Berlin is the city that made me realise quite how many adventures are buried just below the surface, waiting to be unlocked. This charming city truly rewarded me for every effort I made to research it’s secret sights. I was always a planner when it came to travel, but Berlin has raised the bar. This city is the reason that I’ve decided to write a travel blog, because when friends have asked me since for my recommendations I don’t simply have one standout sight to tell them about, I end up writing them a long list and sending them hoards of photos, and each time getting just as enthusiastic about it as when we first went… so, here it is…
I went to Berlin near on a year ago; taking a long weekend with my other half and a couple of our friends. Before departing I’d dug so many treasures from trawling the internet that I knew I was about to fall in love with this city. What Berlin offers is a breeding ground for creativity and alternative ideas. Every space is embraced; places that were once abandoned are now either wonderfully reinvented or have been recaptured by nature bringing them a new charm that they never before had.
We’d booked ourselves into MINIMAL Hostel, an upcycled haven in Kreuzkölln, home to the lovely Anne who listened to our plans and into them planted new seeds. To add to our array of ideas, she insisted that tonight we must go to Neue Heimat, a maze of disused warehouses found on Dirschauer Straße. There you are welcomed with a brightly lit Hollywood-style sign before having your senses filled with a diverse mix of art and music. At the end of the trail we found ourselves in a derelict building punctuated with cocktail bars and filled with the buzzing sounds of like-minded people. Through a small doorway we entered into a cosy room of people sat around on tea crates listening to local jazz musicians – it could have been a dream, it really felt like I had escaped the real world.
What really had me hooked in Berlin were the secret bars… for which I must start by thanking Lidija Grozdanic for her Thrillist post. There are a few of these bars around; we got ourselves into two of them, both of which I would recommend. Sadly, I’ve read that the first one we went to is now closed, but I’ll share this one just as a great example of the fun that can be had whilst following the clues to find a secret bar. So we’d hunted down Butchers Bar in Mitte – As soon as you came up the steps from the U-Bahn you found a currywurst shop, ahead of you as you entered the shop was a photoautomat, when you reached that you’d enter the room to the right, then go through the door to your left. There you would see a telephone box on the lefthand side and buried amongst the collage of stickers you’ll find a buzzer. Inside you’d find yourselves in a red-lit tiled room with a bar where the spirits are hung from meat hooks. I can’t imagine there’ll ever be anywhere quite like it though I’d probably go in search of new adventures anyway. Another night we uncovered the not-so-easy-to-find Buck & Breck near Rosenthaler Platz in Prenzlauer Berg. As you make your way down Brunnenstrasse you’ll find a glass-fronted property disguising itself as a tiny minimalist art gallery. Just to the left of the door there is a doorbell with the letters of BAR on it. Simply press that and wait for news of whether or not any of the 8 seats inside are available. Aside from it’s quirky hidden nature, Buck & Breck is an intimate environment where you’ll find yourselves transfixed by the barman’s cocktail making skills – both in the way he does it and the taste of the end result.
In the day we ventured out of the city centre to the fabled Spreepark, an old GDR theme park that’s been abandoned since 2001. We disembarked at the Treptower Park S-Bahn and wandered through the park until we met with the large fence that now encapsulates Spreepark. Sadly in August 2014, just before our trip, security at the park was ramped up once again after an arson incident. As many of the forums will tell you, there are ways to get in but we could clearly see the guards and their dogs inside and just before we left witnessed them catching a couple of lads who were inside. So we played it safe and skirted around the perimeter, catching glimpses of the rotting rides and soaking up the eerie atmosphere. You can’t really see the famous t-rex from outside, but you do get to see the ferris wheel which still seems to be moving – just to creep people out. It’s not quite the adventure we’d hoped for but I’m glad we went. The XX played a festival at the park in 2013, so I’d love to find a similar occasion to go in the future. Abandoned Berlin’s Spreepark! article will give you the full run-down from the history of it’s heyday to the very latest updates as well as a great collection of photography and readers comments to give you a real feel for what you can or can’t get away with.
If visiting Spreepark has whetted your appetite for destruction and you’re still looking to quench your rebellious thirst, then make Siemenstadt bahnhof your next stop. The area was the result of engineering giant Siemens’ rapid expansion in the late 1800s where their headquarters there became surrounded by it’s own infrastructure for it’s employees including, of course, it’s own station. Unlike the ghost stations of the underground where they have become time capsules that have been shut off from change for many years, Siemenstadt is based on a bridge over the road with the tracks then disappearing along a bank through the trees… the trees which are making their ways up through the tracks in many places now! Siemenstadt is a Western city’s answer to Angkor’s Ta Prohm in Cambodia – nature has decided it wants it back and it’s done a sterling job of reclaiming the place. It’s now difficult to tell where the platform ends because it becomes blurred into the wilderness. The trees growing through the tracks provide a visual timeline to it’s decline. The moment where I heard movement and thought we were going to have to run from the police, turned out to be just a fox on his regular patrol. Digital Cosmonaut’s feature was the guide we used for our visit; my advice for finding your way in is generally to avoid accessing it from the main road as you’re far too visible, we made our way through a car park behind the old ticket office on the other side of the fence and from there it was just a clamber up the bank. Don’t forget that when you’re up there you’re right above the road, so keep your head down.
Top off your trip with a visit to the listening tower, Teufelsberg, a graffitied relic in Grunewald where you pay around €8 for the privilege of not having to sneak in (though you still have to sign to agree that if anything happens to you, the organisers are not responsible)!
Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Mountain, is a place where two wars meet – it’s a man-made hill constructed from the rubble collected from across Berlin following WWII on top of which the US National Security Agency build a listening station in the 1960s to monitor Soviet and East German military traffic during the Cold War until the fall of the wall in 1989. Today it’s a fascinating playground for graffiti artists as well as a wonderful viewing point for the city, especially as the sun begins to set.
If you’re looking for the ideal souvenir for your time in Berlin, then carry on the disused theme and get yourself to one of the many flea markets. We came across one just around the corner from MINIMAL Hostel and got ourselves an old edition of German Monopoly (just to add a bit more tedium to a long game). However, if you don’t find one nearby, then Flohmarkt am Mauerpark on a Sunday certainly rules the roost and it positions you nicely to continue your day with a bit of history… ‘Mauer’ is German for ‘wall’ and the park gets its name because of it’s position on Bernauer Straße which is the street that the wall once ran down. The street was made famous when Ida Siekmann became the first fatality of the wall after attempting to jump over it from her East Berlin apartment. There are several memorials lining Bernauer Straße so it’s well worth a sobering stroll. On that note, let me end with something that I found rather fascinating – Chris Hadfield’s photograph of Berlin taken from space showing how the two sides of Berlin are still divided by the colour of their street lights, with the noticeably yellower glow in the East.