“I love Berlin!!” It’s the standard reply people give when they hear we’re headed here. Yet, despite having spent more time Berlin than any other European city (except London, where we lived for 9 years), Stephen and I aren’t so sure…
There have been times when we’ve disliked Berlin immensely, even a few days when we’ve hated it. But, I must admit, Berlin is slowly growing on us.
So, though Berlin has never stolen my heart the way Prague, Paris and Vienna did, there are still plenty of reasons to love Berlin.
10 Reasons to Love Berlin (and One Thing I Hate)
Reason 1: Historic Home for Joggers and Juggers
If I ever moved to Berlin, I would make sure I lived within walking distance, or at the very least, cycling distance, of Templehof. Despite the name, Templehof is no longer an airport — its last commercial flight took off in late 2008. The airport was first built in 1923 and then radically expanded under the direction of Albert Speer and the Nazi government in the 1930s. It was also the landing pad for the Berlin Airlift.
Now, the attraction of Templehof is the gaping wild space in the middle of an otherwise paved and vertical urban landscape. The void makes the perfect spot for joggers and cyclists to get their exercise while hip hop dancers, rock bands, and Jugger players happily co-exist.
One of my favourite stories about Templehof involves a war pilot, hundreds of kids, and a whole lot of candy. The other involves an encounter with the band I have loved most in this lifetime.
Recently, Templehof’s story has taken a sad turn. The airport buildings currently house around 3,000 refugees, sleeping on bunk beds inside canvass tents. For the refugees, the crisis that pushed them from their homes to seek help in strange lands is far from over. They are living one day at a time, not knowing where they’ll be tomorrow or if they’ll ever get to go home. If you want to help out, here’s a good place to start.
Reason 2: Lazy Sunday Strolls
On any given sunny Sunday, a stroll along the Landwehrkanal reveals the rainbow of life in Berlin. Young lovers make out on the canal side while old men doze on park benches, and harried parents chase after excited toddlers who are, in turn, chasing after angry swans.
In Berlin, everything is closed on Sunday. I always thought this was a ridiculous inconvenience, until I got to see how this mandated day of freedom plays out for the residents of Berlin who live along the Landwehrkanal.
Reason 3: Checkpoint Charlie in Chocolate
If you love walking as a means to experience a city, then Berlin will give you a serious case of happy feet.
One of my favourite walks takes you from Kreuzberg to the Brandenburg gate.
It begins in Mehringplatz, where the apartment buildings encircle what has been a construction site for years now. One day, I hope to take this walk and discover that something wonderful has been built there.
After Mehringplatz, head north along the arrow-straight Friedrichstrasse, where soaring apartment buildings are decorated in colourful murals, and soon, you’ll be at Checkpoint Charlie, a sight universally detested by locals but a must-see for any first-timer to Berlin.
Past Checkpoint Charlie, take a detour to visit Fassbender & Rausch, the venerable chocolatier famous for their sweet statues of Berlin’s monuments. Just across the street is the Gendarmenmarkt, one of the most impressive squares in Berlin, housing the imposing Konzerthaus as well as the Französischer Dom and the Deutsher Dom.
Past Gendarmenmarkt, head north until you reach Unter den Linden and then go west. Soon, you’ll stumble upon the hordes of tourists at the dramatic Brandenburg gate.
Wherever you choose to walk in Berlin, you’ll be treated to impressive architecture, colourful street art, and a local’s experience of the city.
Reason 4: Perfect on Two Wheels
Mostly flat, relatively compact, and carpeted with cycling infrastructure, Berlin is a true cyclist’s city. Cyclists come out at all times of day and night, even during the icy winter rain. Since a single short ride on the U-bahn cha-chings in at €2.70, I always long for my bike when in Berlin.
There is a network of city shared bikes available from Call-a-Bike, but it’s not that easy for tourists to sign up (go figure). If you manage to navigate the system (which we have not), these bikes are the ideal way to traverse the city as you take in the sights.
Reason 5: Vegan Food on Every Street
While the gluten-free food craze has bloated to engulf all of North America, it seems Berlin has gone on a vegan kick. In Berlin, it is no longer necessary to do the usual vegan routine of pre-planning every meal and trekking to out-of-the-way neighbourhoods to eat. Stroll along any street and I challenge you not to spot a “Vegan Food” sign in a restaurant window. Drop in at almost any restaurant and they probably have a few vegan items on the menu.
Of course, we vegans live to plan our meals, so if you’re on your way to Berlin, find out all about my favourite Berlin budget vegan meals.
Reason 6: Outdoor is Better Than In
In some cities (LA, I’m looking at you), leaving the safe bubble of your car is regarded as eccentric and dangerous behaviour. In Berlin, where the weather is at least 1000x worse than LA, people are out and about at all times of night and day.
They gather along the river and the canals, they cycle instead of taking the train, and they walk to the local market, the local grocery store, or the local restaurant. As soon as the weather hints at spring, neighbourhood sidewalks fill up with the tables and chairs from every restaurant.
This lively outdoor life makes it easy for tourists to hang out and do what the locals do, just by walking down the street.
Reason 7: Scoring Cheap Fresh Fruits and Veggies
After living on an island on the edge of Canada for a year, I got used to the price of fruits and veggies being eye-wateringly astronomical. Buying our week’s worth of groceries at the Turkish market at Maybachufer, I felt like I was being pranked. How could all of these fresh, colourful veggies cost so little? I got this gorgeous pile of fruits and veggies, everything two of us would need for a week of cooking, for €6. Crazy.
Reason 8: Surprise, a Beautiful Old Church
As a chronic wanderer, I love anything in a city that takes me by surprise. Many of Berlin’s streets are lined with tall apartment buildings, packed tightly together, with no daylight between them. The building density can make the streets feel oppressive and repetitive (not as much as Hong Kong, where the streets are in perpetual shadow), especially on an overcast day when the clouds press down on the rooftops.
Which is why, though churches bore me and religion generally horrifies me, it is enormously gratifying when suddenly the streets open up to reveal a gothic red-brick church reaching towards the sky / God. It gets me right here every time.
Reason 9: A Whole New World of Understanding
I remember the day the Berlin wall came down. I was just a kid, more interested in basketball and boys than politics in Europe; I had no idea what the fall of the Berlin wall really meant. After travelling through the “Eastern Bloc” countries and reading and learning more and more about the Stalin regime, I thought I finally understood what it was all about.
But, there’s nothing like standing in the middle of Karl-Marx Strasse or at the East Side Gallery, gazing along the line where the wall used to be, to open up a whole new world of understanding. It’s easy and hard at the same time to imagine a wall completely separating the apartment buildings on one side of the street from the apartment buildings on the other.
People living a literal stone’s throw away had no access to each other, no idea about what the others were experiencing, no (legal) way to even get a message across. Trying to imagine such a circumstance in this day of PMs and IMs and Snapchat gives me a new and deeper appreciation for our freedom.
Reason 10: Art for All
Imagine an entire city as a canvas. That’s what Berlin is for street artists.
Every flat surface within reach features a creation by a budding young Banksy. Of course, like all art, 95% of it is rubbish done by talentless hacks, but when there are thousands of pieces to see, you’ll come away having viewed at least a few works of art that will make you laugh, think, or just wonder what the hell it all means.
And the One Thing I Hate: Graffiti
While technically illegal, drawing on walls in Berlin seems to be a pastime that anyone can participate in, without fear of retribution. As a result, every square inch of every building (only in certain neighbourhoods for some inexplicable reason) is covered in graffiti.
I know I just said I love street art, but graffiti is not the same thing. Street art makes a statement; graffiti is an ugly scrawl without any intention behind it. It’s the difference between scribbling to get a pen to work and writing your most inspiring thought in careful calligraphy.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I hate the graffiti so much. Maybe it’s the lack of respect for other people’s property? Maybe it’s the lack of artistry or intelligence behind it? Maybe it’s because I worry about the broken window theory? Maybe it’s just because the mess offends my bourgeois need for everything to be clean, tidy, and perfect. Whatever it is, I hate it, and it has a powerful effect on the way I feel when I’m in Berlin
What are your thoughts on Berlin? Love it? Hate it? Just waiting to visit? Tell us everything!