Every issue we give you the lowdown on a city that you should travel to with haste. These essential guides are written by people who know said city inside out because they live there, rather than London-based numpties like us…
Words by Andrea Schuite-Peevers
There’s evidence all around that the German capital is Europe’s current ‘It’ city, a place with a keen awareness of its past yet solidly focused on the future. In fact it’s so achingly hip by the time you’ve read this piece it may well be over. Since the wall’s collapse in 1989, Berlin has shed its dour Cold War demeanour and grown into a confident, sassy, irreverent space. Unemployment and the municipal debt remain high but otherwise the city is firing on all cylinders. The fashion, art, design and music scenes are all going off, fuelled by scores of artists and creative spirits from around the world nestling in together. What draws them is an adolescent energy, restlessness and experimental climate infused with an undercurrent of grit and roughness that give this ‘eternally unfinished’ city its street cred. There’s a vitality about Berlin that’s enticing so go now before more cheesey celebrities move there and water down its soul.
Berliners properly know how to party and you’re going to need stamina to join them. With no curfew, this is a notoriously late city where bars stay packed till sunrise and some clubs don’t hit their stride until 4am.
Berliners are geniuses when it comes to recycling decrepit spaces into hip new venues. One of the latest hot spots is Tausend, in Mitte, a sleek drinking den inside a railway bridge. Across town, in Kreuzberg, Freischwimmer is a century-old boathouse turned all-day canalside chill zone. And near Ostbahnhof, Panoramabar/Berghain – Berlin’s most intense and free-wheeling club for ‘techno-crats’ – heats up the raw industrial labyrinth of a decommissioned power plant.
Speaking of hot, on sizzling summer days there’s nothing quite like kicking back in a striped deckchair, sand between the toes and a cold caipi in hand. Other landlocked cities may have jumped on the ‘sandwagon’, but it was Berlin’s Strandbar Mitte that launched the beach bar craze back in 2002. Now there are some 30 riverside playgrounds along the Spree. If you need to cool off, head to Badeschiff, a huge river barge turned swimming pool anchored in the river. With music blaring and lots of hot bods, the vibe is distinctly ‘Ibiza on the Spree’. Viva Berlin!
Berlin is retail nirvana for indie spirits who refuse to take their cues from the high street chains. Perfecting the art of shopping here means following the locals into the neighbourhoods (called Kieze) and browsing through owner-run boutiques stocked with well-edited fashions, art and knick-knacks. Kastanienallee and Stargarder Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg, Bergmannstrasse in Kreuzberg and Maassenstrasse in Schöneberg are all promising hipster strips, but cool-hunters will also want to make a beeline for the Scheunenviertel in Mitte. Despite an influx of the international label brigade, this maze-like quarter is still ground zero for homegrown products.
Start by scanning the racks at Berliner Klamotten, a platform for 40 local design-meisters creating everything from progressive street wear to opera-worthy couture. Match your new outfit with a limited-edition bag from Milk Berlin, then add ‘spec-appeal’ with a pair of stylish and indestructible shades from IC! berlin. For a souvenir, swing by the delightful Bonbonmacherei, an old-fashioned candy kitchen whose speciality is leaf-shaped Maiblätter flavoured with woodruff. To plug into the local art scene, head to Auguststrasse, where galleries like Eigen + Art shepherd emerging local artists to international fame.
Fancy bedding down in a former bank, on a boat, in the home of a silent movie siren, in a prison cell or with the ghosts of communism? Or maybe a standard hotel room will do just fine. Fact is, since the wall’s demise Berlin beds have proliferated faster than rabbits on viagra (more than 90,000 at last count). Best of all, fierce competition has kept standards high and prices low compared to other Euro capitals.
Even hostels here are more like two-star hotels. Take the perennially dependable Circus Hostel, which has a super-central Mitte location, a basement bar and private penthouse apartments perfect for sharing with your mates. Or ride the retro wave at Ostel, whose slick shtick is to be entirely decked out in original vintage east German furniture – plastic dressers to orange-green wallpaper. Hideous but fun. Hotel-Pension Funk perfectly epitomises ‘roaring Twenties’ glamour with lacy curtains, glittering chandeliers and shiny antiques. And if you’re the adventurous type, you’ll love getting stranded at the wickedly surreal Propeller Island City Lodge, an artist-created gallery with rooms. Wake up in a floating bed, a prison cell, a coffin or dozens of other warped environments.
If ever there was a snack food with cult status, it’s Berlin’s humble Currywurst, a slivered, subtly spiced pork sausage swimming in tomato sauce and
dusted with curry powder. And the best ‘wurst’ place. Curry 36 in Kreuzberg, Konnopke’s Imbiss in Prenzlauer Berg and Witty’s Organic Wieners in Charlottenburg. The Currywurst competes with the doner kebab for title of best hangover prevention. The ultimate ‘Turkish delight’ is a lightly toasted bread pocket stuffed with thinly shaved veal or chicken, salad and doused with garlicky yogurt sauce. There are over 1500 donerias in town, but
Schlemmerbuffet in Mitte makes the best for our money.
Berlin has its share of Michelin-starred restaurants, but some of the best eating is usually done in unfussy and snug neighbourhood restaurants. Case in point: Fellas in Prenzlauer Berg, where quality ingredients find their destiny in huge salads, big-flavoured casseroles and creative crossover mains.
Romantic candlelight rules Café Jacques in Kreuzberg, where the accent is on Mediterranean cuisine and delicious wine.
If you’re a Berlin virgin, there are some fantastic ways to get your bearings. One of the best bargains is a self-guided tour aboard public buses 100 or 200. Grab a seat on the upper deck and let the landmarks whoosh by: posh Potsdamer Platz, the bombastic Brandenburg Gate, the ominous Reichstag, the war-ruined Memorial Church, grand Unter den Linden boulevard. It’s like a 3D history textbook, only better. Afterwards, put it all into
context by joining a free walking tour with New Berlin. Guides are young and hip and work for tips, so be generous.
If the weather gods are in a foul mood, head to a museum, and boy, does Berlin have some great ones. Bone up on the history and horror of the Berlin wall at the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, then see what’s left of the so-called ‘antifascist protection barrier’ at the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km stretch of
concrete turned open-air gallery.
If it’s off-beat you want, go to jail – the former Stasi Prison in eastern Berlin, that is. Tours are often conducted by ex-prisoners and not for the faint-hearted. Pre-trip tip: watch the oscar-winning movie The Lives of Others, which dramatizes the Stasi’s loathsome dragnet tactics.
Thank you: Danke
What’s your name? Wie heisst du? (informal); Wie heissen Sie? (formal)
How much is a Vodka-red bull? Was kostet ein Vodka-Red Bull?
Where is the nearest tube station? Wo ist die nächste U-Bahn-Station?
Will you let me get into the club if I clean your shoes? Lässt du mich in den Club, wenn ich dir deine Schuhe putze?
I need some water: Ich brauche Wasse
Dorm bed in hostel: from £8
Average double room in three-star hotel: £50
Latte macciato: £2.20
One hour on the internet: £1.50
Public transport day pass: £4.50
Club cover charge: £4.50
Glass of beer: £1.90
2km taxi ride (request kurzstrecke when getting into cab): £2.60
Andrea Schulte-Peevers is the author of the Lonely Planet Berlin.