We just love Berlin. So much, that we returned for the second time in less than six months. Here’s the best alternative Berlin insider tips – thanks to all the cool tips we got!
In March, we visited Berlin in occasion of ITB. It was a very busy time, but we managed to squeeze in a great tour of the Berlin Wall, and some exploration of art in Berlin with my mum – she checked out the Museuminsel, while we went looking for street art. In June, we returned for CSD Berlin, the local Pride, as part of this summer’s #mygaypride campaign.
Every free moment we had, we went in search of alternative sights. I’m sure you’ll all know that Berlin is probably the alternative capital of Europe, with a vibrant street art scene, abandoned buildings and so many hipster bars, cafés and restaurants that going to Mc Donald’s probably becomes an alternative statement. We searched high and low, asked friends, bloggers and Berlin lovers for their Berlin favourites, asked people on Twitter and stopped random people in the street – and here are the alternative Berlin insider tips we came up with.
Alternative Berlin Insider Tips
Recommended by the Berlin Tourism Board
When we visited in March, the Berlin Tourism board had organised a photo rally for bloggers the day before ITB began, and Teufelsberg was one of the places they visited. I remember seeing pics of a strange looking place, with huge balloons on the top of a mountain.
I looked into it, and discovered a really weird story. Teufelsberg translates as ‘Devil’s Mountain’, and it’s the highest hill in Berlin. It’s a man-made mountain, ‘built’ from grassed-over WW2 debris. So far, nothing strange – there are loads of man-made mountains across Europe, like Montestella in Milan.
What makes Teufelsberg weird is that it was built on that precise site, in the heart of Grunewald Forest, to cover Wehrtechnische Fakultät, the Nazi technical college, so sturdily built that it couldn’t be demolished with explosives.
In the Fifties, West Berliners went to Teufelsberg to ski in winter, as the hill’s western side housed some ski slopes and ski jumps. Everything was closed down in the Sixties, when the NSA built a spying station on top of Teufelsberg – being the highest place in Berlin, it was the ideal location to gather East German intelligence. Those crazy-looking balloons are radomes, weatherproof structures built to protect American radars.
Teufelsberg fell into disrepair after the Wall fell. It was squatted, it became one of the chosen locations of Berlin’s urban explorers and street artists, who painted the now-gutted building with colourful pieces.
Then, something weird happened. A group of squatters started organising guided tours, charging an entrance fee of €7 (for the so-called ‘silent’ tour) or €15 (for the once-daily ‘history’ tour). The silent tour means you get ushered around by a grumpy-looking squatter, who makes you feel like it’s such a privilege for you to be there, and refuses to give any explanation whatsoever and answer your questions on account of ‘you should have booked the history tour’.
Now, visiting Teufelsberg is a cool experience. The street art is great, the place is eerie to say the least, and the views over Berlin are amazing. The best part is entering the radomes with their crazy acoustics.
But I must say, my visit was spoilt by how rude the squatter that took us around was. I have nothing against them charging (they do maintain the place after all) – but refusing to answer a simple question and treating paying customers as if they were an inconvenience is just plain rude. I hope the message will go through – because Teufelsberg is unique, and definitely deserves a visit.
2) Urban Exploration
Recommended by the one and only Felipe and Marcela
This was at the top of our alternative Berlin list. We were in the capital of alternative, the city that defined the meaning of the word itself. So, what could possibly be the coolest, most adventurous and craziest thing to do in town? Urban exploration, urbex for short – basically breaking into abandoned places and seeing what they’re like.
Teufelsberg above was ‘urbex for beginners’ – you’re not actually breaking in as you’re paying the surly squatters for the privilege, but as the place is hardly secure, it kind of feels like breaking in. In any case, we were eager to experience ‘real’ urbex.
We were invited by Felipe and Marcela of amazing blog Fotostrasse to join them in exploring Blub, an abandoned water park in Neukölln. It’s easy to get in – no need to climb over fences or cut through barb wire.
Once we were in, we felt as if we were in a zombie movie. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time. The outdoor and indoor pools were littered with various kinds of debris, from broken glass to plastic lounge chairs, empty spray cans and planks of wood. The sides of the pool were covered in graffiti and some pretty cool street art pieces – but for the whole time, we half-expected an army of undead to come rushing to us with gaping mouths, ready to eat our brains.
We spent a couple of hours just wandering around taking pictures, down to the gym where machines laid stacked in a corner and to the ‘oriental room’ where Marcela and Felipe saw people stealing tiles during their first visit a few months back. It was incredible to believe that only 15 years ago, this place was named one of Germany’s top 100 attractions, and that thousands of people visited its water slides and spa pools every year.
If you want to know more about Blub and its crazy history, or if you want to visit for yourself and find out how to get there, check out this amazing article by Fotostrasse.
A couple of days later, always with Felipe, Marcela and a bunch of other friends, we went to another place, Krankenhaus Mariendorfer Weg – an abandoned hospital in Neukölln. That was a crazy adventure indeed – read this article if you want to know more.
The trouble with urbex is that abandoned places are often demolished or burnt down to collect insurance and kick-off redevelopment. Blub burnt down a few months back, just after our visit, and the hospital is due to be demolished shortly. For more urbex ideas, check Fotostrasse – they have lots of articles on the topic.
Recommended by Katharina, chef and lover of detective novels.
Once upon a time, this was an airport. It was one of the oldest airports in the world, having been opened in 1923, and it was expanded and revamped by the Nazis, making it one of the few surviving examples of Nazi architecture alongside Olympiastadion.
In 2008, Tempelhof ceased operations. Any other European city would have probably sold such a large and profitable piece of land to investors and redeveloped it into luxury condos. But not Berlin. After its closure, Tempelhof became the largest public park in Berlin. It is open every day from 6 am to sunset, it is now a local favourite for an afternoon stroll, frisbee match or bike ride – and if you’re up to trying something a little different, you can have kiteboarding lessons.
Sadly, we did not have time to tour the actual airport building – something to add to our Berlin list for the next time.
4) The Soviet Memorial at Treptow Park
Recommended by Dale and Franca
I am a big fan of Soviet memorial, I must admit. I find them fascinating – from the iconography to the sheer size of their statues. In June, we decided it was time to visit the Soviet Memorial at Treptow Park, Berlin’s largest.
Despite being huge, we couldn’t find the memorial, well hidden by the trees of Treptow Park. We wandered and wandered, and was about to give up, when suddenly, the memorial appeared – huge, imposing, intimidating.
The memorial at Treptow Park was the largest in the Communist world, from its opening in 1949 until the Stalingrad memorial was completed in the 1960s. It was built to commemorate the Red Army victims of the Battle of Berlin. It is now the resting place of over 5000 fallen soldiers.
Unlike Memento Park in Budapest, that was created in post-Communist times, the memorial at Treptow Park is left exactly as it was when it opened. You enter through a red granite gate, symbolising Soviet flags.
A walkway lined by marble sarcophagi, engraved with scenes of the war against Fascism, leads to the centrepiece of the memorial – a gigantic statue of a Soviet soldier standing over a broken swastika. The statue is said to have been inspired by a Red Army soldier, who ran risked his life under machine-gun fire during the final moments of WW2 to save a 3 year old girl.
It was a chilly, overcast day. The atmosphere in the memorial was sombre and oppressive. It was as if the huge soldier standing over the swastika was watching over us – or just watching us.
5) Neue Heimat
This is one of those places that is so quintessentially Berlin. Just off Warschauer Strasse S-Bahn, walking away from the Spree and towards the back of the railway tracks, lost in a maze of warehouses, you’ll find Neue Heimat – part street food, part cocktail bar, part biergarten in a former railway depot, with artists performing live music and a pop-up market every Wednesday.
When we visited, we had a White Russian and beers while all around food trucks offered snacks from all over the world, from Sicilian cannolo to Korean noodles.
6) Rosa Caleta
Recommended by Finn and about 10 other people
After we went to Neue Heimat during our night tour of Berlin with Finn, we walked to Kreuzberg, in search of a ‘very special restaurant’. We walked for about half an hour, and I was famished, when we finally got to Rosa Caleta – a Jamaican-European restaurant in the heart of Kreuzberg, run by a formidable, super friendly guy (whose name I cannot remember). I was so happy we took the time to walk there!
I had super spicy jerk tofu, Nick went for the Jamaican classic jerk chicken, while other people in other group had creative dishes such as spätzle with coconut. What made the place special was the atmosphere – not only was the food creative, delicious and unusual, but the owner was so friendly that I would return in a heartbeat just to laugh at his jokes again.
Recommended by the unstoppable Felipe
These days, there are more probably burger joints in Berlin that hipster beards in Kreuzberg. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But if you want a choice burger, head to BBI in Neukölln, a hole in the wall that serves up the best burger we’ve had this year.
Their combinations are super creative. We went for an ‘El Gordito’ with guacamole, bacon and cheese, and an Italian-inspired one with grilled mozzarella, balsamic onions and toasted pine nuts. Every month there’s a special burger on offer. If there’s three of you or more, share a serving of chilli cheese fries, but beware – you’ll be stuffed for decades!
Alternative place to stay – Pfefferbett Hostel, sleep in a former brewery!
If you’ve been following us, you’ll know we enjoy staying in places that have character. Doesn’t matter if it’s a hostel or a luxury hotel, it’s the experience that counts. Having said that, we do have a very soft spot for design hostels – Pfefferbett Hostel is a really good example of what we like.
First things first – location. Pfefferbett Hostel is in Prenzlauer Berg, one of the coolest neighbourhoods of Berlin. You’ll find TONS of hipster stuff (pop-up store specialising in 80’s vinyls, anyone?) but also some tasty falafel and doner joints, and a couple of restaurants that look right out of the GDR days. The hostel is in a place called ‘Pfefferberg’, a reconverted industrial site, where a former brewery used to exist. I love industrial archaeology, and when I first saw Pfefferberg, I went WOW. I just love the red-brick buildings and the chimney towering over it all.
The hostel itself is a really good place to stay. If you see the rooms, you’ll be forgiven to think you’re in a hotel, with fluffy duvets, TV and ensuite bathrooms. Common spaces are great too. There’s a 24/7 bar at reception, with a big screen showing football matches, a back garden and some outdoor tables out front. The bar downstairs offers excellent lunch specials; we were surprised to see business people heading over to the hostel for their crispy halloumi salad or maultaschen!
One remarkable thing about Pfefferbett is that they manage to keep the ‘fun’ part and the ‘relax’ part completely separate. There’s no need of earplugs, like in many hostels. Pfefferbett is planned so that you can sleep like a baby upstairs while others party the night away at the bar. Believe me, I’ve had plenty sleepless nights in hostels!
There are two other things we really liked about Pfefferbett. First, they have a staff tips section on their site! We loved Marcel’s tip of cycling the entire length of the Berlin Wall. It’s at the top of our list for our next Berlin visit! Second – and perhaps most important – we learnt that the hostel is a wholly owned subsidiary of the VIA Verbund für Integrative Angebote Berlin, a social initiative to favour employment of disadvantaged people. In fact, Pfefferbett Hostel is a non-profit integration company. More than 40% of employees are people with severe disabilities, and the hostel offers them the chance to enter the labour market in a relaxed yet exciting environment. Some of these people otherwise may never have a chance to work and be included in mainstream society.
Staying at Pfefferbett, you’ll help support this initiative, and help change the life of a disadvantaged person.
Our Berlin trip was partly sponsored by Pfefferbett Hostel and Visit Berlin. All opinions remain our own.
Pin it for later?