This post is written as part of Accor Hotel’s ‘Tale of Three Cities’ competition.
When I tried to think about my favourite city, Berlin immediately came to mind (big shock for anyone who reads my blog). But then I remembered London, the first city I gave my heart to, and how much I loved my time in Luxor over the summer. In light of this confusion, I decided it was best to go with my first instinct.
I first went to Berlin in March 2007, for a long weekend. I instantly fell in love with the city and always meant to go back. In August 2013, I finally made it and I signed up for a four week language course in the city. Before my return, I remembered how I had felt about the city but, after so many years, I couldn’t remember why. It didn’t take me long to feel the same way again; I was infatuated within the space of a few days and already dreading having to go back home at the end of the summer.
I went back to Berlin in July 2014. It wasn’t quite the same, having merely days and not weeks at my disposal, but I still settled right back into city life, the moment I caught the smell of the U-Bahn station and ordered beer and currywurst (curried sausage- don’t even think about knocking it before you try it).
There are a million reasons why Berlin is great but if I had to narrow it down to three (or at least group the reasons into three categories) then it would be these:
1. The Quirk
Berlin is known as being a bit of a hipster haven and this perception is not wrong: there is enough to satisfy whatever level of quirkiness you are looking for. This is probably what I love most about Berlin, you never know what you are going to find next as the city always keeps you guessing. One day you may find yourself watching one of the karaoke sessions and exploring the flea market of Mauer Park, which are held on Sundays and draw in hoards of visitors, another day you’ll be swimming in Badeschiff- a pool that is actually located in the River Spree- or watching a film at Freiluftkino, an open air cinema where you can watch films from the comfort of a deckchair, whilst covered in a blanket.
My readers will know that I am a sucker for some good architecture. Berlin isn’t known for its architecture (although the city does actually have some lovely buildings, such as the Charlottenburg Palace) but it makes up for this by decorating its grey walls with street art. This is particularly the case on post-war buildings in areas that used to be on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall or in districts like Kreuzberg. The street art is what struck me most about the city; you’ll be walking along, turn a corner and “bam!” there is a huge image on the side the building. I have no idea how the artists managed to get them up there (particularly because they are not all actually legal) but I did hear stories of artists being dangled upside down by their ankles over the sides of buildings.
Finally, there’s the abandoned places- Berlin has a lot of them. One such place is Tempelhof, a pre-WWII airport which closed down in 2008. It has since been turned into a park, with people skating, cycling and land-surfing up and down the runways. Another example is Spreepark, an amusement park, dating back to 1969. It became Spreepark in 1989 and ran until 2002 when the family who owned it moved to Peru. That didn’t stop tourists coming to visit and it has since been featured in films such as Hanna. Since 2011, entry has been restricted and there are now designated tours around the site.
2. The Atmosphere
Whilst I do love London, the city does inspire stress. Even when I’m not in a hurry, I find myself rushing somewhere. It is also teeming with people- they’re just everywhere- and it is ridiculously expensive. Berlin is a capital city in the same way as London, to the extent that there is always something to do and somewhere to explore, but, at the same time, it’s completely different.
Compared to London’s population of 8.3 million, Berlin’s has only 3.5 million. As you can imagine, that means that the underground trains are rather less packed (and yet another bonus, they also run all night at weekends and you can actually get mobile signal on them- but they are more reasons why Berlin is great and I’m only allowed three so pretend you didn’t read that). My brother also marvelled at the fact that you can actually get a parking space in the city centre- something he brought up on multiple occasions after his visit in sheer disbelief. Apart from the transport benefits, less people also means that the city feels more relaxed. On my way to my language classes in the mornings, I used to pass the same bar at about 8.30am and the party was always still going. On Fridays, the city seemed to get busier as people didn’t appear to be at work. I also saw approximately eight people in suits during my whole month in the city (that’s not an accurate estimate, I’m just trying to make a point). Berlin is just more laid-back.
Berlin is made up of a variety of districts, each of which has its own character and personality. This means that you can get the small town feel in a big city. If you feel like you need a break from one place, there’s another around the corner that feels totally different. It also means that there is something for everyone, whether you want historical and touristy (Mitte), upmarket and picturesque (Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf), bohemian (Prenzlauer Berg) or edgy and alternative (Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain).
3. The History
I’ve left history till last, not because I think it is the least important (in fact it’s probably the most) but because it feels almost weird talking about karaoke on the one hand and something a lot more serious on the other.
Germany’s history is infamous: many of us have been taught about what happened in World War I, World War II and the time in between. Berlin makes no secret of its past, to the extent that it makes sure everyone knows what happened. This can be seen throughout the city, from memorials to those who lost their lives in various streets, to museums like the Topography of Terror (where the old HQ of the SS was located) and the Holocaust Memorial. You can take a free walking tour from the Brandenburg Gate around the city, with a guide who will explain the history behind the places you are seeing. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is also located on the edge of the city. It is a difficult place to visit but it is somewhere that is important to see.
You simply cannot go to Berlin without learning about its history. Even if you have studied it in school, it’s not nearly as poignant as exploring it when you are actually in the country. Berlin has a lot of museums where you can learn about other periods of history as well. Museum Island has five such museums: the Altes Museum (ancient Greece and Rome), the Neues Museum (early history and Ancient Egypt), the Bode Museum (Byzantine religious art), the Alte National Gallery (artworks of Classicism, Romanticism, the Biedermeier era, Impressionism and early Modernism) and the Pergamon Museum (antiquities and Middle Eastern artefacts). Then there’s the German History Museum, which covers the country’s early history to the present day (and is therefore huge), and the Jewish Museum, which presents two thousand years of German-Jewish history. The East Side Gallery is one of my particular favourites. It is a 1.3 km stretch of the old Berlin Wall, covered in murals, which visitors can freely wander up and down. For me, the gallery embodies all three reasons why Berlin is my favourite city.
So there it is, in a rather large nutshell, that is why I love Berlin.