For a long time Berlin was, in the words of its former mayor, “poor, but sexy”. But in the past few years, while the the city’s bohemian credentials remain impeccable, Berlin has developed a reputation for sophistication and refinement.
From its justly hyped nightlife, to its cutting-edge galleries and elegant museums, to its singular style, Berlin is like no other capital in Europe. Whether you’re a seasoned Berlin veteran or here on your very first trip, there are always new things to discover in this fascinating and unique city.
Five of the most important museums of Berlin, along with Berlin Cathedral, are handily collected together in the centre, on the so-called ‘Museuminsel’ (Museum Island). This area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains some of the city’s most breathtaking architecture and its most talked about permanent exhibits, including the bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum. Each museum specialises in its own area, and all were designed by the most prominent architects of their day.
Museum Island © visitBerlin/Wolfgang Scholvien
German is a notoriously tricky language, with its four grammatical cases and never-ending nouns, but luckily you won’t have to speak it to get by in Berlin. The city has a very international population, and most young Germans speak good English, so you’ll rarely feel stranded without the lingo.
One thing to remember is that Berlin is much less formal than the rest of Germany. The locals ditch the formal “Guten Tag” and “Auf Wiedersehen” which you may have learned in school in favour of the more casual “Hallo” and “Tschüss” (pronounced “chooss”).
Here are some basics to help you get by:
“Ein/zwei/drei Bier, Wein, etc, bitte” One / two / three beers, wines, please
“Wie viele?” (pronounced “Vee Feeluh?”) How much?
“Danke schön” Thank you
Late means late
Berlin’s reputation for nightlife is richly deserved. Bars don’t have closing times - they stay open until the customers leave. And if you’re heading out for a night on the tiles, remember to leave it late. Locals head out to clubs at 2-3am, and definitely not before midnight. Lots of the biggest clubs open their doors on a Thursday or Friday night and then stay open continuously over the weekend until Sunday evening or Monday. Your entrance fee will permit you to stay for as long as you can manage...
Norman Foster designed tower at the Reichstag, source: Flickr/Dylan
Old and new
Berlin has long been a city marked by change. At the end of the Second World War 70% of the city had been reduced to rubble, and you can still see the effect on the architecture today. Bullet holes are still visible on many of the walls and buildings around Mitte, even on the classical Greek columns of the Neues Museum. Even the buildings that look ancient and untouched, like Berlin Cathedral, have often undergone extensive restoration work in the past few decades.
This is the centre of Berlin, filled with galleries, museums, shops and - yes - tourists. Berlin is famous for its artists, and the galleries of Mitte are the best place to check out classic and contemporary art. For starters, try the C/O Berlin which recently moved to the former Amerika Haus near Berlin Zoo, or the large and elegant Hamburger Bahnhof on Invalidenstrasse. If you want to wander and pop into wherever strikes your fancy, a variety of the best galleries in Berlin are around Auguststrasse.
Mitte is also perhaps the best place in Berlin to go shopping, either in the gleaming malls and boutiques along Friedrichstrasse, or further north around Hackescher Markt, where you’ll find a lot of local shops on your way up to Prenzlauer Berg. One note on shopping: Sundays still exist in Germany! Restaurants and bars will be open, but supermarkets and shops are closed.
Berlin Cathedral © visitBerlin, Foto: Tanja Koch
Kreuzberg and Neukölln
While both Kreuzberg and Neukölln have seen substantial gentrification over the past few years, they’ve retained the grittiness and energy that justifies their bohemian reputation. Many of the best clubs are in Kreuzberg, or just across the river in neighbouring Friedrichshain. There are a huge amount of bustling bars around Kottbusser Tor and Oranienstrasse, and in Neukölln you’ll find some of the best cocktail bars nestled alongside the smoky dives around Westerstrasse.
Once a centre of alternative excess, and now the place where older hipsters settle down and have families, the changes in Prenzlauer Berg mirror those of Berlin more generally. After the Wall fell, it became famous for its squatters, students and parties. But as the residents grew up, earned money and had families they turned the place into a trendy but family-friendly district of green parks and cafes. If you want to turn up and wander, the cafes around Kollwitzplatz and Helmholzplatz are highly recommended.
Street Art in Berlin © visitBerlin/Günter Steffen
Berlin’s laid-back atmosphere is reflected all over the city in its cafe culture. With the shops all closed on Sundays, this is the perfect time to go for a long leisurely Berliner brunch, with accompanying cocktails or champagne. Whether you’re looking for serious food or delicious cakes, the cafe area in Charlottenburg near Savignyplatz and Stuttgarter Platz is a great place to start. In Mitte, take a stroll along Auguststrasse, and you can take tea or coffee in a break from the galleries.
Berlin also has a growing number of “third wave coffee” artisans, especially in Prenzlauer Berg, so if you’re looking for a serious barista who’ll treat your coffee with as much care as you would a fine wine, then there’s plenty of options for you.
One word on tipping in Berlin: rather than leaving money at the end, it’s normal to include the tip when you’re telling the waiter how much you’d like to pay. So if the bill says €200 and you want to give a €20 tip, just say “220, please” to the waiter.
Source: Flickr/Christian Schirrmacher
Berliners love their parks, and the city has a huge number of green spaces to visit. The two biggest are Tiergarten, with its labyrinthine trails and secluded streams, and Templehofer Feld, the former airport. The airport, which served as a lifeline to West Berlin when the city was blockaded by the Soviets after World War II, was recently transformed into a gigantic public park. It features a 6km track on the old runway, which attracts all manner of kitesurfers, in-line skaters, runners and cyclists. It’s slightly surreal to walk or cycle round such a large open space in the middle of a city. If you leave by the Eastern entrance you can also check out the bars and cafes of Schillerkiez.
In addition to these two behemoths, there are plenty of smaller parks to explore right across Berlin. Personal favourites include Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg, which has a huge market and open-air busking and karaoke on Sundays.
Tiergarten Park © visitBerlin/Wolfgang Scholvien
If you need a break from Berlin’s sometimes frenetic energy, or you’re simply in the mood for something completely different, then the Palaces and gardens of Potsdam are a very short S-Bahn journey away. Here you can visit the rococo splendour of the Schloss Sanssouci and its accompanying gardens, or walk around Frederick the Great’s Versailles-like New Palace. When you’re done exploring, there are plenty of restaurants and bars around the centre of Potsdam for you to enjoy.