travel: Berlin 2007
updated feb 2009
There is at any one time a list of cities in the world that creative people wish to hang out in. London is certainly one, and New York and Tokyo are others although London is increasingly being bypassed in favour of Amsterdam and Berlin because of what UKers themselves call "ripoff London".... not that there is any shortage of creative people in London. And in 2009 the Euro is ridiculously over-valued by the same people who brought you the Subprime crisis and global meltdown and so Berlin is significantly more expensive than it was for people coming from other currency zones.
Berlin is easy to get to and cheap airfares are available within Europe from the likes of Air Berlin and Hapag-Lloyd Express, Easyjet and Ryanair. Train connections are good too although, ridiculously, the fares are frequently much higher than air. Save the planet? Yes please.
Once you're there there's a bewildering variety of accomodation on offer. At the very bottom of the price scale are small backpacker places for 10 Euros or so that can be scary. Moving up to a bit over 20 will get you a bed in the official Youth Hostel place a short walk from Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Centre. The latter has free WLAN and the only English language cinema in town. It's also a short walk to the Reichstag and Unter den Linden and Freidrichstrasse. We'll talk about these places in a moment.
The minuses of the YH is that it is very institutional and not particularly friendly .. just like most other big city places.
There are also lots of interesting hotels in the higher price ranges and two such are the Adlon Kempinski (where Michael Jackson famously dangled that baby out the window), just by Brandenberg Gate and the Hotel de Rome which is not far away and behind the Staatsoper. These two are of the grand variety. One less grand, in fact very ordinary, is the Park Inn in Alexanderplatz. It's worth a mention because of the spectacular views from the higher floors and the very reasonable prices. Book a room on the telecom tower side. There are also a whole swathe of trendy boutique hotels which you can discover by looking up such books as Hip Hotels.
Berlin is a collection of places with their own characters and attractions. This was due not only to the tendency of old cities to grow this way but also the fact that the city was split for many years until 1989 by the Berlin Wall which made half the city an island in the then GDR. John F. Kennedy's words 'Ich bin ein Berliner' echo from that time. If you're going to repeat that, soften the "ch" so that so that the "h" is heard with a very soft "c" - not "ik". Pedants might say that the hard "ik" is actually used by native Berliners of a certain stripe - but odds are you aren't one of them.
A potted history
Berlin was established as a trading centre around 1300 but grew hugely in the 1780's. An influx of Huguenots from France had expanded the artisan class and an increase in militarism had increased the power of the area. Napoleon came and conquered the area and stole the horses from atop the Brandenberg Gate. He was subsequently thrown out and the horses recovered. Then came the Kaiser and Bismarck and the disaster of WW1. There followed huge economic and social disturbance which paved the way for the nazis and the Third Reich and the flattening of large parts of Berlin by the allies. The soviets continued the devastation for some time afterward and razed huge areas on their side of the Berlin Wall. After the GDR fell apart much rebuilding was done which has created an interesting mix of high quality modernist buildings with the old and grand. Very early buildings are impossible to find. This was not all the Allies and the Soviets' fault as Frederick the Great had a great dislike for medieval buildings and tore most of them down.
If you want to expand on this history by several hundred pages, David Clay Large's Berlin from Basic Books covers the last hundred years of heroes and villains in a readable and absorbing way.
Not everyone agrees with Mstation's opinion that Berlin is a very open and friendly place where you're likely to be invited back to someone's place on slight acquaintance but that's been our experience. The city has a mixture of old and new and lots of wide open spaces which includes the wonderful wooded Tiergarten. There is nightlife aplenty and, once you get out of the center, a huge variety of cafes and restaurants where food and drink can be enjoyed in a civilised way ... and where smokers can have their evil way (but to a lesser extent since the beginning of 2008. The upshot of all that is the ideal situation where you can actually choose for yourself a smoking or non-smoking place). Politically-correct weenies will be shocked. Shocked! So don't come. This also goes for alcohol consumption where the hoodie-over-a-baseball-cap person carrying a beer bottle in the street, while unlikely to be a member of the haute-monde, is equally unlikely to be a thug.
... continues below ...
Berlin is the home for many artists and musicians. It used to be home for the likes of Nick Cave, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and is home these days for people like Richie Hawtin, MuM, and many others. As Kerstin from MuM told us a few years ago - it is very calm - where 'calm' means a mixture of lack of hassle and civilised and enlightened attitude - humanity!
Alexanderplatz's direction can be spotted from afar because that's where the lofty spire of the telecom tower pokes out of. The platz itself is large and open and quite unlovely with blocky soviet-looking buildings and an absence of greenery. It is worth seeing though as it has a certain peculiar sort of unpleasant grandeur. The platz is home to the Park Inn and quite a few shops including the large Galeria Kaufhof which has a very good food section, acres of quality goods, and a fair, and quite cheap, buffet restaurant on the fifth floor.
Kurferstendam (aka Ku'dam) is the main shopping area. It is a grand avenue in the European style with trees and a mix of expensive and ordinary shops. The big department store in these parts is Kadewe and there are a few interesting smaller shops in side streets.
Unter den Linden and Freidrichstrasse used to be behind the wall but now is free and there are a host of beautiful old buildings there, especially in the upper reaches going towards the telecom tower and away from Brandenberg gate. They include the Berliner dom (cathedral) and behind it, going along the river, some wonderful museums. Humboldt University is here as well and posters of Albert Einstein, who taught there, can be had from the information office. Freidrichstrasse is now reviving as a retail outlet and in places like the Department Store or Galleries Lafayette, designer bling can be had. Nearby is also the Gendarmenmarkt which is a lovely square with some expensive restaurants and hotels and one interesting and expensive shop. It also hosts the best of the Christmas fairs.
Mitte or Middle can be a bit confusing as it includes the area above but the real heart is the Hackesher Markt area and round about can be found many fashion shops, art galleries, and interesting specialist small shops and even a small cinema that shows occasional movies in English. The shops range from Big Brand shops to the small and funky. Cafe's and restaurants tend towards the more touristic.
Charlottenberg and surrounds seem a bit suburban after some of the grittier areas but there's a wonderful schloss there by the river with a substantial park as well.
Freidrichshain is part of the old eastern sector and lies right next to Prenzlauer Berg. Along with a section of the Wall can be seen scattered cafes and specialty shops. The charms and interests must be hunted for a bit more than in some other parts but they are there and include a huge park near the Prenzlauer Berg border.
This used to be one of the cheaper areas to live in Berlin but its reputation for trendiness has seen a huge influx of student age people who have pushed rents up to where the bordering areas of Kreuzberg and Prenlauer Berg are frequently cheaper.
As Bleepfest Berlin 3 is to be held in this area in 2009 we'll even add some restaurants and cafe's...
Tarrad'oro - Gruenberger str close Warschauer str - nice atmosphere cafe with breakfast, toasted sandwiches. Going down Gruenberger str on the right and almost at Boxhagener Platz (Sat and Sun markets) is Chueechlwirtschaft - Crepes - nice crepes from Swiss couple, wines and ciders. In Krossener str is Volkswirkschift - funky atmosphere with nice muffins and cakes and coffee. Stouter meals as well. Across the road is Meyman... with cheap but excellent fallafel and Lebanese style doners. Back in Gruenberger strasse is Di Vino - high standard Italian with more expensive prices. Another nice Italian is close by in Libauer str close to Revaler str.
Simon Dach stris a well-known restaurant street but not much we like. Food for drunks sums up quite a few of them. Having said that, none of them are as bad as UK and US factory food restaurants. Although a bit overpriced by local standards, the neo-Chinese Le Lamian has scrumptious bits and a wine buyer who cares and knows his stuff.
Szimpla on cnr Gruenberger and Gaertnerstr and Maconda are also pleasant cafes.
Kreuzberg is also part of the ex-western sector and still has a large Turkish population. Once poor, it has become gentrified in parts and as rents have risen, young creative people have moved outwards towards Neukoln or Freidrichshain (see above!). There are nice old buildings here, interesting cafes and restaurants and a nice variety of interesting speciality shops in the back streets. The area really comes alive in the summer time but can be a bit of a mystery at other times.
Prenzlauer Berg is in the old eastern sector. It has become very trendy and locals these days will moan about the influx of yuppies and the presence of inumerable young women pushing prams. Right now the place is still a mix of relatively poor people in semi-unrestored soviet era apartment blocks and people who occupy multiple floors of regally restored or new buildings. The old tenants are protected but the sheer misery of living through a building being restored sees many moving out. In any case the place is hopping, with all sorts of nightlife, cafes, and high quality specialty shops of the non-High street variety which are possible because there are people with money around. It's an unstable mix though and probably can't last. Nice places to wander are around Helmholtz platz and down Kollwitzstrasse.
Shoeneberg is characterised by locals as a place where reasonably well-off couples and gays live and where the latter supply some spice and colour. David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived here before the Wall came down. This is quite a big area and the outer parts can be dismal. One local contrasted this area with the likes of Freidrichshain by saying that "normal people live here" - take that as you will.
The second language is English and English speakers will have few problems here. It is polite to learn and use at least a few words... Please - bitte, and thank you - danke, are a good start. Officials, for some reason, hardly ever speak English but you probably want to avoid them anyway.
There's something for nearly everyone - three opera companies, many concert venues, halls for big commercial pop acts and a multitude of smaller clubs catering to all sorts of tastes. Getting Zitty or the English-language magazine Exberliner will give you up to the minute information. Just talking to people in cafes in the likes of Kreuzberg, Freidrichshain, or Prenzlauer Berg could also be useful. Three venues that supply interesting, maybe slightly out-there things, are c-base in Mitte close to Jannowitzbrucke U-bahn station, Ausland in Prenzlauer Berg close to the Eberswalderstrasse station, and Magnet.
And if you're in Berlin between April 11 and 12 2009 we, naturally enough as we're putting it together, highly recommend Bleepfest Berlin 3!.
Bookmark:post to Delicious Digg Reddit Facebook StumbleUpon
Recent on Mstation: music: Vivian Girls, America's Cup, music: Too Young to Fall..., music: Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Berlin Lakes, music: Atarah Valentine, Travel - Copenhagen, House in the Desert