See & Do

Sure, every city claims to be unique, but can any remotely duplicate the bizarre constellation of conditions that have formed present-day Berlin? Before the Wall fell, Berlin was a divided oddity: a western half that developed into an isolated and iconoclastic outpost of western democratic capitalism and a eastern half languishing behind the Iron Curtain. After 1989, two urban entities that had spent 28 years evolving in isolation – in population and infrastructure – suddenly had to reintegrate.

Today, this city of nearly 3.5 million finds itself in the geographical centre of the New Europe and the capital of its dominant economy. The decadent, iconoclastic spirit – quashed by the Nazis during the city’s darkest period, and then smothered in the East by the Soviets – has reasserted itself.

The dour socialist landscape of Alexanderplatz has been revived as a consumerist shopping mecca, and the very ground upon which the Wall once stood has become a playground, often serving as a location for parties, carnivals, leisurely strolls and a bustling weekly flea market.

Though the city records its founding year as 1237 – when, on the muddy banks of the Spree, traders established the towns of Berlin (likely a derivative of the Slavic word birl, meaning swamp) and the later-to-be-incorporated city of Cölln – you’d never know that from wandering the streets (unless you know where to look). Thanks to the turbulence of European history, much of the masonry (with the exception of a few ruins and grand restorations, such as the Nikolaiviertel) dates back no further than the late 1800s when successive national governments embarked on ambitious building projects which have continued – some more misguided than others – until this day. Indeed, of the original medieval wall, built centuries before Khrushchev’s mad experiment in urban planning, very little besides the place names where the gates stood (Frankfurter Tor, Schlesisches Tor, Hallesches Tor, Brandenburger Tor and so on) survives. And the more recent Mauer has nearly suffered the same fate.
It takes a scorecard to keep up with the gentrification.

As you travel from east to west you move from rather bleak, often industrial Communist suburbs to something more hip, in say, Friedrichshain and the eastern bulge of Kreuzberg, to the downright trendy in the cafe-lined streets of Prenzlauer Berg, till it maxes out at chic somewhere in Mitte. Moving further west, the nightlife begins to thin out as you enter the more staid Tiergarten and bourgeois Charlottenburg, before reaching a nearly conspicuous opulence among the stately homes of Zehlendorf and lakeside villas around Wannsee.

Though natives and newcomers both love the city fiercely, don’t expect to hear any hype about Berlin. ‘Poor and sexy’ is how its openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described it. Indeed, some of the most ambitious civic projects, such as the complex at Potsdamer Platz, have earned lukewarm critical and commercial acceptance.

So while there are a number of great museums (the Pergamonmuseum, in particular), what’s more important is that art is everywhere: in publicly funded installations and murals and the multiplicity of storefront galleries. Berlin’s best parks might not rank with the more famous around the world, but those cities cannot boast of the hundreds of smaller parks and natural areas within a few hundred metres of anywhere one chooses to live. So certainly make your pilgrimages to Berlin’s renowned attractions, but if you don’t keep your eyes peeled for the myriad of delightful urban details along the way, you’ll miss out on what it truly means to be what John F Kennedy famously called ‘ein Berliner’.

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