Vibrant Berlin offers flavours of past and present
A complex history seasoned with a dash of decadence and an easygoing contemporary culture are on the menu in the German capital.
Take a Bratwurst sausage, grill it, chop it into slices or small sections, smother with ketchup, sprinkle with curry powder, serve with French fries. That, dear traveler, is the Berlin delicacy known as the currywurst, served in kiosks and more down to earth eateries across the German capital. Whether this street-food classic is up there with Jamaica’s jerk chicken or India’s masala dosa is a matter of taste and some conjecture, but Berliners love it - and the chances are you’re going to try it during a visit, most probably washed down with a foaming tankard of excellent local beer. More good news: vegetarian currywurst is available.
Currywurst is so closely associated with Berlin that they even have a museum for it. But then they have museums about almost everything in Berlin. Several of these allude to the city’s Cold War history and the period when it was segregated by its notorious Wall. The breaking down of this physical and psychological barrier took place in 1989, a momentous landmark in European history that sparked the reunification of West and East Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Berlin is a thoroughly modern city, known for its vibrant artistic and cultural community as well as its vibrant gay scene, permissive nightlife and burlesque cabarets. But even those cabarets continue a tradition dating back to the 1920s, and Berlin wears its historic heart on its sleeve in many ways. The Mitte - central - district is packed with references to a turbulent, often tragic history side by side with dazzling contemporary architecture.
The reconstructed 19th century Reichstag or parliament building, for example, faces stunning new government buildings on the opposite side of the Spree river. Gleaming glass facades now soar over the largely pedestrianised Potzdamer Platz, known in the 1920s as the busiest traffic hub in Europe, while the 1960s needle and globe of the Berlin TV Tower with its observation platform and sky bar casts its thin shadow over new high rise developments emerging in Alexanderplatz.
It’s impossible to take it all in during a single visit but a few of those museums should be on any visitor’s list. The German Spy Museum is an absorbing example, delving into Berlin’s heritage of espionage as well as exploring the international traditions of the world’s ‘second oldest tradecraft’, from ancient Egypt to 21st century phone tapping.
For more conventional browsing options, hop on a leisurely boat cruise on the Spree river and hop off at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Museum Island, a cluster of world class collections ranging from classical antiquities at the Pergamon and Altes Museums to sculptures at the Bode Museum. At weekends there is the added nearby attraction of the outdoor Berlin Art Market by the Zeughaus, an excellent source of handcrafted gifts and souvenirs.
Many of the attractions in the Mitte district, from the iconic Brandenburg Gate and sombre grey monoliths of the touching Holocaust Memorial at the western end of the Unter den Linden boulevard to the Museum Island in the east, can be explored on foot. Eventually you’ll need to venture further into other districts, at which point a 24-hour or week ticket valid for U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains, trams and buses will prove useful; very affordable fares vary according to which of three zones your intend to cover. Depending on fitness, ability and weather, a better way to explore is on a bike rented or loaned from your hotel or from a bike share station.
One of Berlin’s most pleasant classic experiences is cycling off into the shaded Tiergarten park, joining the joggers and picnickers stretched out on the lawns. Berlin Zoo is at the western end of the park, with the nearby food market and champagne bars on the top floors of Europe’s biggest department store, Kaufhaus des Westens - more commonly known as KaDeWe - a lunchtime option.
Two-wheel guided tours of Berlin’s Cold War remnants are another popular way to combine sightseeing with fresh air and exercise, although it’s also easy to cycle along this historic trail independently. This cycling excursion might drop in at Checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point between East and West, before following the river bank southeast to the longest preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery in the Friedrichshain district.
This kilometre-long segment of the Wall serves as an historic monument as well as an outdoor art gallery, bearing a dazzling array of artworks, including the famous portrayal by Dmitri Vrubel of Soviet President Brezhnev in a passionate embrace with East Germany’s leader Erich Honecker. Sections of the Gallery have been threatened by construction developments, but protests against its demolition have ensured that a significant part of it has been preserved.
Another shorter section of the Wall is adorned with graffiti art out at the Mauerpark, a manageable cycle ride from the central areas but also close to the Prenzlauer Berg U-Bahn station. Step out of this station to be greeted by the seductive aroma of fresh bread and pastries emanating from the Zeit für Brot bakery on the corner of Eberswalder Strasse. But expect to have to wait online here on Sundays when half of the city seems to congregate in the park to enjoy a weekly outdoor festival of live music and other performances, picnics, and handicraft, flea market and street food stands.
Talking of food, in case you were worried, Berlin has plenty of alternatives to currywurst. Hearty steaks and schnitzels form the carnivore end of a dining spectrum completed by any number of contributions from the city’s ethnic communities and a health-conscious preference for organic salads and vegan fare at the other cuisine extreme. Good beers are always at hand, but so are crisp or fruity German Riesling and Silvaner wines. A top tip for casual dining options: explore the art nouveau backstreets of Prenzlauer Berg for shady terraces and a variety of cafes, bars and restaurants, from Mexican and Vietnamese to French, Israeli and, of course, German.