Berlin has a seemingly endless array of cultural attractions, but away from the famous landmarks there is a hidden city, one defined by art, expression and – above all else – a commitment to having fun. Whether you want to stick exclusively to the tourist trail or delve a little deeper, Berlin is a city that keeps on giving.
What to do:
For your historical fix:
Berlin has a rich and often notoriously dark history. But from Einstein to Goethe and Heidegger to Marx, Germany’s influence and production extends much further than the destructive reputation of the Third Reich.
For a taste of Germany’s halcyon days, visit the Brandenburg Gate, Charlottenburg Palace or the Bode Museum. Away from their content, the style and design of these iconic sites make them an essential stop for any architecture junkie. Berlin Dom (or Berlin Cathedral) is another aesthetic masterpiece. By far one of the most incredible cathedrals I’ve ever been in, it is topped off by a museum complete with the plaster miniatures used for its construction and a studio with dedicated artists working in the traditional medium. The tombs in the cathedral’s underground offer a sombre but somehow still artistic viewing, with its dark and quiet halls acting as the resting place for kings and children. If your legs allow it, take the stairs and see the city from the dome – it is a beautiful view, even in the rain.
Berlin’s Museum Island provides a selection of rainy day activities and enough culture to keep you captivated for weeks. Access it by walking across one of the many bridges, preferably the Gertrudenbrücke, named after St Gertrude whose statue stands overlooking the water. Fulfil a Berlin tradition and rub one of the rats at her feet, now turned from bronze to slightly golden, for good luck and favourable fortune.
To delve into the dark history of the Nazis, museums such as the Typography of Terror provide more information and visual content crammed into its small building than most museums can muster. With no distracting displays and a clear dedication to telling the truth, the museum traces the Nazi regime from its beginning to its cataclysmic end. This is a museum that stares unflinchingly at its past and displays both its cowardice and flashes of bravery with objectivity and honesty. Keep an eye out for the photograph of two lovers wrapped up in each other and surrounded by swastik flags on the beach, this museum makes for nauseating and unsettling viewing. In addition to the numerous museums throughout the city, pop up exhibitions are a staple part of Berlin’s streets and give even greater insight into the capital’s sad past.
Yet the fall of the Nazis was not the end to Germany’s troubles. Following the ever growing threat of the Soviet Union and subsequent division of Berlin, the city’s East Side became an isolated enclave, moving from one tyrannical regime to another. The Strasi Museum gives an insight into this desolate period and into the KGB’s relentless campaign of surveillance and espionage. Tours are given by people who lived through the era and afford first-hand accounts of life under Soviet rule.
Of course no trip to Berlin is complete without visiting the Reichstag and journeying to the top of its dome. If you’re feeling extra touristy, go up the Fernsehturm tower – that is if you think your patience can outlast the queues. Alexander Platz is worthy of a visit even if your fear of heights keeps you from going up the tower, as there is a small market selling everything from tasty German treats to artesian handicrafts.
For the lovers of something a little different:
The East Side Gallery is the perhaps the most famous remaining part of the Wall and indeed one of the most iconic galleries in the world – and for good reason. The murals that stretch along the river Spree act as a defiant shout against the city’s history of oppression and are illustrative of the adolescent expression and adoration of freedom that has come to define the capital. One of the most alluring aspects of the East Side Gallery is the way the murals are constantly evolving. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, these new scrawling additions are emblematic of Berlin’s ethos of street art.
To spend an evening in a time warp, visit the Clärchens Ballhaus. Located in the Mitte district,
this vintage dance house encapsulates what makes Berlin so special – decaying grandeur in the mists of an inescapably modern city. With chandeliers and large cracked mirrors surrounding the dance floor, authentic and fading 1920s décor and the chance to dance the foxtrot or waltz in a century old ballroom, this dance house is truly something magnificent.
Get back to nature and wander around the Botanical Gardens on a sunny afternoon or visit Berlin’s green heart, the Tiergarden. Picnic in the park or stroll around to discover all of the monuments and museums hidden among the trees. You get extra points if you can locate the lover’s tree with the lyrics of my favourite Ben E King song, Stand by Me, carved into its bark. Check out Schlachtensee Lake for a day out of the city, or have a beer in the quaint wooden boathouse known as Fischepinte on the edge of Plötzensee Lake.
The Dussman Culture Store is another worthy stop off. Whether you’re drawn in by its bookstore, its variety of music and film, or the vertical gardens that line the walls of its café, you’re sure to be enthralled. Also, during the summer months, torch lit tours are given around the Spandau Citadel’s ancient fortress, where you can be one with the bats that have inhabited it for centuries.
The Wedding district is a hipster heaven, filled with urban art, galleries and cool and cosy candlelit bars. Panke is a favourite spot because it is more than just a bar – it is a gallery-come-dance space. If that’s not enough, it also has a garden overlooking the Panke River. Berlin’s ode to the Wild West comes in the form of Mary’s Saloon. Home to the Cowboy Club, if this strange slice of Americana sounds like your kind of thing, head on down – but don’t forget to don your cowboy boots and hat.
Where to stay:
Camping Sanssouci, Blütencamping Riegelspitze and Bürgerablage (BCC) all come highly recommended, with the latter being environmentally friendly. The main downside is that the campsites tend to be quite far out of the city, but considering how efficient German transport is it isn’t too much of an inconvenience. Although it is worth stocking up on food etc. while in the towns, as not all campsites have amenities close by. Some campsites do allow naturalism as well, so unless you want a shock on your way to the shower, it’s best to read the campsite description well!
Hostel-wise, Berlin is a backpacker’s heaven. With some of the highest quality accommodation for your dollar, as well as many having a vibrant social and nightlife, the city’s hostels guarantee a good time as well as a good night’s sleep. The Generator chain has two hostels, one in Mitte and the other in the outskirts of the East Side. While the hostel in Mitte benefits from its central location, the former is great for groups and with both cheap trains and trams available a few hundred metres from the hostel, the city is never far away. Generator also hosts boiler room parties and alcohol is available 24/7, as well as a continental breakfast.
Other hostels worth noting are the Plus chain (with branches in the likes of Rome and Prague) and the arty Alcatraz Backpacker Hostel. Berlin is a bustling, cosmopolitan city and the competition is fierce so wherever you end up sleeping, you’re sure to have a good time. As for finding your way around the city, the buses and trams are incredibly efficient and the metro is reliable and easy to navigate.
Do you have a favourite sight or secret spot in Berlin? Let me know below!