Anyone who has visited Berlin will have seen the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Unter den Linden. That’s all well and fine, but how about having some more original Berlin experiences?
Everyone knows to an extent the events of World War II, but few really know the subsequent events of a divided Berlin. During Berlin’s division, the Eastern section of the city, run by the DDR (German Democratic Republic), kept its occupants in check through a secret police organisation, the Ministry for State Security. East Berliners were kept under strict surveillance by a system that had an astounding percentage of the population either under surveillance, imprisoned or as informers.
Hohenschönhausen, the main prison for ‘enemies of the government’, is now open as a museum. Although in the far Eastern section of the city, the four-hour tour is a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the true horrors of Eastern repression, still overlooked to this day. English tours run several times a week, but if possible get a tour in German – several of the German tour guides there are former inmates.
There are numerous parks and green areas around Berlin; the best ones are those hidden away on the edges of the city. Schlachtensee, tucked away in the deep south, is a bit of a journey away but it’s worth it. One of the largest lakes in Berlin, a walk around the edge is around 5.5km. Wonderfully soothing and quiet, you’ll also find hidden among the trees on the easternmost point of the lake Schlachtensee ‘Fisherhütte’ – a wonderful pit stop. Drop by for a filling lunch at the lodge-style restaurant or a snack from the waterside hut.
Great walking spots can be found all over Berlin; from the more central Tiergarten, Treptower park, one of the best parks in Berlin, to the cultivated palace gardens of Schloss Charlottenburg and Sanssouci.
If you want to know where the residents of Berlin go every Sunday, it’s Mauerpark. You can find pretty much anything here – furniture, clothes, accessories, instruments, art… and the food is really something too. Keep your blood sugar up with gefüllte Ecke (a ‘filled corner’, a square of spinach and cheese-filled pastry goodness), baklava (a typical Turkish sweet, layers of pastry sandwiching honey and pistachio nuts) or Quark.
Once the crowds start piling in, pop over to the much quieter Arkonaplatz market only a short walk away, or lunch at Kauf dich Glücklich (the best waffles you’ll find in Berlin), or Hüftengold (the best toasties).
Towards the late afternoon, Bearpit karaoke comes on the scene. Thousands of people crowd onto the outdoor amphitheatre – you won’t find a much better atmosphere than when presenter Joe Hatchiban rolls onto the stage with his bike and equipment, and the whole crowd breaks into applause.
One bar. One sound system. One table tennis table. Dr Pong is one of the most original and fun bars in Berlin, no matter what your age or skill. It’s fast-paced fun with a fantastic atmosphere, and the kind of place you wouldn’t find anywhere else but in Berlin. The music is good, the patrons friendly (many of whom are regulars who have been coming here every week for years), and the beer cold.
A tip, however: alternate between drinking and playing. They won’t like you for spilling beer on the table. Take time out to socialise and observe. And when you’re ready to get your game on, there’s opportunity for all. As the night goes on, everyone circles around the table, each having their own turn to hit the ball – and whoever misses, is out. Eventually only two are left standing, and that’s when it gets serious.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a beach in the middle of a land-locked city would be a strange thing. You may already know that many of the lakes around the city have adequate beaches. However, Berlin also has many ‘Strandbars’ or ‘beach bars’ on offer during the summer next to its rivers. Refreshments, deck chairs, loungers, volleyball, it’s all there.
One of the best is Yaam, one of the biggest beach bars just off from the East Side Gallery, with ample room for beach games, relaxing with your feet dangling over the riverside and even meditation and t’ai chi classes. Another of the most popular Strandbars is Strandbar Mitte right in Berlin’s heart, and is a great place to relax during the sunny days in between sightseeing.
Not exactly the most novel of experiences, but it’s certainly one that the Germans take seriously. Every windy weekend, hundreds of families flock to the old Tempelhof airport to fly their kites – a true Berliner experience. It’s also popular with runners, picnickers, photographers, cyclists… whatever your passion, this huge park has a place for it.
Even if you don’t fancy flying yourself, there are plenty of experienced kite-flyers ready to show off to anyone who will watch, as well as landboarders and skaters. It’s a great place to wander, relax, and enjoy.
Only a short detour from Mitte, Berlin’s old quarter, the Nikolaiviertel, is a much quieter, unimposing district of Berlin, one which many pass by during their time in the city. It has some of the best pubs, including one of the oldest pubs in the city once frequented by some of Berlin’s most prominent figures, Zum Nussbaum.
It’s also home to the Stadtmuseum, one of the smaller, quieter museums, detailing the histories of those who made their mark on the city, and one of the most beautiful churches: the Nikolaikirche. The whole area is worth exploring, especially if you’re interested in the older history of Berlin and its architecture.
The Trabant, or Trabi, may be strange words to your ears, but East Berlin was once wholly populated by these little cars. Small, clunky and inefficient, it was soon realised that the Trabi was one of the worst cars ever to be designed, and was held up as an example of the failure of the Communist East.
However, these dinky rollers have recently had a comeback, with the popularity of ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for the East). Nowadays you can take a ‘Trabi safari’ and do your sightseeing from behind the wheel through the sights and roads of Mitte, including the government district and the beautiful Tiergarten, and the main points of interest from the cold war years, such as Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery. It’s not the most efficient mode of transport, but it’s certainly a “once in a lifetime” experience once more.
How about a bar where you pay €2 for a glass, help yourself to whatever wine is on the counter, drink as much as you want, and then pay what you want at the end of the night? Or a bar full of board games? Berlin, of course, has both of these.
The Weinerei is a place for friendly socialising, and is frequented not only by Berliners but by expats from all over the world. It’s simple and uncomplicated enjoyment: the wine isn’t posh, there is no bar, simply a table where the wine is left for those who want it; it’s laidback Berlin at its best. Spielwiese, Berlin’s board game bar, is similarly relaxed, simple fun. Grab a beer, a table and a game from one of the hundreds lining the walls, and pay a few euros at the end of the night.