With its relentless reinvention, creativity and ‘anything goes’ attitude, Berlin is more of a state of mind than a city. Thankfully, resident writer/photographer Craig Robinson is on hand to teach us how to “Be Berlin”…
Before you arrive in the capital shake off any pre-conceived notions of Germans and Germany. You’re not dealing with lederhosen or industrious, hard working, upper class people here. This is Berlin and these are the Berliners. The Berlin Burgermeister himself (no doubt after a shot of Jagermeister) proclaimed the now famous Berlin anthem: “Berlin: Poor. But sexy.” The clarion call rang out loud and clear: get your poor, sexy, artistic booty to Berlin. And shake it. And they came. In droves. The city of Berlin is one giant sea of eclectic, swirling, shaking, skint neighborhoods surrounding one dull, boring, bombed-out-and-rebuilt-in-commie-concrete centre. Artists and students came for the cheap rent, developers came for the quick buck and whilst gentrification is slowly creeping in, you will still discover the beating heart of Berlin in the districts of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln.
Keep in mind, though, that Berlin is no stranger to ‘alternative tourism.’ The riot tourist comes to Kreuzberg on May 1 to see the pretty punks throwing the Molotov Cocktails at the riot cops. The club weenie comes to suck up the ecstasy and techno music in the non-stop night scene that has become a cliché (even the Love Parade has moved on!). If you only come to Berlin to get wasted and party you will miss most of what the city has to offer. Berlin is a constantly changing city which seems to resist the very notion of anything ‘normal’ or conformist. This city is the San Francisco of Europe without the high prices. It is creative, liberal, has strong, individualist neighborhoods and an ‘anything goes’ ethic that doesn’t care if you’re gay, straight, student, punk, professional or freak. For instance, a Berliner once casually introduced herself to me as ‘the tranny on the block’. (Weird Al, will you PLEASE come to Berlin and do a video called ‘Tranny on the Block,’ sung to the tune of that J-Lo song? It will be a hit, I swear. It’s yours to keep. All I ask is to be an extra in the video. Hell, I’ll even wear a DRESS).
Best of the Beaten Track
The Reichstag is bustling with tourists almost year round, owing in no small part to its cleverly-redesigned dome, a glass-and-steel, post-modern air aquarium which sits in place of the original Russian-bombed stone dome. On any given day you can see tourist ants spiralling up and down the suspended metal walkways inside the gleaming structure. A nice stretch of the legs will take you from Reichstag through the Brandenburg Gate into Tiergarten, the centre of which boasts the roundabout with the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, or as I like to call it, the ‘Chick on a Stick.’ Fans of Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) will appreciate the golden angel perched on the granite column. While strolling around Tiergarten, do drop in to one of the biergartens to have a cold one.
If nature strolls aren’t your thing, walk the opposite way through Brandenburg Gate, through Pariser Platz and onto Unter den Linden. Along this long boulevard you can see fine examples of architecture from the two Friedrichs, I and II, and the continuous rows of Linden trees for which the street was named. Continue on until you hit Muzeumsinsel (Museum Island), which has a collection of museums so large you won’t be able to see them all in one month. So pick the one which tickles your historical fancy and join the tremendous queues (hint: avoid weekends).
Berlin boasts more waterways, lakes, rivers and canals than Venice. Jump on one of the many tour boats (Reederei) and suck up the sights and some suds on the sunny deck. I recommend the tours which start in Treptower Park, Friedrichshain, East Berlin. Every few hours a boat launches from one of the docks and ploughs through East Berlin, through the centre and winds up somewhere West of Tiergarten.
A trip to Berlin wouldn’t be complete without a walk along the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, The Eastside Gallery, near Ostbahnhof in Friedrichshain. This open air, concrete canvas art gallery was completely renovated in 2010 for the 20 year anniversary of the Mauerfall (Fall of the Berlin Wall). Many of the international artists who had originally splashed the wall with murals of freedom were invited back to repaint their faded work.
Finally if you want to take in as much of the German capital as possible consider a Berlin City Pass as for a fixed price you can get 2, 3 or 6 days worth of free museum entries, unlimited rides on the hop on / hop off sightseeing tour buses and even skip the queue privileges at the Reichstag and Pergamon museum.
A large light banner splashed onto the Brandenburg Gate during the Berlin Festival of Lights (see ‘Experience & Events’ below) simply stated “Be Berlin.” You too can Be Berlin if you:
– Avoid the centre and stay in überhip areas like Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.
– Carry a bottle of beer in your hand. Everywhere. In F’hain or Xberg, make it a Sternburg.
– Stay a year and study something. Anything. Half of the non-Berliner residents list study as their official reason to stay.
– Get a beat up black bike and ride it faster than necessary. Yell at people who stray into the bike lane; the older and slower the people in the bike lane, the better.
– Be creative. Berlin is choking on creative types who compete for scraps of meat thrown in the gladiatorial ring. Most of them are not very good at it. But that shouldn’t stop someone from trying. Creativity is its own reward.
– Adopt the attitude. ‘Berliner Schnauze’ is what Berliners call their dialect. It is comprised of a mixture of dark humor and creative expressions. Berlin’s many beach bars are a great physical manifestation of Berliner Schnauze humour. A land-locked city shouldn’t have sandy beaches, palm trees and cocktails served with views of abandoned factories and graffiti-ridden urban decay. But Berlin rolls like that. (Caveat: due to the generally dismal weather in Berlin, these beach bars operate mainly between May and September).
For more alternative travel ideas check out our Secret Seven things to see and do in the German capital. Or check our top five cafes for some kaffee und kuchen.
Experience & Events
For the alternative adventure traveller, urban exploration (urbex for short) is the act of entering abandoned buildings and taking photos. The best urbex experiences are had where history halts suddenly and buildings are left in a state of slow decay. Berlin and its surrounding areas offer dozens of abandoned military sites, disused breweries and empty sanatoriums for the intrepid explorer. And nowhere else but Berlin can you see fading murals of hammers and sickles and a tile-studded mosaic of a Nazi eagle—in the same site. Urbex is technically verboten in most sites, so you are best advised to join a growing list of sites which include paid tours of closed/abandoned sites. Such locations include Teufelsberg (cold war spy listening post) and the abandoned Spreepark Plänterwald Amusement Park.
The Berlin International Film Festival takes over Berlin cinemas every year beginning in late February. In spite of blockbuster gala openings featuring appearances by Brangelina and the like, Berlinale remains one of the most diverse film festivals in Europe and is one of the best showcases for new international film talent anywhere. Tip: if online ticket purchases are locked, simply show up at the film venue of choice anytime before 1pm on a Saturday or Sunday. The party animals are still asleep and you will get your tickets. Get a copy of the official programme and have at least 10 ‘second choices.’
Another off season favourite is the Berlin Festival of Lights. For a dozen nights in October of each year you can trip the light fandango as Berlin lights up in a dazzling display of light projections and colourful illuminations. The Berlin Festival of Lights kicks off with a grand ceremony on the first night, followed by different light artist groups splashing their glowing wares onto scores of the greatest monuments of Berlin. The massive, gothic girth of the imposing Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) on Museum Island gets a light makeover with psychedelic paisley projections, the stone chariots atop Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) sit aloft in fiery pillars of glowing light, and riverboats cast colourful beams of light on everything in their wake.
Why stay in a normal hotel when you can stay in the Eastern Comfort boatel/hostel on the river? Alternatively you could opt for a spot of indoor camping (we reveal all in our Secret Seven alternative Berlin tips!). Or eschew modern design and revel in the retro DDR décor of the Ostel? Better yet: get a gang of your friends and rent an apartment in an uberhip area like Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain. Think of all the expensive cab fares saved and the embarrassing drunken-lost-on-the-U-bahn moments you can avoid!
The Berliner currywurst and the Berliner jelly donut are the official foods of Berlin. In third place is the non-native kebab, served everywhere in Berlin at all hours of the day and night. I am here to shatter the cult status of the Berliner currywurst: it’s just a hot dog with ketchup and a tiny smidgen of mild curry powder on top. On a sweeter note, Kennedy’s famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech has cemented the Berliner jelly donut on the political map for eternity. Only they don’t always call them Berliners here. Pfannkuchen is how you order them up. Siebert Konditorei on Schoenfliesser strasse in Prenzlauer Berg has the best Berliner jelly donuts with cherry filling on the planet. Hit up Kreuzberg or Neukoelln for all of your kebab cravings. After growing bored with all of the ubiquitous, unhealthy fast food on offer, I once asked a Berlin fast food employee where I could get actual German food in Berlin. She laughed out loud and said: “German food in BERLIN? I don’t know! Try Bavaria?” So instead I can only recommend an Elvis burger (“Eat this burger tonight, fart like the King tomorrow”) and a pile of “fuck you fries” at White Trash Fast Food, where live bands play 7 nights a week. Vegetarians are well catered for at least, and the highly-rated Rootz might even convert a meat-eater for a meal or two.
Where to begin? The neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg are well established as “The Places to Be” at night. In Kreuzberg, slide into the Tiki Heart for American diner food and cocktails served in one-litre beer mugs, while floating in a bamboo sea of Polynesian retro-kitsch; later drink a bottle of Augustiner beer on a floating barge bar on the river (more Kreuzberg tips in our district guide!). In Friedrichshain, hit Rigaer strasse for the truly underground bars operated quasi-legally by squat inhabitants. Stop outside the buildings seemingly glued together by layers of graffiti paint and band posters. Listen for the buzz of conversation inside, smell the smoke curling out from the cracks in the door and step inside. If you want true cultural immersion with actual living, breathing, mullet-sporting East Berliners, belly up to the bar in any of the ubiquitous raucher kneipe (smoking pubs) dotting the maps from Friedrischain through Prenzlauer Berg. If smoke, mullets and Mohawks scare you (Br. En: aren’t your cup of tea), spend a day in Prenzlauer Berg’s Prater Biergarten. Prater is the oldest beer garden in Berlin, sits in a courtyard so quiet you’ll forget you’re in a city, and has a nice offering of home brews on tap and natürlich, plenty of grilled sausages and pretzels. If you simply must punish your ears with some techno music then try your luck at the doors of Berghain and Panorama Bar…
Getting There & Around
Berlin is easily reached by air via most major cities in the world. The soon-to-be-opened Berlin Brandenburg Airport will replace outdated Berlin airports Tegel and Schoenefeld, and will serve as a major hub for carriers Easyjet, Lufthansa, German Wings and Air Berlin. Plan well in advance and airfare to and from Berlin is cheaper than trains and buses in almost every case. Having said that Deutsche Bahn offers various train ticket specials between European Capital cities for reasonable prices. Use their online form to find these bargains. Once again, book early for the best deals. If you need a taxi to get from the airport/station to your hotel, then you can reserve one easily online via Book Taxi Berlin.
Exberliner.com has the low-down on major goings on in Berlin. The Berlinale (Berlin Film Festival) schedule issue, trends and columns—including the occasional snarky hipster columnist in a G.I. Joe hat and thick glasses thrown in to boot. You can pick up hard copies in various expatriate joints in the city. The Local features Germany’s news in English.
In the first week in my new flat in Berlin I found a row of English language paperback books lined up in the windowsill of a closed storefront. The one at the front of the row was Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. It is the story of a writer witnessing the end of an era in pre-Nazi 1930s Berlin. It told of a Berlin full of wild characters, roaring cabarets and clandestine communist meetings. When I leave Berlin, I plan to place that book in the same windowsill—if only as a reminder that Berlin changes, people change and move on, finally.
Treat yourself to a brief history of 20th Century Berlin, by watching Cabaret, Valkyrie, The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin in that order… four very different films that span the roaring 30s to the fall of Communism.