Much like London, Berlin is one of these iconic cities with a history and culture leagues above other cities. It’s been on my bucket list for years, and this December I was lucky enough to finally visit! And actually, it reminded me of London in more ways than one.
Changing trains at the central transport hub of Alexanderplatz was almost surreal, because it felt just as busy and chaotic as an interchange station in London, but it was actually in a whole other country altogether. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different cities in my time, but Berlin was the first time that I felt like I was in a place as big and exciting as London. Of course, they call their trains the U-Bahn’s, not the tube, and they just use ordinary titles for the various branches (the U1, U2, etc), as opposed to odd proper nouns like the Piccadilly Line and the Victoria Line. The station architecture is quite different too, and the platforms were much more spacious than London’s ageing Victorian infrastructure. Despite these differences. I might as well have been standing at Oxford Circus or Liverpool Street station, because the atmosphere felt exactly the same.
Berlin was also ridiculously photogenic. It was a credit to the city that it actually took me a while to reach the proper tourist sights. Of course, I was always planning to head to the main attractions, but I definitely got distracted by the areas that weren’t even in the guidebooks. I fell particularly in love with the neighbourhood’s of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, the latter of which my hostel was located in. Much like London, the best part about Berlin is how much there is to see. Stumbling around a random corner could be just as exciting as the major attractions.
That being said, the main sites weren’t half bad either. There really was some stunning architecture there!
Here’s a little list of highlights of my trip:
1. Getting to see the remnants of Cold War Berlin.
Well, of course I had to mention the wall first. That’s one of the first things that springs into mind when you think of the East/West Germany divide, isn’t it? The East Side Gallery was my first look at the wall, running parallel to the river. The murals and graffiti are really cool, but you can’t help but just notice the impossible scale of the Wall.
It’s just that; a wall. A massive, inelegant concrete wall, and it split up an entire city, an entire culture. It’s mad to believe that it’s only been gone for barely 30 years. Most of it was ripped down soon after the fall in 1989, for understandable reasons, but there are still segments remaining around the city. The East Side gallery is the longest remaining stretch, and is now covered in a diverse array of murals, some abstract, some clever, and some just pretty to look at.
You could still feel the divide between East and West Germany in many sides, with the eastern side of the city being noticeably more run down than the west side. That being said, I definitely found the eastern side to be more interesting! Maybe that’s because I prefer East London as well.
2. Wandering around Kreuzberg.
The easiest way to describe the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg is Cool, with a capital ‘C’. I felt trendier just walking around it. There were posters, everywhere, and the events they were advertising all sounded so cool! Graffiti and street art turned the beautiful old buildings into canvases, and it really felt like it was a neighbourhood occupied by people, not by corporations.
I found so many cute shops and cafes here, and the entire area just exuded creativity. You can easily see how this area became one of the musical hubs in the 1970s, with venues frequented by the amazingly talented David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
3. Shopping in the biggest charity store in Europe.
Usually I’m not one to travel just for the shops, but in this case I made an exception. I’ve been op shopping all of my life (that’s the New Zealand word for thrifting), and basically all of my clothes are second hand, so when I learnt that the biggest charity shop in Europe was in Berlin, of course I had to go. It didn’t disappoint!
Five floors of glorious second-hand goods, and the icing on the cake was that it was actually reasonably priced as well. My eyes practically bugged out of my head when I saw the €1 sale racks! In the end though, I only came out with a 70s knitted waistcoat for a steal at €2.50. Having an already full suitcase was a very good deterrent!
4. Exploring the Christmas Markets
People don’t exaggerate; Germany really does come alive in December. Even though I don’t really like wine, I do love the smell of it, and you could smell Glühwein (mulled wine) around almost every corner! There was one huge one right in the centre of the city at Alexanderplatz which wasn’t my favourite, mostly because it felt quite similar to Winter Wonderland in London (yes, I’m spoilt for choice).
However, the beauty of Germany in December is that they take Christmas markets rather seriously, and there was a market around the city to suit just about anyone’s needs. I found so many good ones, hidden away in side streets, or put right in centre display!
My favourite market had to me a medieval themed one that I came across in Friedrichshain on my very last day. I needed to burn some time before leaving for the airport that evening, so I decided to just explore the area around my hostel, and I came across this beauty in the middle of an abandoned industrial site.
True to its medieval theme, it was more traditional than the other markets I had come across, and they even had activities like archery, or even donkey rides! It was a great way to finish off my holiday.
5. Just enjoying the history and culture of Berlin.
I already touched over this a bit before, but Berlin is such a fascinating city. Over the centuries, Berlin has gone through world wars, being split in two, and has emerged into the 21st century as a global hub of politics and the arts. You truly get the feel of a city that has grown and evolved organically.
I fell in love with Berlin in my short visit, and I can’t wait to return one day, perhaps in the summer where the sun doesn’t go down at 3:30pm! Berlin was the kind of place where I could even see myself living there, one day. Maybe when my German is a little better.