11 ways to experience the best of Berlin

A city of all-night clubs and surprising street food, arthouse films and colourful graffiti, anything goes in Berlin. We meet the people and discover the places that make up one of Europe’s coolest — and most confident — capitals.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 4 Sept 2019, 17:00 BST
Cycling through Tempelhofer Feld

Berlin is blessed with plenty of green spaces but perhaps the best of the bunch is Tempelhofer Feld.

Photograph by Celia Topping

1. Enjoy the summer sounds

If you find yourself in Berlin on a weekend during summer, head to Mauerpark. Here, you’ll find the popular Bearpit Karaoke, a sort of gladiatorial arena where members of the public come on stage to blast out their favourite tunes. The concept, founded by Joe Hatchiban, came to London for the first time in 2017, but this Berlin edition is the original — and best.

2. Head to the river

There’s plenty of redevelopment going on along the banks of the mighty Spree river. A fine example comes in the form of Holzmarkt, an old wood market that reopened in 2013 as an urban village and creative hub, home to everything from a co-working space and art studio to a wine shop and bakery. A riverside utopia in the city, this community project is a welcoming space for alternative, creative types.

3. Explore an underground museum

Berlin certainly doesn’t shy away from its past. There are relevant museums all over the city, but for something a little more involved, head to the Berliner Unterwelten for guided tours of historic bunkers, anti-aircraft installations and abandoned subway tunnels. All help build an understanding of what it was like to be a German citizen while Allied bombs rained down on the city.

4. Eat the city's best kebab

The city is said to have as many as 4,000 stalls, restaurants and food trucks offering a version of the doner kebab, a fast food favourite largely imported through the city’s thriving Turkish community. Who serves the best is the subject of debate, but Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap is hugely popular. If you don’t fancy queueing, try one of the Rüyam Gemüse Kebab outlets, which are just as tasty but not quite so rammed.

5. Take a mural-painting masterclass

There are plenty of street art tours around the city, but Alternative Berlin Tours offers more than most. After being shown around by a street artist, participants are invited to a former margarine factory for a hands-on course in graffiti techniques.

6. Catch a classic at the cinema

Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 Oscar-winning film The Artist proved there’s still plenty of life in silent movies, but in Berlin, cinema-goers hardly needed convincing. Since 2001, Kino Babylon has shown arthouse movies in its revived 1920s cinema, with a programme that includes a selection of silent flicks every Saturday. Visitors can relive the golden age of cinema, with an experience far removed from the modern world of monthly memberships and unrelenting adverts; there’s even an original cinema organ, too.

7. Explore an urban oasis

Berlin is blessed with plenty of green spaces but perhaps the best of the bunch is Tempelhofer Feld. Originally constructed in the 1920s, the former Tempelhof Airport in the south of the city ceased operations in 2008. The 386-hectare open space and terminal — once one of the largest structures in Europe — have since been reclaimed for use as a public recreation area. Today, the vast site features a four-mile cycling, skating and jogging trail, a six-acre barbecue area, a dog-walking field and an enormous picnic area.

8. Take a retro car for a spin

The Trabant is an icon of the former German Democratic Republic. More than 3.7 million of these plucky little cars were made in East Germany but, owing to their mechanical shortcomings, they were often difficult to love; in 2016, Autotrader described the Trabant as “an awful car made by communists”. Visitors feeling a sense of nostalgia can, however, embark on a Trabi Safari tour around Berlin. A maximum of three adults are allowed in each Trabant, many of which have been painted in eye-catching animal patterns.

9. Go swimming in lakes and pools

Berlin’s winters are notoriously inclement but its long, hot summers don’t get anywhere near as much press. There are plenty of provisions in place for coping with the heat, however, and while the lakes outside the city may be tempting, there are also a number of public pools dotted around the centre. The most famous is the Sommerbad Olympiastadion (situated in the stadium that hosted the 1936 Olympic Games), which counts a 50m pool, children’s pool, diving boards and waterslides among its facilities. Alternatively, head to the banks of the Spree — but rather than jumping into the somewhat polluted waters, make your way to the Badeschiff, a floating pool set within a barge on the river.

10. Dance the night away

Another of Berlin’s renovated institutions, Clärchens Ballhaus ballroom has been around since 1913. However, unlike many of the surviving historic buildings in the city, this one still delivers a version of its original function: providing people with a space to dance. While you’ll certainly find some old-timers two-stepping, new waves of dancers have also started attending classes, helping the old ballroom stay relevant. Concerts are held here throughout the year, and there’s also a restaurant — perfect for those who want to come and have a look around without actually dancing.

11. Discover the creative complex

Aesthetic plays a massive part in Berlin’s standing as Europe’s trendiest city, and the offbeat compound RAW Gelände feels like a culmination of all its coolest credentials. Here, in a former train repair station, you’ll find a jumble of independent bars, day-and-night clubs and galleries vying for attention, all surrounded by a kaleidoscope of murals, paintings and posters. There’s also an old hangar that’s been converted into a skate park, a bunker repurposed as a climbing wall and a selection of outdoor photobooths.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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