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2 Ways to See Berlin

Taxis are a great way to blow your budget: instead, take the U-Bahn rapid transit system to hop around the sprawling city.

Photo: Christian Kerber

There are no toilets at Burgermeister, which is somewhat curious as the place itself is really a toilet. I don’t mean that disparagingly; I mean it is actually a 19th-century cast-iron public bathroom that’s been recommisioned as an Imbiss, or snack joint. Before leaving for Berlin, I’d asked local food critic Stefan Elfenbein for some suggestions. He instructed me to find the “renovated restroom under the train station near your hotel.” I figured maybe some qualifying nuance had been lost in translation. But then, having dutifully walked past the floating disco and the barge spa, past the still-standing segments of the Wall and over the twin-spired neo-Gothic Oberbaum Bridge, we found this little spot under the U-Bahn tracks with a line out the door.

There are probably more romantic ways to cap off a long weekend in Europe than a pair of chili cheeseburgers in a cold converted bathroom in East Berlin, but my girlfriend, Evyn, and I couldn’t have been happier to be here. Happy because this was great late-night fare: big burgers, sloppy and slathered in an incendiary mystery sauce. And happy because the place seemed a very Berlin sort of reinvention: friendly, exuberant, odd, and affordable. We were pleased, too, because we’d completed our mission and come in on budget.

The project was simple: one city seen through two very different lenses. It would start with a meal, a very good (and very expensive) one. Not just any kind of meal, but the particular ritual, the culinary Kabuki, of a long, indulgent lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Next, we’d take the receipt for lunch and see how and if we could survive and thrive in that same city for three days.

Essentially, this was a high-stakes version of a game I’d played tramping through Europe in college: Should we break the bank on a real dinner, even if it means a second-class train seat for a bed that night? Travel is full of these trade-offs. Ours would be an exercise in extremes: Do the pleasures of culinary excess fade as quickly as the bubbles in a flute of Rheingau Riesling Sekt? Will the happy memories of eating burgers in a bathroom last as long as the hot sauce on our breath? Picking a city was the easy part. The thrill of Berlin right now is that any- and everything is happening here—much of it new, some of it goofy, all of it inventive and fun. And cheap: Berlin is one of the most affordable European capitals. This is our tale of two cities in one.

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