A city of contrasts, Germany’s capital offers remnants of history along with a futuristic enthusiasm for life, says Rupali Dean
It is the city of the invincible. A wall divided it; wars devastated it; history mutilated it, yet Berlin rose, phoenix-like to become a city of smiles. A city that is the global capital of the arts, entrepreneurship, parties, culture and cuisine. The city, throbbing with life and ideas, holds its history close to its heart. From the remnants of the Berlin Wall and the opulence of Prussian palaces and gardens, to the heritage of Checkpoint Charlie and the room where the Holocaust was planned – Berlin offers a fascinating lesson of the human past.
Down the Wall
I begin my tour at the heart of the city – Bebelplatz – an attractive and popular public square that has been a witness to most of the city’s chequered history.
Situated directly by the magnificent boulevard Unter den Linden, the stunning Bebelplatz is surrounded by buildings such as the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Hotel de Rome, the Alte Bibliothek, the Altes Palais and the Prinzessinnenpalais. The site was originally called Platz am Opernhaus, and later Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Platz. Berliners still call it Opernplatz.
I walk down to Unter den Linden, popularly known as die Linden (after the lime trees that once lined it), connecting the famous Brandenburg Gate with the transport hub of Alexanderplatz. Along the way, I come across numerous ornate and neoclassical buildings, landmarks of the past and present, including the Humboldt University and the Staatsoper, Neue Wache and the Did you Know? Berlin is the only European city that has more museums than rainy days. On average there are 99 rainy days a year, and there are around 170 museums Berlin is the most multicultural city in Germany. Of the approximately 3.7 million residents, 725,500 possess a foreign passport. People from 190 countries live in the city Berlin, with its 2,100 bridges, 564 of which cross over water, easily beats even Venice in this regard. The oldest bridge is the Jungfernbrücke. It was built in 1798 Zeughaus. The boulevard also boasts restaurants, cafés and shops.
My next stop is the Berlin Wall. While most of the wall (originally 150 km long) is demolished, parts of it have been restored. I walk along the wall starting at Mauerpark, a popular flea market. This is where the legendary Berlin attitude can be experienced on Sundays – laid-back and quaint! And while you amble through the stalls of the market on Sunday, don’t forget to test your vocal chords at the Mauerpark karaoke.
On weekdays, the area teems with tourists and stalls selling souvenirs and knickknacks. I carry on to the Mitte Museum. It is interesting to stop and read the information plaques along the way and learn what happened at these locations.
The 1.3-km-long East Side Gallery of the Wall has become a place for Berliners to express themselves with colourful and expressive street art. I also get a view of the stunning Oberbaum Bridge and a walk across gets me gorgeous views of the Spree river, the lifeline of the city.
Once a city accurately separated in two by a wall, Berlin today is a hub for creativity, arts and most recently, food. But within all of those happenings and metropolitan spaces, are massive areas of green, gushing rivers and pretty canals. When the sun is out, you will come across locals relishing spontaneous jamborees and picnics. When the sun goes down, it’s a stage to party.
Food for thought
I experience Berlin’s true character by stopping by at as many dissimilar districts as I can, and discover that a Berlin tour is incomplete without visiting the Thursday street food market – Markthalle Neun. It is one of Kreuzberg’s most precious hotspots having been liberated from disorder and reinstated to new magnificence as a community-owned market hall, nearly 120 years after it initially opened. Thursday is the highlight of Markthalle Neun’s week with its street food, where you can take a quasi tour of the globe through the dishes on offer from many of Berlin’s settler communities. Street Food Thursday is edible proof that Berlin is a gastronomic melting pot whose assortment is noticeable in its horde of dependable food cultures. What exactly does that mean? British pies, Chinese dumplings, Mexican tacos, Peruvian ceviche, currywurst, Korean buns… the list goes on and there’s something new every week! I keep my eyes open for various cuisine and flavours, and try eating everything from Chinese pancakes to British pies, as I wander and take in the striking character of this singular market.
The next morning I reach Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous checkpoint between the erstwhile East and West Germany. Completely restored, the checkpoint reminds us of what it must have been like during the Cold War. For more history, I head to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which fascinatingly was opened just after the construction of the Berlin Wall. A popular site for photo ops today, the checkpoint has been the setting for many thrillers and spy novels, from James Bond’s Octopussy to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
One of the best ways to explore the city is through a boat tour that follows the main waterway for about two and a half hours. I start with the Bellevue Palace or Schloss Bellevue, that is the seat of Germany’s current President FrankWalter Steinmeier and has been home to several legendary personalities like Theodor Heuss. It has even said to have hosted French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte! The next landmark is the Berlin Cathedral, with its magnificent dome that dominates the city’s skyline. With an ornamental facade, the church interior is especially worth seeing. Museum Island is not to be missed either. An island with five museums in the heart of Berlin, Museumsinsel is home to the legendary bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti and the Pergamon Altar.