Berlin is a city that has been built for bikes or should I say rebuilt.
It’s a cityscape that has literally been re-shaped by its turbulent, recent past, but also one that has emerged from the rubble and been thoughtfully designed, very much with the future in mind.
Nowhere is this reflected better than in the opportunity for cyclists of all kinds to enjoy and travel around such a phenomenal city in relative safety and ease. Not something you can say of most capitals around the world. The thought of cycling in London frankly terrifies me with its spider-web of streets, traffic signals and over-crowded roads.
A mere 12 months ago in an inconceivable pre-covid world, when news stories of a strange flu from China were just starting to surface; blissfully unaware of future events I was heading to the heart of Germany by high-speed train for a weekend of exploring what is often billed as one of the best capital cities in Europe.
The German train system is a fantastic beast and well deserved of its reputation for order and efficiency. Unfortunately it also offers a myriad of choices and ticketing options which boggle the mind, especially when trying to navigate the ticketing machine with a restless, lengthy queue growing behind you. However, after a few wrong trains, and an impromptu trip to the Tier Garten, M and I finally haul our luggage into the hotel lobby to be greeted by a cheerful receptionist with complimentary pastries, a spotlessly clean room and free beer in the mini-fridge. Berlin is already scoring serious tourist points.
With just 2 full days to see the city we want to cram as much in as possible and we want to do it by bike. So, armed with a list of places to visit and one of the numerous tourist maps available we head out to explore.
Many cities and towns across the globe have now embraced the self-rental bike scheme where a user downloads an app and bank details, locates a bike by GPS, enters a code and rides away. I first came across this in Barcelona many years ago and have since used it all over the world, including often in my home town. In no other city though have I seen quite so many choices as Berlin. After downloading one app in the hotel lobby we walked on to the street to find literally half a dozen choices outside of our front door. Donkey Republic, Call a Bike, Mobike, Nextbike, Jump (Uber), Sacoora or even Lidl?!
I’ve never seen so many! A quick inspection revealed some to be in better state of repair than others however so we opted to try the silver Nextbikes first owing to the basket in the front to carry luggage and the fact that only one person needed to sign up – you can hire more than one bike and add up to 4 users as guests. Perfect if your phone is playing up (as mine was).
App downloaded, bikes unlocked and away we rode. What a way to travel. The streets we rode down were wide and flat, most with well-marked bike lanes and signage that was easy to read (well it was when you remember to look and ride on the opposite side of the road to normal)!
The first stop was Checkpoint Charlie and a section of the Berlin wall alongside it. Despite the traffic being busy it was less than a 10 minute ride (quicker than the subway) in fact the most hazardous thing about the journey was trying to read the map whilst cycling and the milling pedestrians/tour groups wandering into the middle of the road to take photos. Jumping off the bikes to join the already thronging tourists we spent a frustrating few minutes pushing against the flow, trying to find the Nextbike docking station to park them. One of the downsides of this provider was the need to return the bike to a specific location. Other schemes too have designated parking areas where some, such as Sacoora, literally let you leave it anywhere.
Bike parked (ending the ride) we spent the next few hours walking in fascination and contemplation around some of the most well-known sights of the city including Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall and infamous Gestapo HQ, now a museum, as well as the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag parliament building.
Being a relatively compact city the centre of Berlin is easy enough to walk around but if you are limited for time cycling is a far more attractive option to reach more places, faster. It also allows you to explore neighbourhoods that you’d probably miss on foot. Cycling around the former communist Eastern half of the city, the architecture was notably different. Utilitarian concrete buildings, functional, plain were markedly different to their western counterparts, sometimes barely a few hundred metres. Different parts of the city emerged through the half hidden bars, the bare parks, the political graffiti, the more bohemian shops and the more everyday life.
The following day we had lined up our main event, a guided bike tour of the city. There are a multitude of companies offering this experience, we chose Free Berlin and we weren’t disappointed. Our infectiously enthusiastic guide was actually a fellow Brit who was completely spellbound by Berlin. After collecting our bikes (I found mine was strangely named Car) our 25 strong group of cyclists obediently followed/wobbled after him on a 3 hour tour of the city taking in both new points of interest alongside those we had visited yesterday but with the brilliant advantage of having a running commentary, and sometimes acting/an array of accents. We also saw things we never would have noticed such as the eerie holographic representation of an empty library sited underground in Bebelplatz, memorialising the huge burning of books under the Nazi regime and the nondescript home of the current German Chancellor. We learned about the vast post-war rebuilding programme too, replacing those destroyed during the last century when vast swathes of the city were rebuilt; some made to look old to blend in, others unapologetically standing out in their modernity such as the Marie Elisabeth Lüders-haus along the River Spree.
Although a relatively easy cycle in terms of distance covered on very flat roads it still demanded concentration to follow, listen and not ride into anyone. But we all made it through unscathed and with a much more intimate knowledge of Berlin’s best bits than before.
After a wander through the Tier Garten and faced with a choice of transport back to the hotel it was time to sample Berlin’s other mode of transport – the electric scooter. A company called Lime seemed to have the majority of these fun contraptions that were whizzing around everywhere. Another app downloaded with credit card details and away we went. It was unbelievable fun. After a few minutes working out how to make it go forward we were suddenly flying along. A battery indicator on the handlebars displayed the rough battery level remaining but it was more than enough juice to cover significant kilometres. There are restrictions where you can ride these nifty little vehicles and it wasn’t always entirely clear (I had vague worries about stern penalty notices I’d seen) but it was too much fun not just to zoom everywhere. Instead of more tourist spots we spent a happy hour or so just buzzing around with grins plastered on our faces, before finally dropping them off in a marked bay near the hotel.
Curious as to how the batteries were recharged I learned than enterprising locals are able to earn money by signing up as Lime Juicers, basically finding and recharging batteries. The more remote the location/hard the scooter is to find, the more $ earned. An enterprising and successful example of the gig economy!
High on scooting-life we opted for Lime as the mode of transport that evening too, heading out to a more urban centre for dinner and a round of 3D glow in the dark adventure golf. Yes that is a thing! Whilst great fun in the day, night time riding was a bit more hair-raising, the built in lights didn’t feel quite powerful enough to compete with car headlamps, especially when negotiating some busy night traffic routes, a car either side of you. A final kilometre ride over some seriously cobbled streets definitely convinced me that scooters were a better daytime activity, it was a relief to park up and walk away.
Our final morning dawned cold and clear and, with a few hours before flying home we took our last 2 wheeled jaunt, this time on the wonderfully named Donkey Republic bikes. Another app downloaded, these bikes had the advantage of a mobile phone holder on the handlebars allowing for easy navigation courtesy of your phone. The downside was the need to return them to the same point of hire. In between however there is a handy cable lock for tethering if you want to park up. The first stop was for breakfast at one of the city’s wonderful and uber-cool hipster bike cafes – Steel Vintage Bikes.
The cafe was all things retro-turned-modern with eye-wateringly expensive clothing and bags for the chic hipster about town with a price tag to match. It also served the most amazing avocado and eggs and chocolate pancakes however so were forgiven any pretentiousness in their merchandising. Judging by the queue out the door when we left we weren’t the only ones to think so too.
Our final stop was one I’d been looking forward to immensely. A tour of the Reichstag building. This had to be booked in advance – if you’re flexible on times next day tickets are available, however a pre-security check is needed along with a passport. Security was tight on the day too, understandable in these modern times. The Reichstag is an incredible amalgam of old and new. The burning of it 1933 was a major part of the Nazi party’s rise to power in the 1930s. After the fire only the façade of the building remained, it wasn’t until much later, following reunification in the 1990s, that a full restoration was made under the architect Sir Norman Foster. Whilst maintaining the old frontage, the entire building was gutted and modernised with ground breaking vision, culminating in an incredible glass dome giving stunning views of the city as well as full views of the Bundestag parliament convening inside. Governance with the overview of the people. It’s an inspiring building in many ways, let alone for the innovative architecture, environmental offsets (natural lighting and heat recovery) and the symbolic significance of a visible parliament.
It was the perfect way to finish off a whirlwind 2 days. Actually stumbling across the 6 seater beer/party bicycle outside was the perfect way to finish. After which the Donkey Republics delivered us safely back to the hotel. There is so much to see and do in Berlin and 2 days hardly began to scratch the surface but it was a good start. Generally I’m not a huge fan of cities but this is somewhere I’d definitely love to return to, to explore more and of course try out the rest of the bikes. Hopefully one day soon!
If you enjoy reading about adventuring, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.