As far as European capitals go, I found Berlin to be one of the most affordable places I’ve been to. However, if you’re keen to keep your expenses to a minimum, here’s how to do Berlin on a budget.
Free Walking Tour
If you’re a bit of a history buff like me, you’ll definitely want to consider signing up for a free walking tour. That’s exactly what we did on our first day in the German capital. These kinds of tours won’t be for everyone. As the name suggests, they involved a lot of walking and a lot of information. However, if you’re pushed for time as well as money, they’re an amazing way to see all the sights and learn something about them too.
The one we went on was The Original Free Berlin Tour. It meets three times a day in Alexanderplatz. From there, a guide will whisk you off on a whistle-stop tour of all the city’s major sights including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe and the Reichstag.
The comprehensive tour covers Berlin’s rather tumultuous recent past, from Nazi rule through to Soviet occupation. My favourite points of the tour were hearing about life in Berlin before the wall fell. It’s hard to image waking up one day to find you could no longer see your loved ones on the other side of the city. The lengths some people went to escape to freedom were amazing. For example, some people zip-wired across the divide. Meanwhile, others were rumoured to have tied their bed sheets together to form a makeshift hot air balloon.
We also passed the burning books monument at Babelplatz. The haunting monument was designed by Israeli artist Micha Ullman and depicts around 20,000 books placed on library shelves. The tribute is buried underground and can only be view through glass panels on ground level. The memorial signifies the thousands of works of literature the Nazi’s burned on May 10, 1933. Books that they had deemed “un-German.” The memorial also features the foreboding words of Heinrich Heine from 1820, “There where they burn books, they burn in the end people.”
Another story I took home with me was that of George Elser. A sculpture of his profile is located not far from Hitler’s bunker and the former Reich Chancery on Wilhelmstrasse. I’d never heard of Elser before, but he was a communist carpenter who came close to killing Hitler in a bomb attack in 1939. Sadly, his mission failed and Nazis sent Elser to his death at Dachau concentration camp. However, the people of Berlin have chosen to remember his courage.
See the Reichstag
A fantastic (and completely free) thing to do in Berlin is visiting the Reichstag. This imposing building is today home to the German parliament. However, it hasn’t always been this way. A fire tore through the building in 1933 and it later fell into disrepair. Thankfully, architect Norman Foster helped to restore the Reichstag in the nineties and it now attracts hundreds of visitors each year.
The building is famed for its iconic glass dome which offers a panoramic view of the city below. Admission to the dome and its accompanying roof terrace costs nothing. However, visitors must register online before they arrive.
Skip Television Tower
One of Berlin’s most iconic buildings is without a doubt the Fernsehturm or Television Tower. The tower, and its famous glass bubble, was constructed in the 1960s. At 368 meters it is the tallest structure in the whole of Germany. Today, the mast houses a revolving restaurant and a viewing platform, entry to which costs €13.
However, if you’re funds are lagging, I’d recommend skipping the tower altogether. Instead, pop across Alexanderplatz to the Park Inn hotel. There, on the 40th floor, sits a very basic viewing platform. It costs €4 to visit, involves no queues, there’s a lift right to the top AND you can purchase a beer up there. But, what’s even more special is the view. We were lucky enough to visit at sunset and we raised a toast as the day came to an end behind Television Tower.
Peruse the East Side Gallery
As I mentioned before, the Berlin Wall really is one of the most fascinating things about the German capital. Located in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighbourhood and flanked by the River Spree, the East Side Gallery makes the ideal Sunday morning activity.
The gallery features more than 100 paintings from an international roll call of artists. The gallery was founded in 1990, just one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a result, many of the exhibits express hope for the future and celebrate freedom in all its forms.
I didn’t know this before I arrived in Berlin, but most work canteens are open to the public. This allows nosy tourists to gain an insight into a German workplace while simultaneously filling up on subsidised grub. The Nordic Embassies – or Felleshus– is among the best-known thanks to its Scandinavian decor and New Nordic fare. However, the Berliner Ensemble theatre and Universal Music also offer unique lunch venues.
While I’m on the subject of unusual eateries, allow me to introduce Burgermeister. Located in a former public toilet in the trendy neigbourhood of Kreuzberg, a trip to this fast food joint is an experience in itself. With its ‘bring your own booze’ philosophy and queues of hungry hipsters that often stretch out the door, this stripped back setting epitomizes Berlin’s buzz. I got the tofu burger with mango chutney and a side of the saltiest chips to ever grace my tongue. AKA, the perfect meal to prepare for a night on the beer.
Since we had limited time in Berlin, we decided the best plan of action was to fill up each morning and power through the day. In ordinary life, I’m not much a breakfast eater. However, that all changed thanks to the offerings I enjoyed in German. On our first morning, we stumbled across a restaurant called Bastard Berlin, which was close to our apartment in Kreuzberg. It was billed as the best brunch spot in the city so, naturally, it caught our attention. I had the magnificent concoction od scrambled eggs, goats cheese and honey. And, somehow, it worked.
The second day, our whole group of nine started the day at Lagari in Neukölln. Here, I had a stunning breakfast burrito washed down with a €2.50 glass of prosecco. But, with that said, I had major food envy over a friend’s light as air pancakes.
And, on the third and final day, I feasted on cold falafel, which I had been too drunk to wait up for the night before.
Drinking in Berlin is relatively cheap. But, if you want to make things even cheaper, don’t be afraid to check out local neighbourhood bars. On our first night in town, we spent around four hours in a cosy pub chatting to locals and propping up the jukebox. I think the landlady took quite the shine to us and provided us with table service throughout the night. We drank and drank and in the end I think paid around €10 per person for one of the cutest nights possible.
All in all, Berlin is the perfect place to go with a budget. But while your money might go far, the same cannot be said for your time. If at all possible, I’d suggest going to Berlin for longer than the two nights we did. There’s so much I still want to do there and I can’t wait to go back.