Berlin: A Travel Guide, Complete with Historical Factoids

Most people who know me know that I lived in Berlin, Germany from 2014 to 2016. I tend to talk about it a lot (sorry, you all!). Now, in light of my love affair with this city, friends and acquaintances who are planning trips there often ask me for suggestions about what they should do on their visits. I'm always happy to provide, naturally, and in fact wrote up a document about what to do and see in Berlin (one visiting friend: at first I thought, she got this from Wikipedia, but as I kept reading I was like....oh, she wrote this whole thing herself). Anyway, I got to thinking: what if I put this document up on my website for ALL TO SEE AND ENJOY?! 

And so, without further ado, please peruse at your leisure: 

EMILY CATANEO'S GUIDE TO BERLIN. IF YOU DON'T LIKE HISTORICAL FACTOIDS, KEEP ON WALKIN'

Berlin is not an old city. Yes, the land was settled as far back as the Middle Ages, but the city only rose above its status as a provincial backwater during the rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth century. In 1871, Berlin became the capital of Germany, the newly united country of the Prussian kings whose militaristic ambitions would cause such strife in the twentieth century. Workers flooded the city’s tenements and artists and writers filled its cafes, while the stuffy Prussian aristocracy dined in its expensive hotels along the Tiergarten. World War I brought starvation and revolution, and when the dust settled Berlin became the capital of a republic, as well as one of the European capitals of jazz, socialism, art, cabaret, and homosexuality. Hitler hated the city for its decadence and libertine spirit, and planned to bulldoze it to make way for a new German capital, named, appropriately, Germania. Although Hitler never had time to achieve his goals, the Allies took care of it for him, fire bombing Berlin and destroying much of the city during the final days of the European war in May 1945.

In the aftermath of the war, the Soviets, French, British and Americans divided the city into four sectors, intending to keep the Germans down for good. But the relationship between Stalin and the West quickly soured. Soon the Iron Curtain fell across Europe and Berlin became two cities. That divide became physical in 1963, when the East German government built the Berlin Wall to prevent more East Germans from escaping to the West. Officially called the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart” by the East Germans, the wall encircled West Berlin and was fortified by guard towers and barbed wire. Approximately 200 people died trying to scale the Berlin Wall, and countless others tried to escape unsuccessfully and faced the wrath of the Stasi (the East German secret police).

Of course, the wall came down in 1989 and Germany reunited in 1990. Still, though, even today you will encounter Berliners and East Germans who miss the days of East Germany, who argue that life in a capitalistic society is beset with more problems, such as unemployment and crime, than life in a socialist world.

What is Berlin like today?

You may have heard that Berlin is the modern equivalent of Paris in the 1920s, attracting bourgeois-bohemian creative types from all over the world to its smoky cafés and graffitied streets. That assessment is true to some extent: since 1989, punks, techno music lovers, artists, writers and photographers have taken up residence in Berlin, lured by low rents, plenty of space, a live-and-let-live mentality, and a slower rate of gentrification than cities like London or New York. But this is only one subset of Berlin’s population. The city is a huge immigrant hub: West Germany incentivized Turkish immigrants to move to the city in the 1960s and 1970s to bolster the workforce, and many of them never left. Today, you’ll find several Berlin neighborhoods where the people, shops and atmosphere look as though they were lifted straight from Istanbul. Besides immigrants, Berlin also attracts the environmentally conscious, hippie moms and young families: the city has more green space than any other in Europe, and has a bit of an obsession with vegan, vegetarian and organic (“bio”) foods. Berlin is also known as the Silicon Valley of Europe, attracting techies and start-ups from all over the world--many with a slightly revolutionary bent. It’s not uncommon to meet hackers in Berlin, and it’s no coincidence that some of the journalists who published Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA in 2013 have taken up residence in Berlin to escape scrutiny from the American government. Finally, in Berlin, you'll see evidence of the great refugee influx of 2015, in which Angela Merkel famously admitted millions of refugees from the wartorn Middle East into the country. 

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Let’s talk logistics

Berlin is a big, big city. It’s only home to about four million people, but geographically, it’s huge. This means that it takes forever to get anywhere, but it also means that there’s plenty of space for big apartments, parks, wide streets and bike lanes.

Since Berlin developed so late and underwent such turmoil in the twentieth century, it doesn’t really resemble other European cities aesthetically. It also doesn’t really resemble other German cities. Most German cities chose to rebuild their past after World War II, looking to history to meticulously recreate town squares and half-timbered houses. Berlin avoided this historical reconstruction route, instead preferring to salvage some buildings, construct some new buildings, and leave some areas of the city empty. You’ll see some neighborhoods where every street is lined with cherry trees and early 20th century buildings (Altbau buildings); you’ll see other neighborhoods where every building is a cement highrise from the 1950s.

Speaking of the rest of Germany, people joke that if Germany is a well-ordered, respectable family, Berlin is the cousin who’s always showing up hungover and 15 minutes late for Sunday dinner. A former city mayor said ten years ago that Berlin is “sexy but poor,” and I think the description is still apt. You’ll see some glimmers of the German and Prussian obsession with rules and order in Berlin, but overall the city boasts a relaxed atmosphere that you might not find elsewhere in the country.

There are four different methods of public transportation in Berlin: the S-bahn, the U-bahn (both subway systems), the tram and the bus. You can buy a weekly pass that will work on all of these forms of transportation. Biking is also huge in Berlin, and the city boasts a wide array of bike paths and lanes--you may want to consider renting bikes for your visit.

 

What can you do in Berlin?

Berlin doesn’t have a true city center: the city was divided for too long and is too geographically broad. Each of its neighborhoods is like its own small city. In my opinion, one of the best things to do in Berlin is simply to wander and see the different neighborhoods, the cafes, parks, flea markets, interesting murals and people. To that end, you’ll find a list of neighborhoods in the next section below, with descriptions of their atmosphere and major attractions. But here, you’ll find a list of the major tourist sites, activities and day trips to consider.

Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)

Perhaps Berlin’s most iconic attraction, Brandenburg Gate was built by the Prussians in the 1700s and remains a symbol of the city until today. Worth seeing since it’s near many other tourist attractions and it’s an icon of the city.

Checkpoint Charlie

The checkpoint in the Berlin Wall where World War III nearly broke out in the 1960s; now a place where you can pose as a “sexy” guard next to some fake American soldiers. Good for historical reflection, some laughs, and to see the culture of “Ostalgia” (nostalgia for the Soviet kitsch aesthetic of the east) in the surrounding souvenir shops. The museum at Checkpoint Charlie is small, but actually quite good, and provides a quick but comprehensive look at how and why Germany split and reunified.

East Side Gallery/Bornholmer Straße

Most of the Berlin Wall was torn down in the aftermath of reunification, but pieces of it remain throughout the city. The East Side Gallery is the longest piece of the wall still standing; in the 1990s the Berlin government commissioned various artists to paint murals on this portion. Definitely worth a visit. Also worthwhile is Bornholmer Straße, the spot where the wall first opened in 1989; here you’ll find several more pieces of the wall, plus information about what happened when the wall finally opened up. Finally, in Mauerpark ("wall park"), you'll find a chunk of the wall that artists routinely spray paint and deface. 

Gendarmennmarkt

One of the most classically beautiful European spots in Berlin, this 17th century square is located near several other tourist attractions and is definitely worth a walk-through.

Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park

I’ve been to Russia, but this is probably the most Soviet thing I’ve ever seen. The Soviet War Memorial was built over a Russian mass grave in the aftermath of World War II. The windswept plaza features statues of soldiers kneeling over swords and hammers and sickles. Definitely an interesting historical site to visit, especially since surrounding Treptower Park is a beautiful wooded area for biking, walking and boating.

Tempelhof

If you want an example of fascist architecture--and indeed, a taste of what Berlin would look like if Hitler’s Germania plan had succeeded--Templehof is the place to go. Hitler built this airport in the 1930s, and the airport building itself is one of the most imposing structures I’ve ever seen. The airport was actually in use until the 1990s, and now the surrounding fields and runway are a huge park, 10 km in circumference. Recently developers tried to build luxury condominiums on the park, but Berliners protested and the park remained untouched. A great place to sunbathe, fly a kite or have a picnic.

DDR Museum

This museum explains daily life in East Germany, giving visitors a taste of the pros and cons of the DDR. 

Jewish Museum

This museum doesn’t focus on the Holocaust, instead presenting information about the lives of ordinary Jewish people in Germany from the Middle Ages through the Third Reich and into today.

Teufelsberg/CIA listening tower

Teufelsberg translates as “Devil’s Mountain.” This is an artificial hill directly west of Berlin, built out of rubble after WWII. The hill is a great place to relax and look out over the city on a summer day, and plus, it’s home to the CIA listening tower that the US government used to spy on East Germany during the Cold War--a surreal and science fiction-esque structure.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe/Holocaust Museum

This memorial is located right next to Brandenburg Tor; underneath you’ll find a free museum about the Holocaust. The museum is very moving, focusing on individual stories and lives; I would recommend a visit.

Museum Island

Many of Berlin’s classical museums are located on this island, which, like Gendarmarkt, is one of the only classic European sections of Berlin. I would definitely recommend walking through Museum Island and looking at the buildings, and visiting at least one of the museums if you have time (the Pergamon is the most impressive, housing ancient works of art, relics and portions of temples).

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Tiergarten

“The Garden of Beasts” (direct translation) was used as a hunting ground by the Prussian kings, and today functions as Berlin’s Central Park, a huge green space in the center of the city, starting right next to Brandenburger Tor and stretching all the way to the West Berlin neighborhoods.

Bruecke Museum & Berlinische Galerie

The Bruecke Museum, near the huge Gruenewald forest on the western edge of Berlin, is full of German Expressionist works and was famous for inspiring David Bowie when he lived in Berlin. The Berlinische Gallerie has a small but lovely permanent art collection as well as rotating modern exhibits. I liked both of these museums (especially the Bruecke) because they're both pretty manageable blasts of the Berlin art culture/scene.

Outside of Berlin

Here are some suggestions for day trips or overnight trips beyond Berlin’s borders.

Swimming in the city’s many surrounding lakes

Berlin is surrounded by forests and lakes, which offer summer-weary visitors an opportunity to cool off. You could easily bike or take public transportation to one of these areas--just get ready to see lots of nudity (nude sunbathing was a huge part of DDR culture).

Potsdam

Another European-classic area, Potsdam is the town directly east of Berlin, where the Prussian kings built their baroque palaces in the 1700s. It’s basically the Prussian answer to Versailles, but less opulent. I greatly enjoyed my visit to Potsdam because the palace park (they’re all in a giant park) is beautiful, and it’s quite pleasant to walk around outside, have a picnic and admire the opulent gardens, fruit trees and buildings.

Neighborhoods

Now let’s talk about neighborhoods. As I said above, I really encourage visitors to Berlin to just walk around and investigate these different parts of the city. Remember that all of these areas will contain multitudes of small cafes with outdoor seating, little bars with cheap beer, small cafes that become little bars at night, vintage shops, junk shops, stationery shops, bookshops, murals and street art and little parks and squares. Poking around these various elements is one of my favorite things to do.

Prenzlauer Berg (former East)

Prenzlauer Berg is my former neighborhood (or my “kiez,” as the locals say). The area was a traditional working-class neighborhood in the early 20th century and escaped the war largely unscathed, so most of the buildings here are early-20th century tenements renovated and converted into apartments after the fall of the wall (for example, my building was a former tenement from 1904). In the 1990s, Prenzlauer Berg was really cool, home to punks and techno fans alike! But sadly, Prenzlauer Berg is gentrifying, and yuppies pushing strollers are a more likely sight now than artists. But the neighborhood is not without its highpoints. The Kollwitzkiez area in particular is a lovely spot to stroll around. The Mauerpark Flohmarkt is Berlin’s biggest and best-known flea market, and it happens every Sunday just steps from my apartment. A great place to browse crafts and trash-treasures, enjoy some delicious food, and settle down on an amphitheater to watch tourists and locals alike try their hand at karaoke. Besides Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg also boasts several biergartens, including one in a castle park about 20 minutes north of my apartment-- a great place to have a beer, relax, then walk around the gardens. I would also recommend the weekly Sunday food market at the Kulturbrauerei, an old beer factory turned into a culture hall!

Neukölln (former west)

Neukölln is one of the neighborhoods where Turkish immigrants settled in the 1960s and 1970s. Five years ago, Neukölln would not appear on this list: the area would have been considered too dangerous. And indeed, some today would say that Neukölln is a little rough around the edges. But I disagree; Neukölln is actually one of my favorite neighborhoods in Berlin. Artists and writers live side-by-side with Turkish immigrant families and young people. The streets smell of incense and shisha, kebab and falafel shops abound, Turkish wedding shops appear on every street corner--and some of the city’s best bars and cafes are tucked in among them. 

Kreuzberg (former west)

Kreuzberg, like Neukölln, saw an influx of Turkish immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, but it also saw an influx of anarchists, punks and other alternative types who moved into its abandoned buildings and squatted in the 1980s and 1990s. Now most of those punks are grown up and have children, so Kreuzberg is gentrifying, like the rest of the world. But its streets are still worth a visit, a great place to people-watch and explore. Kreuzberg’s Markthalle Neun, a traditional early 20th century food market, hosts an international street food fair every Thursday, which is definitely worth a visit. 

Friedrichshain (former east)

Directly across the river Spree from Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain is a neighborhood of hipsters, artists, tourists and some yuppies too. The first neighborhood I lived in when I moved to Berlin, Friedrichshain boasts the usual combination of shops, art, cafes and restaurants--plus an all-you-can-eat cake and coffee place in an old gymnasium. One street of historical note in Friedrichshain is Karl Marx Allee. This street was home to some of Berlin’s most radical socialists in the 1920s and 1930s. When the Nazis came to power, they cleared the street, bulldozed it and built their own residences. When the Allies bombed the city during the war, they targeted the street, and every building was destroyed. The street passed into Soviet hands, and they built what was then called “Stalinallee,” an imposing street lined with Moscow-style buildings. The street was intended as a gift for Stalin, but alas, he died before he could ever see it.

Mitte (former East)

Mitte is one of the swankiest neighborhoods in Berlin, with much of its former gritty charm gone (most of the city’s infamous cabarets were located here in the 1920s and 1930s, and the neighborhood was also home to many of Berlin’s wealthiest Jewish families). Still, Mitte is a centrally located district and it’s worth seeing, especially sites such as the Moorish-style Neue Synagogue, one of the only pre-war synagogues in Berlin, and Klarchen’s, a turn-of-the-century ballroom where modern visitors can dine and dance.

Ku’damm/Charlottenburg (former West)

Unlike Kreuzberg and Neukölln, the Ku’damm (Berlin’s answer to the Champs Elysées) and Charlottenburg are true West Berlin, and as such, perhaps lack some of the East's and anarchist West's gritty charm. But I would recommend visiting the Ku’damm just to contrast it with the rest of Berlin, and because the street is home to a slick but hip (as opposed to grungy but hip) rooftop bar with delicious cocktails that overlooks the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a church that was bombed during WWII and never repaired (a deliberate choice to remind the city of the horrors of war). Also in this area you'll find the Schwarzes Cafe, which was once the only spot in West Berlin open all night, and thus attracted artists, prostitutes, and other late-night characters. A good spot to stop for a slice of cake!

Food & Drink

Beer flows pretty freely in Berlin, and it’s rare to head off on any sort of excursion without first stopping into a Späti (a late-night convenience shop) and picking up a Berliner Pilsner for a euro. Besides beer, you’ll find a proliferation of donor kebab and falafel. I can’t say you feel great about yourself after eating a donor, but it is pretty delicious, and I would recommend a visit to my favorite donor restaurant in Kreuzberg near Kottbusser Tor (Hasir). Berlin has also seen something of a hamburger renaissance in the past five years, taking an American tradition and putting a delicious spin on it. My favorite burger place is International Berlin Burger in Neukölln. Currywurst, which is a traditional German wurst with Indian curry powder on it, is available on many street corners, and definitely worth a try. As for traditional German food, Markthalle Neun runs a companion restaurant that serves traditional German-Austrian fare for reasonable prices, and the Drei Schwestern biergarten in a nineteenth-century former hospital is also a good spot to pick up traditional food. Finally, Germans are obsessed with eating cakes, so definitely stop into a bakery, especially on a Sunday, for that true German experience. 

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Nightlife

Confession: I went clubbing once when I lived in Berlin. It was my second week there. It was a sex club. I left early. Anyway, I hear that Berghain, a club on the border between KreuzBERG and FriedrichsHAIN (get it?) is Berlin’s most notorious partying establishment, and indeed, perhaps the most notorious partying establishment in all of Europe. My favorite nightlife activity in Berlin is to simply visit one of its many cool, laidback bars. You won't have trouble finding one of these. Trust me. 

So there you have it! If you're going to Berlin, I am envious of you, and I hope you find my suggestions and historical factoids of great interest and help. Have fun!