Why Berlin is a city like no other

IS BERLIN one of the great capital cities of the world? With a population of just 3.4 million people, it’s far smaller than either Paris or London.

Undeniably a laid back, tolerant city, albeit one with grumpy bar staff, the underground (U Bahn) can seem like an extension of a club’s chill out room on Saturday nights. Its seamlessly interconnected travel infrastructure is superb, and is best accessed with a Visit Berlin or generic travel pass at either Tegel or Schönefeld airports.

More interesting than negative, Berlin also has a sort of brooding mood at times, brought on by that history and the stark, dark coldness of its winters.

A great way to start a visit is by heading to the heights. Both the Reichstag building (Tiergarten, Mitte) and Television Tower building (Alexanderplatz) offer panoramic views and start to tell some of the historical story of the city.

The latter is the higher, at over 200 metres, both are free and have dining options (early booking is highly recommended www.bundestag.de and www.tv-turm.de). The former is surrounded by a 500 acre park — Tiergarten.

This is a good place to cycle in the city, and bike hire options are plentiful. On a bike in Tiergarten, as well as green spaces and mini-woodlands, you’ll encounter the modernist Kulturforum — a collection of museums and galleries (including the New National Gallery — dedicated to modern art) mostly built in the ’50s and ’60s.

It’s a city that really excels at parks. A sprawling former airport, Tempelhofer Feld is a local favourite, quite unique to Berlin.

Thousands descend daily, often by bike, for BBQs, music, kite flying, dog runs, wildlife sanctuaries and more of the stuff of life. Treptower park (Alt-Treptow) is also huge, has great lakes, and is full of grandness — from the imposing Soviet war memorial to spooky Spreewald park — an abandoned GDR amusement park.

There are, of course, high footfall tourist traps. The Brandenberg gates, symbol of both the division and unity of Germany in general and Berlin in particular after World War two, is great at night, when the architecture really stuns.

There’s an abundance of museums and galleries, including a museum island (Bodestrasse Mitte). Most impressive there is Pergamon, which features a stunning collection of ancient history and reconstructions. Give this place plenty of time, as its epic grandeur can be overwhelming.

The legacy of both the war and the Wall means Berlin has modern history and re-purposed buildings in abundance.

Two very real examples of historical locations with impact are The Stasi Museum, located in the secret police’s old headquarters (Ruschestrasse, Lichtenberg) and Traenenpalast, or the Palace of Tears. This is located at the Cold War crossing point from west to east (Reichstagufer, Mitte). Both use real props to bring the recent past to life, the former very authentically 1970s and a bit of a trek to get to, the latter right in the centre of town at Freidrichstrasse station. Both are free.

In a similar vein, but more foreboding again, the Wannsee Conference house — where the finishing touches to the Final Solution were hatched — is chilling in its simplicity. ( www.ghwk.de ).

One of the most creatively re-purposed buildings is the Sammlung Boros in the Mitte region.

Built in 1943 as a bunker, this arts space hosts all manner of sculpture, spatial installations, performances and the private collection of the Boros family, who live on the top floor. In total over 500 contemporary artists, including Damien Hurst and Olafur Eliasson, make up the collection ( www.Sammlung-Boros.de ).

In Berlin there is much momentum to upmarket and gentrify many of its alternative/hipster regions such as Kreuzberg. Nevertheless, a radical undercurrent still manifests in many places and spaces.

The wall coming down opened up lots of buildings that became the squats and sometimes later intentional communities with private or shared ownership.

Many host events, including what are called Volxküchen — essentially affordable community meals for a diverse spread of people. www.Stressfacktor.squat.net  lists daily Volxküchens.

Volxküchens stand out in a city not renowned for interesting, innovative food: an abundance of falafel awaits you.

To be fair, some of this is of a good quality and at good prices. Dada Falafel’s mixed vegetarian platter (Linienstrasse, Mitte) is a personal favourite.

If you happen to arrive on Thursday, the hippest, tastiest thing to do is to head down to Markthalle Neun (Mariannenplatz, Kreuzberg). This is a Slow Food supported indoor ‘street market’. Markthalle boasts a fantastic range of foods and drink from local Brandenberg specialities to Ghanaian plantains, raw vegan cakes to Spanish Tapas. It even features epic Korean-American hybrid Fräulein Kimchi kocht (open 5-10PM).

Korean food is a highlight in a city known for the tameness and genericness of its international cuisine. Matürlich in Kreuzberg (find on Facebook, no website) is technically a pop-up restaurant and one of the most authentic Berlin ethnic eating experiences, though there are some modern healthy affectations such the occasional appearance of heretical brown rice. Try the Korean signature Bibimbab or the kimbop (sushi style dish).

Nearby, a worthy international eatery called Weltküche ( www.die-weltkueche.org ) is incredibly affordable and in a gorgeous part of Kreuzberg.

This daytime spot is a social enterprise that helps migrant women in difficult circumstances prepare for further work. Food reflects the diverse backgrounds of the women who work there.

Evening drinks can start and finish with the compact, kitschy and great fun Filmkunstcafe ( www.filmkunstcafe.blogspot.de ). This world cinema DVD rental store downstairs is also a happening, welcoming bar with a lively clientèle on ground level. Somehow, on a Monday night, I ended up behind the bar Djing from a smart phone first time I visited. Reichenberger (and yes it’s in Kreuzberg).

The Madonna Whiskey bar, and Bar 11, are all a stroll away and worth checking out too: Madonna has over 250 whiskeys, 100 rums, and regularly does tastings.

Club-wise, the most famous of them all is Berghain. Known for prickly doormen, this multi-level haven caters for all-out but still dressed up clubbing, peppered with a hearty dose of wanton abandon (Bahnhof, opens at midnight).

Interconnected partially closed courtyards which act like restrained shopping malls, or cultural, culinary and shopping hang outs, are an occasional feature of Berlin. Hackesche Höfe (Rosenthaler) is perhaps the most upmarket and attractive, designed in the Art Nouveau style by August Ende in 1906.

Almost next door, in a more Steampunk Mad Max sort of courtyard with an Arthouse cinema and an approachably raucous bar, sits the Monsterkabinnet. And it is a house of strange, constructed otherwordly creatures. An apt way to finish off a trip to one of the great capital cities.


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