Travel review: Germany’s capital, 25 years on from the Berlin Wall’s fall
14:46 07 November 2014
Scenes of desperation, euphoria and hope unfolding on the news as the Berlin Wall was ripped down in a torrent of defiance is one of my very earliest memories.
Aged five, I recall toddling down the stairs at home to find my mum glued to the TV screen – although I was too young to understand what it was all about, it registered as something hugely significant.
So it was somewhat poignant to head there as an adult aware of the history nearly 25 years on from that world-changing day, as the German capital prepared to mark the milestone which opened the floodgates to the rush of creativity that now makes it one of the most cultural, edgy and hip destinations on the planet.
But instead of washing away its troubled, tortured history – the city and its people have used the pain of the past as a form of expression in its reinvention. Nowhere is this more apparent than along the longest remaining stretch of the wall in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the East Side Gallery.
Once a loathed, despised concrete bulwark which divided West and East Germany – and saw many people killed trying to scale it – this 1.3 kilometre stretch of wall has turned from a symbol of the Iron Curtain to a memorial for freedom, and with it a canvas for its thriving arts scene.
After the 5.7 kilometre wall came down on November 9, 1989, hundreds of artists from all over the world arrived to transform the once grey, formidable barrier into a picture gallery with more than 100 paintings.
Some moving, some funny – some beautiful – we happily ambled along the wall for a good hour before grabbing a drink on the bank of the River Spree which it lines.
Meanwhile the grim reality of everyday life in a divided Berlin during the Cold War is portrayed at the Panorama - The Wall exhibition by artist Yadegar Asisi, who has bundled into the artwork his memories of living in nearby Kreuzberg of the former western block of the city during the 80s.
The moving, atmospheric display in a cylindrical steel rotunda displays a panorama of the daily routine on both sides of the Berlin Wall on an autumn day in the 80s which you can look over from an elevated platform – with the poverty and desolation stark on the east side compared to the thriving colours of the western side of the city, once a free city and political.
It’s in the Friedrichstadt area beside Checkpoint Charlie – the name given by western allies to the best known border crossing, which has become a favourite setting for spy thrillers and espionage novels since. One of the city’s most iconic tourism attractions, it’s now home to a reconstructed US Army guardhouse and copy of the original border sign which is manned by an actor dressed as a soldier. Beside it is the Museum Haus, depicting the history and plight of those during the Cold War in Germany.
A short stroll down the road back towards our hotel, was the Typography of Terror exhibition which is based on the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters depicts the horror of the Second World War, as well as some further history of the Berlin Wall alongside one of the original standing segments.
After a busy day’s sightseeing the five star Grand Hyatt Berlin couldn’t have been a more luxurious retreat to come back to – the rooms modern, slick and among the most comfortable and sumptuous I’ve ever stayed in, while the gorgeous rooftop swimming pool and spa allowed for some rest and recuperation time with some magnificent views.
Located in the upmarket Mitte area of the city, many more of Berlin’s historical sites were within walking distance – including the impressive Holocaust Memorial which consists of thousands of grey blocks, iconic neoclassical arch the Brandenburg Gate and the modern government building the Reichstag. A visit to the roof terrace and ascending dome of the Reichstag is a must-do attraction, but you have to register in advance to get your free pass or suffer a lengthily queue on the day.
The hop-on-and-off tourist bus with City Circle Sightseeing is also a great way to see the city and stumble upon some real cultural gems while learning some fascinating historical facts along the way – we did the full two-and-a-half hour circuit over a couple of days of our stay.
One of our best finds was the Capital Beach Bar on the banks of the River Spree on the opposite side of the water to the city’s main railway station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof – we happily whiled away a couple of hours relaxing on the waterside deckchairs, sipping cocktails and watching boats chugging along.
Indeed, a boat trip along the river allows you to see the city from another perspective – we caught a trip from Reichstagufer which took us on an hour long tour past the stunning Museum Islandand then back down the river past the Reichstag and into the more modern part of the city.
Afterwards we had a lovely drink and snack at one of the riverside bars along Schiffbauerdamm, near to where we alighted the boat.
Just like it’s architecture and history, Berlin’s culinary scene has also been the subject of major transformation – none more so than in recent years, with a number of high profile openings.
Gone are the days where the city is most famous for currywurst (although it is still a must) or the humble doner kebab, which was invented in Germany – Berlin is now just as renowned for its upmarket dining scene which competes with some of the best in the world.
Our favourite meal by far was at Glass in Charlottenburg, a relatively new addition on the restaurant circuit but one that is making big waves. You can see why – it’s not just a meal, it’s an experience, with our seven course meal providing an explosion of the senses.
Steak tartare was tender and flavoursome, served with a creamy egg yolk and the ‘forest in a glass’ was filled with earthy, smokey-flavoured mushrooms. Meanwhile the venison was delicious - tender, rich and full of gamey flavour which was complemented perfectly with the sweet figs accompanying the dish.
Getting there: Direct flights from London Heathrow to Berlin, Tegel, start at £94 return with British Airways
Where to stay:
Grand Hyatt Berlin, Marlene-Dietrich-Platz 2, 10785 Berlin
Where to eat:
Glass, Uhlandstraße 195, 10623 Berlin
However, the standout moment of the evening was when the ‘candy box’ surprise arrived at our table. Heston Blumenthal-like in its execution, this is not just a dessert - it’s a piece of culinary theatre. Featuring smoke from a flash frozen chocolate mousse, popping candy, marshmallows and an array of sweets, the dish is served directly onto the table and is the stuff childhood sweetshop dreams are made of.
Amongst younger crowds, Berlin is perhaps best known for it’s nightlife with a clubbing scene vying for the crown of the best in Europe.
Although tempted to try our luck at Berghain – the city’s most exclusive nightclub for which there are even articles online about ‘how to make it in’ – we didn’t fancy the prospect of queueing for anything up to three hours and getting turned away.
There are plenty of other clubs to choose from, but being put off by long queues at those with the best reputation we decided to instead enjoy some late night drinks in some of the more low-key bars in Mitte – particularly in and around Charlottenstrasse.
The Vox Bar inside our hotel was also a fantastic spot, with some delicious cocktails and more than 300 blends of whisky on offer. A short walk away was also the Solar Bar in Stresemannstraße – at the top of a somewhat uninviting brutalist apartment block, the bar serves some top notch drinks with spectacular views over the city.
As the city marks the fall of the wall this weekend, it’s clear Berlin is only going to continue to evolve. During our four days there we felt we barely scratched the surface of this amazing city so a return trip is definitely on the cards.
For tourist information visit www.visitberlin.de/en