The first time I set foot in Berlin was around a decade ago. I can’t say it was love at first sight: the city had left me clueless, and rather confused. As just a teenager, without the help of a travel guide I would have not been able to figure out myself where the city centre started and ended; or why anyone, regardless of their political (therefore, architectural) ideology, would have ever thought that post-war, impersonal high-rises would look just fine next to antique churches. When it came to urban layout and architectural ensemble I was definitely used to a certain kind of homogeneity and harmony – after all, I’m Italian born and bred. Berlin simply defied it all. It took me a while to understand that Berlin is, more than any other place, not one, but many entities.
Something you will recognise in this 48-hour itinerary to help you discover Berlin as a local.
Harbingers of its future destiny are to be traced back to 1237, Berlin’s official founding date. Separated yet tightly interconnected to each other, the towns of old Berlin (across the Spree river) and Cölln (on the southern Spree island) constituted its first nuclei. The two urban centres would eventually and officially be united only in 1709, by the name of ‘Berlin’. Previously the capital of the kingdom of Prussia, in 1871 Berlin was chosen as the capital of the newly established German Empire. It was during this time that the city started to experience exponential growth and development, gradually becoming one of the largest industrial and cultural centres in Europe. WWII and the subsequent defeat of the Third Reich brought Berlin to its knees. Annihilated by the bombings, divided in sectors by the Allies, in 1961 Berlin would see the erection of a wall that would split the city in two until 1989, when the two Germanies were reunited.
Unlike Cölln and Berlin, West and East Berlin seldom interacted. Synecdoches for the division of the world throughout the difficult years of the Cold War, the two parts were rebuilt following different principles. Once reunited, the need for filling the vast void – both physical and spiritual – between West and East Berlin made the city a testing ground for architects, designers, planners, and more in general the creative class. However, don’t try to find an identity, or a one-way definition, for Berlin: even if you did, you wouldn’t manage. Believe our Spotter Sarah when she says that “Berlin is not only one city; it’s a conglomerate of different villages with different people. You will never succeed in conquering the whole city”.
Cutting-edge and projected towards the future, Berlin nevertheless retains traces of its past history that are not to be ignored. Your 48 hours in Berlin – as a local, of course – should give an insight into what the city was then and is now.
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
How often do you get to listen to parrots ‘singing’? Indoors. In Europe. Well, you do in Blumencafe; both a pretty flower shop and cafe, Blumencafe is a green escape from the busy surrounding street of Prenzlauer Berg. Whether you decide to sit inside or outside, you’ll be able to enjoy the company of a cat, two parrots and a number of lush tropical plants. In case Prenzlauer Berg is not near at hand, to the west is Wedding: while the first has experienced massive gentrification, the working-class character of Wedding has remained mostly intact. Find Tassenkuchen (German for ‘cupcakes’), a spacious cafe serving a selection of salty and sugary delights. Just one dare, by our Spotter Marcel: don’t try their blondies, ‘the evil twins of brownies’ – they are as sweet and tasteful as they are tiny and addictive.
Tassenkuchen is not (that) far from Mitte Museum. Berlin boasts a large amount of great museums, and understandably you might miss out on smaller yet equally interesting ones – such as Mitte Museum. On display, the permanent exhibition on the history of the historic borough of Mitte (of which Wedding is part of) and, above all, a reconstructed 19th-century school room, with original desks bearing the doodles of their former students.
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
Sharon loves it at sunsets, but the terrace of Nola’s, facing the Volkspark am Weinberg, is enjoyable at any time of the day. It’s 60s interiors recall the set of a classic film, and Sundays are devoted to fabulous brunches, with ingredients and dishes mostly from the Swiss culinary tradition. For some post-lunch shopping, in the area is El Reinventor. After finishing his studies in Finance, its owner reinvented himself as a designer; this laboratory /showroom /workshop is where Daniel (that’s his name) displays his creations – mainly lamps made out of objects which previously had a different use – and teaches you how to make your own, too. Occasionally, he also hosts events in collaboration with other artists.
At an easy walking distance from El Reinventor, enter the world of quirkiness at Wunderkammer Olbricht. Part of the platform ‘me Collectors Room’, aims at recreating the concept of the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ created by the rich and noble families from the Renaissance onwards. In Wunderkammer Olbricht many different objects have been put together and the final outcome is a sophisticated, sensational collection of oddities – such as horns beloning to legendary animals and skulls. If after the visit you still have some energy and/or you haven’t had enough of a certain ‘mortuary’ vibe, venture through the paths of Dorotheenstadt Cemetery. Berlin’s Père Lachaise (although much smaller) is not just the burial ground for several eminent German personalities and a sculpture open-air museum, but also a lovely spot for a peaceful and -I’d dare to say – romantic walk too.
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
Save some time before your dinner, and check out what’s on at Dock 11. Hidden in a yard in Prenzlauer Berg, the theatre hosts dance performances (so no need to speak German to enjoy the show). And when hunger strikes, the choice between old and new school is yours. Altes Europa belongs to the first selection: simple and welcoming, the restaurant stands out among the hipster-ish restaurants of Mitte, offering plain and good German cuisine; in case you’re a smoker, there’s also a room where you can have both your meal and a smoke. In case coolness is what you seek – and you have booked WELL in advance – make your way to La Soupe Populaire; one of the restaurants of multi-awarded chef Tim Raue, La Soupe Populaire is a favourite of our Spotter Natalia. Both an art gallery and a restaurant, it is located in the refurbished spaces of a former factory. The interior is superb, the ingredients of the dishes simple – yet combined with a mastery that will surprise you.
As for pre night drinks, the selection is again oriented towards either a down-to-earth or a more chic place. As the name suggests, Gaststätte W. Prassnik is a gaststätte (pub) serving the house brew ‘Prassnik’. The interior’s ex-DDR 70s decor and toilet covered in graffiti almost make it – unintentionally – even more hipster than its surrounding neighbours. Hosted in the monumental buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee, on the 2 km-long socialist boulevard built after WWII, ČSA Bar is a classy bar with a long, very long, cocktail list. Cosy and classy, it’s a nice alternative to the grungy and edgy places you’d find in the area that is Friedrichshain.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
Most of us have heard stories about Berlin’s nightlife. Some might have also been to a few well-renowned clubs (the Berghain or the KitkKatClub, just to name a few). All of them are uber cool and fashionable and to some extent extreme – so, let’s talk about something you might not know yet. Depending on the lineup, Eschchloraque can turn into a place for gigs, artistic performances and DJ sets. The rusty, charming bar/gathering place for a colourful crowd is open until late night/morning – have a few more drinks or stay the night, I leave it up to you.
On the other hand, every once in a while Kaffee Burger hosts the ‘Russendisko’ (Russian Disco, clear enough) night. The initiative was launched years ago by Russian writer Wladimir Kaminer, and by now it has become a true Berlin nightlife institution. Russian Pop, Hip Hop, Ska.. party like a Russian (vodka included).
Day 2: 09:00 – 13:00
Your second day starts off south of the Spree at Hallesches Haus. As stated on their website, ‘Hallesches Haus is a general store, lunchroom and event space’ – and the space where it’s hosted is a genuinely beautiful one. Kill two birds with one stone, and browse through the stylish items while having a rich breakfast before heading to the Berlinische Galerie, the museum for modern art of Berlin recommended by our Spotter Jérémie. Conveniently located close to Checkpoint Charlie and the Jewish Museum, the Berlinische Galerie displays both a permanent collection (focused on the art in Berlin from 1880 to 1990) and exhibitions on photography, modern art and architecture.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
The area of Kreutzberg is well-known for its large percentage of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, the most consistent share being of Turkish origin. If you want to taste one the best falafels in town, try Mo’s Kleiner Imbiss. Having become quite a hit in Berlin you’ll probably have to wait in line for a while. Additionally, there’s not much seating space – it’s more of a stop and go place – but it’s definitely an experience you don’t want to miss out on. As an alternative, if you happen to be in Berlin any third Sunday of the month and around the multicultural and emerging borough of Neukölln, consider the option of Nowkoelln Flowmarkt; while most flea markets in Berlin are now overrun by tourists, the smaller Flowmarkt presents itself as a more local, genuine (and hipster-ish, too) option, making for a nice spot to walk around, have a snack and rummage through fresh artsy creations and 50s Soviet memorabilia.
Weather permitting, further to the east is the former airport of Tempelhof. One of the oldest European air hubs, Tempelhof Airport shut down in 2008 and since then it has become a massive urban park open to everyone. At the moment the imposing main building of the former airport has been (commendably) converted into a refugee camp, but the outdoor area is still used for the most diverse range of activities: some people have set up veggie gardens, some others come for sports, beers with friends or spontaneous events that happen at a daily basis. Not far from Tempelhof, back in Neukölln, climb to the last parking floor of a mall and discover Klunkerkranich. The striking view over the city, its chilled, young atmosphere, DJ sets and music events make it one the coolest rooftops in town.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
If you’re searching for state-of-the-art specimens of interior design and architecture, Berlin won’t turn you down. In this category, Schneeweiß and Michelberger Hotel are both go-to highlights – both located in Friedrichshain. When it opened 8 years ago, Schneeweiß won the iF Design Award and a nomination for the German Design award thanks to the totally white interior. The menu serves Alpine classics mixed with a certain Central European twist (as for the previously mentioned La Soupe Populaire, a reservation is almost compulsory). In a converted industrial brick building not far from the Spree, Michelberger Hotel’s interior is an invitation for some serious relaxation. The restaurant serves dishes prepared with high-quality ingredients and praise-worthy cocktails in a friendly atmosphere in their Honlolulu Bar .
For more cocktail awesomeness, cross the river towards Schwarze Traube; no beer, no wine, just cocktails in an intimate, dim-lit atmosphere. No list either, just tell the waiter what strikes your fancy and the bartenders will take care of it (if you’re lucky enough you might also encounter the owner, considered one of the best German mixologists, behind the bar). If you wish to remain on the north bank, Hops & Barley is a small microbrewery with three homemade beers (so no wine, no cocktails here: just honest beer), sometimes offering special guest beers and seasonal specialities.
Day 2: 23:00 – …
Similar to the city of Berlin, let’s not struggle to find a one-way definition for Radialsystem V. German cultural entrepreneur Jochen Sanding transformed the former water pumping station into a vivid cultural centre that welcomes creative action in its most varied forms and declinations. The charming red brick building, topped by a metal and glass additions, is home to theatrical performances, art exhibitions, happenings, discussions, conferences… and DJ sets that will keep you awake all night long.
Enjoying your last Berlin hours here is somehow a symbolical act. In the introduction I stated that the Cold War-split Berlin was the synecdoche for the division of the world in two blocks. To a certain extent, Radialsystem V can be considered the synecdoche for contemporary Berlin: a place with multiple souls and vocations, that has found a balance between the respect for its past, while embracing the present and looking forward to the future.