Stop any young, creative person across the globe, ask them where they want to live and there’s a good chance they’ll say “Berlin.” Germany’s capital is the coolest city in the world thanks to its cutting edge culture, hedonistic club nights which last for days, and (relatively) cheap rent which makes it affordable to actually live there. Berlin isn’t just for hipsters though; it has a fascinating history to explore, world class museums and, due to its multiculturalism, a diverse foodie scene serving every cuisine you could possibly wish to eat. These factors, along with its mammoth scale, make Berlin a place which demands repeat visits. We’ve been three times and packed in as much as we could but there’s still so much we’re yet to see (we will be back). Here’s 19 things we did during our time in Berlin.
(P.S If you’re looking for some Berlin wall art for your home, make sure to check out my Berlin photography prints Etsy shop).
Templehof Airport Tour
On our most recent visit to Berlin we took the tour of Tempelhof Airport, one of the most influential buildings in Germany’s recent history. Designed by Hitler to be the biggest and best airport in the world, it is an impressive structure with a curved flat roof planned to be used as stadium style seating to watch Nazi Air Force shows on the runway below. After World War 2 the US military took it over and had it as a base until 1994. No longer a working airport, it is now used for movie sets and events, and housed Berlin’s recent influx of refugees in accommodation crates on its runway. The tour was well worth doing; the stories were fascinating and it felt quite eerie wandering around a huge empty airport.
One of the most interesting things about Berlin is how a wander around the city leads to stumbling upon important historical relics. This is what happened with Anhalter Banhof, the remains of the former railway terminus where Jewish people departed for Concentration Camps. All that’s left now is the half bombed station frontage.
Potsdamer Platz is one of the most recognisable Berlin destinations (it makes me think of the David Bowie song “Had to get the train, to Potsdamer Platz,’). However, in reality, it’s just a city intersection with modern buildings and a shopping centre, although like many other spots in Berlin it does have a notable history as a point at the border between the former East and West. When we visited in December it hosted a Christmas market.
Karl Marx Allee
Karl Marx Allee is maybe the most famous street in Berlin. A “monumental socialist boulevard” built in East Berlin between 1952 and 1960, it is where top “comrades” lived and was used for military parades. With each side lined with imposing GDR era architecture, it definitely makes for an interesting stroll.
Park Inn Hotel View
The 40th floor of the Park Inn Hotel in Berlin has a terrace bar with fabulous view of the city and TV Tower directly ahead. It was December when we visited so the bar was closed and it was very cold and windy. The views were still great though.
East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery should definitely be on your Berlin itinerary. It’s a section of the remains of the Berlin Wall covered in murals, including the famous “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” mural showing a kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker.
On our most recent trip to Berlin we stayed in Neukölln, one of the most hip neighbourhoods of Berlin. Neukölln has great bars, including Das Gift which is owned by one of the members of Glasgow band, Mogwai. It is also very multicultural – as of two years ago 40% of its residents were either born in another country or had a parent who was.
Mitte, in the centre of Berlin, offers some fabulous architectural gems aside from the well known palaces and museums. My favourites are the Coca Cola building at Spitteleck, the Volksbühne Theatre and the Babylon Cinema.
Apparently the latest hip Berlin neighbourhood is the brilliantly named Wedding, north west of the city. When we visited it was Christmas and most of the bars and cafes were closed so it was hard to get a grasp of its vibrancy.
Berlin’s most notoriously hipster neighbourhood is Kreuzberg, although it’s lately been struggling with rising rents and gentrification (the residents recently fought off a bid from Google to build a campus there). There are tons of bars, cafes and restaurants to explore – we drank in Das Hotel.
Kindl Bühne Wuhlheide
If possible, go to a gig in Kindl Bühne Wuhlheide when you’re in Berlin – we saw the Arcade Fire there back in 2014 and it is one of the best gigs we’ve ever been to. Kindl Bühne Wuhlheide is an open air stadium located in the middle of a forest; you have to walk through dense woodland to get there. As with all German social activities, the atmosphere at the gig was completely laid back and fun – there were men and women with beer kegs on their backs going around the crowd pouring drinks into glasses, which is hard to imagine in Scotland where the crowd tend not to be trusted to behave.
To visit the dome at the top of the Reichstag building, the home of Germany’s parliament, you need to book in advance although the tickets are free. The dome has several functions, both practical and symbolic – it was designed to use daylight to decrease carbon emissions of the building, a mirrored cone in the centre directs sunlight so that visitors can see the working of the chamber, and it was placed on top of the building and opened to the public to symbolise that the people are above the government, as was not the case during the rule of the Nazis.
The Holocaust Memorial in the centre of Berlin is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Apparently the rows of sloping, concrete slabs were designed to “produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” I admire how openly Germany addresses its dark history with these public memorials. It is determined to learn from its past and doesn’t try to hide it with shame, like some other countries do.
Every inch of RosenThaler Street, a lane tucked down a side street in Mitte, is covered in street art, including a famous mural of Anne Frank. There’s also bars, cafes, courtyards and bookshops.
I highly recommend the Teufelsberg Tour – it was one of the most memorable experiences we had in Berlin. Teufelsberg is a former spy station West of Berlin which was used as an American listening station in the Cold War. Now it’s abandoned and has been taken over by street artists who have sprayed striking murals and graffiti all over the derelict building. As Teufelsberg sits on top if a hill (formed by World War 2 rubble) it has fabulous views of Berlin. Our tour guide was an American who used to work at the station and his insights were fascinating.
Mauerpark On A Sunday
Perhaps my favourite of all Berlin activities is spending Sunday in Mauerpark. Crowds (some still intoxicated from the night before, I suspect) dance freely to live bands, sing along with the famous bear pit karaoke, browse the flea market, or find a spot in the grass to sip a beer and strum a guitar. All ages (including children ) hang out together and it’s one of the most easy going joyous atmospheres I’ve ever experienced.
Beside Mauerpark is Prenzlauer Berg, a bohemian, well heeled neighbourhood with lots of independent bars, cafes and boutiques. Its pretty, tree lined streets are definitely worth a stroll around.
Topography Of Terror
I’m not a big museum person but I do enjoy those that focus on the history of the city, rather than displaying generic artwork and pottery. On the site of the former Nazi and SS headquarters, once the most feared address in Berlin, the Topography Of Terror takes a fascinating and chilling look at the history of Nazi terror. Those who showed opposition to Nazi rule were sent there for interrogation and tortured in its basement. The museum is another example of Germany taking an unflinching and honest look at its dark history. I highly recommend a visit.
Another museum that’s worth a visit is the DDR Museum on Museum Island. The DDR Museum focuses on another dark time in Germany’s history, when east of the wall controlled by the Soviet Union. It’s not quite as grim as the Topography Of Terror though, there’s exhibitions about the quirky aspects of life in East Germany like the Trabant cars and penchant for nudism.