A vibrant and happening as well as historic city, Berlin is a top tourist destination. James Guy, a translator, lived there for two enjoyable years and offers his insight into the city’s character and attractions.
“What I really like about Berlin is that it’s relaxed while being really cosmopolitan and ever-changing. New bars and cafés appear every day and studio accommodation is remarkably reasonable so the city is a magnet for artists and small start-up companies. Berlin has a really buzzy, creative feel about it, with lots of galleries and plenty of affordable art. An added benefit is that it’s surrounded by flatland and lakes and it takes only minutes to drive or cycle out to swim or walk.
“For a fun and easy way to see the city, I’d recommend hiring a bike. Everybody cycles and Berlin is really geared up to it. There are loads of cycle tracks and often these are on the pavement so you feel really safe. Among the many bike hire companies, the Big Tire Company not only rents out bikes but also offers guided cycle tours – perfect if you have limited time.”
“As well as the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) and Reichstag parliament building, the TV tower (Fernsehturm) on Alexanderplatz (known as Alex!) to the east of the city is an iconic landmark, so I’d recommend you start your tour there.
“The remains of the Berlin Wall that until 1989 divided East from West are a major attraction. The former eastern and western parts of the city are linked by Unter den Linden, the famous boulevard of Linden trees. From Alexanderplatz cycle towards Unter den Linden and you’ll pass statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Just north of Unter den Linden, cross the bridge over the river Spree to Museum Island (Museumsinsel), home to five major fascinating museums, a complex that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Going back, cycle past the Opera (Staatsoper) and Humboldt University (Humboldt-Universität). These buildings have a distinctive late nineteenth- century architecture called Gründerzeit, meaning ‘founder epoch’. Opposite the university is Bebelplatz where, in 1933, 20,000 of the university’s books were burned by the Nazis and student followers. Below your feet, covered by a pane of reinforced glass, you’ll see a striking underground memorial – a huge white room lined with empty shelves with spaces for 20,000 books.
“Further along there’s Gendarmenmarkt with the Konzerthaus and two cathedrals, one French (Französicher Dom), one German (Deutscher Dom). This was the French Huguenot district in the eighteenth century and the French cathedral has a Huguenot museum. Unter den Linden then reaches Friedrichstrasse which is lined with chic department stores including a Galerie Lafayette. You’ll also see a distinctive new British embassy – built during our ‘Cool Britannia’ period!”
The Brandenburg Gate and Tiergarten
“Reaching the massive Brandenburg Gate, cycle on into the Tiergarten, the city’s huge park. The border between East and West used to be here and it’s marked along the path of the old wall by a line of cobbles that stretches all the way through the city. You can follow the path of wall to a replica of Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War crossing point. About a kilometre away you’ll find the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. “The Tiergarten was one of the Kaiser’s hunting grounds and it has a lake and a rather nice beer garden. Perfect for a brief stop! At the other end of the park you’ll find Charlottenburg with its palace. In this wealthy district you’ll also find the famous Kurfürstendamm (the Ku’Damm!) shopping street with its smart restaurants
“Turn back to the Brandenburg Gate and then left for the Reichstag, the parliament of the former German Empire. Mysteriously damaged by fire in the early 1930s, and further damaged by Allied air raids and then by the Red Army during the Battle of Berlin in 1945 (some Soviet graffiti has been preserved on the internal walls), it was only following the reunification of Germany that it was fully restored by Sir Norman Foster. A huge glass dome gives visitors a fantastic 360° view of Berlin. The building is now the home of the Bundestag, the modern German parliament. Entry is free but must be pre-booked www.bundestag.de/htdocs
“South from the Brandenburg Gate you’ll find the Holocaust Memorial (Holocaustmahnmal), or Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2001, it comprises 2,711 concrete blocks arranged in a grid pattern. Walk down between them, a powerfully moving experience, to the underground information centre.”
A typical Berlin snack
“Northern Germany is a bit like Britain and people frequently eat ‘on the go’ rather than sit down. One of the most popular snackfoods is the Currywurst – a typical Berlin sausage covered in a tomato and curry sauce! In Berlin’s Schnell-Imbisse or fast-food outlets, you’ll see people queue up for their Currywurst and perhaps a typical Berliner Kindl beer, taking them to one of the high tables to eat standing up. Everyday dishes are hearty and based on pork or veal. In a typical Berlin restaurant, you’re likely to see people eating Eisbein, a boiled knuckle of pork, a bit like ham, served with boiled potatoes and Sauerkraut.
“What’s really nice about Berlin is that there are loads of cafés that stay open practically all day and night so you can have a beer or a coffee at almost any time – or a Korn, the local spirit made from corn, drunk with a beer chaser. In the central Mitte district, minimalist cafés are full of hip young freelance professionals who use the cafés as a social and business hub.
“The city attracts young, mobile, well-educated but not necessarily wealthy young people who are particularly drawn to the cheaper Kreuzberg and Neukölln areas where there’s also a strong Turkish community. The lively bars and Turkish restaurants have really reasonable prices. These districts and Friedrichshain are edgier than the Mitte district. I particularly like the Turkish market in Kreuzberg, which has lots of great organic fruit and vegetable and exotic ingredients.
“If in search of music, the most famous of Berlin’s clubs is Berghain – home to a big techno music scene and the place to go. This is what I really like about Berlin – it’s the juxtaposition of exciting, vibrant and diverse culture with a really fascinating history – a fabulous city!”