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Berlin is bigger than Paris, up later than New York, wilder than Amsterdam, and more eclectic than London. Simultaneously cosmopolitan, dynamic, and in some regards oblivious, the city has undergone a profound transition from a reunited post-Cold War metropolis into the thriving center of an eastward-expanding European Union. Everything in this city is ever-changing, from the demographics of the diverse population to which Bezirk (neighborhood) is currently “in.” But while Berlin surges ahead, memories of a long and complicated past remain etched into the city’s geography, its architecture, and the texture of its daily life.
Many Berliners remain strikingly ambivalent to the sweeping transformation taking place all around them. The problem of Mauer im Kopf (literally translated as “wall in the head”) seems more prevalent here than anywhere else in the country and feelings of division persist. Conflicted yet brilliant, the resulting city exudes a creative vibrancy that has established Berlin as an epicenter of global culture.
Unlike most major capitals, Berlin does not have a traditional “downtown” area; instead, the city is composed of many Bezirke. These neighborhoods began as individual settlements on the Spree River, growing together over generations into a city with a surface area ten times the size of Paris. Neighborhoods struggle to maintain their individuality in the face of increasing integration. Areas that no one would have dreamed of visiting five years ago are now nightlife hotspots, and districts where everyone wanted to live last week will be passé tomorrow.
The River Spree snakes west to east through Berlin, north of the narrower Landwehrkanal that flows into it. The vast Tiergarten, Berlin’s beloved park, lies between the waterways at the city’s center. If you see a radio tower, it’s either the Funkturm (pointed and Eiffel-like) in the west or the Fernsehturm (with the globe) in the east at Alexanderplatz. Major streets include Kurfürstendamm (nicknamed the Ku’damm), lined with department stores and running into the Bahnhof Zoo, the regional transit hub of West Berlin. The eloquent ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche are near Bahnhof Zoo, as is the Europacenter, one of Berlin’s few real skyscrapers.
The grand, tree-lined Straβe des 17 Juni runs east-west through the Tiergarten, ending at the triumphant Brandenburger Tor at the park’s eastern border. From here it becomes Unter den Linden, flanked by the bulk of Berlin’s imperial architecture. Next to the Brandenburger Tor is the Reichstag, and several blocks south, Potsdamer Platz is shadowed by the glittering Sony Center and the Deutsche Bahn headquarters. Streets in Berlin are short and frequently change names. Street numbers often climb to the end of the street and wrap around to the other side, (not so) conveniently making the highest- and lowest-numbered buildings opposite one another. A map with an index is invaluable.
The former West, including Charlottenburg and Schöneberg, is still the commercial heart of Berlin. The former East holds the most happening neighborhoods: swanky Mitte, hipster-populated Prenzlauer Berg, and the newest scene, Friedrichshain. Counter-culture-heavy Kreuzberg was part of West Berlin, but falls in the east geographically. Berlin is rightly called a collection of towns, not a homogeneous city: each Bezirk maintains an individual history and identity. Every year, for example, citizens of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain battle with vegetables for possession of the Oberbaumbrücke on the border between them.
Most of central Berlin’s major sights are along the route of bus #100, which travels from Bahnhof Zoo to Alexanderpl., passing the Siegessäule, Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden, and the Berliner Dom, among others. Tickets for individual bus rides quickly add up—buy a day pass to save money. There are only a few places to see remnants of the Berlin Wall: a narrow band stands in Potsdamer Pl.; the touristed Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie guards another piece; the sobering Documentation Center in Prenzlauer Berg has preserved an entire city block; and a much-embellished section of the wall in Friedrichshain has become the East Side Gallery. A line of double bricks in the pavement (usually unmarked) traces the former location of the wall; if you’re interested, you can hoof the whole thing.
Berlin is overflowing with worthy museums and monuments. Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of top attractions. Click the links to reserve tickets or book a local guide.
Food in Berlin is less German than it is cosmopolitan. Terrific ethnic food abounds thanks to the diverse population – Turkish, Indian, Italian, and Thai options are everywhere.
Looking for traditional German fare? You’ll still find a number of solid options in Berlin. In early summer, expect an onslaught of the popular Spargel (asparagus). Fall is pumpkin season, and pumpkin soup is everywhere. Berlin’s dearest culinary tradition, however, is breakfast, a gloriously civilized institution often served in cafes well into the afternoon. Relax over a leisurely Milchkaffee, a bowl of coffee foaming with milk. Currywurst, slices of sausage served in a curry sauce, is an extremely common option in the city; in Berlin it’s sold on street corners and in restaurants alike. Bratwurst, another common street food, resembles an American hotdog. Traditionally it is made from pork, but today, it’s frequently made from a combination of meats. Kassler is a cured and smoked slice of pork. Simple but yummy. If meat isn’t your thing, fret not—vegetarian options abound.
Berliners take pride in their pastries, particularly the jelly-filled doughnut (one of JFK’s favorites). Outside of Berlin, it’s called a Berliner, but in the city, they’re usually referred to as Pfannkuchen. And of course there’s beer. Germans take their beer seriously. In fact, all beer is brewed in accordance with Reinheitsgebot or “beer purity law,” which regulates the ingredients.
Berlin’s nightlife is world-renowned absolute madness—a teeming cauldron of debauchery that bubbles around the clock. Bars typically open at 6pm and get crowded around 10pm, just as the clubs open their doors. Bar scenes wind down anywhere between midnight and 6am; meanwhile, around 1am, dance floors fill up and the lights flash at clubs that keep pumping beats until dawn, when a variety of after-parties keep up the perpetual motion. In summer months it’s only dark from 10:30pm to 4am, so it’s easy to be unintentionally included in the early morning crowd, watching the sun rise on Berlin’s landmarks and waiting for the cafes to open.
Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene is bustling with exhibitions, concerts, plays, and dance performances. The city generously subsidizes its artists, and tickets are usually reasonable, especially with student and senior discounts.
If there is anything that single-handedly embodies the strange spirit of Berlin’s weighty history and forward-thinking hyper-modernity, it’s the city’s architecture. Although remnants of its imperial past still line Unter den Linden, a stroll through the heart of the city shows that Berlin’s reputation for edginess and artistry is well deserved. The construction cranes puncturing the skyline mean that while the buildings listed here may represent some of the greatest feats in contemporary architecture, they are in fact only the beginning of Berlin’s steamroll toward a new kind of cosmopolitan future.
Berlin has an extremely well-funded art scene, with many first-rate galleries. The work is as diverse as Berlin’s cultural landscape and includes everything from early Christian antiques in Charlottenburg to conceptual installations in Mitte. The center of Berlin’s gallery world is Mitte, which has more contemporary work than classics; the Berlin Mitte pamphlet provides listings and a map. Five times a year, Mitte offers a Galerienrundgang tour of the galleries.
On nearby Sophienstaße, Gipsstraße, Auguststraße, and Linienstraße, galleries pack the streets and Hinterhöfe (courtyards hidden behind building facades). Charlottenburg also has a large selection of galleries, many of which are more upscale. Kreuzberg hosts a handful of galleries, many with a political focus, and there’s a new, small scene in Prenzlauer Berg off Danziger Straße. Be sure to pick up some |free wine at many of the openings.
Berlin reaches its musical zenith in September during the fabulous Berliner Festwochen, which draws the world’s best orchestras and soloists. The Berliner Jazztage in November, featuring top jazz musicians, also brings in the crowds. For tickets (which sell out months in advance) and more information for both festivals, call or write to Berliner Festspiele.
In mid-July, the Bachtage feature an intense week of classical music, while every Saturday night in August the Sommer Festspiele turns the Ku’damm into a concert hall with genres from punk to folk competing for attention.
Tickets for the Philharmonie (one of the world’s finest orchestras) and the Oper are nearly impossible to get without writing months in advance, except by standing outside before performances with a small sign saying “Suche Karte” (seeking ticket)—people often try to unload tickets at the last moment, usually at outrageous prices.
Theater listings can be found on the yellow and blue posters in most U-Bahn stations. In addition to the world’s best German-language theater, Berlin also has a lively English-language scene. A number of privately run companies called Off-Theaters also occasionally feature English-language plays. As with concert halls, many theaters are closed in July and August.
On any night in Berlin you can choose from over 150 different films. O.F. or O.V. next to a movie listing means original version (i.e., not dubbed in German); O.m.U. means original version with German subtitles; O.m.e. U. means original with English subtitles. Monday through Wednesday are Kinotage at most theaters, with reduced prices and further discounts for those with a student ID. The city also hosts the international Berlinale film festival (early February).
Traditionally, German restaurants allow self-seating if no host is present. Water with your meal is on request and you must specify if you want tap water. Otherwise, the restaurant will rack up your bill by bringing you expensive bottled water. Note that restaurants may charge you for bread or rolls.
If you are invited to a German home, it is best to bring chocolates or flowers as a gift. Since many flowers carry particular stigmas, it is safest to bring yellow roses or tea roses. After all, you don’t want to give funeral flowers to your kind host.
When entering a room, shake hands with everyone in the room individually, including children. Until you’re told otherwise, address a person with her official title and surname. When entering a store, always greet with a “Guten Tag.” Upon leaving the store, even if you did not buy anything, it is polite to say “auf Wiedersehen” (goodbye).