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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

The Long Weekend: Three Action-Packed Days in Berlin

A nap, yes—but where to sleep? Hotel prices can seriously wreck a budget. So I was happy to find the Michelberger Hotel, which was all of two weeks old when I booked a “Cosy” room for a promotional rate of $78 a night.

Unlike a lot of self-consciously funky hotels around the world, the Michelberger is genuinely cool. And friendly and funny: hallway TV’s play a permanent loop of The Big Lebowski in German. Built in a refashioned factory on Warschauerstrasse in the east, the whole operation feels like a large-scale art-school project. There is free Wi-Fi and cheap coffee, and the library has wire bookshelves stuffed with travel guides and 1970’s German food magazines. The world is full of hotels with “amenities” I don’t use and gilded lobbies I’d never sit in. Here, we had more than a bed—we had a home base.

To acclimate ourselves to the city we went directly to Curry 36, a famous Currywurst Imbiss. For the uninitiated, this iconic Berlin street food—fried sausage topped with ketchup seasoned with curry powder—is a creation to behold. There is something beautifully, boldly bland to it, an altogether likable badness. For the price of two orders of Currywurst with mayonnaise-topped fries our stomachs were convinced we’d really been to Berlin. And we never had to eat it again.

On a trip like this, there are two basic approaches. One is to pay close attention to costs; structure your day around train schedules and bus routes, museum opening times and lunch deals; make lists; plot your course. The other is to just go—walk, wander, see what you see and remember to get out of the stores when the buying urge hits and to avoid expensive late-night taxi rides. We tried both, depending on our mood. Some days we planned well, hit our marks, saw the sights. The Berlin Welcome Cards we picked up at the airport got us around town on the U-Bahn and discounted admission to the Jewish Museum. We saw the city from the Reichstag (free), wandered Museum Island, watched experimental films at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and checked out the cafés around Mitte. Other mornings we lazed about the hotel and approached emerging neighborhoods the way we felt we might if we lived there. We took the tram to the Mauerpark flea market in Prenzlauer Berg, near the site of the crumbling Wall. I bargained for a useless Telefunken radio, and we stopped into one of the café stalls alongside the market for shots of glühwein, mulled wine spiked with rum.

An American friend living in Berlin had recommended a “free soup kitchen for artists.” Unfortunately, it was closed (and I wasn’t sure we’d qualify), so we tried another of her suggestions. Frarosa is a wine bar/restaurant where you drink all you like and pay whatever you choose. “You put two euros into the pig to begin,” the barman explained, pointing to a bank on the bar. “At the end, we have a talk and you pay what you think is fair for you and fair for us.” As you can imagine, this is a popular policy. Fifteen tables quickly filled with a happy, loud but not loutish crowd. The hearty pork fillet and the German wines were decent, but it was the self-serve novelty and earnest charm of the place that won us over. How charming? When it was time to vote with our euros, we put down a somewhat arbitrary 40 euros ($55) and scurried out, hoping we’d been fair to all concerned.

The next day at lunch we reserved a table at Fischers Fritz, whose formal wood-paneled dining room is one of the grandest in the city and the only one with two Michelin stars. Walking into the room you pass a rolling silver Christofle lobster press parked in the corner. It’s a message, like the giant wine glasses and the hum of service, a symbol of the haute cuisine and rarefied experience ahead. But the interesting thing is how you can enjoy these shiny emblems without the time and cost of the homard à la presse. We ordered two courses off the lunch menu for $38. For about a ninth of the price of our full-size meal at Facil, we got many of the trappings and pleasures—the really good butter, the quiet attentiveness, and a happy hour or so in a nice room away from the crowds. At the end of the meal our server delivered a chocolate pre-dessert, even though we weren’t having actual dessert.

After lunch we headed out to Friedrichshain, a neighborhood in the east that feels a million miles away from Fischers Fritz and its surrounding posh hotels and cathedrals. Berlinomat sells mostly Berlin-sourced stuff: books, clothes, a cookie cutter shaped like the Fernsehturm (Berlin’s famous TV tower). For a souvenir, I chose a postcard that folds into a paper model of the Reichstag ($3). On the way back to Planet Michelberger, we stopped at a little shop on the backstreets of Friedrichshain. There was a card with the motto arm aber sexy stamped in gold gothic lettering. “It means ‘poor but sexy,’” the shopgirl told me. “It’s a very Berlin idea.” Turns out you can get by on not very much in a place like Berlin. There’s a lot of city here for the price of a lunch. Sometimes quantity trumps quality and the most luxurious thing you can do in a place is to just show up.

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