Visiting Berlin can be eye-opening, especially when it comes to its history and freedom of expression. But before you go, you should get familiar with your destination, so you can arrive ready for adventure. Conveniently lying on the river Spree, Berlin is Germany’s capital and its largest city. However, Berlin traveled a long way before becoming such an iconic destination.
History of Struggle
Berlin’s beginnings can be tracked all the way down to the 13th century. Germany went through many changes and turbulences regarding politics and territories, but Berlin has remained as the capital for centuries. 1920s were dark times, since the Great Depression hit world’s economy hard, and Berlin was no exception. More than half a million peoplelost their jobs and had to fight for survival. The following years were even harder for Berliners because, with the economy, politics also went to hell. With Hitler’s and his Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, Berlin met the end of democracy.
In 1938, almost all synagogues and Jewish shops in Berlin were vandalized, with more than a thousand Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps. This was one of the many boycotts Jews faced in Berlin, but they weren’t the only ones feeling the consequences of Nazi regime. Citizens of Berlin were afraid, unable to help their Jewish friends, and they were watching their city falling. The war finally ended in 1945 with the Battle for Berlin. It lasted seven days, during which the majority of streets and buildings in the inner city were destroyed, leaving it unrecognizable.
“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!”
After the end of the war, Berlin was divided into roughly two sectors. Soviet Union took east part of Berlin, while the west part became U.S., British and French sector. Due to many restrictive policies in the Soviet part of Berlin, thousands of people started migrating to West Berlin in search for better jobs and quality of life. To stop such a massive flee of its citizens, in the night of August 13, 1961, East Germany government built a wall between West and East side of Berlin. There was no warning or consent from the citizens. Many lost their jobs and contact with their loved ones as they were unable to cross the border. Anyone who tried to pass from East to West could die at the hands of snipers.
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, West and East side developed differently. While West became the epicenter of student revolt and left-wing radicals, the place of opportunities and expressions of freedom, East was oppressed, controlled, buttoned-up and grey. The Wall was finally demolished in the night of November 9, 1989. Ever since, Berlin was completely restored thanks to the massive construction projects conducted in the inner city, transforming it into the urban center we know today.
Where to Stay
What’s surprising to most tourists is that Berlin has no official center. It’s rather a group of different neighborhoods and their own little downtowns. The lack of a main “downtown” can be confusing in the beginning, but you’ll appreciate it later. Every district has something unique and, combined, they all contribute to that special artsy atmosphere Berlin has. “But where should I base myself?”, you might ask. And we’re here to help with that.
The Heart of Berlin
If you like to be in the center of it all, especially when it comes to most touristy stuff in Berlin, Mitte is what you’re looking for. It’s the most “central” neighborhood of Berlin; think Manhattan for New York City. Brandenburger Tor, TV Tower, Alexanderplatz, Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie – they’re all here. Nature-lovers will love Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest park, with Berlin Zoo within it and river Spree on its northern rim. Surprisingly, unlike in most other world-famous cities, the fact that this neighborhood is very touristy doesn’t spoil its Berlinish charm. Sightseeing, enjoying nature and great shopping –Mitte has it all. This is one of the most gorgeous and most convenient neighborhoods in Berlin, hands down.
Since we started a comparison with New York, Berlin’s Brooklyn would be the neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Staying in this neighborhood means experiencing the alternative culture of Berlin at its finest. Kreuzberg’s population is as diverse as diversity can get; LGBTQ population, hipsters, punks, artists, Turkish immigrants – you’ll meet them in every graffiti-covered corner of this neighborhood. And there are many, many such corners here. An unbeatable plus: here you’ll eat the best kebab you ever had in Europe and beyond.
Casual, Sophisticated and Cool
Speaking of the best kebab, you can also find authentic Turkish cuisine in Neukölln. This south-eastern trendy neighborhood experienced vast gentrification thanks to the increasing number of students, young professionals and creatives moving here during the last decade. Intriguing street arts, incredible music, divine food and extraordinary people will make you fall in love with this off-beat neighborhood.
For the fully sophisticated environment, go to Charlottenburg. This district sets itself apart from the rest of usually laid-back, casual Berlin with its polished, upscale vibe. If five-star hotels, wide traffic-filled streets, high-end shopping, fine dining and aristocratic buildings are your thing, you’ll love Charlottenburg. Also, marvelous Charlottenburg Palace and famous luxury shopping street KuDamm will both be within a hand’s reach.
If experiencing Berlin’s world-famous nightlife is one of the highest priorities on your bucket-list, base yourself in Friedrichshain. Lying just across the river on the east side of the city, Friedrichshain is the neighborhood of open-minded crowds and underground culture. You’ll find tons of cool bars and restaurants here, as well as some of the best nightclubs not just in Berlin, not just in Europe, but, according to many, in the world. Yes, including widely famous Bergheim. Whichever neighborhood you choose for your base, you’ll get to any part of the city in no time. Berlin has incredible public transport network, with buses, trains and subway that are super reliable and fast.
Food You Can’t Miss
Berlin is a cosmopolitan city. If you expected to get some traditional German experience when it comes to food and drink, this is not the best place. Berlin is full of different tastes from all parts of the world, which is nothing less exciting than tasting traditional German dishes you expected.
The closest dish to German traditional tastes that you can find on every corner of Berlin is Currywurst. It’s a fast food dish you can’t, and most definitely shouldn’t, avoid while in Berlin. It’s a pork sausage with ketchup or tomato sauce and curry powder. The invention of it attributes to Herta Heuwer, an adorable lady who owned a fast-food kiosk in West Berlin in the 20th century.
In 1949, when a large part of Berlin was under construction due to destructive consequences of the war, she came up with an idea for a fast and cheap dish that will fill up the stomachs of numerous construction workers building Berlin from ashes day and night. She fried a boiled sausage and poured the mixture of tomato sauce, curry powder, sugar and Worchester sauce over it. And the legend was born! Currywurst is typically served in a box, cut into bite-sized pieces, sometimes with fries on the side. This popular street-food is so significant to Berliners that it has its own museum. And it’s widely popular – Currywurst Museum receives more than 350,000 visitors a year.
Kebab (and More)
As mentioned before, trying kebab in Berlin is a must. And not just kebab, although it’s probably the most convenient to get, but many other Turkish dishes. Berlin is a Turkish cuisine capital thanks to its large community of Turkish immigrants. As large, we mean the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey, so you get the idea. Conclusion: there’s no better spot in Europe to try authentic Turkish delicacies than Berlin. For the most authentic experience, visit the Turkish Market, which is open Tuesdays and Fridays from 11am-6:30pm.
Berliners Love Berliners
To get confusion out of the way immediately, Berliner is the name of the popular pastry similar to a donut. It’s a dough full of strawberry jam, or sometimes vanilla or chocolate cream, and covered in icing sugar. Another treat you must try while in Berlin, because Germans obviously love fruity spreads in their pastry, is apfelstrudel. It’s a puff pastry full of baked apples and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. You’ll find it in any bakery and in most cafes in Berlin.
Berliners are unique. As Berlin is a melting pot of different cultures and influences, its people are not what you imagine as typical Germans. They’re different, a breed of their own. You’ll never see so little suits and so many punks in any capital. Crazy-colored hairs, too many earrings, tattoos and thrift shop clothes are casually strolling through streets of Berlin knowing they won’t be judged. Berliners don’t care how you look like or where you come from; freedom and open-mindedness are priorities. However, this definitely does not mean anarchy; remember, you’re still in Germany. Rules are very serious —just try to cross the street on the red light and see how many strange looks you’ll get. Someone might even approach you to tell you not to do that anymore.
You’ll see mini-concerts held in the parks all around the city. People are sitting on the ground, drinking beer, listening to good music and enjoying the sun. You’ll see more street art, vegan places, and used-book shops than in any other capital in the world. You’ll see people in suits riding bikes to work. Actually, you’ll see bikes everywhere! And it’s a great way of exploring the city, so why don’t you rent a bike and roam around Berlin like a real local?
If we have to describe Berlin in just one word, it would be BOLD. It stands out with its history, art, culture, food, but most of all, with its people and the atmosphere they create. Visiting Berlin is a great opportunity to experience something new, something that can hardly be found in any other European capital. It’s a unique feeling of freedom and order at the same time. It’s quite hard to describe… it’s better to experience it. The only way to do it’s to actually go there and experience it yourself. You may like it or not, but it won’t leave you indifferent.
Have you visited Berlin? If you have, share your experiences and how you felt in the city. If you haven’t, would you like to visit it? We would love to hear from you!