In the last decade, Berlin has become one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations – it’s affordable, accessible, and markets itself as a “cool” alternative to classic European offerings.
While I like a fancy flat white as much as the next person, many new places can start to feel monotonous. So I tend to stay away from the hipster-saturated neighborhoods of Mitte and Kreuzberg and spend my time in the western part of the city where things move at a bit of a slower pace.
These are my top tips for uniquely Berlin institutions that give you the true feeling of what it’s like to live here.
Walking into Rogacki is like stepping back in time. The food hall, founded in 1928, is immune to trends. You won’t find avocado toast or vegan chia smoothies here. Instead, brisk yet helpful staff in green aprons serve up hearty German fare that’s cheap and pleasing.
You can buy fresh meat, wild game, cheese, and every kind of fish you can imagine to cook at home. There’s a canteen where you can get a perfectly fried slab of fish with potato salad, but my favorite is the stand-up fish bar.
Elbow your way between gangs of elderly Wessis noshing on oysters and smoked trout, and place an order for the fish soup. The tomato broth is studded with chunks of cod and topped with a squeeze of lemon. Paired with a crisp glass of white wine, it’s one of the most satisfactory lunches on a cold Berlin day.
It would impossible to recommend a trip to Berlin and not mention a Biergarten. Cafe am Neuen See is my go-to primarily because of its secluded lakeside location deep in sprawling Tiergarten.
In fact, if you’re not actively looking for it, it can be difficult to find. Tall trees provide respite from the sun during the hottest days, and you can rent row boats and toodle around the lake.
I particularly recommend going on an early summer evening, when it’s always packed and has fantastic people watching. Stick to the beer, though – the food is pretty forgettable.
3. Thai Park
The secret’s out and it’s no longer under the radar, but Preußenpark is still the place to go for some of the cheapest and most authentic Asian food in the city. Dozens of vendors set up their stoves under colorful umbrellas, making fresh pad thai, pho, dumplings, and Thai ice tea.
Come with a picnic blanket and a group of friends, and on a warm weekend afternoon you can spend hours snacking through the offerings 5 euro at a time. My tip is to go on Saturday afternoon instead of the more popular Sundays, when lines can stretch to 20 people.
Schwarzes Cafe is a meeting point for many of the city’s artists, students, movie stars, and politicians.
Located in picturesque Savignyplatz, it’s open 24 hours and has a convivial diner atmosphere. A Wohnzimmer (living room) vibe with multiple floors and outdoor seating in the back garden, there’s generally room to grab a table no matter what time you show up. You’re equally at home reading a book or the latest Tagesspiegel solo or meeting a group of friends for dinner or brunch.
I’ve been known to pop in for a decadent breakfast, late at night for a glass of wine, or just for a slice of cake – my favorite is the Russischer Zupfkuchen, a combination of Käsekuchen (cheesecake) and Schokoladenkuchen (chocolate cake) with a crumbly crust.
Tiergarten is big and leafy, Tempelhofer Feld is hip and open, but what I like about the Schlosspark in Charlottenburg is that it feels…classy. Schloss means “palace” (you can take a tour of the former Prussian royal residence if you’re so inclined) though it’s more enjoyable to stroll the baroque landscaped gardens that date from 1695 and border the Spree river.
It’s still a destination in winter, too – the park hosts a popular Christmas market throughout December, and after sustained cold weather the ponds morph into community ice skating rinks.
6. C/O Berlin
While many of Berlin’s museums are clustered on Museum Island, C/O is a boutique museum located in the shadow of the busy Zoologischer Garten train station. The rotating exhibits emphasize contemporary photography (Zeitgenössiche), usually focusing on one internationally recognized photographer/artist and one German/Berliner.
It’s located in the former Amerika Haus, which is not only an architectural jewel in West Berlin but also a place of historical significance (Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon both spoke there). It’s one of my favorite spots to while away a couple of hours before stopping in the cafe on the ground floor – one of the best museum cafes in a city that takes its museum cafes seriously.
Want to learn some German before your next trip to Berlin?