Berlin: When to let holiday plans go to the wall

Berlin is still divided, but by culture these days.

By Sharron Livingston, January 28, 2010
The Brandenburger Tor, the iconic symbol of Berlin is topped with Quadriga, goddess of peace

The Brandenburger Tor, the iconic symbol of Berlin is topped with Quadriga, goddess of peace

It’s been 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, yet the east-west divide is still inescapable. Each side has its own shopping, restaurant and bar districts. In fact, the city has two of everything — even two cultures and this is what makes Berlin an outstanding cultural city break.

The architecture in the east may be a little grungy, but a warehouse doubles beautifully as a bar and a disused factory is perfect as a disco. In the west, it’s more about elegance. Trendy youth live and work in the east, but migrate to the west once they reach 30(ish) to bring up their kids.

East Berlin at night is for partying and house rhythms play on to the wee hours. The latest hotspot is the PrenzlauerBerg, a neighbourhood so charmingly scruffy you may have to ruffle your hair to fit in.

Around here people are clad in trendy understated garb, tease their hair into modern ‘just got out of bed’ styles and drink German beer in transient bars which have a habit of popping up and disappearing again before you can say Ich Bin Ein Berliner.

You have to either be guided by someone in the know or hope you stumble upon them in hidden courtyards or around the next corner. You may even find yourself dancing with a thousand others in an ugly, concrete disused power house, where at 6am the atmosphere is still electric.

West Berlin on the other hand, is home to the most stylish shopping, especially around Ku’damm. Seek out KaDeWe for Berlin’s answer to Harrods. Life and architecture is more gentrified — there are no transient bars in this part of town. But this is where Germany’s squirm-worthy past is acknowledged and memorialised with ingenious creativity and a huge dollop of sensitivity.

The open-air Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Reichstag is unmissable, literally. Designed by Peter Eisenman, it comprises 2,711 grey concrete blocks of different heights placed in a grid of nearly 19,000m of undulating ground cleverly designed to create the illusion of motion.

And perpetual motion should be on your agenda in this delightfully schizophrenic city so a bus tour is highly recommended. It may sound cheesy, but for 20 euros the hop-on-hop-off bus tour is excellent and ideal if you don’t have much time. It takes the bus two hours to get all the way through the tour but you can hope on and off at any point.

If your visit is a short one, try to fit in the Brandenburger Tor and Check-point Charlie. The Brandenburger Tor, also known as the Brandenburg Gate, at Pariser Platz, is considered an iconic symbol of Berlin.

It was once one of several through which you could enter Berlin and is now the only one remaining gate. Based on the Acropolis in Athens it comprises 12 Greek Doric columns and is topped with Quadriga, goddess of peace, triumphantly driving a four-horse chariot.

Checkpoint Charlie is a permanent open-air exhibit at the former American controlled check-point between the East West divide. You can buy a ‘visa’ as you pass through or have your picture taken with a GI before you pop into the museum and gasp at the ingenuity used by the locals to escape. As for the wall, it seems there is none left for souvenirs yet the tourist shops still sell parts of it for around 15 euros.

Going out to eat on Sunday morning is so popular that entire areas are dedicated to serving breakfast. In the West, head for the Savignyplatz region. In the East, go to Boxhagenerstrasse.

This neighbourhood also hosts a flea market so you can indulge in some after breakfast shopping. The first tuck of the day is usually fresh baked rolls, boiled egg, marmalade, Nutella (Germans love it), cheese and lashings of coffee. Or head for the Television Tower (00 49 30 242 33 33) at 1a Panoramastrasse.

The lift swiftly climbs the 207m to the Telecafe, where you can order muesli or champagne with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon and look out on to the whole of Berlin and wonder at its amazing revival.

    Last updated: 12:33pm, January 28 2010