Berlin is a massive place to explore, both geographically and emotionally. It’s also a city whose stereotypes precede a visit—some warranted, others false—and whose nuances are hard to grasp from abroad. For example, while I roughly knew the path of the Berlin Wall, I didn’t really understand its everyday madness until I stood in the quiet of the Invalidenfriedhof, a graveyard by the Spree river that was divided by the wall (if grandma was buried on the other side, you were sheer out of luck as an East Berliner). Here’s what to know.
Berlin is…eight times the size of Paris
Officially, Berlin has just twelve districts, but it’s a massive sprawl made to feel even larger by the fact that each district seems to have myriad neighborhoods all totally different from one another. Most of the major sites—including the Museum Island, Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Berlin Wall Memorial —are located in or close to the Mitte district, in the former East, which also has some of the city’s best restaurants and shopping neighborhoods. Choosing where to be based is key: residential Charlottenburg, in the former West, is a lovely district but far from most of the major sights. Two hotels with excellent central locations are the Hotel de Rome and the Regent Berlin. Alternatively, one could also plan a trip with two-to-three nights in the former East and another two in the former West (a lovely small luxury hotel is the Brandenburger Hof), from which such day trips as Potsdam and the Wannsee are easily accessible.
The multiple layers of history overlap in unexpected ways. For instance, the Topography of Terror, an outdoor exhibition on the haunting (and probably haunted) site of the former Gestapo headquarters also has a large chunk of remaining Berlin Wall running alongside it. You should spend at least one day with a guide, as it’s easy to miss things in the rebuilt city. My excellent guide, Julian, led me to the retro-looking Tränenpalast (palace of tears) near the Friedrichstrasse subway station, explaining that this was one of the few open stations between West and East and where East Berliners had to say good-bye to loved ones en route back to the other side. While many of the city’s museums are excellent, what’s even more powerful is walking past a hip boutique hotel and learning that its building served as a KGB headquarter (that would be Lux 11) or walking along the Spree river hearing about the courageous attempts to swim to freedom from East to West (one involving a swan disguise).
Berlin is…art and culture
Since one could spend an entire visit navigating among the city’s 150-plus museums (and myriad contemporary art galleries), it’s key to narrow down the options and, if possible, go with an insider who can pull the city’s astounding cultural heritage into focus. During my recent trip, our favorite art-tour specialist gave me an excellent introduction to the imposing Museum Island, home to four incredible museums: Pergamon, Altes, Neues and Bode. Not only was I able to skip ahead of seemingly endless lines with my guide but she took me on a well-edited tour of museum highlights (especially the Pergamon and Neues are massive art troves). The Ishtar Gate, the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus and the bust of Nefertiti are just some of the treasures I saw on my quick trip.
Most German cities are child-friendly, but Berlin takes it to a whole new level and caters to kids of all ages. There are cafés specifically targeted for the stroller and toddler set, as well as playgrounds, parks and massive green spaces in every district. There are such sites as Berliner Unterwelten, where you tour Berlin’s underground (old bunkers, tunnels, secret Stasi rooms), which are options for tweens and teens. And of course the city’s shopping scene, with tons of vintage offerings, and colorful street art make an exploratory stroll more exciting for a hip teen than in the more spotless, history-heavy cityscapes of other Euro capitals.
Even more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are massive plots of land in Berlin, especially in the former east, that remain undeveloped with thriving trees and wild flowers. The sense of space in the city is uncanny; even in the government district, you come across amazingly beautiful green spaces along the river. The central Tiergarten, which begins behind the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, comprises 520 acres and holds several pretty lakes (and cool lakeside eateries, like Café am Neuen See), as well as the amazing Berlin Zoo & Aquarium, two spots that should be on every parent’s list for when the weather is not great.
Berlin is…a relative Euro bargain
Compared to other European capitals, Berlin remains a real value. I expected London and Paris to be more expensive, but I was surprised that even cities like Vienna, Amsterdam, Prague, Venice and Florence were much more expensive than Berlin. This is true for the hotels (depending on what time of year you book), but especially for dining out. At hip vegetarian restaurant Cookies Cream, three courses will run you around €35; and for a huge, delicious breakfast at insider spot Café am Neuen See, expect to pay under €10.
Berlin’s laid-back vibe is difficult to describe to people who have never been. But imagine arriving for breakfast at a cool Manhattan restaurant a half hour before it opens, being warmly welcomed by a waitress who is herself just arriving (and incidentally a dead-ringer for Carla Bruni. She told me to come in anyway and asked if I would like a latte while waiting for the kitchen to open. That’s what happened during my recent trip and it was not the only time that a Berliner, from a taxi driver to a shop owner, made me feel totally welcome. I can’t think of many other Euro city where a four-day trip doesn’t include a semblance of attitude (Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Vienna, I’m looking at you).
While so much of Berlin is shooting into the future, pockets of the city remain amazingly old-world. A wonderful example is Clärchens Ballhaus, a dance hall that opened in the 1910s and feels out of another era. Tiny wooden tables line a well-used parquet dance floor, the walls are clad in golden tinsel and the whole thing is presided over by a friendly wait staff who heroically continue serving cocktails and snacks as the place fills to the brim. It’s open every night of the week, featuring a different style of dancing, from tango and cha-cha to swing and pop. Clärchen’s offers a slice of what Berlin must have been in the roaring twenties. Incidentally, it’s also on one of the prettiest streets of Berlin, near the Hackesche Höfe, Eigen + Art and Eismanufaktur.
In Mitte, the streets around Lux 11, Casa Camper and Soho House abound with hidden restaurants, bars, clubs and shops. As a visitor, you can walk the streets countless times and miss places like Apartment, iCBerlin and Münz Salon. They are behind non-descript, graffiti-clad doors, down sketchy-looking alleyways, in the basement of empty storefronts. Finding the “in” places is half the fun and, in some cases, actually impossible unless you know a plugged-in local like one of our guides, an energetic Swede transplant who delights in taking small groups behind the scenes of his adopted home. The aggressively hip—and ever youthful—scene is not for everyone, but if you want to dance in the latest club, drink in a bar that seats just ten by appointment and blend into the night with the cool people (hint: dressing down is the way to go), going with someone like our hip friend is essential.
Berlin is…memory and future
Berlin is a city of memorials, many of them major tourist sites like the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Berlin Wall Memorial. But there are many more subtle ones, each powerful in its own small way. Stroll across Bebelplatz and you come across a window on the ground that shows empty white bookshelves, enough to hold the 20,000 titles the Nazis burned here in 1933. Throughout Berlin, a double-line of red bricks runs along the path of the Berlin Wall, brilliantly demonstrating a division that ran through the middle of streets, buildings, graveyards, playgrounds, a people and their daily life. The devastating years of the Third Reich and the dark decades of the divided Germany are in plain view, literally and purposefully built into the cityscapes—an ever-present past that inspires conversations and requires thought. But Berlin is not trapped in history. Thanks to its creative spirit, the city strikes a remarkable balance, acknowledging the importance of the past, embracing the opportunity of the present, and wholeheartedly celebrating the unpredictability—and wonderful nervous splendor—of the future.