Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Butz.2013, 2012)
Before the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin was two cities in two countries. It was grim, scrappy, chaotic, industrial, grey and fuelled by one of the most rigid and intriguing political systems in the world. But just a quarter-century later, Berlin’s revival from the rubble of socialism and the audacious militant oppression has metamorphosed the city — from one that had little to offer, to one of the world’s most burgeoning and vibrantly-creative hubs.
As one makes their way around the German capital, it seems impossible not to come upon cutting-edge Berlin at every corner. The eclectic sound of techno music — Berlin’s ultimate signature– booming throughout the city no longer emphasises the aggressive notes of a past regime, but still continues to define the daily life of its people, who through their anarchic spirit, contribute to the flourishing and cultural stimulation of this European centre. In Berlin, music is somehow imbued in the local heritage and goes hand in hand with the art world.
Resounding from cavernous clubs and unexpected open-air rooftops, music has given Berliners an even more powerful character after the unification. On the strung-together wooden platforms on the Landwehr canal, Club der Visionaere is a vivid example of the city’s clubbing scene. On balmy days or inky nights, there is no shortage of à la mode youngsters luxuriating outside the club while within, discs spin till ungodly hours. To the joy of music fans, an incredible number of clubs continue to mushroom throughout the city — every day.
Old is the new ‘new’
Now, more than ever, Berlin has left its once decrepit cocoon for a bohemian flair and an effervescent cultural life. Old buildings from the old East Berlin left thousands of vacant flats and hundreds of disused buildings. Empty spaces become new clubs and bars; old factories have been turned into art clusters; basements have been broken into and restyled into hip underground venues; historical buildings have regained their former glory. Everything is recycled, repurposed, re-engineered.
Even district-wise, the capital is experiencing an escalating coming-of-age momentum, not only visually but also with reference to its energy. Multiple neighbourhoods have gone through tremendous changes in the past years and have now become cultural microcosms of Berlin. With their ever-dynamic sparkle, it’s not difficult to notice that they now have a life of their own.
In numbers, the German capital is a thriving paradise for aesthetes and melomaniacs and boasts a palette of more than 175 museums, 50 theatres, 300 cinemas, as well as an intense gallery scene hailing contemporary art.
Berlin is known to have a place for everyone. In Mitte, a neighbourhood sprawling eastwards from Potsdamerplatz and frequented by global professionals, travellers come face to face with some of the capital’s freshest sites. Here, an avalanche of coffeeshops are flaunting pioneering methods of roasting the best organic coffee in town and constantly luring the heavy-eyed. There are countless restaurants and bars, and art galleries are popping everywhere. The C/O Gallery located within the old royal post office (Postfuhramt) on Oranienburger Strasse has its focus on photography by big names such as Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Only a 20-minute walk is Hamburger Banhof – Museum für Gegenwart (Museum for Contemporary Art), a former main train station dating back to 1847, which is now home to a vast collection of art from the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. On Auguststrasse, art hounds will be in Seventh Heaven once again, thanks to galleries such as me Collectors Room and KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
Kreuzberg uber alles!
Immediately south of the river Spree is Kreuzberg — Berlin’s established bohemian district. Once fringed by the Berlin Wall, this trendy pocket used to be inhabited by hippies, artists and squatters, but now, due to a massive gentrification, the borough has gained an evident upscale vibe. On Bergmannstrasse you will feel this laidbackness for yourself; in many of the quaint bars, cafés and restaurants here, Berliners graciously show off their bohemian ‘manners’. On the same street, during summer, a three-day open-air festival is the main extravaganza, melding music, arts and crafts with international food delicacies.
On Lindenstrasse, if you make a stop at Jüdisches Museum Berlin (Jewish Museum Berlin), you will get an unusual perspective on the history of Germany and German-speaking territories through the eyes of the Jewish minority. On the south-west border of Kreuzberg, don’t miss the colossal Tempelhofer Feiheit (Tempelhofer Airport). This former airport has been repurposed as a public park, where locals organise impromptu picnics and barbecues and even bring their own deckchairs. The interior of the terminal is also a great way to take a deep plunge in the local history. The compelling layout of the building discloses secret bunkers where Nazis stored celluloid films, as well as a unique system of tunnels, shelters and ballrooms in which Americans used to have leisurely activities. This mammoth structure continues to be an important symbol of freedom and is home to an incredible array of cultural events throughout the year.
Not far from Kreuzberg, you will be confronted with another facet of Berlin. Battered old launderettes, rusty buildings and dodgy venues peppered this once-gritty district till not so long ago. These days though, Neukölln’s upgrade to the hub of all-things-cool turned it into a real magnet for more intrepid tourists, who don’t mind popping up in galleries that operate on a ‘clandestine’ — or rather, spontaneous — basis. These pop-up exhibitions are a mighty crowd-puller once the word goes out on social media. Visit Cell 63 art platform for a visual taste of a world of the bizarre and the fantastic. Continue with Museum Neukölln, a space which promotes the exchange of ideas between different generations and cultures, and finish off your exploration in style with a glass of wine at Heimathafen Neukölln, a theatre that promotes performances, readings and live music. And if there is still some energy left, you can prepare your dancing shoes, for the whole Berlin seems to be one neverending big party.