Up until two days before Christmas, we really didn’t have any travel plans. I assumed that we’d do sort of a staycation thing, in which we’d eat somewhere in Chinatown on Christmas Day and maybe venture out to Brooklyn on the weekend. But scratch that. We decided last minute that we needed to take advantage of the two back to back long weekends and scoured Google’s flight search tool for some enticing but reasonably priced options.
We narrowed it down to Vienna or Berlin, and as of Tuesday night, we were pretty sure it was going to be Vienna. But come Wednesday morning, we discovered that our ticket purchase couldn’t be honored because the price that was listed on the search engine results didn’t jive with what was in United’s system, so off to Berlin we went!
I had never been to Berlin before, and I clearly hadn’t prepped and read up on it beforehand, but I was expecting a big city, super modern and efficient in some parts, and dark and gritty in others. Like maybe a blend of Tokyo and Bushwick, but occupied mainly by Germans wearing gray and black.
And it is a very intense place. It’s not one of those obviously beautiful cities with a lot of impressive architecture like Paris. In many ways it reminded me of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, especially with all the canals and the multi-colored, mid-level buildings that lined the streets. And reminders of its controversial role in World War II are very much in your face. I respect the fact that they own up to their past instead of brushing it under the rug like many countries.
The intensity even extends to the city’s nightlife. Whereas in New York girls are trying their best to look *hawt*, in Berlin the key is to look very, very low key and casual. No labels, nothing flashy, black is probably a good bet. Think Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as your style inspiration, not the Blond Salad. And in the winter, the city literally feels dark. At around 4 pm I felt like the sun was already setting.
I know I’m making Berlin sound like this depressing place, but I ended up really liking it. It’s a very modern, walkable city with a lot to do, the public transportation is great and the food is pretty good and reasonably priced. The fact that Berlin is one of the featured cities on 12hrs.net is a good sign that it’s a place for people with an interest in modern design and fashion. There are definitely a lot of well-curated boutiques like Voo and Andreas Murkudis that you can visit and browse, although they were closed for the holidays when we were there, and there were plenty of cute, industrious coffee shops and interesting galleries and architectural sites.
And the nightlife is pretty amazing. I hate anything to do with clubbing, such as waiting in line, paying cover charges, and potentially listening to house or techno music, but for some reason, I had a great time doing it in Berlin. I would say the itinerary that follows probably consists of 20% cultural activities and 80% eating/leisure, so if you’re into an unstructured trip, then this might suit you fine…
Day 1 – We arrived at Tegel airport at around 5 pm and took the 109 bus into town. Our hotel was in Kurfürstendamm, which is probably equivalent to 5th Ave or Rodeo Drive. It was Christmas Day, so a lot of places were closed, but Ottenthal, a restaurant lauded for its Austrian food, was open, and luckily it had a reservation for 9:00 pm. To kill some time, we hung out at Monkey Bar, the rooftop bar at the 25hours hotel. It’s a cool place with a tropical theme going on, but in a stylish way, not in a cheesy way.
If you want a traditional, sit-down meal in a German setting, then Ottenthal is the place for you. Everyone seems to describe this place as “unfussy”, and it really is. The interior is pretty plain and austere, as if you were eating in a German dining room from the 80s that was well-maintained but never updated.
The requisite bread basket arrived, and instead of some butter, it arrived with a side of sour cream potatoes. The potatoes were so good, I kept eating them plain by the spoonful rather than spreading them over a slice of bread. We ordered some pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil as a starter, which featured a really lovely pumpkin puree lightly spiced with nutmeg and other festive seasonings. This wasn’t one of those vegetable soups that relied on a ton of cream for flavor, which I appreciated.
With it being Christmas and all, we wanted a festive German meal, so we ordered the goose dinner and the wiener schnitzel. I was fascinated by the presence of goose on the menu, because to me, goose is something you read about being served in A Christmas Carol or Downton Abbey, but never ever do you come across it in modern day life. It basically tastes like duck, but perhaps a little drier. You really needed to eat it with the skin on for maximum flavor and moisture. I felt like I was breaking bread with Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge, it was fantastic. The accompanying red cabbage, which tasted like Christmas potpourri, kept the holiday dinner spirit alive, as did the plump dumplings.
Schnitzel is such a trademark German dish, so how could you not order it on your first night in Berlin? I was expecting a heavily breaded, heavily fried piece of loin, but it was surprisingly light. The pork meat had been pounded very thin in the manner of a paillard, and the breading was very crisp and not at all oily. I personally found the schnitzel a little plain and felt like it could have used some sort of sauce. The potato salad that came with it, on the other hand, was amazing. It was prepared in some vinegar and oil rather than mayo, and that made such a big difference. Berlin really knows how to make its potatoes.
The meal ended with another traditional dessert–apple strudel. It was flaky and warm inside, and not too sweet. A perfect way to cap our first meal in Berlin.
Kantstraße 153, 10623 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 3133162
Budapester Straße 40, 10787 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 120221210
Day 2 – Wow, the jet lag really caught up with us today. Because of the late start, we headed straight to lunch in Kreuzberg, one of the hip neighborhoods in Berlin. We had planned on looking around Markthalle Neun, which is like an indoor food and flea market, similar to a Smorgasburg, but I couldn’t really tell you for sure because it was closed when we got there. As was the restaurant we wanted to go to, Kantine Neun.
So on to Plan B. Kreuzberg has a large Turkish community, so we knew there had to be some good Turkish food nearby. After a quick search on Yelp, we settled on Mercan, and made our way over. This was a pretty legit Turkish place that caters to locals, so the staff didn’t really speak much English or had an English menu, but we managed to make it work. Everyone was super friendly, and there was one person there, I think maybe the dad, who could speak English. Basically you choose one main and a side from the options that were available behind the counter, and that was it. We asked what was good, and he pointed to two different meatballs options, so we ordered those, as well as a side of rice and bulgur.
The spread that arrived was massive, and extremely delicious. The first meatball dish consisted of ground lamb meatballs in what I think was a tomato sauce and zucchini slices, and the second meatball dish featured a creamy, minty, yogurt marinade. I was a big fan of the yogurt meatballs, and they went incredibly well with the rice and bulgur. I’ve never had bulgur before, but it essentially tastes very similar to couscous, except the consistency of the grain is a little harder and not so fluffy. I’m not sure what they put in there, maybe it was some butter and chicken stock, but it was extremely addicting. There was also some tzatziki sauce and marinaded tomatoes available, which I guess were meant to cleanse your palate of the heavier meats. It was a hearty, delicious meal, and the whole thing for the two of us was 26 euros, which was a great deal.
After lunch, we wanted to check out some clothing stores, which were, as you may have guessed, all closed. We hung out at Bateau Ivre, a lively coffee shop on Oranienstr (not a big fan of the drip coffee, but the latte was great), and then took the S-bahn to the hip Michelberger Hotel (an Ace Hotel type concept) for pre-dinner drinks. The bar, called Honolulu, was another stylish island/tiki themed bar, which seems to be a thing here! We opted to have our cocktails in the comfortable lounge area, which was furnished with cozy sofas and interesting reading literature. There was also a small clothing boutique nearby, which rounded out the whole lifestyle hotel concept. The jetsetting crowd around us was pretty international and mostly in their 20s and 30s. It was a really nice but comfortable atmosphere.
We made our way back to Kreuzberg for our dinner reservation at Volt, a restaurant housed in a former electrical power plant. If you’re into the whole industrial warehouse aesthetic that’s pretty common in Williamsburg or Long Island City, then you will love it here. It’s pretty spacious inside, helped by the extremely tall ceilings, and there are several floors of dining tables. This being the day after Christmas, Volt wasn’t completely booked, and luckily two of our friends who coincidentally happened to be in Berlin at the same time as us were able to walk in and get a table.
I loved my meal at Volt, it was definitely my favorite one in Berlin. The cooking here is very thoughtful and innovative, and very much on par with the top places that incorporate local, seasonal ingredients in an inventive way. I ordered the 5 course vegetarian tasting menu, whereas Ruoxi opted for some select interesting things off the menu.
I sound like a broken record, but the butter in Europe is incredible, and here at Volt it was no different. There was also this curried rutabaga spread that was available, but the butter was far superior. As you might have expected, all 4 of us inhaled the bread basket.
A small amuse bouche of spiced chestnut panna cotta with apple and celery arrived. It had the consistency of foie gras and tasted like Christmas. I’ve come to notice that many things in Germany this time of year taste like Christmas, which makes me happy.
1st course – The marinated bulb salad arrived looking like a beautifully foraged plate of beets and truffle. The beet roots, which were very fleshy and chewy, almost like a peach, were arranged artfully on top of some edible soil and were laid beneath thin slices of truffle mushrooms. It was a well executed homage to the earthy origins of the ingredients, visually stunning and full of balanced, good flavors, and it was my favorite dish of the night.
2nd course – The roskoff onion was essentially a grilled onion covered in some pumpkin oil. It was sweet and caramelized, which is how I like my onions. The less raw, sharp flavors, the better. The pieces of pumpkin and carrot provided some balance to the overall sweetness of the onions.
3rd course – The organic egg yolk arrived in a nest of sunchoke and mushroom. Something about the combination of savory and sweet flavors in which umami reigned supreme reminded me of a sukiyaki broth. It was certainly a very deep, full-bodied dish, but by no means heavy.
4th course – The actual polenta in the apricot dish was pretty mild. It was really the accompanying ingredients that had more personality. The ones of the clear jelly cubes saturated with ginger were especially sparkling, but before they got too bubbly in came the brussels sprouts to smooth things over. The apricots of course lent something sweet to the dish, and they were in this in-between state of fresh and dried fruit, like as if all the juice had been wrung out but not completely.
5th course – The caramel, apple, walnut, balsamico arrived last. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any notes on this dessert, so I don’t really remember how it tasted. I guess the fact that I don’t remember much of it probably means it was good but not great.
In case you’re curious about the meat dishes, Ruoxi ordered the rabbit and prawn soup, the beef cheek goulash and the barbarie duck. The broth in the rabbit and prawn soup was very dark, almost like steeped tea, which was interesting. The prawn was very hearty and full of texture, having more in common with langoustines than what we’d see in a cocktail shrimp bowl. The rabbit was very juicy and flavorful, and surprisingly very reminiscent of bacon.
The beef cheek goulash arrived, looking very dark and braised in a stew of its own juice and some peppers. The beef cheeks were very tender, although on their own the flavor was a little one-dimensional. You definitely needed some peppers to provide a little lift and some depth.
The duck breast arrived, perfectly seared and perfectly plump with some brussels sprouts and dumplings. It was a very hearty and seasonal dish, as duck is traditionally served around Christmas time in Germany, but this was a much more refined version than something you’d find in a German grandmother’s kitchen, or at Ottenthal for that matter.
We were comfortably stuffed and very impressed by what we ate at Volt. I’m hoping that this restaurant becomes a contender for at least 1 Michelin star or is included in some Best of Berlin guides.
Afterwards, we grabbed some drinks at Reingold, a glitzy, speakeasy lounge bar in Mitte. The atmosphere was great, not too loud and crowded, but enough energy to keep the night going. The only downside was that people were definitely smoking inside and the next day my clothes smelled like an ash tray, but otherwise I had a great time here.
Wiener Str. 10, 10999 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 61285841
Paul-Lincke-Ufer 21, 10999 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 338402320
Novalisstraße 11, 10115, Germany
+49 30 28387676
Day 3 – Not much improvement with the jet lag. We slept in again, and by the time we were ready to get moving, it was lunch time. We had made reservations at Dos Palillos, an Asian tapas restaurant in Mitte that’s run by the former chef de cuisine of El Bulli. Naturally the El Bulli association got us really excited about this place.
During lunch, you can either order a la carte, or you can order the 25 euro lunch menu set, which consists of 3 small tapas plates, 1 dessert, and 1 glass of wine. We each ordered the lunch menu set, although the portions were so small that we had to add on about two extra dishes to feel satiated.
The first small dish was the shine mackerel, which was my favorite. The pickled mackerel slices were served cold, and the flavor sensation was unctuous but clean. There was a slight vinegar tinge to the mackerel meat, but overall the original flavor of the fish was pretty well preserved. Little balls of kombu seaweed provided subtle briney notes to the dish.
The second dish was the tempura tomato. The little tempura balls caught me by surprise, as they were extremely hot, and filled with tomato liquid. Our server warned us that if we weren’t careful, the liquid would squirt out, and I’m glad I was able to keep it all in. There were dollops of wasabi on the balls that were small but extremely potent, and with each bite I nearly died from the burn in my sinuses. I think this dish was a very interactive one that played to a lot of different senses, but taste wise it wasn’t my favorite.
The third dish was the chicken yakitori. This was pretty much prepared by the book, and I mean that in the best possible way. The chicken meat was of the highest quality, and grilled to the perfect temperature. It was lightly seasoned with some pepper and yuzu, which kept things bright and interesting. I probably could have eaten 4 more of these.
As such, we added on two more orders to our lunch–the oysters in hot sake and the house burger. The oysters were grilled for about 10 seconds on each side before they were brought over to us. I didn’t quite love the oyster, mainly because I usually like them cold and raw with a little lemon juice, and I didn’t really think the sake added that much to the natural oyster brine.
The burger arrived next, and it was the tiniest burger I had ever seen in my life. It was smaller than the little sliders that you get at a cocktail party. I know size shouldn’t matter, and it’s really about the quality of the burger meat itself, but I didn’t feel like it was that impressive either. The meat patty was pretty rare, and there was a very herbal taste to it, but it was otherwise a bit simple.
The Japanese cookies luckily made up for the disappointment of the Lilliputian burger. They were warm, crispy and filled with liquid chocolate. Delicious.
After lunch, we made our way over to Museum Island. There was no way we could get through all 5 museums in this little isle before dinner, so we decided to visit the Pergamonmuseum, which was supposedly the best one. The Pergamonmuseum is very similar to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring a lot of ancient artifacts and pieces from different civilizations. Unfortunately the place was undergoing some renovation work, so we were limited to parts of the Babylonian and Islamic wings. There’s a very thorough audio guide that explains all of the main pieces in the museum, which is very informative.
We also stopped by Checkpoint Charlie, which was the best known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin. There were mock Soviet soldiers at the checkpoint station that gave you a fake passport stamp to let you pass through the other side. It was pretty cool being that close to a site of such historical significance, and it’s amazing to think that not that long ago the city was divided into two zones. I remember watching a movie in grade school about some East Berliners trying to escape to the West, and obviously the scenes were very tense and stressful, and being able to symbolically see where it all took place in person was pretty moving.
After another caffeine refill at this great coffee shop called Westberliner, and then a somber walk through the Topography of Terror, a museum documenting the chilling rise and fall of the Nazi regime, we took the U-bahn over to Katz Orange, a restaurant that came highly recommended by everyone, including the New York Times.
We made our way through the small, charming courtyard to enter the restaurant. Once inside, I couldn’t help but think that I was at some sort of ski lodge in Colorado, probably because there were a lot of Navajo-themed pillows and wooden bookcases everywhere. Even the menu felt very American, because it had a lot in common with the farm-to-table places like Back Forty in the States. I mean this was the first place in Berlin that actually had kale and quinoa on the menu.
We ordered the jerusalem artichoke soup and the venison tartare as starters, and shared the highly praised duroc pork “katz orange” for two, along with the duck fat french fries. The soup had great texture, it was very light and frothy, although I wish there was more body to it. You really needed the separate pieces of savory mushrooms and succulent pieces of braised meat to give the soup more depth. The overall sensation was similar to eating a very good mushroom cream soup. A pretty solid effort, even if the soup broth alone fell a little flat.
The venison tartare arrived looking extremely raw and intense. It felt as though the meat had been put through the grinder and placed directly in the center of a wreath of kale and sweet parsnip puree. I felt like more should have been done with the raw meat, because it was a little too feral in its current state. Maybe a few herbs and some olive oil might have been the trick? It relied too much on heavy sauces instead of letting the meat speak for itself.
Up next was the duroc pork for two, which consisted of two huge pieces of braised pork meat on a plate. It was fall-off-the-bone tender and extremely delicious, but very heavy. The side of green bean salad that we ordered didn’t do much to lighten the load, and the duck fat fries of course added extra weight to the meal. We of course ordered this dish (and the fries!) knowing that it would be heavy, so it wasn’t some sort of shock that we were feeling so full, so as long as you’re prepared for that, then you will be pleased by this extremely hearty and wintry entree. The duck fat fries were outstanding and you must get these, even if you’re trying not to go overboard with your dinner.
After dinner, we made preparations for a night of clubbing so that we could dance off all these meat and potatoes. We spent all night at this place called Watergate, a club that has an amazing view overlooking the River Spree. I am not a big fan of house or techno music, but of course, this is like the only option in Germany. However, the house music was actually very good, and something about it just made me want to dance for hours, which is normally something I don’t want to do. The drinks were also reasonably priced–it’s a lot more economical to get shots than a cocktail, about 2.50 euros a shot vs 7 euros for a vodka soda, so take those shots, shots, shots, shots, shots.
Weinmeisterstraße 1, 10178 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 20003413
Bergstraße 22, 10115 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 983208430
Falckensteinstraße 49, 10997 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 61280394
Day 4 – We were pretty groggy from last night, and it was really cold today, so we were really hankering for some pho noodle soup. Berlin has a large Vietnamese community, so Vietnamese food is easy to find, and it’s probably better than the stuff in NY. The place we wanted to go to was closed (this happened to us quite a bit!), so our plan B was to go to this Chinese restaurant called Da Jia Le that ended up being pretty good. The steamed sea bass was delicious, much better than the overpriced steamed fish we had at Ping’s Seafood, and the seafood soup really hit the spot. The pan fried marinaded chicken that arrived with wrappers was fine, although the seasoning was a bit one note. Good to know that Berlin has decent Asian food!
This was a pretty lazy day, but we forced ourselves to man up and take in the major sites–the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag. As an fyi, you need to make reservations online ahead of time to tour the Reichstag. After multiple unsuccessful same day attempts, our friend was able to loop us into his 8:30 pm reservation. The audio tour is very informative, and while walking up the spiral staircase to the peak of the rooftop, it points out interesting, historical sites you can see within your vantage point outside the glass windows. So you not only learn about the Reichstag, but you also learn about other significant buildings in Berlin. You probably get a better view during the day time, but you can still get the gist of it during the night tour.
For the last supper, we went to Prince, an Asian fusion restaurant in Mitte. The food here is very similar to the stuff they serve at Buddakan, Spice Market or Hakkasan. People usually have very polarizing opinions on Asian fusion, and I tend towards the hate camp, but I thought the food at Prince was stylish and tasty. The dishes have really fun names like Party Girl and Ding Dang Dong, so don’t take it too seriously and be pleasantly surprised by how much you like it! My favorite dishes were the tofu green curry, the duck wheels, and the grilled duck. Everything else was pretty solid, and I really wouldn’t mind coming back here again if I had to.
After dinner, we had a hot chocolate and a delicious raspberry cake at a nearby cafe called Lois. It was all very satisfying and comforting, and a great way to end our Berlin trip. I had such a blast, despite the cold and some of the darker aspects of the city, and I’d definitely want to return during the spring or summer. Auf wiedersehen, Berlin, hopefully in the near future, and with a curry wurst in hand!
Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße 9, 10178 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 70093967
Linienstrasse 60, 10119 Berlin, Germany
+49 30 28096600
Da Jia Le
Goebenstr. 23, Berlin, Germany
+49 30 21459745