Berliners, I imagine, must often feel rather like I did when I used to live in Oxford. Admittedly, Berlin is considerably bigger than Oxford, but there are times when you feel like buying one of those t-shirts that say ‘I’m not a tourist – I live here’. Except, of course, you get the feeling that most of those shirts were worn by tourists.
Yes, Berlin is full of tourists, even in February when the temperatures are sub-zero. Everybody wants to see the Brandenburg Gate and everybody wants to take a photograph of it. The queues for museums and galleries make you wonder how long they get at busier times of year. Tourists – honestly, don’t you get fed up with them?
The city, as already noted, is big and there’s enough room for everybody. There may be a time when you want to see a particular museum, but think ‘I’m not going to stand in the freezing cold for three hours’ so you simply go somewhere else. It’s not like there are only a few attractions. There is almost certainly something else interesting within walking distance and if there isn’t, then Berlin has plenty of public transport to take you elsewhere pretty quickly. The metro system (U-Bahn) is particularly good.
A Berlin Card is a worthwhile investment if you’re going to use public transport and visit a few museums. A three-day card costs around €25 and if you’re arriving at Tegel Airport, you can buy one there and use it to get the bus into the city centre. Note that Tegel is due to close in the next couple of years, but is still in use at the time of writing.
Museums – where to start? There are masses of them in Berlin, but the German Historical Museum isn’t a bad place to begin. The museum is vast and so is the collection. Culture, art, photographs, prints, coins and pretty much anything you can think of are crammed in. Germany obviously has some deeply disturbing elements in its history, but there is an uncompromising honesty in the displays and presentations.
There is also a frankness and openness about the DDR Museum. It’s a fascinating social history and as likely to be visited by those from ‘West’ Germany who are as curious about the life and times of their countrymen as visitors from other nations.
Museum Island is famous and it’s a shame that the Bode Museum is often overlooked. It’s a lovely Baroque building for a start, with a façade reminiscent of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The museum harbours a particularly fine collection of sculpture and Byzantine art. A small advantage of its seemingly low status is that it doesn’t get crowded.
Berlin does quirky as well as cultural. A good example is the Sugar Museum in Wedding. You may think that there’s not much to say about sugar, but once you think about colonialism and the slave trade, you soon realise that sugar is just as political as anything else.
It’s impossible to visit Berlin without thinking about literature; Christopher Isherwood and Alfred Döblin keep coming to mind. Today’s Alexanderplatz may look rather different to the Alexanderplatz of Döblin, but its significance has lived on. This was where an astonishing one million people demonstrated against the GDR government in 1989. Ignore the glass and concrete of the shopping area and think of the history.
As with any sizeable capital city, it can be cheap or expensive to eat and drink. Usually, it’s somewhere in the middle, but it’s perfectly possible to have a decent scoff without spending a fortune. Avoiding the obvious tourist areas is guaranteed to reduce the costs. Anywhere in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate is likely to be in the higher price range.
All of which leads us to beer, which is never a bad place to be led to. German beer is rightly revered for its quality and purity, with no filthy gas, chemicals, pasteurisers or other dross allowed into it. Sane people do not want to drink freezing cold chemical compounds.
Unfortunately, brewing has declined somewhat in Berlin. There is, though, an upside, in that micro-breweries are springing up. This is a recent development, but hopefully a positive one. The result is that beer from all over the country pops up in the city and there is beer to suit all tastes and palates. A personal favourite is the delicious black Köstritzer, not a Berlin beer, but from Bad Köstritz, south of Leipzig. Bursting with all kinds of flavours, refreshing and dangerously quaffable, beer doesn’t get much better than this.
There are some reasonably inexpensive restaurants and bars around Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz, and it’s worth a trip on the U-Bahn to the latter just for a look at the delightful Art Nouveau station. Also, look out for the London Underground-style sign that was donated by London Transport to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U-Bahn in 1952.
In addition to the U-Bahn, there is a substantial S-Bahn railway around Berlin. For a bit of history, take a trip to Friedrichstraße station, which was in East Berlin but served by trains from not only West Berlin, but international trains as well. There was, apparently, quite a considerable amount of trade done in the station’s shops in the days of Cold War. You can almost conjure up images of some of the shady characters that have passed through here.
Nobody, whatever their interests, should struggle to find anything to do in Berlin. Whether you want high culture or low – or indeed a mixture of both – you won’t be left short of options. If you want noise, clubs and bars abound. If you want a bit of peace, the Tiergarten is perfect for a stroll. Capital cities are not to everyone’s taste, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something of interest in a few days in Berlin.