June 22, 2012 at 8:33 AM ET
With miles of bike lanes, quirky pop-up museums, a massive hotel boom and some of the world’s tastiest street food, Berlin is drawing a new breed of traveler: families.
Berlin is likely to evoke vastly different images depending on when you came of age: the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall (1960s to '80s), Mike Myers's über-bored performance artist Dieter on "Saturday Night Live" (1990s), or a hipster paradise of avant-garde art galleries, after-hours dance parties, and cheap rent (2000s). But it's safe to say that few people would have predicted Berlin's latest claim to fame. Beyond the roving burlesque shows and underground supper clubs, this sprawling metropolis has become one of the best places on the continent to have — and be — a kid.
Berlin's softer side has been nurtured from many sources. For one thing, it has good, kid-friendly bones, in the form of abundant parks and sidewalks wide enough to accommodate most baby-stroller traffic jams. Add that to the government's pro-family work-life policies and the laid-back vibe that's accompanied its rise as the "Silicon Allee" of Europe and you end up with a youthquake unlike anything the city has seen in decades. With a massive new international airport opening this year, the crowds will undoubtedly keep coming.
The city is already experiencing the kind of tourism explosion most destinations only dream of. In 2010, hotel stays in Germany were up 11.9 percent, with Berlin accounting for 41 percent of the bookings. In fact, Berlin has passed Rome to become the third-most-popular European city for visitors, after London and Paris. So what happens when an epicenter of cool is overrun by vintage 1960s Silver Cross prams? How do you explore this edgiest of European cities with kinder in tow? Here are some of our favorite stops in the new Berlin — all grown up, and ready for the whole family.
1. Pick up a bike
About half a million Berliners take to their bikes each day, so you'll be in good company on one of Berlin on Bike's rentals. Choose from city, touring and trekking bikes, all of which come with rear baskets. Even the kids can get a set of wheels, with three sizes of smaller cycles as well as child seats and trailers (reserve in advance) and helmets for all. A free route planner on bbbike.de helps you map paths through the city based on your desired speed, road surface and the availability of designated bike lanes, of which Berlin has some 400 miles. Kulturbrauerei, court 4, berlinonbike.de, $13 for 24 hours.
2. Make the most of breakfast
Breakfast is to Berlin as dinner is to Barcelona: an opportunity to dress up and visit with family and friends over an endless parade of tempting little dishes. Only here, you don't have to stay up late to partake. A true Frühstück is no small-scale continental affair: It's a cornucopia of savory salads, cold cuts, eggs, cheeses, fruit, and freshly baked breads and pastries piled high on a tiered tray. For a classic version that's as beautiful as a Renaissance still life, head to Anna Blume, a café-cum-flower shop in Prenzlauer Berg. On weekends, arrive early to claim a table on the leafy terrace (the people-watching is worth it), then let your morning meal stretch into the afternoon just like the locals do. If the kids get antsy, you can always take them to the playground at Kollwitzplatz, one block away, to clamber over wooden structures shaped like enormous vegetables. Kollwitzstrasse 83, cafe-anna-blume.de, Frühstück for two $23.
3. See the writing on the Wall
For almost 30 years, the most potent symbol of the Cold War was the 96-mile Berlin Wall. Today, less than a mile of it remains, and it's all at the East Side Gallery (eastsidegallery.com), a freedom memorial that runs along the Spree River in Friedrichshain. Originally completed in 1990, many of the more than 100 paintings have recently been restored by their creators (with more updates scheduled). Yet while Wall art is (thankfully) a dead art form, wall art is everywhere. Berlin is an urban canvas, full of fences, façades and subway cars featuring the graffiti of local taggers and international artists alike, some of whom (Banksy, Swoon, Blu) sell similar work on the world art market. Online magazine Berlin Graffiti (berlingraffiti.de) keeps tab of the newest tags, while Benjamin Wolbergs's "Urban Illustration Berlin: Street Art Cityguide" ($30, Gingko Press) contains artist interviews, a pull-out map of key pieces and snapshots of over 500 of the city's most compelling works.
4. Climb around in a church
Not all art in Berlin is conspicuous. The MACHmit! Museum for Children (which roughly translates to "join in!") hides within a converted Protestant church and is outfitted with Bauhaus-inspired climbing shelves, fun-house mirrors and a series of hands-on arts and crafts and cooking exhibits (Senefelderstrasse 5, machmitmuseum.de, $6). Transit geeks with good timing can immerse themselves in the history of the city's subway at the pop-up Berliner S-Bahn-Museum, hosted by a group of train enthusiasts in a former railway station the second weekend of the month, from spring through autumn (S-Bahn Griebnitzsee, s-bahn-museum.de, adults $2.75). There, guests can play conductor behind the wheel of a drive simulator modeled on century-old technology.
5. Refuel on the cheap
Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte may be boutique- and stroller-filled neighborhoods now, but they were once the center of the East Berlin resistance. The counterculture ethos still exists in pockets, including FraRosa Weinerei (wine bar), one of three related honor-system restaurants in Berlin where patrons pay what they will (really) for everything from lunch to tea and cakes to four-course dinners of German specialties made with organic ingredients—and, of course, wine (Veteranenstrasse 14,weinerei.com). Honigmond Kaffeehaus-Restaurant charges a bit more, though $9 for its wonderful, all-you-can-eat lunch buffet is still a bargain. Besides, the lovely corner bistro has had a fascinating life: Before the Stasi secret police raided it in the late '80s, it was the unofficial headquarters of the East German opposition movement (Borsigstrasse 28, honigmond.de/restaurant.html).
6. Explore an animal planet
Built on the site of the 18th-century pheasantry that once supplied fowl to the King of Prussia's royal kitchen, the 168-year-old Zoological Garden was Germany's first zoo and, with 17,727 animals, has one of the most diverse populations in the world. Savvy visitors will want to sync their trips with the feeding times of their favorite animals (pandas at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., penguins at 1:45 p.m.), or splurge on a private, 20-minute visit with a single species, complete with zookeeper Q&A. And be sure to keep an eye out for the zoo's newest arrival, Kathi, a baby hippopotamus born in October. Hardenbergplatz 8, zoo-berlin.de, from $29.50 for a family ticket; private tours an additional $107.
7. Find a street's sweet spot
Every Berliner has a favorite secret street, a place like the cobblestoned Gräfestrasse in Kreuzberg. The four-block-long stretch serves as a microcosm of the modern city: here, Kadó, a highly focused candy store that sells 400 varieties of licorice — and nothing else (Gräfestrasse 20, kado.de, licorice from $2.10); there, Lilli Green, an eco-minded design shop that stocks the shelves with "upcycled" objects such as pencils made of old Japanese newspapers and storage baskets fashioned from recycled car tires (Gräfestrasse 7, lilligreen.de, pencils 12 for $7). And then there's Little Otik, a rustic New American restaurant whose out-of-the-shadows evolution mirrors Berlin's own. Its owners, New York transplants Kevin Avery and Jeffrey Sfire, started hosting by-appointment dinners for 10 in their pop-up supper club in February 2009, then decided to take their underground sensation public, with a changing menu of seasonal dishes such as white bean and farro soup, grass-fed rib eye with bone marrow butter, and date and almond pie with vanilla ice cream (Gräfestrasse 71, littleotik.de, entrees from $12).
8. Dive into a splashy swimming pool
If you didn't know better, Berlin might be one of the last places on earth you'd think about taking a dip. But it happens to be a swimmer's paradise — and one for all seasons. In winter, residents have their pick of 37 local Stadtbads (municipal pools), perhaps the most spectacular of which is in the gritty-but-gentrifying Neukölln district (Ganghoferstrasse 3, berlinerbaederbetriebe.de, $5.25). Built in 1914 and expanded in 1999, the Roman-style bathhouse is decked out with marble columns, soaring ceilings and fountains, plus two heated pools and a sauna. Come summer, the crowds shift to the Badeschiff, a swimming pool installed atop an old barge docked on the Spree River (Eichenstrasse 4, arena-berlin.de/badeschiff.aspx, $5.50). It's connected to land by a series of piers, where cocktail bars, a mini-spa and a "beach" of trucked-in sand spring up each season.
9. Skip the line at the Reichstag
No visit to Berlin would be complete without a tour of the Neoclassical Reichstag building, constructed in the late 19th century to house the German parliament before being ravaged by fire, bombed in war and abandoned as the seat of government in favor of Bonn. Following reunification in 1990, the Reichstag reverted to its original use, its renovations crowned by an iconic glass dome that yields sweeping panoramic views of the city 800 feet below. But entry to the building, while free, comes with a price: punishingly long lines. Avoid the wait by booking afternoon tea at the glass-walled rooftop Käfer Café, adjacent to the dome. After you've called ahead and made a reservation, enter the Reichstag through the handicapped entrance to the right of the building's west portal, then speed straight to the top. Platz der Republik 1, feinkost-kaefer.de, pastries from $1.25.
10. Make a day trip of it
Nature lovers don't have to leave the city limits to dabble in pastoral pleasures. From the Grünau S-Bahn in southeast Berlin, hop on streetcar No. 68, perhaps Germany's most scenic, and hurtle east through a corridor of green to Alt-Schmöckwitz, a tiny village at the end of the line that's bordered by three lakes (bvg.de, tram $3 each way). Or head west: Two miles from the Brandenburg border, the Waldsee Sculpture Garden is an al fresco arts gold mine (Argentinische Allee 30; hausamwaldsee.de, $9.25). There are works by contemporary German artists such as the late bronze sculptor Karl Hartung (who is getting a solo show this summer), and Ina Weber, who created an interactive mini-golf course outfitted with models of architectural ruins as obstacles. For an instant escape in the heart of the city, look no further than Berlin's newest, and largest, park: 990-acre Tempelhof airport, site of the 1948-49 Allied air lift that supplied food to West Berlin during the Soviet blockade (U-Bahn to Platz der Luftbrücke). Its defunct runways have been repurposed for bicycle races and kite-flying contests, and pick-up baseball games take place on the ramshackle diamonds where U.S. troops once played.
11. Have a food-cart feast
Hamburgers, falafel, even tacos — Berlin has them all. But for the city's best street food, check out two homegrown fusion dishes concocted decades before the term came into vogue. Currywurst, a sliced pork sausage served with a curry-laced dipping sauce, was first developed to make use of the British food products supplied to West Berlin after World War II. Some of the best in town is available seconds after you arrive: Head to the EsS-Bahn kiosks housed inside picturesque vintage streetcars just outside the main terminals at both Tegel and Schönefeld airports (berlin-airport.de, $4). When you're ready for the next course, make a beeline to Kreuzberg, where the Turkish immigrants who started settling in the area in the 1960s took their native spit-roasted lamb and savory sauces and turned them into the now-iconic döner kebab sandwich. For a twist on that classic, check out the version at Mustafa's: crisp flatbread stacked with delicately spiced chicken and shredded vegetables (Mehringdamm 32, mustafas.de, $4).
12. Learn a new move
Berlin has dance clubs (underground, after-hours and otherwise) for every taste, fetish and demographic. For longevity, however, Clärchens Ballhaus has them all beat. A bona fide Berlin institution, it's been in the business since 1913 (and appears to still attract some of its first-wave clientele). Head over early for a group tango, salsa, or swing lesson, whirl the kids around until they drop sleepily into a corner, then keep on dancing until dawn — doors won't close until the last guest leaves. Auguststrasse 24,ballhaus.de, lessons from $4.
13. See a silent film
Berlin is chock-a-block with specialty cinemas, many of which show classic Hollywood films in English. But you could see those at home, couldn't you? For a one-of-a-kind theater experience that still won't get lost in translation, buy a ticket for a silent-film screening at the Babylon in Mitte, where the musical accompaniment might be the movie's original score performed live on piano or a local DJ spinning trance music. Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse 30, babylonberlin.de, silent-film screenings $8.75.
14. Sleep like a movie star
Immerse yourself deeper still into the glamorous world of Stummfilm (silent movies) by staying at Hotel-Pension Funk, a 14-room inn located in the former home of silent film actress Asta Nielsen. Its graceful, Jugendstil chandeliers, antique wardrobes, and original architectural details (vast art nouveau windows, decorative moldings) will transport you to a bygone era — albeit one blessed with free Wi-Fi. Fasanenstrasse 69, hotel-pensionfunk.de, from $68 for doubles with a shared bath, breakfast included.
15. Or find a home away from home
For an even funkier stay, book the "band room" at the Michelberger Hotel, in a converted factory. With five single beds, a lofted sleeping area, a dining table, and big windows overlooking the communal courtyard, it feels like playing house in the best way. Warschauer Strasse 39/40, michelbergerhotel.com, doubles from $78, band room from $155.
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