No other city seamlessly straddles a strained past with an all-accepting present in the way Berlin does.
OF TERRIFYING TRIBUTES
That Berlin has a rather bloody past cannot be denied. But instead of shying away from it, Berlin pays a fitting tribute to it all, without condoning or glorifying the past, instead using it as a reminder of just how wrong things can sometimes go. A visit to Berlin is incomplete without a trip to the Eastside Gallery, the largest chunk of the Berlin Wall that still stands. The murals painted along the wall all speak of freedom, the need for peace, and the consequences of war. They are powerful and moving all at once. For those of you so inclined, a visit to the BlackBox Cold War exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie will allow you to gain great insight into exactly how the Stasi – the terrifying East German secret police – managed to keep a close watch on the state’s hapless citizens. It’s a very detailed (and more than just a little unpleasant) look into life in the GDR, but worth a visit for history buffs. People who don’t quite like the idea of such horrors, can pick the slightly flippant and amusing alternative – taking photographs with actors dressed as soldiers who are stationed at what used to be the most popular crossing point between East and West Germany.
There’s more. The Topography of Terror, close to Checkpoint Charlie, is a museum that details the tremendous atrocities carried out by the Gestapo during the Holocaust. It’s located where the Secret State Police Office and the Reich Security Main Office once stood, which makes it just that much more terrifying. There’s also the Holocaust Memorial or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is a grim reminder, via a series of grey stone blocks that represent graves, of just how many people were murdered by Hitler.
Berlin is home of the currywurst, a peculiar combination of sliced sausage, doused in a healthy dose of ketchup, dusted over with curry powder (which is a curious combination of powdered spices, unlike anything that we have in India). To the uninitiated, all currywurst tastes the same, but the good Berliner swears by Curry 36 (on Mehringdamm) and Konnopke’s Imbiss (in Prenzlauer Berg). If you’re not in the mood for it, you could always try the döner kebap, which really is Berlin’s official food. The best version is rumoured to be found at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap in Kreuzberg. Berlin also has a host of streetfood markets. Markthalle Neuen’s Streetfood is a melting pot of various cuisines from all over the world. There’s also Streetfood Auf Achse in the Kulturbrauerei every Sunday, the Turkish street-food market in Kreuzberg every Tuesday and Friday, the weekend Thaipark in Wilmersdorf (where you get home-cooked Thai food served up by Berlin’s Thai community) and Biteclub Berlin. For the homesick Indian in Berlin, Chaiwallah’s has the most delicious naanwiches, which is what they call naan wraps, that are stuffed with either pulled pork, chicken, or paneer. Another option is Chutnify, which serves everything from dosa and chicken curry to aloo tikki and malabar biryani.
FOOD TIP: Don’t miss out on currywurst, doused in ketchup and dusted over with a healthy dose of curry powder
STREET ART AND GRAFFITI
Berlin isn’t a beautiful city – it pales in comparison to most other European cities, and in fact most other German cities as well. But what it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in character. There isn’t anything that screams Berlin more than the city’s street art and graffiti. Berlin’s Big Heads, which can be seen at the East Side Gallery, but also in other parts of the city, like Potsdamer Platz, are the most-recognisable. Thierry Noir, the Berlin-based artist behind the Big Heads, now has rockstarlike status within the street-art community. You can see his art on Berlin’s old Trabants, and at his stores Galerie Noir located through the city. Possibly the other more popular form of Berlin street art are the double-sided yellow fists that you’ll see at various parts of the city. These were painted by Berlin graffiti artist Kripoe from CBS crew, a street-art group that was active between 1995 and 2005. If you ride the S-Bahn when you’re in Berlin, which really is a convenient way to get from one place to another, don’t miss looking out the window and trying to spot the fists, which are meant to denote anarchy. Another place that allows the tourist to get a proper feel of just how grungy and graffiti-filled Berlin is, is RAW. What once used to be a repair centre for trains is now an arts centre that also houses a nightclub, bars, a bunker turned climbing wall (what the Germans call a kletterpark) and a skatepark.
No city does parks better than Berlin. This ought to be evident when your flight begins its descent into Tegel or Schonefeld, the aerial view giving you proof that 40 per cent of the German capital really is greenery. There’s the Volkspark in Friedrichshain, that offers people a place to spread a picnic blanket and sunbathe in fine weather. You can also bicycle through the park, play a little football, or table tennis, and watch the brave souls who come there to practice tight-rope walking. The park also houses the Freiluft Kino, or open air cinema, which plays movies all through the summer. If you’re into something a little more adventurous, try Mauerpark on a Sunday. In addition to the regular park activities, you can also manage to take in another part of the Berlin Wall, listen to, (or if you’re brave enough, participate in) a karaoke session, and also shop at one of Berlin’s more popular flea-markets. There’s also the old Spreepark, which once was the site of a rather popular amusement park, but now holds rather macabre remnants of it – an out of use Ferris wheel, a dinosaur tipped over half of its body in a marshy bog, chipped tea cups that are a part of a merry go round etc. The Grosser Tiergarten near Potsdamer Platz and the Schlosspark Charlottenburg are peaceful and lovely.
PARK TIP: Don’t miss the Volkspark, the Freiluft Kino, try the Mauerpark, the Berlin Wall, the old Spreepark and the Grosser Tiergarten .
OLD SCHOOL CINEMAS
Berlin might have its share of multiplexes, but it hasn’t given up on the old single-screen cinemas of the past. From old-fashioned ticket stubs to popcorn machines, quaint movie programmes and refreshment stands that look like something out of Pop Tate’s, Berlin’s old theatres have it all. There’s the Zoo Palast (rebuilt in the 1950s after the original Ufa-Palast am Zoo was destroyed in WWII) in the upmarket Charlottenburg, the site of many film premieres. There are other cinemas, perhaps not quite as glamorous, like Babylon in Kreuzberg, Acud in Mitte and the Hackesche Höfe Kino in Hackescher Markt. The buildings are architecturally interesting, all reflecting the period in which they were built, ranging from Bauhaus or Neue Sachlichkeit to Art Deco. Even if you don’t want to actually watch a movie here, just walk in and take a look.
If you’re absolutely hell bent on ticking off typical tourist sights, a visit to Alexanderplatz to see the famous, if slightly ugly, fernsehturm or TV Tower, is something you ought to do. It was the most iconic part of East Berlin, and although it really can be seen from pretty much any corner of the city, looking at it from the foot of the tower can be a surreal experience. Then there’s the Brandenburg Gate, which is possibly Berlin’s most famous monument, and marks the former city gate between Berlin and the town of Brandenburg. Further down the road from the Brandenburg Gate is the Berlin Victory Column, which commemorates Prussia’s victory in the Danish-Prussian war. The Reichstag, with its glass-topped dome from where visitors can see the German parliament in session, is also near enough to walk into for a visit. The Berliner Dome or the Berlin Cathedral in Lustgarten, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfurstendamm are both also worth visiting. While you’re at it, you might as well manage a quick walk around Museum Island and stop by the Neue Wache on Unter der Linden, which is a memorial to the unknown soldiers lost in WWI.
SPEND A LITTLE DOSH
Berlin is no slouch when it comes to offering people something to shop for. If you’re looking to spend a whole lot of money, then head to the Ku’damm in Charlottenberg. It’s Berlin’s answer to Paris’ Champs de Elysees. If you’re looking for unique designs that you won’t find anywhere else, the Hackesche Höffe in Hackescher Markt has several bespoke design outfits, and quirky studios that will help you stock up on unusual souvenirs for home. There’s also the Berliner Kunstmarkt am Zeughaus that takes place every Saturday and Sunday on Museum Island, where you get everything from paintings and prints, to magnets, tees, ceramic art and even old books and vinyls.
SHOPPING TIP: Head to Ku’damm in Charlottenberg, Hackescher Markt and Berliner Kunstmarkt am Zeughaus on Museum Island
WE LIKE TO PARTY
The city is choc-full of Bier Gartens (beer gardens) which will allow you to sit outdoors, and get your fill of European sun during the summer. If there’s an outdoor beer garden that you simply must not miss, it’s Festaal in Kreuzberg. Housed within what is an old-school wooden fair ground, the Festaal has a small dance floor, a beer garden, a restaurant and a view. You can find yourself drinking beer in old dodgem cars that no longer work, or in an old-fashioned kissing booth. It’s an experience. There’s also White Trash, which is a Berlin institution for burgers, beer and some rock and roll. If you’d like to party like a Berliner, which means into the wee hours of the morning, then there’s plenty of places to choose from. Warschauerstrasse in Berlin’s Friedrichshain has Suicide Circus, Urban Spree and Astra Kulturhaus, to name just a few. There’s also the almost impossible to enter Berghain nightclub a few streets away. For a quieter evening of just drinking, we recommend Dachkammer in Friedrichshain. The Van Gogh Piano and Cocktailbar in Charlottenburg is also a good place to listen to some klavierspiel (live piano music) and look at Van Gogh reproductions.
THE PLACE TO STAY
If you’re going to stay in Berlin, and are willing to spring for a five-star hotel, you might as well choose the Adlon Kempinski. This is Berlin’s oldest luxury hotel, one that was built when Lorenz Adlon managed to convince Kaiser Wilhelm II that Berlin was in desperate need for a place for the rich and famous to rest their heads upon their visits to the city. Most of the hotel was destroyed in WW II, save for a small wing which stayed open till 1984. The newly built Adlon, on the same location as the old Adlon, and with much the same design, opened in 1997. A good room will afford you a view of the Brandenburg Gate and will be pricey. Prices begin at 300 euro for a Deluxe Room and go all the way up to 26,000 euro for a Royal Suite.
HOW TO ‘DO’ BERLIN
• If you’ve got just 48 hours in Berlin, a good way to see the whole city is to buy yourself a Berlin Welcome Pass, which is valid for 48 hours. It will set you back by 95 Euro, but will cover all of your public transport needs – buses, S-Bahn, U-Bahn. And it will grant you entry into 30 Berlin tourist attractions, which means overall, you’ll end up saving a fair amount of money.
• If you want to see Berlin in a Trabant, that quirky relic from the GDR, book yourself a tour. Trabi Safari is a good company to opt for, and they offer self-drive tours that will take you through the city for a price as low as 30 Euro.
• If you’d like to see the city, but also want to spend all day drinking beer, Berlin ensures that you don’t have to choose one or the other. There’s a beer-bike tour available in Berlin, which is essentially a bar on wheels. The steering isn’t up to you, since there’s a sober driver guiding you in the right direction. But you’re called upon to pedal and make sure this curious bar moves forward. It’s a fun way to watch the city whoosh past you in a haze of hops and barley.
• Keep your eyes peeled when you’re walking through Berlin. There are two things that nearly all tourists miss. The first – sections of brick that snake through the city, that indicate where the wall once stood. The second – stolperstein, which literally translates to ‘stumbling stones’. These little brass tiles embedded into the street bear the names and last known workplaces, or residences, of Jewish people who were murdered in the Holocaust.