Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Busting a groove in Berlin

I would have to say that when people ask me the question of "what is your favourite city in the world?" the obvious answers of come to mind (FYI my other faves are Sydney, London, New York...Paris too)...but I still think Berlin is one of the greatest cities going anywhere in the world.

I must admit I am a bit of a history geek (actually - I'm a complete history geek), so anything that has to do with the Europe throughout the 20th century gets my full attention...and Berlin was the center of it all.

Even if you're not a complete history geek like me, there is so much amazing stuff to see and experience in Berlin that I can assure you that you won't be disappointed!

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel gets excited by Berlin
I've had the opportunity to explore this really unique city over a few visits spread out over a couple of years. My first visit was back in 2004 and I returned in 2011 and again in 2012 (a number of times). Even still there are so many things I haven't done that I still want to see and do. But here are a few of my favourite places to see and things to do, places to eat while you're in Berlin.

Getting there is easy. Well...it'd be easier if the new airport was open, but that is one almighty stuff up that feels quite un-German. Brandenburg International Airport...scheduled to open in June 2012...now pushed back to March 2013. Only announced the delay in May. So you can well imagine the loud sounding word that started with 'F' that was probably shouted by the CEO of Lufthansa at that news. In the meantime you'll have to be content with the ever convenient (if utterly boring) Berlin Tegel and the eastern counterpart at Berlin-Schönefeld (for our friends at EasyJet). Trains in an out of Berlin to every corner of Germany also make it super easy to come and go.


Schwarzes Cafe, Kantstraße 148, 10623 Berlin

Yes the name of the street does sound quite rude if you're a native english speaker...but it's actually named after Immanuel Kant who was a German philosopher (1724-1804 for those of you playing at home).

This place has amazing breakfast. Choose a platter of cheese, eggs, fruit, bread...or go for the more simplistic scrambled eggs on toast. Euro breakfast at it's best. The atmosphere is a little grungy and the building looks like it has been there forever and a day. Still it's got atmosphere and the staff are friendly and attentive. My pick of the breakfast menu is the Späte Liebe. Scrambled eggs, bread like you have never had before, fruit and cheeses. I also got a croissant and jam because I'm a fatty mcfatty. Coffee is pretty good by German standards (yes, I am still a Sydney coffee snob). Take a seat upstairs by the window and look down on Berliners go about their weekend morning stuff. Love it.

Nocti Vagus, Saabrückerstraße 36-38, 10405 Berlin

Holy crap this has got to be one of the most intense yet amazing restaurant experiences I've ever had.

The concept is this. It is a fully functional restaurant serving a variety of Europan cuisine. The only difference is that all of the floor staff are completely blind and the entire restaurant is in complete and utter darkness. I am talking pitch-fricking-black. It looks like this:

Don't you love what they've done with the decore?

The procedure is that you enter what is a normally lit bar and lounge area. You can have a drink and sit and chat for a bit. It is here that you are given the menus and order what you'd like to eat.

From here you are taken down a few steps into this small room and the door is closed behind you. You are told to stand in a line and place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you. After that the lights go out and the inner door to the restaurant is opened. Your waiter (who I should remind you is blind) comes in, says hi and introduces themselves. They then take the hand of the person at the front of the make shift conga line and guide you and your party through the maze of tables and furniture to your table. They then sit you in your seat. If you want anything, you simply call their name and they'll come over.

The whole idea of this thing is that you can experience what it is like to eat a meal in a restaurant as a blind person. You will find yourself doing all sorts of crazy stuff like sticking your fingers in your food, feeling your way along the table to where you think the glass of wine is. All in all it is a lot of fun and it isn't something you easily forget. Worth a visit!

Touristy Stuff:

Walking tours

Berlin is the best place to learn about the division of Germany into East/West and all that went down in Berlin post 1945. Get your history hats on! The best way to see it all is to do a walking tour. I've done two from this company and they are fantastic tours. I did one on Berlin during the Third Reich and also another about Berlin during the Cold War. You can go and see things like the location of Nazi HQ at Hitler's Chancellory (now a rather ordinary looking apartment building with the Chinese takeaway) and the infamous bunker (now a car park). Tours are in english and the guides are local Berliners (well some of them are anyway). Check out http://www.berlinwalks.com/ for all the details. You will learn something I promise!

The Berlin Wall

Various sections still stand around the city. You can see a large section of the wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial at Nordbahnhof. It is worth a visit to see the wall but also a section of the reconstructed no mans land that once divided East and West Berlin. There is an observation platform so you can see over the wall into the no mans land and the watch tower etc. There is also a memorial here to the 136 people who lost their lives trying to escape East Berlin, as well as the 400 others who were killed trying to cross to the West along the inner German border outside of Berlin. Look for the markers on the footpath with the word 'Flucht' (escape) that show the location of people who escaped to the west at various location.

East Side Gallery

Another section of the wall. This 1.3KM section is the largest preserved section of the wall and it is now an open air art gallery. Take the U-Bahn or S-Bahn to Warschaustraße or Ostbahnhof. The art works are amazing and you will spot a few well known works as you walk along.

Checkpoint charlie

To be honest, it's a must do because it's what people know about Berlin. Other than that...meh don't get too excited over it. Have your picture taken and move on. Super touristy, you will pay three times the price for everything nearby. There is a DDR border guard here who will stamp your passport with an East German stamp if you feel so inclined.

Potsdamer Platz

Worth seeing simply for the fact that until the wall came down in 1989, this entire area was an empty section of no mans land. There was nothing. Now it is a buzz with highrise buildings, shopping centres, cinemas, restaurants. It is worth seeing just to compare the before and after pictures that you will see around the area. Take the S-Bahn or U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz. Don't forget to get the obligatory photo with one foot in the east and one in the west. I did it, everyone does it. As touristy as it might be...you'll want to do it as well.

DDR Museum

See what it was like to live everyday life in East Germany. Everything from groceries, home appliances, TV shows, cars, clothing - everything. All on display for you to see, touch, play with. It's designed to be an interactive experience. Big recommendation on my behalf. It still amazes me that two countries could sit so close by and be so different. Worth the visit just to sit in a Trabbant car. If you don't know what a Trabbant is. Google it.

Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag

The Brandenburgertor is an amazing piece of architecture and a symbol of Berlin that has stood through all the trials and tribulations that Berlin has faced over the recent centuries. Go and see it. Take pictures. Mind the tourist traps surrounding it.

The Reichstag is an equally impressive building. Book online if you'd like to climb the dome to the top for a spectacular view out over Berlin.

Holocaust Mahnmal

Built as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the Holocaust, the Mahnmal in Berlin is an unusual though also moving experience. Designed to slowly disorientate visitors as they enter, the Mahnmal attempts to recognise the disorientation and sense of isolation that was enforced on the victims of the Holocaust. Try to be respectful...I must say it kind of shits me to see loud mouthed tourists and their annoying, feral children running around here as if it's some kind of playground.

So why do I love Berlin?

I love Berlin because it is a centre of history, of culture of all things random and odd and all things normal and sensible (all at the same time). Go from one part of the city to the next and it looks so completely different that it is hard to believe that you are on the same planet let alone in the same city. The people are great, the shopping is fantastic and the opportunity to see some amazing parts of history make this one of my favourite cities in the world. Go and see it.