In November 1989, Potsdamer Platz was known as the “death strip” — a wasteland between the two parts of the Berlin Wall. But after the wall fell, Potsdamer became a major site of celebration and reunification. Today, old graffiti-tagged slabs stand as harmless relics, and the long scar of the wall’s foundation runs through the bustling intersection.
It is also near the posh Ritz-Carlton, Berlin, where I found myself during a recent visit, on a mission to discover how to conquer Berlin — already a relatively cheap European city — on a tight budget. To get a sense of the city’s high-end options, I walked from the Potsdamer U-Bahn station through the plaza and into the lobby of the hotel, where I was greeted by Thomas Munko, its chief concierge.
Mr. Munko happens to be born and raised in Berlin — an advantage as a concierge, certainly. But to achieve success in the hospitality industry, Mr. Munko emphasizes other, less tangible skills. “It’s more important to have the right service attitude and, it sounds very old school, but: manners,” he said. Mr. Munko then related a story when a guest nearly forgot a wedding anniversary and needed a handwritten poem delivered, last minute, to his wife in Los Angeles. A courier from Berlin would have taken 48 hours, Mr. Munko explained, so he arranged to have a member of his staff fly it to the United States and deliver it by hand.
With that same make-it-happen attitude, Mr. Munko agreed to assist me with my own project: designing a day itinerary for a fictitious wealthy client in Berlin with a budget of $1,000, about 830 euros. I would then endeavor to tweak that itinerary so that it fits my slightly more modest budget of $100. Berlin proved more than up to the challenge and made my job easy; while the city certainly features a fair number of luxury options, it hasn’t lost its populist edge.
To begin the day, Mr. Munko suggested Käfer, the restaurant on the roof of the Reichstag, the German parliament building. Panoramic city views await, as does the large glass Reichstag dome, designed by Norman Foster. For about 30 euros, diners can tuck into a Wohlfühlfrühstück, a vast breakfast spread that includes coffee or tea, freshly squeezed juice, various breads, eggs, house-made marmalade and a number of different meats like Truthahnsalami (turkey salami) and luftgetrockneter Schinken (air-dried ham).
I opted to start my day at the spacious, bright Hermann’s on Torstrasse, just a stone’s throw from the Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn station. Hermann’s describes its offerings as “comfort food with a twist” and also experiments with ingredients and sourcing. The space was gorgeous, but I also appreciated the fact that they specifically set aside no-technology tables for diners like me who were not camped out with their laptops. A filling bowl of black rice porridge with coconut crème set me back 4.90 euros, and a tangy, satisfying rhubarb hazelnut tart cost 4.50.
Mr. Munko would then put his wealthy client in the hands of tour operators Albrecht & Kühsel for a personal walking tour of historically significant sites in central Berlin. One of Berlin’s great strengths is its walkability — and what’s not easily walked to can usually be accessed by train. Sites during the tour might include the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial and the German Bundestag and Chancellery. Total cost, without gratuity, is 250 euros.
I tackled my activity and transportation for my entire trip in one fell swoop, purchasing a Berlin Welcome Card Museum Island upon arrival for 45 euros. This afforded me 72 continuous hours of free public transportation (within travel zones A and B — you can pay extra to travel to zone C, which encompasses the outskirts of the city), as well as free entry to the five museums on Museumsinsel, or Museum Island. The card pays for itself if you visit three of the five museums, and allows you to skip the ticket lines, which can get long.
The island, which sits in the Spree River in the center of the city, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and was where the Prussian royal family kept prized art and archaeological pieces. The Pergamon Museum may have been my favorite; it featured the stunning reconstructed blue Ishtar gate of Nebuchadnezzar II, unearthed in Babylon between 1899 and 1917. Admission without the card is 12 euros.
I spent time in the Neues and Altes Museums, the latter of which was constructed in 1830 and is Berlin’s oldest museum. The Altes, with a beautiful neoclassical facade, is heavy on Greek antiquities. The Neues has, among other highlights, a gorgeous limestone and plaster bust of Nefertiti from 1340 B.C., taken during a 1912 German expedition.
For lunch, Mr. Munko suggested heading toward one of Berlin’s busiest shopping streets, Friedrichstrasse, for an Italian feast at Bocca di Bacco. Our faux client’s meal might include a starter of sesame-crusted tuna with a fennel and orange salad and an entree of giant grilled prawns with a Catalonian vegetable salad; the cost, with some good wine from their extensive list: 75 euros.
I instead hopped on the train and headed to the west side of the city, home to Preussenpark, a big public green space that is also home to some of the best Thai food vendors in the city. From Friday through Sunday most of the year (but not during the winter), you can expect to find a great selection of noodles, spring rolls, grilled meats and salads — all informally prepared on the park grounds.
For 5 euros, I picked up a huge plate of freshly made papaya salad with tomato, peanut and shredded green papaya, carefully prepared by a nice woman named Nu. I made the mistake of asking her to make it spicy — my mouth paid the price. It was delicious nonetheless, and being able to wander around the park with other hungry visitors made the experience all the more enjoyable.
Alternative option: I’d be remiss not to mention the döner kebab, the popular Turkish street food of roasted stacked meat, usually eaten with different vegetables and sauces in sandwich or wrap form. Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap is the most famous in Berlin (as are the long wait times) but I quite enjoyed Döner Dach, a small shop in Friedrichshain. A chicken gemüse döner was 3.50.
The artistically inclined will enjoy the next stop on our high-end tour: A private viewing at one of Germany’s most interesting galleries. The Boros Collection, which features contemporary artwork, is housed in a former World War II air-raid shelter. Built on Hitler’s orders in 1943, the massive building was designed to shelter thousands of people and has a ceiling nearly 10 feet thick. A private tour costs 200 euros.
The flea market in Mauerpark is a perfect place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Packed with food vendors, merchandise, street performers and graffiti artists, it’s got just about anything you could imagine — and how much, or little, money you spend is entirely up to you. The atmosphere is fun and festive for pedestrians: a band called The Suns of Shine, dressed in matching bright yellow and purple leopard-print pants, were playing some upbeat pop songs for passers-by. Nearby, another group called Blouzouki played bluesy numbers with just a banjo and a tuba.
Within the shopping area lay seemingly endless amounts of vintage clothing, posters of mythical creatures, patches and buttons, old furniture and crates of old records. I ended up spending 10 euros on a windbreaker I found at one of the clothing stalls. The food isn’t bad, either. I enjoyed some Korean cuisine (a savory jijimi pancake with kimchi cost 4.50) from one of the vendors, Kuem-Ja. The real attraction, though, is the people watching — it felt like every twentysomething in the city had descended on the park.
For our wealthy guest, Mr. Munko recommended dinner at Slate Berlin, a sleek restaurant in the Mitte district where the chef Lukas Bachl plays with seasonal ingredients to craft his take on contemporary European cuisine. The eight-course tasting menu, which might include trout with cucumber and horseradish, or pigeon with tarragon, mushroom and potato, would set back our fictional traveler 109 euros.
My dinner wasn’t nearly so involved or pricey, but I’m willing to bet it was just as flavorful. I went to Nusantara restaurant on Turmstrasse, near Fritz Schloss Park. There, a friend and I enjoyed a vast — and inexpensive — Indonesian feast. My nasi uduk was a huge plate of chicken, tofu, tempeh and acar (pickles), with a mound of rice cooked in coconut milk piled into a cone in the center. It was delicious and only 8.90 euros.
We ate our dinners, talked, and then shared a typical Indonesian dessert called es teler. Somewhat reminiscent of Filipino halo halo, it’s a cold, slushy concoction with avocado, jackfruit, durian and kolang kaling, the small immature fruits of the feather palm. While refreshing and sweet, and a great ending to a meal, the durian makes it particularly, ahem, potent (it’s called “stinkfrucht” in German for a reason). The cost is 5.90 — 4.50 without the durian.
Just around the corner from Slate, where our wealthy visitor would have dined, is Buck and Breck, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar. The small, chic spot is exclusive and discreet, and accessed by ringing a small buzzer outside. The bar, which is a regular on annual “best of” bar lists, has a strict no-technology policy (silence those phones). Mr. Munko advises ordering a bottle of Egly-Ouriet Champagne, which will lighten the wallet by about 150 euros.
I couldn’t very well visit Berlin without visiting a typical German pub — fortunately there was a good one just a short walk from my hotel. Zum Nussbaum, a centuries-old inn originally located in a different part of the city, was rebuilt after it was destroyed in an Allied air raid during World War II. Now sitting on a cobblestone street by the Nikolaikirche (the oldest church in Berlin), it exudes the warmth and ebullience you’d expect from an old fashioned German drinking establishment: dark wood, lively conversation and lots of kitsch on the walls. Better still, the beer is cold and flows freely — my small Pilsener set me back just 3.10 euros. It was a fitting finale to a few days in this richly historical and multicultural hub. Because let’s face it — even if I were wealthy, I’d still take a cheap beer over some fancy Champagne any day of the week.
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