The Expat Explore “Europe Jewel” Tour is a great opportunity to see a lot of Europe in a very short time, but there were specific cities that we wanted to visit which weren’t covered in the tour, so we decided to extend the beginning and end of the trip to accommodate this.
The official tour started in London and then moved to Amsterdam for a day, before moving on to the Rhine Valley in Germany. Because of the extra admin in VISA’s, limited amount of time that we would be there and the fact that we had both done a fair amount of London travel, we decided to skip the UK leg of the tour and start our trip with a few days in Berlin and then move to Amsterdam early to spend a few extra days there before the rest of the tour arrived. Neither of us had ever been to Berlin so this was a highly anticipated stop and even though we had both been to Amsterdam, one does not really get enough of that amazing city so we wanted another do-over.
The final stop of the tour is in Paris and we also decided to extend the stay in the French capital and then also head over to Brussels, which we have never been and then instead of flying directly home via Istanbul, also stay a few more days here to experience the city. Following the airport bombings and coup attempts, we did have initial reservations but we have decided to put our big boy and girl panties on and take advantage of the opportunity to see this spectacular city with such a rich history. (AM)
Getting to Berlin
We flew Turkish Airlines via Istanbul so it didn’t make much of a difference cost wise where we connected to from there. The airline was definitely the cheapest option although getting to Berlin from Cape Town involved a stop over in Durban before the transit in Istanbul to Berlin Tegel airport.
For some reason we thought our flight out was at 19:30 on the Sunday evening (and by “we” I mean Girlfriend said so… tltltltl) only to find out a few days before that it’s actually 13:30. Amper a very bad start to the trip.
Although our flight out of Cape Town was slightly delayed we managed to get our connecting flight to Berlin on time. I personally don’t have the best track record of connecting flights via Istanbul airport either missing them completely previously or being ridiculously delayed. Girlfriend has been adamant to not let my “travel karma” rub off on her. She’s so dramatic.
The flight landed at 05:30 and our transfer was at 07:30 arriving in Berlin at 09:50. Flying overnight definitely helps and time zones are only an hour apart so we planned to hit the ground running.
I always expect the worst when going through passport control in Europe because they seem to grill me about every minute detail of my trip. This time round was pleasantly painless though. A 35minute taxi ride later and we were at our apartment near Treptower park. (AM)
Staying in Berlin
We had decided to rent an apartment via AirBnB in Treptower Park, Berlin. It was the perfect holiday apartment AND it’s considered one of the best areas to be in! The studio apartment had a beautiful view of the Spree River and we just had to join the Berliners by walking around the Treptower park during dusk – this of course was around 21:15. I just love these late sunsets!
The apartment was:
5 minutes walk from Treptower station
5 minutes walk from Treptower Park
Less than 3 minutes from our local café where we could purchase all the necessary snacks. (TL)
Getting around Berlin
Remember this is Europe, so be prepared to walk! There is also a huge cycling culture, so keep that in mind too when walking about. Because the train station wasn’t too far, it was pretty easy to navigate our way from Treptower Park to Ostbahnhof to get our first Hop-On-Hop-Off Sightseeing bus. We had pre-booked these tours because that way we knew we’d see just about all the most important parts, but better than that, this is also a wonderful ‘free’ mode of transport. You get to hop off at the spot where you like to take pictures and do extra walking tours, etc and then you wait for the next bus to arrive.
Because we booked 3 different tours, we decided to do the first 2 completely and then decided afterwards where we’d like to head back to, then do the last tour on day 2. This POA proved to be quite successful! (TL)
The sightseeing bus tours
The Traditional tour covers mainly the centre of Berlin so you have to take note of this if you are only going to do one of the tours. This tour does cover some really iconic historic buildings as well as key points of the Berlin wall and even a few modern attractions for shopping and eating. (AM)
What stood out for me was:
The Berliner Dom (the Berlin Cathedral in English) is the short name for the Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church
Checkpoint Charlie (or “Checkpoint C”) was the name given by the Western Allies to the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War.
This is one of the best-known landmarks of Berlin. The area around the gate was featured most prominently in the media coverage of the tearing down of the wall in 1989, and the subsequent German reunification in 1990.
Throughout its existence, the Brandenburg Gate was often a site for major historical events and is today considered a symbol of the tumultuous history of Europe and Germany, but also of European unity and peace.
Or Victory Column was designed after 1864 to remember Prussia winning the Danish-Prussian war.
This is the Berlin Central station and seems more like an airport than a train station. It was made of 15 000 glass panels and initially they had a robot – yes, a real robot! – clean it. However the robot wasn’t very successful and they’ve since reverted to the ‘human touch’ again. You need someone to guide you around this station, not only is it daunting, but you can get caught up in watching so many different people and things! (TL)
Aexanderplatz is one of the popular squares also included on this route and definitely worth hopping off to go walking around the shops in Alexa Mall as well as the various food vendors around the plaza. (AM)
Wall & Lifestyle Tour
The Wall and Lifestyle tour is self explanatory in that it really gives you a more in depth look at the Berlin Wall. Other stops take you to popular galleries and restaurants within the city. (AM)
What stood out for us:
Mauergedenkstätte (Berlin Wall Memorial)
This is the Berlin Memorial and gives you a much better idea of exactly how big this wall was. Firstly, it wasn’t one wall, it was two with a huge part inbetween covered in barbed wire and with lookout towers from where the guards patrolled the area. This area in between the two walls was known as ‘No man’s land’.
East Side Gallery, the longest preserved part of the Berlin Wall where they asked local artists to depict their interpretation on the history of Berlin. (TL)
There clearly is still more to see and that’s why there is the Westend Tour to explore the old West Berlin. You can see places such as Charlottenburg Palace (built by King Friedrich I who proclaimed himself a King in Prussia in 1701 by the way, this palace took 95 years to build, which means he never got to see the finished product)
Seeing that we are in the Olympic season with the Olympics currently taking place in Brazil, we continued on the tour and decided to stop over at the Olympic Stadium. This stadium was originally built for the 1936 Olympics. This is like CT stadium, just much bigger and built in stone – really, really beautiful! We then headed to the Bell Tower in the Olympic Park, which is something you have to do. The views of the entire Berlin from the tower is breathtaking and believe me, you will be spending lots of time there because you just can’t stop taking pictures. ☺ (TL)
Budgeting for Berlin
There are few people who love budgets more than girlfriend so you can imagine we had spreadsheets and charts for the trip before we left. Having planned this 18months in advance we had time to work out expenses properly and save accordingly, which helped a lot. The best thing we could have done was paying for most things last year already before our President started playing Finance Minister musical chairs as the cost of most things was up by over 50% in most cases.
The budget was split according to flights, Expat explore tour (which included transport, accommodation as well as some meals and activities over the 14 days), additional transport, accommodation, meals, spending money and activities outside the Expat Explore tour.
The total sum of this was then split into monthly installments that we each had to put away as savings in the build up to the trip all nicely laid out in girlfriend’s excel document.
For the duration of the trip we worked on a €30 person daily budget to cover food and transport. We did quite well on the Berlin, operating below the budget on each day. Spending money on clothing, gifts, entertainment and other expenses is going to be relative to each individual and we kept this outside the planned budget. (AM)
5 things to consider when planning a trip to Berlin
1. Time of the year: This will determine not only the weather that you experience but also the cost of things. We chose August because Europe is just coming out of summer so it’s still relatively pleasant but the prices are not as high as the peak summer months between May and July.
2. Length of stay: Berlin is big so if you want to get an in depth experience, give yourself some time. We were there for 3 days and only scratched the surface. This was just long enough to cover the basic tourist attractions.
3. Where you stay: you want to be able to access all the places you want to see easily, so do your research on locations. We ended up staying in a beautiful area near Treptown Park but it definitely wasn’t central. Although everything easily accessible by train there isn’t a lot of night activity in the area and a small corner cafe was all we could really use for basic essentials
4. Online connections: if you aren’t data roaming while you are traveling (which would be an insane thing to do) make sure your accommodation has wifi. You will need it to find search for info about the city and find your way around. Download Citymapper!!! It will save your life and is the easiest way to navigate public transport across Europe. A tip not known to most people is that you can still navigate your way around a city oversees using your Apple maps because this uses GPS signal and not data.
5. The language: Europeans are extremely proud of their languages. You will be doing yourself a huge favour by just learning a few key German phrases when communicating with the locals. Even if it’s “Do you speak any English?” (AM)
Everyone was happy to assist though wherever we went and the one gentleman that couldn’t, actually ended up Google translating a word so that we could understand what he was saying (TL)
Curry Wurst is considered the delicacy of Berlin/Germany and it’s mentioned by everyone on every tour. In Berlin alone, approximately 63 million curry wurst units are consumed annually – I had to try it for myself! I was told not to ask what is inside the ‘wurst’, but what is on top is curry. Try it, it is delicious!