Berlin in Lovely Weather, with Kids
Berlin is an amazing city to visit and should top your European list. I’m typically not a city person. Although European cities are packed full of museums and culture, I prefer exploring the countryside and small towns. Berlin though, is so packed with history and yet completely new as it rebuilds from its Soviet era that it feels like no other city we’ve ever visited.
We took the train from Tropical Islands Waterpark straight into the city. The BVG app is really helpful in planning out your routing using Berlin’s public transport system. We had no trouble with the trains, but struggled a bit finding the bus stops until we got the hang of it.
The Berlin Card includes your public transportation and discounts on many of the attractions in the city. We had a 48-hour card for our visit. The card has to be validated before it can be used. This is done at one of the bus stops or train stations. We were able to do it aboard the bus near the rear door. If you’re planning a trip with kids check out this list of family friendly attractions in the city that participate in the Berlin Card program.
We stayed at the Courtyard Berlin City Center. We had initially inquired about some Airbnb options, but crackdowns by the city have almost eliminated this type of rental as an option. (Read an article from The Guardian about it here.) The Courtyard was comfortable and in a great location, close to several public transportation options and many of the sights. Breakfast was not included in our rate but there was a restaurant at the hotel.
The hotel is adjacent to a park which has a small playground. (Corner of Jerusalemer Str & Krausenstrasse.) The perfect place for the kids to get some energy out every time we passed through.
Everyone was hungry so using foursquare we found Chupenga Burritos. Chupenga is in the style of Chipotle, but has some additional ingredients (like quinoa) that put it over the top. The meal was incredibly satisfying and the staff was so friendly. We ended the meal with some local gourmet popsicles. I chose a berry flavor while H chose a cucumber lime.
Bellies full we set off on the Rick Steves’ walking tour. We used the book, but it is also available to download as an audio tour. The Berlin Welcome Card includes discounts on many of the city’s guided walking tours, although none looked particularly child friendly.
The boys thought peering into the book burning memorial at Bebelplatz was quite fun. They could not quite grasp the idea of why you would burn a book, but peering through anything on the ground is usually a winner.
We continued our walk to museum island. Most of these museums are discounted with the Berlin Card. The kids were not in a museum mood, so we enjoyed some time on the grass and kept moving.
As soon as we crossed the river Spree and saw it full of boat tours, my transportation obsessed kids wanted to get on a boat. The Berlin Card has discounts for almost every company. We chose one that was close to us, leaving soon and mentioned in the Rick Steves’ Book, but they all seemed to have the same itinerary.
The boat cruise included a guided tour in many languages. The tour is done in German over the loudspeaker on the top deck. We chose some comfy seats on the back of the boat and listened in English through devices given to us upon boarding. As soon as we got on the boat Oliver fell asleep and slept through the cruise. H followed suit, falling asleep still holding his audioguide.
The ride down the Spree is the best way to experience the many faces of Berlin. There is still quite a bit of Prussian architecture from its heyday as a cultural capital. This is interspersed with modern architecture built since Germany’s reunification in the 1990’s. The wall that separated Berlin may be gone, but pieces can be spotted along the banks. A change in pavement color shows were it crossed the river. A chain fence was actually placed under several bridges to prevent people from swimming down the river into West Berlin!
The boat we took from museum island turned around just past the modern Chancellory building, passing under the Chancelor’s bridge to her helicopter pad. The kids slept the entire rest of the boat tour. Ah… relaxing.
We explored the park across from the boat tour a bit letting the kids run around. The city is full of statues from its many eras including this one of Marx & Engels, icons of the socialist movement.
The Raddison Blu Berlin also sits on this street corner, so we popped in to view the Aquadome. The Aquadome contains over 1500 fish and has an elevator through the center. We did not pay to see the fish up close as our time was running short, but there is a discount at the Aquadome with the Berlin Card.
We also poked into one of Berlin’s Ghost Train stations. These working stations are on the former East Berlin side of the wall so went unused during the city’s division. The way the subway was designed though the stations could not be closed because the West Berliners still used the subway that swung back into the West. Instead the stations were boarded up and trains would pass slowly through them without stopping. After reunification these stations were reopened, but not redesigned.
On our evening walk back to the hotel H became obsessed with the Ampelmannchen. These East German walk and stop signals are preserved (thanks to a 10-year court battle) in the former East German tourist area. H loved looking on the signs for them, and was quite excited to find this one he could pose with.
Saturday morning we were up early, so early we had trouble finding anything open for breakfast. (Everything seemed to open at 10.) We settled for a nearby Starbucks to tide us over before hopping on Bus 100, which makes the rounds of all the tourist areas. The Berlin Card includes your public transportation, so you just flash your card at the driver and hop on and off as much as you would like.
The week before we headed to Berlin the New York Times had an article on Berlin’s amazing playgrounds. The plan therefore was to spend the morning exploring Tiergarten Park, hitting up several of the park’s playgrounds. As promised, the kids loved these challenging playgrounds.
We worked our way around the Berlin Victory Column exploring the park and finally deciding to make our way up to the top. You cross underground through the marble pavilions on the outside of the traffic circle. We climbed the 270 steps to the top observation deck. (H climbed them all on his own, while O did about 175 of them before asking to be carried.) The stairs are narrow and passing those on the way down is a bit harrowing. The view from the top though (the top picture) is breathtaking. This attraction is not part of the Berlin Card.
The Berlin Victory Column has been in the city, in various locations, since 1864. The monument is riddled with bullet holes from WWII fighting, but it survived the air raids and sat in Western Berlin during the city’s division.
We hopped back on bus 100 and headed to the Brandenburg Gate. It was crazy crowded. We found a nice place just across the street from the gate that looked perfect for lunch, but then two tourist buses unloaded into the restaurant so we changed plans.
A few blocks further we popped into Cafe Einstein Stammhaus. They had a varied menu and coloring for the kids. Perfect! The kids both looked exhausted so we hit the hotel for an afternoon nap.
After nap we had a fun surprise for the kids, Ritter Sport’s ChocoWorld was just a few blocks from the hotel. There is a small museum that addresses how chocolate is made. The store sells their traditional bars for about a €1 a piece. The hallmark though is an area where you can make your own chocolate bar for a fee.
We let H do all the picking to make his own bar. He chose Milk Chocolate with Cookie, Lemon & Cranberries. It was surprisingly delicious. It takes thirty minutes for the chocolate to harden, so you should do this activity on your way in.
We didn’t. Instead we hopped the subway for some more sightseeing and returned an hour later to pick up and sample our bar.
While the chocolate was hardening we hopped onto the subway and went the two stops to Checkpoint Charlie. It’s quite commercialized now. You can pay a few Euros to get the “guards” to stamp your passport from East Berlin. Beware that this may invalidate your passport. Just through the gate there are several displays with pictures of Checkpoint Charlie throughout the years. There are also two pieces of the Berlin Wall complete with the round topper that made it hard to climb over.
While the kids were napping earlier in the day Jeff did a bit of Googling and made a reservation at Marnicello, an Italian restaurant near museum island. The restaurant had a wide variety of options including salads, pizza, pasta, fish and even an amazing looking cold buffet. They had coloring pages for the kids and the staff was so accommodating with our kids. The weather was beautiful and we were able to sit outside and enjoy a nice dinner.
The kids had taken long naps so we knew we needed an evening activity. The DDR Museum is open late and turned out to be one of the best finds for us in Berlin. The boys cried when it was time to leave! The DDR Museum is an interactive museum that focuses on life in Soviet Berlin. The kids loved the variety of things they could touch and do inside the museum. There were Soviet era toys for them to take out of a toy box and play with. There is a Soviet era house that the kids played in. The highlight though was a Trabant outfitted with a simulator the kids could drive. (See a video of H’s terrible driving here.)
The museum was fascinating for me as well. The kids were actually occupied enough with all the touch items that I was able to read quite a bit in the museum. I remember reunification of Germany but was too young to understand the sheer difference of life on either side of the wall. The museum participates in the Berlin Card program and is therefore discounted when you show the card.
We had a late flight out of Berlin giving us a half day in the city before our flight. Anticipating the early riser breakfast problem Jeff grabbed a few things at the grocery store after the kids were asleep. He also arranged for a late checkout with the hotel.
We hopped on the subway and took it directly to the Berlin Zoo. The subway was so efficient we arrived before the zoo opened. Just outside the zoo are several bakeries, we popped into one and all chose a “second breakfast” treat. H chose this cookie the size of his head!
The zoo is part of the Berlin Card program, so make sure you show that when you buy your tickets. You will also need to decide if you want to include the aquarium on your visit. We did not as our zoo visit was time limited.
We did not bring a stroller to Berlin. The kids are good walkers typically, but zoos tend to require some extra transport, so we rented a wagon at the entrance (€5 to rent/ €10 deposit) The wagon was a perfect way to tote the kids and stuff around the zoo. When we returned our wagon around noon there were none left, so come early if you are counting on this for your transportation.
The Berlin Zoo is the oldest zoo in Germany. It has a wide variety of animals and some stunning architecture reminiscent of old zoos. There is continued construction as they work to build modern enclosures while keeping the old zoo feel. The weather was cool with rain looming so every animal was out and about exploring their enclosures.
The highlight for the boys though was the massive playground in the center of the zoo. There were three large structures to play on including a massive ship that looked like it used to be a stage of some sort. The kids could crawl through tunnels and pop out all over the structures. There were swings and plenty of smaller kid play items as well. Had we not reminded the kids there were more animals to see they would have just played here for our entire visit.
The only let down of the Berlin Zoo was finding a lunch option. We knew we were going to be in a bit of a bind so we headed to the zoo’s cafe. The food was edible but nothing special. While we were there it started to rain, which was fine since we needed to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags anyway and head to the airport.
Taking the train to the airport is easy as long as you keep track of two details. First, make sure you know which airport you are flying out of. Our Transavia flight actually changed airports from the time we booked to our arrival! Second, if you are traveling on the Berlin Card there are two variants: an AB and an ABC. We had the AB card but our airport was located in the C area. The fare checker on the train was not particularly nice about the whole incident, despite us being one of several groups who had issues.
Berlin is an amazing city and we left many of its kid friendly attractions and historic museums untouched. Perhaps we will find our way back to Berlin!
Looking for more advice on Berlin? Check out these ideas from the Blog Zena’s Suitcase.
We received the Berlin Card and trip planning support from Visit Berlin in return for our review of the city and attractions. All opinions are, of course, my own.