24-Hour Layover: Berlin

When it comes to redeeming miles for travel, I'm a big proponent of maximizing your layovers. When you use miles, you generally have a lot more freedom in customizing your routing between your origin to destination. Canada's Aeroplan program, for example, allows you to have three stopovers on a single redemption for more than 24 hours, but unlimited layovers in as many places as you want, for up to 24 hours.

So I thought it'd be cool to launch a semi-regular series in which I describe what you can do in 24 hours in some cities I've visited in the past. Some of these cities were actual 24-hour layovers in my experience, while others might've been weekend breaks or longer stays. In every case, the idea is to pack as much of the city's highlights as you can into your short stay, so that you can get a feel for the place and decide if you'd like to return for longer some time down the road.

We'll get started with Berlin, Germany's capital city and one whose essence is particularly difficult to capture. Its outward appearance – one of dereliction and eerie abandonment – couldn't be more deceiving, as it's the city's unwavering attitude, its adamant belief in herself, that underlies its damaged but immense pride. Got 24 hours here? It's hardly enough for the feeling to sink in, but it just might do...

 


The Layover

In the spirit of minimizing fuel surcharges, let's say you're arriving into Berlin Tegel Airport (TXL) on Brussels Airlines 2581 at 10:55am, and departing on Swiss 977 at 10:50am the next day, giving you a healthy 23 hours and 55 minutes on the ground:

Brussels-to-Berlin
Berlin-to-Zurich


12pm | Reichstag & Brandenburg Gate

There's no time to waste. If you're travelling with lots of heavy luggage, it might be worthwhile to make use of the left luggage services at Berlin Tegel, since it's going to be a busy day ahead.

You'll want to hop on the TXL Express bus, which runs once every six minutes and costs €2.80 for a one-way journey, and get off at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the central train station. From there, it's a pleasant 15-minute walk across the River Spree (or one stop on the U-Bahn, Berlin's subway system) until you arrive at the Reichstag building.

 Reichstag

Reichstag

The Reichstag is the home of the German parliament, its distinctive neo-Renaissance exterior topped by a magnificent glass dome. If you'd like to get inside the building and check out the 360° city views from the dome, be sure to reserve a ticket in advance of your visit at the German Parliament website

Immediately adjacent to the Reichstag is perhaps Berlin's most iconic landmark: the Brandenburg Gate, which faces the impeccably grand Pariser Platz, one of Berlin's main focal points.

The quadriga (a chariot pulled by four horses) sitting atop the Brandenburg Gate was once stolen by Napoleon in 1806. Eight years later, when the Prussians occupied Paris and defeated Napoleon, they restored it to its rightful position and decided to name the neighbouring square after Paris to commemorate emerging victorious in that particular skirmish in history.

 Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

I highly recommend joining a guided Segway or bicycle tour to explore this part of the city, since there's a number of sites of historical significance in the vicinity. From the nearby Bebelplatz square and its memorial to the flagrant book-burning carried out by the Nazis here during World War II, to the site of the underground bunker where Hitler supposedly killed himself – equipping yourself with a couple of wheels is definitely the quickest way to get around and explore. 

Duck into the gigantic Mall of Berlin for a quick lunch, and that leaves you right on the doorstep of...


3pm | Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

While this museum's subject matter isn't specific to the city of Berlin itself, it remains one of the best museums I've ever visited, so it definitely has a spot on the 24-hour layover checklist. 

The exterior of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe takes the form of 2,711 concrete slabs erected across a city block, forming a large-scale, labyrinthine Holocaust memorial. Walking amongst the concrete columns is supposed to be eerily disconcerting, and is meant to mimic a mere fraction of the terror and despair the Jews of Europe suffered through.

 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The museum itself is located underground, where a series of exhibits, designed as "extensions" of the concrete slabs above ground, walk you through the entirety of Europe's darkest hour, profiling the tragic Jewish lives that suffered, succumbed, and survived.


5pm | Checkpoint Charlie

Next stop, Checkpoint Charlie. The most well-known crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin has come to symbolize the Cold War itself. The former Allied guardhouse was the site of multiple small-scale confrontations over the years of the war, even witnessing a face-off between American and Soviet tanks in 1961. It became one of the most important checkpoints along the Berlin Wall, played host to several daring escapes by East Germans, and inspired a generation of spy fiction. 

 Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Today, the Checkpoint Charlie site has been restored with the original barriers and guard booth, the American flags, and the sandbags strewn across the lot. It's a modern-day reminder, in a city now reunited, of the divisions that used to define it.

After you snap your pictures, make sure to stop by the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to learn more about the history side. And while you're here, be sure to snack on some currywurst, Berlin's trademark street food. I had grabbed one from a vendor around these parts, and it wasn't bad at all.

(A few Berliners have also given me feedback that instead of spending too much time at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, there are more authentic and better curated museums around town for absorbing the city's textured history. These include the Palace of Tears and the Topography of Terror.)


8pm | Dinner

Berlin's restaurant scene is buzzing these days, and you'll have no shortage of options when it comes to tasting the city. Some of the fancy Michelin-starred restaurants are a little out of the way, with Reinstoff perhaps being the most well-known.

Alternatively, stick to the street food way of life. On the eastern side of town you'll find Markthalle Neun (Market Hall Nine), where the lineup changes every Thursday and you'll find influences from everywhere between Mexico to Vietnam. 

If you'd rather grab a quick meal and do some souvenir shopping instead, head to Alexanderplatz, the old centre of East Berlin and the site of Berlin's tallest building, the 365-metre TV Tower. Try a made-to-order pizza or pasta from Vapiano's, a European classic, and then hit the shops around here to get your gift boxes and mementos.


10pm | Rest for the Night... Or Not!

What exactly to do in Berlin as the night approaches depends on what type of traveller you are. If you're exhausted after a long day of travel, it might be time to rest your head. If you want to redeem hotel points, the Moxy Berlin Ostbahnhof starts as low as €82/night or 20,000 Marriott points for a free night, while upscale options are plentiful as well – the Westin Grand Berlin (€185 or 10,000 Starpoints/night), Berlin Marriott (€149 or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points/night), and Ritz-Carlton Berlin (€181 or 50,000 Marriott Rewards points/night) are all outstanding choices.

On the other hand, Berlin is also one of the great European hotbeds for nightlife, and there’s perhaps no better encapsulation of that than the infamous Berghain. If you’re out of the loop, Berghain is a massive dance hall housed in a former Stalinist-era power plant, known for its incredible soundsystem and exclusive weekend parties that go on for days on end.

 Berghain

Berghain

And I do really mean exclusive: Berghain has one of the most strict and mysterious door policies of any club in the world. On any given weekend, the vast majority of eager partygoers in Berghain’s massive queues get turned away at the door for no apparent reason.

The story goes that when you arrive at the door at the door, Sven, the beast of a bouncer, sizes you up, deciding "if you can handle Berghain”. If not, off you go. It’s almost become something of an ironic badge of honour to have been turned away from Berghain, and if you enjoy getting to know a city through its nightlife, attempting to get into the world’s most exclusive club is a must-do for your one night in Berlin.

If you do manage to get in, you’d better stay hydrated, because the party isn’t stopping until noon the following day at the earliest. But you have a flight to catch, and there’s one more important thing to see…


7am | East Side Gallery

Few places in Berlin capture the spirit of the city as readily as the East Side Gallery. This 1,300 meter stretch of the Berlin Wall has since been transformed into a series of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world. Today the Gallery stands as a tribute to freedom and unity.

Grab a cup of coffee, take an easy stroll, and let the inspiration flow through you.

When it's time to head back to the airport, Berlin Ostbahnhof (Berlin East Railway Station) is right next door. Catch the train across town to Hauptbahnhof and get back on the TXL Express to bring your 24-hour stay to an close.


Conclusion

Emerging from a century marred by conflict, destruction, and geopolitical turmoil, Berlin is slowly staking its claim once again as one of Europe’s great cities. Artistic, engaging, and at times wacky, the German capital has so much to offer, and it’s no wonder that tourism has been a boon for the city in recent years. Even if you're only in town for a quick visit, follow this 24-hour guide and you'll have more than enough time to see everything you need to see.