You’ve doubtless heard it already: there’s no European city quite like Berlin. Visitors are arriving in their droves — and among the attractions are the city’s independent, go-getting spirit; tumultuous 20th-century history and low cost of living (by European standards).
One of the first things many visitors notice is the generous amount of space, both physical and psychological. With a population of around four million, there’s room to move in even the busiest areas. For many of us expat residents, the paradox of this lack of big-city bustle coexisting with an intense urban buzz is what makes Berlin a perfect 21st-century city.
The general atmosphere is one of tolerance and liberation, as testified by the seemingly non-stop nightlife and dizzying levels of cultural activity. Countless cafes, restaurants, bars and nightclubs are supported by a global creative community, lending the city some seriously international flair.
Despite intensive post-reunification development, Berlin’s often oppressive history is still tangible — not only in terms of the many, excellent, monuments and memorials, but also unofficial sites such as the bullet-riddled buildings, the parks built on derelict industrial sites, and the bunkers and flak towers. Whether it’s strolls along imposing, communist-era boulevards, art galleries in wartime bunkers, or techno parties in derelict factories, the continued presence of this history mingled with the modern creative milieu makes the city ripe for multiple visits and longer stays.
Cycling is by far the best way to get around. Berlin is mostly flat and an extensive cycle network makes it easy to explore the arty, sparky environs of Neukölln; the clubs and cafes of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain; Mitte’s many shops; famous sights such as the Kurfürstendamm; and the sleepy, gentrified charms of Prenzlauer Berg.
In summer, you can ride out to one of the many lakes and forests encircling the city, where numerous bike trails take you to parks, farms, castles and other historical spots to visit.
Food, glorious food
Thanks to local culinary stars Tim Raue and Christian Lohse (Fischers Fritz), the city recently gained four new Michelin stars, consolidating its place at Continental Europe’s gastronomic top table. But this is just the tip of an iceberg that includes street-food events in revitalised market halls (Markthalle IX), and a blizzard of supper clubs and pop-up foodie events.
The city’s love affair with Asian food is still going strong — Aroma in Charlottenburg’s Kantstrasse remain hugely popular and the excellent Rice Up kiosks found at some U-Bahn (underground trains) stations are still busy dishing out onigiri (filled sushi rice triangles wrapped in seaweed). Mexican food is well represented (try the tacos at Geist im Glas every Sunday) and you can even eat like a caveman at ‘Paleolithic’ restaurant Sauvage — its menu only uses ingredients available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
While traditional and modern takes on German classics are far from ubiquitous, the gansekeule (roasted goose leg) at Zur Letzten Instanz is hard to beat, as is the käsespätzle — a Bavarian take on macaroni cheese — at Prenzlauer Berg’s Oderquelle. And for a decent Sunday brunch, try Anna Blume for its classic German fare.
Tim Raue: Rudi-Dutschke-Straße 26. tim-raue.com
Markthalle IX: Eisenbahnstrasse 42. markthalleneun.de
Aroma: Kantstrasse 35. T: 00 49 0 30 3759 1628.
Rice Up: Various locations.
Geist im Glas: Lenaustraße 27. T: 00 49 176 8630 2464.
Sauvage: Pflugerstrasse 25. sauvageberlin.com
Zur Letzten Instanz: Waisenstraße 14-16. zurletzteninstanz.de
Oderquelle: Oderberger Straße 27. oderquelle.de
Anna Blume: Kollwitzstraße 83. cafe-anna-blume.de
If you’re looking for a party, you’ve come to the right place. Never mind weekends, it’s pretty much possible to party all night any day of the week here — especially if you’re partial to the throbbing pulse of electronic house and techno.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was soundtracked by an emerging techno scene that’s still dominant. Clubs like Berghain, Watergate and Sisyphus are some of the world’s best, and their relaxed opening times (some stay open from Friday to Monday) and ‘anything goes’ attitude have given rise to the so-called ‘EasyJet set’, who travel to Berlin to spend their weekend on the dancefloor.
In the past few years, the rock and alternative music scenes have also taken off, with venues like Magnet Club and Lido hosting regular international bands. A host of home-grown bands has also been emerging, supported by independent venues like Schokoladen (set in a former chocolate factory) and Madame Claude.
Many cafes become bars in the evening, too. Streets like Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, Weserstrasse in Neukölln and Simon-Dach-Strasse in Friedrichshain are full of such places. Crowds here spill out onto the pavement in summer, making them great areas to start your night.
Among the snazzier clubs, Weekend — atop a communist-era high-rise on Alexanderplatz — has a great summer terrace, while the even more exclusive Bar Tausend is one of the rare places with a dress code. Smaller bar-clubs like King Size Bar, meanwhile, are where you’ll find Mitte’s young and fashionable crowd.
The city also has a lot of excellent cocktail bars. Schöneberg’s 1920s-style Victoria Bar is one of the oldest, with its own ‘mixology school’; at the opposite end of the scale is the small (14 people only) and hipster Buck and Breck, tucked away on a street in downtown Mitte.
Berghain: Am Wriezener Bahnhof. berghain.de
Watergate: Falckensteinstraße 49. water-gate.de
Sisyphus: Hauptstraße 15, 10317. sisyphos-berlin.net
Magnet: Falckensteinstraße 48. magnet-club.de
Lido: Cuvrystraße 7. lido-berlin.de
Schokoladen: Ackerstrasse 169, Berlin. schokoladen-mitte.de
Madame Claude: Lübbener Straße 19. madameclaude.de
Weekend: Lexanderstraße 7, 10178. week-end-berlin.de
Bar Tausend: Schiffbauerdamm 11, 10117. tausendberlin.com
King Size Bar: Friedrichstraße 112b. kingsizebar.de
Victoria Bar: Potsdamer Sße 102. victoriabar.de
Buck and Breck: Brunnenstraße 177. buckandbreck.com
Pile of style
The city’s individualistic streak is more than apparent within Berlin’s fashion and retail scenes. In fact, it’s not unusual to find a mish-mash of kitsch vintage stores, tattoo parlours, high street shops and design boutiques on the same street.
The best area to sample the city’s more glamorous street-style fashion is on and around Alte Schönhauser Strasse, whose side streets — Mulackstrasse, Münzstrasse, Auguststrasse — host the stores of local fashion and jewellery designers Claudia Skoda and Leyla Piedayesh (Lala Berlin) among others. Mitte’s Friedrichstrasse is much more commercial, but with shops like Galeries Lafayette it’s still one of the best place to scout for luxury items. Schöneberg’s Potsdamer Strasse, in West Berlin, meanwhile, is the city’s most up-and-coming area; mostly due to the cutting-edge art spaces that have been opening up behind its gaudy facades, but also due to Andreas Murkudis, whose minimalist showroom sells clothing, modern furniture and homeware.
West Berlin has a longer and more upmarket shopping tradition. The Ku’damm is famed for its Gucci, Armani, and Chanel outlets, but the surrounding streets are also home to local haute couture from the likes of Jil Sander, whose designs are worn by many a Berlin celebrity.
Fans of designer furniture will enjoy the ‘Design Mile’ on Kantstrasse, which is helmed by Stilwerk — a contemporary, five-floor structure, home to dozens of furniture and home design stores. Not far away lies the century-old Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) whose food emporium on the sixth floor will fulfil many foodie fantasies.
Locally produced foods are sold all over the city too. Try the Turkish Market on Maybachufer in Kreuzberg (Tuesdays and Thursdays); Schöneberg’s Winterfeldtplatz (also great for flowers, Saturdays); the organic market on the Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg (Saturdays); and the atmospheric market at Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain (also Saturdays).
Claudia Skoda: Mulackstraße 8. claudiaskoda.com
Lala Berlin: Mulackstraße 7. lalaberlin.com
Galeries Lafayette: Friedrichstraße 76-78. galerieslafayette.de
Andreas Murkudis: Potsdamer Strasse 77-87. andreasmurkudis.com
Jil Sander: Kurfürstendamm 185. jilsander.com
Stilwerk: Kantstraße 17. stilwerk.de
KaDeWe: Tauentzien Straße 21-24. kadewe.com
Top 10 local tips
01 Explore Berlin’s sprawling art scene on the cheap via the Lange Nacht der Museen (Night of The Long Museums) programme in spring and summer. lange-nacht-der-museen.de
02 Hop onto buses 100 and 200 to see many of the tourist sites in Berlin.
03 Visit the vast permanent exhibition at the Deutches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum); also check out the I.M. Pei extension around the back. dhm.de
04 Explore Tempelhofer park (a former airport) and take a tour inside the old airport buildings. tempelhoferfreiheit.de
05 Head to up-and-coming district Wedding to eat at one of the city’s best Italian restaurants, Da Baffi. dabaffi.com
06 Take a train to Wannsee and relax in Europe’s biggest lido. strandbadwannsee.de
07 Book a local-led tour with Slow Travel Berlin. slowtravelberlin.com/tours
08 Grab a Visit Berlin WelcomeCard (two to five days), which gives free entry to many museums plus lots of discounts. visitberlin.de/en/welcomecard
09 Visit the Sunday Mauerpark flea market and join in the afternoon public Karaoke sessions (warm weather only). bearpitkaraoke.com
10 Jump on a train to Marzahn for the quirky Gardens of the World. gruen-berlin.de/parks-gaerten/gaerten-der-welt/ueberblick
On screen: People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), 1930.
The Lives of Others, 2006.
Berlin Calling, 2008.
Berlin (documentary), written and presented by Matt Frei, 2009.
Books: Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin. RRP: £15. (Continuum International Publishing Group)
Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada. RRP: £9.99. (Penguin Classics)
Berlin Blues, by Sven Regener. RRP: £8.99. (Vintage Classics)
Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. RRP: £8.99. (Vintage Classics)
Stasiland, by Anna Funder. RRP: £9.99. (Granta Books)
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)