Why Berlin is the perfect city break with a teenager

Finding the right place to take a teenager on holiday can be tough. Many attractions aimed at adults are just beyond the interests of their age range, while activities for children aren't appealing either. Rhonda Carrier took her 16-year-old son Ethan to Berlin, and found the tangible history and vibrant culture exactly what they wanted.

Rhonda Carrier's teenage son, Ethan, stands in front of a huge mural of a cartoon man in Holzmarkt, Berlin.
Ethan checks out the artwork at Holzmarkt © Rhonda Carrier / Lonely Planet

We’re sitting in a beach bar. Bliss-inducing Balearic beats are on the sound system, and teens and twenty-somethings are playing volleyball on the sand courts all around us. The sun is beating down, our cold beers beaded with condensation on the upcycled tables in front of us (drinking beer and wine is legal in here from age 16).  There’s a proper holiday vibe to it all – there’s even a space to have massages. But we’re not in Ibiza or Bali, we’re in the heart of Berlin – at BeachMitte, a unique combination of outdoor sports venue, bar and budget hotel. Strict adherence to COVID guidelines is required for entry from October 2021, so please check website for details.

Ethan is 16 and has just finished his GCSEs, so we’re celebrating here on a mum-and-son weekend break. He’s also had the adventure of flying alone for the first time – I was already in the city, so my husband saw him off at Manchester airport and I picked him up at the other end. It’s not unusual for me to travel alone with one of my three boys; I love taking the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with each of them outside of domestic routines and distractions.  

Ethan at Berlin's East Side Gallery
At the East Side Gallery © Rhonda Carrier

Berlin is best explored on foot

It’s June and the mercury is soaring in Berlin, but this landlocked city knows all about taking it outdoors in summer. Alfresco bars line the Spree River, lakes get busy with swimmers and paddleboarders, beer gardens come into their own, and open-air stages and cinemas pop up all around. But we don’t have to go far to have fun while staying at BeachMitte. As well as the bar and 50 volleyball courts, it has a high-ropes course that even features a dangling Trabant car. Strict adherence to COVID guidelines is required for entry from October 2021, so please check website for details.

The accommodation is in ‘Club Lodges’ – 30 simple cubes each sleeping two or four people, with access to shared showers and toilets. They’re not exactly roomy, but we don’t need to spend any time in them because when we’re not out seeing the city, there’s the bar to hang out in under the stars.

Berlin is one of those cities best discovered on foot, whatever the season. And walking, I’ve discovered, is also the best way to spend time with a teen: try talking to them face-to-face and you barely get a grunt from them or a glance up from their screen; but go for a stroll together and you’re not in their face. Things are automatically less confrontational and conversations more relaxed. 

A teenage boy stands with many other people who are assembled at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie.
Checkpoint Charlie is one of the most famous historical attractions in the city © Rhonda Carrier / Lonely Planet

Exploring the history of the Berlin Wall

First up is the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, just a five-minute walk from BeachMitte. On the border between the Wedding and Mitte districts, Bernauer Strasse was a focal point of post-war history because the effects of the Wall were particularly dramatic for local residents here. Many of those living in border buildings slid down ropes or jumped into rescue nets from their apartments, often incurring serious injuries. The most famous escape tunnels were also dug here.

 Berlin Wall graffiti (titled My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love) seen on the East Side Gallery featuring Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing.
Berlin Wall graffiti on the East Side Gallery  ©turtix/Shutterstock

This is all documented through plaques and inscriptions in the ground; vivid street-art-like wall murals, statues, a reconstructed church, and open-air pavilions with photographs and videos. There’s also the memorial itself, with audio-recordings detailing each of the people who lost their lives here. Walking around it provides a real immersion into Berlin’s compelling history (which Ethan had just studied as part of his GCSE history course) without the feeling of being in a stuffy museum. We both come away educated and moved. 

The following day we hop on the U-Bahn down to Tempelhof, for another slice of Berlin history. Here, the decommissioned Tempelhof Airport that once hosted rallies and the Berlin Airlift has been transformed into a vast park, known as Tempelhofer Feld, where locals come to picnic, run, cycle, skateboard, fly kites, play minigolf, learn circus skills and even paraglide – you name it, they likely do it here. There are also street-food stands and bars for refuelling, and regular festivals.

After exploring the airfield, we wander back towards Mitte through hip Kreuzberg, with its large student and Turkish populations. There’s lots of Berlin life to take in en route: thrift shops, vintage markets, street art and graffiti, historic architecture given a modern take with bright splashes of paint. I’m crafty about our route though, imperceptibly (to Ethan) leading us to the Berlinische Galerie with its modern art, photography and architecture. "We may as well pop in while we’re passing," I say, and Ethan, who also did GCSE art, doesn’t resist.

We end up having a blast touring the luminous-white rooms with their colourful, confrontational works by Berlin secessionists, expressionists, Dadaists and others. Art, Ethan reminds me in his responses to some of the work, can be fun as well as thought-provoking.   

Bar at Yosoy Restaurant, Mitte.
 Yosoy Restaurant, Mitte district of Berlin ©Richard Nebesky/Lonely Planet

Other sites not to miss in Berlin 

Other places we take in during our long perambulations (we cover 18.5km on the Templehof/Kreuzberg day alone!) are Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten park, the East Side Gallery with its Berlin Wall murals, and the Holzmarkt – a hard-to-categorise ‘urban village’, with restaurants and food stalls, a wine shop, a gallery, a yoga studio, a co-working space, theatre stages, bars and a nightclub. 

As we cover the city, we munch on Currywurst, Vietnamese food and Turkish breakfasts. We talk about heading an hour outside Berlin to Sachsenhausen, the former concentration camp, but decide against it because the thought of walking around such a sombre site in this kind of heat is overwhelming.

And besides, says Ethan, we know we’ll be returning to Berlin one day. Coming from a teen, that’s a real testament to the fascination that this cool city exerts. 

Introducing Berlin
This article was first published on February 3, 2020 and updated on October 20, 2021

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