The Windy City, the Big Easy, the Jewel of Morocco – none of these names apply to the city of Berlin. But what the once-divided German capital lacks in memorable nicknames, it more than makes up for in fantastic things to see and do.
Fun fact: while I was completing my undergraduate degree in Canada I always dreamed of one day moving to Berlin to teach. Well, I’ve long since finished that degree and I have yet to call the city home. Though I have made peace with that, as I live in Prague – another great city that was also on my wishlist. Even better, Prague is relatively close to Berlin, making it an all-to-easy destination for weekend trips.
While there is no shortage of similar and superior lists, I need the practice, so here are a few things I’d recommend seeing and doing the next time you find yourself in the City of Angels City of Lights Music City … city of Berlin. Man, they’ve gotta get on finding themselves an easily identifiable nickname.
I’m a fan of meat and above all I like to consider myself a friend to the street meat man. Any cart, stand, table, or kiosk that’s got a grill and sells the meat of an animal will get a second glance from this Canadian.
That said, Berlin has the distinction of being home to two terrific additions to the street meat lexicon. The first, and most famous, is the doner kebab. A dish of Turkish origin that, in the early seventies, was transplanted to Berlin by Mahmut Aygun – a Turkish immigrant who had the bright idea to put everything into a pita for easy eating. While the doner is now enjoyed Europe-wide as a late-night fast food treat, there is another street meat meal that’s nearly as popular and every bit as Berlin bred. This dish is called currywurst.
Simply put, if you go to Berlin, you must try a currywurst. It’s like going to France without buying a baguette, passing through Prague without purchasing a pint, or traveling to Italy without having an affair.
Currywurst is unique as hell and nothing to exotic. Here’s all you need to know: a German sausage is cut up and topped with curry ketchup, which is just ketchup mixed with some curry powder and other spices. Served with some fries on the side it is a terrific experience for any like-minded street meat enthusiasts.
While the taste is a little sharp at first – owing to the curry in the ketchup – I guarantee that it will grow on you. So much so that you’ll find yourself actively seeking out the nearest currywurst stand, even after eating a full meal (not one of my proudest moments, I’ll admit).
2. East Side Gallery
You don’t have to know much about Berlin to know that they had a large wall separating the East and West sides of the city for nearly thirty years. But after it came down in 1990 and the city was reunified, a significant portion of that wall was turned into one of the largest open air art galleries on the planet.
The East Side Gallery is a large section of the Berlin Wall, more than 1 km in fact, that has been transformed into a place for murals from over a hundred artists, hailing from all corners of the globe.
Some of the paintings are inspirational, some memorial, some incredibly interesting, while others are just plain fun. There really is something for everyone to enjoy and the combination of amazing art with the fact that a symbol so devastating has been turned into something beautiful is breathtaking.
So go ahead, walk from one side of the Wall to the other, get inspired, get thinking, and take some photos with the paintings you like best. Better still, take some photos of people taking photos with the paintings they love best – because there is no shortage of that going on.
3. Brandenburg Gate
Because you’ve got to do something super-touristy while you’re in town, and this is a bit of a must see if you have any interest in history at all. Standing in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate will allow you to take in what’s happened in or around it over the years. This landmark has been a magnet for historical figures over the centuries: Napoleon, the Nazis, Reagan, and Hasselhoff, just to name a few.
To avoid seeing the Brandenburg Gate, for whatever reason, would be silly. You don’t travel to Rome for the first time and skip the Colosseum. This landmark is something you should see, simply to say you did and put the image into your head for the rest of your life. Plus it’s gorgeous and awe-aspiring as well, so that doesn’t hurt.
Finally, you can sort of kill two birds with one stone, as the amazing Holocaust memorial is mere blocks away. This eerily-moving labyrinth is not what it seems until you’re walking through it. And, although obviously disrespectful, few of my generation have ventured through without thinking (at least for a minute or two) how it would undoubtedly yield some of the most amazing games of hide-and-seek, laser tag, or paintball that have ever been played. That’s a horrible to say, I know, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that walking through it conjures up fantasies of a long-lost level of Goldeneye.
4. Get lost on the trains; fight with your friends and loved ones
This certainly applies for first-time visitors. Hell, I’ve been a handful of times and I still can’t figure it out.
Like any city, mastering the public transit system is key to traveling around from sight-to-sight in style. However, unlike most places, Berlin has two completely separate train systems running through the central part of the city: the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. Both systems have a unified fare structure – even though the U-Bahn is state-owned, while the S-Bahn is privately held – and both lines have stops at most of the major transit hubs in town. However, although they’ll stop in the same general area, the boarding stations are not connected, so you have to play Where’s Waldo a bit and leave one station, hit the streets, and look for a glowing green S or blue U to take you the rest of the way. This all but guarantees sarcasm, pithiness, and passive aggression from you and your friends or loved ones, as you attempt to transfer from one train line to the other.
While fighting about directions is not unique to any one city (and as soon you master it, the city gets a lot easier to navigate) getting confused, frustrated, and humbled by two separate train systems is a distinctively Berlin experience.
This is one that will have a relative-novelty, depending on where you come from. However, if you live in a place like Prague, where the easily-identifiable fashion of the subculture is all but non-existent, going to Berlin can be a bit of a culture shock in this regard.
Berlin is a beacon for those who identity, or wish to identify, with … let’s say hipsterdom … from around the world. It is likely home to the highest concentration in all of Europe and nearly impossible not to run into around every turn. If you come from a town where it’s not as noticeable, it really is something to see.
Why not take a photo with a couple of these kids while it still lasts. It’s like posing with Disco Stu before disco sucked, or hanging out with a real live greaser. As soon as high schoolers figure out how to appropriate the uniform archetypes (and if they haven’t already, I’m sure they’re working on it) the dream of wearing old Starter jackets to the pub is all but over.
Go to Berlin and experience it while you can.
6. Watch some German TV / Look at odd German stuff.
This one’s more for the end of the day when you’re back at the hotel or hostel or wherever, and I should preface this by saying that I have nothing but absolute love for German culture and those who live there. But let’s be honest, any culture that’s not your own is different sometimes, and really fucking bonkers a lot of the time. Germany is certainly no exception to this rule.
Again, I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way either. That’s one of my favourite part of traveling – just walking through the city, listening to the people, reading the ads, watching TV, and getting really confused by a lot of what I’m seeing. Because it’s so vast and unique, Berlin is a perfect city to do just that.
If it’s your first time, simply walk around and take it all in: bad haircuts, socks with sandals, and all else mad and mysterious. Channel surf and wonder at how bizarre and head-scratching some of the programs you can’t understand really are. A lot of that stuff is what’ll stick in your head years from now; it really is a trip.