8 Things to Do in Berlin

Posted by Krista on July 29, 2015

I went to Berlin last month! It was my third trip to this grittily artsy city, still emerging from the everything, all these years after 1989. 1989! I still remember my German aunt, married to my American uncle, convinced that the world was going to end the night the wall came down.

I went to Berlin for the first time in 1993. What I remember most about that visit is the massive cranes, hovering above the rooftops. They were everywhere.

In Berlin in 2015, I met up with my friend Karen. We got our MBAs together at the University of Chicago back in 2004. She lives in Geneva now with her husband and two kids, but she had a weekend free and wanted to go somewhere sans kids so up we met.

The German language was what had brought us together in the first place. I had studied at the Uni Innsbruck in Austria many years ago. (20 years ago?How did that happen?) She, Freiburg. Not that speaking German matters anymore in Berlin. Everyone, and I mean everyone, speaks English. And so much better than I do German, despite my many years of superintensiv Deutsch.

It was hot when we visited. So hot. 100 degrees Fahrenheit, plus some. Words cannot explain. So don’t got to Berlin when it’s hot. Most restaurants don’t have air conditioning, and public transport doesn’t either. But also remember that I am American and I’m sensitive to a lack of AC.

But go to Berlin for all the other reasons. This was the Paris of the East then. This is the City of the East now. This is a big city, a large city…a London, a New York. The public transport is awesome and amazing and efficient. The city is massive and sprawling and beautiful. Everything is gorgeous. Berlin is gorgeous. Gorgeous and efficient! I want to live there. I think I might live there.

Here’s where we went, what we did, and what we thought…

Things to See and Do…

Discover Berlin Half-Day Walking Tour: Taking a walking tour of Berlin when it is 100 degrees Fahrenheit is not a wise idea. We lasted two hours before we left to get lunch. The tour was at its half-way mark when we departed. We loved our tour guide Philippa (a Brit expat), but we hated the heat. This is a very good value tour, which is great, but it also means that there will be 50 people on your tour, which is not so great. However, for the value-conscious, it’s worth it.

The DDR Museum: This is a small museum dedicated to life in East Germany before the wall came down. If you like old-school branding, this is the place for you. I loved it here and it only took us about an hour to absorb everything, maybe less.

Kreuzberg Food & Street Art Tour: This is a tour with a lot of potential but for me, it just didn’t live up to its value. We ate a lot of nice things but our tour guide, while entirely pleasant, was not very informative or interesting. Street art was discussed in a very minimal way. (I had to point out the Endless that I saw when we crossed the bridge into Kreuzberg!) Someone could have just given me a list of these places and I could have had just as good a time. (Although we enjoyed talking with the two other girls on our tour.) The reviews online for this are fantastic so I think we just got a bad guide. The places we stopped were great though.

Where to Eat and Drink…

Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg: One of the highlights of my trip was a Thursday night visit to Markthalle Neun. It’s similar to Maltby Street market and Lewisham’s Model Market. I drank some great beers at Heidenpeters and has some delicious snacks from the many vendors. The only downside was a lack of seating. Be ready to stand, a lot. (Which is a German thing. They love the tall tables.)

Lunch at Schwarzwaldstube in Mitte: We had plans to go somewhere else for lunch, but that establishment (who shall remain nameless)  ignored us forever, so we decamped for Shwarzwaldstube and boy were we glad we did. This is simple, hearty delicious German food served in an environment somewhat akin to your elderly aunt’s front room. I loved it here and could have sat there forever, watching the people go by. However, it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit (have I mentioned the heat) and we needed some AC. Very relaxed, very perfect. (And yes, it is sort of funny that we went all the way to Berlin to eat food from the Black Forest but we didn’t really care about that.)

Dinner at Alarabi in Friedrichshein: In an effort to beat the heat, Karen and I waited until dusk to head over to Friedrichshein for dinner. Friedrichshein is rocking late at night. Crazy! We had some tentative ideas on where to eat, but stumbled across an outdoor table at Alarabi and quickly fell in love with the idea of Lebanese food. (Karen doesn’t get much in Geneva.) Alarabi is a nondescript place on a street crowded with restaurants. When our platter of food arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality, the value and overall, the taste. We had a great time here which just goes to show you…don’t judge by appearance alone.

Murat La Barba, Mitte: We totally lucked out with this place. It was AWESOME. I had a huge heaping plate of pork medallions and delicious mushrooms, all washed down with some lovely Italian rose. I liked the simplicity of the space and the friendliness of the staff and would gladly eat here again and again.

Ottorink Wine Bar, Kreuzberg: Another highlight of the trip! After our food tour, I convinced Karen to come with me to this lovely little wine bar in Kreuzberg. (That had been my one request of the trip: visit a German wine bar.) We asked the barman how old he was when the Berlin Wall fell and he shared his amazing stories of the day. We liked it so much here that we went back to our hotel to cool off for a few hours and then came back for dinner.

Seriously, guys, I had such a great time in Berlin even though it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine how much fun I would have had if it were cooler! It is a great city and one I can easily see myself living in. Maybe next year…

50 coffees with 50 people, Week #5

Posted by Krista on June 29, 2015

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50 coffees — my experiment in social learning since quitting my job last month — continues…sort of. This past week has been a lot more about socializing than learning. I’m a bit okay with that because it is summer after all but I’d like to tilt this back in a learning direction. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

Dinner at Bouillabaisse with my friends Barry and Natalie and, uh, Bobby Chinn. My friend Barry invited me along to friends & family night at Bouillabaisse and I told him I wouldn’t really blog about it. Instead, I will talk about it in the 50 coffees sense. I learned the world is a small place. I met Hilary from Hush Heath who just happens to know Denise the Wine Sleuth. (Denise is rapidly becoming the most-mentioned name in this series!! Can you tell she is a master networker??) I also met Bobby Chinn and we talked colonics. I’ll leave it there. This was a very fun night and I consumed a lot of seafood. I didn’t want it to end! And it was only a Monday. The Verdict: Bouillabaisse is now taking reservations so if you like seafood –like I do — you should go. Fine Print: I was a guest of Barry’s.

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Get your minds out of the gutter, people.

Coffee at Shoreditch Grind with a Headhunter: I’m still on the list of heads to be hunted, so every so often, a headhunter asks to meet me. Yes, this blog is not my full-time job! I’ve spent the last few years working with an HR system called Workday, which is somewhat of a rare skillset for Europe. This headhunter has been particularly nice over the last year or so so once I told him I had quit my job last month, I agreed to meet up for a coffee and talk shop. The Verdict: I like the vibe at Shoreditch Grind. And the staff.

Dinner with Kikkoman at Korubuta in Chelsea: I love soy sauce. In the US, if you buy soy sauce, you pretty much always buy Kikkoman. You buy soy sauce on brand. To me, not buying Kikkoman would be like trying to make your own ketchup or serving Hunt’s ketchup. There is only one soy sauce and that is Kikkoman! In the UK, this is not the case. People buy soy sauce on price, which is funny because soy sauce is not expensive. So I was pretty delighted to be invited out to this dinner to celebrate the joy of Kikkoman and to help, possibly in some small way, convince the good people of the United Kingdom that they really should buy Kikkoman. And Korubuta was a pretty cool place to have this all come together — very Japanese izakaya/drinking den. It was great seeing Cassie again too!  The Verdict: Shameless plugs everywhere! Use Kikkoman! Go to Korubuta! Fine Print: I was a guest of Kikkoman and Korubuta.

Lunch with Ollie at Whaam Bahn Mi. The lovely Louis at Tonic suggested I drop by Whaam Bahn Mi for lunch for one of my 50 coffees. Whaam is tucked behind Piccadilly Circus and the staff could not have been nicer to me and my friend Olly as we tried to figure out what we wanted. It’s a tight little space — more of  a takeaway joint and not somewhere to linger. We grabbed our lunch boxes and headed over to Golden Square to enjoy the rare London sunshine. We enjoyed our traditional bahn mi too and Olly introduced me to some cool new apps to help me rediscover London….Dojo (what’s going on in London) and Uncover (last minute restaurant bookings). Also, I learned that Olly remembers what I write in my blog more than I do! The Verdict: Whaam is a very good value in an expensive city. Traditional pork Bahn Mi sandwiches at Whaam go for £6 quid. Very generous portions too. Fine Print: Olly and I were guests of Whaam.

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London Travel Massive: On Thursday, I decided to heat up to Kings Cross for the London Travel Massive. I figured there would be lots of interesting people to talk to and things to learn, so it could sort of serve as one of my “fifty coffees.” The event was hosted by Cheapflights, which I guess I kinda knew about already but I didn’t realize that they were an aggregator site. This means that they will be even better than the best at finding you the cheapest flight! The best part about this event is that they gave everyone free iPhone chargers!! (Handy because my old one really doesn’t hold more than one charge.) It was a fun night and I met some nice people. The Verdict: If you’re into travel, you should check out these London Travel Massive Events.

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Drinks at the pub with my old boss. After hanging out with strangers on Thursday, I decided to hang out with someone I hadn’t seen in a while for my next coffee. My old boss suggested we meet at The Artillery Arms, which is a nice little pub southwest of the Old Street Roundabout, close to Whitecross Street. Unfortunately, even though he was the one who chose The Artillery Arms, he went to an entirely different pub to meet me! Once we sorted that out, we talked about everything and nothing and before you knew it, 20-ish of my old colleagues turned up. It was a bit of a reunion and very different from the night before where I stood in a room of total strangers. (With the exception of course of social media master A Lady in London who was also at the London Travel Massive.)  The Verdict: I like The Artillery Arms, particularly when it’s quiet. Oh, and I also like Cornish Orchards Cider!!

Outcomes from this week…

  • This week was a bit short on learning and a bit higher on socializing. I’m okay with that for now, sort of, but I’d like to learn more as this project continues.
  • Though all the different conversations I had this week, I think I have some leads for my new gig. Yes, it’s true. I have a new job! I’m now an MBA admissions consultant. So if you or someone you know wants to talk about getting into a top b-school, talk to me. I hold an MBA from Chicago Booth myself, but I’ll be helping candidates with their admissions strategy across all the top MBA programs. (Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, Chicago, etc.)
  • I have some cool new apps to check out thanks to Olly.
  • Free soy sauce!
  • I hung out with Bobby Chinn.
  • I connected two people who both like sports and analytics: one was from the Kikkoman dinner, the other is from my new gig. I hope it will prove useful to the two of them!

Let’s see what next week brings…

How I Save Money on Hotels Using Hotwire

Posted by Krista on June 25, 2015

I love Hotwire.com. For those of you not in the know, Hotwire does a lot of travel-related things but I use it solely for hotel bookings. (Particularly after quitting my job, finding a new one, trying to be better about money, etc.) The gist is that you pay in advance for an unnamed, secret hotel. Paying in advance — non-refundable, mind you — and committing to an unnamed hotel can yield big savings. Really big. (But pay attention to the risks I mention later.) I’ve used Hotwire a number of times now to save a bundle on hotel stays in London, New York, Chicago and Madrid and I have ALWAYS been pleased with the results. That being said, I probably spend a lot more time than other people in making my purchase decision and I stay away from the 2 and 3 star properties, which can be a bit more variable in quality. I thoroughly research all my options and do a little extra research to see if I can determine what hotel I’m actually booking. (There are always clues.)

So if you think you are ready to take the risk, here’s how I use Hotwire, with some screenshots of the app, my preferred way of using Hotwire. (The app includes user reviews. The site only includes the ratings. If you do end up just using the site, pay very close attention to the detailed rating breakdowns.)

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So a three night stay at this mystery hotel costs $824.68.

By doing a little detective work — the reviews mention an entrance on Water Street and the free snacks — I determine this is the Andaz Wall Street. To make sure I am getting a good deal, I check the Andaz Wall Street website…and they want $922.77 USD for the same stay. If I book through Hotwire, that’s a $100 savings. I’ll take it. Of course, I’m leaving a whole lot of steps out of this research — it’s entirely possible I can find a hotel of similar quality for less money without paying in advance and doing the whole “no name” hotel thing. Generally I do a couple of screens first on Expedia to see what 4- and 5-star hotels are going for in my preferred areas. Then once I’ve established a benchmark, I try to beat the system. My ultimate goal is to get the best quality hotel at the best possible price, which is why Hotwire features in my equation. Especially when I know my plans are set!

Top Tips for Using Hotwire

  • I always filter on hotels with approval ratings greater than 90% (although I will accept 85% if need be) and with greater than 4 stars. This is partially me being picky, but partially mitigating my risk of being stuck in a crappy hotel.
  • Read the reviews!! The reviews will often contain little tips that you can string together to determine what hotel it is. For example, in Chicago, the Hotwire reviews for one hotel mentioned its all-white room decor. After a little Google’ing, I determined the hotel was either The James or Public. Based on the location, I was able to narrow it down to The James. In my screenshots above, I highlighted a couple of things in the reviews that helped me determine what hotel this was. Note that for some reason, I can only bring up the reviews on the mobile app. I am not able to bring up the reviews on the website.
  • Be picky based on location. This is the easiest way to narrow down what hotel it might be. Although generally, for cities I’m comfortable with — like New York and Chicago — I am not so picky about location because I know I can take public transport anywhere I want to go.
  • Watch out for Internet fees. If the reviews mention that you have to pay for Internet, I look elsewhere. These fees can ruin a good value.
  • Use Better Bidding! Better Bidding is AWESOME. It will help you determine which hotel is which by matching up amenities. Also, people who have recently booked via  Hotwire will post their “wins.” If you’re booking at around the same time as some of the recent wins, definitely check out this info as it may be more up to date than the overall hotel list.

Risks in Using Hotwire

  • Your plans could change and you really can’t get your money back once you’ve booked an unnamed hotel via Hotwire. Really, you can’t, even if you try really really hard. There are many sob stories on the Internet about this.
  • You could get to the hotel and totally hate it. Same deal. It’s too late to get your money back.
  • The hotel may end up overbooked and they send you somewhere else, defeating the purpose of this entire Hotwire exercise. But if you do get moved to a different hotel, chances are it will be a sister property so there’s that.
  • Rumor has it that Hotwire guests get the crappiest rooms. This has not been my experience, but I mention it because you’ll find reviews that mention this.

So…that’s my quick tutorial on how to use Hotwire to save you some money! Have you booked through Hotwire? Let me know what your experience has been like.

I’m having 50 coffees with 50 people…Week #4

Posted by Krista on June 23, 2015

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50 coffees continues. And it’s all consuming. I have new rules. I try not to make any weekend plans. I save them for my non-Internet friends. (A tricky phrase to use, but you know what I mean. Your friends from your offline world.) And I try to take Mondays off. Also, I try to go to the gym four times a week and continue my Couch to 5K. Also, I’ve been trying not to set my alarm in the morning. Networking and being social is hard work, particularly when you’re a bit rusty at it. For a borderline introvert like me, it can be highly draining. Here’s what I’ve been up to lately.

Lunch with Jeff (aka Stonch’s Beer Blog) at The Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell. I haven’t seen Jeff in ages. If you like beer, you should check out his site. Jeff used to be the landlord at The Gunmakers in Clerkenwell but now he’s sold that and he’s also sold his new pub The Finborough Arms and so he is a man of leisure. We both live in Clerkenwell and we both love The Jerusalem so what better place to meet? Jeff has the gift of the gab and is a master story teller. He also disagrees with my sentiment that every restaurant should offer a wine by the glass that costs £3.50. Jeff mentioned 400% mark-ups on bottles of wine in pubs and restaurants! My assumption of a 100% markup was obviously naive. I also didn’t factor in VAT or any alcohol taxes, which is probably why I can’t follow his math. I still believe strongly that every restaurant should offer a small glass of wine for £3.50. If your starting price is £6, there’s something wrong. The Verdict: Go to The Jerusalem Tavern and enjoy the beverages. Lunch is okay too, although I’d maybe suggest lunch at Foxlow around the corner instead.

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Barrafina with Mr. Noodles and EuWen: We went to Barrafina and ate everything on the menu but yet we were surprised that we spent £50 quid a head! Everything was pretty good but not great. The mushroom croquettes were probably the best and I think that says it all…mushroom croquettes?? (OK, the whelks, photographed, were also very nice.) Service was snappy though! The Verdict: I like Barrafina — it’s on my Top 10 list — but I may push it down in the rankings soon. Oh, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY EUWEN!!

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Taste of London with Denise and a cast of characters: Chris, Jeanne, Rosanna, May. Much much rose. I haven’t been to Taste of London in a long time. It’s bigger now, more crowded. There are a lot more products now too. It’s a very fun time — especially when you’re walking around with someone like Denise — but I was surprised by the amount of rubbish everywhere and people seemed less polite than I remember from past experiences. I would still go back — it’s Taste of London after all — but I would have a different strategy. I would stake out a place to sit and send people out to get things and bring them back rather than all of us fighting against the masses at the same time. Going back to the beginning of this #50coffees experiment, this event never would have happened for me if I hadn’t had reached out to Denise in the first place! Things are happening as a direct result of this project, which is great!!IMG_0368

Drinks and snacks at The Canonbury with Cassie and Priscilla: Cassie invited me out to the re-opening of The Canonbury — a gorgeous pub in a gorgeous part of London with a gorgeous outdoor patio — where we descended on the gorgeous canapes like the world was going to end. Many sliders and three free drinks later, I had a gorgeous long walk home in the gorgeous London twilight. The Verdict: I want to go back to The Canonbury and loll about in their garden.

Hanging out my b-school crowd at the Chicago Angels Network at the Barclays Accelerator: I wish I could say that I’ve earned the millions that I deserve, but I (still) haven’t. Still, it was fun to go to the Chicago Angels Network event in Whitechapel last weekend and pretend I was a kajillionaire with money to invest. Four start-ups presented their wares for their latest rounds of funding. These events are the types of things I’ve always wanted to go to, but never had time to do so. In watching other people pitch, you learn a lot about yourself and your own presentation skills. And you learn a ton of stuff about the world as well. Ballast water and zebra mussels!! Yikes. We’re killing ourselves.

Outcomes of this week…

It was a good week. No cancellations, which is always a good thing. And I’m glad I did something business-y by going to the Chicago Angels Network. I really like this sort of event..a bit business-y, a bit social. My ideal combination! Here are some other outcomes and highlights…

  • Running into Chris Pople TWICE in one week and making dinner plans for later in July.
  • Learning more about the world of start-ups, reconnecting with some old b-school friends and meeting some new people in the process.
  • Learning about ballast water. And zebra mussels. (I already knew about Asian Carp. The bastards.)
  • Oh! This was interesting. I had a conversation with a start-up guy all about Classpass, which I never would have known about if it weren’t for my lunch with Jordi at Roux at The Landau! I was the only person in the crowd who knew about Classpass, so that was cool. Thanks, Jordi!
  • Making plans to meet Olga from KidCuteure, who saw my blog post and volunteered to meet for coffee.
  • Making plans to meet up with grammar aficionado Olly over Bahn Mi. The Bahn Mi is a PR invite on the back of my 50 Coffee series, so that’s nice.
  • Invite from my old friend Barry to join him at the Friends & Family Night at the opening of Bouillabaisse.

Can’t believe that as I write this, it’s already Week #5…I need to do a count of how many “coffees” I’m at…and figure out when this experiment will end…if it will end…and what will happen next…

What do you think I should do???

Quick Trip to Chicago

Posted by Krista on June 18, 2015

IMG_0056I made a quick trip to Chicago last month. Very last minute. It kinda cracks me up that I’ve been back to Chicago THREE TIMES since leaving the city last June. Out of all the places my new job could have sent me…seriously??

To be fair though, this third trip was more about me than about work. I knew I had some leftover holiday to take and I knew I wanted to see some people and celebrate some things so I went. And I had a nice time. But I don’t think I need to go back for a while now…

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I stayed at The James hotel off Michigan Avenue, an excellent location if ever there was one. My room was all white and modern BUT it was also a bit scuffed up. I used Hotwire to book my room and saved A BUNDLE. I forget now if I’ve written about my Hotwire arbitrage skillz but if not, I will in a later post. I like The James BUT I don’t like the food at The James, even though it is David Burke. Every sandwich came with too much untoasted bread and too many undercooked fries. Also, every sandwich was pretty expensive. So stay at The James if you want a nice central location, but eat elsewhere. Also, book via Hotwire. I saved $100 a night off the regular rate at time of booking. With taxes and fees, my room cost $153.87 a nght, which is a great rate for a hotel of this caliber and in this location. The Verdict: A good choice, but in need of a facelift. Try The Thompson instead.

Eating & Drinking

I wish I could tell you that I did some good eating and drinking while I was in Chicago, but honestly…I didn’t. I don’t know if it was bad luck or just laziness on my part. (OK, it was laziness.) I didn’t even go to Eataly, for the love of God! Here’s where I ate and drank…

Kanela Breakfast Club, Wicker Park: I met my friends Amy and Larissa at Kanela Breakfast Club in Wicker Park for a Saturday brunch/lunch. Kanela is in a beautiful space largely kitted out by the oyster bar that was there before Kanela. I liked that oyster bar, but when they opened, I thought to myself “People in Wicker Park don’t eat oysters.” I was right. They didn’t last long. Judging by the crowds at Kanela, people like it here. I did not enjoy my chorizo breakfast burrito at all, and that was after waiting an hour to receive it. The Verdict: Skip it. But I don’t know…everyone else seems to like it here so there’s that.

O’Callaghan’s, River North: My friends Bob & Aileen were celebrating their 10 year anniversary so I popped over to O’Callaghan’s with them for some Guinness to kick off the festivities. Super friendly bar staff, although very dark interior. It was quite empty when we visited but I am sure it gets packed during the week. The Verdict: If you want a nice Irish bar in downtown Chicago, you could do worse than O’Callaghan’s.

Star of Siam, River North: I used to walk by Star of Siam every day on my way to work, but yet I had never been. Well, a sudden craving for curry led us here during my visit and boy am I glad we stopped in. I loved it! I loved the decor! (All warehouse-y and spacious and nice decorated with Thai things.) I loved the service! I loved the food! Why have I not eaten here before? Star of Siam is in a bit of a strange location…you have to walk down a flight of stairs to get there from Wabash…but it seems to be a destination in its own right. The Verdict: Go if you’re craving Thai in downtown Chicago.

Lou Malnati’s, Rush Street: I woke up on Sunday morning and was kinda jonseing for a pizza. Don’t ask. I am ashamed of myself. I was there as soon as they opened and enjoyed my deep dish mini pan pizza in silence. UNTIL…I ran into my old colleague Leslie who caught me stuffing my face at 11 am on a Sunday morning. Lucky for me, her and her dad were planning on doing the same. The Verdict: A guilty pleasure.

Soho House, West Loop: I met Karen out for some drinks and snacks at Soho House and she gave me the grand tour. Amazing how much it feels like Shoreditch House. I mean, I guess that’s not amazing because it is the same owners and everything but they’ve really got this design thing nailed. The ground floor of Soho House was packed, the upper levels less so. The ladies’ room on the pool floor was flooded, so that was kinda gross. Also, I ordered almonds and pickles to snack on and the dish came with just three pickles. (Granted, when I pointed this out, they brought me a WHOLE BOWL of gherkins.) The Verdict: I like Soho House. Despite The Pickle Incident.

Joe Stonecrab, River North: Joe’s was right around the corner from The James so we popped in here for dinner one night. I order the ahi tuna and kicked myself later. I should have stuck with what Joe’s does well…stonecrab or steak. My ahi tuna was straight out of the fridge. No sign of searing but maybe they did sear it…in a very cold, cold pan. Many people like Joe’s, but after eating here many times with those many people over the years, I’m just not a huge fan. The Verdict: Meh.

So there you go…that’s my last trip to Chicago for a while, I think. Unless I become a property magnate and then maybe I will maintain residences around the world. That would be awesome.