Berlin is a city of history and energy, full of excitement and forever evolving. Perhaps the latter point is the most poignant. The old and new German capital is in a constant state of flux, always becoming something without having ever achieved a state of simply being. This phenomenon has accelerated since the fall of the Wall, and efforts are now concentrated on turning Berlin into a international metropolis. For the past few decades, Berlin has been undergoing major rebuilding and planning efforts, which are visible in the new cityscape around
The city is made up of 23 different districts, each with its own unique character. The following summary will help to give you an overview of this fascinating city and provide you with a guide to what you can do in each particular district and what you can expect to find there.
Let's begin in Mitte, Berlin's most central district which literally means "the center." The site of the first settlement in the Middle Ages, Mitte contains some of the city's oldest buildings such as
Although it contains many of Berlin's architectural showpieces, Mitte is also an urban mishmash full of holes, imperfections and blemishes. The site of the former Royal Palace (pulled down in the 1950s) is now a rather open space, dominated by one of Berlin’s ubiquitous construction sites. Along with the
A stone's throw north of the
Let's stay east of the former border, although nowadays it's almost impossible to see where the
Friedrichshain, the district to the south of Prenzlauer Berg, has now taken over the mantle of the last outpost of indigenous, alternative Berlin culture. A bit run down in places, this was the last area to be cleared of squatters and is still the focal point for Berlin's left-wing anarchist scene. Architecturally speaking, Friedrichshain is an intriguing mixture of concrete socialist high-rises, monumental Stalin-era mammoths (along
Crossing the River Spree on the
Heading up Friedrichstraße, past the ruins of
The real highlight of the district, however, is the sublime
The north side of the park is the nerve center of political power. Lined up one after the other are the newly-constructed ministries, the monumental
Schöneberg, a scenic 19th-century bourgeois quarter, is a popular place to go for an afternoon coffee, an evening cocktail or a bit of night-time partying. The cafés and bars around Winterfeldtplatz are always full, particularly after the market on Saturday afternoons. On the other hand, the streets around
It's high time to discover Berlin's second city center, the triangle between
Charlottenburg's crowning glory is the magnificent
The southwest of the city is the place where wealthy Berliners live. Largely spared during the war, there are hundreds of beautiful villas in Grunewald, part of the Wilmersdorf district and around Dahlem in Zehlendorf, which is also home to Berlin's
Steglitz is friendly, green and clean and has two major attractions: the spectacular
Wedding and Neukölln
More down-to-earth are the working-class districts of Wedding in the north and Neukölln in the south, which is sometimes referred to as the Berlin Bronx. Although they both have a reputation of being ghettos for the poor, unemployed and other down-and-outs, they are not as bad as they are made out to be. In fact, they are lively places with an earthy proletarian flair, a place to meet real Berliners.
The eastern districts, on the other hand, can't escape from the shadow of Communist East Germany, even though much has changed here since the fall of the Wall. Most of the gray concrete towers in places like Lichtenberg, Weißensee, Treptow, Hohenschönhausen or Marzahn have been repainted in friendly pastel colors and now boast the largest entertainment complexes and the most modern shopping malls in the region. There's plenty to discover here, such as the world's second biggest
Parks, Forests & Lakes
Berlin is a city full of green oases, like
The icing on the cake is the wonderful variety of lakes and forests in the suburbs. Joggers and horseback-riders share places like the
Famous throughout the world as a Mecca for culture and entertainment, many people would claim that Berlin is itself little more than one big entertainment complex. Yet, there are some special places in this entertainment nirvana, the best of which are listed here.
Berlin boasts over 100 cinemas, from ultra-modern multi-screen complexes to traditional film theaters such as the UFA Palast. A particularly atmospheric establishment is the Soviet-style International on Karl-Marx-Allee. For more obscure films try the Acud, where you won't be disturbed by hundreds of popcorn-junkies. And don't worry if your German isn't up to par, as places like the Odeon and Babylon Kino feature the latest flicks for English speakers, whereas the Cinéma Paris features movies for the French crowd.
Well, if you can take some heavy satire, Berlin Mitte is the place to be. From the legendary Distel to the Chamäleon's late night shows in the Hackesches Hof Theater. Charlottenburg also has plenty to offer, with its traditional Wühlmäuse, Stachelschweine and the more comedy-oriented Bar jeder Vernunft.
Theater in Berlin can mean a lot of different things, such as controversial contemporary Anglo-American drama at the Baracke or a light comedy with mass appeal on Ku'damm (Komödie & Theater am Kurfürstendamm). While director Frank Castorf heckles the audience at the Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg Platz, veteran Claus Peymann reinterprets Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble. International avant-garde dance troupes step it up at the Hebbel Theater, acrobats and magicians put a spell on the Wintergarten, while the Grips-Theater interacts with its young audience. Anglophiles should check out the English Theater Berlin (not opera, but fringe theater).
Berlin is also a great place for music lovers. Even though David Bowie and Iggy Pop are long gone, Marilyn Manson is still supposed to enjoy some absinth around the corner. Top addresses include Kreuzberg's Junction Bar or Bebop for jazz, the Sage Club for Afro-beats and hip-hop and the SO 36 for alternative/punk/rock. Big gigs take place at the Arena and Columbiahalle. Classical aficionados have to make the painful choice between three opera houses - or simply head straight to the Philharmonie to listen to the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
All of the above too middle-of-the-road for you? Check out the innumerable centers of alternative culture that Berlin is famous for. The UFA-Fabrik, for example, is the place to be in summer, while the Kulturbrauerei is good for alternative theater, art and concerts. A kaleidoscope of modern Chinese art, salsa parties or readings by writers from developing countries are on the agenda at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, while the Pfefferberg concentrates on the younger, hipper, multi-cultural clientele of reggae and rap concerts.
It's getting late and you want to move your dancing feet? The clubs around Rosenthaler Platz have the remedy! Some are tucked away in backyards and have irregular opening hours, others are hard to find for lack of a name over the door, but all are open until dawn. The Sophienclub quenches the pop, soul and Latin thirst; for techno, head to Friedrichshain's Berghain or to Tresor‘s new location on Köpenicker Straße. Berlin counts numerous nightclubs. Further options include the Watergate Club or the Pulp Mansion.
Confused or undecided? The Potsdamer Platz offers - after shopping in the US-style Arkaden - many entertainment options, including a casino, a 3D IMAX Movie Theater, a musical theater, the Theater am Potsdamer Platz and a multi-screen cinema, the Cinemaxx. But if you're looking for something more typical, you'll always find plenty to do in the two streets that even Berliners love to confuse, Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg and Oranienburger Strasse in Mitte, each with a mix of restaurants, shops, bars, cafés, movie theaters and music venues that will guarantee a great evening out.
Berlin is in good shape - and that's despite, not because, of its 800-year long history.
Back in 1300, the two neighboring trading towns of Berlin and Coelln joined forces centering in the district now called Mitte (meaning center). All but destroyed by the Thirty Years War, the young city soon invited in its first batch of immigrants to make up for the loss in population: French Protestants, persecuted in their home country and looking for religious freedom were a welcome addition to Berlin's workforce. Their influence can be seen today in the area around the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral) or in the Berlin dialect, speakers of which still call a sidewalk a trottoir.
It then fell on the Prussian Soldier King, Frederick William I, to develop the city. In 1709, he made Berlin the capital, and his son, Frederick the Great, strengthened Prussia's role as a major player in Europe. At this time, the Prussian court was a cradle of enlightenment, frequently visited by the philosopher Voltaire. The King's appreciation of the humanities paved the way for a new era of classicist architecture, and fantastic buildings such as the ornate Konzerthaus and the imposing Altes Museum were erected. Berlin's love affair with the arts is reflected in the fact that the city still boasts three opera houses - the Deutsche Oper, Staatsoper, and Komische Oper.
The Napoleonic occupation of Berlin in 1806 was met with fervent patriotism and produced a powerful liberal reform movement. However, the bourgeois revolution of 1848 was short-lived, and William I became emperor of the Second German Reich in 1871, with Berlin as its capital.
Berlin boomed during the Founding Years at the end of the 19th century. Industrial giant Siemens built a modern underground system capable of transporting hundreds of thousands of people every day. Scientists such as Robert Koch led the world in research and development, while artists like Gerhard Hauptmann and Wassily Kandinsky paved new ground in the arts.
All this was cut short by the First World War. After the war, Berlin became the focus of the failed 1918/19 revolution and went on to become the capital of Germany's first fragile democracy, the Weimar Republic, in the 1920s. The city assumed the status of a glamorous arts and entertainment center, while at the same time being an industrial powerhouse. At the time, artists such as Brecht, Gropius and Feininger forged a legacy that left a lasting impression throughout Europe.
Berlin remained the capital of Germany during the Nazi era. Hitler even envisioned the city as "Germania," the capital of a global empire, and began to leave his megalomaniac mark on the architecture and the infrastructure of the city. Berliners suffered under Nazi rule, especially the persecuted left-wing movements and, of course, the large Jewish community. More than 60,000 Berlin Jews, nearly half of the city's Jewish population, died in the Holocaust. Thousands more fled the country. Jewish cultural life has only recently seen a revival (in the Scheuenviertel).
At the end of World War II, Berlin was reduced to little more than a pile of rubble, its population halved. The Potsdam Agreement divided the city into four sectors, each of which was ruled by one of the Allies - the USA, the USSR, Britain and France. All too soon Berlin became the focus and symbol of Cold War animosities (and the preferred location for spy movies). While the German Democratic Republic proclaimed East Berlin its capital, the three western sectors remained under Allied supervision until 1990. On both sides of the Wall — erected in 1961 to stop East Berliners from fleeing, Berlin continued to spearhead reform movements, such as the peace movement in the West and opposition to the one-party regime in the East. Thirty five years later, during his 1998 visit to Berlin, US President Clinton would make a point of echoing John F. Kennedy's famous words, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (Literally "I am a Berliner", though the way Kennedy expressed it can be interpreted as “I am a jelly donut”, a fact which Berliners unfailingly point out in a mocking tribute so in tune with the city’s personality).
The fall of the Wall in 1989 wasn't entirely unexpected. Level-headed politicians on both sides of the Iron Curtain had been working towards a cautious reconciliation since the early 1970s, but few expected the Wall to fall overnight. An entire generation had grown up knowing Berlin only as a divided city.
Nowadays, Berlin is once again the capital of a democratic state, yet unification is very much a work in progress.
Whatever your budget and whatever your taste, the choice of places to stay in Berlin is vast. From astronomically expensive establishments boasting every conceivable luxury to basic backpackers' hostels; from mammoth international hotel chains to small, family-run boarding houses, this city has it all.
Much has changed in the decade since reunification. Many of Berlin's major hotels are now situated in the eastern part of the city, such as the legendary Hotel Adlon next to the Brandenburg Gate or the wonderful Four Seasons on Gendarmenmarkt. Many of West Berlin's traditional flagships such as the Kempinski or InterContinental are now struggling to hold their own against the young upstarts from the east. In fact, it isn't just the hotels that are suffering. The whole of the western part of town seems to have lost its attraction in recent years. Both tourists and locals now tend to head east for shopping, wining and dining, or sightseeing.
At the opposite end of the price scale, another kind of a revolution has taken place. Since Berlin's first backpackers' hostel, Fabrik in Kreuzberg, opened in 1995, similar establishments have mushroomed all over the city. Backpackers now flood to places like Circus. Berlin's traditional youth hostels, such as the extremely central Jugendgästehaus Berlin, are equally inexpensive but have a slightly moth-eaten image in comparison to the trendy new backpackers places.
Berlin is a city of two centers, and this is reflected in the concentration of accommodation around Kurfürstendamm in the western city center and Unter den Linden in the eastern center.
Most hotels in the western city center are located on Kurfürstendamm itself or in the quieter side-streets just off the main strip. Many of the major hotels can be found on the upper end of "Ku'damm" between Uhlandstrasse and the Memorial Church, such as Kempinski and Steigenberger on Los-Angeles-Platz, or the Savoy on Fasanenstrasse. Cheaper accommodation can be found in a number of modern, medium-sized establishments such as Hollywood Media or the Concept Hotel. If you're looking for something slightly smaller yet equally extravagant, try Bleibtreu or Hecker's. Other more intimate and inexpensive alternatives in the western center are Hotel California and Hotel Augusta.
The area between Breitscheidplatz and Lützowplatz is home to several deluxe hotels: The Palace and the InterContinental, as well as the Schweizerhof, the Grand Hotel Esplanade and Hotel Berlin, one of the largest hotels in town.
On the other side of the Brandenburg Gate - in Berlin's historic eastern city center there are several more deluxe establishments vying for potential clients: The Westin Grand Berlin, the Hilton Berlin Hotel, the Four Seasons and the Maritim proArte Hotel Berlin. With the exception of the Hotel Adlon, none are situated directly on Unter den Linden, but in the atmospheric Friedrichstadt quarter near Gendarmenmarkt. Another place worthy of mention is the Hotel Agon on Alexanderplatz.
In all the above-mentioned areas, you'll find that you have to pay a bit extra for the privilege of being so centrally located. But if you don't need your lodgings to be totally central, there are plenty of places that offer great value for the money that are slightly out of the city center. Public transport in Berlin is very reliable and runs throughout the night, so it's generally no problem if you're staying in a hotel slightly further afield. In fact, it can often be a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist areas and immerse yourself in the real Berlin. Located next to the Exhibition Center are a couple of more affordable options. For example, the D:O:M:I:C:I:L:, the Kanthotel or the Ibis as well as family-run pensions host guests during major trade shows at the Messe. That means that prices can increase dramatically at certain times of the year.
Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, Wilmersdorf & Tiergarten
The Western residential districts of Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, Wilmersdorf and Tiergarten all have a wide range of places to stay, catering to all tastes and all budgets. And it's not always the case that the classy neighborhoods are full of luxurious lodgings and that less well-off districts are full of dingy dives. Thus you'll come across the moderately priced Hotel St. Michaels-Heim in the heart of exclusive Grunewald, the pricey Park Consul (with private golf facilities) in working-class Moabit and the elegant turn-of-the-century Hotel Riehmers Hofgarten in multicultural Kreuzberg.
Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain
On the other hand, the Eastern residential districts still only have a limited choice of medium-sized hotels, with the Park Inn in Prenzlauer Berg and Upstalsboom in Friedrichshain being two rare examples. There are however, plenty of smaller hotels and guesthouses to choose from, such as Hotel Greifswald near Kollwitzplatz.
Lodging Near the Airports
Last but not least, a large number of hotels are congregated around Berlin's three airports. The Dorint Budget Hotel Tegel, Mercure Tempelhof Airport and the enormous Estrel (1,125 rooms) not far from Schönefeld airport in Neukölln, are the most prominent examples.