The phoenix of Europe
Don’t expect Berlin to be like any other historic European city. This is a new city that has been rebuilt after World War II bombing, literally rising from the ashes. This does not mean Berlin does not have its fair share of history, old buildings, glorious monuments, museums, palaces, churches, parks, gardens, waterways and lakes, but it also offers you modern buildings with industrial or cutting-edge architecture, possibly the world’s most deviant nightlife, an experimental art, culture and film scene, and people and food from literally every corner of the world. If you thought that New York was the world’s melting pot, think again – that title now belongs to Berlin.
Never get lost
German efficiency and tech is just about everywhere – things are where you need them and where they should be. An efficient public transport system comprising buses, trams, the U-Bahn, S-Bahn and taxis (that you can blindly trust) makes it very easy to get around. But if you prefer to blend in and localise, then you should walk or better still, rent a cycle knowing well that every road, intersection, path and park in Berlin has a designated and clearly defined cycle lane that is left free for you to ride on! You probably won’t need the map on your smartphone as everything is symmetrical, organised, marked, easy to find and works dot on time.
Unlike other parts of Germany, Berliners speak and understand English, so language isn’t an issue. Be warned though, Berliners are very polite and you shouldn’t expect to start, make or end a conversation in a shop, restaurant or taxi without the mandatory Hallo (hello) Bitte (please) and Danke (thank you). If you get your politeness in order, the average Berliner will be glad to help if needed.
Park yourself here
Most guidebooks and travel blogs will tell you about the usual sights – Brandenburger Tor, Alexanderplatz, Charlottenburg Palace, Checkpoint Charlie, Kaiser Wilhelm Church, Berlin Cathedral, Museum Island (all of which you must see and do). Take a guided day or night boat trip on the river Spree, which is perhaps touristy, but gives you an entirely different perspective and view of this thriving and evolving metropolis.
I would recommend that you spend a day or two getting lost in the calming and rejuvenating Tiergarten – the city’s heart and largest park, and then find your way to the 12 distinct boroughs, each of which has something unique and hidden to offer and explore. You can also spend a lazy day by one of the many lakes or at Tempelhofer Feld (the runway of the city’s former airport and now a popular open-to-all recreational area). The Berlin zoo and botanical gardens are amongst the best in the world and worth keeping aside time for.
Bring out your bags
Berlin has plenty of shopping options and you are sure to get merchandise that’s good quality and cheap, even from brands you regularly buy. The main shopping areas are Kurfürstendamm and Alexanderplatz, which have most of the popular brands, designer and non-designer stores, as well as complexes, like Bikini Berlin and Europa Centre. Collect tax-free shopping receipts (ask for this at the cash counter) for a VAT refund at the airport. There’s nothing better than getting some last minute cash to splurge at Tegel airport’s rather small and boring range of duty-free shops.
If you are a collector, I suggest picking up pre-World War antiques from home decorations to cutlery and lamps at one of the many flea markets that mushroom all over the city on the weekend. These are good places to put your bargaining skills to the test.
The Berlin style of dressing is rather laid-back and understated, so the best way to blend in is to dress as real and casual as possible. Don’t expect to see the locals dressed in a quirky London or chic Parisian style. Sportswear is Berlin’s signature style. Given they’re German origins, brands like Puma, Adidas and even Hugo Boss are cheap and affordable.
United cuisines of the world
German food isn’t a cuisine that’s much spoken about, but if you like your meats, then look out for places that serve Bavarian cuisine that is now gaining immense popularity. Having said that, Germany is big on organic, vegan and vegetarian food so non-meat eaters have plenty to choose from. The Berlin favourites are currywurst, doner kebabs, schnitzels and french fries!
There are also plenty of Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, Turkish, Thai, Lebanese, Mexican and some rather substandard avoidable Indian restaurants (except the innovative Chutnify) where you can go to enjoy a good wholesome meal that won’t burn a hole in your pocket. Most food places offer a wide selection of good German beer and wines, both of which are drunk generously with meals and are cheaper than a bottle of water!
Almost every street or avenue in Berlin is neatly lined with evergreen or flowering trees (in spring) and has a coffee shop, pub and bakery where you can savour German cakes or some Turkish style breads. For fresh food, artisanal cheese, homemade jams and other delicacies, you can go to a weekend farmers’ market or visit one of the many food halls all over the city, especially Markthalle Neun on a Thursday evening for world food. You cannot complete the culinary experience without the hand-churned ice creams, cheesecake and fruit-based (mostly berries and cherries) tarts and pastries.
Finding a place to party isn’t tough. Pubs are open through the day and bars get busy at around 8pm. The nightclubs open their doors only at midnight and some of the legendary clubs in Berlin are known for their extreme theme nights – either in abandoned industrial settings or in the young and trendy neighbourhoods of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg and Schöneberg. Berliners start partying on Friday night and wrap up only on Monday morning. There’s plenty of adult entertainment and casinos as well. Weekends are very busy in Berlin and most hotels have full occupancy as many Europeans (from the Scandinavian region, Eastern and Western Europe) now travel to Berlin to be part of its legendary party and nightlife scene. In Berlin, they say clubbing is a religion, techno is gospel and God is a deejay.
The art of the arts
Berlin is also teeming with artists, musicians, actors and models. There are over 20,000 living in the city. They have been attracted to the German capital by the city’s freewheeling spirit. Berlin’s film, art, music, theatre and fashion scene now stands out on the world stage.
There’s plenty of street art in the East Side Gallery (a gentle reminder of the division between the east and west of the city) and the graffiti that covers many public areas. Look out for the sides and once blank facades of residential buildings that have been given as canvases to young artists and are now adorned with eye-catching modern and pop art murals. While you are there, see some spectacular shows and performances. Art lovers shouldn’t miss browsing the numerous new galleries or the more established art and culture venues including the house of world cultures.
The city’s architecture style is full of contradictions: monochrome yet colourful, at times very unusual but always functional. The unique cityscape has old buildings right next to new ones, but they somehow seem to gel seamlessly and effortlessly. Nowhere else in the world does the old blend so well with the new. At night, the buildings are all aesthetically lit up and you will see plenty of rainbow lights, including the dome of the Nollendorfplatz metro station, which is in one of the many ‘pink neighbourhoods’ and a tribute to the city’s large and thriving LGBTQ population and culture.
Statistically, Berlin is one of the safest capitals in the world (by day or at night, when it stays mostly awake) and the people are tolerant to all races, backgrounds and orientations. This is a city with a free vibe; a strong sense of acceptability and where you should go to be who you want to be!
The author is a grooming and image consultant to some of the biggest names in industry and politics. He is Director of the Pacific Area Travel Writers Association, an affiliate of the UNWTO and a former men’s fashion columnist in HT Brunch.
From HT Brunch, July 29, 2018
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