A travel writer once asked me: how would I describe Germany? Start with geography: lush forests, lakes and rivers, jagged Alps to the south, and open seas to the north. But that’s only the surface, where deep underneath there’s rich artistic and cultural heritage; and critical lessons from times of unimaginable ignorance, cruelty, and tragedy.
Her cities also form a large part of the German picture, and I’m very fond of her five largest cities. For every city, I have a selection of G-E-M-S: one Green space (G, Grünanlage); a place to Eat (E, Essen gehen); Museum (M); and something Special (S, Sondertipp). I’ve already written about Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, and Frankfurt am Main. The German capital city of Berlin marks the final part of my series.
Berlin : Germany’s “Hauptstadt”
The “Hauptstadt” or capital city is approaching four million people, the largest city in Germany. Berlin is admittedly not exactly one of the world’s pretty or scenic cities, but Berlin is one of the most energetic and self-aware cities in the world. With scores of immigrant experiences, influences, and flavours from around the world, one often hears: “Berlin is not Germany.” It’s both slight and compliment. But they’re also correct, that there’s balance, complexity, and discord for a fitting depiction of the capital region. Berlin isn’t Germany; she’s much more.
“Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein.” (It is Berlin’s destiny never to be, but always to be in the process of becoming.) -Karl Scheffler, “Berlin: Ein Stadtschicksal” (“Berlin: A City’s Fate”), 1910.
Present-day Berlin provides an astonishing variety of things to do, see, sample, eat, and drink. Visitors with a limited amount of time in Berlin will surely begin with sites like the Brandenburg Gate (above). Summarizing Berlin with just a handful of attributes seems almost impossible, but what are some of the other places that can deliver an unexpected, unusual, and thoughtful glimpse into Berlin?
Green space : Tempelhofer Freiheit
Walking down the former runway, I can almost hear the engines’ roar, feel the vibrations go through my body, as visions of big hunks of wing’ed metal chug down the asphalt surface. Turning my eyes away from the afternoon sun, I’ve returned to the present. Here in the middle of Berlin lies Tempelhofer Freiheit, a park on the land occupied by the former airport.
I’m aware of Tempelhof’s importance to the city’s history (e.g., Berlin Airlift of 1948-49). But it’s a little difficult to think much about history, when my senses tell a different story. I hear the laughter of children, I feel the slight breeze against my skin, I smell meat and vegetables grilling from some distance away. I see bicyclists, joggers, rollerbladers; people walking their dogs, some flying kites; a mini-golf course, an abandoned plane, art displays; and the presence of community gardens. It looks like an ordinary day.
Tempelhofer Freiheit is a big part of many Berliners’ lives, and despite the crunch and pressure to build housing on the site, Berliners have recognized the possible loss of Tempelhof as a green space. On 25 May 2014, the people of Berlin voted to keep the former airfield as green space.
Details: Tempelhofer Freiheit, no admission charge.
Transit stop/station: U-Bahn Tempelhof (U6), U Platz der Luftbrücke (U6), U Paradestrasse (U6), U Südstern (U7), or U Boddinstrasse (U8). Alternatively: S-Bahn Tempelhof (S41, S42, S45, S46).
Eat : Berliner Currywurst, at the 36 or the 66
It’s one of those things people either love or hate; there’s not much middle ground when it comes to currywurst. Surrendering to my curiosity on a prior visit to Berlin meant I was hooked on the snack that’s loaded with carbs, fat, and awesome sauce. Do I care? No. It’s about grilled sausage swimming in a ketchup sauce mixed with curry powder, crisp fries topped with ketchup-mayo for the familiar “Rot-Weiss” (red-white) appearance.
For some, Berlin is currywurst, and currywurst is Berlin. Some might disagree with anything said about currywurst, while others argue about currywurst’s true origins (Berlin versus Hamburg).
Curry 36 (Kreuzberg) is conveniently located next to Mehringdamm U-Bahn station. The place remains busy with steady lines of hungry people arriving, feeding, and leaving. I’ve found their curry-ketchup recipe a touch on the sweet side, but it’s all good. Over in Friedrichshain, Curry 66′s “scale of spice” will either inspire you to further heights of glory, or plunge you into depths of fear. Regardless of your tolerance to the heat, a good kick of spice is a mighty good way to say “hello” to Berlin’s currywurst.
Transit stop/station: at street level, next to U-Bahn Mehringdamm (U6).
Transit stop/station: S-Bahn Warschauer Strasse (S5, S7); U-Bahn Warschauer Strasse (U1), or U Frankfurter Tor (U5).
Museum : Jewish Museum, Berlinische Galerie
There are an extraordinary number of museums (170+) and galleries (300+) in the capital region. With a little time on hand, I think these two in close proximity will do very well.
The Jewish Museum Berlin describes the historical importance as well as artistic and economic contributions by the Jewish community to Berlin and to the country. You’ll read about how Berlin became home to the largest Jewish community in the country, the near annihilation of the community in the 1st-half of the 20th-century, and what projects both community and nation are undertaking. One of the most moving and unsettling exhibits is the interactive sculpture called “Shalechet”, or Fallen Leaves.
Located just 500 metres from the Jewish Museum is the Berlinische Galerie (BG), a museum of modern art, photography, and architecture. Their exhibitions provide reminders about how “modern” ideas about expression, design, philosophy, etc. took shape and thrived in the opening decades in the 20th-century. The post-war period not only meant recovery, but also faced treachery, forgiveness, and justice in the art world, as in other facets of German society. The BG is where I saw photographer Nan Goldin’s retrospective, “Berlin Work. Photographs 1984-2009″. Honest, bold, and courageous, she lent a passionate and perceptive eye on the hopes, dreams, demons, and addictions in people’s lives.
Special : Spandauer Vorstadt
Every time I’m in Berlin, I always find myself back in the Spandauer Vorstadt.
Spandauer Vorstadt was built up outside of (17th-century) city walls and the city-gate known as Spandauer Tor, near today’s Hackescher Markt at the intersection of Oranienburger Strasse and Rosenthaler Strasse. The area is often mislabeled as the Scheunenviertel (“Barn Quarter”), occupying roughly the eastern third of Spandauer Vorstadt (east of Rosenthaler Strasse).
The area was home to the largest Jewish community in the country by the early 20th-century. One visible reminder of the community’s near destruction is the Alter Jüdischer Friedhof (Old Jewish Cemetery), which to an extent is now a hollow memory. However, the reconstructed Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) on Oranienburger Strasse is an important place for learning and gathering (Centrum Judaicum) for the Jewish community.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists swept into the area, creating small art workshop and exhibition spaces. Some of that early spirit remains with surviving galleries, as well as cafés and bars, going along with the recent injection of money and development. Hackesche Höfe, Sophie-Gips-Höfe, and the Heckmannhöfe are three examples of courtyard complexes with small specialty shops and boutiques. In addition to strolls along Oranienburger Strasse and Rosenthaler Strasse, I recommend the side streets, including Auguststrasse, Grosse Hamburger Strasse, and Sophienstrasse.
Details: Spandauer Vorstadt, in German.
Transit stop/station: U-Bahn Oranienburger Tor (U6), U Alexanderplatz (U2, U5, U8), U Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (U2), U Rosenthaler Platz (U8), or U Weinmeisterstrasse (U8). Alternatively: S-Bahn Alexanderplatz (S5, S7), S Hackescher Markt (S5, S7), or S Oranienburger Strasse (S1, S2, S25).
Mapping the G-E-M-S
The map below shows where the G-E-M-S are located:
- G: Green Space (Grünanlagen) – Tempelhofer Feld;
- E: place to Eat (Essen gehen) – Curry 36, Curry 66;
- M: Museum – Jüdisches Museum, Berlinische Galerie;
- S: Special (Sondertipp) – Spandauer Vorstadt.
With the exception of Curry 66, the G-E-M-S lie along the U6 underground transport line, which I’ve indicated by the thin purple line in the map. From the Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station, indicated by the train icon in the map), take the S-Bahn (S5, S7, S75) east to Friedrichstrasse station, and transfer to the U-Bahn station of the same name to board U6 trains.
Despite the enormity of choice, I’m more than happy to continue seeking out even more examples for G-E-M-S. It’s no different for anyone who’s also fallen in love with Berlin.
With trains to Berlin, a trip lasts about 5 hours from Frankfurt am Main, 2 hours from Hamburg, 4.5 hours from Köln, 6.5 hours from München, 5 hours from Prague, and 5.5 hours from Warsaw.
How much do I love Berlin? A lot …
• Celebrating Berlin’s (Cölln) 775th anniversary
• Christmas Eve: a calm city under a blanket of snow
• ‘The Crier’, from Berlin Germany to Perth Australia
• Currywurst & conversation, at Curry 61
• Fall (autumn) colours in the capital city
• Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe
• “Fallen Leaves”, at the Jewish Museum
• Festival of Lights, the 2012 edition
• Gleisdreieck station, the summer & winter view
• Former Jewish Cemetery in Spandauer Vorstadt
• Quartier 206: an exercise in geometry
• Berlin Wall, at over 50 years
• Former East German watchtower, standing in the Mitte
• Where the Grimm Brothers are buried
• Wittenbergplatz on a foggy fall night
visit Berlin (@visitberlin) April 22, 2011
Germany’s Urban G-E-M-S
- Berlin, 3.5 million
- Hamburg, 1.8 million
- München (Munich), 1.4 million
- Köln (Cologne), 1 million
- Frankfurt am Main, 0.7 million