steal my vacation

I Ambled Around Berlin for 8 Days

Michelin-starred feasts, Mies van der Rohe buildings, and river strolls.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Courtesy Samantha Weiss-Hills
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Courtesy Samantha Weiss-Hills

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep into Tripadvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations and itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took that you can actually steal.

When Samantha Weiss-Hills, a managing editor at Domino and Dwell magazines, and her husband, Alex, were planning their travel plans for 2022, they knew a shoulder-season trip to Europe was exactly what they needed. “We don’t have children so we don’t need to build our travel around summer vacations,” Samantha says. “I really value that for a variety of reasons, but we love traveling in September and October because you miss the bigger crowds and the weather tends to be softer.” For 2022, the idea of a multicity trip to northern Europe was particularly appealing because this couple loves a busy vacation. And Berlin ticked all the right boxes.

After a week in Copenhagen, where Alex participated in a half-marathon, a full week in the German capital spoke to many of their common interests. Berlin’s size — nine times larger than Paris — was made for them. A city neither knew much about, they mostly explored Berlin on foot, often clocking in a daily walking average of seven miles. “We love to walk,” Samantha says. And the city’s cultural landscape allowed the couple to tap into their love of food, art, wine, and architecture. Their trip even aligned with the Berlin Marathon, during which they cheered on friends from around the world. “I wouldn’t say we’re restful travelers,” says Samantha. “When we travel, we love to be enmeshed in the fabric of local life.”

Day 1

7 p.m: Arrive in Berlin and take the U Bahn to the hotel

After a week in Copenhagen, where Alex ran a half-marathon, we arrived in Berlin via a seven-hour-long train ride. We both enjoy train travel a lot; it was quite easy. And while it was a rainy day in Copenhagen, the weather became progressively more beautiful as we made our way to Berlin.

From Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train station, we took the metro (or U Bahn in German) to the Michelberger Hotel (Warschauer Strasse 39-40) in Friedrichshain, where we stayed for four nights. It’s a cool neighborhood in the east of the city, and the hotel is often frequented by the locals who live nearby. They’re mostly hanging out at the wine bar. There was even a band playing when we arrived. Michelberger definitely felt like a hub for the neighboring community — kind of like what you would expect from an Ace Hotel.

We really wanted to book the room with a sauna, but it wasn’t available, so we settled for one of the Loft rooms, which had a tatamilike bed. We definitely chose this hotel for everything but the bed.

9:30 p.m.: Order natural wine at the hotel restaurant

After a quick walk around the neighborhood and taking a peek at the East Side Gallery, we opted for an easy first night of the trip by booking dinner at the hotel restaurant. We don’t exactly remember our meal, but we were initially drawn to the fact that the kitchen sources a large portion of produce from its own farm in Spreewald. We’re big natural-wine fans, too, and the wine list here is fantastic: We do remember enjoying too many glasses of a tasty 2020 Weingut Lassak Spatburgunder. This wasn’t our last time here. We occasionally popped in and out of the bar for the rest of the trip to try and taste more of that wine menu. We love natural wine, and Berlin is one of the great cities for it right now.

Day 2

Noon: Discover the city on foot

We had a late start to the day, which began with coffee at the hotel. Today’s plan was really to get our lay of the land by walking around Berlin a ton. Most of our day was spent in Kreuzberg, just on the western side of the Spree River and also very hip. We popped into Soultrade Record Store (Sanderstrassee 29, 12047), which was recommended to us by friends from Copenhagen. We were able to scoop up a 1975 pressing of Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert! Lunch was a casual doner kebab at Imren Grill (Karl-Marx-Strassee 75). It’s apparently one of the only places in Berlin that’s still making its own meat stick.

3 p.m.: Wander through the Jewish Museum Berlin

We ended up spending a few hours exploring the galleries of the Jewish Museum Berlin (Lindenstrasse 9-14). Overall, it was a very moving experience, but we also really wanted to see Gilad Ratman’s video installation called Drummerrsss from 2020. Afterward, we decided to aimlessly walk toward where we were planning on having predinner drinks. The way the sunset hits Berlin casts a really romantic vibe. It almost felt like we were in Paris.

7 p.m.: Drink more natural wine

Mosto (Friedel Strasse 29) is known for being one of the top natural-wine bars in the city. And it really captures the intimate vibe of a neighborhood bar. Inside, it looks like you’re hanging out in someone’s living room. The outdoor area is full of furniture that could have stumbled out of an antiques store.

8 p.m.: Order multiple burrata dishes

Jaja (Weichsel Strasse 7) was recommended to us by a wine-bar owner from Brooklyn. We didn’t make a reservation, but we managed to slip right in. We didn’t realize it when we got there, but they were actually hosting a pop-up dinner with Ducksoup, a wine bar from London. We had lots of bright pickled veggies, a fantastic burrata dish, and gnocchi with smoked burrata. A fabulous, indulgent surprise! Just what we needed after a day of walking for nearly eight miles.

Day 3

10 a.m.: See the Berlin Wall

After Alex’s early-morning run along Spree River, we struck out for more of Berlin’s cultural highlights, including the Berlin Wall Memorial (Bernauer Strasse 111), followed by a light lunch at Prater Beer Garden (Kastanienallee 7-9). We arrived in the early afternoon on a crisp day, so it was very quiet. There was a small mix of locals and tourists. Alex ordered a Berliner weisse with raspberry syrup and I had a witbier. We snacked on potato salad and a soft pretzel, my favorite. Speaking of my favorites, we decided to visit Kollwitzplatz, a leafy square in Prenzlauer Berg. It’s named after a beloved artist, Kathee Kollwitz.

8 p.m.: Tuck into a Michelin-starred dinner

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel; we had one of our big dinners at the only spot where we reserved a table ahead of our trip: Michelin-starred Nobelhart & Schmutzig (Friedrich Strasse 218). We were keen on its menu because of its commitment to local ingredients and lightheartedness. The atmosphere was immediately warm and welcoming, not too precious. We loved that the dining room was situated around the kitchen in a large square, but that you could see other people across the way, catching glimpses of their experience.

The bar-height chairs were unbelievably comfortable and the lighting was quite moody low — kinda sexy! The owner, Billy, was exuberant and swanned about the room pouring wine and schnapps; a natural host. It was clear that they were all talented and focused, but the energy was light and with a sense of humor. We started with a bread course that was paired with a literal urn of butter. We both marveled at dishes of warm cucumbers and mustard, guinea fowl slicked with sauce, and a beurre gris pear sliced in half and coated in crunchy buckwheat. The entire meal unspooled like an invitation to see German cuisine in a new light.

Day 4

10 a.m.: Tour Berlin’s Soviet architecture

Another day with lots of walking around: It started along Karl-Marx Allee, which runs just east of Alexanderplatz, the city’s de facto center. It was very casual and mostly based on independent research. We were interested in seeing the juxtaposition of neoclassical and modernist buildings, but our favorite was the cubelike home of Kino International — the theater designed by Josef Kaiser in 1958 — because we love film.

On our walk (we clocked six miles), we happened upon the beautiful exterior of Zur Letzten Instanz (Waisen Strasse 14-16), a restaurant that has been operating since 1621. After making a lunch reservation for our last day, we scooted through Museum Island to take a look at the Humboldt Forum.

1 p.m.: Order beans at the city’s newest art hotel

Because we weren’t able to stay there (it wasn’t quite ready for guests during our trip), we were excited to check out the new art-filled hotel Château Royal (Neustädtische Kirch Strasse 3) in the Mitte district. As an editor at a design magazine, I was particularly captivated by designer Irina Kromayer’s inviting and layered interiors. We loved the handmade craquelé tile, pendant lamps inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte, and the smooth oak paneling. We ate lunch at the bar, drinking Grauburgunder out of gorgeous Gabriel Glas wineglasses, and I had a dish called “In Beans We Trust”. They were very good beans.

3 p.m.: Pay your respects at Holocaust memorial sites

We are both Jewish, so when we travel, visiting sites that are connected to Jewish history and culture is important to us. We took some time to reflect at the Holocaust Memorial (Cora-Berliner-Strasse 1), as well as the memorial dedicated to LGBTQ+ persecution during the same time. This was an especially poignant visit considering it was during Rosh Hashanah.

Before heading back to the hotel to chill out, we decided to walk by Brandenburg Gate (Pariser Platz), which is where the Berlin Marathon finishes. Preparations were underway, so we could really feel the anticipatory atmosphere there. It was very exciting.

8 p.m.: Snack on sardines and fried potatoes

After a couple of hours of relaxing at the Michelberger, we snuck out to Bar Normal (Oderberger Strasse 7) for dinner. Come for the great wine list and crowd-watching (the scene was of well-dressed locals who looked like they were ready for a party), but stay for the marinated sardines in chili oil, skate wing, and two whole fried potatoes covered in dollops of aioli and scallions. You’re in Germany so you gotta get into a potato the size of the moon.

Day 5

11 a.m.: Switch to a hotel in West Berlin

Alex started the day by taking a run that follows part of the Berlin Marathon. Afterward, we checked out of Michelberger and hopped on a U Bahn to the western side of the city to check into the second hotel of our stay. Because we were staying for over a week, we wanted to base ourselves in both sides of Berlin.

Max Brown Hotel Ku’Damm (Uhland Strassee 49) wasn’t 100 percent our style, but online it looked like it had nice, large rooms. Ours had a balcony and a great sunroof. And they kept telling us that they have the best beds in Berlin, so we were sold. We don’t know if that’s accurate, but we were very happy to sleep in those beds, which were covered with this beautiful Hay quilt. All the details were lovely. And very comfortable. Pro tip: The pastries at the coffee bar, all made in-house, are incredible.

1 p.m.: Shop around Berlin’s version of Fifth Avenue

The neighborhood of Ku’Damm is very upscale, especially compared to the eastern half of the city. It has wide, leafy streets where you’ll find high-end stores. It’s not unlike Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. We took time to visit some great shops like the historic department store Kadawe (Tauentzien Strasse 21-24), which typically welcomes something like 50,000 visitors a day, and small local spots such as Glasklar (Knesebeck Strasse 13), where you can find every imaginable type of glass. We picked up a set of the Gabriel-Glas wineglasses we drank out of at Chateau Royal.

Then, as recommended by friends, we had a casual, affordable lunch of vegi nem, bánh mì chay, and chicken rice at Madame NGO (Kantstrasse 30).

4 p.m.: Sample the best bed in Berlin

This was one of our quieter days, where we spent a lot of time in the best bed in Berlin — a.k.a. napped most of the afternoon. Then it was dinner at Frieda (Lychener Strasse 37), an intimate café where the focus is on seasonal ingredients. Some of the standouts that night were nakaochi of tuna (the meat that’s scraped off fish bones), stuffed pasta with tomato butter and burnt kombu, and delightful squiggly towers of ice cream. Then it was back to the best bed in Berlin.

Day 6

9 a.m.: Watch the Berlin Marathon

After fueling up on hotel coffee, we headed to mile two of the marathon course to cheer on our friends, one of whom even qualified for the Olympic trials. The city really showed up for the race; the vibe was electric. We eventually moved on to mile 25, which is further south of the city, and that’s where the party atmosphere amped up — there was even a marching band there.

Noon: Visit the Neue Nationalgalerie

We were planning on meeting up with everyone once the marathon was over, but in the meantime, we decided to pop into the Neue Nationalgalerie (Potsdamer Strasse 50). It wasn’t a blockbuster show or anything, but it was nice to see a lot of the collection, and most important, the stunning Mies van der Rohe building it’s all housed in.

6 p.m.: Celebrate with friends

By midafternoon, many had completed the marathon, including two-time Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, who beat his own world record. It was very exciting to be there for it, which made the already lively ambience even more dramatic. Then we popped over to BRLO Brwhouse (Schöneberger Strasse 16) for a party thrown by our friends from Bandit Running to celebrate the marathon.

A late night found us at El Borroquito (Wieland Strasse 6), a lively Spanish restaurant we had flagged from the 2015 edition of Phaidon’s Where Chefs Eat book. A plate of potato salad immediately appeared when we sat down, and there was very good house wine, lamb, and cod fritters. There wasn’t much else open at the time, but we probably wouldn’t have made a different decision anyway.

Day 7

11 a.m.: Take an active recovery with lots of walking

After the celebratory mood of the previous day and night, we decided to take it slow today. (But surprise, we still walked about eight miles!) We started in the city’s green lung, the massive Tiergarten. We were there for over two hours. It’s like Central Park, but it felt like an actual forest. How is this even in the middle of Berlin? There were manicured gardens; there’s water running through it. You get this feeling of remoteness, but you’re in the heart of a big European capital. It plucks you out of reality for a bit. Everything was both very green and very relaxing.

During the marathon, we heard a lot of the runners talking up a bakery called Sofi (Sophien Strasse 21), so we decided to point our walk in that direction. On our way there, we took time to stop by Sophienkirche, a church where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1964.

2 p.m.: Hang with locals over pastry

To get to Sofi, you have to enter into a courtyard where creatives, locals, and students hang out. The soothing, minimalist interiors were designed by Danish architects Mathias Mentze and Alexander Vedel Ottensten in collaboration with Dreimeta, but we spent most of our time in the courtyard with focaccia and a miso blueberry-filled pastry.

Day 8

1 p.m.: Tackle a classic German feast

Our last day in Berlin was all about indulging, which included a long lunch at Zur Letzten Instanz (Waisen Strasse 14-16), the restaurant we stumbled on when walking around earlier in the trip. This was the most “traditional” of our meals in Berlin. Because we drank a lot of natural wine, we actually had to try hard to find classic German wines. The Riesling here was a very good pairing for this decadent onion tart with a soft cheese on top.

Lunch was great but very heavy, so we decided to burn all of it with another meandering walk, this time down to Kreuzberg along the Spree, stopping at Concierge Coffee (Paul-Lincke-Ufer 39-40) for a pick-me-up, the FHXB Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum (Adalbert Strasse 95A) for some local history, and then over to Voo Store (Oranien Strasse 24) to fit in a little shopping.

8 p.m.: Head back to a favorite for a farewell dinner

We loved Jaja (Weichselstrasse 7) so much that we wanted to experience its normal menu service, which includes 200 different labels of natural wine. The just-spicy-enough kimchi beef tartare and the slices of strawberries drizzled with shaved feta did not disappoint. They were the perfect last bites of our trip.

Samantha’s Berlin Packing List

Bandit has maybe the softest pants on the market. Its leggings and joggers are made for travel. I love the calf-zipper detail on its classic track pants.

My skin loves this brand, and I always need a little extra moisturizing on a trip.

$26 for 4

When I’m traveling, I never seem to get enough hydration. I love these little tablets for a boost of energy for long walks, casual jogs, and energy in general.

I love how tiny this point-and-shoot camera is, and if you do some digging, you can find one with a flash (worth it).

[Editor’s note: The Olympus XA2 is only available used, but there are many available on Amazon and eBay.]

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I Ambled Around Berlin for 8 Days