Is Berlin The Coolest City On The Planet?

Berlin’s unofficial slogan – “Poor but sexy” – might be clichéd and overdone, but it’s also just kinda accurate. There’s a reason why nobody has a bad thing to say about Berlin. It’s all sorts of awesome. I’m spending some time here over the next few months, digging into Europe’s most important cities. Scratch that – one of the world’s most important cities. In my first week here, I took a Berlin walking tour and was introduced to all the major sites, like Brandenburg Gate, and the Berlin Wall.

My guide was from London, but he had been living in Berlin for seven years because it’s the “coolest city in the world.” I have to say, he might be right. Berlin’s the kind of place where you can be whatever you want, and nobody bats an eyelash. Although it is irrefutably German, there’s also a strong expat community, and a thriving underground alternative scene. Plus so much of the world’s history occurred here, what’s not to love? And although Berliners are increasingly annoyed at all the newcomers, and despite many nay-sayers saying the new hip place is Hamburg or Leipzig, well…I’ll still stand by Berlin’s side.

Berlin has a great deal of world history. History nerds, you’re gonna need some time in Berlin. Remember how Hitler and his army marched through Brandenburg Gate and hung the party’s swastika flags from the monument? Or how he later committed suicide here, after having lost the war? OR how the whole Cold War thing happened, and the Iron Curtain went up, and Berlin was divided by a wall that went up overnight? Most tours in Berlin will give you this overview if you’re interested.

So much of the world’s most important history took place here in Berlin. Brandenburg Gate is a must-visit: it’s Berlin’s most visited attraction and is a symbol of a unified city although not all that long ago it stood for a divided Berlin. See the Reichstag nearby, which is the seat of German Parliament. Although much of the Berlin Wall has been destroyed, a large section known as the “East Side Gallery” covered in artwork can be found along Mühlenstraße. There’s a fantastic Berlin Wall Memorial which is well worth a visit. There’s also Checkpoint Charlie. At a glance, it may not look like much, but it was once the site of a standoff between American and Russian tanks. It’s a symbol of the Cold War, and a kind of unofficial tribute to capitalism.

One of the most significant sights for me, however, is the Holocaust Memorial. It’s hard to describe – it’s an arrangement of concrete slabs, and they’re built so that each person who walks into it has a different reaction or a different interpretation. But it really is something special to see.

Every neighbourhood is distinct. There’s no REAL downtown core in Berlin, although Mitte is where you find most of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. Instead, each neighbourhood has its own distinct character, and finding a neighbourhood to fit your lifestyle or travel preference is easy to do. Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain may be Berlin’s most notorious districts. Kreuzberg has a large Turkish population, and many artists call this place home (as seen by the graffiti everywhere).

Friedrichshain is where you’ll find the East Side Gallery, the former Berlin Wall. It’s also where much of Berlin’s notorious nightclubbing takes place; Neukolln is another. Other areas are much more residential. Prenzlauer Berg is a hub for young families, but still has a great foodie, shopping, and art scene. Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf are much more upscale neighbourhoods with a more cosmopolitan feel.

The alternative/underground scene is epic. If you know where to look, the alternative scene in Berlin is something special. This city is overflowing with street art and graffiti, as well as community projects and pop-up events. There are endless festivals, parks, weird food spots, and bizarre bars. Sometimes a nondescript hole-in-the-wall looks like nothing, but come back a few hours later and it could be raging nightclub.

I’ve had a Berlin friend tell me about a nightclub where you ride an elevator quietly below ground and then all of a sudden you’re in house music heaven. You can hop on a beer bike and pedal around Berlin…while drinking beer! You can even rent out a whole tram. People drink beer freely in the streets – which is unheard of in Canada. It’s just a gloriously alternative place.

Multicultural city = multicultural foods. You might be surprised to know that the food scene in Berlin was relatively poor until recent years. Foodie culture just wasn’t a thing. Thankfully it all changed before I’ve arrived, because I absolutely can’t wait to dig in! But do start with the German food. I can’t help but love the Currywurst: fried wiener sliced into pieces, covered in a curry sauce, and served with a little toothpick thingy. Then there are all forms of Bratwurst and Bavarian pretzels.

If you’re into doners as a late night snack, Berlin is notorious for providing the best of the best (there’s a restaurant in Kreuzberg called Hasir that’s legendary for its doner creations). If you’re not a meat eater, well, you might be out of luck. Wander any neighbourhood in Berlin and you’ll find all sorts of multicultural foods: African, Asian, Scandinavian, Australian (yes, Australia apparently has a food culture beyond Vegemite). If you want to sample everything, there’s a Sunday street food market every week in Friedrichshain.

Berlin has a ton of green space. For such a large city (3.5 million people), Berlin manages its green spaces exceptionally well. There are more than 2500 parks! Tempelhofer Freiheit is the largest park in Berlin, and is an old airport turned into a place for mini golf, cycling, BBQs, and even a space for urban gardening. Then there’s Treptower Park, where you can rent out a pedal boat and pedal your way around Rummelsburg Bay. Check out the Soviet War Memorial as well.

In the summer months, these parks often play host to festivals and fun events. Volkspark Friedrichshain is 49 hectares of land for you to stroll along, enjoy a picnic, or read a book sprawled out in the grass. There’s also a pool, a toboggan run, and a famous fountain known as the Fairy Tale Fountain. It’s been my favourite park so far – probably because I live so close to it. There’s always such a relaxed, inviting feel in Volkspark Friedrichshain, even if there are dozens of children running around all over the place. But even the small, out-of-the-way parks scattered around the city are worth poking around in. Often they’ll have art displays or other cool attractions.

The nightlife? Out of this world! Berlin is world renown for its nightlife. One of my first nights here, I met a German girl at a bar and we started chatting about the notorious nightclubs that carry on for up to 48 hours (or never close) and all the insanity that ensues. I pompously said I didn’t particularly like nightclubs, but she shook her head. “They’re not like nightclubs in other cities,” she said. “Nobody dresses up. Everyone just comes out to appreciate house music. And if you wear high heels, you’re shunned.” Sounds like my kind of place! Berlin has become the techno capital of the world rather quickly, because once the Berlin Wall fell people started celebrating their freedom wherever they could: abandoned warehouses, factories, commercial facilities, etc. They’re often quirky and upbeat, and you’re invited to let loose, party hard, and have a good time.

Berghain is the most popular nightclub and the bouncers determine who is allowed into the bar. The thing is, nobody exactly knows HOW they determine this. But don’t dress in your finest clothes, don’t take out your phone, and don’t come with a large group. Others worth checking out include Sisyphos (which includes a small lake surrounded by sand, and a pizza place), and Salon zur Wilden Renate…which is basically just a large circus.

These pointers are barely scratching the surface, but I still think Berlin is the coolest city. From its boutique shops on every corner to its beer gardens tucked away all over the city, Berlin is just the kind of place you want to explore every inch of. (For the record, Hamburg does seem like a pretty cool place too.)

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  • Mike

    Yes BERLIN is a fantastic city. I’ve been there several times; even when Berlin was divided.
    I left Newfoundland back in 1970 and visited MUNICH. I fell in love with Munich after a few weeks. Since then I have been living in the beautiful city of MUNICH.

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