Depending on which terminal you arrive at, Tegel does seem crammed, and somewhat inefficient, for something as simple as an ATM transaction. It also lacks rail connectivity to the city centre – a feature uncommon to most large European cities. But having realized its inadequacies a few years ago, Tegel‘s days are numbered, and the Germans are months away from opening the aptly named Brandenburg Airport as Berlin’s new gateway. Tegel is also, perhaps, the last stop for any form of whining or complaining, on a visit to this fine city!
Berlin needs no introduction. Nor any marketing. Everyone I know who has visited – fellow travelers, short-stay visitors and those who went on business – came back singing paeans about it. It took very little for me to be convinced. So I’ll do my part here and go easy on the hard selling, instead just focusing upon the high points of my trip.
On a sombre note
On a gloomy, cold and rainswept day, it made most sense to be indoors for as long as possible, so we set of for the Topography of Terror Museum, which lies just west of Mitte, the city’s central district. Built on the site of the former Gestapo-SS headquarters, and sitting directly across from the buildings that once housed the offices of the Luftwaffe, the museum documents repression under the Nazi regime. Across from the beautifully designed exhibition hall is an open gallery, built into the old trenches that were discovered during excavation (the site was heavily bombed by the allies). Behind the trenches, and providing a surreal backdrop, lies the largest remaining segment of the Outer Berlin Wall.
During the course of our stay, we visited three museums in all, and every one of them was outstanding. Curatorial standards were amongst the very best; the attention to detail was incredible; the spaces were thoughtfully designed; and in each instance, the quality of English was flawless (most, if not all displays, were bilingual). Someone, somewhere had obviously gone that extra step.
Gardens of change
Middle October may not be the most comfortable time of year to visit Berlin, but it probably is its prettiest. The colours of autumn are yours to savour everywhere – rich hues of orange at every street corner; popping yellows lining the avenues, and deep reds turning up when you least expect them to. The foliage is best enjoyed in Berlin’s many parks, of course, and a walk from Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column, through the Tiergarten (Berlin’s answer to Central Park) , is an especially pleasant one. A leisurely stroll can take up to an hour, and is one of the most serene experiences one can have in an urban environment.
Once at the Column, its worthwhile climbing the 200-odd steps to the top for stunning views all around. Berlin is an extremely flat city – by way of landform and construction – so its only prudent to avail of the many observation decks on hand.
Far removed from the hustle of central Berlin, and located due south, is Flughafen Templehof, an airfield that dates from 1923, one that is best known for its pivotal role during the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49. For 11 straight months, at the height of the Cold War, allied forces airlifted supplies into Templehof to sustain the 2+ million population of West Berlin, after the Soviets had cut off supply lines. The Berlin Airlift, as it came to be known, remains to this day one of the greatest feats of aviation history. Today, that very historic airfield has been converted into a public park, and runway 09L/27R, which once hosted C-47 and C-54 transport planes, sees more bicycle, skateboard and foot traffic than anything else!
For arts sake
Berlin’s art scene is second to none. A historic past and a vibrant present, coupled with cheap rents, have drawn artists from across the world. Today, you could probably throw a stone and chances are you’ll hit upon an unconventional performance space or under-the-radar art gallery! The city abounds in both, but even if you’re not actively seeking them out, there’s plenty that lives within the built up environs – in little alleyways; on sidewalks; adorning a door, and sometimes a whole facade.
Art intersects seamlessly with history at the East Side Gallery, which, over a km in length, is possibly the largest outdoor art space in the world! It contains the work of over a 100 international artists who were commissioned by the city to paint their murals on the longest remaining section of the Inner Berlin Wall.
Located in the Friedrichshain district of the city, the east-west boundary in this part of Berlin was formed by the River Spree, with the wall running along its east bank. The boundary turned due west along the Oberbaumbrücke, Berlin’s longest, and quite easily its grandest bridge, which also served as one of the city’s twelve checkpoints. A fortified, double deck structure that carries both the U-Bahn and traffic, it forms a fitting backdrop to this marvelous open-air exhibit.
Given that it was only as recently as ’89 that the Wall came down, Berliners have done an incredible job of integrating east and west. It is almost impossible for the average tourist to discern which is east and what was west, as you wander through the city streets. But all the action, so to speak, appears to have moved south since unification, and the city’s new hotspots are all headed there.
Talk to any local and chances are they’ll recommend something in Kreuzberg or Neukölln (often referred to by outsiders as the Brooklyn of Berlin, only much less pretentious!), neighborhoods that have become synonymous with trendy bars, live music venues, chic galleries and eclectic restaurants.
Both districts are known to have the most diverse populations in Berlin, and a somewhat rebellious past. Kreuzberg has long carried the bohemian mantle, and from all accounts, Neukölln is quickly catching up. Ankerklause is a delightful little cafe in the latter, located on the south side of Kottbusser Brucke, along the Landwehrkanal. A leafy street runs the length of the canal and makes for a very pleasant stroll, through what is essentially a residential area. Walk a few blocks south though, and you’ll stumble upon some of the coolest drinking establishments this side of the Atlantic!
Although Neukölln is commonly regarded as the grittier neighbor to Kreuzberg, the latter has more than its share of rustic. Storefronts and shutters splattered with graffiti – partly vandalised, part political, but mostly artistic – line Skalitzer Straße, one of the main drags in Kreuzberg. The columns of the viaduct that carries U-Bahn line 1 are similarly adorned. Foliage covered sidewalks are somewhat dimly lit, but constant bike and foot traffic keeps them alive and safe, as with most residential areas of the city. At every other street corner, friendly locals are at hand to help direct those hopelessly lost! They usher us past more canal crossings and into dark alleyways until we arrive at the west bank of the Spree, where a retired paper mill has been re-purposed into a dance venue!
With no signage to its credit and only bike racks outside to suggest some activity, Arena is one of several clubbing destinations in Berlin. The genre here is techno; its clientele straddles all age groups and walks of life, and the club only begins to peak around 3 am. A €12 entry grants you unlimited access till noon the following day, and that, we’re told, is par for the course in Berlin. Welcome to the world’s party capital!
Till Currywurst do us apart
Berlin’s staple dish is an odd mash up of curry powder and ketchup on Wurst – Currywurst! It is what most Germans living outside of Berlin would probably scoff at, but is somewhat symbolic of all that the city stands for – unity in diversity! Each restaurant or street kiosk tweaks the recipe just so, giving one a different experience each time. And this is not to say that traditional Wurst isn’t available across the city – plenty of it in fact, with all varietals sharing one thing in common – they go down exceptionally well with a chilled glass (or Stein) of German Pilsner, Lager or Weissbier, as the case may be.
For more traditional fare (read Schnitzel, Sauerbraten and such), there are always the beer halls and beer gardens to satiate ones appetite. Prater Garten, in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, dates from 1837. It is the city’s oldest, and expectedly, one that’s laden with character.
Doner is probably the second most popular fare in Berlin, thanks in no small measure to the fact that the Turks make up the city’s largest immigrant populace! Eateries that sell Currywurst alongside Falafel sandwiches are not uncommon, a lot of them simply present to fuel the hordes of late night revelers.
And then there are the umpteen bakeries all over the city – the Germans seem to love their bread, and, as it turns out, are exceptionally good bakers too! Often, you don’t even have to be on street level to indulge in the same – the aroma of fresh baked goods greets you as you step of the U-Bahn! Most of the big transfer stations have little outposts of home grown bakery chains like Kamps Backstube, Steinecke, etc. And despite the fact that Starbucks has made inroads, local coffee houses like Einstein continue to have a loyal following. Not surprisingly, they also serve a much better brew!
A city that was virtually flattened by allied shelling, Berlin’s architectural offerings do seem limited at first, especially when compared to other European capitals. But the Germans have done wonders resurrecting many of those damaged landmarks, and reinventing some of those that were obliterated by the bombing. Museum island, which lies to the east of Mitte, probably holds the largest collection of such preserved buildings in the city – the imposing Berliner Dom amongst them.
Gendarmenmarkt, in the Mitte district, is one of the oldest surviving squares in Berlin, bookended by a French and German Cathedral on its north and south side, with the grand Konzerthaus squat in the centre. Worthy of a mention too are several of Berlin’s train stations – some of the most attractive I’ve seen – the larger ones comprising elegant train sheds built atop old stone viaducts. Hackescher Markt station is one such, surrounded by a lively plaza full of alfresco dining options, as well as older establishments housed within its arches. A short walk from the square lies the New Synagogue, a stunning mid 19th-century structure, built in the Moorish Revival-style, complete with gold dome and accompanying towers.
But the building attracting by far the most number of visitors happens to be the Reichstag, the late 19th-century edifice that houses the German parliament. Architect Norman Foster led its reconstruction, which included a massive glass dome – built in lieu of the original cupola – serving not only as a source of natural light, but also as an observation deck.
Bounty of lights
Although new construction has spread evenly amongst its many districts (Berlin is definitely in the midst of a building boom), a lot of the more modern structures and contemporary design have been focused upon Potsdamer Platz. Once the gateway to the city of Potsdam (hence the name) it is today one of the largest mixed-use developments in Western Europe. Of late, the square has also become a destination of sorts for festivals and special events, including the highly respected Berlin International Film Festival.
Every autumn, since ’05, it has also been one of the main venues for the annual Festival of Lights. For two weeks in October, the city’s famous monuments and major landmarks are transformed at dusk, turning into a glorious canvas for light, video and art projections. The results are truly spectacular and mesmerising. Even Potsdamer Platz, the otherwise glossy and corporate-looking square, is converted into a fun digital playground!
Sprechen Sie Englisch?
The Festival of Lights was definitely an added bonus on our trip, but festival or not, Berlin abounds in tourist options. The city offers a plethora of quality museums, ranging in topic from the Ramones to Currywurst (!), and a wide variety of tours too. Not just the usual open top bus and ferry ones, but a host of walking and Segway tours; Cycle Rickshaw tours; self-drive Trabant tours, and even a helium balloon tour over the city centre! Getting around is a breeze too, and the Welcome Card (travel card for visitors) is exceptional value for money, offering hefty discounts at scores of attractions. On the whole, Berlin is an affordable city, certainly more so than any other place I’ve been to on the continent!
For those who prefer to do it on their own, Deutsche Bahn runs the city’s bike share program, and for as little as €8 a day, almost every large restaurant in a tourist-frequented area will rent you a bicycle! It’s a flat city, remember, so getting around by bike is easy, and the city itself is extremely bike-friendly. Not just friendly to those pedaling, but friendly in general – Berliners, by and large, are a non-interfering lot, but when approached, happy and eager to help! Oh, and almost everyone under the age of 40 speaks fluent English. So if you happen to ask a Berliner, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”, expect a resounding, Ja Ja 😉
A full set of pics from Berlin can be viewed here.