Berlin celebrated 20 years of reunification in 2010 and the city has a lot to celebrate. This is a city famous and, perhaps, notorious for the wall. Modern Berlin has so much more to offer. No other European city has such an interesting and controversial past as Berlin. The end of WWII saw 80% of the city as rubble from the bomb blitzes.
In something that reads out of a novel the end of the war saw the city handed over to the four victorious superpowers – Russia, France, England and America. In hindsight, it seems obvious that conflict of ideals and approaches would evenuate between Russia and the other nations. It was in the early days in October 1946 that passes were required to move between East Berlin controlled by Russia and the Western zones that fell under the jurisdiction of the other allied conquerors. By the time the wall was erected in the dead of the night in 1961 the division was already clear and two currencies existed for East and West.
I think understanding how gradual the changes were helps to comprehend how families could be divided and a city of two extremely different cultures could have developed. Berliners speak of the cultural differences today and you can see a city still finding its feet and redefining how to live together. A trip up the (fernsehturm) TV Tower in Mitte helps gain an aerial view of the different architectural landscape of the West and East. The interesting thing about visiting Berlin is the incredible openness of the past and the embracement of a new city which quite literally has been rebuilt in the last 20 years.
As a reaction perhaps to the past Berliners have a very open and accepting city which has attracted artists and created a truly bohemian lifestyle and is fast becoming a design mecca and an exciting place to travel.
This suburb has now become the heart of the city and where visitors spend most of their time. Most of this city is easily accessible by walking but there is just about every form of bicycle from renting one to a bike taxi or a unique looking five person bike. There is also a Bierbike which is basically a mobile beer garden that can fit sixteen people. Not everyone’s cup of lager but everyone on them looked like they were having a laugh. Segway tours also seem a popular way of seeing the city and a fast way to orientate yourself. Fat Tire Bike Tours also operate in Berlin and give their signature style to a bike tour for those who have seen them in Paris and Barcelona. It is a slow way to travel but perfect for getting to know the city.
A good place to start your journey, in any event, is on Unter Den Linden which has one end in the heart of the museums along the River Spree and the other at Brandenburg Gate at the other. Walking down from the River Spree the first thing that dominates the skyline is the Berliner Dom which was one of the buildings in rubble after WWII. Rebuilding started in 1973 and it’s now an iconic landmark. The lawns in front provide an excellent meeting point and place to relax in the summer. The old buildings in what is called the museum square include the Alte Nationalgalarie, Bode Museum, and the Altes Museum now serve as the arts and cultural centre for the past and represent the largest concentration of old buildings in the city.
There are interesting shops, galleries and restaurants to stop at along the way until you reach Brandenburg Gate and the Pariser Platz. The area is full of buskers, hawkers, locals, travellers and anyone else. You can even get your photo taken with some lads dressed in army uniforms or take a ride with a man dressed as an American Indian. The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most recognisable monuments and was blocked off during the days of the Berlin Wall. When the wall came down the square and gates became one of the many places where people came to rejoice.
Taking Friedrichstrasse which runs off Unter Den Linden you soon find yourself at Checkpoint Charlie. This was the point controlled by the allies where any persons representing the allies had to pass through to travel to East Germany. The original blockage has been taken down but there is a small checkpoint monument.
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum is close and has an excellent permanent display as well as exhibitions. The streets in front of the checkpoint contain billboards which also tell some of the history and include historical photographs. Nothing is more haunting than standing in the very place where historical events took place and seeing them re-inacted around you even if on billboards.
Topography of Terror
A short stroll away is where the original wall has been preserved and home to the Topography of Terror or the Museum of Terror. It is home to a permanent outdoor exhibition set at the foot of the wall almost underground. With amazing clarity the path from Hilter to present day is laid out in a very interactive display. While not perhaps displaying the graphic images that can be seen for example in the equivalent museum in Budapest it does give incredible insight into the progression.
Everyone will walk away from the exhibition with a new and, perhaps, different perspective. The one thing that was surprising, because of the simplicity of the storyline, was that Nazism did not occur overnight. There was indeed a long series of events including revoking of laws and burning of books that occurred over time. Also clear was the extent of persecution with those effected including the sick, disabled, homosexuals and gypsies as well as of course the Jewish community.
Those seeking further depth of information should head to the Jewish Museum which is dedicated to understanding of the faith both historically and currently.
German Bundestag or Reichstag Building
The German parliament buildings or the German Bundestag is the heart of modern government today and a fascinating building to visit. The pinnacle of the building is a glass dome which you can walk about and see incredible views over the city. As you look up at this impressive building it is difficult to believe it went largely unoccupied and rundown until unification sparked a renovation which concluded in 1999.
Be warned though getting in to visit no longer involves waiting in line but a registration online. Either my mistake or design the English site does not have a copy of the registration so you will require assistance or language skills. The building is not always open so some advance planning is required if makes your must do list.
If a visit is logistically too difficult a walk around the building and the area should be on the agenda. The buildings in the area are fascinating and strangely seem to work well to combine the old and new. Despite sometimes feeling like you are walking in an architects model the effect is a testimonial to the quality of design. One of the newest monuments is a bridge over the River Spree which is said to symbolise the union of east and west.
Beach bars and clubs
So if all this history and museum- hopping becomes too much Berlin is famous for its clubbing and bar scene. Entrepreneur’s set up bars and clubs in derelict buildings, warehouses, and bunkers in the 1990’s and consequently Berlin has an international reputation and attracts DJ’s and musicians. New bars and clubs popped up overnight and the underground scene was hopping.
Some of the best know spots include King Kong Klub, Kaffee Burger, Spy Club and Weekend to name but a few, but there are many more. Berlin’s liberal approach extends to the nightlife more than anything which means the Berlin is fast surpassing Amsterdam in reputation and certainly seems edgier.
In the summertime the beach bars are also an excellent spot for enjoying the sun. While there is no beach, some of them are on the banks of the River Spree, there is sand and deck chairs. Sine if the most popular include Pondside Bavarian, P-Berg classic, Garden am club, and Western Comfort. There are also lots of options around the East Side Gallery. Golgatha is also a popular bar by day or into the wee hours.
The East Side Gallery is the other location to check out the gallery and a short bus or taxi ride out of the centre. It is the international celebration of freedom and is a series of artworks painted on 1.3 kilometres of remaining Berlin Wall. Not all of the original work from 1999 exists today but the aim of the gallery is that it is a living monument to peace and unity.
When you see the wall today it seems so small and less significant than what you expect. In order to get the full picture the museums such as the Topography of Terror display the full pictures in old photographs. It is only then that you realise the wall stretched 155 kilometres and had over 300 watch towers that you can start to form a picture 20 years on.
Berlin has an unending supply of design and fashion stores that make it a shoppers dream. Mitte is at the heart of this but you need a few tips to find the right area. The area around Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz is a perfect place to start wandering and enjoy the mix of cafes and restaurants that line the streets.
Some of the standout stores include Pro Qm, +33 Design, Freitag, Fourstore and RSVP to name but a few. The fun of being in this area is to find some of your own favourites to add to the list. Need a break and fancy some different food try Yam Yam for tasty Korean or Monsieur Vuong for a modern take on Vietnamese. Or if you need a coffee to keep you awake try Oliv for some of the best coffee and cake in town.
There are no end of great hotels to choose in Berlin. As far as reputation for service the Grand Hyatt has an excellent reputation. The Renaissance Blue has an excellent location on the banks of the River Spree. This hotels claim to fame is a large aquarium in the lobby which reaches the roof. Service is very good though making this hotel hard to beat.
Designer boutique hotels are also here but concentrated a little further out in Mitte in the heart of the shopping mentioned for Mitte above. Lux 11 is one of these and while the rooms can be a little tired the restaurant is good. Another to try is The Weinmeister which is also in the heart of this trendy area. The Cosmo also in Mitte has an equal reputation.