At the end of the last century Berlin was the world’s largest construction site – I suspect it still is. This city has been battered and bruised, divided but never conquered. It’s defiant, it’s determined, it’s open-minded. And it’s affordable. No wonder it’s full of artists.
Catching public transport makes Berlin seem a lot bigger than it really is. Which is not to say it’s small – 3.4 million people. But everything seems to ring around Alexanderplatz, home of the iconic television tower, the Fernsehturm. Each time you look out the window of the train or the bus or the tram, there’s the TV tower, no further away that it seemed before, and because it looks the same from all sides, you feel like you haven’t moved, except you have, and the buildings between you and the tower have changed. And the people on the bus, tram or train have ebbed and flowed. Of course it could all just be one big Truman Show experience and the TV tower is the moon in the corner. I prefer to think it’s just that the TV tower is causing an illusion of confusion. Anyway… so, yes, my three days in Berlin.
Things to Do in Berlin: Day 1
Orientate yourself. And to do that, ironically I would suggest going straight to that monument of confusion: the TV Tower. There’s a lift up to the observation deck and, although the windows are kind of dirty and on an angle, you get a good overview of Berlin. Of course, by doing this as your first stop in the city, what you look at will be a complete mystery to you, but there is helpful signage and it’s great getting some sense of the city layout.
Running south-east from Alexanderplatz is Karl-Marx-Allee, an imposing processional avenue of Communist architecture. It’s worth a walk along this lengthy avenue of white, Stalinist public housing from the 1950s. Until 1961 it was even called Stalinallee.
Now, I’ve become a big fan of the Hop On, Hop Off Bus. So a Berlin Hop On Hop Off bus tour is my recommendation for what to do next. And, helpfully, it has a stop in Alexanderplatz. Well, close by although I did find it a tad hard to locate. I hovered hopefully near one of the big H bus signs, hoping not to be accused of loitering, and when people clutching cameras began to appear my faith rose, my fear of the law decreased, and when the bus lunged into sight, all was right with the world.
The bus tour was good for seeing all the main sights and demystifying the city a bit. My overwhelming sense was of destruction, construction and reconstruction. Berlin was 70% destroyed during World War II and then largely rebuilt in the Russian Communist style up until reunification in 1989. Many of these buildings have come down to make way for reconstructions of old Berlin. The communist Palast der Republick is in its death throes (largely due to asbestos) and will be replaced by the reconstruction of a Prussian Palace. Similarly one of the oldest parts of Berlin nearby has had the historic buildings reconstructed, although on a different street layout as the city planning changed over time.
If you’re full of energy – and you should be, you just arrived! – you can knock over lots of the “must sees” of Berlin by hopping on and off the bus. Go to the schloss at Charlottenburg (and catch a concert at the schloss if you can), visit the Checkpoint Charlie Musuem and get the history of the divided city and the ingenious attempts some people made to escape the GDR. You can also visit the Jewish Museum and the eerie Holocaust Memorial, finally unveiled in 2005. Lots of things held it up including the revelation that the graffiti-proof paint was made by a company associated with the one that made Zyklon B used in the gas chambers. The dark history is never far away. (You can also visit the nearby Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp for an even more sobering look at Germany’s dark history.)
Another overwhelming impression of Berlin is the graffiti. And, unlike other cities, most of it is left on the walls. It feels like a symbol of the undaunted spirit of the people in this once troubled city.
Near Checkpoint Charlie there is a section of the Berlin Wall but it is now very pockmarked and the graffiti on it almost gone. That’s due to ‘woodpeckers’, the local name for souvenir hunters who come and chip a bit to take home. Ecotourism includes respect for the built environment as well, people! There’s a much better section of wall across town, but I’ll take you there on Day 3.
End the day with a coffee or drink in one of the cafes on the Unter den Linden near the Brandenburg Gate. This was the place to see and be seen in the heady days of the 1920s. Kick back and imagine.
Things to Do in Berlin: Day 2
This is your galleries and shopping day. Stumble into a café, any café for breakfast and the coffee is likely to be good. And I kept happening across the wonderful breakfast plate of cheeses, fruit, bread, pesto etc (and I assume German sausage for the carnivores).
Wander along the banks of the River Spree to Museums Island. First stop, the Pergamonmuseum, a place of wonder – the sheer scale is amazing. There’s the Pergamon Altar reconstructed and enormous. It was quite surreal to see people dwarfed by the giant marble steps and we were inside! I kept expecting to look up and see sky. It’s like the Acropolis kept in captivity. There is a Roman room and a Greek room, both with giant marble columns that feel they should plummet onto your head. But I loved the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon. Reconstructed. Inside. And it’s blue. Fabulous. Included in the entry price (10 euros or free on Thursday nights) is the audio tour and, although I usually like to have my own experience rather than being blinkered by the experts, I did learn a lot.
From there, wander back towards Alexanderplatz (the TV tower), past the Berliner Dom (you can go in if you like…), heading for the main event: the world’s largest indoor fish tank. Yes, it’s in Berlin at the Marriott Hotel. If you want to actually ride the lift up and down inside it, you have to go via the Sealife exhibition around the corner (and it costs), but it’s free to stand in the hotel foyer and gaze.
Hop on a train at Alexanderplatz going to Hauptbahnhof. That’s the recently re-opened main train station and it’s a symphony of glass, trains and fast food. From there it’s a short walk to an old train station, Hamburger Bahnhof, now a modern art gallery. It’s a great collection and a great building and is free on Thursday afternoons. I wandered happily, loving the room full of succinct information about artists like Warhol, Lichtenstein etc. And then I came across half a room dedicated to Matthew Barney. Okay, I thought, I keep hearing about him, what’s all the fuss? Half an hour later after watching video art (sigh) I was no closer to finding an answer. Sometimes a few words can say more than endless artsy video… Move on, people.
Now it’s shopping time*. Oh, and you might be hungry. Walk along Invalidenstrasse, in the opposite direction to Hauptbahnhof and you’ll hit Chausseestrasse. There’s a cute little French café on one corner (Marcini?) recommended. Then head up Chausseestrasse, past the U-bahn station, until you’re opposite a petrol/gas station. Head past the security booth, down a driveway, towards a small theatre café and into a courtyard. Sorry, no idea of the street number but there’s a vacant block next door… Anyway, once in, you’ll see the sign Trippen on the left. Berlin shoe mecca. And this is the outlet shop. They’re still not cheap but they’re half the price. And there’s another outlet store upstairs. But choose carefully, the shoes are generally seconds so find out what the fault is.
Okay, U-bahn it back towards Alexanderplatz and wander the nearby streets towards Hackescher Markt, full of funky shops and great cafes.
Now you’re not a million miles from Orianenburger Strasse, which has the rebuilt Jewish Synagogue (completed 1995), and around the corner Beth Café (kosher) that has armed police outside, as do many of Jewish sites in Berlin still. Berlin has the largest Jewish population in Europe today.
*Alternate plan if you’re not into shoes (say what?!), from Hamburger Bahnhof you could go instead to Kurfurstendamm, the big shopping street of more upmarket labels and the famous and magnificent department store KaDeWa. Check out the food hall in particular. But apart from this, Ku’damm really offers shops you see in every other city and why not have some one off, unique to Berlin shopping in Mitte instead?
Things to Do in Berlin: Day 3
Today, we are going further afield. But the transport is easy in Berlin so don’t panic. Also, I realise that by now you are exhausted so this is the gentle day, trust me.
Start the day in Prenslauer Berg, an artsy area full of cafes. Wander up Kastanienalle (where beautiful people abound and soap stars are discovered) looking at all the shops in the area around Eberswalderstrasse Station. Then hop on the tram (M10) and find your way to the most fabulous bridge: the Oberbaumbrucke. A magnificent confection of red brick towers like a fortified town, it crosses the River Spree and was closed during communist times. It connects Kreuzberg with Friedrichshain across the river.
Opposite the bridge is the East Side Gallery – the largest open-air gallery in the world and the longest stretch of Berlin Wall still in one piece – 1316 metres. It was retained after 118 artist from 21 countries decorated it in 1989.
Walk across the Oberbaumbrucke into Friedrichshain and wander the shops and cafes there. Heading towards the height of relaxation and my favourite place in Berlin – you deserve it! The Badeschiff (near Treptower Park). In summer this is a swimming pool and basking platforms stretching out over the river. In winter, it is covered and has saunas, the pool (the ends are still open to the elements, divine!) and a huge relaxation area. It also has a small café. And views of Berlin (the TV tower is visible naturally) from inside the saunas! I was very happy there. The only word of warning: it is mixed nude bathing, not for the prudish.
Then you’ll be so relaxed, treat yourself to dinner. You haven’t been up the Reichstag dome by Norman Foster yet, and the best way to beat the queue is to book a table at the café at the top. Enjoy the view. And if you’re not tired yet, count all the cranes on the skyline. You’ll be asleep in your beer before you get to one hundred.