Berlin: “Poor but sexy”

A few years ago, the mayor of Berlin was reported to describe his city as “poor but sexy”. Though Germany at large remains the economic powerhouse of the EU, Berlin has had difficulty attracting innovative growth industries, with government being the most prominent employer, so to speak. As a result, the rents remain relatively affordable still and gentrification of the former East Berlin/GDR sectors is slow at best, so artist-types still flock to the city creating a thick bohemian vibe.

With “artists’ collectives”, dreadlocks and facial piercings still in abundance, Berlin reminds me of early ’90’s East Village. It’s a little “Rent”-ish. And Amy Winehouse appears to be the patron saint of the city, with murals adorning walls of abandoned buildings and her music heard in no less than two restaurants I frequented in the 30 hours I was there. If anyone embodies the “poor but sexy” ethos, it has to be her, right?

That doesn’t mean Berlin is without its charms. In fact, if feels very much a city on the verge, and intrepid types looking for the “next” thing might want to give it a shot. And with more galleries and museums than people it seems (hell, they even have an area called “Museum Island”) it’s perfect for a serious art binge.  It’s like Prague 15-20 years ago, but with the global economic crisis slowing growth all over, and the scant resources going elsewhere, it’s going to take a while for Berlin to claim its rightful place as a capital of cool. So you have some time, hipster travelers, unless you are so jaded you feel that it’s almost “over”! With that said, let’s get on with Kristin Rolla’s DO!/DON’T! list…Berliner style!


Support the local government – The historic Reichstag building, home to the German Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, is smack dab in the middle of the city and quite possibly one of the most beautiful state buildings I’ve ever seen. While the building has always featured a glass dome behind it’s stone edifice, it was not always safe from the harsh weather Berlin is known for. But with the reunification of the German state in 1990, and the opening of the new Bundestag, a new Norman Foster-designed dome was unveiled, perfectly symbolizing the new, more stable era of German governance. Apparently the view from the top ain’t bad either!

Revisit the GDR – Remnants of the former German Democratic Republic lurk all over the city, with sections of the Berlin Wall transformed into open air museums (e.g. Eastside Gallery) and artifacts of the Cold War era for sale almost everywhere you look (e.g. Checkpoint Charlie Museum gift shop!) Espionage and conspiracy theory fans take note – there’s even a Stasi (the former state security service of East Germany) exhibition! But be careful…someone might be listening!

Eat imbiß – Berliners love their fast snacks, or imbiß (pronounced “im-biss-e”) and it’s where you can find everybody’s favorite pile of hot dogs, currywurst, best enjoyed with a simple toothpick on a paper plate. The grand dame of imbiß shacks is Konnopke’s, conveniently located under the tracks of the Eberswalder Straß U-Bahn station.

Explore emerging neighborhoods – Much has been made about the rise of Mitte, which covers the bulk of the old East Berlin and is now a triumph of commerce and capitalism, with top designers’ retail outposts lining the main drags. But the district extends far and wide, and the farther you get from the city center the more independent the businesses and restaurants become. My friend Angela Kyle and I enjoyed a lovely “new German” meal at one such establishment, called Noto, where there was exactly one waitress and one cook in the (wide) open kitchen. Now that is what I call mom and pop (or maybe girlfriend and boyfriend?)

Don’t forget to enjoy a fourth meal of doner in Kreutzberg, the Williamsburg of Berlin (every city has one!)  Bar after bar is backed up with doner joint after doner joint, so you are never far from hangover prevention!

Admire your global reach – It’s nice to see a German interpretation of the Rolla brand almost perfectly executed in Mitte.

We’ll have the lawyers sort that out.

Pay attention – I was so focused on my “to-do” list today, I missed some obvious sights and was unable to capitalize on the surprising curveballs that came my way. I was so disappointed that Checkpoint Charlie was just another museum that I didn’t even bother to look to my left and see the actual checkpoint kiosk in the middle of the road!  Also, as I came out of the Topography of Terror (not a ride at Krustyland but the best museum name EVER-and unfortunately about Nazis) I stumbled upon an adorable gallery dedicated to the Trabant, or Trabbi, the boxy East German car once ubiquitous in the DDR. However, by the time I found it, I was out of time and battery life.


Go to the Zoo – My mother’s dear friend Ursula Vogel, who hailed from Berlin, used to speak of the Berlin Zoo so fondly that I’ve wanted to go there since I was a little girl. It’s been years since I’ve been to an actual zoo, and recall them to be depressing and sad, but there was no way the famous and magical Berlin Zoo would be like that.  I somehow imagined it as a cross between a enchanted Alpine fairy land and exotic animal sanctuary.  Alas, it was depressing and sad, per past zoo memories, and could even use your donation for some new enclosures. I thought the rhino was going to jump over it’s “moat” and come get me!

How do you stop a charging rhino? Take away his credit cards!

Memo to self: it’s NOT all happening at the ZOO! However, it was kinda fun watching this guy stuff his face.

Neglect the Nazis – What’s that you say? Nazis??  In Berlin???  The city’s twentieth-century history is fraught with peril and pain, not only serving as the divided symbol of the Communist reign, but also as the seat of the National Socialist party and government. Berliner’s recognize their tragic past and readily acknowledge it.  There are many informative exhibitions, like the aforementioned Topography of Terror (serious subject I know, but a hilarious name for a museum nonetheless), which documents the nefarious tactics of the Gestapo and SS, as well as some incredibly moving, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Forget your metro ticket – To buy OR to stamp! The public transportation system, known as the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, is so easy to use that you can literally hop on and off the train without a ticket. Because there are no turnstiles, it may seem you can use this underground network all willy-nilly and never pay. However, this being Germany, the honor system is kind of a big deal, and with ticket machines and validation kiosks on every platform, you better buy a ticket – or else!  But it remains one of the best bargains in the city – just over 6 euro to ride all day!

Sweat the open container – Because sometimes you really need to take your bottle of rosé to go!

Miss your flight – If you are taking easyJet from Schoenefeld Airport, they are very serious about that 40 minute check-in cut-off, so you better plan accordingly, so DO NOT linger over that bier and bratwurst.  That’s all I’m gonna say about that subject, because it’s kinda already been said!

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