City life: Berlin

In a tale familiar to Londoners, the once mighty West Berlin has been overshadowed by the recent rise of the hip and trendy East. But while it may have lost some lustre, it remains full of history, faded charm and even renewed promise.

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 3 Apr 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:13 BST

Bikini Berlin.

Photograph by Franz Brueck

To the frustration of the three pedestrians ahead of me, the pavement runs out where Kantstrasse meets Joachimsthaler Strasse. Four cyclists are no more impressed, annoyed to find shoppers in the road where the path should be clear — while the cars that pile in as the lights change are entirely nonplussed, horns honking, a taxi driver balling his fist. Above the building site that's sparked this scene — devouring the walkway with its fencing — a board throws out an image of the glittering retail unit that's due to emerge later this year, while a weft of promotional blurb makes loud claims. 'Here… a new highlight for the capital is under construction,' it self-applauds. 'This is where City West is evolving.' And here, in these two words, is the rub.

A section of former West Berlin, that Cold War frontline, is now — in the eyes of some developers — the hashtag-friendly City West. From 1949-1990, West Berlin was the Allied enclave at the sharp end of the Soviet spear — a space shaped by over four decades of ideological enmity and (after 1961) the hard line of the Berlin Wall. Part of it is now defining itself via the peacock-feather spiel of marketing teams and construction projects.

It's not that the 27 years since German reunification have been disastrous for the area. But, as I watch another slew of cars scrape past Zoo Station — the rail hub that acted as West Berlin's main terminus — I start to suspect that it's lost a little identity; seen its prestige stolen by East Berlin's rebirth. Such is the speed of time's arrow. One minute you're a dangerous, glamorous bubble of spies and atomic tension; the context in which David Bowie enjoys his most fertile period. The next, the Wall has fallen and the crowds have cut past the dead watchtowers, to the bars of Mitte and the cafes of Prenzlauer Berg in the east.

Kreuzberg, which was part of West Berlin despite its geographical position east of the Brandenburg Gate, has rebranded itself so efficiently as a hip oasis of graffiti-smeared warehouse clubs that it's popularly known, incorrectly, as a communist phoenix shorn of its GDR shackles. The same can't be said for the districts that form the commercial and residential core of what's now City West — Moabit, Schöneberg, Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf. True, they're not forgotten. Yet there's a feeling that they're another century's news; last year's prom queens.

But is this fair? Certainly, there's an air of yesterday outside Berlin Hauptbahnhof, in that former outpost of West Berlin, Moabit. Even its co-opting by the what was once East Berlin — into Mitte in 2001, via the redrawing of borough boundaries — hasn't given it a sheen of desirability. Its roughshod, turkey-neck scrappiness is there the second I step away from the commuter scrum of the train station, and cross Europaplatz. Moabit may not have been press-ganged into the Soviet Union, but it knows the drill: chimneystacks belching above its industrial skyline. It knows darkness, too, as is evident in the reconstructed walls recalling the perimeter of the Zellengefängnis Moabit — the state prison, which glowered here from 1842 to 1958. This was Berlin's Bastille, built to hold convicts in the Prussian era. It would go on to house communist dissidents in the First World War, and tortured prisoners of the Gestapo in the Second. The poet Albrecht Haushofer, executed here in 1945, captured its stain in his posthumous Moabit Sonnets. His poetry is printed onto the brickwork that frames what, since 2006, has been a memorial park. The words, when translated, read: 'In its ironwork and lattice, you can still perceive a trace of the suffering that fills this building, a secret tremor.' Gloom lingers. Although bikes roll through, my eyes are pulled to the crows that haunt the park, pecking grass, shrieking. A discomfiting location.

Yet to see it as the embodiment of Moabit is a misstep. Walking past the Kriminalgericht Moabit, Berlin's main criminal court, leads me to the main drag, Turmstrasse, where the district shows its everyday warmth in a wealth of restaurants — workers easing through lunchtime via the noodle broths of Viet & My, and the plastic tablecloths and Indonesian specialities of Nusantara Restaurant. Then comes the green pocket of Kleiner Tiergarten — children yelping on swings and slides — before Kirchstrasse ebbs south, becoming gradually more genteel in the sushi rolls of Anh Vu, and positively pretty where it runs up against the River Spree.

Local sophisticate
On the other side of the Spree, Charlottenburg has long been west Berlin's sophisticate. It was the uptown girl way before the city stretched its sinews in this direction. As far back as 1695, in fact, when it welcomed the foundation stones of Charlottenburg Palace (a Berlin Versailles for the kings of Prussia, wrapped in baroque and rococo stylings), which still preens in its gardens on the north edge of the district. Ten minutes' walk south, the blocky, 1960s Deutsche Oper Berlin opera house contrasts sharply. Then comes the big boulevard, Kurfürstendamm (a Germanic Champs-Élysées), slicing two miles south west, its shops gleaming with the haute couture of elegant fashion houses.

Charlottenburg is content. When I wander into Savignyplatz, one of its dinner spots, there's no hint of the culinary cutting edge that sculpts the restaurants of Mitte to the east. Not that there are unhappy diners amid the pasta of Petrocelli's Bar or the salades niçoise of French bistro Café Brel. But there is the whiff of a district grown to middle age, residents spooning €12 bouillabaisse. On the corner, Hefner Bar shows flair in cocktails like the Fish House Punch (cognac and rum), but the prevailing ambience is one of sleepy refinement.

Yet look closely, and there's evidence Charlottenburg has struggled. At the east end of Kurfürstendamm, Breitscheidplatz was a place of suffering long before the December terror attack that shattered its Christmas market. Then there's the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, constructed in 1895 but semi-destroyed in 1943, the remnants left as a statement on the effects of war. Adjacent, Bikini Berlin is another emblem of the harsh 20th century — a shopping complex slotted into a bomb gap in 1955, so nicknamed because its two-tier design reminded passersby of the beachwear, which, at that juncture, was the height of daring. It's difficult now, looking at the drab exterior, to understand that excitement, but the structure's doors peel back to reveal a 2013 renovation that's dragged it into the 21st century — burrito purveyor Chicano; independent clothes outlets injected into 'pop-up' wooden stalls in the middle of the concourse; neon installations and obtuse paintings on sale on the first floor in an art space called Gallery.

And with this, Charlottenburg starts to reveal flashes of the quirky and the clever. The last century shines at Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, which exibits works by Dali, Miró and Picasso. The current one bares teeth in stark imagery at the Museum of Photography, Berlin. The two centuries lock arms at Amerika Haus Berlin, set up in 1946 to promote US culture as part of the denazification of Germany. Since 2006, it has hosted temporary exhibitions, such as Total Records, which runs until 23 April, and dissects the mystique of the album cover — Debbie Harry's pout, Grace Jones as cyber-mannequin. In the foyer, a sign asks visitors to upload their 'vinyl face' (the face they'd want on their LP) onto the museum Instagram feed — millennial interactivity in flow.

Schöneberg's soul
If this feels like a fumbling for the zeitgeist, Charlottenburg doesn't need to peer far for an example of a Berlin district that sang gloriously in its moment. Schöneberg is a quick stroll to the south east, and it still sings in KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), the department store that was such an icon of free-market commerce during the Cold War it was effectively a two-fingered gesture at the unsmiling east flank of the Wall.

But it's not here, amid perfume counters and gentlemen's suits, that Schöneberg's soul resides. For that, you must seek its main square, Nollendorfplatz, and the ghosts of the Roaring Twenties. In this decadent decade, the area was Berlin's bohemian heart — known for the Eldorado, a gay club on Motzstrasse, and for the Neues Schausspielhaus theatre on the square itself. Alas, the former is no more, shut by the Nazis in 1933. The latter, which also traded as the Metropol, was a key West Berlin concert venue in the 1980s, staging gigs by the likes of Depeche Mode and U2, and was home to the outrageous, sexually liberal KitKatClub in 2000. Since 2005, it's been used only sporadically, as cabaret bar Goya, but its art nouveau facade — where the figure of Pan cavorts with naked nymphs — still dreams of a century ago.

It's as I'm admiring this craftsmanship that a voice speaks. Stephanie, a local in her mid-50s, is walking her dog. "I love this place," she says. "But it isn't open much any more. There were great club nights here — even five years ago. But the couple who ran them went somewhere east." She pauses, gazing towards Mitte as if it's 300, not three, miles away. "I guess the rents were cheaper there. It's a shame — it was my second home."

Yet Nollendorfplatz hasn't retired. A string of lights above its square's U-Bahn station, seven strands aglow as a rainbow, underlines that this is still one of Berlin's key gay areas. On Motzstrasse, noses are turned up at the fascists of 1933 by the wryly named Romeo und Romeo coffee shop. And on Nollendorfstrasse, a plaque outside number 17 declares it the home, from 1929 to 1933, of Christopher Isherwood, the British author whose 1939 novel Goodbye To Berlin depicted the excesses of the area in the early 1930s and was the basis for the 1972 movie-musical Cabaret. Opposite, Stagger Lee is not quite the setting for a Liza Minnelli burlesque routine — but there's an indulgent aura to this cocktail den; spirit bottles lined up behind the bar, leather armchairs filled with locals and wild conversation.

Perhaps Schöneberg is happier remembering its glory days than reliving them. But the echoes are there — especially at Rathaus Schöneberg, the borough's town hall, once the West Berlin parliament. It was here, on the steps, that JFK made his 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech on 26 June 1963. Another plaque, this time in bronze, salutes this clarion call, made five months before he was shot dead.

A third plaque waits a mile north east at Hauptstrasse 155 — in honour of David Bowie and his three years (1976-1978) living in one of its apartments. It was here he conjured Low, Heroes and Lodger, the albums that comprised his Berlin Trilogy. The street still has a scuffed liveliness: a tattoo shop on the building's ground floor; Bücherhalle, a secondhand bookstore to the right. To the left, a bar is called, appropriately, Seventies. Bowie, a cigarette aficionado to the end, would surely have approved of the fact you can still smoke inside, although he might also have noted that a mural of him — in his 1983 bleach-blond guise — is five years out of date, if it's intending to celebrate his time on the street.

If Schöneberg has skipped a few beats and lost some of its rhythm, you might wonder if Wilmersdorf ever had either. Nestled into the south west of City West, it feels a calmer, less illuminated place. It rouses itself, briefly, around Brandenburgische Strasse, around the upmarket Bison Berlin steakhouse. But as I amble south, the streetlights appear to fade, and the hiss of cabs rushing people to restaurants is replaced by suburbia — by dental surgeries, car parks, hairdressers, vets and baby-clothes stores. And next to this is an older Berlin that wants to eat at Zum Haxenwirt, a neighbourhood bolthole of chintz and a grandma-knows-best aesthetic, where the menu touts German staples like schweinefilet (breaded pork fillet) and apple strudel, and nobody seems overtly upset their food is practically a cliche. But there's a worn-jumper cosiness to this, a weary reliance on solid truths. In a city that's chased any number of tomorrows — not always successfully — here, quietly, today will do just fine.


Getting there & around
The following airlines fly to Berlin Schönefeld: EasyJet (from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Newcastle, Manchester); Norwegian (Gatwick); Ryanair (East Midlands, Glasgow, Stansted, Manchester); and (Leeds-Bradford). These airlines fly to Berlin Tegel: British Airways (Stansted, Heathrow, London City); Flybe (Birmingham, Cardiff, Doncaster-Sheffield); and Eurowings (Heathrow).

Berlin's transport system is a mix of U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (overground) trains, plus trams and buses. Single journeys start at €1.70 (£1.45), one-day passes at €7 (£6).

More information

How to do it
Kirker Holidays has three nights at five-star Hotel de Rome, B&B. From £749 per person, with flights and private transfers.

Intrepid Travel runs a four-hour Hidden Berlin tour, from £42 per person.

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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