There’s something quite magical about waking up in a new city. I didn’t need much help from my alarm that morning, as I had slept like a dead person the night before. I was also really excited because I had 2 things planned for that day – the Hot Rod City Tour at 11 and SeaLife Berlin at around 3pm.
I was up at 7 and took my time getting ready. I was quite hungry since I hadn’t really eaten much at all the previous day, so I was eager to get breakfast. The restaurant/bar was on the 2nd floor (I think), and was actually really cool looking. It was very relaxed, and quite busy already. As I walked in, the entire left side was occupied. I had no idea where to sit because the tables with single seater couches around them were really small, so it would have been awkward sharing one with a couple strangers. My salvation lay towards the back, right next to the second buffet area and coffee machine. It was a long, high table with at least 14 bar stools around it – perfect for people watching.
I put down my bag and removed my jacket then went over to the buffet area closest to me. It was a continental buffet so they had the usual things there. I wanted to eat a proper breakfast because I didn’t know what time I’d be able to get lunch, or where from. The coffee machine made whatever coffee you wanted at the push of a button – of course I was going to get a cafe mocha. Normally I have instant coffee in the morning, or a cappuccino once I get to work, but since I was on holiday, why not get the alternative I usually only turn to once a month at most?
A couple other single women came and sat around me. We didn’t speak to each other but I think we all found a bit of comfort in the fact that we weren’t the only female solo travellers in the hotel.
Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz
I had a little less than an hour to get to the Hot Rod tour, which was plenty time. My plan was to get the Berlin Welcome Card which basically covers all transport and most attractions, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting tickets every time. I took a leisurely stroll to the Potsdamer Platz station down the road and tried getting one there, only to find out that the ticket machine only accepted Mastercard (I had a Visa card). I only had about €22 in cash with me, so I wasn’t sure what to do since time was now a becoming a problem. I tried various other machines in the station but none of them accepted anything other than Mastercard. I knew that if I took a bus to the main station, I’d have no issue acquiring the Welcome Card or getting to my destination.
As I approached the exit of the station, I heard a man shouting and got a little scared because he was clearly angry, so I didn’t know what to expect when I went round the corner. When I saw him, he was shouting at the ticket machine, and I mean really shouting, as if he wanted to kill someone. He banged the machine with his hands and kicked it several times while shouting “AAARRRRGGGH, WORK DAMMIT!!”, not to mention the profanities in between. He was obviously experiencing the same issue I had. Some locals were walking close to me as they had just arrived from their journey, and I heard the guy in front of me tell his girlfriend (I assume) that the man was shouting at the ticket machine. They were visibly amused.
A family of 4 bought some tickets inside the train station but left 2 behind, so I handed it to them as they started walking away. The father thanked me profusely in what sounded like Russian, before exiting the station. I didn’t know where the family was going; I assumed I’d never see them again. After realising that the only thing I could do was take a bus to the main station, the bus stop was where I decided to go. I assumed that all busses went to the main station, but I just had to make sure that I was standing on the right side of the road. When I got to the bus stop, there stood the family yet again. I couldn’t understand them much at all but I tried to somehow figure out where they were going, which sounded like the Hauptbahnhof. There were already less than 30 minutes left before 11, and my tour was nearly 7km away, so there was no way in hell I would have made it there on foot. My gut feeling, not to mention a suspicious looking sign next to the bus stop, told me that the bus was not operating that day. When the bus failed to come after 10 minutes, I made the decision to call for a taxi. There was no way I was going to get to my Hot Rod tour in time otherwise, and €22 should be enough to cover a 6.5km trip. At least, I hoped.
There were many taxis passing the bus stop I was at, so I easily flagged one down (I’d never done that before so I was chuffed). The driver flashed her lights at me to acknowledge that she had seen me. When she pulled over, I asked roughly what it would cost to get me to my destination, and she said it’d be around €15 depending on traffic, give or take a Euro or 2. I told her how much I had so I was praying it wouldn’t come to more than that. She assured me that it shouldn’t, so I got in.
We appeared to be heading into a slightly dodgy part of the city, and I wasn’t so sure I was in the right place. The buildings were dilapidated with tonnes of graffiti on them, and the people were dressed like street thugs. For a moment I questioned what I had just gotten myself into, but I figured I’d find my way out if something got wrong because I knew which general direction to head back to.
The Hot Rod Tour
The driver turned into a quiet street and stopped outside my destination: Revaler Straße 99. I could see the number 99, but there was just a high brick wall on either side of it and the entrance seemed to head down onto an open area covered in sand. There was a guy leaning against the wall, smoking. I felt like I was being dropped off at some kind of drug hole. For those few minutes I was in the car, I trusted the driver, so I knew she hadn’t taken me to the wrong place. When I got out of the car, I went through the entrance and turned left towards what appeared to be a flea market. Only, it was for hipsters and goths (no offence to them). I felt very out of place.
I came across another entrance to my left and saw two cops having a coffee next to their car, so I decided to go up to them and check if I was in the right place. They told me to go back in and carry on walking left, and that I’d eventually see it. Thankfully they were right – there was a big sign painted on the wall that said Hot Rod City Tour, just as I had seen it on their site. There were a couple other people there, and some guys showing them around. The cars were parked just outside.
I told one of the guys that I was there for the tour at 11, since I was 15 minutes late, and he promptly took me into their office to confirm my booking and to give me a bandana and helmet. He also asked me if I wanted to pay the €250 cover fee for insurance, otherwise €10 that somehow covered some things. There was no way in hell I was going to pay an additional €250 on top of the €55 I had paid for the trip, so I opted for the €10 option, which I was still a bit annoyed to have to pay because the tour charge should have covered it. I didn’t want to complain, however.
Since the other 5 people were already briefed on the basic safety rules by the other guy, myself and 2 guys were given individual talks since they spoke German. After that, we were all told which car to sit in and how to operate them.
They weren’t like usual cars, as you can see, so the brake and accelerator could not be operated by the same foot like we’re used to. They were kind of like go-karts in that way. We were told to always have our foot on the brake to remind ourselves that it was there, in case we felt the urge to accelerate instead of braking. The indicators also had to be manually switched off – something I forgot to do quite often once we got on the road. The rest of it was pretty standard.
We then drove our hot rods into the flea market’s dirt road parking area so what we could practice the formation we’d have to maintain once we took to the streets. We had to stay in a zig-zag formation behind the leader, with me leading, and stay in the same lane since 2 cars could fit within one lane. The back wheel of the car in front had to align with the front wheel of the car behind it, whenever we stopped. Otherwise, the usual traffic rules applied. For everyone else it was fine, but I was stressing out a little because I had never driven on the right side of the road before. Thankfully I had someone to follow, so that gave me some comfort.
Once the guide was happy with the way we were handling ourselves, he lead us out of the car park and onto the streets. The guide mounted the GoPro on the back of his car which was a bonus for me because it meant I would be in the entire video.
The drive was loads of fun. The only downside was the fact that the cars were so low – it meant going over any bumps was a little sore and would make the car shake. The hard steering wheel required the grip of both hands, too.
We drove all the way to the Berliner Dom (at the end of the video) before turning around and heading back. I think it is evident from the video that I was really happy to see the Berliner Dom. The actual street drive lasted about 30 minutes in total. I expected it to last longer so I was slightly disappointed, especially because it was so much fun. Many locals and tourists alike took photos of us, and at one point these 2 guys from India took turns to take pictures with me. It was hilarious!
When we got back to the flea market, we got out of our hot rods and parted ways. I of course wanted a copy of the video, so I went into the office and asked for it. They charge €12 for the flash drive and the video, which I considered a bargain. I was very thirsty by then so bought myself a bottled water and a Red Bull while I waited for the video to copy. Once we were done, I asked the guy where the nearest ATM was, which, thankfully, was down the street towards the train station and away from the dodgy flea market side of the road.
Back to the City
I drew enough cash for the next 2 days then walked to the train station. It didn’t matter what station it was, as it would most certainly be going to the main one and that’s all I cared about.
Until I got to the bridge from which I could see the Warschauer Straße station, I still felt as though I were in a dodgy area. Warschauer Straße station was basically just a platform with a ticket machine and a bridge which I had to cross over to get to the correct side of the platform. The bridge had some street vendors selling random items and snacks. Even though I was hungry, I wanted to get out of there.
One of Berlin’s signature yellow trains arrived and I happily got on. I had about 6 stops to get to the Hauptbahnhof, but I wasn’t really counting because that was the train’s destination. I passed some familiar-sounding stops like Alexanderplatz and Freidrichstrauße. As I passed the Berliner Dom again, considered stopping at Freidrichstrauße so I could go back, but I needed to get that Welcome Card from the central station since I was familiar with where to get it from.
I felt good when I arrived back at the central station, because I knew where everything was. I went straight to the place where I could buy the Welcome Card and stood in a fast moving line. The office was jam packed with tourists, but there was order in the chaos. I got the 3-Day pass, and the guy told me to validate it on my first train journey and it would start the counter from there.
I had some time to get something to eat, so I went to the food court to check what was popular. There were lots of takeaway places there including Pizza Hut and Burger King, but I didn’t want something I could get at home. There was another place which had a special with currywurst and a 0.5L beer for something like €4.10, so I went for that. After all, currywurst on its own is about €3, so €1.10 for a draught of beer was a bargain.
Sea Life and the Aquadom
I checked my map while I was eating and decided to take the train to Alexanderplatz, since it was one of the closest stops to the Sea Life aquarium. It was a little difficult to find even though I had the address on hand. I expected bolder signs, but I guess I was on the wrong side of the road for a reason – to get another glimpse of the Berliner Dom.
Once I crossed the street, the aquarium was right in front of me, not to mention an open WiFi spot. Since I was about 20 minutes early, I lingered outside a bit and caught up with my friends at home before going inside.
It was like any other aquarium so I breezed through it in less than 3o minutes. My main mission was to get to the Aquadom – a 25m high glass aquarium filled with a million litres of water. I was given a separate ticket for it when I entered the aquarium, and had to give it to the lady in front of the Aquadom, who, as it turns out, was the one doing the tour as we went through it via the lift.
The lift is quite wide and has 2 levels, so you can stand on either one. They only allow around 15 people in at a time, so it’s not too crowded and you can see in all directions. The ride up was quite an experience, and the guide alternated between German and English so that everyone would know what was going on.
The ride up and back down lasted about 20 minutes, so we saw quite a lot. I didn’t expect it to go on for that long so I was pleasantly surprised.
Once the tour was over, there was nothing else to see in the aquarium, so I was literally in and out of it in less than an hour. That was what I found a little disappointing.
My Favourite Place
If you haven’t already guessed it, my favourite place in Berlin (before even leaving South Africa) is the Berliner Dom. Since it was literally a 5 minute walk from the aquarium, it was the most obvious place for me to go to next. I had the entire evening free so I could glare at it for as long as I wanted to, and that’s exactly what I did for over an hour.
Since I had been walking for hours, my legs were pretty sore, so I sat on a bench a couple metres in front of the entrance. This was my view.
To my delight, there was open WiFi there too. Let me just say that it was damn fun being able to immediately post that picture on Facebook and check in at the Berliner Dom. Some friends of mine said that they wanted to live my holiday through me, so I should check in wherever I could. That is exactly what I had done on the entire trip. I also used some time to charge my phone – power banks are a lifesaver when you’re on holiday and can’t get enough photos.
While I was sitting taking in the general splendour of the architectural beauty in front of me, a local man suddenly came and sat on the other end of my bench and immediately started chatting. He reminded me of Stephen Hawking not only because of his face, but the nerdiness too. He was very friendly, and I don’t mean in a forward manner. At first I thought he wanted something or was going to try to sell me something, but he actually just wanted to chat to someone that clearly looked like a visitor.
We ended up speaking for over 30 minutes about things ranging from where I’m from to why I came to Berlin, and even about the refugee crisis. His view on the refugees was totally different to the Czech woman I had met on the train the previous day in that he thought that it was a great thing for different cultures to get together and learn from each other. He even encouraged me to come work in Berlin because he felt the city needed people like me to improve its diversity, among other things.
Once again, the awesomeness of Germans was revealed. They really are some of the nicest people in the world.
After we said goodbye to each other (poor guy, I don’t remember his name), I went further back to get better views of the Dom. I simply had to go up the stairs of the museum next to it so that I could see it from the same perspective that The Piano Guys had seen it from when they shot their music video for Berlin.
I tried asking 3 different people to take photos of me with the Dom in the background, but all of them failed miserably. The photos were either askew, or they’d cut off part of the Dom. You’d think all working-age people would know how to operate a camera phone, but apparently that is not the case.
My Other Favourite Place
I took a stroll to the Freidrichstrauße station and decided to head back towards my hotel. But since it was not quite dusk, I still had time to see more. Instead of going back to Potsdamer Platz, I took the train to Brandenburg Tor (Gate), after doing a lot of running around trying to figure out whether to take the U-Bahn or the S-Bahn, since they have different stations for each, and consequently different directions that they go in. That for me was the biggest pain in the ass in Berlin, and cost me a lot of time in the days to come. I constantly wished it was as easy to navigate as Munich’s train system (not to mention everywhere else I’d been) where there’s just one station per stop and all had ample signage. Anyway…
The Brandenburg Tor station comes out right in front of Brandenburg Gate, and it was only about 1.4km from my hotel, so I could easily walk back. As I mentioned before, it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, so there were tonnes of celebrations going on on the other side of Pariser Platz. I assumed that one would need tickets of some sort to get in, so I didn’t join. I kick myself for not doing it now because I should have went to see what was going on. It’s not everyday that you’re in Berlin for such a historic event.
Since I wasn’t about to go looking for anything to eat, I decided to get a cup of coffee from the Starbucks at Pariser Platz. €4.70 (basically, an arm and a leg) got me a tall cafe mocha. I didn’t want to waste my time by having their cappuccino again. Their cafe mocha however…that was a different story. It was probably the best I’ve ever had. It was the perfect temperature too. They also spelled my name in a way I’ve never seen it spelled before, and trust me, my name has been spelled in many different ways.
It was dusk at this point, my favourite time of day, and I wanted to stick around the area more. I walked towards Brandenburg Gate to somehow get a glimpse of what was going on behind all the barriers, and little did I realise that the Reichstag lay just around the corner. It really was by chance that I stumbled upon it, as I had not checked the map to see exactly where it was.
There were queues of people outside it, and dozens inside the dome at the top. I enquired about tickets, but was told that I had to have booked in advance and that I could try getting tickets from the offices across the road, but the queues would take hours. It’s such a pity I didn’t look that up when I was planning my trip. I instead did the stupidest thing of assuming I could buy tickets at the door. Tip: Never assume!
I was quite exhausted by then; I had walked nearly 13km that day according to my S Health app. It still wasn’t close to the 18km I had walked in Prague a few days before, but it was a lot. I still wasn’t tired enough to use the train back to my hotel though. Walking isn’t something you get to do much at all in Johannesburg, so I wanted to use that opportunity to the fullest.
I did so by taking a different route back to the hotel, one that passed the Jewish memorial. I didn’t walk through it because it had started to drizzle and I figured I’d be back if I succeeded in booking a Third Reich tour.
There were quite a few people hanging out in and around it, something I didn’t expect. I thought it to be a bit disrespectful for people to be sitting on some of the blocks, but it appeared to be acceptable.
I just knew the general direction in which to walk so I kept on going until I reached familiar territory – the Mall of Berlin. It was early, but dark. I was starving because I had walked off whatever coffee and food I had consumed that day, but wasn’t sure where to get something.
I went back to my hotel and eventually decided to take a walk around Potsdamer Platz and the other side of the Mall of Berlin which seemed to have some cool lighting around. After walking around for at least an hour, I gave up looking for something to eat. I didn’t want a big meal so I wasn’t about to go sit in a restaurant. It ended up being one of those days where lunch had to suffice!
I went to bed watching more news of what was going on at Brandenburg Gate, as well as some British news – I had actually missed hearing English. I didn’t have anything planned for the following day; I was free to wander. Not that I was complaining.