Escape to Berlin
Once, having landed in Berlin for the first time late on a Friday night, a friend cabbed her way from the airport straight to Berghain, an infamous industrial nightclub, to meet up with friends.
Still in work clothes, she had a wheelie suitcase with her and, emerging from the taxi, she was dismayed to see grim bouncers massed at the Friedricshain exterior. No chance. She was about to call it a night when a bouncer called her over, lifting the velvet rope and pointing at her weekend bag.
“DJ! All DJs must come this way.”
Brooking no argument, the enormous bouncer led her through a labyrinthine tunnel and into a service elevator which rose and opened directly onto a raised DJ booth above the heaving dance floor. Terrified, my friend turned to him, ready to be thrown out.
“Okay, okay, I’m really sorry. Thing is, I’m not really
After the briefest of pauses, the huge bouncer began to chuckle. “Yes, we know that. It’s okay. We are just being stupid with you.”
First impressions of Berlin can be intimidating; the name alone carrying with it the weight of terrible history; the terror of the Nazi regime, the 40-odd-year division of it through the construction of a wall which came to embody the Cold War. But cities are a living breathing organism, constantly regenerating, and through its art, public buildings, the people and the eclectic culture, at every turn Berlin offers a chance to look forward as well as back.
It is best experienced as a whole, as one walks or cycles through it, or by bus; hop-on, hop-off tours cost 15 euros (about £12.50) with City Sightseeing.
Orient yourself by starting under the huge needle-like TV tower – you can rent bikes here with Fat Tire Bike Tours, at the very heart of the old East, in Alexanderplatz.
From here, the galleries of Mitte are five minutes away, not to mention the boutiques – although shopping is not considered a past-time in this proudly anticonsumerist city (shops are even closed on Sunday).
In the opposite direction, a stroll down the historic main drag of Unter Den Linden brings you past St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Zeughaus (German Historical Museum), and the Altes Palais, the Berlin palace of Kaiser Wilhelm I. Do not miss the beautiful and freeto- view Neue Wache, originally a guard house and now the “Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism”.
You also pass the Berlin State Opera, where the acoustics are considered to have achieved such fragile perfection that the chandeliers remain un-dusted. Shows cost from 16 euros (around £13), although it is closed throughout most of July and all of August.
En route, you pass along the River Spree. If you fancy a riverside stroll, be sure to take in the Pergamon Museum which houses the reconstructed Ishtar Gate – one of the gates to the ancient city of Babylon – or take a river cruise. A one-hour cruise costs from 11 euros (about £9) per person with Berlin City Tours.
Continue on Unter Den Linden to reach the Brandenburg Gate, beyond which lies the stunning Tiergarden, Berlin’s largest and oldest public park. Directly beyond, behind the famous Berlin Victory column immortalised by Wim Wenders in the film, Wings of Desire, lies the affluent borough of Charlottenberg, and the heart of old West Berlin.
Adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, a few minutes away, lies the Peter Eisenmann-designed Holocaust Memorial. It’s not without its critics, but walking amidst the undulating slabs of concrete is a very unsettling experience. Obliquely and ingeniously, it calls to mind the unfathomable horror of the Holocaust.
Nearby, too, are Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror, where the Gestapo, SS and Reich security offices were located, and where the longest untouched stretch of the old Berlin Wall remains. Incidentally, stretches of the wall do remain and are preserved, but it’s best encountered as you move through the city.
Germany is not renowned for its food, but Berlin is not Germany, as they say, and there’s a dizzying array of terrific food options. Schwarzwald Stuben is a great traditional German restaurant in Mitte. Try the Flammkuchen; a savoury tarte flambé.
House speciality is the schnitzel – and believe me, it is divine. A bottle of Riesling should help it along, or a large tankard of the Berliner pils. Ambience is low-light and casual.
Did you know that doner kebabs are a German invention? The first kebab was made by a genius called Mahmut Aygun in Hasir in Kreuzberg, in 1971. And you can forget about the post-pub connotations. These kebabs are perfectly flavoured and served with homemade bread.There are a few Hasir restaurants across Berlin now; each and every one of them leaves the English kebab shop in the shade.
There’s also a profound Vietnamese influence in Berlin. Back in the Cold war, Communist East Germany was one of the few destinations to which a North Vietnamese family could emigrate, and the Vietnamese food at Hoai Nam, on Skalitzer Strasse, is wonderful.
Torstrasse, in Mitte, is emerging as Berlin’s restaurant mile. Book ahead for any of the following; Noto, Tartane, Alpenstueck, and Themroc. 3 minutes sur mer, in Torstrasse, is an off-shoot of Bandol-sur-mer next door, both of which serve excellent French cuisine to the Mitte/Prenzlauer Berg gentry. This place is too hip for a web site, but the telephone number is +49 (0) 30 6730 2053. You’ll need a booking to rub shoulders with the hip and trendy clientele, but the food is terrific, as is the wine list.
Bars and clubs
After all that, you’ll be ready for a nightcap. Ping pong is big in Berlin – tables are to be found in most parks, and the ping-pong-themed Prenzlauer Berg dive bar Dr Pong, on Eberswalder Strasse, is a fun place to meet younger, hip locals. Tell the owner, Oliver, that John sent you over, and demand a free drink. Good luck!
And where to lay your head at the end of a long day? Hotel options abound at all price ranges, but I’m an evangelist for www.airbnb.com, a secure and easy-to use website where you can rent apartments in all locations, securely, and with no fuss. Best of all, it means you can stay in some residential neighbourhoods that tend not to have hotels.
Pick a place in Prenzlauer Berg, a 10-minute walk north from the centre and a haven for brunch, with many parks and great restaurants.
If you’re looking for a buzz, Kreuzberg and Neukölln, to the south-east, boast a hip, younger crowd drawn by a high concentration of great bars and clubs.
Quieter, but equally interesting, is Schoeneberg, where historic Tempelhof Airport has now been converted into a huge, dramatic park.
When to go
Each season has something to recommend it. A winter walk through the snowy Tiergarden brings the sight of ice-skaters, and couples drinking gluhwein under blankets at the frozen canal side. In summer, the same park offers rollerbladers, kite fliers, and chilled wine. What’s your preference?
Berlin’s a two-hour flight from London’s airports. British Airways flies from Heathrow, easyJet from Luton and Gatwick, and Ryanair from Stansted. There are two main airports in Berlin, Tegel and Schonefeld, both connected to the city via train. Brandenburg Airport is under construction and was due to have opened by now, but the opening has been delayed until March 2013.
Berlin has an excellent transport system. Taxis are all beige Mercedes, all drivers speak English, and fares are reasonable (cheaper than a London cab). U-Bahn and S-Bahn tickets cost from 1.30 euros (about £1) and can be bought on the platform. Transport maps are clearly laid out. Get a 72-hour WelcomeCard for unlimited use on tram, U-Bahn and S-Bahn networks. It costs 23.90 euros, just over £19, for adults and covers the A-B zones, while the ABC-zone version which includes Potsdam costs 25.90 euros (about £20.75) but up to three children under 15 travel free so it is ideal for families. Shorter and longer duration cards are available. Buy from train stations, newsagents, or online at
Berlin Tours offered by Sandeman’s New Europe include a Third Reich Tour, a bike tour, an alternative city tour and many more variations. Tours start at 12 euros, around the £10 mark, but they even offer a free guided tour. Those are very popular, so book in advance.