- I could begin this article with the cliché-ridden line, ‘Berlin is a tale of two cities’, but if I was to do so I’d be lying. And while I may be many things, one thing I’m not is a liar. You see, Berlin isn’t a tale of two cities. It’s a tale of approximately six cities. You’ve got the East and the West; Berlin during the day and Berlin after dark; and then you have Berlin city centre(s) and all its suburbs.
The German capital has been flavour of the month of late. In the two weeks before I set off to immerse myself in its history and learn of its troubled past, an Australian pal and a work colleague had rambled its streets, picking up tips for me to adopt. I consequently passed them on to my sister, brother-in-law and a different work colleague who both set up camp there for three nights two weeks later. Also, at time of writing, Berlin is Hostelworld.com’s eighth most popular city. I was looking forward to seeing what all the commotion was about.
My first free walking tour
Fresh with stories of brushing their hands off the Berlin Wall and sipping on frothy jugs of Weissbier, both acquaintances’ whose journeys had preceded mine had informed me of a ‘free walking tour’ you could embark on. Initially quizzical of such a tour, within 4 hours of touching down in Schoenfeld Airport I was approached in Pariser Platz to join one.
Declining the offer on that particular occasion, at 11am the following morning I met Desiree, my tour guide for the following four hours. A native of Düsseldorf and history student in Berlin, she began the tour at the Brandenburg Gate, a gate remarkably untouched during both world wars. Commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II to represent peace, it was later ironically incorporated into the Berlin Wall as separate sections of the wall which repulsed so many ran on both sides of it.
From here the walking tour moved to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin’s newest and most controversial monument. Simple yet extremely effective, it is an important reminder of how many Jewish people lost their lives harrowingly during the Holocaust. It is also just footsteps away from the bunker where Hitler took his own life in 1945 with his newlywed wife Eva Braun.
It was here that it struck me – a lot of this was all new to me. So far I’d learnt more about the Cold War than I did in all my years in school, plus I now knew how and when Adolf Hitler died. I felt slightly ignorant and began to wish I spent less time discussing the weekend’s football fixtures in Mr Crummy’s history class and more time paying attention.
The tour, which departs from the Starbucks Coffee in Pariser Platz daily at 11am, 1pm and 4pm, also squeezes in visits to one of the longest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt, where three of Berlin’s most impressive buildings can be found (Konzerthaus, Deutshcer Dom and the Französischer Dom), before ceasing on the steps of the Altes Museum on Museumsinsel (Museum Island).
Desiree never brought us into the museums. Four hours later her job was done. Instead she rounded the tour off with a smile, reminding us that this tour was a free one in hope of triggering generous tips. Thanks to her charm and unquestionable knowledge of the city she now calls home, people gave generously.
We were now at leisure to soak up as much culture as we could in one of the island’s three museums (there are five in total but two are presently undergoing serious renovation). The first to greet the eye is the Altes Museum, which has one of the most important collections of Egyptian artefacts in the world and best known as the resting place for the Bust of Nofretete. Behind this are the Altes Nationalgalerie and the Pergamonmuseum. The former is where you will find some of the German masters’ most important artwork while the latter houses a collection of classical antiquities.
Not to be missed
At the other end of the East Berlin’s main thoroughfare Unter den Linden is the Reichstag, home to the Bundestag (German Parliament). Crowned by a glass dome, it is easily distinguishable from the rest of the buildings in the east side. Entrance to the roof terrace and glass dome is free, making it one of the city’s most popular attractions. Committing yourself to the queue may seem painful, but the wait is ultimately worth it. If you only have time to do a handful of things in Berlin, make this one of them.
While the walking tour takes in some of the Berlin Wall, of all the remaining sections of one of the world’s most symbolic pieces of concrete, the East Side Gallery is not just the best preserved, but also the most fascinating. Stretching a total of 1.3km, it is decorated with 106 paintings by artists from all over the world.
West Berlin doesn’t offer as much to the sightseer as the East, but still warrants a visit if just for a couple of hours. The first thing to strike you when you get there is the difference between here and the West. This is where you will find enough high street shops to fill your wardrobe ten times over, but in the middle of it all is Gedachtniskirche, a chilling reminder of the war. Bus #100 from Alexanderplatz will bring you to Zoo station, and then bus #200 will bring you back. Keep note of that.
Explore the districts
Before rushing back to your hostel to don your gladrags and show Berlin what you’re made of, keep in mind that this is a sprawling city and covers a total of 889 sq km. When the sun sets in West Berlin, you must be prepared to embark on small treks to discover some of its best bars and restaurants.
North-east of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg attracts Berlin’s trendier offspring, whether they be from the local colleges or clothes shops. Bagels & Bialys on Rosenthaler Str. is the perfect place to fill up morning, noon or night. Here you can choose from a wide range of American-style bagels while more Arabian-type delicacies such as 'shouarmas' are also to be sampled. Further up on the same street Trattoria La Scala can be quite quiet, but what it lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in value. Until 5pm Monday to Friday you can take your pick from a wide range of oven-baked pizzas and a drink to wash it down with for a mere €6.
Hostels in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg
But if it’s a bar you’re after, seek out Wohnzimmer on Lette Str. which should suit. This cosy bar is one of the most intimate places in the city. Within five minutes of sitting down with a beer and a friend you'll feel as if you're relaxing in your own sitting room with friends. Funnily enough, its name translated means ‘living room’.
Another district worth consulting your map for is Friedrichshain which is south-east of Mitte, and is teaming with bars and restaurants. Some of them may seem a bit tacky at first, and even slightly touristy even though it is so far from the city centre. But if you want to spoil yourself for choice check out Boxhagener Str. and Simon-Dach Str..
If you can’t bear the thoughts of battling your way on to a U-Bahn (Berlin’s underground network) to locate one of these suburbs, Oranienburg Str. is Mitte’s most vibrant street. Of all the restaurants that line it, Oranium is the liveliest. Popular with young people, you can get everything from a grilled sandwich from €4 to a main course for no more than €10. For the best value get one of the tapas deals where €12 will get you (and somebody else) four portions.
Hostels in Berlin Mitte
On the same street, Café Zapata looks like something from the Matrix as old tins, barbed wire, metal and other materials decorate this large bar. On the same side Aufsturz is a typical German bar that attracts hundreds of Berliners every weekend. There are hundreds of beers to choose from and, if you're peckish, various German dishes to tank up on also. And if you’re a night owl in every sense of the word, Silberfisch welcomes revellers until eight in the morning.
I have a certain fondness for Germany. In 1988, when I was just 11 years old, I represented Ireland at the opening ceremony of the European Championships there. In the mid-1990s my brother moved there where he met my sister-in-law and as a result their son, my godson, is half-German. Maybe this is why I liked Berlin so much. Maybe it isn’t. Either way, the German capital is a city with a million stories to tell. Some they’d like to remember, others they’d rather forget. But visit Berlin and you won’t forget it for some time to come.
Is there something about Berlin you are curious about but isn't covered in this story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.