Going Local Berlin: An insider's guide to hip and varied neighbourhoods

36 hours in Berlin

A short film shows off the culture and flair that exudes the German capital. Video by the New York Times.

Some cities are made for walking; Berlin is not one of them. At almost 900 square kilometres, Berlin is bigger than New York City. "And eight times bigger than Paris," boasts my taxi driver on the way from Tegel airport to the city centre.

Like taxi drivers the world over Walter is a wealth of knowledge, explaining that after World War I the government amalgamated dozens of towns, rural villages and estates into one expanded city.

"While most European cities grew up we grew out," says Walter. "But today the average Berliner still relates to his Kiez, or neighbourhood, more than his official district."

Understanding these neighbourhoods is the key to understanding Berlin. "It's a feeling you have in your gut," Walter says. "It's who we are." To help visitors decipher this "feeling" visitBerlin has developed the free app "Going Local Berlin", a digital guide divided into 12 districts, covering 60 neighbourhoods with 600 Kiez tips, event listings, websites and phone numbers.

It's as good as having a taxi driver in your pocket.

CHARLOTTENBURG – WILMERSDORF

IN A NUTSHELL Best known for its magnificent 3.5-kilometre shopping boulevard, Kurfürstendamm, a kind of Champs-Elysees, without the attitude. In its heyday it was the "beating heart of the West", a place to see and be seen. But then the wall came down and it was largely ignored as people fled to the exotic East. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and Charlottenburg is back in fashion, with the opening of the Bikini Berlin concept mall, Waldorf Astoria Hotel, highbrow boutiques and galleries and exhibition spaces.

MUST SEE The Monkey Bar, a rooftop bar on the 10th floor of the funky 25hours Hotel Bikini, looks directly into the monkey enclosure of the Berlin Zoo. Yes, it's a jungle out there. See 25hours-hotels.com

FOOD + DRINK Zwiebelfisch. This legendary West Berlin pub on Savignyplatz has been serving traditional favourites (think potato soup with sausage, boulette with potato salad and roast sausage with sauerkraut) for almost 50 years. Check out the old posters and artworks. See zwiebelfisch-berlin.de

HIDDEN PLACE CAMERA WORK, named after the art magazine from 1903, on Kanstrabe is a contemporary gallery featuring artists such as Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Diane Arbus. While the emphasis is on nude portraiture and fashion, works also include landscape, architecture and still life. See camerawork.de

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PANKOW

IN A NUTSHELL The most populated borough, stretching from the northern edge of the city down to the central Prenzlauer Berg. In 1989 Prenzlauer Berg was one of the centres for the peaceful revolution, attracting East German dissidents and sparking protests that would lead to the fall of the wall. Today Prenzlauer Berg is one of Berlin's most desirable addresses, packed with boho cafes, indie fashion stores and retro boutiques. From Weinerei, a wine bar where you rent a wine glass for $3, sample as much as you fancy, then pay what you think you owe, to Kauf dich Glücklich, a fashion boutique selling outrageously good ice-cream, Prenzlauer Berg is as cool as it gets, in a chilled, authentic way.

MUST SEE Berlin's most popular Sunday flea market is at Mauerpark (meaning "wall park") a ratty stretch of green carved out of a section of the original "death strip".

FOOD + DRINK Take the golden arches associated with one of the most recognisable fast food chains in the world, turn it upside down, and you have the trademark sign for W-Der Imbiss, a vegetarian-vegan/Indian-Mexican fusion of fabulousness. See w-derimbiss.de

HIDDEN PLACE Ausland Berlin is a non-profit venue for music, film and performance offering international and local artists studio space and residencies. In an old bunker, Ausland holds three shows each week. See ausland-berlin.de

TEMPELHOF — SCHÖNEBERG

IN A NUTSHELL Few things faze Schöneberg. It's where Kennedy made his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, David Bowie recorded Heroes and the 1948 Berlin Airlift took off from Tempelhof Airport. Today this abandoned airport has been reclaimed as a 386-hectare open space, with a six-kilometre cycling, skating and jogging track, barbecue area and community gardens. Larger (and delightfully tattier) than New York City's Central Park, it is used for festivals, music events and kiting. The park is so well loved that, when developers turned their eyes towards it, locals forced the city to conduct a referendum, which (for the meantime) saved the day. Schöneberg is also home to Berlin's gay scene, complete with a museum, Schwules, which documents LGBT culture from around the world.

MUST SEE Winterfeldt Markt (Saturdays and a smaller version on Wednesdays) is one of Berlin's oldest and biggest weekly farmers' markets. In the leafy square surrounding the St Matthias Kirche.

FOOD + DRINK Trattoria Pizzeria Roma is Berlin's oldest pizzeria, serving fresh pasta and pizza to original recipes since 1965. See roma-berlin.de

HIDDEN PLACE Museum der Unerhorten Dinge. With a name that translates to "Museum of Unheard of Things" how could you not step inside? This small museum houses such objects as petrified ice and the fur of a Japanese bonsai deer. See museumderunerhoertendinge.de

MITTE

IN A NUTSHELL While home to some big guns – Brandenburg Gate, TV Tower, Checkpoint Charlie, Reichstag and Holocaust Memorial – it's Mitte's lesser-known places that leave their mark. Walk through the Jewish Quarter, with its connected courtyards (Höfes), cross the Bösebrücke Bridge, across which East Germans were finally allowed to pass on 9 November 1989, take an underground bunker tour or visit Otto Weidt's museum and workshop for the blind. Amid the crushing weight of history there are art house cinemas, Israeli restaurants (look for the sign "make hummus not walls"), ballhouses, vegan cafes, minimalist galleries and specialist book and magazine stores (Do you Read Me?). Like the rest of Berlin, Mitte is achingly hip yet down to earth and comfortable.

MUST SEE The Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworld's Association) is a subterranean museum in a former bunker, which offers tours and information about bombs, bunkers, tunnels and munitions stores. See berliner-unterwelten.de

FOOD + DRINK Blending art with cuisine, the Michelin-starred Pauly Saal restaurant joins galleries and other eateries in an arty hub inside a former School for Jewish Girls. See paulysaal.com

HIDDEN PLACE Clärchens Ballhaus is an historic dance hall that dates to 1913. With a history involving sword duels, allied bombing and Nazi dance bans the faded beauty now offers dance classes (tango, swing, salsa) and intimate concerts, while serving food in a beer garden built amid the ruins of the front building. See ballhaus.de

FIVE OTHER NEIGHBOURHOODS

NEUKÖLLN Alternative lifestyles, colourful characters and the coolest of all the boroughs. Just ask a Neukölln hipster. For a real treat pop into a local Turkish supermarket for cheeses, breads and spices.

SPANDAU A pretty town that is still wondering how it ever got amalgamated into a big city. At the confluence of the rivers Spree and Havel it is a blend of greenery, 16th-century monuments, rivers and rural residences.

TREPTOW-KOPENICK With its lakes and castles Treptow-Kopenick is the largest borough and a popular day trip for locals. Science geeks are drawn to Adlershof, home to Berlin's most important technology park.

LICHTENBERG While tourists flock here for the Stasi Museum in the former headquarters of East Germany's Ministry of State Security, and the Stasi Prison, locals love it for the lakes, artists' village and Tierpark Berlin, the largest landscape zoo in Europe.

MARZAHN-HELLERSDORF While the Garten der Welt (Gardens of the World) will delight green thumbs, the contrast between the district's infamous "Plattenbauten", or concrete housing blocks, and the historical rural village of Marzahn makes for an interesting visit.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitberlin.de

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific operates several flights per day from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to London and other European gateways, with codeshare to Berlin. See cathaypacific.com.au

STAYING THERE

Full of historic character, Hotel Zoo is on the Kurfurstendam in Charlottenburg. Superior rooms start from $230 per night. See hotelzoo.de

GETTING AROUND

Berlin WelcomeCard provides transport on the city's buses and trains as well as discounts at almost 200 partners. It also comes with a practical guide to the city, a map, the city's rail networks, tours and information about discounts. Sold as 48-hours ($30), 72-hours ($40) or five days ($50). See visitberlin.de

The writer was a guest of visitBerlin

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