Back in 2016, I spent a week exploring Berlin on a budget without really knowing what I should be doing there. I had originally planned to go to Hamburg and only changed my plans at the last second. Now I’ve gone back for the holiday season, once again without a plan.
Getting to Berlin
Both times I’ve traveled to Berlin, I’ve gone with Flixbus. The first time was from Copenhagen, and the second was from Hamburg. In 2016, I chose Berlin over Hamburg because the bus ticket from Copenhagen was cheaper, which didn’t make any sense as Berlin is twice as far as Hamburg. Back then, I was on a pretty tight budget and my gameplan was always to choose the cheaper bus. I couldn’t complain as I fell in love with Berlin (although I’ve now found Hamburg is even better!).
If you’re already in Europe, most of the low-cost airlines fly to Berlin for a ridiculously low price. For example, you can fly round trip from Edinburgh or London to Berlin for $32! FYI, that’s one of the reasons I love living in Edinburgh. Conversely, you can fly round trip from Berlin to nearly every country in Europe for under $50 (depending on the dates, of course).
On my last trip, I got a Flixbus from Hamburg. The trip lasted three and a quarter hours and cost a whopping $10 each.
Once you get to Berlin, you’ll probably want to get the Berlin WelcomeCard. This gets you free transportation and discount tickets to 200 attractions. There’s also a premium, all-inclusive card which gives you free access to 31 attractions in town, including the hop-on, hop-off bus tour and a boat tour. Both cards are available for 2 to 6 days. The regular card starts at $26 for 48 hours, and the all-inclusive card starts at $99 for 48 hours.
If you’re on a budget, stick to the regular card. If you’re planning to use public transportation a lot and visit at least one or two attractions, the card is worth it. You could always rent a car in Berlin, but you’ll probably use that more for trips outside the city, and it’s certainly not traveling on a budget.
Where to Sleep in Berlin
Between my two trips to Berlin, I had a chance to stay at several different locations across town. Here are some options to consider.
Check In Hotel
The first hostel I stayed at in Berlin back in 2016 has since converted into a hotel, and opened a second location as a hostel. I got really lucky with my room, as it ended up being an en-suite 2-bed dorm! The disadvantage was the location was quite far outside of town, but the new hostel is much closer to the center. Check In Hostel is still one of the cheapest hostels in Berlin with a decent review score.
The first hostel I stayed at on my second trip was Hostel Ballhaus, located about a mile north of Brandenburg Gate. My planning for Berlin was quite last-minute and I didn’t have a lot of options left to choose from. Ballhaus was a no-frills hostel with some of the cheapest rooms in town. It’s located several floors up and the elevator was broken when I went, so it’s not the best for people with large suitcases. Otherwise, there’s a good common area with WiFi and the rooms are very clean. The bathrooms on the second floor of the hostel (5th floor of the building) are full most of the time, but those on the first floor are mostly empty.
Ballhaus was fully booked on my second day, so I made my way to Citystay Mitte, located across the street from Alexanderplatz. Mitte means center, and the hostels and hotels with this in the title are thus in the best locations. Berlin is the most-visited city in Germany with 13.5 million visitors each year, and the hotels and hostels are built to accommodate that. Citystay is a huge hostel with dozens of dorms and private rooms. Due to a mix-up at reception, I was given the key-card for a private room and got to see inside. It looked really cozy and had an ensuite bathroom. This hostel had a lot of other nice amenities, like a huge, secure storage room, laundry service, a large dining area (which we used for work), and dozens of showers.
Meininger Mitte Humboldthaus Hotel
For my last night in Berlin, I went for something a bit nicer. Meininger Mitte Humboldthaus is a hotel with ridiculously cheap rooms. Some of the rooms are also dorm rooms, but with only 4 beds. At first, I thought I’d be alone in the room, but at the end of the night, a couple arrived. Sadly, they smelled like they hadn’t showered in weeks which kinda spoiled the experience, but that certainly wasn’t the fault of the hotel. Other than that, everything was really nice, just as you’d expect in a mid-range hotel.
For other hostel options, check out this list of best hostels in Berlin for under $10.
Of course, my favorite accommodations when traveling will always be with Couchsurfing. There’s nothing better than staying with a local. During my first visit to Berlin, I stayed with Petra in the tranquil Samariter Quarter, just a stone’s throw from the bohemian center of Berlin. She had a really comfortable spare loft bed with one of those ancient concrete heaters beneath to keep the room warm. In the evening, she invited me to a potluck picnic in Mauerpark. I didn’t understand most of what was said there (since I’ve long-since forgotten the German my Granny taught me), but the park was fascinating with all the people hanging out, playing and partying in the evening.
What to Eat in Berlin
Burgermeister Schlesisches Tor
I thought Hamburg would be the German (or world) capital for hamburgers. It turns out that Hamburg is more famous for its fish burgers. What’s more, I found one of the best burgers ever in Berlin, and that’s not hyperbole. Located beneath the Oberbaum Bridge, Burgermeister Schlesisches Tor just knows how to make a perfect burger. Perfect beef, perfect bun, perfect bacon and cheese toppings, just perfect! What was even better was the price – less than $5 for the burger! I was exceedingly lucky with only a five-minute wait, as I had been told there’s usually at least a thirty-minute queue and never a spot to sit.
There are four Burgermeister locations across Berlin, with a fifth opening this year. What makes the Schlesisches location interesting is not just that it’s under a bridge, but that it used to be a public toilet!
Schnitzels actually originated in Austria, and they’re called wiener schnitzels in Vienna (Wein is German for Vienna) where they’re made with veal. In Germany, they’re usually made with pork. As popular as this dish is in Germany, for some strange reason, it was actually hard to find a good schnitzel restaurant in Berlin. The one I did find was called Scheers Schnitzel, also located under the Oberbaum Bridge. I ended up going back to the same restaurant two more times during my three days in Berlin. I think the “proper” way to eat a schnitzel is with a side of fries, but I preferred mine in a bun like a chicken burger, topped with coleslaw and tartar sauce.
A Kebab Shop
Cooking meat on a rotating stick (doner kebab) goes back millions of years. Serving it in a sandwich roll is attributed to Berlin, Germany in 1974. I can’t say that the kebabs in Berlin are particularly special, but there are certainly plenty of them. Germans love their kebab sandwiches and consume a staggering 600 tons of doner meat every day. If you want to mix things up a bit, you can try a Pakistani or Persian kebab shop instead of the traditional Turkish kebab. What’s the difference? Mostly the spices and vegetables that they use. Some of them even do all their marination and preparation by hand each day.
Almost Any Currywurst Stand
One meal that definitely originated out of Berlin is the currywurst. The origin of this dish goes back to 1949 when Herta Heuwer got ketchup and curry powder from British soldiers. She used these to flavor her bratwurst sausages she then sold to the construction workers who were rebuilding post-WWII Berlin. Nowadays, you can get two types of currywurst in Berlin, or mix them together for the “double currywurst special.” In East Berlin, they didn’t have sausage lining. Instead, they would batter and deep-fry their sausages, essentially creating a European version of the corndog. They are wayyyyy too tasty, and I had several portions of these as well in the three days I stayed in Berlin.
Any Vegan Restaurant
Berlin has been labeled the vegan capital of the world, and ranks up there with Tel Aviv, London and Bangkok with the biggest number of vegan restaurants. What’s more, they have four different supermarket chains selling only vegan food. If you’re not a vegan, it would still be worth trying some of these restaurants in Berlin. I’m not a vegan myself, but I love vegan food (although I didn’t actually make it to any of the vegan restaurants in Berlin, mainly because I was stuck eating schnitzels and currywurst).
Take the Berlin Secret Food Tour
If you really want to get a sense of the food culture in Berlin and learn about even more dishes and amazing restaurants, I’d highly recommend taking the Berlin Secret Food Tour. I’ve long since learned that a food tour is the best way to learn about a city. You get to walk around, learn the history, taste the food, indulge in the culture, and generally have a great time.
Things to Do in Berlin
I’m a huge fan of urban ruins, and Berlin proves to have some of the best in the world. Tempelhofer Feld, named after the Knights Templar land it sits on, is the site of the Templehof airport which served Berlin until 2008. It was originally built in 1923 and was used by Hitler in World War II. Now it’s used for kiteblading, picnics, comedy shows, and morning runs. The two 1.3-mile runways are perfect for sports or just an afternoon stroll. There’s a large community garden on the east end to explore too. When I visited in 2016, thousands of people filled it in the evening for all kinds of activities.
Berlin is simply full of fantastic, huge parks. Treptower is located along the Spree River and has two big sections. The first is a dense woodland with numerous paths crossing it and the defunct Spreepark hidden behind a tall metal fence. The rest of the park was just as busy as Tempelhofer Feld when I went (in the summer), primarily with people singing or performing on musical instruments, playing sports, having picnics, or smoking and lounging for the sunset. This isn’t the kind of attraction I would recommend if you’re in a rush, but if you have a few days in Berlin, definitely stop at a couple of these parks!
East Side Gallery
The most important attractions to visit in a city are those which are completely unique to that city. You can see parks and castles anywhere, but the Berlin Wall is a one-of-a-kind. The Berlin Wall lasted 30 years from 1961 to 1991 and separated West Berlin from communist East Berlin. True, hundreds of chunks of the wall have been sent all over the world, but there’s still a huge display along the Spree river in Berlin called the East Side Gallery, and seeing it in its original location is different than just seeing it in a museum yard somewhere.
If you’ve seen The Bourne Identity or Atomic Blonde, you might have caught a glimpse of Alexanderplatz. This is the large square in the center of Berlin with the Berliner Fernsehturm television tower rising above it. The square is surrounded by shopping malls and food stalls. In the center is the iconic World Time Clock. It might not be the most interesting attraction in Berlin, but why skip it.
Another icon of Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate, completed in 1791 back when Berlin was the capital of Prussia. Similar to Alexanderplatz, it’s an iconic monument worth a visit, but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly special. Perhaps more interesting is the balcony of the hotel nearby where Michael Jackson once held out a baby. At least, that’s what my tour guide felt was more vital to talk about.
Berlin Cathedral and Museum Island
In the center of Berlin, not far from Alexanderplatz, is Museum Island. This small island has five different museums, as well as Berlin Cathedral. The museums are Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum), Bode-Museum, Neues Museum (New Museum), Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), and Altes Museum (Old Museum). Tickets for all five museums combined are €18 ($20) for adults. If you want to visit the Cathedral, entrance is €7 ($8) or €5 with the Berlin WelcomeCard.
Free Walking Tour
There are a handful of attractions in the city center, such as Checkpoint Charlie, the site of Hitler’s bunker, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Rather than list all these out, you should take a free walking tour and let your guide tell you about them and their history. I could easily write a full article on these spots, but why spoil the tour.
I specifically went to Berlin over the holidays to see the Christmas markets (and to take the food tour). I visited several of the nine main Christmas markets in Berlin, including the Eco Market on Sophienstrasse, the sprawling Alexanderplatz Christmas Market and, of course, the Berliner Weihnachtszeit at Roten Rathaus (Berlin Christmas Time at Red City Hall) with its big ice skating rink around the Neptune fountain. I also walked by Weihnachtszauber (Christmas Magic) at the Gendarmenmarkt, but they were charging for entry and it looked like that market was mostly just selling beer. To get an idea of how magical these Christmas markets are, check out my article on the Christmas Markets in Cologne.
Berlin Olympic Park
The main attraction in Berlin that I really wanted to see but never made it to is Olympic Park. This is the series of stadiums and buildings built for the 1936 Summer Olympics. Unlike many of the Olympic villages around the world, this one is still in use…kinda. You can go swimming at the restored outdoor swimming pool, and the Olympic Stadium reopened in 2004. There are some sections that are not open to the public, but you can still explore them on a guided tour. I’ll be making it out there myself the next time I’m in Berlin.
When I visited in 2016, I’d learned that the climax scene in the movie Hanna was filmed in the abandoned amusement park Spreepark. With my love of urban ruins, I needed to explore the park myself. The only problem was that the park was closed to visitors and guards patrolled throughout the day. I managed to find one spot where there was a gap in the fence and took some photos of a roller coaster decaying in a pond. Sadly, most of the park’s features are now gone, due to looting and two large fires. Now, it’s mostly just the Ferris wheel and the remains of a T-Rex.
I returned in 2019 to find the holes in the fence had all been patched up. As much as I love to recommend urban ruins, this one is off the list. You’ll have to just watch Hanna to see what the park looked like after it was closed.
Exploring Berlin on a Budget
Thankfully, Berlin’s cost of living makes it one of the cheaper cities to visit in Germany. Hostels start at under $10 a night, and you can even get a private room for 2 for under $30 a night. Then again, there are over 100,000 Couchsurfing hosts in Berlin (5,000 active within 30 days of this article). I found it quite simple to find meals under $5 each. I would highly recommend getting the Berlin WelcomeCard if you plan to see any of the paid attractions. Otherwise, stick to a 24-hour transportation ticket for €7 ($8). If you just plan to see all the attractions around the city center and have a hostel around there too, you won’t even need to use public transportation.
As always, the budget is quite variable. You could easily stay with a Couchsurfing host, buy your food from a supermarket and walk everywhere, keeping your budget to well under $10 a day (as I did back in 2016). Or you could find a cheap hostel, have some nice but cheap meals at the street food stands around town and get the WelcomeCard, and still keep your expenses to about $30-40 a day (as we did in 2019).
If you really want to stay in a hotel and see as many of the attractions as you can, you’ll probably be looking at $100-200 a day, but I don’t consider that budget travel. As far as I’m concerned, why spend more money when you can spend less and travel more?!
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Looking for more things to do in Berlin? Here are some of my other articles for Germany’s capital.
- Daring to Explore the Abandoned Spreepark from Hanna
- Learning About German Cuisine on the Secret Food Tour in Berlin
- What Do You Do With Only 48 Hours in Berlin
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
- 5 Steps to Book Cheap Flights
- Hostels: To Book or Not to Book
- Is Workaway Worth it for the Traveler?
- Click here to claim your $25 credit with AirB&B
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