VTL travel to Berlin: New and free sights in a city refreshed

Sunset at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Sunset at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

BERLIN - The heady days of leisure travel are back, but with Covid-19-related expenses, vacations are pricier than they used to be.

So what's a traveller to do?

Maximise value. Berlin, for instance, is an affordable city with lots to offer.

History buffs will be engrossed by the German capital, which was at the heart of both World War II and the Cold War.

New attractions have opened, nightlife is thriving again and tourists have returned.

New transport links make commuting easier, such as the extended U5 metro line that serves key sights including Museum Island.

In short, Berlin is back and better than before. And with one-way Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) flights from low-cost carrier Scoot starting at $225, the city makes a good jumping-off point for a European sojourn.

New overnight train connections to cities such as Stockholm, also part of the VTL scheme, make inter-city hops convenient.

The Straits Times checks out five ways to experience this pulsing city without breaking the bank. Unless otherwise stated, these attractions are free.

1. Relive Berlin's past

To understand Berlin, one must first understand its past.

Start at the Topography of Terror, a museum located on the site of former Nazi buildings that recounts how the regime gained a political foothold. It also documents their crimes in heartbreaking, vivid detail.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

These horrors give context to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sprawling site of 2,711 concrete slabs.

Set on undulating ground and of varying heights, the monument is open for interpretation. A graveyard? Rows of coffins? Regardless, the sombre atmosphere leaves me pondering.

Yet more symbolism abounds at the Jewish Museum Berlin (permanent exhibitions are free) where slanting, disorienting corridors, named "axes", lead to three chilling installations.

The most memorable is an empty, towering void behind a heavy metal door that looks like the sort of prison that movie villains get thrown into.

The cell is dark, save for a sliver of daylight. A few minutes in this metaphorical prison cannot be compared to the Holocaust, but the desolation it conjures up is real.

If you prefer a guide, a walking tour with videoSightseeing includes tablets to depict photos and videos from the past (visit the videoSightseeing website here; tours from €17.50 or S$27)

At Brandenburg Gate, the company's managing director and tour guide Arne Krasting shows me a photo of the Berlin Wall built around it.

During the Cold War, Brandenburg Gate was no man's land, symbolising the divide between East and West Germany. While the pandemic raged, the streets around it were equally empty.

Now Berlin is thriving once again, he says. Crowds gather before the gate, moods buoyant and phones aloft to capture a blazing sunset. Indeed, the city has come back to life.

2. Photograph street art

A colourful building facade in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Berlin feels like a city-wide art gallery, with murals at every street corner.

Go on a self-guided tour with the About Berlin app, which curates itineraries such as a 12km bike tour for street art fans.

Or hone in on particular sites, such as the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall where artists from around the world have portrayed their vision of peace, freedom and a brighter future.

The East Side Gallery in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

For a more global view, the Urban Nation museum features contemporary art from Berlin and around the world. The current exhibition showcases the life and works of American photojournalist Martha Cooper, who has dedicated her career to documenting international street art.

Budget an hour at the museum and stop by the washroom before you leave.

The Urban Nation museum in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Covered floor to ceiling with graffiti and stickers, it is a work of art that channels Berlin's chaotic energy.

3. Eat burgers, currywurst at street food stands

A burger from Burgermeister in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

There is always a crowd at Burgermeister, a burger stand located in a former public toilet under the Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn tracks.

The brand has spawned multiple outlets across the city, but it is still the original branch people flock to for hearty, well-priced burgers (from €4.90).

Currywurst and fries from Curry Wolf in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

The city's most well-known street food is currywurst and the Curry Wolf chain serves up the deep-fried sausage with two types of tomato sauce, and a curry- paprika powder (from €3.50).

Pair it with a steaming cup of gluhwein (€3.50) or mulled wine, only available in the winter months. There is a kiosk located near the Brandenburg Gate.

4 Visit the new Humboldt Forum

The Straits Times travel correspondent Clara Lock at an exhibition in the Humboldt Forum. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Berlin's newest landmark is a magnificent reconstruction of the Berlin Palace. The cultural centre opened this July and most exhibitions are free. Head to the roof terrace for a city view or to the basement, where walls from the original palace have been preserved.

There are also ethnological exhibitions with artefacts from around the world, including a 19th- century throne from Cameroon and boats from parts of Oceania, as well as exhibits of Asian art.

5. Worth the splurge

If you are looking to splash out on one good meal, make reservations at Christopher's, which features a compact menu of globally influenced cuisine.

Chef and co-owner Christopher Kumper has cooked in restaurants around the world, including former fine-dining Restaurant Andre in Singapore. Four-course "surprise" menus start at €65 and a highlight for me is the imaginative medley of mushrooms, mushroom crisps and polenta - in the shape of a mushroom.

Or hear the stories and taste the cuisine of immigrants, who have long shaped Berlin's culture. Food tours by Fork and Walk start at €70.

The Straits Times travel correspondent Clara Lock on a food tour by Fork and Walk in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

My tour meanders through the Kreuzberg and Neukolln neighbourhoods, known for their international feel and home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey.

Over four hours, I graze on Turkish nuts and lahmacun, a type of flatbread, and pair a white wine slushie with German food served tapas-style at new restaurant Klinke. As if that is not enough, our group ends the night with a mound of fries and fried chicken at casual diner Goldies.

Did I really come all the way to Berlin to eat fast food?

Well, when the menu is influenced by global flavours such as Sichuan chilli oil and lime butter on my fried chicken, and my fries are slathered with truffle mayo and generous shavings of actual truffle - I will say without shame, yes, I absolutely did.

VTL travel to Germany: 7 things to do for your trip

1. Go to the Notarise website and get your vaccination certificate digitally authenticated and download a copy into your mobile phone to show proof of your vaccination status.

You need to present this before departing Singapore, as well as to enter certain places in Germany such as restaurants' indoor seating section.

Carry photo identification, such as your passport, as proof of your identity on the vaccination certificate.

2. Obtain medical-grade face masks. Berlin, for instance, requires people to wear FFP2 or equivalent face masks indoors, such as in retail stores or on public transport.

3. Stay up to date on country-wide health and safety measures by checking the tourism websites of individual destinations. Visitors to Berlin, for instance, can go to the visitBerlin website.

4. With Germany recently classifying Singapore as a high-risk area, travellers must register at this website and present proof of registration upon arrival in Germany. You will be required to upload a copy of your vaccination certificate during registration.

5. Plan ahead for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antigen rapid test 48 hours before your return flight. Germany has service providers in locations such as outside train stations and at airports. Your hotel should be able to direct you to the nearest one.

The Straits Times travel correspondent Clara Lock undergoes a covid-19 PCR swab test in Berlin. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

The Straits Times team did its PCR tests at the Berlin Ostbahnhof railway station, provided by coronatest.de. Each test costs €49.99 (S$80). Results are ready in 24 to 36 hours.

6. Book your on-arrival PCR test in Singapore, which costs $160. Go to the Safe Travel website.

7. Submit your Singapore arrival card online 36 hours before your return. Go to the ICA website.

• The writer and photojournalist were hosted by Scoot and visitBerlin. This story was brought to you by Scoot.