Bike, bus, boot or banger: 4 great ways to see Berlin
For me, one of the joys of a city break is ditching the car. And in Europe, where parking charges can be astronomical, and traffic terrifying, I wouldn’t dream of taking my own vehicle. While doing without a car can feel like you’ve lost an arm at first, it also offers an opportunity for being creative about how you get around a new place. While on our fairytale break in Berlin we tried four different ways of seeing the city, giving us four different takes on the place. It’s something you could try for fun and variety in any large city…
From experience we have learnt that the best day to bike in a city is a Sunday. And the best time? At dawn, especially in the summer, when it’s populated only by the birds and the earlybirds. Now this can be done in two ways. Either you get up very early. Or you don’t go to bed. For us, the second option worked quite well before we had kids. In Buenos Aires we sampled the extensive nightlife before a bike tour of the city led to a comfy hotel bed. In Athens we were the first to reach the Parthenon and got in before the coach parties. However now we have children, we favour the first option. And four iPod alarm clocks.
If you are a nervous cyclist but don’t want to do the early or late shift, then most cities offer guided bike tours. In Berlin we spent an engaging few hours in the company of Ciaran Butler, one of the guides at Berlin’s Fat Tire Bike Tours. We went in search of the Brothers Grimm, stood on the spot where the Nazis burnt the city’s books in 1933, heard stories of Kings and Kaisers, deconstructed the lyrics of the latest David Bowie single while standing in Potsdam Square, became part of a war memorial sculpture and found out where the best Bratwurst in the city is served.
Despite the freezing temperatures we stayed warm, cycled off our hotel breakfast and built up an appetite for some Dunkin Doughnuts. Check out the following video for a taster of our bike tour of Berlin and let our guide Ciaran convince you that this really is the best way to see Berlin, whatever the weather…
By Open Top Bus
We’re probably preaching to the converted here, (who hasn’t tried an open top bus?) but it’s such a brilliant way to see a city that we couldn’t leave it off our list. Unfortunately it was minus ten in Berlin, and thankfully the open top wasn’t open. Of course there are also normal buses with roofs and heating. Anyway, the bus takes all the stress out of travelling around a city; someone else is at the wheel and you can please yourself about how often you stop and for how long.
Some bus tours have an audio guide; ours had a human. Or should I say a geek? But in our family no fact is too random to be absorbed. For example we now know that the headquarters of Angela Merkel’s office is nicknamed Angela’s Iron, while the Nordic embassy buildings are called the Ikea Box, and the TV tower is bigger than the Eiffel Tower.
One tip if you are hopping on and off; check that your bus circulates regularly so that you don’t spend most of the day standing at the bus stop. And more importantly check what time they finish or you could end up being forced to try another form of transport home from the wrong part of town. Ours departed every fifteen minutes in a circular one way tour which wasn’t exactly convenient for backtracking as it was part of a two hour loop. So hopping on and hopping off might not be as carefree as you might think. Hotel concierges can often recommend the nearest bus tour services, and the cheapest passes. It’s also worth finding out if a bus tour is part of a city pass. In Berlin, certain services came as part of our Berlin Pass.
By Quirky Transport
Before you visit your city, look and see if there’s a quirky way of getting around. In Liverpool, a highly entertaining amphibious vehicle tours the city before plunging into the waters of the Albert Dock. In Amsterdam you can hire some really whacky bikes. It was in Amsterdam that we spent the day travelling to each tourist attraction by pedallo.
In Berlin our quirky transport came in the form of a Trabi Safari. At Trabi World’s enormous yard, you get to select your favourite painted up Trabant (the former GDR car of choice) and drive it around the city’s main sights in a classic car convoy. The guide in the lead car does his commentary via walkie talkie as you wrestle with the gear stick and try not to choke on the mix of oil and petrol wafting from the engine. It’s great fun and our kids really wanted to take one home afterwards as a souvenir. We’re now thinking of doing the Mongol Rally one year in a Trabant. You can get an idea of the Trabi tour in this video and interview with a Trabi tour guide, Jordi.
The cheapest and simplest way to see a city is on foot. Most hotels can usually provide you with an adequate map for free. We have toured some of the world’s most iconic cities this way including Paris, Venice, Vienna, Washington and New York. You could choose a theme; I know someone who is gradually walking Paris in numerical order of districts, and a few years ago we geocached our way around Krakow.
In Berlin, you may need to supplement your walking with the subway as there are several centres due to historical divisions. You might get lost, as we did looking for the Grimm Graves in Schonenberg, or find yourself running late, as we were for a theatre production that resulted in us walking onto the stage mid production, through a household fridge. But that’s all part of the fun.
And as you stroll through The Brandenburg Gate, and past Check Point Charlie, as you wander down alley ways filled with street art and packed with modern cafes, as you absorb the history and breathe in the atmosphere, you’ll be glad you left the car back in the garage. Believe me, you will.
Disclosure Note: Our thanks to Expedia for providing the Berlin Pass which enabled us to take the Berlin Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour and a Fat Tire Bikes tour and for the tickets for the Trabi Safari, all provided as part of their Blogger Shaped Travel Competition. All the experience views and opinions are, as ever, entirely our own.