Skip the crowds and go where the locals go.
When Berlin beat out Rome nearly five years ago as Europe’s third most popular tourist destination behind London and Paris, tourists showed they’re willing to brave the German capital’s notorious winters. Still, Berlin shows off its splendor most in summer, when building facades get covered anew by dense ivy, outdoor dancing lessons pick up at the Strandbar Mitte by Monbijou Park, and the graffiti looks vibrant under blue skies. These attractions will take you across the city and off-the-beaten-path.
Swim at the Oderberger Hotel
The exquisite exterior alone of the Oderberger Hotel makes it worthy of a visit, a few minutes’ walk from the Kulturbrauerei entertainment complex. Back in 1902, it opened as a public bathhouse, and made it through World War II mostly unscathed. Because of renovations in the 1980s, the pool closed for 30 years, and reopened in 2016, as did the rooms of the boutique hotel. For six euros, bring a bathing suit and enjoy two hours of swimming in the pool, usually open five days a week. The hotel does limit the number of visitors, though, so consider getting an early start.
INSIDER TIPThe hotel is located on the intersection of the beautiful Oderberger Straße and Kastanienallee, both full of shops and restaurants, where everyone sits outside during the summer. For some of the best coffee in town, visit nearby Bonanza Coffee Heroes.
Watch a Classical Music Concert in a Warehouse
As a city with several opera houses and more than five major orchestras, Berlin has no shortage of classical music venues. Piano Salon Christophori, though, resembles no other. Once a warehouse stocked with spare parts of the BVG (Berlin’s public transport system) the salon is now full of pianos and piano parts under repair in the city’s Wedding district. The intimate performances—both instrumental and vocal, happen at night in an intimate setting, aglow with old lamps. Help yourself to a glass of wine after you find your seat and consider making a donation when it’s not a fixed-price concert. A seat reservation via the website is strongly recommended, as is canceling if you’re not going to show up.
INSIDER TIPDon’t leave Wedding without a meal at next door Pförtner, which has daily changes to the menu, lovely outdoor seating, and tables inside a former public bus.
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Learn to Cook Syrian Cuisine
Since 2015, Germany has admitted roughly 1.5 million refugees. At Über den Tellerand, you can spend richly rewarding hours with refugees, who’ll guide a cooking class inside a bright, sun-drenched space in Schöneberg. Check the website for the schedule—sometimes the class’s cuisine hails from Syria, other days from Afghanistan, and vegan or vegetarian accommodations are always possible. Though you won’t prepare your own dish, you will help the chef cook for the whole class and you’ll enjoy the exquisite tastes of the hard day’s work together. By night’s end, you’ll have danced around the room, listened to difficult stories of immigration, and made new friends.
Drink Tea at a Central Asian-Inspired Parlor
Tucked inside a quiet, shady courtyard in Berlin’s Mitte district Tajikistan Tea House makes tea drinking otherworldly. If you choose to sit indoors, take off your shoes and the hostess will escort you to your cushion and low table seating. Make sure to reserve your table at least two days beforehand by email. You’re not venturing here for the food, more so for menu listings like the standard “Russian Tea Ceremony” that includes a samovar, or Russian heated metal container, and small plates with rum raisins, vodka, cookies, jams, and sugar. This place gets packed on weekend evenings and only takes cash.
INSIDER TIPThey will only email you the menu if you email them to reserve a table and request it. The tea house is a one-minute walk from the historic Neue Synagogue (New Synagogue), once Europe’s largest synagogue when it opened in the 19th century.
Go Naked at the Sauna
For those of us not raised with the German open-mindedness around nudity, going to a co-ed pool or sauna completely naked could seem mortifying. However, Vabali offers the most relaxing and liberating afternoon you never thought you’d have. Be sure to ask for help translating the schedule of aromatherapy ceremonies on a chalkboard, to experience the sauna with salt, honey, or fruit scents. Don’t forget flip flops and you can rent a robe to walk around the garden—guests are no longer allowed to walk naked outside of the saunas and pools, a decision that’s made many people leave angry comments on the Facebook page of this otherwise zen place.
Visit a Former Stasi Prison
Berlin has no shortage of memorials and sites that today teach the public about the harrowing history of Nazi Germany, but some of the sites related to the vicious and ruthless Stasi, or state police, of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, sometimes require a little trek. The Berlin Hohenschönhausen Memorial is well worth the time away from the city’s center for a tour of the cells and interrogation rooms used after the Second World War and through 1990 when Germany reunified. If you speak German, reserve a tour with a former inmate who will share his or her personal story. English tours are available, too.
Sing Karaoke in a Public Park
Most people’s singing is truly meant to stay within the confines of a shower, but in Berlin, everyone who belts out at the so-called “bearpit karaoke” gets cheered on and applauded. The scene itself is spectacular, with hundreds of people crammed into the graffiti-covered steps of the stone amphitheater, built against a grassy slope in Prenzlauer Berg’s Mauerpark. On Sundays at 3 pm, Joe Hatchiban has his mobile sound system set up waiting for the first volunteer to step forward.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss the Sunday flea market.
Be Transported to Thailand
Your jaw will drop when you see Preußen Park in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf district on a weekend afternoon when it transforms into Thai Park. Crowds bring out their blankets and parasols of all colors and read, chat, and most importantly, eat the delicious, home-made Thai food scooped from containers onto disposable plates.
INSIDER TIPThe city has tried to shut down the unofficial food stalls, but vendors keep coming back—even with vegetarian options, since this is Berlin after all.
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Visit a Street Art Museum
Few cities glorify street art as much as Berlin does (with due reason, historically) but the Urban Nation museum validates the importance of street artists to the art world. Works include pieces by big names like Shepard Fairey and Kenny Scharf along with artists from around the world. The exterior regularly gets covered by an artist’s mural, too. Admission is free, so get off the U-Bahn at Bulowstraße and check out the collection of graffiti, sculptures, and other designs.
INSIDER TIPThe museum is a 15-minute walk from Kaufhaus des Westens, for your über posh shopping experience after your urban art fix.
Watch a Movie Outdoors
From about May to early September, you can catch an array of excellent movies while sitting on canvas lawn chairs on the grounds of the Kulturforum and watching the massive screen set up in front of tall buildings. Stretch out your legs beneath the glimmering stars with a beer bottle in one hand and popcorn in the other. Don’t forget to bring a sweater—no matter how warm Berlin feels on a summer day, the night time is always chilly. Tickets are available online.
INSIDER TIPYou can use the restrooms inside the Kulturforum for free. Berlin has a number of other open-air movie screenings all summer long. The Freiluftkino Kreuzberg always shows them in the original language with German subtitles, never dubbed.
Visit a Defunct Airport
The tour of Tempelhof airport, available in English, lasts at least two hours and is well worth the time to walk through this massive building with an intriguing history. After the Germans’ defeat, the U.S. Armed Forces took over the airport in 1945 and added to it (including a basketball hall above what the departure hall). This is also where, during the Cold War, the Western Allies’ airlift took place in 1948-49 to provide a lifeline for people in the American, British, and French zones blocked by the Soviets. The empty main hall with a vintage “Restaurant” sign looks like it was built for a future with Instagram in it. Tempelhof ceased operating in 2008, and today its runway is open to the public for recreation. You should reserve your spot on a tour, which costs 15 euros per adult.
Visit the Gleis 17 Memorial
Berlin’s Jews were rounded up and sent east to destinations like Theresienstadt, Riga, or Lodz, on these very train tracks between 1941 and 42. As you walk along the platform above the tracks notice the numbers of deported Jews steadily decrease as the Nazis ran out of people to round up. Some visitors leave flowers, and others leave small stones along the numbers, a Jewish tradition to honor the deceased. Sometimes there are candles along the length of the train tracks. Take the S-Bahn train to Grunewald, exit the stairs left and turn left again towards the sign pointing to the Gleis 17 Memorial. In summer, this devastating place allows for time to reflect outside.
See a Concert in a (Fake) Historic Building
Early afternoon concerts take place in the elegant Gendarmenmarkt in Mitte—one whose architecture is deceiving. It looks old, but bombings destroyed the original Konzerthaus during the war, and this one was rebuilt to mirror the original. “Espresso Concerts” last about an hour, usually from 2 to 3 p.m., and often take place in the small hall, colored in pastel pink, green and sky blue. Concerts vary, including piano, viola, or trumpet—and cost about 10 euros per person.
INSIDER TIPConsider taking a 30-minute walkthrough of the concert hall for free.
Go Vintage Shopping
You’ll notice in Berlin that many bars have an enviable collection of vintage chairs to sit on, and it’s at the Arkonplatz flea market that you can find them, plus tables upon tables of vintage jewelry, vintage sign letters, cameras, gramophones, dishes, clothes, and shoes. On Sunday afternoons, stroll through the market surrounded by cafés, where you can stop to rest and eat after some tiring bargaining.
Drink Crazy Cocktails in a Hidden Bar
Part of this Kreuzberg bar’s charm is the challenge to find it. The entrance, near a chain supermarket by the Kottbuser Tor U-Bahn exit, is through a nondescript door covered in stickers, then up one story on graffiti-covered stairs. The door to Fahimi from there is also not labeled. Once inside, dim lighting, a sleek bar, and windows showing a view of the passing U1 U-Bahn train give it the feel of a hidden speakeasy during Prohibition. Each week, Fahimi Bar promotes an over-the-top cocktail creation, which you could preview on their Facebook page.
Party on the Roof of a Parking Garage
Chances are, a nondescript mall with low-end stores isn’t your top pick for a view of an unforgettable sunset. Leave it to Berlin, the city that dances to its own drum (well, techno beats), to offer just that. The Klunkerkranich Bar with expansive views of Berlin and the TV Tower, is above the parking lot of the Neukölln Arkaden shopping center. When you enter at street level, take the elevators near the yellow post office to the fifth floor of the parking lot. Exit, steer left, and the small ramp up to the rooftop bar and garden awaits. Overgrown ivy, plants, and flowers are tended to by volunteer gardeners. Add to that the string lights, great music, self-service food, and a stage for events like movie screenings and live music. The only thing it’s short on is seating. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and has a small entrance fee.
Drink at a Beer Garden
There’s nothing more quintessential Berlin in summertime than sitting outside at a beer garden. Prater Garten is a Berlin institution dating back to 1837, and it’s no wonder it’s still going. In the afternoon, you’ll see kids playing in the sand of this sprawling space, and in the evening, the string lights glow and the sounds of conversation and laughter linger. Prater sells food to eat at the picnic-style tables, or you can dine at the restaurant. As if this place wasn’t charming enough, it opens up white and red striped umbrellas to keep patrons dry from rain or shielded from too much sun.