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Urban staycation: Berlin without the tourists

Have you walked past Brandenburger Tor recently? Of course not, right? With rural holiday apartments and hotels booked out, travel writer Emily McDonnell took a staycation in the city. Here’s what she found.

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Our travel expert took a staycation in Berlin. Here’s how it went down. Photo: Emily McDonnell

Have you walked past Brandenburger Tor recently? Of course not, right? With rural holiday apartments and hotels booked out, travel writer Emily McDonnell took a staycation in the city. Here’s what she found.

Given that we’ve all been stuck inside on and off for the past few months, not going anywhere in order to have a break doesn’t – on the surface – sound like the most appealing option.

My first instinct, with the current travel restrictions, would be to drive out into the countryside or to the Ostsee. But that’s what everyone is doing, so 90 percent of rural holiday apartments and hotels are booked until the end of September.

So here’s the thing: no one is taking a city break right now, meaning the entire city is our playground. And it’s not like Berlin is an unattractive holiday destination. Last year over 34 million tourists stayed here overnight. 

With this in mind, I decided to take a mid-week mini-city-break. 

Traditional holiday rules apply:

  1. Limited screentime
  2. Do what I want, when I want
  3. Take recommendations and try to find “local” spots
  4. Centre all activities around eating, occasionally breaking to do something cultural
  5. Oh, and, I couldn’t sleep at home

While packing a bag with clothes and toiletries in between calls and firing off emails (my classic packing technique), I got butterflies, that wonderful tickle of anticipation, which took me a little by surprise. I was only going to round-the-corner from the Jewish Museum.

I checked in to Miniloft Kreuzberg (holiday rule #5), my temporary home that made me feel like I was in a trendy New York loft, and had a tea at Café Nullpunkt with Britta, the architect and designer of the remarkable Frizz23 complex it’s located inside.

This conversation set the tone for my 36-hour-holiday-of-gazing-at-stuff. “Look over there,” she said. “See the tower, the slanted roofs? That was one of the buildings built for the International Building Exhibition in the 1980s. No one wanted to touch this land [south of Checkpoint Charlie, near the Rocket Internet Tower], so this competition was launched to encourage creatives to help regenerate the city. And behind us? That’s the former wholesale flower market. From your apartment, you can see how the roof rolls to support the hall.”

Seeing this part of Berlin, through her eyes and with her passion for architectural and cultural design, helped shift my mind from stressed freelancer to curious tourist.

When I took a walk north searching for coffee and croissants the next morning, I just looked upwards as I strolled. I had always considered this area of Berlin to be a bit ugly and soulless, but now, with my holiday glasses on, I disagreed. A stone’s from the grand Gendarmenmarkt, I marvelled at the brightly coloured apartments with tiered windows.

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A morning at Miniloft Kreuzberg. Photo: Emily McDonnell

I was feeling pretty holiday-happy by the time I got to Zwipf, so holiday-happy that I ended up chatting to the baristas for the entire time I was there, laughing as I shovelled flaky pastry and strong coffee into myself. In my normal Berlin life, I might just exchange a few words and then just go about my day.

I couldn’t “visit” Berlin and not go to the Jewish Memorial, the Memorial to May 10, Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag Building, and despite it being the middle of the day, I effectively had these spaces to myself. The memorials did their job. I became reflective, overwhelmed with a sense of disbelief for what had happened in such recent history and a sense of disbelief for what is happening now.

After a long stroll through Tiergarten (where, I’m embarrassed to say, I got lost because I was looking at trees instead of at Google Maps) and along the Spree, the sense of disbelief continued, this time for how lucky I am to be living in such a beautiful, open, vibrant, green city. Nature worked its magic, and I felt slices of stress slip away.

Next up was Museum Island, and the Panorama by Yadegar Asisi at the Pergamonmuseum. For those of you unfamiliar with Asisi’s work, it’s bloody brilliant: 360-degree artworks combining graphics, photography, light and sound to create an immersive experience. in this case, a scene from Ancient Pergamon (a Greek city in modern-day Turkey). I’m an ancient-world fanatic, so complete with mask and audio guide, I floated around the modern museum, marvelling at the panorama and accompanying hundred-of-years-old statues and friezes (holiday rule #2). These marbles were carved by hand and look more lifelike than some people I’ve met…!

By this point, dinner was an important consideration (holiday rule #4). After a quick google, I came across a blog titled “Locals’ favorite places to eat German food in Berlin” (holiday rule #3), and decided Schnitzelei was the place for me (as a vegetarian, a schnitzel hadn’t been something I’d sought out in my day-to-day). 

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A meal at Schnitzelei. Photo: Emily McDonnell

Hidden in one of Mitte’s hinterhofs, with only my book for company (holiday rule #1), I feasted on delicious beige food (a veggie cordon bleu schnitzel plus potatoes, of course). And during this meal, I vowed to take myself out for more for solo dinner dates. I love eating alone, as it’s one of the few times you really savour every single mouthful and can let your mind wander without distraction. I only do it on holiday, which is stupid, because there is an endless list of great places to eat in this city.

Cycling back to my holiday apartment, full of food and warmth, looking at the bubblegum-coloured-sky, I thought to myself that the best things about a holiday are that it forces you out of your routine, makes you more present and opens you up for new experiences. It’s a state of mind as much as it a location.

I fell in love with Berlin all over again, and, as I sit at my laptop typing up this story, I’m daydreaming about my mid-week mini-city-break, wondering if booking another few days “away” is a little excessive… 

Here’s to more staycations in home cities!

Emily McDonnell is our German travel expert. For more inspiration and travel tips, check out her travel club The Staycation Collection.