Berlin is a great European city with plenty of free and inexpensive activities. While luxury vacationers can certainly find plenty of ways to spend all of their euros, you can discover the culture of Berlin without emptying your pockets. Berlin, Germany is an outstanding destination for single travelers and families alike.
The diversity of Berlin is staggering. Culture, art, and music are all over the city. If you’re a nature lover, you’re sure to love Berlin. The Grunewald offers miles of biking and walking trails. Castles and gardens are also plentiful throughout the area.
You’ll need to plan to stay for several days to experience everything that Berlin has to offer, but with these tips you’ll be able to afford a few extra nights at the hotel.
9 Nifty Attractions, Sights & Sounds in Berlin
1. The Brandenburg Gate
This tourist destination is priority number one in Berlin. Its presence is woven into the fabric of the city. The area is filled with shops and cafes, and it’s fun people watching too. The Reichstag Parliament building, where you can climb steel ramps through a glass circular dome, is just a block away. Entrance to the Reichstag is free, and from the dome you’ll have a gorgeous 360-degree view of the city.
2. Hackesche Höfe
In former East Berlin is the Hackesche Höfe, which was originally part of the Jewish Quarter. Though the area used to be filled with warehouses and offices, it has recently become home to shops, restaurants, and stylish apartments. It’s a great walking destination, and the restaurants and shops are tucked into delightful little squares within Hackesche Höfe. This neighborhood is also a great nighttime destination, with plenty of clubs and cafes.
Insider’s Top Pick: Look for the old-style red and green men. These symbols of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik replace “walk” and “don’t walk” on the city street lights.
3. Berlin Wall Memorial
Another must-see is the Berlin Wall Memorial, which is free. At the memorial, you’ll get a realistic feel of what life was like for Berliners before the Wall came down. The area includes a guard tower and a “no man’s land.” Alexanderplatz – also in former East Berlin – has become a very trendy area and now you can visit it to find a world clock, cafes, clubs, and hip restaurants. Walking through this area of Berlin, you’ll still get a sense of East German history and architecture.
4. The Berlin-Grunewald Station
This station was a major deportation site of Jewish citizens of Berlin from 1941 to 1945. Today Gleis 17 (Track 17) at the station is a memorial. At Gleis 17 you’ll find metal plates along the track. These plates list the number of people deported each day. I spent more than an hour at the track, counting the people deported. It is deeply emotional to visit and honor those lost in the Holocaust.
5. Museuminsel (Museum Island)
Home to five world-class museums, Museuminsel is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the island you’ll find a view of the Spree River. It’s a beautiful place to picnic and walk. Inside the museums you can view the Ishtar Gate of Babylon as well as the Pergamon Altar, which was built in the 2nd Century BC. At Museuminsel, you can purchase a three-day card and get access to all of the city’s museums for three consecutive days. The card costs 19€. Children under 18 enter the museums at no charge.
Insider’s Museum Tip: Thursday nights are free at 16 of Berlin’s museums.
6. Winterfeldplatz Market
In my opinion, Winterfeldplatz is Berlin’s best outdoor market. It’s surrounded by excellent cafes, restaurants, and shops, and it has a welcoming atmosphere. Located just a few blocks from the U-Bahn station Nollendorfplatz, the market is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you’re shopping there, you’ll find an amazing selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheeses, and freshly baked breads. There are small food stands in which vendors sell delicious snacks and fresh juices. Within the market, you’ll also find clothing and other assorted new items for sale too.
7. Nikolaiviertel (Nikolai Quarter)
Not far from Alexanderplatz, the Nikolai Quarter has capitalized on its old buildings and placed an emphasis on recreating the history of Berlin. Berliners have made an effort to infuse creativity in these old DDR parts of Berlin. This particular area was famous in the earlier years of Berlin’s history, and now there’s a refreshing degree of creativity in the remodel. This area is a beautiful place to see Baroque architecture and cobbled streets, giving you a feel for what medieval Berlin may have been like.
This square, home to two cathedrals and a concert hall, has been a top destination since 1700. Upscale restaurants, cafes, and shops surround Gendarmenmarkt, and the whole area is simply beautiful after a massive reconstruction. The original square was heavily damaged during World War II bombings. The square has a romantic feel after dark, when the buildings are beautifully lit.
9. Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum
Outside Berlin, but within Berlin’s S-bahn system is the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum. Sachsenhausen honors those killed by the Nazis at this former concentration camp. Entry is free, but guided tours cost 15€. On the grounds you can visit museums, open-air exhibits, a library, and the visitors’ center. You can travel to the memorial and museum by taking the S-1 train to Oranienburg.
Castles and Gardens
These palaces – all part of the UNESCO World Culture Heritage system of sites – are in the Potsdam area, which is near Berlin and accessible by S-bahn and bus.
Visiting Krongut Bornstedt gives you a taste of history and some good German beer at the same time. Admission is free and the beautiful grounds include a brewery and restaurant. At the manor you can see demonstrations of glass blowing, candle making, and weaving, and the property hosts festivals throughout the year.
Sanssouci Palace and Park
This must-see palace – the “Prussian Versailles” – has been exquisitely restored, and the gardens are maintained excellently. The area is a delightful place to walk in the spring and the summer. The Palace entrance fee is 8€ or 12€, depending on the season.
For history buffs, this is an especially interesting castle. Truman, Churchill, and Stalin met at Cecilienhof Palace for the Potsdam Conference in 1925. Since then, the palace has been converted into a hotel. There’s also a museum on the grounds, with an entrance fee of 7.50€.
Summer: Berlin Beer Festival
The Annual Berlin Beer Festival is held at Karl-Marx-Allee in early August. In 2011, the festival will host 300 breweries from August 5 through August 7. Breweries from 86 countries come to the festival and collectively offer nearly 2,000 different brews – and enough beer to stretch 2.2 kilometers. Entry to the festival is free, and no one leaves without finding a few new favorite brews.
Autumn offers a taste of Federweißer, a young, sweet wine that’s still fermenting and can’t even have an airtight seal during the short period when it’s available. It’s a unique flavor of Germany that’s only on shelves for a few weeks, and if you buy some, you’ll have to drink it within a few days of purchasing it. This fall favorite is typically enjoyed with zwiebelkuchen, an onion cake that tastes like the best soft pretzel you’ve ever had, and comes with bacon chunks, cooked onion, and crème fraiche.
Winter: Christmas Markets
From mid-November through the end of December, the Christmas Markets spring up all over the city. These markets offer a sweet taste of European Christmas: You’ll find hand-crafted German treasures, nutcrackers, pottery, and traditional German ornaments. And every Christmas Market is filled with hearty German fare like bratwurst, gingerbread cookies, mulled wine, and roasted chestnuts. German Christmas Markets include music, and some of them have intricate nativity scenes.
Cheap (and Fantastic) Restaurants
From sidewalk snack shops to elegant diner, Berlin has it all.
Hell oder Dunkel
While the menu for Hell oder Dunkel in Wilmersdorf is chock full of well-prepared traditional German fare, my personal favorite on the menu is käsespätzle. This German noodle dish is made with Swiss cheese, roasted onion, and tomato. Other great menu options include Schnitzel with fries or salad and Nurnberger sausages served with sauerkraut, bread, and butter. The restaurant offers no ambiance, but the food is delicious. Most entrées cost between 7.50€ and 9€. They have a children’s menu with meals for 4.50€
Insider’s Food Tip: Monday is beer day, when you can get a liter for 3.50€.
Another great low-cost choice, Schwarzwaldstuben’s menu focuses on Bavarian food. The restaurant has a cozy, candlelit atmosphere, and the staff is very friendly. This easy-to-find restaurant in the trendy neighborhood of Mitte is convenient to U-bahn stops at Oranienburger Tor or Rosenthaler Platz.
Rathaus Schöneberg (Ratskeller)
In the John F. Kennedy Platz, this cafeteria-style restaurant offers German fare for affordable prices. The Ratskeller even has an option to pay by the weight of the food you order. If you don’t like that idea, they have great specials for set prices. Either way, your meal will be inexpensive at around 5€ or 6€. Finding the right U-bahn stop is easy: The Rathaus Schöneberg has its own station.
Insider’s Transit Tip: When walking up to the Rathaus go to the smaller side door on the left side.
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab
Looking for some Turkish specialties in Berlin? For 2.90€ you can get doner kebabs – grilled lamb or chicken on flat bread with fresh vegetables and your choice of sauces – and other local favorites to eat outside while you admire the Kreuzberg district. Just take the U-bahn to the Mehringdamm stop.
Café Restaurant Pinelli
With menu options changing daily, Pinelli offers seasonal favorites for locals and tourists, with great food reasonably priced at 7€ or 8€. They have a great wine list, and lunch specials for 5€ and under. Take the S-bahn to Schöneberg for their great deals.
Insider’s Budget Meal Tip: You can find a great selection of restaurants and shops with budget-friendly meal deals in certain Berlin neighborhoods like: Bergmannstrasse in Kreuzberg, the Prenzlauer Berg area and Hackescher Markt in Mitte, and Kollwitzplatz and Simon-Dach-Straße in the Berlin Friedrichshain area.
Fischerhüette on Schlachtensee
With a beautiful view of Berlin’s Schlachtensee Lake, Fischerhüette on Schlachtensee has a relaxed atmosphere and a great menu if you want to have a full meal during your beer garden experience. You can get chicken or bratwurst for 7€.
Schleusenkrug Beer Garden
Near the Tiergarten S-bahn, Schleusenkrug is popular and laid back. They have a great beer selection and an extensive food menu. They even offer breakfast, and most items are available for between 7.50€ and 8.50€.
Raise a Smile Hostel
Located in the heart of East Berlin, Raise a Smile Hostel is part of a Zambian children’s charity: All profits from guests’ stays go to the charity. The hostel is decorated in a Zambian theme to raise awareness of Zambia, and private rooms cost about 20€ to 30€ per night, with a two-night minimum. Raise a Smile received #1 in Germany Award from Hostelworld in 2010.
East Seven Berlin Hostel
Close to public transportation and centrally located between two major districts, East Seven Berlin Hostel was a top ten pick by Hostel World. Private rooms cost 31€ to 38€ depending on the season.
Riverside Lodge Hostel
If you want to stay in popular Kreuzberg, check out Riverside Lodge Hostel, a small but welcoming hostel with rooms that feel spacious. For additional privacy, Riverside Lodge has private apartments available too. Private rooms rates are about 37€ per night.
In the trendy Prenzlauer Berg district, you’ll find the more upscale Schoenhouse Apartments. They’re still budget-friendly if you’re traveling with a group of friends or as a couple. Schoenhouse’s self-catering apartments come with free WiFi, with rates around 75€ to 110€ per night. They’re conveniently located near Alexanderplatz and the Hackesche Höfe.
Pet Care in Berlin
If you’re traveling with pets, you’ll have some extra expenses and logistics, but Berlin’s options make it easy to find top-quality pet care.
- Hund in Berlin offers boarding for your dog as well as two daily supervised runs (call 0160-610-8008 or email kontakt@Hund-in-Berlin.de).
- Hund Fun offers various pet sitting services (call 49-30-172-391-2695).
- Hund Pensions Berlin provides boarding, walks, and socialization with other dogs (call 49-30-4729-174)
- Katzen Pension Berlin, with two play areas and a sun conservatory, is a great choice for boarding cats in Berlin (call 49-30-873-5780).
Cheap Transit: Getting to Berlin and Getting around Berlin
There is no better way to see Berlin than by S-bahn and bus. The system is efficient, clean, and easy to use. Standard tickets cover all three zones and cost 5.10€ per day. Or, you can purchase a one-week ticket for 33.50€. If you’re limiting your travel to zones A and B only, you can get a 5€ discount on your weekly ticket.
You’ll also have the option of a “Tourist Ticket,” which includes a Berlin Welcome Card good for discounts on 80 attractions. The Tourist Ticket/Welcome Card costs between 28.90€ and 34.90€, depending on the zones you plan to visit.
Insider’s Transit Tip: Don’t forget to stamp your ticket in the small machine near the track.
For getting around Berlin, public transportation is your best and most affordable option. But if you choose to rent a car, be ready to drive stick, or make sure you specifically request an automatic transmission. Generally, rental cars in Germany come with a standard transmission, and if you’re not ready it’ll put a quick damper on your trip. Also, rental cars don’t usually come with air conditioning, and those that do usually cost extra. Before driving in Europe you’ll need an International Driving Permit, which you can get at from a stateside auto club for about $20.
Insider’s Transportation Tip: When walking or biking within Berlin or Germany use common sense. Never walk on the cobblestone bike path. The bike path is strictly for cyclists, and Germans take their biking seriously. When riding on the bike path listen for bells. The bike bell is the passing signal.
For getting to Berlin, consider flying into Frankfurt and then connecting to a low-cost airline such as TUIfly. I’ve flown TUIfly and found them to be efficient, clean, and good quality for a low cost. Search results for round-trip flights between Frankfurt and Berlin for late March came back at around 89€. When planning your trip consider purchasing travel insurance to protect yourself during your travels.
Berlin is rich in culture, but you don’t need a lot of personal wealth to enjoy a great vacation in the German capital. Thanks to its public transportation system, getting around town is easy and affordable. And with so many free and low-fee tourist attractions, you’ll get a sense of Berlin’s history and modern developments without spending too much cash. While your flight may be the most costly expense, a few tips for international travel will help you cut in the right places.
Don’t miss Germany’s great food and drink, art and music, or history and culture just because a trip to Europe sounds too expensive. With these insider tips and more help from friends who have been there, you’ll be surprised by how much you can save.
What are your best ideas for budget travel to Berlin? What was the best value buy you found for your trip, and what was the worst waste of money?