After a somewhat perilous, slightly sweaty overnight bus from Munich, we finally arrived at the German capital. From the central bus station, you can hop straight on to the S Bahn/ U Bahn underground trains to your accommodation, the fastest and easiest way to get around the city.
Finding ourselves with several hours to kill before checking into our Airbnb, we decided to try and explore the local area, heavy backpacks in tow. Our Airbnb was located in the artsy, oh-so-cool district of Kreuzberg, just south of the river Spree. Wandering around its heady, graffiti adorned streets, there’s still a revolutionary air to the place. Once surrounded by the Berlin Wall on three sides, Kreuzberg was one of the poorest areas of Berlin during the late 1970s. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the district now holds one of the youngest populations of any European city boroughs, and is inhabited by creatives, immigrants and alternatives, bound together in a community that is a magnet for the fashionable.
There’s an abundance of coffee and breakfast outlets, with brunch being the meal of the day. Finally giving into our crippling back pain, we dumped our bags to enjoy a leisurely breakfast of eggs benedict, croissants and chai lattes in stripped down surroundings. As Kreuzberg has a strong Turkish community, you can find an array of tasty eastern treats, particularly at the highly acclaimed La Femme. Offering both breakfast and lunchtime plates, you can enjoy quality service in relaxed environment.
Luckily enough, our Airbnb accommodation happened to be situated in close proximity with these breakfast bars, as well as independent restaurants, bars and clubs. Managing to find a wonderful lady who allowed us to rent her entire flat, we had a cracking view of the city with enough space to unwind, all at a cheap price. There’s literally tonnes of Airbnb properties available in Berlin, more so than any other city we visited, so you’re bound to find the perfect place to suit all your requirements. Here we decided to abandon staying in hotels for the rest of our journey, as you’re guaranteed to get more out your trip by living as the locals do.
After getting acquainted with our temporary flat, we made for the main sightseeing destinations of the city. We began with Checkpoint Charlie, the famed allied Berlin Wall crossing point between West Berlin and the Soviet occupied East. Set up in 1961, when communist East Germany constructed the Berlin Wall to prevent its occupants from fleeing to the democratic West, this monument now serves as an open air museum. Whilst it was fascinating to learn more of the eventful political history of Berlin, the Checkpoint itself is occupied with actors clad in allied military costume, who happily pose for photos with tourists (providing you pay them a fee of three euros,) whilst surrounded by souvenir stands, as well as an enormous McDonalds. Historical merit is somewhat overshadowed here, so if you hope to learn more about the history of Berlin, pop to the museum over the road which offers a more peaceful environment.
For those looking for a more relaxed visit to Berlin, head on over to Badeschiff on the far side of Kreuzberg, a riverside beach bar complete with deckchairs, open air swimming pool, barbeques, and even saunas during the winter months. Jumping on the bandwagon for the current house revival, djs are on hand to set the atmosphere to its young crowd. It can all be a little bit hipster at times, but that certainly doesn’t detract from the fact the Badeschiff is an absolutely cracking venue. For facilities alone, it’s worth visiting as you can literally spend an entire day here. And you can also tuck into the most delicious halloumi burgers, as well as sampling some local German beers. There’s even paddle boats for hire. Just make sure you bring a towel.
If you are however looking to continue the cultural theme, there’s an array of museums and galleries to choose from in the city centre. Most notable are the Alt Nationalgalerie, Berlinische Galerie and the Gemaldagalerie, containing a dazzling array of art and cultural artefacts, as well as interactive works, all found within walking distance from the Brandenburg gate.
Brandenburg Gate is also situated close to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, another open air attraction of Berlin. Essentially a construction of two thousand, seven hundred and eleven concrete slabs, reminiscent of coffins, the slabs are arranged in rectangular fashion to create long narrow pathways that you can wind you way through. While the Memorial received some criticism due to its design, Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold’s construction is nevertheless thought provoking. It may not serve as an aesthetic delight, but that’s precisely the point of its creation; not only is it a tribute to those who experienced the most appalling conditions imaginable at the hands of the Nazis, but a symbolic reminder to the barbaric capabilities of humanity. That, in itself, should be respected, and gives justification for its presence. Do not visit Berlin without seeing this intriguing work for yourself.
If you’re not weary from all this cultural digestion, there’s plenty of options to explore during the evenings in das capital. Colombia Halle, a concert hall located on Berlin Templehof, holds an array of music events, festivals, parties and sports nights. Featuring a chic, beach themed outdoor area with plenty of sand and deck chairs, it is yet another example of the hip hang outs Berlin is so renowned for.
For those who want to kick things up a notch, head down to Vor dem Schlesischen, next to Badeschiff. Here you can find floating bars, restaurants and clubs such as Freischwimmer, that serves eclectic menus and ridiculously strong drinks. Finish up your night at Club der Visionaere, notorious for its electro music and all day Sunday parties. With two sprawling levels, a small dancefloor and plenty of comfy outdoor seating, it’s great for a night out or for those who want to just soak up the atmosphere. Decked out in fairy lights and disco balls, it’s understated, unashamedly chic.
There is however a drawback to venues located in Kreuzberg- whilst charmingly cool, they can sometimes seem to have a slight air of pretention about them. Berlin is famous for its openly liberal, relaxed approach to life, yet if you’re not dressing and acting in a certain way, you’re not part of the club. This seems at odds with image that Kreuzberg attempts to portray, and almost becomes lost in its own ideology. This isn’t a criticism of the creativity and achievements of the district by any means, but in terms of general atmosphere, especially around the trendier parts of the area, individuality is seemingly shunted. The young and fashionable look and sound alike, giving Kreuzberg a somewhat vapid quality. Aspects of the district are raw and aesthetic, but overall, it doesn’t always live up to its namesake.
To view the achievements of the city in its most poignant form, take a walk down to the East Side gallery. Formerly part of the Berlin Wall, The East Side gallery features a wonderful array of street art, consisting of 105 paintings that comment upon the colourful political history of Berlin through the concept of freedom. However, these works now stand behind a wire fence after extensive vandalism, so take your time when passing the 1.3-kilometre-long exhibition as you may miss some of the smaller scale paintings. The most famous painting of all, the kiss of socialistic love between Honecker and Breschnew, draws plenty of crowds, so you may have to wait a while to capture that perfect photo. Oozing both artistic and historical merit, the East Side gallery is a wonderful way to finish up a trip to Berlin.
Overall the German capital is, unsurprisingly, definitely worth a visit. No doubt Berlin will continue to attracts tourists, especially the young and fashionable, but the ethos of Kreuzberg in particular seems to revolve around being seen in the hippest venues more than anything else. Berlin is enjoyable for a few days, but its slight air of pretention can sometimes detract from its value as a destination.