Germany’s Great Melting Pot
Published: November 21, 2012 (Issue # 1736)
NATALYA SMOLENTSEVA / SPT
The Sunday flea market at the junction of Bernauer Strasse and Schwedler Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg is an excellent place to pick up a bargain or just to browse the clothes, records and furniture.
Berlin, a city of immigrants from all over the world, where historical buildings sit side by side with squats and modern business centers, can be defined as a melting pot of cultures, nations and cuisines.
The initial surprise that first-time visitors to the German capital are likely to notice is the fact that it has no real city center — every district in Berlin has its own center and its own life and differs significantly from the rest of the city. Busy shopping streets can be found in Charlottenburg, while Kreuzberg is home to a Turkish market and restaurants serving up all kinds of eastern cuisine. For underground parties in abandoned buildings, Friedrichshain is the place to go, while if cozy local cafes, little stores selling goods made by young designers and art galleries are your thing, head to Prenzlauer Berg. Main tourist attractions like Alexanderplatz and the Reichstag are located in Mitte. Ultimately, it is only 23 years since the city was divided between two different countries, and the differences between East and West Berlin are still visible.
Berlin was created from the union of two cities on opposite sides of the Spree River. The name of the city has nothing in common with the bear (“bär” in German) that is now its symbol and coat of arms. The metropolis’s name is more likely to have originated from “berl,” the German word for swamp.
The city’s long history of immigration began in 1671, when 50 Jewish families from Austria were given a home in Berlin. In 1685, Frederick William I of Prussia offered refuge to the French Calvinist Huguenots, 6,000 of whom settled in Berlin. The cultural influence of France on the city in this period was enormous, as 20 percent of the city’s residents were French.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Berlin became the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia and expanded to Cölln, Friedrichswerder, Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichstadt. After Greater Berlin was created by incorporating several neighboring towns and villages like Charlottenburg, Köpenick and Spandau, the population grew to four million, even more than it is today.
The city was badly damaged in World War II, and after the Nazi surrender was divided into four sectors by the Allies under the London Protocol. Berlin is a living monument to the events of the 20th century. Parts of the infamous Berlin Wall still remind Germans and tourists of the tragedies of the past century. A 1.4-kilometer stretch of the former border strip has been converted into the Berlin Wall Memorial, situated at a historic site on Bernauer Strasse. The free exhibit shows the history of this street that was once a border between two countries, of its residents, many of whom were separated from their friends and families, and of those who tried to get over the wall in search of a better life.
The longest surviving section of the Berlin Wall (more than one kilometer in length) stretches along the river and is called the East Side Gallery. The paintings on the wall, executed by artists from all over the world, still attract crowds, despite being damaged and covered with graffiti and tourists’ signatures.
What to see
NATALYA SMOLENTSEVA / SPT
The last of the city’s former gates, the Brandenburg Gate is an enduring symbol of the city and the divisions of the past.
If the weather is fine, rent a bike and explore some of Berlin’s residential districts, like Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain. The lively street life, small stores, cafes and green areas of these districts will make any bike ride a pleasant one. Locals also recommend cycling to Tempelhof Park, formerly Tempelhof Airport, where a vast green zone can be found. City parks such as the Grosser Tiergarten and Volkspark Friedrichshain are great places to spend the day, especially in autumn.
Those who like baroque and rococo architecture should visit Charlottenburg Palace in the east of the city. The only surviving royal city residence, it is surrounded by a huge garden with a belvedere, a mausoleum, a theater and a pavilion. Parks and palaces can also be found not very far from Berlin in the town of Potsdam, the summer residence of the Prussian kings. The journey by train takes around an hour.
To see Berlin from above, ascend the TV tower on Alexanderplatz. It costs 12 euros ($15) and lines can be long, but the view of the city from 203 and 207 meters is definitely worth the effort. To save time and money, you can also see a panorama of the city from the dome of renowned architect Norman Foster’s reconstructed Reichstag. Entrance to the building is free of charge, but visitors have to sign up on its website in advance. For Russians, entering the Reichstag may have a symbolic meaning, as they will be following in the footsteps of the Reichstag’s Soviet conquerors in 1945. During reconstruction, the Germans decided not to remove the graffiti left by Soviet soldiers on the walls, another surviving reminder of the tragic scars the 20th century left on the city.
Near the Reichstag building, it is impossible to miss the iconic Brandenburg Gate, the sole survivor of the city’s former gates and one of its enduring symbols. The Holocaust Memorial, a 19,000-square-meter site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs that vary in height from 0.2 to 4.8 meters, is also located in this area.
A short walk further is Potsdamer Platz, the heart of Berlin’s business district, surrounded by modern office buildings, the most well known being the Sony Center building.
The legendary Berlin Zoo is bound to be of interest to adults and children alike. There are in fact two zoos in the city, as a result of its divided history. East Berlin’s zoo is bigger, but more animals can be seen in the better-known Zoologischer Garten in what was formerly West Berlin. The elephants adorning the zoo’s gate do not give false expectations: These gray giants are some of the most popular animals in the zoo, which itself is the most popular in Europe, and is frequently praised for the conditions in which the animals live.
If you are in Berlin on a Sunday, check out the local flea market on the corner of Bernauer and Schwedler Strasse. Old cameras, posters, furniture, clothes, vinyl LPs and handmade jewelry can be easily found here. Whether you are searching for gifts for your friends or just want to treat yourself, the market is definitely worth a visit.
NATALYA SMOLENTSEVA / SPT
Berlin is renowned for its alternative culture, and colorful street art is a common sight around the city.
One of the best tourist attractions in Berlin is Museum Island, where the city’s five main museums are brought together. If you have time for only one of them, make it the Pergamon Museum, where collections of Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian art are on display. To avoid standing in line for more than an hour, you can buy tickets online.
Those who are interested in late 20th-century art may find the collection of the New National Gallery of interest. Works by Andy Warhol, Yves Klein and Henry Moore are exhibited alongside the music video of The Beatles’ “All you need is love.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city began to attract a lot of independent artists. Small contemporary art galleries can be found in the streets of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, while young artists, actors and poets hang out in the bars nearby. However, what is most impressive and inseparable from the appearance of Berlin is its street art. Huge swathes of abandoned factories, railway bridges and road signs are plastered in graffiti. Artists from all over the world use these spaces to protest against commercialization and the financial crisis, or simply to express their feelings. To see hidden street art and try to understand its language, you can join a free walking tour called Alternative Berlin (alternativeberlin.com/) that starts every day at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. from the not-so-alternative Starbucks cafe on Alexanderplatz. This tour offers a glimpse of the real life of the Berlin underground: Skateboarders’ practice sessions, squares where demonstrations take place, squats and of course impressive examples of street art. The guides are a wealth of interesting historical facts, and you might even find out about the old Turk who became a local celebrity for digging a garden in 1983 on a patch of wasteland beside the Berlin Wall that actually belonged to East Germany.
NATALYA SMOLENTSEVA / SPT
Elephants adorn the oriental gates of Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten.
“The city that never sleeps” is a suitable label for Berlin. Although noted for its techno parties, it offers music events for any taste. If you are looking for a crazy party full of local color, go to Friedrichshain. At least five nightclubs in the area occupy former factories now decorated by local street artists, where club, electronic and even swing evenings can be found. Entrance fees are usually around 5-10 euros ($6.50-$13).
Where to eat
When you ask locals about traditional food, they think for a while and then, smiling, recommend currywurst and doner kebab. The original German pork sausage with warm curry ketchup, currywurst can be found practically everywhere, but one of the best places to try it is Curry 36 in Kreuzberg (36 Mehringdamm, +49 (0)30 25 800 8830,
Doner kebab is widely available in Berlin because of the abundance of immigrants from Turkey. The Turkish district is situated in West Berlin close to the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station, and the area has a Turkish market that is also worth visiting.
NATALYA SMOLENTSEVA / SPT
The Holocaust Memorial is a disorientating thicket of 2,711 concrete slabs.
Blumencafé (127a Schönhauser Allee, 030 4473 4226), which combines a café and a flower shop, is especially good for breakfasts. Cozy little restaurants serving Italian, Japanese, Indian and local cuisine can be found along Kastanienallee, Bergmannstrasse and Oranienstrasse. The streets around Boxhagener Platz and Kollwitzplatz are also recommended. Finding a good place to eat in Berlin is never difficult — just ask locals on the streets. Berliners are very friendly and practically everyone speaks good English.
How To Get There
Aeroflot, Air Berlin and other airlines together offer several daily flights between St. Petersburg and Berlin. One-way tickets cost upward of about 9,000 rubles ($285).
Where to Stay
When choosing which district to stay in, it’s best to determine what exactly you want to get out of your trip to the German capital. Those coming for just a couple of days are recommended to stay in Mitte to have quick access to the main tourist attractions. Nightlife lovers should choose Friedrichshain, while those after a bit of retail therapy should opt for Charlottenburg.
The four-star Hotel Zoo Berlin (25 Kurfürstendamm, Charlottenburg) is situated in the main shopping street near the Zoological Garden. A perfect choice for a family, it is located just two minutes on foot from the U-Bahn, the railway station and the bus stop for Tegel Airport. They also serve good and diverse breakfasts. A triple room costs from 112 euros ($143), a single 55 euros ($70).
The comfortable Alcatraz Backpacker hostel offers a cheaper stay (133a Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg, www.alcatraz-backpacker.de/). Friendly staff, a colorful design, a well-equipped kitchen and free Internet access are the advantages of this hostel. A double room costs about 40-50 euros ($51-$64), a bed in a dormitory around 11-13 euros ($14-$17). Alcatraz Backpacker also offers bike rental for those who want to explore the city by bike.