Dirty, unattractive, wild, sexy. Over 774 years old, the city of Berlin is the epicentre of cool. Here you can explore the cosmos of your vast identity, blossoming to new experiences. Berlin demands that you shirk tradition, seek the dark corner hidden within your soul and shed light on it.
Germany is boiling with rich history, a nation that seems both fervent and intellectually detached. Embroiled within the changing realities of the 20th century, Germans have been central players in two of the most brutal wars our modern humanity has faced—-WWI and WWII.
Once the infamous Nazis were defeated during WWII, the sovereign nation of Germany in the hands of Allied powers was divided into 4 sectors—-American, British, French in the west, and Soviet in the east. As the capital city, Berlin was also divided into different sectors.
In 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected to keep citizens of Soviet-occupied east Berlin from migrating to the west. Before the Wall was built, thousands had attempted and successfully crossed over, yet hundreds were killed attempting to flee once the Wall came into reality.
The Wall became a symbol of the Cold War. A struggle over political ideologies—-Communism vs. Capitalism. It not only separated east and west Berlin, but also represented the separation of eastern and western Europe.
The Berlin Wall was constructed north of Tiergarten, right of the park, south towards Potsdamer Platz, and stretched out east towards the Spree River where the East Side Gallery now exists. The areas east of Tiergarten were in Soviet control. It wasn’t until 1989 when the Berlin Wall finally came down, a historic moment all over the world, that it marked the so-called end of the Cold War.
Berliners of older generations who experienced the erection of the Wall as kids were incredibly emotional at witnessing its demolition.
In this article we discuss the many historical landmarks you can visit, along with details on typical Berlin activities such as clubbing. We have gathered together some of our favourite attractions during our year-long stay in the city.
1) Historic Landmarks
4) Music Venues
6) Budget-Friendly Eats
7) Day Trips Outside of Berlin
The widely-recognizable columned landmark, Brandenburger Tor, is a gate featuring four horses leading a chariot. Inspired by Greek architecture, the gate was built in the 18th century and leads into Unter den Linden (the oldest street in Berlin). During the partition of Berlin, Brandenburger Tor stood on the Soviet side, positioned close to the east and west divide, therefore representing a gateway between the two sectors. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, thousands gathered here to celebrate. On certain special occasions images and lights are projected onto the gate, creating a dazzling display.
Unter den Linden
The name of Unter den Linden street literally translates to “under the Linden” trees, or lime trees, that once lined the pavement. The wide boulevard in the centre of the city stretches from the Spree River to Tiergarten park. As the oldest boulevard in Berlin, it was built during the 16th century and improved upon in later centuries. In the heat of WWII, the street was used for propagandist marching by Hitler’s army, later reduced to rubble from air strikes, and required much-needed restoration.
Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche
Intentionally kept in ruins, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche was built in the 19th century to commemorate Kaiser Wilhelm I, the former German Emperor, and is now a memorial against war. The church was destroyed in 1945 and later rebuilt, except for the upper portion. Today, you can see complete pieces of the church missing, one of the few landmarks the Germans chose not to completely rebuild in order to acknowledge the realities of war.
Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is dedicated to the horrific events of the systematic killings of European Jews by Nazis during World War II. The poignant memorial is characterized by differing sizes of blocks on rolling wavy hills. As you walk through the maze of large and small blocks, you feel a sense of loneliness, disorientation, and uneasiness. The design is supposed to mimic the hopelessness and fear felt by Jews during this period of their persecution.
Burial Site of Hitler
Adolf Hitler, the man who single-handedly brought the world to their knees through violence and hatred by maniacally justifying, erroneously, the existence of only one dominant race, is now buried in an unceremonious parking lot. The parking lot in Mitte is difficult to find because, rightly so, there is no memorial of his death. The small sign providing evidence of his existence in the parking is not a celebration, but an acknowledgement and a reminder of the depths of human evil.
TV Tower at Alexanderplatz
The tallest structure visible in Berlin’s skyline is the needle-point tower of the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) in Alexanderplatz. The tower is 368 metres high, and features a revolving restaurant at the peak where you can view the city below through massive circular windows. This tower is a point of contention for some locals because the Soviets (or German Democratic Republic) built the tower when east Berlin was within their power. The tower was built in only four years and erected to show the might of the Communist party.
The basis for Berlin’s growth, Museum Island is the small island in Mitte from which Berlin expanded, slowly spreading outwards into the major hub it is today. The island houses a collection of beautifully structured museums by the Spree River, including Bode Museum, Neues Museum, Alte Nationalegalerie, Altes Museum, and the Pergamonmuseum. This particular museum accommodates collections spanning six thousands years of art, and features a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, one of the many gates to the inner city of Babylon.
A marvelously authoritative structure, the Reichstag is the seat of the German parliament, known as the Bundestag. Characterized by a glass dome at the centre, many visit the Reichstag for a view of the city through the glass rotunda. Completed in 1894, the reunification of Germany officially took place at the Reichstag in 1990.
A historic crossing point between east and west Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie was the gateway to the American and British sector in the west. Before the Wall came down, this crossing point was heavily guarded by military personnel and where many attempted to escape east Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie is located east of Tiergarten, near Potsdamer Platz. You can visit the wall memorial here to read about the timeline of Berlin’s historical events.
East Side Gallery
A remnant of the despised Berlin Wall, the eastern portion of the wall has now turned into an art gallery called the East Side Gallery, featuring imaginative political murals. One of the best known paintings is “The Mortal Kiss” completed by Dmitri Vrubel. It depicts Erich Honecker, Communist General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, and Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev, kissing mouth-to-mouth.
The Gendarmenmarkt, an expansive and beautiful square in Mitte, features the Schinkel’s Konzerthaus, and the German and French Cathedral. Along with a beautiful statue in front of the Konzerthaus, the aesthetic of the square and the architecture is striking in a city not well-known for being beautiful. During the winter, the square hosts German Christmas markets offering traditional German dishes, and glühwein to keep you warm as you roam the stalls.
The Oberbaum bridge connects the neighbourhoods of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, and has existed since 1896. Beautiful in the daylight and dazzling at night when lights are displayed on its facade, the bridge resembles the towers of a castle.
Shop along the beloved street of Kurfürstendamm (nicknamed, Ku’Damm) in Mitte where you can find not only small boutiques, trendy chains, and luxury shops, but also one of the oldest department stores — KaDeWe. The sixth floor of KaDeWe features a gourmet department where you can indulge in flavours from all over the world.
Mauerpark and Other Flea Markets
On the weekends Berlin blooms into a market paradise. In many neighbourhoods you can find large or small flea markets selling clothing, books, records, trinkets, art, food, furniture, home decorations, and various other useful finds. Usually, they are found in parks or on certain side streets. For example, Friedrichshain’s Boxhagener Platz park transforms into a laid-back market full of mingling locals, and many vendors unload fresh ingredients from their local grocery stores in Neukölln. Near the U-Bahn station of Hackescher Markt, markets also pop-up around the bars in the area. You can spend an afternoon shopping, followed by a drink on the patio watching people shop.
The largest and most popular Berlin market is Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. Every Sunday you will see hundreds of people roaming through the various displays and available food. Some sit on the grass near the markets relaxing over a picnic. Many musicians set-up their instruments in different areas of the park and perform for the crowd, resembling an outdoor music festival. There is also a small arena-style seating at the park where people sing karaoke.
In the heat of the summer cool-off at Berlin’s only floating swimming pool, Badeschiff, on the Spree River near Treptower Park. The lawn-chairs and a sandy area nearby offers a nice, although meagre, beach to give you the impression of a coastal city. In the distance, the aluminum structure of the Molecule Man rises 30 metres above the river.
Tiergarten and Treptower Park
The largest park in the city, Tiergarten is the green heart of Berlin. Locals visit this park daily for exercising, relaxing over a picnic, drinking beer, or rowing boats along the Neuer See. Beautifully serene under dangling foliage, the reflective water is delicately ruffled by boats cutting through the peaceful water. Near the lake is Café am Neuen See, a beer garden where you can grab a beer, wurst, or pizza.
Treptower Park in eastern Berlin is another mecca of outdoor-life for lovely walks by the river, visiting a Soviet War Memorial, and checking out the observatory.
As the winter chill thaws in Berlin, locals leave their home to occupy the mega-green field of Tempelhof Flughafen, a former airport, to barbecue with their friends and family. The current Tempelhof building was built by the Nazis in 1936, a unique European structure at the time. The airport was used for arms production during the war by the Nazis, who also used Tempelhof for mass rallies and as a concentration camp. Before the Nazis came into power the airport held some of the first air travel tests in the world.
Currently, certain wings of the airport are being used as emergency housing for refugees. The field and wide runway of the airport is now used by locals as a park for bike riding and rollerblading. You can join a tour to view the outdated but interesting interiors of the grand airport, and even old airplanes.
North west of Moabit, many locals visit the small lake of Plötzensee during the summer. Due to its popularity the line can be long to enter the park, so arrive earlier in the day. After paying a small fee for all-day entry, walk to the lake where you will find a sandy beach and food trucks. The other side of the lake has no gate so you can enter without paying a fee, however there are no washrooms. The lake is great for spending a whole day having a picnic, relaxing, or swimming.
We found some of the best bars in Berlin to be the Spätis. A Späti (meaning late in German) is a convenience store which is sometimes open all night long. They can be found anywhere, and certain neighbourhoods feature a Späti on almost every block. Every Späti sells beer in their fridge and since it is Germany, the prices on their alcohol are very cheap, especially compared to actual bars.
Since we were always unsure about our job situation during our stay in Berlin, we had to refrain from spending too much, and found the cheapest places to get together with friends were at Spätis. Our favourite is the Späti on Warschauer Straße because they have indoor and outdoor seating, and even a public bathroom. Many Spätis do not have seating or a bathroom, but in Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg you can usually find at least outdoor seating at the Spätis.
Here are some of the actual bars we frequented and preferred over others.
Roses, once a hotspot for the LGBT community, is now attracting all kinds of locals and tourists attempting to fight off the daylight by sinking deeper into Berlin’s nightlife. The walls of the deceptively tiny bar are covered in pink fur, and the interior is doused in red light with chandeliers and disco balls hanging from the ceiling. Pictures of Madonna and laughing skulls cover areas of the furry walls, and since smoking is allowed inside Berlin establishments, the air is musty, smoky, and claustrophobic, especially when it gets crowded. Arrive late enough into the night and the bar is throbbing wall-to-wall with people, and becomes difficult to get through the front door.
A maze of rooms, Mano Café is designed with vintage furniture, understated but decadent chandeliers, short wooden ladders to lofts with beds, and cross-legged platform seating on cushions. In the evenings the bar in Kreuzberg is cozy and lively with dim lighting and a yellow glow.
This was another one of our favourites in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. It’s unnoticeable until you enter through a loading bay area, followed by a hallway and another door. Rising from the floor to the tall ceilings are wooden slats collected together to resemble trees. The seating is all in wood as well, and they have excellent cocktails.
Frequented by David Bowie, Neues Ufer is an easygoing bar which is not always hounded by tourists. Located in Schöneberg, the LGBT district of Berlin, the bar is near the apartment building where Bowie lived. He spent a lot of time in this bar writing songs.
We attempted to attend as many shows as we could while in Berlin to check out their music venues. Luckily enough, a few of our favourite bands were in town during that year so we could attend. Here is a list of some of the venues we visited and which are great for a show.
SO36 is an institution in Berlin along Oranienstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. The venue is named after the old postal code of Kreuzberg. They used to play lively punk shows during its heyday, but now they offer a diverse exhibition of musicians. They have featured famous bands, including performers at the beginning of their career.
Behind the famous Berghain nightclub is a music venue and bar called Berghain Cantina in Friedrichshain. Numerous different live shows are featured here, and they have an excellent patio and rooftop terrace outside.
This bar and music venue is located in Urban Spree of Friedrichshain by Revaler Straße. Urban Spree is a below street-level area where in the daylight it looks like an abandoned industrial district covered in graffiti, but which during the evening, when the doors to the large barn buildings open up, turns into the core of nightlife revelry. Among all the club and bar venues at Urban Spree is Cassiopeia, which we visited not too long after moving to Berlin. The atmosphere is great for a night of fun!
Near Ostkreuz Bahnhof, between Friedrichshain and Rummelsburg, is a venue called Zukunft. The venue is a collection of all-things desirable: a bar, outdoor theatre, art space, and a music venue.
Many local Berliners are heavily into techno, so apart from attending shows where bands are playing real instruments, many Berliners visit clubs for the sole purpose of watching a new DJ perform.
We spent minimal time clubbing in Berlin, however the experience is quite entrancing. Berliners know instinctively how to set the mood by creating a dream-like atmosphere bathed in psychedelic imagery, seductive red lights or twinkling star lights, and pumping off-beat sounds; all of which combine into a sense of dangerous comfort. It stirs a fear of the unknown which you discover as you are intoxicated while cozily sitting in comfortable vintage sofas or chairs, sometimes dirty beds, completely hidden within the mystery of dim lighting.
Rather than “clubbing” (what we are used to in Canada), Berlin’s version of clubbing is more like a house party at your friend’s house. The kind of friend whose hair is always shaggy and disheveled; who wears shirts too small for him with teddy bear pictures; chain-smokes cigarettes; has pockets of dark circles under his eyes; and never cleans up after having people over.
There are many rules regarding entry into a Berlin club, many of them designed to allow cool weirdos in and keep the straight-laced tourists or preppy people dressed in formal outfits, out. You should be able to at least answer in German when the bouncer asks you a question, and know which DJs are playing that night. Black is the go-to colour for your outfit if you want entry, but it depends on the club.
One rule Berlin clubs are very strict about is not allowing photos inside their venues, and even sometimes in certain bars.
We only visited Sisyphos and About Blank, both in east Berlin and had interesting nights, but local friends recommended plenty more to us: Tresor, Watergate, Kater Blau, Berghain, Kit Kat, and more.
Apart from typical Berlin street food such as Currywurst and Döners which we outlined in our Settling in Berlin post, here are some other budget-friendly and interesting places to eat.
Berlin is another big city built by immigrants, so there is quite a variety of foods from all different cultures. We found a chic yet laid-back Vietnamese restaurant in Friedrichshain called Chay Village. It is not only incredibly delicious and creative, but inexpensive.
Goodies and Yoyo
Many health-nuts and environmentally-conscious folks live in Berlin, so there is no shortage of vegan restaurants. Our favourite vegan dessert place was Goodies in Friedrichshain, along Warschauer Straße. They offer delicious desserts which are not only vegan and gluten-free, but also refined sugar-free.
In addition to Goodies, a friend of ours worked at a vegan fast food joint called Yoyo in Friedrichshain. If you are craving the fat and protein-heavy meals of meat burgers, then Yoyo does an excellent job mimicking this appetite using plant-based ingredients. The main items on the menu are, burgers, pizzas, and wraps.
Baraka is an Egyptian-Moroccon restaurant in Friedrichshain by Görlitzer Bahnhof. Their restaurant is always busy because of their quality meals and budget-friendly prices. If you don’t have time to sit-in at their restaurant, you can order a 3 Euro wrap at the counter and wolf down your meal at the high-top tables by the entrance where they serve you free tea, or take it to-go.
The Wilmersdorf park Preußen Park, in west Berlin, hosts a market of Thai delicacies and dishes. Locals set-up home-cooked Thai food at this park for sale every weekend, including dishes from various other regions of Asia. Wandering the food market is an amazing experience because you get to try tasty authentic Thai meals for decent prices. Especially when you arrive just before they are ready to pack-up, and need to get rid of all the food.
Day Trips Outside of Berlin
There is so much to do in Berlin that the city never leaves you with a dull moment, and that’s what makes this city so attractive to many. Besides clubbing, going to a bar, or checking out shows, and of course visiting tourist attractions, here are areas to visit near Berlin.
South west of Berlin is Potsdam, a city with numerous UNESCO World Heritage buildings that belonged to royal Germans. From Berlin it is very easy to travel to Potsdam if you take one of the S-Bahn lines directly to Potsdam Hauptbahnhof.
In Potsdam you will see grand castles of Prussian architecture fortified with expansive parks and gardens, meticulously well-kept. One of the most stunning palaces is the Sanssouci Palace, a remnant of Prussian culture. This was a summer palace for Frederick the Great with pathways weaving through its detailed park. Other castles and areas to visit are Neuer Garten with Cecilienhof Palace, Brandenburger Straße, and Potsdam City Palace.
Interested in hopping over into a different country while in Berlin? From the centre of Berlin, a two-hour commute east will take you to Frankfurt (Oder) where you can cross the bridge to Slubice, Poland. It will cost 35 Euros for a return trip, and you can take up to 5 people with you on that ticket. Wander through the small town, take some photos, eat some local perogies, and have a Tyskie by the Oder River.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
North of Berlin is a town called Oranienburg where you can visit the eerie former Nazi concentration camp, and Soviet prison camp, Sachsenhausen. Take a tour and learn about the horrific events which took place on the fields of this large prison. You will visit the cells, areas where prisoners were hanged, and the incinerator. Incredibly heartbreaking, the camp will hurtle you back in time to another world where the reality of such inhuman depravity seems unreal.
Rent a car and drive up north to see the Baltic Sea and the distant-but-near borders of Denmark and Sweden. Visit Jasmund National Park for hiking, beaches, and viewing stunning cliffs overlooking the sea.
So much has changed in Berlin since the war, and the city’s culture and livelihood continues to change. For historic before and after photos of what the city looked like prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, check out Der Speigel, a German weekly news magazine.
Do you have any additional suggestions for those looking to experience an authentic visit to the city? Comment below!
Copyright © Beyond Here 2020
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