• Berlin on a budget: Four free/cheap things to do

    brandenburg tor gate at night berlin

    Berlin is the place to be if you’re an arty, hip, vegan.

    But even if you’re none of those things (like me), odds are you’re still going to fall in love with this colourful, vibrant city. We got to experience two sides of it during our visit – the quiet suburban neighbourhood, with blocky apartments and all – and the edgy eastern area. I think that one of the first sights we laid eyes on in Berlin sums up the city nicely: a skate park, bike trail and community garden, all slotted in tightly alongside a railway track.

    Best of all, Berlin is ridiculously affordable in comparison to some other European cities (cough Munich cough). Our arty hostel cost 18 euros a bed, for example, and the awesome soup cafe down the road clocked in at under 5 euros a meal. Just walking around provides free entertainment in spades – my favourite surprise sights included a random abandoned-looking circus and a dodgy park where we napped in the sun and observed covert drug deals being done from afar.

    berlin circus

    Seriously, though, there are tons of frugal ways to enjoy yourself in Berlin. My recommendations:

    Visit the Brandenburg Tor at night (free)
    This imposing gate is impressive at any time of day, but it takes on an ethereal glow when lit up in the dark. Go, and thank me later.

    It started raining on us about halfway there, but instead of turning back, we bought an umbrella from the nearest shop and forged on (which later served us equally well in the sweltering heat of Venice and Athens). Amidst the wind and wet, the Brandenburg Tor lit up the night like a beacon at the end of the road – a sight for sore eyes on our first night in Germany.

    Buy strawberries from a street stand (cheap)
    I’ve been horribly spoiled by European produce. This continent has shown me the light, with the sweetest berries and tomatoes I ever did taste, and in comparison, the stuff we get at home doesn’t even register. Buy a carton of strawberries from a street vendor, devour, and hold back tears of ecstasy. The fruit quite literally melts off the stem and drenches your mouth with its goodness. Once you start, you can’t stop.

    Eat at Burgermeister (cheap)
    Plunked firmly underneath a U-bahn station, Burgermeister dishes up a range of hearty burgers for under 5 euros. The tables go fast, so you might have to perch on one of the plastic crates, or head across the road to one of the nearby public benches. Be prepared to wait a while, and try not to think about the fact that the place used to be a public restroom.

    Check out the rock climbing scene (free/cheap, depending on whether you watch or partake)
    If you’re in the area, wander through Cassopeia on the East Side – the old industrial compound houses some outdoor climbing areas next to a few grungy bars. Alternatively, spend an afternoon exploring the Volkspark, which caters to everyone from bikers to beach volleyballers to climbers.

    Ever been to Berlin? Any other budget-friendly recommendations for passing the time there?

  • Apple juice! Lakes! Bikes! And other Munich highlights

    munich marienplatz

    If there is one reason one should always wear a bra, it’s the flexibility to go for a swim at any time.

    It was a devilishly hot day in Munich as we strolled through the English garden, so I naturally cursed the fact that I couldn’t join the swarms of people jumping into the river. (We later heard that there are parts of the park where locals swim/sunbathe in the buff, but we weren’t in that area, and I’m really not down with swimming sans clothing myself.)

    But then! This happened…

    Surfing in the park

    A little further down, we spotted a few guys carrying surfboards. Eh? Curiosity piqued, we followed them and wound up at a bridge where surfers were queued up on both sides of the river, taking turns to ride the waves that surged out from under the bridge on a rolling basis. Munich may be landlocked, but the surfers have found ways to get their fix.

    Staying in a centuries-old farmhouse

    Our Hospitality Club host happened to live in Kranzberg, a small village north of Munich, in an ancient farmhouse where the bathroom floor sagged and they made their own apple juice. (It was hands down best apple juice I’ve ever tasted, and we must have guzzled close to a dozen bottles during our stay.) Not only was the surrounding interesting, he was a fascinating character himself – an accomplished scientist with a bunch of patents to his name, an artist, a musician, and an extensive traveller.

    kranzberg village architecture

    Biking through the countryside

    Despite a shaky start – I literally haven’t gotten on a bike for over a decade –he let us use his bikes for a day trip, and oh boy. We killed ourselves out there. Riding to secluded lakes for a swim, through forest trails and to nearby Freising took us the better part of a day, and we felt it all over the next day. I literally had bruises on my thighs for a week (a combination of bad technique and a too-big bike, methinks).

    Rolling around in a BMW

    There’s plenty to satisfy gearheads in Munich, not least the BMW Welt (free to visit) and the BMW Museum (not free). You can also rent a BMW, either by the hour, for a day, or overnight – they call it a test drive, but they charge you for the privilege. That said, it’s not a bad price, and if you’re under 25 you won’t be excluded – you just won’t be able to take out the higher powered models. How it works is that you pay by the hour for up to three hours, and beyond that, you won’t pay any extra for the whole day. It’s a wacky way to structure pricing, but it’s a good gimmick. More info and fees here.

  • Four things that blew my mind in Berlin

    berlin beach bar

    The beach bars
    Berlin might not have an ocean, but it DOES have a river. And along that river are a handful of beach bars, complete with sand, hammocks, and recliners – perfect for chilling out with a cold bevvie for an hour or so in the middle of the day. Ingenious.

    The glass
    Overall, I found Germany to to be surprisingly environmentally conscious. Everything gets separated out for recycling, and almost all the bottles are made out of glass. Apparently they’re very conscious about PET plastic here. Drinking outdoors (e.g. at one of these rocking beach bars)? You’re probably going to get charged 2 euros as a deposit, which you get refunded when you return your bottle to the bar/counter.

    (Related: I can’t remember the last time I saw a sipper bottle on this continent. Even the water bottles/sports drinks all come in flat screw top lids, which is so very different from home.)

    graffiti murals berlin
    The art
    According to T, I have a talent for finding us accommodation in the “ghetto”. We stayed in the east for a few days, not far from East Side Gallery, where graffiti is rampant and the streets are, well, gritty. Whatever. The street art here is unreal. As for the remains of the Berlin Wall, they weren’t as physically tall as I expected, but the murals were every bit as vibrant and emotional as I could have imagined.

    Over the Oberbaum bridge, you might spot a freaky pink man creeping up the side of a building – but look closer, and you’ll see he’s made up of countless small skeletons. Or, a little further along, a man in handcuffs, which upon a second look, are actually golden watches. Now that’s dark.

    The gardens
    As our awesome Hospitality Club host in Berlin explained, a lot of apartment-dwellers (like him and his girlfriend) rent gardens so they can create a little oasis for themselves. There are little garden communities all over, where tenants can landscape their patch, build little houses, and get away from the hustle and bustle. For all that, though, there are plenty of regulations. You have to dedicate a certain amount of your land to growing fruit/vegetables, and you can’t live in your little house on a permanent basis. It’s strictly a part-time kind of thing.

    This COMPLETELY blew my mind; gardens and backyards are something we definitely take for granted in New Zealand. /shameface