Breathing it in, in Berlin
November 13, 2012
BERLIN -- It's easy to fall into the trap. You're in Germany for just a few years, and at first your possibilities for travel seem endless. But you take the common advice. You wait in line to see the storybook castles. You take a noisy, crowded train home from one of southern Germany's trademark adult-beverage festivals. You drive hours to a low-fare airport, elbow your way onto a plane and sunburn at a high-fare beachfront resort.
Before you know it, your time in Germany is drawing to a close and you've never seen the country's capital -- Berlin. It's mainland Europe's biggest city, and is intricately rich with history, art and culture.
However, it's remarkably affordable, and unlike the cutesy, gingerbread tourist locations elsewhere in Germany, it's a pulsating, feverish storm of youthful energy, creative expression and late-night revelry. Don't let your time here elapse without at least a visit (or two) to mighty Berlin.
Unlike most European cities, Berlin is famous for not having a center. Since it was divided prior to Germany's reunification in 1990, there is not one nuclear market square or landmark church to check off your tourist list. Its true beauty lies in the sprawling complexity of its dozens of interlocking neighborhoods.
But any visit would be incomplete without a visit to the Mitte neighborhood, with the densest gathering of must-see attractions. The easiest way to tackle it is on foot. Start at bustling Alexanderplatz, the center of former communist East Berlin. From the ever-visible TV tower, walk south to what used to be democratic West Berlin.
You'll cross some of Berlin's many bridges -- the crossings over the River Spree and the many canals give the city more bridges than Venice. You'll pass the awe-inspiring museum island, which boasts the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the personal art collections of Prussian kings.
After that, walk the promenade of Unter den Linden toward the city's best-known (and most crowded) landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, a monument to the Prussian Empire. It was the site of John F. Kennedy's famous speech where he declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" and served as the symbolic dividing point of the former East and West Germany. Just to the north of this imposing arch sits the current government headquarters of the country, the Bundestag. If you head south, you'll find the recently finished Jewish memorial, officially the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Walking further south, you'll reach Checkpoint Charlie, a border crossing formerly guarded by the U.S. Army and rich with both knickknack souvenirs of the communist era and a chilling pictorial history of life under the Iron Curtain. Pose for photos with faux-Russian Soldiers, navigate the crowds and relish in the playful commercialism that dominates what was once the location of a tense political standoff.
During this long walk, fuel yourself with currywurst, a snack common around Germany but invented and done best in Berlin. And to rest your legs, pop into a coffee house or even skip ahead using public transport. The U-Bahn subway system in the city is excellent, simple and extensive. During your stay in town you'll be best off with a multiday ticket that will allow you to ride the train anywhere around the enormous city.
After the sun sets, move on from the museums and historical attractions to what makes Berlin a destination for young artists from across Europe and the world. The cheap rents resulting from a surplus of available apartments in the wake of reunification have drawn artists to Berlin for decades, and the tradition continues today. Nowhere is this vibrant attitude more alive than in the Kreuzberg and Neukoelln neighborhoods.
A quick search at berlin.art49.com will show a current calendar of exhibits around town, centered in Kreuzberg and Neukoelln. On any given night -- weekdays included -- you can visit dozens of hip but welcoming art, dance and literary openings. Take in the art scene and maybe even buy one of the affordable pieces, this isn't Paris, after all.
Make sure you're rested after your day of tourism, because Berlin doesn't sleep. The galleries are frequented by the trendy set that take over the city at night. Pop into several openings and follow the hipsters to the hidden hotspots.
Several galleries transform into makeshift nightclubs after midnight, and all operate a small bar as a side business, perhaps the only source of positive income in these free-entry exhibits. Every space is different. Some of the showings are in former office buildings of the communist government, long since abandoned and taken over by the artists. The Neukoelln Stadtbad, formerly an indoor public pool, is now drained and the cavernous tile room hosts live music and dance parties.
You'll hear Portuguese, Arabic, Irish and Norwegian accents conversing in English, the universal language of Berlin. This is multiculturalism at its most productive, as these creative types descend on Berlin to tap into the constantly flowing stream of expression. Some of it might be a bit on the avant-garde side, but you'll never encounter a dull moment rolling with this creative set.
Late nights make for early mornings
If you did things right, you met some talkative artists who took you to a local haunt and got back late to your hotel (many in Berlin's city center go for as little as 30 euros per night; if you have more than three people in your group, you might also consider renting an apartment for the weekend). But don't sleep the day away. Sunny mornings in Berlin are not to be missed.
Brunch after a late night is a staple. Simply stroll along any neighborhood side street and find a cozy little cafe to recharge. You'll need the energy to walk, as weekend mornings in the city are the perfect time to explore the massive markets. A combination of a farmer's market, used-goods flea market and low-price art bazaar, these bring out the true Berliners. There are well-known markets at Strasse des 17 Juni and Schoeneberg Rathaus, and by visiting the market at the Mauerpark -- or Wall Park -- you can piggyback your shopping trip with a stroll along a remaining section of the Berlin Wall that once divided the city.
If the weather is in your favor, another historical stroll can be found at Tempelhof. A functioning airport until 2008, Tempelhof was the site of the fabled Berlin Airlift, when the U.S. and British Royal Air Force brought supplies to West Berliners who were being blockaded by Soviet forces. The massive airfield has been rejuvenated as an urban park that gives joggers, cyclists, asphalt kiteboarders and stroller-pushing parents miles of trails on the former runways.
Try as you might, you won't cram all of Berlin into even a long weekend. There are huge neighborhoods of Turkish immigrants offering streets packed with restaurants that would trump eateries in Istanbul or Ankara.
The central library made famous in the film "Wings of Desire," the city center brewery of the famous Berliner Kindl beer, and two world-class zoos. Europe's largest department store (KaDeWe) and a mile-long shopping promenade (Kurfuerstendamm) that rivals the Champs-o/oolysées. Tucked-away museums and churches. Art-house cinemas and avant-garde theater.
But fear not, Berlin is Germany's eternal city, accessible on any weekend during any season. Warm weather makes for leisurely strolls along the Berlin Wall, but dark winter evenings bring out the gritty side and allow more hours of the day for enjoying the textured nightlife. Whenever you decide to go, this breathing, glowing urban jewel will still be alive and full of vigor.