the buildings beauty was recognized and historic preservation laws were passed. But don’t get all misty eyed about the role of squatters. Even today, a quarter century after the fall of the Wall, they continue to occupy some buildings, and provide violent resistance to the legal owners. And it gets worse; the dark underside to Berlin are the people who throw rocks against the brand new plate glass windows of renovated buildings, as a pathetic last gasp form of protest against gentrification. These people are true Neanderthals of the modern world, thinking they will stop new building, much of which is quite beautiful, by breaking glass in the middle of the night. We have some ideas as to what should be done to these people (link to crime and punishment) Even with all the renovation, rents in Berlin are the lowest of major German cities, and account for the fact that Berlin is relatively affordable.

What you’ll find are a lot of 5-6 story buildings with unvarying roof lines but quite varying, and often very beautiful, facades. A note on density; these size building seem to create enough human density to support a healthy restaurant  and café ecosystem, while not so much as to be visually overwhelming or to create any sort of congestion. But the use of bikes and trams also goes a long way to avoiding car congestion.


Like most major cities, Berlin has some wonderful art museums, but unlike many cities, such as New York, they may not be crowded. And they often have the advantage of being located closely together, such as Museum Island in Mitte, which is a great place to stay (and near one of our coolest streets)  But be careful, like museums all over the world, they are often closed for renovations, and nothing in the world is slower than a museum renovation – often outrageously so. (The Pergamon is closed for six years – 6 years! – for a renovation)  On Museum Island our first choice is Alte Nationalgalerie and, very nearby, the Bode. In the Potzdammer Platz area is the really excellent Gemäldegalerie. These are all world class museums with reasonable entrance fees and normally uncrowded, even on the weekend. But there are supposedly something like 200 museums in Berlin, so this is only scratching the surface, although a very fine surface it is.  A potentially wonderful Asian art museum is, alas, located far from the center of Berlin, but if you can make the logistics work check out Museen Dahlem.


There are a lot of independent boutiques in Berlin, which is a good thing, as we’re always seeking some escape from the omnipresence of global brands. But, alas, the boutiques don’t tend to offer clothing that is all that different than what you’ll see elsewhere. Even though Berlin in known for being affordable, clothing is still pretty expensive, and not notably original. If you must shop, try the boutiques near Weinmeister area in Mitte.

Very few stores will be open on Sundays; even big box retailers like Saturn (electronics) will be closed on Sundays. This is not the US, where everything is open most of the time. Stores tend to open later, not before 10 but often later, and stay open in the evening.


You can skip Checkpoint Charlie, a vestige of the old wall dividing east and west Berlin. This tourist trap is the worst sort of commercialized “history”, surrounded by McDonalds, Starbucks, and all the other least attractive vestiges of globalization. It’s a pity that not a shred of dignity could be retained to commemorate this important area, but I guess with a name like “Checkpoint Charlie” it was a lost battle from the start. How commercialized is this area? At the closest coffee shop you can use the bathroom – for a fee, which a woman sits nearby to collect.

The Berlin Zoo is in a nice park like setting, and supposedly has the widest variety of species in the world (1500) and over 20,000 animals.  I did not notice a particularly wide variety, but the usual collection of interesting animals included a roaring lion and one of my perennial favorites  – playful monkeys. They do a nice job of providing open enclosures, and you’re never going to get closer to the animals than you do here. The Aquarium that is part of the zoo complex is okay, but pretty basic. The area around the zoo, in the Southwest quadrant, is very generic and not interesting.

It’s amazing that only thing in English at the zoo is animal names, not any description, which is typical of German;  even though people widely (but not universally) speak English, you will rarely see signs or translations in English, even in museums that draw an international crowd, where you would really expect to have multilingual descriptions.

A strange but worthwhile attraction are the cemeteries, which are probably the most beautiful I have seen anywhere; for some reason, they are more lush and full of plantings than you will find elsewhere. The Jewish cemetery, in the Rosenthaler Platz neighborhood, is especially enchanting, if that word can be used for a cemetery. So if you happen to walk by a cemetery, walk inside.


You’ll hear a lot about how Berlin is so cheap. That’s also a bit of a myth. The reality is that Berlin is, generally speaking, reasonably priced, but only cheap when compared to other European capitals like Paris and London, which are outrageously expensive. It’s not hard to get a nice hotel room in Berlin for under $200, which you certainly can’t do in Paris or London as a general rule. On the other hand, when a major convention, such as the annual conventions for consumer electronic devices, or communication technologies, comes to town, you’ll find that all those affordable hotel rooms quickly evaporate, and a nice room becomes just as expensive as in any capital city.  Food is also generally reasonably priced – but it’s not the gourmet dining you’ll find in London or Paris, so, to some degree, you get what you pay for. A taxi from Mitte to Potzdammer Platz will cost $10-15, and, again, that’s reasonable but no steal. Berlin is a fairly spread out city and going all the way across town could easily cost $40 or more.  Like anyplace in Europe (other than Great Britain)  how affordable it is will to some degree depend on the exchange rate for the euro.


Potzdammer Platz Area  – Hotel Grand Wyndham, just opened in 2013, is a good business hotel. This is not a particularly interesting hotel, but it does have an interesting history – during the Second World War it was the central post office for Berlin.  This hotel is pretty generic, but the big, comfortable lobby is useful for meetings. Wifi is free in the lobby, but has to be paid for in the rooms.  The rooms tend to be small, but with nice bathrooms. Quiet location, but also dull; a few blocks walk to Potzdammer Platz. This is a fine choice if you’re here on business and you want something in a central location but a bit removed from distractions, but otherwise there’s no real reason to stay here.

The Hotel Mani is in our favorite general area, near Rosenthaler Platz, and the hotel oozes hipness, maybe because its so dark. There’s a cool restaurant and nice but small bar area, but the rooms are the size of small jail cells, and there’s no real separate bathroom. The shower door is clear and across from a mirror, which may be just fine for a sexy weekend with a lover but not so great if you’re sharing a room with a child. In any event, you really shouldn’t be sharing this room with anything other than your reflection, as they’re just way too small. This hotel is fine for meeting someone for a drink or dinner, but the rooms are just too small.

Interestingly, the same company that owns Hotel Mani also owns the Amano Hotel, which is a far better choice. The lobby is much bigger (although also often close to pitch black) and the rooms are much bigger, especially if you opt for an “apartment”, which gives far more space for a bit more money. Best of all, the location may be the best in Berlin, directly across from the coolest street in Berlin, Auguststrabe, and about a half mile from Museum Island, and generally in the heart of hipdom. But get a quiet room on the back of the hotel facing the cemetery; the rooms on the front face trams, which run all night on the weekend. Lots of good restaurant choices right around here as well; a cool Vietnamese place across the street with terrible service, a nice Japanese place a block away, a number of other cafes as well.

Only a couple blocks from the Hotel Amano you’ll find The Weinmeister, which is just working way too hard at being as hip as the hood its in. Some interior design fan just went wild here – they should have been stopped, by force if necessary.  First of all, the wildly painted doors barely appear to be doors at all, so if you can’t find the entrance you’re apparently just not cool enough to stay here. If you make it inside, you’ll see the lobby is filled with Alice in Wonderland chairs; maybe they just got a great deal on them. Huge beds dominates the rooms. There are too many doors and passcodes, and noise from multiple doors slamming as revelers return late at night. However, you’re only steps away from a small but cool absinthe bar, and if you have a few drinks there before you retire you’re not going to be bothered by any noises, or anything at all.

In this same general area, the Circus apartments are far and away the best choice; however make sure you’re booking the apartments; the same company also has a hotel and a hostel that are very close by, hitting all price points. But is the apartments that you want. The apartments are on Choriner StraBe, a quiet side street but only a block from the TorstraBe, which is the main drag . They have about 10 times as much space as the rooms at Mani, at the same price. They have very helpful, friendly staff, which is hired on the basis of attitude rather than experience or education.  There is a laundry in the basement which is a huge help if you’ve been traveling a while. Sort of amazingly, they have brand new iPads in the rooms. Everything is very clean, and the kitchens are stocked with plates, glasses, a microwave and a full sized frig.  A few of the apartments have great porches overlooking the street, but you really can’t go wrong with the rooms here. If you’re going to stay in the hip part of Mitte, the only reason not to stay here would be to be a few blocks closer to the action, in which case Hotel Amano is your best bet.

There are few reasons to stay In the area near the zoo; the Tiergarten makes for nice walks,  and there is  lots of shopping – although not much you won’ find elsewhere – and some fancy hotels. But if you do find yourself in this area, the Art Apartments in Kempinski Plaza are huge, but weird. Lots of space, but hard to find, no reception, no lobby, you must use a different elevator if you come home late, early checkout, and generally lots of hassles. There is no AC, which should only be a problem if it’s an unusually warm summer. We had a very nice housekeeper, but she had access to our in-room safe. We thought one of the points of in-room safes was to hide things from the cleaning staff?

A few blocks away, the Dormero Hotel Brandenburger is a five star hotel, although you would never know from the neighborhood. The very quiet and generally residential location isn’t really near anything, but a sketchy massage place. My $300 a night room was right over the kitchen, which kept me up all night.  But the room itself was fine, if not special, and they have a nice interior garden area.  Still, no real reason to stay here unless you get some special deal.


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