Earlier this month I spent a few days visiting friends in Berlin, Europe’s apex city on the coolness barometer. Its edgy, its gritty, and its bodies are almost as liberally graffitied as the walls around the U-Bahn (“Subway”) stations where Cold War era trains still clatter to and fro just as they did when the Iron Curtain was at its most dreary and impenetrable.
If you’ve never been, you must. After you’ve seen the regular sights, instagramming filtered pics of the Brandenburg Gate, East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., and woken up at noon the next day in a cold sweat on the banks of the Spree after an MDMA fueled all-nighter at an over-hyped techno club, here’s just the thing to (a) recover and (b) have a righteously unique Berlin experience.
Pull up your pants and finish that half-eaten congealing döner you still have a death grip on. Be sure to keep it all down, even if it means re-swallowing bits of shaved beef and onion you regurgitate into your mouth. This is breakfast and you’re going to need it to get through the first two and a half legs of the epic 7-hour (but relaxed!) Berlin bike tour I’m about to lead you through.
First Leg: Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain
After you rent your bike (you can get them everywhere), make a bee line to the first stop: my friend’s awesome bar Macke Prinz within a stone’s throw of famously rundown Mauerpark (“Wall Park”), former site of the Berlin Wall and its notorious death strip, now host to a ‘Bearpit Karaoke Show’, impromptu concerts, and a sprawling Sunday flea market peddling all variety of rummagables. Macke will be cicada-buzzing quiet in the early afternoon (it opens at 1:00) but, to take the last of the swelling off your bruised brain, gun a double espresso shot with a large sparkling water chaser on the sidewalk terrasse. The chirping of birds and tinkling of bells drifting over from the Zionskirchplatz Park across the street will immerse you in an amniotic sac of serenity that will leaden your feet and make you loath to leave. But it’s time to go and, not to worry, this will also be the end point of the tour where you can spend the rest of the night chatting with hip and quirky people of various ages, nationalities, and backgrounds over some quality beers.
Travel first via Kastanienallee, Kollwitzstraße, Marienburger Straße, and Hufelandstraße. These streets jackknife through Berlin’s kicking Prenzlauer Berg district. Unlike most of the rest of Berlin, which Allied bombing and Soviet artillery had reduced to a smoldering ashpit by the end of the war, some 80% of Prenzlauer Berg’s distinctive “Wilhelmine” buildings were tottering but miraculously still standing. Suffering the misfortune of falling into the clutches of the Soviet sector, they were shoddily maintained when not entirely neglected by the wretched GDR (East Germany). Rotting from the inside out for the duration of the Cold War, by the time of German Reunification in 1990, their blighted façades were more blackened and downcast than the faces of battered women.
Not anymore. Today, as you ride along confident tree-lined streets, some still quaintly cobble-stoned, they have been fully rehabilitated beyond even their original glory and boast the colors of a fruit basket:
The irony is inescapable that, standing next to the majesty of present-day Prenzlauer Berg, some of the once-coveted areas of former West Berlin (e.g. parts of the Wedding locality in Mitte) now seem little more than Brutalist prefab odes to Orwell where strawberry-haired metrosexuals, clutching neurotically at their scrawny girlfriends, would rather die horribly than be caught breathing in.
Moving along, Hufelandstraße’s sudden terminus is a leafy urban oasis, Volkspark Friedrichshain, the oldest public park in Berlin. Constructed in the 1840s to commemorate the centennial of Frederick the Great’s ascension to the Prussian throne, check out Großer Bunkerberg (“tall bunker mountain”) and Kleiner Bunkerberg (“small bunker mountain”). What’s up with making mountains out of molehills? These peaceful wooded hillocks are actually Trümmerberge (“rubble mountains”),* ‘built’ on top of wartime antiaircraft bunkers by the GDR from two million cubic meters of charred debris and unidentifiable body parts which was pretty much all that remained of district Friedrichshain in 1945. Cycle softly because you cycle on mounds of violently snuffed-out dreams.
Rumor has it a ghostly underground bunker world still partly exists beneath these “mountains” and there are secret entrances you can hunt around for if so predisposed.
Continue through Friedrichshain via Ebertystraße and Proskauer Str. Once you have crossed over Frankfurter Allee, it may be worth stopping and walking the bike down elegantly gentrified Niederbarnimstraße/Simon-Dach-Straße, heavily notched with trendy shops, restos, clubs, pubs, and cafés. An extremely popular hive of activity in the city, it’s so diverse I was struck by an interracial (and surprisingly attractive) lesbian couple strolling along, hands in each other’s back pockets and sharing a jumbo-sized bottle of beer, within literal spitting distance of a sulky young skinhead shuffling along harmlessly behind them and an elderly couple gazing down impassively from behind the flowerboxes of their balcony. In case you’re wondering, the practice of walking the streets with a beer in your paw is not only legal in Berlin, it’s so widespread you’d think the authorities encourage it.
This first leg of the tour ends at Boxhagener Platz (or “Boxi” as Berliners have dubbed it), the epicenter of Friedrichshain’s coolness. Bustling any day of the week, this box of green is especially worth a visit on Saturdays for the Wochenmarkt (“weekly market”). Chaotically crammed with food and drink stalls that will make you slobber worse than a Saint Bernard, it’s been up and running for over 110 years now.
On this corner, I was amused to see an aging communist on a soapbox being utterly ignored by the eagerly shopping crowds he was passionately exhorting to abandon capitalism. Regularly pushing a curtain of dirty hippy hair from his face as he became more animated, he was altogether unfazed by the fact that he had an audience of one: me. A foreigner pointing and laughing at him.
If you happen to miss the Wochenmarkt, e.g. because you’ve woken up in a compromising position on the banks of the Spree again, you can still go to the Flohmarkt (“flea market”) on Sunday where budding artists, furniture makers, fashion designers, etc., re-cram Boxi with stalls to flog fragments of their oeuvres, some of which are actually worth the few euros they are going for.
Second Leg: Kreuzberg
Exit Boxi, head down Warschauer Straße, and traverse the Spree at the Oberbaumbrücke span which links Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg (or “X-Berg” as Kreuz = “cross”). During the Cold War, Kreuzberg was the most impoverished district of West Berlin where, beginning in the 1960s, tsunamis of Turkish “guest workers” washed up “temporarily” in the so-called SO 36 part of it and, after successfully addicting the locals to their cuisine, never left. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kreuzberg’s star began to rise until it became one of the funkiest areas to live in even though it remains a hotbed of extreme-left radicalism where cars are ritualistically overturned and burned, shops looted, and cops injured during the annually scheduled May Day riots. Don’t ever tell me the far-left possesses more moral persuasiveness than the far-right…
Speaking of left, go left on Schlesische Str. and, crossing the bridge over the Flutgraben, you’ll see that the canal is lined with cool houseboaty-looking bars and clubs.
Make a mental note to return here, especially to the place on the right, “Club der Visionäre”, arguably the best open-air bar in Berlin where, during the day, the atmosphere on the willow-draped wooden sun terrasse is so relaxed its vacation-like. After dark, the volume of the electronic music goes right up as quality DJs materialize, ignite the party, and make the night over the shimmering canal water thump like the stage’s speaker woofers.
Continuing up Am Flutgraben back to the Spree, take a quick (or long) leer at the throngs of sun worshippers congregated in and around the elongated turquoise rectangle of the Badeschiff (“bathing ship”), all of whom will inevitably be in an advanced state of nudity.
You’ll be as pleased as me to hear that Germans are historically the most comfortably naked people in all of Europe.
If you manage to unglue your eyes from the Badeschiff for a moment and turn right you’ll see “Molecule Man”, a towering 30-meter high aluminum sculpture which is actually three giant men wrestling each other in a standing position on the surface of the water.
Backtracking via Heckmannufer, enter Görlitzer Park, graveyard of the original Görlitzer Bahnhof (“train station”) which was mortally damaged during the Battle of Berlin and ultimately demolished in 1962, the last of its fractured iron bones and petrified wooden ties leading nowhere but still defiantly visible canal side. The groups of laconic Africans loitering around the entrances to the park are drug dealers hawking product in broad daylight as unabashedly (albeit in coded language) as cheese sellers at the Wochenmarkt back in Boxi. Make no mistake, Berlin, more permissive than an eye-batting daughter’s doting father, is four-corner saturated by more illicit narcotics than Ozzy Osbourne in the 1970s. Although drug-related violence has been somewhat on the uptick recently, raising the eyebrows of those not too knee-walking to read the headlines, it’s been quite a peacefully bombed city to date.
From the park, head along the beautiful green banks of the Landwehrkanal where the body of shot-in-the-head Rosa Luxemburg was unceremoniously dumped in 1919. Unmarred by violence today, Berliners young and old laze around here dreaming their dreams.
Go all the way to Kottbusser Brücke (“bridge”) and cross to the other side. Stop for a moment here and look down Kottbusser Damm which separates Kreuzberg on the right from the district of Neukölln (which has an even larger Turkish population) on the left. After Reunification, Neukölln was such a downtrodden and wholly reviled neighborhood, an apartment on its side of the street either lay fallow or was rented out for a fraction of the price of the exact same apartment a couple of car lengths away on the Kreuzberg side. Not anymore. Even though it’s infested by organized criminal Arab clans, as prices in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg have become increasingly stratospheric, the bohemians, artists, and students have migrated to Neukölln in droves and elevated its status, phoenix-like, to the number one hot spot to live in Berlin.
Head back along Landwehrkanal until Hobrechtstraße.
Third Leg: Neukölln, Tempelhof
Close to the Neukölln Rathaus (“City Hall”) is the rather despairing Neukölln Arcaden where, if you’re patient enough to pick your way up the parking lot ramps atop the mall without getting run over, you will find yourself in Klunkerkranich, a rooftop bar where the views of ever-under-construction Berlin will get you buzzed quicker than whatever alcoholic beverage you order.
That Soviet-styled needle pricking the sky in the distance is Berlin’s iconic GDR-built Fernsehturm (“TV Tower”) which sprouts from the pandemonium around Alexanderplatz (or just “Alex” as Berliners call it) in the district of Mitte. Only from the giant steel and glass disco ball bulging between the shaft and the antenna will you get a more panoramic view of the city.
If your stomach is starting to grumble, forget about that garbage you choked down for breakfast and soak up the Klunkerkranich booze with an authentic döner on Flughafenstraße. Any place along here will do but, perched unsteadily on a rickety wooden sidewalk table junkie-watching, I devoured a delectable one close to the Boddinstraße U-Bahn.
Not for vegetarians (although there are plenty of vegetables swept under that carpet of meat) but if you’re a vegetarian, I’m not sure how you found yourself in Germany in the first place. Good luck finding a soy Bratwurst (“fried sausage”)…
Thirsty again? It’s worth going via Schillerpromenade to Herrfurthstraße and grabbing a beer on the cheerful sidewalk terrasse of Café Engels. Engels? Like Kreuzberg, Neukölln is historically rife with communist claptrap even though it too was part of West Berlin during the Cold War.
Carry on down Herrfurthstraße until you find yourself gazing out across a vast lightbulb-shaped expanse of flat, sautéed-brown grass. Here is the former site of Berlin Tempelhof Airport, site of the herculean Berlin Airlift of 1948-9**. The massive crescent moon terminal building hugging the upper right side of the bulb, with its smudged façades of shell limestone the color of old newspapers and preserved air traffic control tower at the western tip, was built between 1936 and 1941 as part of the Nazi era’s colossal Welthauptstadt Germania (“World Capital Germania”) reconstruction program.*** Although the war permanently interrupted its completion, it was once rivaled only by the likes of the Pentagon as the largest building in the world and dubbed “the mother of all airports”.
Formally closed in 2008, the aircraft in the skies overhead were replaced by the circling vultures of rapacious developers, euro symbols burning bright in their eyes. Its fate hung in the balance until Berliners decided by plebiscite to leave the defunct grounds and terminal building entirely unmolested. Renamed Tempelhofer Feld (“field”), it’s the largest inner-city open space in the world.
It’s also probably the most surreal as you interminably peddle down the fat centerline markings, arrowed and faded, of the 2-kilometer long 09L/27R runway where a steady stream of wide-body aircraft once thundered and hurtled ahead of their own turbulent slurries of jetwash violent enough to blast you and your pathetic Dutch bike all the way back to Café Engels like dried leaves in the wind. The sheer bigness of the space beneath the stretched-out Montana-esque sky has the effect of reducing the scattered figures on the ground; you and the other cyclists, rollerbladers, kite surfers, allotment enthusiasts, joggers, jugglers, baton twirlers, dancers, etc., to flailing Lilliputian dimensions. It’s worth stopping and snapping some pics here. You’ll find them so infused with existential emptiness that, even unenhanced with Photoshop, you can imagine them on album covers.
This is the highlight of the tour so, if you insist on doing an abbreviated version, don’t leave this section on the cutting room floor.
Exit the airfield at Paradestraße U-Bahn station, turn right and head back northwards via Tempelhofer Damm and Dudenstraße. When you hit Monumentenstraße, you have departed the locality of Tempelhof (named after the Knights Templar and also part of former West Berlin) and come to the end of this leg.
Fourth Leg: Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, Tiergarten
From Monumentenstraße, reenter Kreuzberg (this time at the western end of it) via the narrow inverted pyramid of Flaschenhalspark which expands upwards into the popular Park am Gleisdreieck (PaG). The maze of railway lines around the traffic junction of the Anhalter and Potsdamer freight yards literally became a wasteland at the end of the war which, over the years, unexpectedly transformed into a refuge for a rich diversity of flora and fauna fleeing the torrid redevelopment surrounding it. So much so that, just like Tempelhofer Feld, Berliners lobbied hard to protect this unlikely ecosanctuary. And they won: PaG was completed in 2013 and is today one of the most beloved parks in the city, vestigial signaling and railway facilities emerging here and there through the greenery endowing it with a Görlitzer flair.
Follow the route up until Potsdamer Platz; the busiest traffic hub in all of Europe during the interwar period, pulverized to dust by 1945 (and, appropriately, site of Hitler’s bunker), left an unloved and barren no man’s land during the Cold War when cleaved in two by the Berlin Wall, site of Roger Waters’ 1990 performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, locus of the largest construction project in all of Europe after Reunification, and today an impressive triangulated array of gleaming office complexes serving as an altar to free market capitalists who ritualistically sacrifice pesky May Day communists kidnapped from Kreuzberg and Neukölln as a matter of compensation for their torched Mercs.
From here you enter the Tiergarten (“Animal Garden”), the city’s second largest park after Tempelhofer Feld. It is commonly assumed that it is named Tiergarten because the southwest section is home to the Berlin Zoo. While this is true, it has carried the designation since the 16thcentury when it was so thickly wooded it served as a verdant hunting ground, chock-full of deer and other wild animals, to the rulers of Brandenburg. By the winter of 1945, however, it more resembled a lunar landscape after virtually every single tree had been culled for firewood by freezing Berliners shivering not just from the cold but also in anticipation of the imminent arrival of marauding Soviet forces. Since then, the park has been reforested to the enchantment level of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale and today you can scarcely comprehend its relatively recent devastation. With romantic canals lazily winding through it, I find it the most pleasing and relaxing central park of any city I’ve been to.
Follow the water along the south side until you get to Café am Neuen See (“Café by the New Lake”), a charmed Biergarten under high trees with swooping branches. It’s imperative to stop here for further refreshment and watch in amusement as love-struck young men, gripped in a swell of impulsive gallantry, precariously navigate rowboats rented from next door by batting uncertainly at the water with heavy oars, their attempts to woo their nervously smiling girlfriends sitting in the back enjoying limited success.
If you feel like getting even toastier, head over to the western edge of the park and discover the Schleusenkrug (“Locks Mug”), so named because it’s another merry beer garden nestled by a canal lock which serves beer in mugs bigger than your face. It also has a reputation for its top-drawer Flammkuchen, an Alsatian “pizza” I can’t recommend more strongly.
Continue on to the Großer Stern (“Great Star”), a street-radiating roundabout including Straße des 17. Juni which bisects the Tiergarten from the Brandenburg Gate at the east end to its less famous counterpart, the Charlottenburg Gate, at the west end. The street’s name commemorates the date in 1953 when the Red Army partnered with the Volkspolizei (“People’s Police”) for a successful outing of target practice conducted upon masses of disgruntled East Berliner workers. In recent years, it has played host to a number of mega-events, notably the electro blowout Love Parade in the 1990s, Live8 in 2005, the start of the Berlin Marathon, and the city’s insane New Year’s Eve bash which converges down on the Brandenburg Gate and, dwarfing the one in New York’s Times Square, is estimated to be the largest annual party in the world.
From the middle of the Großer Stern rises the landmark Siegessäule (“Victory Column”) atop of which a bronze sculpture of Victoria, the winged goddess of victory (Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess Nike), stands with an upraised laurel wreath in one hand and, firmly gripped in the other, a military spear- its standard an Iron Cross quartering another wreath between shaft and blade. With her helmet peaked prominently with a spread-winged eagle, she is also the embodiment of 19th century Prussian military might.
Quite apt seeing as, by the time the monument was finished in 1873, the Kingdom of Prussia had decisively put its adversaries to the sword in the Second Schleswig War against Denmark (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), the last of which culminated in the successful unification of Germany as an imperial power under the Prussian crown. Was it any accident that when dear Victoria was relocated from in front of the Reichstag to the Großer Stern in 1938 (another part of the Welthauptstadt Germania misadventure) her steady gaze was fixed more or less directly towards Paris…?
In any event, modern-day Berliners, who have an understandably jaundiced view of militaristic posturing, enjoy making Otto von Bismarck rotor whirl in his grave by irreverently referring to the column as Goldelse (“Golden Lizzy”). If you’re not too drunk or döner-bloated, you can attempt an ascent of the grueling 285-step staircase that tightly spirals up through Golden Lizzy’s innards and take in yet another dazzling view of the city from her observation platform.
Exit Großer Stern via Spreeweg and on to John-Foster-Dulles-Allee.
Fifth Leg: Mitte
The sun will be slowly bleaching out of the sky now, casting Kafka shadows down the gray banks of the Spree under a teething breeze. Follow the river past Kanzleramtssteg, up over the its arcing bell through Spreebogenpark, where talented buskers tragically play to an audience of no one (except you), and down to Marschallbrücke. This bridge is a less conventional vantage point to capture a pic of the Reichstag building; house of the Imperial Diet from 1894 until 1933 when it was almost destroyed by fire; neglected ruin throughout the Cold War; wrapped in aluminum-colored fabric by alleged artist Christo in 1995; and fully restored Bundestag (parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany) since 1999.
That teatless glass dome on the roof is a nod to the original 1894 cupola, which was widely condemned at the time for desecrating the neo-baroque lines of the rest of the building with its garish modernity, and serves as yet another impressive observation platform from which to view the city, especially at night. While the black-red-gold stripes of large German flags undulate conspicuously from its corner towers, equally large EU flags adorn its various other parts in a deliberate display of how engrained the principles of unity, solidarity, and harmony among all the peoples of Europe have become in the present-day German psyche.
Continue on down the other side of the Spree via Schiffbauerdamm and, assuming you’ve already wandered around Museum Island and stood gaping at the foot of the Berliner Dom, turn left on Friedrichstraße and follow the route all the way back to Macke (i.e. via Ziegelstraße, Tucholskystraße, Auguststraße, Koppenplatz, Ackerstraße, and Veteranenstraße). Although there are no particular sites to point out on this last sprint, delight in cycling through the heart of Mitte (“Middle”), the city’s most central district. If it has struck you that Berlin has no readily identifiable downtown it’s because, just like the country as a whole prior to unification in 1871, for centuries it was little more than a concentration of independent fiefdoms which only started getting knitted together (either voluntarily or by annexation) gradually after 1701, when the area was designated capital of Prussia, until it ultimately emerged as something resembling the incongruous quilt we have today.
Night having fallen, Macke will be hopping now. However, if your stomach is grumbling again, before settling in have a wander up Kastanienallee. For something on the fly, find the unassuming mustard-colored retro shack under the bridge by Eberswalder Straße U-bahn called Konnopke’s Imbiß. Founded in 1930, it has survived the Nazi era, the GDR era, all the post-Reunification demolitions and reconstructions, and still stands (albeit not the original shack) serving its renowned Currywurst. Sitting in the open air on a hard wooden bench, trains shaking the bridge overhead and armed with a miniature plastic fork, you’ll fish out the slices of sausage swimming in a lake of curry sauce while praying you can get it all down before the sodden carboard box teetering on your knee disintegrates. No, it’s not disgusting. It’s beautiful. And you won’t regret it.
If you’re falling down famished, stop in at the Pratergarten on Kastanienallee just before Eberswalder Straße. Founded in 1837, the Prater is the oldest and most historic beer garden in Berlin. Although it no longer plays host to bloody public boxing matches, open air theater, and incendiary political gatherings, you can still sit on the long wooden furniture under soft fairy lights strung through the trees and tuck into some traditional German food. I recommend the Sauerbraten, a seriously committed fuckoff hunk of pork served with a veritable Trümmerberg of mashed potatoes and red cabbage, all encircled by a moat of thick brown gravy. I repeat: it’s not disgusting. It’s beautiful. And you won’t regret it.
Back in Macke, bending the elbow with ein großes (“a large”) Veltins beer, you’ll get a much-needed break from drum and bass as the music in the bar is as diverse as its patrons. The last night I was there, I chatted with a 40-something German filmmaker with dark watery eyes deeply set in the sunken craters of his bulbous head. One of them interrupted the course of a thick long scar, bulging at intervals like a squashed worm, which originated on one side of his forehead, traveled all the way down the center of his cheek to the jawline, and split into an arterial delta that drained into the shadows under his spade of a chin.
I found him so amiable and frank that, after a gut-warming shot of Jägermeister, I finally collected the balls to ask, with a vague eye-nod, “so what happened there?”
“Ah this,” he said, touching the scar gingerly with one hand while taking a prolonged heater-crackling haul off his cigarette with the other, metal wrist bangles clinking together. “Little mishap on my motorbike in Mongolia. Also shattered my leg and lost my spleen,” he explained as missiles of smoke launched from his mouth and nostrils with each word. “What’s that expression in English? ‘Only a face a mother could love’ is it?”
“Yes, that’s it,” I laughed. But the scar actually suited him and his personality somehow and it occurred to me that this guy was kind of the embodiment of Berlin’s eerie dissonance: grievously broken and scarred while all the more unique and reconstructed for it, dark and simmering while cool and gregarious, edgy while relaxed, opinionated while tolerant, and most of all: limitlessly fascinating…
* Trümmerberge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schuttberg
** Berlin Blockade and Airlift: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Blockade
*** Welthauptstadt Germania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germania_(city)
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