When I told people I was planning to go to Berlin, the most frequent response was “why?”
I didn’t really understand this reaction. All I’ve been reading for the last few years is how vibrant Berlin has become, how interesting to visit, how offbeat and arty. That sounds like a fun place to visit to me, anyway, and I wanted to experience it for myself.
So did it live up to the hype, or am I now going to be replying to others with skepticism when they tell me they plan to go to Berlin?
Well, let’s see.
First, the good:
Berlin is actually pretty scenic, in it’s own, austere way. You’ve got to be into a graffiti aesthetic, maybe, to really consider it “beautiful,” but I was charmed by the river and the forceful architecture.
You can explore a lot of it, and quickly. I planned to have about a day and a half in Berlin, which was enough time to hit the highlights as long as I completely disregarded the health of my feet, which I did. I want to just say sorry and thank you to my black booties. You were good to me, I’m sorry our journey had to end in a hotel trash can in London.
There’s more to see than you might think! There’s Haus Schwarzenberg, Alexander Platz, Museum Island, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten and the remnants of the wall on the East side. You’ll see a ton of street art, architecture, history, and one tiny little guardhouse.
German food = carbs! Since I was visiting in winter, I took full advantage. I started my first day with a giant beef-stuffed onion and ended with a massive doner kebab sandwich the size of my head, which I ordered entirely in German, dankeverymuch! Breakfast was a giant cinnamon bun, or Zimtschnecke. Isn’t that such a great word? I never did get to try the city’s famous curry wurst, my stomach just didn’t have the room, but I guess I have something to look forward to next time, because…
The not so good:
I couldn’t thinking that I’d arrived in Berlin a few months too soon. All the closed outdoor bars I passed along the river and shuttered biergartens made me realize it must be an amazing place to visit in Summer. In the first week of March, the city still feels a bit like it’s in hibernation.
Apart from a range of sightseeing, I also experienced a full range of weather, from sunshine to rain to hail, sometimes all three at once.
I also got spit on by a passing cyclist, which was kind of the low point, obviously, but since my high school German hasn’t stuck with me enough to decipher what he yelled at me as he rode past, I can’t really say what he found so offensive about my presence.
The reaction when I told people I was going to Prague was a bit more positive. It seems like everyone I know has been to Prague at some point or knows someone who went to Prague. Judging by the amount of tourists in Prague, I’d believe it if you told me visiting the Czech Republic had now become mandatory for the entire human race. Copenhagen and Berlin felt quiet, Prague felt FULL.
My mom, who had met me in Berlin before we took the train to Prague, confirmed this for me. This was her second time in the city, but her last trip was in the early 90s, when many central European countries were just emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. On that trip, she said it was hard to even find an open restaurant! In 2019, it was a completely different story, with the tourism infrastructure firmly in place.
Every other shopfront had a board out front advertising the best goulash, dumplings, and various pork parts I didn’t even realize people could eat. All, of course, to be washed down with a pilsner. And in between the restaurants, there are infinite ice cream shops advertising various soft serve flavors swirled into Prague’s most famous pastry, the chimney cake, or trdelník. And if you are full from all the pork knees and ankles and various carbs, there’s a million tourist shops where you can buy a marionette version of whatever celebrity you wish.
If it sounds like I’m coming down on Prague, I promise I’m not. I really loved it, and I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere else that felt so Europe, Capital E to me. But the transition from a Berlin that felt like it was sleeping to a city absolutely mobbed with people was a bit shocking.
But it’s ok. Because if you look past all the people pushing you and making you late for boat tours, the architecture and age of Prague can be truly stunning. In the Old Town Square, you can stop and stare forever at the Astronomical Clock and its intricate workings. Then there’s the Charles Bridge, which was built by the Romans in 1402 yet is somehow still sturdily standing. You can make the violently windy trip across it to the other side of the city, and hike or take the tram up the winding, cobblestoned streets to Prague Castle. The tram will be easier but the hiking will help with the beer.
Oh, did I mention Prague is a beer city?
While you are up atop the hill by Prague Castle, skip the Starbucks and head over to the Strahov Monastery and try their house beers, brewed right on site. Or, you can head back down the hill and choose to believe the sign claiming the oldest tavern in Prague, and stop in for their beer, also brewed in house and just a tad unfiltered. There, you can linger too long taking portrait mode photos with your giant mugs of beer and miss your river cruise. Totally worth it.
Once you’ve had your fill of beer, head out for just one more meal of stews and dumplings and potatoes. It’s ok, it’s cold outside and cabbage is a vegetable, I promise.