My Secret City: Berlin
Germany’s cosmopolitan capital is buzzing with vibrant culture and attracts visitors looking for a taste of history, great food and drink and legendary nightlife. We asked resident Anna Mackenzie (MA 2016) to give us her insider’s guide to dynamic Berlin.
"Always have cash on hand – many places just don’t accept card payment.
Each area of Berlin is unique. I like Kreuzberg for the laid-back atmosphere and great eateries, Friedrichshain for the art spaces, I like Prenzlauer Berg for cultural events and I love Wedding as my home!
Berlin’s rich history is still palpable today, thanks to visible remnants of the past and an array of fascinating museums. I highly recommend the Jewish Museum, which not only offers a poignant exhibit about the Holocaust, but also displays fascinating collections that explore Jewish culture.
If you like art galleries, this city has plenty. My favourite is the C|O Berlin photography institute, which hosts diverse exhibitions on a three-month rotating basis. I always go to the free opening nights and soak up the creative inspiration – both from the artwork and the über-hip guests.
Taking a trip to a Berlin flohmarkt (flea market) is something of an adventure. Leaf through antique books, shop for unique souvenirs and handmade crafts or rummage through rails of vintage wear and second-hand clothing to nab a bargain. There are many flohmarkts that take place on a weekly basis throughout the city. One market that has become a tourist attraction in its own right is that of Mauerpark – a vast menagerie of everything from kitchen utensils to chess boards that takes place alongside a programme of street performers and outdoor karaoke to make for a not-to-be-missed weekly event.
The streets of Berlin stand out to me as historical landmarks in their own right. The clashing architecture that marks a distinction between pre-war, Soviet and modern eras confronts you as you move through the city, while elements of classical art contrast with street art projects. I am still quietened when I come across sections of the Berlin Wall that remain standing, a sombre reminder of a recent past. This is a truly unique landmark, which represents historical oppression, as well as how Berliners have reappropriated this memory as a canvas for public art.
"Even though the transport system is excellent, the city is also very walkable and cyclable, so take the opportunity to rent a bike and see more of the city between sightseeing stops.
Tempelhofer Feld is a vast public park and nature reserve that was a military airport and parade ground in a former life. It’s an ideal location for wind sports, cycling and picnics. It’s quite surreal to find yourself going along an abandoned runway, with old aircraft still looming in the hangars beyond. My advice is to hire a bike at Rent a Bike 44 on nearby Mahlower Straße – for only €4 you can keep it all day and cycle for miles around Tempelhof and the nearby Hasenheide park.
The clubs in Berlin are really special – for me, the nightlife here is the best I have experienced anywhere! My favourite club is probably Sisyphos. If you are willing to wait patiently in the queue for a minimum of an hour, and deal with brusque and unforgiving bouncers, you can basically stay the whole weekend and party your cares away. With two different rooms of techno music (it’s Berlin, what else?), plus a large outdoor area complete with treehouses, disco balls, pond area and pizza stand, it’s the perfect balance between all-day disco and ethereal woodland escape.
The music scene in Berlin is vibrant and diverse. My favourite venue is Prachtwerk in Neukölln, which hosts an open mic every Wednesday evening as well as solo concerts. It’s relaxed and cosy, with a small but beautiful stage and open seating area that creates an intimate atmosphere. The food and drink options are also great if you want to make an evening of it.
"Bring swimwear for a spontaneous dip in one of the city’s many outdoor lakes, an all-black outfit if you want to attempt getting into Berghain [Berlin’s most exclusive nightclub], and a large vintage camera so you can really blend in with the hipster aesthetic.
My favourite place to get the best photo of the Berlin skyline is the rooftop bar Klunkerkranich. When you actually find the venue, which lies (unsignposted) beyond the top-floor car park of a shopping centre, you are rewarded with some of the best, unspoilt views of the city – best enjoyed at sunset with a cocktail in hand.
If I have a free day I will go to an early morning yoga class at the Yoga Café near Schönhauser Allee, and enjoy a fresh smoothie there afterwards. I'll then cycle to Kreuzberg for a walk along Landwehrkanal and to explore the markets, before heading to Moabit for Vietnamese food at Fam Dang, then drinks and live music at a local bar.
If I want a day out of the city I will go to Grunewald. It’s a huge forest that is technically still within the city limits, but that makes it even more special! Take a short bike or train ride and you can spend the day walking around the vast forest and Wannsee lake, you really are in the middle of nature.
My favourite time of the year in Berlin is autumn, when the city has cooled down a bit after a stifling hot summer and the many parks are transformed into shades of vivid orange and red. Time to start enjoying hot drinks and indoor activities like poetry readings, open mic evenings and craft workshops. Berlin is very "hygge" to me.
My food and drink hit list
If you want to feel like a real Berliner, don’t just stick to Bavarian-style beer houses. When the weather is good, go to Berlin’s oldest beer garden Prater for a pint in the sunshine, or look for the nearest “Späti” – independent kiosks that are open 24/7 and easily spotted on virtually every street. Choose from a selection of local, craft and popular beers for a couple of euros and enjoy them outdoors. Particularly scenic spots for a Späti beer include Monbijou Park and Landswehrkanal. Späti crawls are of course also an option.
I really love the cafe Kater & Goldfisch; it’s just beside the Panke canal in Wedding and is really cosy and inviting, especially on a cold winter’s day. The staff are friendly, there’s plenty of room, comfy sofas, books to read, and they have a delicious menu of light lunches and fresh cakes to accompany your coffee. Other favourites include the hip but laid-back Distrikt Coffee in Mitte, and Five Elephant in Kreuzberg for a choice of artisan blends that change on a daily basis – great for coffee lovers who want to try a new brew.
Velvet sofas, kitsch decor and soft candlelight make you feel like you are stepping back in time in Wohnzimmer (German for living room), a lovely bar for an aperitif or two in Prenzlauerberg. It’s designed to look like a faded GDR salon and has an extensive cocktail list, tasty and well-priced, with all the classics plus a few extras. It’s also one of the few places that I have found a British favourite, Pimm’s!
Step away from the pretzels and sauerkraut – the food scene in Berlin is diverse, and reflects the city’s multi-cultural atmosphere. A good place to start for affordable food on-the-go are the many open air and indoor markets. For fresh Turkish fare, head to the Turkish market on Maybachufer (every Tuesday and Friday), or check out Markthalle Neun, an impressive building dating back to 1891 that hosts street food markets with stalls ranging from French to Korean cuisine. And every Sunday, the Kulturbrauerei holds a street food and music event with equally delicious offerings.
This article was first published September 2019. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.
The unmistakable Brandenburg Gate, backdrop to numerous significant historic events (photo: Shutterstock).
A colourful remnant of the Berlin Wall (photo: Shutterstock).
The 17th-century Charlottenburg Palace, the largest palace in Berlin and one of its most popular tourist destinations (photo: Shutterstock).
The Holocaust memorial, made up of 2,711 concrete slabs which cover an area of 19,000 square metres (photo: Shutterstock).
The central Mitte district, home to many of Berlin’s most famous sights (photo: Shutterstock).
The neo-Renaissance Berliner Dom (cathedral), badly damaged during World War II, dominates the heart of Berlin. (photo: Shutterstock).
A lake in the Grunewald, Berlin's biggest forest (photo: Shutterstock).
The Reichstag dome provides great views across Berlin (photo: Shutterstock).
Sunset over the Spree, the river that flows through central Berlin (photo: Shutterstock).