Berlin’s museums and art galleries are not sh*t.
At least, according to the Internet they’re not. I honestly wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to any of them.
Before you pin me as a Philistine, let me just say that I love visiting art galleries...
…for about two hours. After that, museum-fatigue sets in. No matter what the calibre of the exhibitions are, my brain says “Enough!” and I need to get out into some fresh air and press the reset button.
But my reasons for dodging museums in Berlin are also somehow connected to what happened as I sat down to write about the experience.
In each case, I felt overwhelmed.
Just as I felt paralysed at the thought of visiting one art gallery after another in one of the world’s most culturally-rich cities, I was likewise struck dumb when it came to writing about Berlin.
As we engage with the web, we are deluged with information. Punch in the search for “Berlin travel” and you’ll get 250 MILLION results.
That’s a lot of people who loved writing about Berlin.
As a reader, where do you start? And as a writer, what do you add?
Berlin: Things to see and do
If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post hoping for a city guide to one of the coolest cities in the world, you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting a standard list of where to go and what to tick off the list.
I loved these sites; each one was brimming with useful info, hints and tips for what to experience in Berlin. And they sure saved me the effort of creating a bucket-list for travellers.
This blog post is my story of Berlin. You get something a little less comprehensive, but hopefully a whole lot more authentic and personalised.
Why I dodged the museums
I arrived in Berlin in May 2015 during a coach-riding, couch-surfing odyssey around Europe, determined to experience Germany’s capital after hearing so many cool things about it.
But in the months leading to this trip, I had seen some pretty huge changes in my life.
I’d experienced a break-up with a partner of four years. I had almost quit my teaching job (it was more a case of the world’s longest sabbatical as a prelude to eventually leaving) and I’d discovered how to live life out of a bag.
Essentially, I’d become a contemporary nomad and adherent of the anti-establishment mob.
After five years of living in London, struggling to pay for a lifestyle I didn’t really want, I’d had enough of wandering around galleries looking at art curated by institutions I could no longer relate to. I was suffering from acute gallery-fatigue (London has a lot to look at) and had developed an intense dislike for the elitist art world.
It’s no surprise then that trawling Berlin’s galleries and museums was not high on my list of things to do in the city.
Berlin's art bonanza
I’ve got quite a socialist attitude when it comes to art. I think art should be accessible to all. It irritates me that anyone should have to pay to see it and irks me even more that a lot of art is privately held and only gets seen by the sort of people who keep gun-dogs and have an offshore bank account.
My theory was that if a government starts shutting away its treasures and charging people for the privilege of seeing any of them, the populace would become culturally poorer somehow. Like they might all devolve into tracksuit-wearing chavs like Vicky Pollard at any moment. Or a Philistine at any rate.
But in Berlin, not so.
Considering that you must pay to enter many of Berlin’s best galleries and museums, it’s quite interesting to find that there is so much unbridled creativity splurging all over the city.
The whole city thrums with creative energy, with art decorating the exterior of buildings all over the place, and artist communes thriving in the abandoned warehouses and apartment blocks. It felt like the bohemian movement was alive and well here, sticking a huge finger up at institutionalised art.
My first evening was spent walking along the East Side Gallery; an open-air exhibition painted on the remains of the Berlin Wall.
Graffiti-lovers will have an orgasm in Berlin. Street art is everywhere and there are even websites dedicated to walking tours that guide you to the best bits. Berlin’s offerings of mammoth murals make London’s Brick Lane look like an alley with a couple of tags doodled down it.
Where I stayed (and why you’ll want to know)
Kreuzberg is a part of Berlin synonymous with immigrants, counter-culture and LGBTQ movements (there’s even the world’s first gay museum here, but I didn’t go for fear of being stuffed and exhibited (although seasoned queens will tell you that this happens to most guys in gay nightclubs everywhere, usually in the reverse order).
Now fused with Friedrichschain on the opposite side of the river, this whole area has a bohemian vibe that has survived the gentrification. If you’re into a bit of hipster-spotting while sipping on your skinny soya flat white and nibbling avocado on toast, you can take a seat at Frau Honig in this neighbourhood, where I had some rather splendid coffee and German torte.
Being an opportunistic neo-nomad, I didn’t pay for accommodation in Berlin, instead opting for couch-surfing with two different hosts. More to come on couch-surfing in a future post, but for now you can head here if you’re curious to learn more: www.couchsurfing.com
With my first host Jonathan, I enjoyed listening to 1930s jazz and eating exquisitely experimental French dishes in his bohemian apartment. We drank beers in Görlitzer Park and ate at the world-renowned Mustafa’s Gemüser Kebabs on Mehringdamm. If you don’t do either of these things while in Berlin, you might as well say you’ve never been. Drinking out in the streets and parks is standard for Berliners, even in the chillier months of the year. And chowing down on the legendary stuffed pitta breads at Mustafa’s is worth waiting in line for. I used to think that kind of Turkish import was reserved for 3am after a night of binge-drinking, but in Berlin it’s an almost transcendental experience. Bloody gorgeous grub.
Where to eat (if you don’t mind missing meat)
Speaking of which, I guess I’d better include some recommendations for eating out in Berlin. As you’d expect from such a cosmopolitan city, Berlin offers more globally gastronomical delights than one of Willy Fogg’s personal chefs. Each wave of immigrants to the city brought their own influences and now even the fast food has a quality worthy of note. I experienced incredible food in Berlin; the options for veggies and vegans were particularly outstanding.
A German classic you shouldn’t go without trying is currywurst. Typically a sausage in a special curry sauce (mixed with tomato and Worcester sauce), you can buy them in a bun with heaps of “pommes” (French fries) from vendors all over Berlin, but if you’re after a veggie option look no further than the Yellow Sunshine Burger, located near the Berlin Wall in Kreuzberg.
I’ve already sung the praises of the legendary Mustafa’s, but for truly vegan doner kebabs, head to Voener on Boxhagenerstrasse. These have a huge reputation on the veggie food scene in Berlin.
For vegans who’re after a place to sit down and lunch, dine or drink, I’ve picked out two joints that rank highly: The Bowl on Warschauerstrasse or Let It Be in Neukölln. The former offers the kind of brunch that makes health-nuts go weak at the knees (bowls of locally-sourced, no-nonsense whole food) while the latter supplies patrons with inventive crepes and delicious burgers.
Folks with a sweet tooth can find their sugar hit at Brammibal’s Donuts at Maybachufer 8. Its selection of vegan donuts and other treats has been causing a stir among herbivores and carnivores alike.
Where to dance, where to drink
I’m proud to say that I succumbed to the spell of Berlin and became a hardcore clubber while I was there. In Berlin, you can’t not get out to a nightclub and dance.
Whether it’s long-established venues like Berghain in Friedrichschain or newly minted Club Ost in the same district, you won’t be lacking in some gloriously epic music to lose yourself in. Head to this website for a list of the top ten clubs to experience in Berlin: http://berlinclubs.com/
My host Jonathan took me to a house/techno club called Renate in Friedrichshain: a dilapidated apartment building full of hidden rooms and tiny dancefloors, which feels like you’ve crashed some sort of outrageously unchecked house party. I loved the tree-filled garden where you could cool down and drunkenly chat to the other party-goers amidst the fairylights and foliage.
Another personal favourite of mine was Havanna at Hauptstraße 30 in Schönberg. My second couch-surfer host, a Spaniard named Luis, took me there for some music of a Latin flavour. We ended up dancing salsa, reggaetón and Latin hip hop for about 5 hours straight, and I put a knee out. Result.
City walks (with a limp)
Despite my injury and almost 72 hours of non-stop nightclubbing, I still managed to bumble around central Berlin and admire the eclectic architecture.
Walking from Frankfurter Tor was a huge highlight of my Berlin trip. The square there is impressive enough, with two tower-topped apartment blocks looming over a plaza filled with boutique shops and hipster cafes.
From there, down Karl-Marx Allee, it’s all very socialist and imposing. You can walk this monumental avenue all the way to Alexanderplatz, and it’s not hard to see how the East German government at the time wanted to inspire and intimidate the masses, even if the buildings themselves were described as “wedding-cake -style workers’ palaces”. You can almost hear the rumble of the Red Army's tanks down the wide boulevard (presumably to Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” given the description of the architecture).
While walking down this avenue, don’t miss the fabulous Kino International Cinema, which still shows indie flicks and old German movies and transforms into yet another club at night.
Once I reached Alexanderplatz, I was unexpectedly wowed by the dull, grey 1960s architecture (forgive me, I studied architectural model making at university so this sort of thing gets me off).
The sense of space as you look across this plaza to the World Clock and the Television Tower (Fernsehturm) is impressive. If you fancy looking out over the city at more 1960s architecture, you can head to the top of the TV Tower and get panoramic views from the revolving restaurant up there. Head here to check out ticket prices and other info.
On I walked, through the district known as Mitte and among some of the oldest remaining buildings in Berlin, which somehow survived the bombardment in WW2. Here I found Nikolaikirche in Spandauer straße, an 800-year old church with 30-year old twin steeples (the originals having been obliterated in the Second World War bombing).
After the utilitarian Socialist boxes on my long walk down the avenue from Frankfurter Tor, this small area of Berlin seemed like something out a fairytale and oddly out of place in such an ultra-industrial city.
With buildings like the Rathaus and Berlin Cathedral, as well as the grand old classical structures on Museum Island, you’re reminded that there’s more to architecture than smooth grey Modernist lines and too much glass.
The crowning glory on my architectural tour of Berlin was the Brandenberg Gate, where I took an obligatory selfie (which would have made it into this post if my head hadn't obscured the landmark itself. Plonker). The gate was built in the late 1700s upon the orders of the Prussian King Fred the Second, who wanted something suitably theatrical to impress the tourists (he was a big fan of the arts) so he opted for a monument based on parts of the Acropolis in Athens. If he were alive today he’d probably be stood there with a selfie-stick too, no doubt using it better than I would.
Why I’d live in Berlin (and maybe go to a gallery or two)
Berlin is the sort of city I felt like I could move to and hang out for a while, possibly until I burned out from a combination of perpetual nightclubbing, taking photos of street art and eating gourmet Turkish kebabs.