Berlin, du bist so wunderbar! Yes, the German capital is indeed wonderful, as Berliners themselves often proclaim. Wonderfully weird and unconventional – Berlin is not your average European city trip. With a dark recent history, it has had to reinvent and rebuild itself. Huge redevelopment projects – cranes dominate its skyline – may have almost brought down the city financially, but thanks to the creativity and resourcefulness of its citizens, Berlin has risen from its ashes. This place is poor but sexy, to quote its former mayor. And that’s exactly what makes it so extraordinarily appealing and exciting.
Berlin has a special place in my heart. But our relationship wasn’t always that rosy. When I moved here for studies a couple of years ago I initially struggled to find my place. Berlin winters are gruesome, which is reflected in people’s attitudes. But I witnessed the city’s transformation once spring arrived. Life moves outside, the people open up, there’s a sudden sense of incredible freedom and energy. This is the Berlin that I fell in love with. Let me take you on a journey to the places and experiences I believe you can’t miss when visiting Berlin:
- Mitte: where Berlin comes together
- Stroll around the leafy streets of Prenzlauerberg
- Spend a Sunday afternoon in Mauerpark
- Follow the traces of the Berlin Wall in Friedrichshain
- Go undercover and get transported back to DDR times
- See Berlin’s posh side in Charlottenburg
- Mix and mingle with Turkish families and young creatives in Kreuzberg and Neukölln
- Party in a former power plant or factory
- Chill at an airport-turned-public-park
- Go swimming in a lake or floating pool
Mitte: where Berlin comes together
The heart of today’s Berlin is Mitte, which literally means ‘the middle’. Until 1989, this is where East-Berlin bordered West-Berlin and a large part of this area was no-man’s land. Now, it’s the city’s central meeting point. Although the Wall has disappeared and people seamlessly cross former frontiers, the different architectural styles hint to this area’s roaring recent past. In Mitte, neo-classicist buildings stand next to soviet-style apartment blocks and state-of-the-art skyscrapers.
The centre of Mitte is Alexanderplatz, a huge Soviet-style square dominated by the Fernsehturm, or TV tower. From its observation desk – which also hosts a turning restaurant – you’ll have a magnificent view of Berlin. From here you can walk to the much friendlier-feeling Hackescher Markt and Oranienburger Strasse whose most beautiful building is the Neue Synagoge.
Cross the river Spree and after passing the Berliner Dom and Museum Island with its five legendary museums you’ll get to Unter den Linden. This formal leafy boulevard is lined with stunning examples of neo-classicist architecture, such as the Opera House, National Library and Humboldt University. Also make sure not to miss the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt square.
The end of Unter den Linden (or beginning, depending on how you look at it) is marked by the Brandenburger Tor. If you weren’t yet aware that this is Berlin’s (and perhaps) Germany’s most famous landmark, the number of tourists here will tell you. Turn right after crossing the gate and you’ll see one of the symbols of Germany’s reunification: the federal parliament building, or Reichstag. Turn left and you’ll pass the impressive Holocaust Memorial and will get to Potsdammer Platz. This once elegant, busy square used to be the centre of Berlin – and of the whole of Europe for that matter – at the turn of the 19th century. After being bombarded to the ground during World War II it was not until the 1990s that it was rebuilt. Now it’s a contemporary, though slightly windy and noisy square flanked by two modern towers and a shopping centre.
Stroll around the leafy streets of Prenzlauerberg
Prenzlauerberg must be one of my favourite areas in Berlin. Unlike other parts of the city, this heavily damaged 19th century neighbourhood was luckily not torn down after World War II. Instead, it became the home of East-Berlin families, who used to share these flats and their very basic facilities. Things could not be more different now. After the German reunification developers saw the potential of this area and many of the elegant apartment buildings were refurbished and sold or let to Berlin’s new yuppies: young, successful families who wanted to live in a central, historic yet quiet location. Don’t be surprised by the high concentration of young parents walking around with a push chair here…
What makes this neighbourhood so attractive are not just its wide, quiet cobblestone streets lined by trees and beautiful buildings, but also the incredible choice of independent coffee shops, restaurants, bars and boutiques. Yes, Prenzlauerberg is a prime example of gentrification, but at least you don’t (yet) see any big chains here taking over small businesses.
Some of the nicest streets to explore are the Oderbergerstrasse, Kastanienallee, Hufelandstrasse and the area around Kollwitzplatz.
Check out my blog post about some of Berlin’s other prettiest streets I think are worth exploring.
Spend a Sunday afternoon in Mauerpark
Mauerpark is definitely not Berlin’s prettiest park, but it certainly is the city’s coolest park. Every Sunday, this dry piece of land in Prenzlauerberg turns into a playfield for fun-loving locals and visitors. Located in the shadows of the former Berlin Wall, Mauerpark on a Sunday is the scene of a big flea market as well as Europe’s largest open-air karaoke. This place makes for brilliant, free Sunday afternoon entertainment. Bring a drink, sit on the steps and enjoy the show!
Want to find out a bit more about the history of Mauerpark and the Wall (after which it was named)? Head to the nearby Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer at Bernauer Strasse, an open-air memorial site that tells the sad yet fascinating story of the Berlin Wall.
Follow the traces of the Berlin Wall in Friedrichshain
Almost everywhere in central Berlin you’ll see traces of the Berlin Wall. But the biggest remaining chunk of wall can be found in the eastern neighbourhood of Friedrichshain. Located next to the river Spree, the East Side Gallery is a stretch of the Berlin Wall that comprises some of its most famous protest mural paintings (hence the name). A large river-side redevelopment project, alongside increasing numbers of visitors have led to the Wall being partly cordoned off, but you can still see the paintings that contributed to making this Wall infamous.
But Friedrichshain has much more to offer than just the East Side Gallery. Although certain areas can feel a bit grey and imposing because of its many soviet-style apartment blocks, the neighbourhood has plenty of cosier places too. Take the Simon Dachstrasse, for instance. This lively street just behind the busy Warschauerstrasse has an array of nice cafes and bars popular among students and artists, many of whom moved east because of the cheap rents. The nearby Boxhagener Platz is home to a nice weekly antiques and flea market on Sundays.
The RAW-Gelände shows Friedrichshain’s more alternative face. This former train repair station is now a space for artist workshops, markets and parties. It doesn’t get more Berlin-style than this!
Go undercover and get transported back to DDR times
So, you’ve joined the crowds and visited Checkpoint Charlie and the remains of the Berlin Wall, but are keen to get a deeper insight into life during the Cold War era? The Stasimuseum might be right up your street. The former HQ of the Stasi – the infamous East-German intelligence services – is now a fascinating museum that takes you back in time. Many of its rooms are kept the same way as they were found when officials fled the building after the fall of the regime. The museum shows the wide range of tools that were used to spy on Germans in the East, from phones with wiretaps to briefcases with hidden cameras. A tour through the museum makes for an interesting experience that at times gives you shivers down your spine…
The West was also complicit of spying, though. Hoping to contain the spread of communism, the United States were keeping a close eye (or rather: ear) on East Germany, the DDR. To that aim, they built a huge listening station in West-Berlin, on a hill just outside the city, which, ironically enough, is called Teufelsberg: Devil’s Mountain. The station fell into disrepair after the fall of the Wall and now it’s accessible only with a guide. A visit to Teufelsberg is a great way to (literally) look at Cold War Berlin from another perspective.
But it was not all doom and gloom in the DDR, of course. As life went on, East Germans worked, partied and at times went out for dinner. For a taste of the latter head to Clärchens Ballhaus in Mitte. Dating back to 1913, this restaurant and ballroom stayed open throughout the DDR period and has remained largely unchanged. Its rundown façade and overgrown garden don’t give away the fact that you can have lovely German and Italian food here. And the ballroom parties are said to be just as good as in their heyday. Unfortunately, as of 2020 there is uncertainty over whether Clärchens Ballhaus will remain open due to issues with the renewal of its lease. Let’s hope it does…!
See Berlin’s posh side in Charlottenburg
Berlin is not all scruffy and edgy. Quite the contrary. Much of western Berlin, around the big shopping street Kurfürstendamm, or Kudamm, reeks of German decency. Although… Even here the boundary between east and west is becoming more and more blurred. The opening of the übercool concept shopping mall Bikini Berlin is a sign of this.
But head a bit further west to the neighbourhood of Charlottenburg and you’ll suddenly find yourself in a very different place. This is Berlin at its poshest. With grand avenues AND a beautiful palace this feels like a very royal affair indeed. Charlottenburg Palace was once the home of Prussian royalty, now it’s a museum that’s more than worth a visit.
Because of its wide streets and many bicycle lanes, Charlottenburg is a lovely part of town to discover by bike, as long as you avoid the congested Kurfürstendamm. Take a coffee break at the beautiful garden of the Literaturhaus.
Mix and mingle with Turkish families and young creatives in Kreuzberg and Neukölln
When in the 60s and 70s Turkish workers were lured to West-Berlin, many of them settled in the neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Both districts were and to a certain extent still are neglected and run-down, but its cheap rents have attracted a younger, creative crowd over the last two decades. Since then things have started to change. Visit these districts today and you’ll encounter lively, multicultural neighbourhoods with an array of Turkish and Asian shops and restaurants as well as lots of thought-provoking street art. The fact that this is still very much a working class area becomes particularly apparent on Labour Day, during which Kreuzberg and Neukölln are usually the scene of street parties but also riots.
Kreuzberg is a big neighbourhood and the nicest streets to explore are Oranienstrasse near Kotbusser Tor, Bergmannstrasse and Schlesische Strasse. A street art tour is a good way to discover the area as there are plenty of interesting murals here. Go for lunch or dinner at Turkish restaurant Knofi or grab some food at street food market Markthalle Neun.
Life in Neukölln centres around Hermannstrasse, Schillerpromenade and Weserstrasse. If the sun’s out, go for a drink at Klunkerkranich, an artsy roof terrace and community garden built on top of a parking garage.
Definitely worth checking out as well is the area where Neukölln and Kreuzberg meet, which has come to be known as Kreuzkölln. You’ll find lots of nice little cafes, bars and street markets around the banks of the Landwehr Canal, at Maybachufer. This is Berlin at its best if you’d ask me!
Party in a former power plant or factory
Now, are you ready for a crazy, long night out in the party capital of the world? Because let’s face it, there are few cities on the planet with such an extravagant, decadent night life scene as Berlin. Make sure you bring bags of energy, though, because the nights here start late and last long, very long. In fact, many of Berlin’s most notorious night clubs stay open non-stop from Friday night till Monday morning.
Night clubs come and go, but there are a few Berlin classics that everyone is always talking about. The most famous one is Berghain, which is based inside a huge former power plant and often featured in lists of the best night clubs in the world. Find out more about what makes this club so special AND how you can best get in here.
If you are unlucky and don’t manage to get into Berghain (you’re not alone), you might want to try your luck at nearby Kater Blau, a desolated factory turned nightclub that mainly plays techno and deephouse. Again, their door policy is very strict.
If all else fails, you can always try Watergate, across the river in Kreuzberg. This is techno with a more commercial vibe, but it’s a great place for a Berlin-style party nevertheless.
Chill at an-airport-turned-public-park
Need to recharge after a night out in Berlin? You could of course go to Tiergarten, Berlin’s answer to Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London. But much more fun AND more Berlin-style is Tempelhofer Feld. This Nazi-era airport in Neukölln was in use until 2008, after which it closed and turned into a huge public space. The iconic terminal building is now used for fairs and exhibitions and the runway and grass fields are ideal for cycling, skating or kite running. There’s a real sense of freedom here in this unique part of Berlin.
Go swimming in a lake or floating pool
Berlin is known for its harsh winters, but as soon as spring arrives (when it finally does) the city opens up and shows its best face. In summer, when it can get hot, many Berliners head out of town for a swim in one of the many nearby lakes. Just over an hour away from Alexanderplatz by public transport, the Müggelsee is one of the most popular and easiest to reach lakes. There’s a large beach on the north side of the lake, but if you’re keen to get away from the crowds and ghetto blasters I’d suggest you make your way to the lake’s little brother called the Kleiner Müggelsee, which has a small beach nestled away in the pine forest.
However, this wouldn’t be Berlin if there wasn’t some kind of cool, funky swimming spot in the heart of the city. That place is Badeschiff, a floating public swimming pool in the river Spree. With views of the Oberbaumbrücke – the historic bridge crossing the river – as well as the new developments on the river banks of this part of East Berlin, this is indeed a unique place for a swim!
Berlin’s best… (IHMO):
- Coffee: The Barn (Mitte), Kiezeklein (Kreuzberg), Bonanza (Prenzlauerberg), Milch & Zucker (Friedrichshain)
- Beer garden: Prater Garten (Prenzlauerberg)
- Street food market: Markthalle Neun (Kreuzberg)
- Ice cream: Gelateria Giorgio Lombardi (Prenzlauerberg)
- German food: Clärchens Ballhaus (Mitte) – they also serve Italian food, perfect if you’re with an indecisive group
- Asian food: sushi restaurant Sasaya (Prenzlauerberg), Turkish restaurant Knofi (Kreuzberg), Korean restaurant YamYam (Mitte), Asian fusion restaurant Transit (Mitte and Friedrichshain)
- Italian food: restaurant Papa Pane di Sorrento (Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg), Saporito (Friedrichshain)
- Bar: Mein Haus am See (Prenzlauerberg), Wendel (Kreuzberg), or the entire Simon Dachstrasse (Friedrichshain)
- Night club: uhmm, I’m not even going there, but you can check out some cool places here
- Hostel: The Cat’s Pajamas Hostel (Neukölln), Wallyard Concept Hostel (Moabit)
- Hotel: überhip Michelberger Hotel (Friedrichshain), arty Arte Luise Kunsthotel (Mitte), historic Hotel Oderberger (Prenzlauerberg)
- Roof terrace: Klunkerkranich (Neukölln)
Good to know:
Getting to/from: Berlin’s new central station (Hauptbahnhof) connects it to Germany’s extensive railway network – including the ICE high-speed trains – bringing large parts of the country as well as the rest of Europe within reach by rail. Air travel is a more controversial topic… Berlin’s new airport was scheduled to open in 2011 but 8 years later it remains unfinished and billions over budget due to serious construction errors. Berliners still don’t know if they should cry or laugh about it – perhaps both at the same time. It means that, for the time being, the small and outdated airports of Tegel and Schönefeld continue to be arrival and departure points for flights. The TXL express bus connects Tegel to Hauptbahnhof and Alexanderplatz while Schönefeld has a station with S-bahn and regional train services to central Berlin.
Getting around: Berlin has excellent public transportation, consisting of metro lines (U-bahn), light rail (S-bahn), trams and busses. Services are frequent and affordable. There is no pre-paid travel card system (Germans are ware of data tracking). Instead, you need to buy a ticket from a machine and time stamp it on the platform or in the tram or bus.
Best time to visit: a trip to Berlin can be fun any time of the year, but particularly in summer, late spring or early autumn. Berlin winters can be cold, long and harsh.
Water: like anywhere else in Europe, tap water is perfectly drinkable
Currency: as a member of the EU and Eurozone, Germany uses the Euro