It’s hard to do each area justice during a short trip. Therefore, this is a perfect opportunity to put into practice the old adage of ‘less is more’ – don’t try to see everything there is to see in each part, just pick a couple of highlights from each to get a flavour. Luckily I’ve already compiled my top 5 things to do in Berlin during a first visit to start you off:
1. BERLINER DOM
No ‘keep off the grass’ signs to be seen here on the green expanse in front of the Berliner Dom, Berlin’s Protestant Cathedral. This is where the locals come to loll around on a warm sunny day, so don’t hesitate to pull up a green pew and join in with the sun worshipping. If you’ve got a head for heights, then head up to the top of the Dom for a panoramic view of the city.
Is there such a thing as upscale hipster chic? Well, if there is, then it’s Prenzlauerberg. This area, and its inhabitants, are trendy and cool (like the rest of Berlin) but also have a little bit of ‘classic pretty’ mixed with old school charm thrown in too for good measure. Once the dwelling of struggling artists drawn in by the low rents, the area rapidly developed over the years to become one of the wealthier and most desirable places to live in Berlin (and yes, a little tamer too, as the younger ultra hardcore cool crowds slipped away to party elsewhere instead). Those that know London may draw comparisons to Notting Hill, and they’d not be far wrong – Prenzlauerberg boasts easy-on-the-eye architecture, pleasant streets, a Sunday farmer’s market at Kollwitzplatz (which should definitely be paid a visit if in Berlin on a weekend) and a flea market at Mauerpark. Simply wander around and soak up the atmosphere and oh, make sure to pay a visit to Café Anna Blume for one of the best brunches in the city.
3. BERLIN WALL
There are several places to see remaining sections of the Berlin Wall which divided East and West Germany, but while in Prenzlauerberg, I would recommend heading over to Bernauerstrasse’s Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial). Here you can find one of the most in-tact remaining parts of the wall, as well as the preserved grounds behind it. The observational platform at the top of the documentation centre offers the best way to see the wall – from above it’s easier to visually comprehend just how the wall cut through this area and divided residents who were once neighbours. Back on the ground, the area where the rest of the wall once stretched has been turned into an open-air exhibition. It’s worth devoting some time here, to understand the impact the wall had both on a local level in this area, and beyond, across the rest of Berlin.
4. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL
To know and understand Berlin’s history, is to know Berlin. Of course that can be said of any city (particularly classic European ones like Rome which are steeped in it), but the difference with Berlin is that its dark and troubled history is still a somewhat recent past and as such, it forms a kind of undercurrent continually humming beneath present day city life – shaping culture, ideas and values. Start your journey into Berlin’s complicated past by visiting the Holocaust Memorial – 2,711 concrete slabs of varying sizes and heights which serve as a memorial to the Jewish victims of Nazi rule. It’s a somewhat radical form of representation, and everyone interprets it in a different way, but I can certainly say that it created a feeling of unease as I wandered through the maze – giving more than just a ‘pause for thought’. Underneath the memorial is an information centre, and although there are usually long queues to go in, it’s worth the wait because the exhibition – although intense – offers a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand timeline of the events leading up to the Final Solution. Furthermore, The Room of Families and The Room of Names in the exhibition help to bring the focus back to the individuals – something which is key, yet easily lost in the remembering of such massive atrocities.
5. BRANDENBURG GATE
The former city gate is one of the cliché images associated with Berlin, and although some touristic cliché spots are best skimmed over or avoided (i.e. Checkpoint Charlie with its fake guards), Brandenburg Gate deserves a visit. This landmark has witnessed the many triumphs and atrocities over the course of history, but finally settled into its role as a marker of peace when jubilant crowds celebrated the fall of the wall here in 1989. Once you’ve taken time to absorb the gate’s gigantic and somewhat overwhelming presence and size, it’s worth wandering through to the lush greenery of the Tiergarten behind.