The streetscapes in capital cities around the world are usually dominated by eye-catching monuments and parks with deep historical value. While this may also be true for Berlin, wander its streets today and you’ll notice the German capital is more than meets the eye.
Historical monuments like Checkpoint Charlie are located close to popular stomping grounds for the young and affluent like the Mall of Berlin. This creates an interesting contrast between the old-world charm of these historical monuments and the modern-day features you’d come to expect of an urban city.
Berlin has also evolved into a European destination with a growing migrant community hailing from various cities and countries. These communities have helped establish a variety of unique, hybrid cultural spaces and events such as the Turkish Market in Kreuzberg and Mauerpark in Mitte, which has morphed into an unofficial Thai Park.
In spite of this influx of new cultures, locals have continued to retain their quirky Berliner attitude — commonly known as a Berliner Schnauze. While the locals may appear aloof, their bohemian attitude has allowed a lively arts scene to thrive in the capital where walls and building façades abound with murals.
It is also why Berlin is often described as a progressive city known for inclusiveness and diversity. Its streetscapes are filled with many colourful neighbourhoods — or Kiez as they’re known locally. Here are five of our favourites to explore:
1. Friedrichshain: An art lover’s paradise
A 30-minute trip on the public train system, called the U-bahn, from Mitte (pronounced metre)— the heart of Berlin — takes you to Friedrichshain (pronounced freed-rick-shine). This neighbourhood exudes an artistic vibe with its wide variety of street art spots, artistic collectives, and vibrant nightlife.
Check out Urban Spree, an edgy art space which houses a gallery, concert room and an event space built to host seasonal events celebrating urban culture. Don’t forget to also see the derelict-looking warehouses where you’ll find large collections of graffiti art on display. There’s even an outdoor biergarten (beer garden) where you can sample local craft brews and bar snacks like salted German Pretzel sticks and Bratwurst served with a heap of sauerkraut.
The elaborate murals painted along the remaining portions of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery offer a sobering and, at times, unconventional perspective of Berlin’s history.
If you’re an avid gamer, the Computerspielemuseum will inspire childhood nostalgia. Take a virtual reality guided tour which covers over 60 years of interactive machinery. The museum also hosts an International Games Week Berlin every April.
Stay on in the evenings and you’ll see a different side to Friedrichshain. Set the dancefloor on fire at Berghain, Berlin’s exclusive nightclub located in a former power station playing the hippest techno and electronic dance music.
2. Kreuzberg: Eat and shop till you drop!
Brimming with street food, art galleries, and shops stocked with vintage wear, Kreuzberg (pronounced koo-roytz-berg) is the place to be for Berlin’s young and trendy.
Each year on 1 May, the streets of Kreuzberg come alive as Berliners and travellers throng the streets around Görlitzer Park as part of the Myfest party. Mobile stages and food vendors will also set up shop around the area, creating one huge street party.
Head to Leipziger Platz, just 30 minutes by U-bahn from Mitte. Here, you’ll find the Mall of Berlin, one of the largest shopping malls in Berlin. Shop for fashionable clothes from established international chains like Zara, H&M and pop by the Berlin Store situated in the basement for unique local souvenirs.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite after shopping, head to Markthalle Neun which hosts Street Food Thursday, the most popular street food event in Berlin. Many locals pass through the food hall to get their weekly street food fix. From craft beers to Turkish-style Döner kebabs packed with succulent pieces of meat, you’d be coming back for seconds. Come back on every third Sunday of the month for themed events such as the Breakfast and Vinyl Market which also features popup stores selling the best vinyl hits.
Sing Blackbird is the place to be for vintage lovers. The quaint and minimalist shop is filled with stylish togs and jewellery which date back to the early ’70s to ’90s.
Liven up the look of your humble abode with elegant home accessories at Valuc 15. It’s an ideal destination to get some design inspiration and bring some small accessories home. Plus, all fixtures and fittings in this store are designed by up-and-coming Berlin and European design studios. From the handmade Portuguese terracotta plates, tumblers and bowls, to Moroccan Vases made from recycled glass in vibrant hues, there’s bound to be something that will catch your eye.
3. Wedding: Savour the taste of multicultural Berlin
Non-Germans make up 30 per cent of the population in Wedding (pronounced Vedding), located just north of Mitte.
If being this far away from Singapore has left you longing for a taste of Chinese food, head to Asia Deli, which serves up flavourful traditional Cantonese and Szechuan dishes. Must-tries include the spicy Mapo Toufu and sweet-and-sour pork ribs.
Right next to the small canal, Panke, which stretches through the district, you’ll find Café Pförtner, known for its Italian-inspired menu of light bites and snackable grub like gnocchi and tasty vegan sliders. The cosy café’s charming — almost whimsical — décor gives it a warm and homely feel. The café’s dining section is essentially formed out of a hollowed out 1970’s bus.
Leopoldplatz is the place to go for authentic local produce sold at the farmer’s market. During summer, bargain hunters descend on the state park to shop for antiques at the local flea market. Covetable items include household goods, books, vintage cameras and even clothes.
4. Prenzlauer Berg: For good family fun
Gather your little ones and hop on the S-bahn, another public train system, and head to Prenzlauer Berg (pronounced: Prenz-lou-er-bee-erg). This leafy area of Berlin, just 30 minutes from Mitte, is popular with young families and has some interesting family-friendly places to visit.
Bring your pint-sized astronauts to Zeiss Major Planetarium at Prenzlauer Allee to gaze at the stars in our solar system. If you’d like your child to indulge in some sensory and tactile play, head to MACHmit! Museum, a creative and educational play space located within a converted church. The play space often hosts seasonal exhibitions, creative arts, activities and workshops that’ll keep your mini-me off their gadgets.
And stop by Konnepke’s Imbiss on the way to get a taste of Berlin’s best-known culinary export — the currywurst. The snack is made of a steamed or fried pork sausage seasoned with curry ketchup and topped with a light dusting of curry powder. The shop has been serving up this local speciality since the 1930s.
Mauerpark is the place to be on the weekends for Berlin’s ultimate flea market, featuring a wide selection of stalls selling items like old vinyl records, shoes and even leather bags, trinkets and wristlets! The flea market is popular among locals and tourists alike, so come early to avoid jostling with the crowds. Stay on in the mid-afternoon to take part in a massive public karaoke session.
5. Mitte: The cultural heart of Berlin
No trip to Berlin is complete without visiting Mitte – home to Berlin’s most recognisable monuments and memorials, which give visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of Berlin.
Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a history buff’s dream attraction with five different museums nestled on a small island on the River Spree. Head to the Pergamon Museum for the Architecture of Antiquity exhibition to marvel at the intricate reconstructions of Roman architectural treasures like the Market Gate of Miletus. The Old Museum, built in 1830, houses a variety of breath-taking artefacts like the crown jewels and other royal treasures.
When in Mitte you must visit the Holocaust Memorial. The field of more than 2,700 concrete slabs of different heights are built on uneven ground in the city centre. The sombre memorial uses the shifting effects of light and distance to evoke feelings of isolation and claustrophobia that Jewish prisoners faced during World War II.
Architecture lovers and shutterbugs should head to the Brandenburg Gate and then to Großer Tiergarten, Berlin’s answer to New York’s Central Park. The sprawling park is a popular hotspot for family picnics or simply unwinding after a day of sightseeing.
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Best time to visit
Berlin comes alive in summer which runs between May and August. Otherwise, festivities kick into high gear from October with the classic German Oktoberfest, followed by the Christmas and New Year season. Between December and January, Christmas markets are in full swing all over Berlin with spectacular firework displays. Some say no one does Christmas like the Germans.
The public train system, known as the S- and U-Bahn, is the best way to explore the city. It runs on an honour-based system where tapping in and out isn’t necessary to board the train system. However, when commuters are found without a valid ticket during random checks by plain-clothed inspectors, your passports may be withheld until you pay a hefty (~€60) fine.
Plastic and paper bags cost money and the city is very environmentally conscious, so bring along a reusable shopping bag to keep up with the Berliners.
Scoot airlines offer a non-stop flight from Singapore to Berlin’s Tegel Airport, while other major airlines include a stopover at Doha, Warsaw or Istanbul. Search for airfares and book your tickets here.