Bests of Berlin

Berlin is one of the most open, accepting cities in the world, a fact that exists almost in direct contrast with its sordid history. From the rise of the Third Reich to the imposing Berlin Wall, the city has endured a lot of pain. Berlin acknowledges and memorializes its heavy past, ensuring that the history is remembered as the city evolves into one of unparalleled nightlife, art, and inclusivity.

 

When visiting Berlin, there are a number of historical sights that demand a visit. The East Side Gallery, housing the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing, is famed for its panel-like paintings commissioned from artists around the world after the wall fell. It’s rare for a city to boast a site that contains history, art, and a beautiful atmospheric walk all in one, but the East Side Gallery does just that and is a perfect introduction to Berlin.

 

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Also unmissable when it comes to art is the Berlinische Galerie. This modern art museum, one of Berlin’s newest, features a standing collection as well as rotating exhibits of Berlin art from 1870 onward. A visit to Berlinische is well worth it, and usually less crowded than the touristy Museum Island. The first Monday of every month entrance is only 4 Euros, a nice treat for your travel budget.

 

Berlin has some excellent walking tours, and most will take you around Brandenburg Tor and the surrounding monuments. It’s definitely worth spending extra time wandering amongst the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial, designed by architect Peter Eisenman, is a field of gray concrete slabs that rise in height towards the center, invoking feelings of claustrophobia and oppression. The memorial is controversial for many reasons, but I was extremely moved by it. A formal Halocaust museum stands adjacent to the concrete slabs and is also worth visiting, though be prepared for hour-long lines at peak visiting hours.

 

 

Two neighborhoods stood out during this particular Berlin visit. Kreuzberg, where we were lucky enough to stay with a friend of mine, was reminiscent of some neighborhoods in Brooklyn with its abundance of thrift stores, cocktail bars, and multinational restaurants. Some highlights were Limonadier cocktail bar (happy hour until 8pm for some of the most inventive drinks you’ve ever tasted), Dolden Mädel brew house, and La Bionda pizzeria. A whole burrata arrives atop the Nona pizza, and there are very few things I wouldn’t do for a whole burrata. The leftovers make for the perfect breakfast food as well.

 

Mitte, the city’s middle area, is home to all of the shopping your heart could desire, plus some amazing restaurants and the grand, imposing Volksbuehne theater. For breakfast or lunch, Strandbad Mitte and House of Small Wonder will fill your appetite and your aesthetic sould. House of Small Wonder has a flagship location in Williamsburg (of course we would travel across the ocean to visit a New York cafe) and will probably have a wait, so if you’re starving, head to Strandbad first. Their traditional German breakfasts are filling and delicious, and definitely shareable.

 

Lebensmittel in Mitte was probably our favorite meal in Berlin. The traditional German fair is served on large wooden tables with giant candles burning between guests, making the whole place feel like someone’s homey Bavarian dining room. From traditional gulash and schnitzel to schupfnudel, a kind of potato pasta I’d never had before and am dying to eat again, the menu is hearty and warm with a familial, cozy feel to it. Lebensmittel has an amazing selection of local wines and beers, as well as an unbelievable fruity cakey ice cream-adorned dessert, the name of which I can’t remember because our friend Yannic ordered it for us and I was too busy salivating over it to ask.

 

Last but never least, Berlin has some of the best street food on the planet, period. Make sure to eat at least several doner kebabs and try a currywurst, superior to bratwurst in my opinion. These local foods are easy on the wallet and will definitely sustain you for several hours of city trekking. Don’t forget to wash them down with some gluhwein.

 

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New Year’s Eve in Berlin

Germany is known for wild NYE parties, like the massive open-air party surrounding Brandenburg Tor in Berlin. Think the NYC Times Square party but with alcohol and fireworks allowed in the streets.

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Photo by blog.hostelbookers.com since we avoided this scene at all costs

We did not go to this party. I must admit, it does look beautiful from a safe indoor distance.

Honestly, the whole legal fireworks thing was kind of… terrifying? They are loud, they are everywhere, and they made the woman sitting next to us at dinner shriek with fright.

I had been to Berlin before in the summer, but as any Berliner will tell you the city feels like two opposite places in summer and winter. The summer boasts beer gardens aplenty and parks full of people lounging, playing instruments, probably smoking weed. Biking, to an outsider’s eye, appears to be Berlin’s primary method of transportation.

Then there’s the winter. The streets are gray and likely raining, and people hide amongst huge coats while dashing from place to place. Before coming to Berlin, I Googled what happens to beer gardens in the winter, thinking they might cover them with giant plastic tents an install space heaters. Nope, is the answer. There just are no beer gardens in the winter.

Doug and I stayed with my wonderful German friend Tatjana in Kreuzberg, one of the coolest neighborhoods I’ve seen. More on that another day.  When we arrived on December 31 she immediately took us to ORA for brunch, an über-hip eatery in a former pharmacy building. The decor gives a generous nod to the building’s previous life with medicine bottles lining the dark wooden bar shelves and old-fashioned chandeliers lighting the space. Every hipster bone in my body immediately felt at home here.

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The food itself was simple but delicious, things like local eggs and wide-cut bacon served on thick brown German bread. An excellent post-plane, pre-party meal.

We took a quick walk around Alexanderplatz and the Museum Island after brunch, because in Berlin the metro comes so often that it’s no problem to hop into the middle of the city after brunch in the southeast. If we’d had brunch in Williamsburg in New York and then someone asked if I wanted to go check out Times Square, I would have sent them on their weekend MTA journey alone and prayed they made it back by midnight. But thanks to Berlin trains coming every five minutes tops even on Sundays, we got a nice little pre-tour of the city before it was time to come home and change.

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To avoid becoming incinerated by street fireworks, we picked one locale for the entire evening, a move which I highly recommend. (“It’s amazing that people don’t die setting off their own fireworks,” I told Doug. The next day he looked it up—two people did die this year, and ten more needed amputations. Germany is just… aight with that?)

Our evening began and ended at BRLO Brewhouse, situated nicely overlooking the Spree river. BRLO (which I kept pronouncing “brillo” but is probably, I’ve realized, “berlo”) featured a NYE fondue dinner special of either meat or cheese fondue (Meat. We chose meat.), a welcome cocktail and two house beers, and unlimited sides. There was so much food, and like an amateur I filled up on the insanely good mashed potatoes. But we took down most of the meat and sides like champs, and laughed at the notion of anyone actually cashing in on the “unlimited” part.

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The beers themselves were delicious, and I half-joked that we should go back the next day to sample more. Between the two of us, we tried the Helles, the Berliner Weisse, the Red Ale, and something else that Doug got while I’d moved onto champagne (a cream ale maybe?) Regardless, all were specific and tasty and among the highest quality beers I’d tasted.

At 10:00, the bottom level of the brewery was turned into a dance floor that played hits of the 90s, 00s, and now. Seriously, the DJ knew what he was doing. Just before midnight partiers were ushered outside (we foolishly forgot to grab our coats first) to watch the fireworks over the river. To be clear: There was no grand organized firework show like we’re used to in the states, just the locals saving up their personal firepower for the midnight finale. It felt like the whole neighborhood was participating in the same party, and BRLO and its guests were invited.

As a server, I especially appreciated the fact that the BRLO employees looked like they were genuinely having a great time. They were fun and looked, at least, like they got along really well. The staff celebrated with the customers at midnight, and when we asked our server how she felt about working on New Year’s Eve, she said she’d much rather be at BRLO for the night than out amidst the explosives. Should I ever move to Berlin, BRLO’s the first place I’d look for a job (after learning German).

Winter in Stockholm

Yes, the locals thought we’d lost it when we decided to visit Stockholm in January. Nineteen hours of darkness be damned, we booked a flight home through the Swedish capital and loved it. Besides trying every local beer, there’s plenty to do during Stockholm’s (admittedly freezing) winter.

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I hear that Stockholm has some lovely parks. We did not visit them.  We did, however, manage to take a stroll through Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town. Gamla Stan is small and therefore perfect for briskly walking in between hot tea breaks. The cobblestone streets and old architecture are as charming and lovely as you could want in a European city. Stockholm’s royal palace (not to be confused with Drottningholm Palace—coming up soon) is also in Gamla Stan, and if you’re lucky you might catch the changing of the guards. In the summer, apparently, the parade includes a full band on horseback. Not so in January, but the tradition is impressive, particularly because I stood watching it in a full parka while the guards’ military uniforms looked less than toasty.

From Gamla Stan, a ferry will take you to Djurgarden and the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a Viking-era ship that sunk unfortunately in Stockholm Harbor, 30 feet away from its point of departure. It was then excavated and preserved in the museum and is a vast, awesome vessel despite its flaw in engineering. Plus, the museum is heated.

Stockholm has lots of excellent food, and definitely some great warm dishes. We stayed in hip Södermalm where we could not get enough of the local fare. Meatballs for the People is the ideal place to try traditional Swedish meatballs (better than IKEA’s, I promise). They have a selection of seasonal, sustainable meatballs, including a veggie option. They also make a lingonberry drink that is perfect for washing down your balls. (I mean what I said.)

Nytorget 6, conveniently named for its address, is another excellent eatery and apparently where all the cool Swedes go on a Friday night. We were lucky to snag a table in their basement which used to be some sort of theater and has retained a funky, cozy ambiance. The dishes are modern takes on Swedish traditionals, like a smoked perch taco and pork potato dumplings. Nytorget 6 is considered a reasonably-priced meal as far as Stockholm rates go, but the tasty small plates definitely add up if you’re not careful.

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Also in Södermalm is Fotografiska, the Swedish photography museum, aka one of the coolest museums I’ve ever seen and my current favorite on the planet. The museum houses work from international artists, and during our visit featured exhibitions by the Chinese photographer Chen Man and British photographer/x-ray artist Nick Veasey that I expect to remember for years to come.

The grand Drottningholm Palace is an easy train-and-bus ride away from Stockholm Center. I mean that sincerely—having to take a train and then a bus anywhere from New York would almost certainly deter me from going, but Stockholm’s transportation system is much quicker and more reliable than I’m used to. I love palaces and learning about other countries’ royal histories, and the palace gardens were beautiful even in their winter barrenness. 10/10 would Drottningholm again.

Despite the chilly temps, I found it wonderful to walk around some of the more notable streets and areas. Kungsträdgården has an ice rink if that’s your thing, and the ritzier Östermalm district is definitely worth walking around. Though the Strandvägen‘s boat shops and restaurants are closed for the winter, walking this street was undeniably beautiful and one of my favorite parts of the city.

Yes, I would love to come back to Stockholm in the summer (and with about 50,000 more dollars to my name). Did I love it in the winter, and do I recommend going despite the limited daylight? One hundred percent.

Beers You Must Try In Stockholm

Ah, Stockholm. The lovely, colorful Nordic city surrounded by water and prime healthcare. If, like me, you happen to make the questionable choice of visiting Scandinavia in the winter, you’ll be faced with the fact that daylight ends at 3:00PM. I’m told that Stockholm has some beautiful parks, and the next time I visit in the summer I’ll have to check them out. This winter, I spent Stockholm evenings the way many Swedes do: indoors, drinking beer.

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I really did love Stockholm for a number of reasons other than the beer – more of that to come. For now, let’s stay cozied up in Södermalm, Stockholm’s hip southern hub deemed one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world by Vogue. The northernmost part of the island is home to Akkurat, one of the greatest beer halls in Scandinavia. Akkurat boasts a huge selection of local and imported beers, with an impressive collection of lambics and vintages for the true connoisseurs. I don’t know enough about beer to pay for the good stuff, but I can at least appreciate funky and unique ones.BEB3424A-2AFE-4791-BA2C-EC8686DB9FCC.jpeg Akkurat has relationships with a number of breweries that make beers exclusively for them, including a tiny one man operation underneath a grocery store on an island to the west of Stockholm. This very brewery makes a beetroot IPA called the Red House Ale, only lightly hoppy and full of bizarre, delicious flavor.

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One of the best ways to explore bars, in my opinion, is to ask bartenders where to go next. The bartenders at Akkurat assured Doug and I that we were already in the best place, but if we had to try something else, Omnipollos Hatt around the corner was the next best option. Omnipollo is a local brewery, its name meaning something like “all-present chicken” in sort-of Spanish. (The logo is a magician’s hat, so I thought omnipollo meant magician in Swedish. Nope. All-seeing chicken.) The Hatt has a daily rotating list of Omnipollo’s out-of-the-box beers. When we went, most were sours and IPAs with a few stouts thrown in. Our first round was the One Ton Of Blackcurrant sour and the Raspberry Pavlova Smoothie IPA. For the Smoothie, the bartenders freeze the beer’s foam into a slushie machine which they dollop on top of the draft. Both beers were tart and delicious, the raspberry so tasty and unlike anything I’d ever had before that I have literal dreams about it.

 

 

The bartenders at Omnipollos Hatt recommended Akkurat (lol), and said another cozy place to try was Katarina Ölcafé. A short walk into Södermalm’s uber-hip Katarina-Sofia neighborhood brings a series of boutiques, restaurants, and this cozy beer bar that serves, ironically, New York Jewish deli-style food. We passed on the Reuben sandwich but did try Katarina’s local lager and sour. Their selection is less extensive as Akkurat and not as experimental as Omnipollo, but for quality Swedish beers served by friendly, engaging bartenders, Katarina was a win.

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Our final quest took us, as per the Katarina bartender’s recommendation, to Mbargo wayyy on the west side of the island. Mbargo has a TON of local beers – it might even rival Akkurat if you’re counting purely Swedish varieties. We opted for some Dugges sours (because thanks to this trip, I guess I like sours now??), Doug especially thrilled with his Mango Mango Mango brew. 0E1A88AE-EF23-4B37-BF27-539C57501BFESince we did not want to collapse, we called it a night after Mbargo, and I have to hand it to the Swedes: bar hopping and talking with the bartenders certainly took up most of the dark hours. I must say, though, beers in Stockholm, like all things in Stockholm, are expensive. I thought that coming from New York no price could shock me, ha! Stockholm was having none of that. Set aside some dough for your beer budget ahead of time, and you’ll be good to glug.

In Bruges

Ah, Bruges. The charming medieval Belgian town made famous in the 2008 thriller is an all-too excellent day trip when traveling from Paris to Amsterdam, say, as I was in the summer of 2016. Beers, belltowers and the richest chocolate imaginable – I dare you to tell me a truer definition of heaven.

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While simply walking around this gorgeous town can easily fill a day, there are some spots not to be missed as you venture around.

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First up: the Belfry of Bruges. The top of the belfry is an epic, key setting in the movie, but for those who haven’t seen the film it’s still worth walking the 366 steps for the most spectacular views of the town.

After your climb, you’ll likely have worked up quite the appetite for lunch.

The restaurants lining the Main Square near the Belfry are all rather touristy and expensive, so I’d recommend taking a stroll down one of the charming side streets to find equally (if not more) delicious, budget-friendlier options. Brasserie Medard is famous for its 4 Euro large, tasty plates of pasta and charming Italian atmosphere. The Olive Tree offers affordable Mediterranean fare, and both restaurants are totally cozy and homey. And not to worry: there will be plenty of places to get your Belgian frite fix around the square if that’s all you’re craving. Any restaurant will offer local beers, which are a must-try. Bruges now has three breweries: Bourgogne des Flandres, De Halve Maan, and Fort Ladin, all of which offer tours.

For desert, pop into one of the numerous local chocolatiers for chocolate-shaped anything. My factories were the locks and tools that looked “rusted” with chocolate powder. This chocolate was insane. Rich, but somehow I ate multiple *large* pieces and didn’t feel sick. Alright, Belgium, I get it. You win.

Now, markets. Wednesdays bring the Main Square market, full of fresh fruit and flowers and absolute loveliness. On Sundays, Zand Square hosts another outdoor market with similar products, including fresh fish. Rent a bike and ride around the cobblestone streets, and make sure to bring home some delicate Belgian lace to remember this slice of heaven.

 

When in Dublin: An Ancient Fishing Village and Game of Thrones Tour

I loved Dublin. Between Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, and stumbling upon Irish dancing in an old church-turned restaurant, the city was full of heritage and life. That said, we know I also love me a quality day trip, and Dublin offers some of the best day trip options around. First stop: Howth.

Howth (Pronounced “Hoat” by the locals) comes from the Norse word for “Head.” It was settled (invaded, settled, you say poayto, I say potahto) by the Vikings circa the year 819. Again, I’m floored by the fact that things were happening in the year 819. America is so young you guys. Now, the fishing village is technically a suburb of Dublin, though far more charming than the cul-de-sacs and minivans the word brings to mind. Howth is full of fishing boats, Irishfolk swimming despite the near-freezing waters, and fresh seafood. Like, boat-to-plate fresh fish.

Howth is a perfect walking village, and we mostly hung around by the fishing docks watching the boats come in and marveling at the swimmers. We opted for Beshoff’s fish and chips, a Dublin area classic, for lunch, though there are definitely some fancier, delicious looking seafood restaurants. My recommendation: find your fish lunch of choice, take your time eating it, then go for a walk around the village and the docks. If you’re from a desert or other sea-less place like me, just watching the boats do their thing was plenty charming and entertaining.

Howth can easily be combined with Malachide or Dun Loaghaire. We stopped by the Malachide Castle on our way back into the city, former home of the Talbot family and nestled amid a lovely garden. Well worth the visit.

Yes, I am a Game of Thrones fanatic, and yes, much of the show is filmed in Ireland. A tour of the filming locations, complete with complimentary cloaks and daggers, was a necessity for this Dublin trip.

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This day-long adventure takes fans through Tollymore Forest, where many of the scenes in the North and Beyond the Wall were shot. Castle Ward Estate, aka Winterfell (combined with a whole lot of CGI, as it happens), is next on the tour after a pub lunch. The waterside area around the castle dubbed as the Riverlands in the show as well. TV magic! We also toured Inch Abbey, the ruins of a cathedral where Robb was declared King In the North. #tbt.

A highlight of the tour by far was meeting Thor and Odin, two wolf dogs that made their TV debut as the Starks’ direwolf pups. I love dogs, and I especially love big dogs, and if I didn’t live in an apartment in New York City I’d rescue the biggest dog I could find. So these fluffy, majestic boofers were a dream to pet in real life. Plus, their owner, who’s also a wildling on the show, was super nice. His brother played Ramsay Bolton’s main guard when that was a thing, and their father was a Dothraki in Season One. Basically HBO walked in and changed this Irish fisherman’s family’s life forever, all thanks to the fact that they happened to own a litter of wolf dog puppies. TV magic.

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There were still plenty of places we didn’t get to explore around Dublin, since we only had three full days there. All inspiration for the next trip.

The Venice of the North

Amsterdam smells like bread in the evenings. When you’re biking along the canals and cobblestone roads at the end of the day, the smell of rising flour and spelt on the wind is the perfect inspiration for a warm Dutch dinner. Amsterdam’s skies are woven with thin buttery light, the exact light captured in so many 17th century paintings that seeps through the clouds and dances over the water. It is a city that stays with you long past your visit.

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“Winter Landscape with Iceskaters” by Adriaan van Ostade

The Dutch have a word, gezelligheid, which roughly translates to mean the warm, cozy feeling one has sharing a bliss with other people. This word perfectly sums up how Amsterdam in the summer (I spent time there two separate summers, so yes, I might be a bit biased having never experiened a Dutch winter) felt to me. While I wish I could bottle the bread scent and feeling of gezelligheid into a delicious perfume and give it to you, I cannot. The best I can do is insist that you must visit this magic city at some point, and offer these recommendations.

My first summer in Amsterdam was for a study abroad program, so I ended up buying (and then selling back) a cheap used bike. If you are able, I 1000% recommend biking your way through the city and its outskirts. This might mean brushing up on your cycling skills before hand so you can keep up with traffic, but it is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor to properly experience Amsterdam as it is intended.

Nights are long during the summer, with the sun setting around 10:30pm, which means there’s plenty of time to explore. You can spend four days and really get a sense of things in the summer, though Amsterdam is one of the places where more time than necessary won’t leave you bored.

Amsterdam famous for its canals, giving it the nickname the Venice of the North. A canal tour is definitely worth your time; especially a sunset one that’ll lead you around the lit-up nighttime bridges. Canal tours are a great way to hear about Amsterdam’s history while taking in its stunning architecture. These tours range in price and amenities – full dinner tours or wine and cheese tours exists for a romantic option, as do headset-operated ones for a practical group experience.

My favorite neighborhood in the ‘Dam is the Jordaan, a hub of cafes and boutiques including the Nine Streets shopping district. Here you can find pricier local options as well as some of the most incredible thrift stores known to man. There are some incredible specialty shops as well, from home goods to eyeglasses to books. If you can snag an Air B-n-B in your budget here, definitely take advantage of staying in the Jordaan. A few hostels in the area, such as the Shelter Jordan, are extra budget-friendly and offer access to the best of the area: close enough to the tourist attractions without being on top of them, and nestled in the coziest streets imaginable.The one issue with biking everywhere is that I wasn’t able to stop and take photos as often as I would have liked (which would have been once a minute, practically) so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Amsterdam’s Museumplein houses the famed Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, and Stedelijk museum of modern art, among others. There are so many museums in Amsterdam that the choice (not to mention the length of the lines outside) can feel overwhelming. Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh are a must in my book, and it’s well worth getting tickets for Van Gogh ahead of time. Also definitely get Anne Frank haus tickets ahead of time; the wait for ticketed patrons can still take up to two hours. Bring a good book or some Heinekens to sip while you wait.

 

During my second trip to Amsterdam there was a Bansky pop-up museum on the plein, so keep your eyes and ears out for the temporary exhibitions as well.

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Now, parks. Amsterdam has some of the most beautiful parks in Europe which are, of course, very bike-able. Vondelpark is right next to the Museumplein and a great place to rest after you’ve ingested the Dutch masters. Westerpark is, as you might imagine, to the west of city and has a beautiful flea market on Saturdays. Westerpark is also slightly less populated than Vondelpark, and both park house some great restaurant options in the middle of the lush vegetation. For an escape within your Amsterdam escape, cozy in to Pacific Park or Mossel & Gin for the evening.

 

Speaking of food, there are some Dutch classics you can’t leave without tasting. First and foremost, Stroopwafels. These caramelly waffle cookies fit perfectly atop your morning cup of coffee and tea so that the steam melts their caramel core, both sweetening your drink and making the cookie the best snack you’ve ever tasted. I ate about a pack of these a week.

Next on the breakfast front: Dutch pancakes. A mix between an American pancake and a crepe, these huge thin spheres come in savory and sweet flavors and can be found all over the city. A tourist favorite is the Pancake Bakery on Prinsengracht, or Pancakes Amsterdam, which has a few locations.

 

Along with the cheese in Amsterdam – old Dutch cheddar will change your life – pick up some bitterballen with a pint or two at your local bar. Potatoes, beef, and cheese make up these croquette-esque snacks that are super dipped in Dijon mustard.

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Image credit: Stuff Dutch People Like

The Dutch also have excellent coffee. I’d recommend spending every morning at a canal-side cafe with a coffee and stroopwafel before embarking (dare I say em-bike-ing?) on the day’s explorations. Finish your evening in a neighborhood bar or restaurant, listening to the locals speak this musical language and wondering when you can move in.