Berlin: wall to wall history, art, culture and fun

Visiting Berlin today it’s hard to believe that less than 30 years ago it was a city divided by a virtually impenetrable wall where subway trains passed through ghost stations and families were torn apart.

Seeing the evidence of this history is an essential part of any trip there, but it’s also packed with beautiful buildings, art and culture, as well as trendy neighbourhoods, colourful markets and a vast array of excellent places to eat, drink and party.

BerlinOur weekend started on Friday afternoon with a walk down shop-lined Friedrichstrasse. It’s one of Berlin’s main shopping streets where upmarket department stores Galleries Lafayette and Friedrichstadt Passagen sit alongside large outlets for brands like Superdry and Esprit, and more interesting stores like Dussman das Kulturkaufhaus which is filled with books, films, CDs and a lot of vinyl.

Our first stopping point was Gendarmenmarkt, a lovely square that has twin domed towers bookmarking either end. One is the French Cathedral which has a church next to the tower while the other is the old German Cathedral. In the middle of the two is an impressive concert hall that I’m sure would be a fabulous place for an evening’s entertainment.

BerlinThe square has a good range of eating places so we had a late lunch at Augustiner Am Gendarmenmarkt and our first taste of Bavarian food. The sun was out so we opted to sit outside rather than on one of the rustic tables inside the beer hall and considering three of us don’t eat meat we found some pretty good options on the menu.

We tried a couple of cheese specialities – obazda with camembert, cream cheese and paprika and a cheese sour with red onion and caraway, as well as Bavarian bread soup and cheese noodles that looked a lot like pasta. Yes cheese did dominate the veggie options but at least it wasn’t just sausages on offer!

Not much further down Friedrichstrasse is Checkpoint Charlie, once a crossing point between East and West Berlin for diplomats and foreigners, but now the only action it sees is a constant line of tourists waiting to have their photos taken.

BerlinBeing such recent history, the construction of the wall and its subsequent fall is especially fascinating and we found ourselves at other Berlin Wall related sites on the following two mornings.

Our hotel, the Melia Berlin, was very good and really well placed for walking to many central sites, but also had a station nearby for easy access to others. So on Saturday we headed there and after a couple of false starts worked out which S-Bahn line we needed to be on. The map looks pretty confusing, but then I guess the London Underground one probably does to the uninitiated. We quickly got the hang of travelling on Berlin’s very efficient transport system and also discovered a group ticket for just over 16 euros which gave all day travel for up to five people. As there were five of us we got the maximum value, but it’s worth it even if there are just three of you.

Our first stop was to see the East Side Gallery in Muhlenstrasse, which is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall and where after its fall artists created the worlds largest open air collection of murals.  It’s a shame that graffiti and tourists’ signatures have marred many of them, but it’s still quite a sight to see with around 100 paintings of varying types including a painting of the famous Brezhnev kiss with Erich Honeckev, the then leader of the German Democratic Party.

BerlinFrom here it’s only a couple of stops on the S-Bahn train to Alexanderplatz where you’ll find the tallest structure in Germany, the Fernsehturm, aka TV Tower. You can look up and see it pretty much everywhere in Berlin, so we decided we’d go up and check out what you could see from the top.

Views are stunning from all around the 360 platform and there’s a bar that doesn’t charge rip off prices considering where it is. There’s a restaurant too and while I can’t say if the food is good or not, the views with dinner definitely would be. To go up the Fernsehturm you can book in advance and pay extra to get a fixed day and time, but we just bought the tickets on the day and went back later. You’re given an approximate time to return, but there’s also a helpful text service that lets you know when you’re half an hour away from entry.

BerlinWhile we were waiting we hopped back on the S-Bahn and headed over to see the Brandenburg Tor (Gate), probably one of Berlin’s most well known landmarks. It became a symbol of a divided city when the wall went up and those who remember the wall coming down in 1989 will almost certainly have seen it in the TV coverage of the celebrations.

BerlinJust around the corner from here is the Reichstag, home of the German parliament. Considering the shenanigans we’d had getting into the Pentagon earlier this year, we made a rookie error and didn’t pre-book to get inside the giant glass dome that tops the building. We also needed ID so were told to come back with it the following morning to get a ticket for later that day. After seeing the views from the Fernsehturm we decided not to do two more trips back to the Reichstag, but it’s definitely one for the list next time.

BerlinInstead on Sunday morning we headed up to the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, stopping first at Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer, the Berlin Wall Memorial in Bernauer Strasse. This was excellent and I’d recommend starting at the visitor centre where there’s a useful 15 minute introductory film and lots of interactive exhibits.

Then there’s an outdoor exhibit that runs for 1.4km along Bernauer Strasse and includes original sections of the wall, stripped back to see the iron reinforcing inside, and multimedia stations at various points. It was a brilliant way to get the full picture of why the wall went up, why it came down and how it impacted on the people living in Berlin at the time. For that reason I’d actually recommend making this your first wall related visit in the city.

BerlinThe wall ran along the length of Bernauer Strasse and literally divided families and neighbours. The houses on the east side of the street had windows on the west and initially families were jumping out of them to be caught by firemen below. That was before the soldiers spotted what was happening and bricked up the windows.

The stories of what people did to cross the wall are astonishing and a stark indication of how unhappy they were to be trapped on the east side of it. One of the most moving parts of the exhibit is the Window of Remembrance which features photos of the people who lost their lives trying to escape, the youngest only six years old.

IMG_4383If you keep walking up Bernauer Strasse for 10 minutes or so you come to Mauerpark which was created from a section of the wall. On Saturdays there’s a farmers market and on Sundays a huge flea market selling bric a brac, clothing, crafts, art and food.

It was definitely the most people we’d seen in one place in Berlin which generally feels like quite a spacious city and I’d guess that many more were local than tourists. There’s also a couple of areas where you can stop and be entertained for a while with bands, karaoke and other performers.

IMG_4389The Prenzlaur Berg neighbourhood is worth wandering on through as feels quite different to the more central parts of the city and has lots of interesting houses, boutique shops and places to eat and drink. We headed to the Kollwitzplatz square and found Kollberg, which was a nice cafe to sit outside with coffee and very nice cake. I don’t actually drink coffee but it was the first decent cup of tea I’d had since arriving!

Our final visit was to Museum Island which sits in the River Spree and is home to five different museums and the Berliner Dom, the city cathedral. Time was short to do the museums justice, so we opted to visit the cathedral and after seeing the lovely inside of the church and the museum, we walked up the 270 steps to the top. It was worth the effort as you get to walk around the inside of the dome and look down into it and then go outside for some pretty fab views.

IMG_4412Just across the river from here we had a meander through some lovely market stalls and then all too soon it was time to grab an early dinner before heading to the airport. It felt like we’d seen lots but there was plenty more we didn’t, so I’ll definitely be going back for a return trip.

In the meantime my final tips are a few places to eat and drink to add to the ones already mentioned. There are simply stacks of both in Berlin to suit all tastes and budgets and different areas have different vibes, but we stuck to places we could walk to from the hotel.

BerlinAcross the river from the Melia there’s a row of places to eat and drink on Schiffbauerdamm. Standige Vertretung was good for lunch, the tarts were excellent. Ganymede Brassiere is French and a good dinner option. We also had cocktails at Van Gogh along here and at uber cool bar Tausend.

It’s the sort of place you’d never find if you don’t know it’s there. The entrance is under the railway bridge and has no sign. There’s  just a steel door with graffiti either side, but ring the small bell and you’ll see that what’s inside is quite different (though I can’t show you as no photos were allowed). It’s €10 to get in as there’s a DJ and small dance floor, but we thought it was worth it for such a cool place and the drinks weren’t crazy expensive.

BerlinOn our second night, dinner was at Borchardt in Franzosische Strasse. Its a bit of a Berlin institution famous for attracting celebs and for its signature dish, Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal). Fortunately they do nice fish and veggie options too. After dinner we tried nearby Newton bar which has great outside seating but the only space was the upstairs bar inside and it was too smoky for us. We were quite surprised to find bars that still allowed smoking, but evidently a lot of Germans are smokers and there are loopholes in the ban.

Instead we hunted down Drayton bar. This one involves walking down the rather dingy service alley behind the Westin Grand Hotel on Behrenstrasse. Just keep on going round until you see the huge chandelier (yes really) and then you’ll see the steps to another steel door on the right. Its small and dark but does great drinks.

IMG_4377Our final meal of the trip was just along the road from the hotel in Friedrichstrasse. We’d walked passed Hans im glueck burgergrille a few times and the fact it is filled with silver birch tree trunks caught our collective eyes. The condiment holders are made of trunks too and wooden bird boxes cover the wall lights.

BerlinAnd it doesn’t just look good, they have a huge range of really good burgers including to our amazement about eight veggie options. The perfect way for a group that included three vegetarians to end a perfect girls weekend in Berlin.

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