- Where – fly to Berlin Schoenfeld then train into the city centre. Freidrichshein and Kreuzberg are highly recommended.
- Why – for the art, for the inspiration, for the parties, for the Berliner Pilsner.
- When – end of May/beginning of June for the awakening of the city after a tempestuous winter.
Berlin rolls out in front of you like an enchanted urban forest. It is a cosmopolitan mix of opposites that carries itself with vibrancy and an open mind. It is a city that is at once welcoming and wary; a new heart beating from under decades of oppression.
The centre of Berlin and its surrounding suburbs are, for the most part, a tree lined stroll through a living art gallery. It is full of parks, kid’s spaces and canals and in the sun-shine everyone is out enjoying the greenery. You can tell there is a deep appreciation of nature here and the efforts to preserve Berlins communal spaces must be appreciated. There are apparently 2500 parks and gardens and over a fifth of Berlins land mass belongs to the forest. A love of trees and the forest is indeed embedded in the German psyche: ”The Germans (throughout literature) were world champions at the romantic exaggeration of the forest…Almost all German fairy tales take place in the woods…” and you can feel that fairy tale magic in Berlin, it overflows from painted walls, architecture, open spaces and community. The river that runs through the centre of Berlin and through its history, the River Spree, the word ‘spree’ in English meaning ‘a lively frolic or outing’, tells of the joyous nature of the modern city that is waking, growing and changing.
Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain
In the not so distant past Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain were separated by two things: The River Spree and The Berlin Wall. The former, a perpetual landmark. The latter, newer, haphazardly snaked its way through the centre of Berlin enveloping Friedrichshain, the Spree and the Oberbaum Bridge as part of Soviet East Berlin. Kreuzberg, as part of West Berlin, belonged to the Allies.
Now as always, connecting the two boroughs at their heart, is The Oberbaum Bridge. This bridge has existed as a main transport artery in many different guises for hundreds of years. Its current incantation is a century old Gothic structure that is home to crossings for cars, pedestrians and the U-Bahn. The bridge, as the very literal main channel between the two districts is one of the architectural landmarks of the city.
Although the two are now one borough (joined in 2001 for admin purposes) each has its own definite identity which plays out in the architecture and sprawl along the river. On the Freidrichshain side of the Spree you will find the East Side Gallery – the longest stretch remaining of The Wall; you will find YAMM, Urban Spree and the Soviet era architecture of Karl-Marx-Allee, a grand main thoroughfare which leads to Alexander Platz, the commercial and tourist centre of Berlin. On the Kreuzberg side you find it resplendent with trees, cafes, parks and 19th Century town houses. Post-wall Freidrichschein became the hub and home to many small counter-culture communities in the abandoned Soviet owned buildings whilst Kreuzberg became home to the migrant workers from places like Turkey, many who whom were offered lifetime visas. The intentional communities of Freidrichshain have, somewhat sadly, mostly disappeared having been closed down on loop-holes and sucked into the flow of gentrification. Over in Kreuzberg the migrant communities are now third and fourth generation with all the struggles that go along with having a dual identity.
The two sides meet in their continued community activism and undercurrent of artistic activity. They are both areas of over flowing art that is at once inside spaces and outside on walls. To walk around these areas with your eyes trained to floor is to miss the creation of new culture around you.
You get the feeling that in the rush to join the throng Berlin is selling its cultural heart to the highest bidder. There is a general sense of discontent among Berlins creative community who feel they are being driven out by the corporate set who are driving up living costs and acquiring for luxury flats the real estate that was once earmarked for artist workshops and spaces. They do make a good point, there are evident signs of gentrification and you’d better get there quick before Post-wall Berlin becomes just another notch on the bedpost. Even history can’t stand in the way of progress but at what cost? Parts of the East Side Gallery have been removed to make a car park entrance for luxury flats and as you watch the Mercedes Benz stadium being constructed across the road from said Gallery it feels crass.
Walking around the city is like walking through epochal shifts in architectural thought. The modern and the old rub shoulders without rubbing each other out and maybe its the contrast between the ages that helps the untrained eye see the beauty in all of it.
You will see the fantastic baroque architecture of the old Dynasties in conversation with the Bauhaus architecture of the early 20th Century – the utilitarian symmetry of which has been replicated, for better and worse, across the globe. In Berlin, where the last Bauhaus school operated you can see its influence everywhere. Here the harmonious style of Bauhaus can be fully appreciated; the order and repetition make sense in this urban-scape, it is exciting and interesting and surprisingly full of colour and character.
Perhaps the most important architectural feature of the Berlin Skyline is the Berliner Fernsehturm aka the TV tower. It is a Soviet era glass totem which can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the city. It is a marvel of dominance and engineering and still functions as a TV tower. If you are so inclined, it is open to tourists who can travel to the rotating platform for maybe the only 360-degree vista of Berlin and you can have a bite to eat at the restaurant. To get there just travel to Alexanderplatz and look up – you can’t miss it.
What you’ll eat
You will find wurst of various degrees everywhere, currywurst and sauerkraut are a delight regardless of how you feel about cabbage and curry sauce. However, much like in England (where we have happily assimilated the multicultural flavours of immigration) you will find Berlin resplendent with delicious food from all over the world. Turkish food has big prominence and you will find mouth-watering fresh mezze, falafel and kebab everywhere and not just the poor imitations one indulges in after a night out.
In culinary terms, Berlin is most famous for its embrace of veganism and the quality, variety and availability does not disappoint. A favourite of ours is Sunshine Burger – vegan and vegetarian burgers with soul and fantastic chips where the beer is locally sourced and delicious. Sunshine burger exists on the main street which at one end has Gorltizer Park and at the other Kotbusser Tor. In between you have a plethora of second hand shops, vegan shops, bars and the famous punk store SO38.
Getting around the City
Berlin is a paradise for walking and cycling; it is flat and easy to traverse with the Spree providing an almost continuous path from the Brandenburg gate area to Oberbaum bridge via the East Side Gallery, this is a long walk mind and you’ll find yourself weaving in and out of river paths and main streets and back again. You will see some amazing and unexpected places along the way as well as places to eat and stop for a drink.
If you’re not in the mood to move under your own steam, you will find the public transport system to be easy to navigate and extensive – trains, trams and buses network their way across the whole of Berlin and run with the efficiency you would expect from a German city. You can buy a day travel card for €7 or a single for €2.80; with the single you can travel as much as you like for 90mins but you can’t go back on yourself.
To and From Berlin
Schoenfeld airport is small and easy to navigate comprising of four areas A, B, C and funnily enough, D. They appear to be separate but A,B anc C are connected by a walk way once you go through security. There is a Bavarian style log pub which sells overpriced food and beer but is pleasant enough if you’ve arrived with time to spare and fancy a tipple. Otherwise there is a massive green space in front of the terminals which is free to sit on and is perfect for enjoying the sunshine.
From Schoenfeld it is very easy to get everywhere in Berlin. The easiest route is to take the S45 to and from Ostbahnhof which takes 25 minutes and costs around €3 then from Ostbahnhof you can get a connecting train/bus/tram to anywhere.
There is so much more to say about Berlin but the best way to experience it is to visit and have your own adventures. When you get there, I want you to go out for a walk with no intention and end up lost, stumbling across a seemingly secret bar along the Spree. I want you to court serendipity along an enchanted path and end up wherever she takes you. As with all frolics in enchanted forests, expect to meet creatures mythic and otherwise as you wend your way through the city scape.
Conversation in the ether
“If I had been here 3 days I would be knees deep in ketamine.”
For those who like to have a bit of a plan I can highly recommend the following:
- Alternative Berlin is the best place to go for tours and all sorts of interesting cultural and counter-cultural info.
- To make your way through the 20th Century architecture you can try these maps
- The Culture Trip website has wonderful top 10 guides to both Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain