A slightly ‘off’ sightseeing guide to Berlin’s quirky landmarks
Let’s be honest, while the Brandenburg Gate and Museum’s Island are all beautiful and really impressive and a must-see on a first-time Berlin visit, but that’s not why so many people come back over and over again. No, if you ask them, the reason for that is a more intangible: the vibe. And while we can’t put Berlin’s vibe in a tour, much less in a blogpost, I thought I’d collect some alternative landmarks in this spirit. Places that are really “Berlin” without the stuffy appeal of Baedecker guides. Some of those places are part of the Grand Tour de Berlin circuit and well known, others are a pretty personal choice and probably not part of any guide books about the city.
Even after 10 years as a tour guide and a lifetime as history nerd, this one still baffles me like hell. Literally the only function of that structure is to be as heavy as possible and they built in a tight wartime economy, mainly by using French pows in 1941/42 while the Allied were already bombing the city and farsighted contemporaries started to realize Germany could never win the war. So, but why? You might have heard the term “Germania” before, if you haven’t you should definitely visit Berliner Unterwelten and their fabulous Germania-exhibition. Since, you’re probably just as lazy as I am, and won’t do that in the near future, I’ll get you a super-quick overview. Under the name “Germania” later generations subsumed Hitler’s plans to completely redesign Berlin to make it into a proper world capital. The name was never an official one and in the end goes back to a single sentence uttered by some underling during a meeting. Responsible was a guy named Speer, who later claimed he didn’t really know anything – even though he was responsible for the whole arms production and logistics and 1.000s of workers died under his watch, but that’s a different, much sadder story. One obstacle to overcome were the city’s unfavorable ground conditions. Under a shallow layer of topsoil are a few meters of pretty loose gravel and shingle with no bedrock in sight anywhere. Add to that an extremely high level of groundwater (the whole area used to be a swamp) and building anything substantial becomes a pretty big challenge. Almost all historical buildings in the city were therefore erected on plattforms of 1000s of massive tree trunks. The whole Germania thing was completely out of proportion, a fitting screen to project Hitler megalomania- and was supposed to include a massive triumphal arch, nearly 120m high and 170m wide, located close to the Südkreuz train station. So to make sure the unstable ground would carry this monstrosity, in 1941, when Allied planes were already bombing Berlin more or less regularly, the Nazis started building the Schwerbelastungskörper ~ heavy load-bearing body, essentially a giant concrete mushroom, 14 m high and weighing in at a staggering 12.650 tons, whose only function was to be extremely heavy. I guess there were worse ‘jobs’ for forced labour and pows, but I doubt there were more absurd ones. Orderly as the Germans are, they continued to take measurements right until the end of the war, and the Technical University (TU Berlin) picked the project up afterwards. Turns out, the structure sank by about 20cm in the first years and stabilized afterwards. To this day the mushroom is the only visible structure of the Germania project in the Southern half of Berlin.
When we send out an internal questionnaire to our guides about their favourite spot in Berlin, about half came back saying: Tempelfeld (that’s the unofficial vernacular or shorter still, just the “Feld” ~ field). Once again it’s a place steeped in enough history to write a couple of books about it, which people did, but that’s not really why it’s so special. Yes, the story of the airlift is amazing, and the fact that this was the first commercial airport in Germany and that the building is still one of the largest ever built, or the basketball court right next to some Nazi eagles still on the facade, and you should really read about it, but this is all still “normal” history stuff in the bigger Berlin context. But that’s all not why we love the place so much and why it’s on this list of B-side landmarks and it’s actually not easy describing it. Ok, imagine you’re standing in the heart of one of Europe’s busiest cities, not 15 minutes from the Center and you have nearly 2 km of open space with a proper horizon and when the wind is right you see Kitesurfers zooming up and down the runway. Somewhere a group of maybe 20 people is performing a bhangra dance routine right in front of the barbecue area; in the community gardens a woman shows some kids where food really comes from, there’s rollerskaters, road cycling pros, Turkish families playing football, frisbee or anything else really. When it was closed down, first the city wanted to build appartmens on the edges, but most people believed it, they would stop at the edges, so they put it to a vote and now there’s a law in place that fixes the 300+ha as an open public space, where everyone is free to express themselves as long as they don’t trouble anybody else. On weekends some 50.000 locals and visitors from all over world populate the field (never call it a park – it’s not) without really bothering each other. For me personally it’s a beautiful example of what can happen, if you just give people space and let them find ways to use it instead of controlling everything.
part of our (German) bike tour “Oasen der Großstadt” – if the guide feels like it, and you’re quick riders.
Treptower Park Soviet War Memorial
It’s not exactly an overlooked landmark, but one that definitely needs more love than it currently gets. If, like myself, you’ve been watching way too many movies, your first association would probably be something like 80s-James-Bond-Super-Villain-Lair. In fact it is one of three such memorials in Berlin, two in the Eastern part and one in the west not far from Brandenburg Gate, featuring a Soviet tank and gun – and mass graves for thousands of soldiers. Even as a Tourguide with a personal interest in history it’s still hard to imagine the price the Red Army paid for taking Berlin. Supposedly in these last three weeks nearly 70.000 of their people lost their life, only to gain the Nazi officials a few more days to kill themselves or to get rid of everything that prooved they were Nazis, but that’s for a different blogpost. More than 7.000 of those found their last resting place in this massive memorial. Its main piece is a 12m high statue of a soldier with a child in his arm and broken swastika at his feet. Opposite him is a much smaller statue of a mother mourning the lost children of the motherland. To get from one to the other you walk between 16 white sarcophagi depicting various scenes from the war and the sacrifices that were brought to win it and end Nazi Germany. Asthetically it’s classic soviet propaganda brutalism, everything is a bit too big, a bit too gaudy maybe, but it’s hard to escape the power of the place, even though it really seems it fell out of time. One reason for this impression is the state of the place – it is pristine. No graffiti mars its walls, no chipped stone, no one’s barbequeing anything on the graves – not very typical for Berlin. The reason is simple, Russia made the upkeep of it’s memorials a condition of agreeing to a unified Germany, so today the German government is responsible and supposedly Russias current leader would be pretty cross if we just stopped taking care of the place – and everyone knows you don’t want to piss off Putin unnecessarily. But even if you leave all the gruesome details out, it is a cool and very unique landmark, typical for our home.
Sometimes part of our “Kreuzberg bike tours“
Literally the place that gave Kreuzberg its name. I hear your heartfelt “Hu?”, so let me elaborate. Berlin and her districts as they are now is a pretty new invention, only in 1920 it became Groß-Berlin or Greater Berlin. Before that it was an amalgamation of nearly 70s different polities that were all independent cities like Charlottenburg or Pankow. The area of Kreuzberg itself consisted of a number of suburbs like Tempelhofer Vorstadt, Luisenstadt or Hallesches Tor respectively, which was super unpractical from an administrative standpoint. Looking for a new name for this part of town, they remembered the Schinkel-Memorial on top of that little articial hill. The memorial – commemorating the liberation wars against Napoleon – seen from above has the shape of the iron cross, which was the first millitary medal awarded to commoners and to this day is the “coat-of-arms” of the German Bundeswehr. Big cross-shaped memorial on a hill, ergo: Kreuzberg. Victoriapark is not only the most prominent landmark in the western part of Kreuzberg, 61 as most Berliners call it, after its old postal code, but an integral part of everyday life for the locals. The view from the top is one of the best in the whole city and a popular sundowner spot, there’s a even a little Café up top. Further down there’s a beergarden/club called Golgatha, sporting grounds and a petting zoo. The landscaping includes open parkland and artificial rock formations with tiny switchbacked paths zig-zagging up and down, the most prominent feature is the waterfall though. 1.000s of Liters of water run down all the way from the top down to streetlevel, with multiple terraces and little pools and not only kids love to play there when it gets hot.
Sometimes part of our “Kreuzberg bike tours” (depends on who your guide is)
Just like the giant concrete mushroom at the top of this list, we have to thank the nazi-scum that ruled Germany from 1933 to ’45 for this seomewhat low-key Berlin landmark. When the Royal Air Force started their bombing runs on Berlin in the summer of 1940 – at a time when the war was seemingly going great and everyone expected England to fall as France fell – Hitler ordered the construction of first two and then a third massive anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Each of those installations consisted of two massive bunkers, one with radar and/or optical triangulation instruments and one with a couple of huge aa-guns with shelters below. The last of those was the one we’Re talking about here and the only one still intact enough to be recognizable as a bunker still. The Tiergarten bunker, was first blown up with a total of more than 70 tons TNT. Afterwards nearly half a million cubic meters of rubble was removed to make room for the camels and rhinos in the Berlin Zoo. The ones in the Friedrichshain district was simply blown in two halfs, covered with a lot of dirt and turned into two hills. Our bunker though could only be removed in parts, thanks to it’s closeness to the train tracks. So, they blew up what they could and turned the rest into a hill as well. Today it is one of those wonderful examples of how the people of Berlin are able to turn even the ugliest memories into something positive and life-affirming, by using it in new ways without ignoring the difficult past. If you’re interested in the latter, I suggest a tour with Unterwelten e.V., followed by a visit at their amazing Germania exhibition.
Of course our own headquarter gets a place on this list. What sets Kulturbrauerei apart from other entries is the fact, that it is very much an active site of business and entertainment. Once part of the world’s largest lager brewery, today it is one of the rare places were visitors from out of and locals mingle in a very organic way. The main architect of its current layout was Franz Schwechten, who was responsible for many iconic industrial buildings in Germany, like the AEG factory in Wedding or the mostly destroyed Anhalter Bahnhof. Brewing stopped in the early 70s when the facilities just couldn’t keep up with the demands of modern production and so for the next 20 years the 2,5 hectares of crenellated bricks slowly embarked on a journey to become a very scenic ruin. There still was a factory that assembled furniture until 1990, but of course once there was western money and IKEA no-one wanted East-German furniture. For a while a pretty successfull TV show was produced here, while the Techno crowd realized that 8m high vaulted basements are perfect for semi-legal raves. Friends keep telling me, we visitied one of those, even though I have absolutely no recollection of that, it being the 90s and stuff.
Anyway, like all state-owned real-estate Kulturbrauerei (even though it wasn’t called that) was taken over by the Treuhand, the institution that was tasked with selling the GDR to the highest bidder (if you look at it very superficially, but sufficient for our purposes). After a while the people working for them asked each other “Hey, did you realize, that we will all loose our jobs if we’re doing them right?”. So, they got thinking about what else they could do, and as a proof of concept, decided they would become a real-estate developer themselves and picked the most promising and difficult project in their portfolio. By that time, Berlin’s local government decided, they wanted at least 1/4 of cultural use and would be willing to subsidize the rent for that. This created this very interesting and dynamic mix of different uses including two theaters, two clubs, a museum, a cinema, offices, a dance school and Berlin’s biggest bike tour operator. It has been our base for the last 15 years and gave us enough space to grow into what we are today and we still enjoy every day. Like Berlin itself Kulturbrauerei is beautiful and quirky, at times loud and stressful and bad-smelling and there’s a million things that are less than perfect, but for us it is above all else: home.
Right now as I’m sitting in my office looking at the little spire above Pool & Cigars; I’m once again fascinated and amazed at the way the different bricks start glowing in the afternoon sun, like they’re glowing from within, changing their hue every minute or so, while below it, the Lucia Xmas market gets ready to start and make further work impossible – and I wouldn’t want to switch it for any other place.
Starting place/meeting point of all our Berlin bike tours
officially part of Neukölln, Maybachufer is in this ill-defined neighbourhood on the border with Kreuzberg, which is thus named Kreuzkölln. Starting at the corner with Kottbusser Damm, where the wonderful Ankerklause is located with its great view of the canal, the market follows Landwehrkanal for maybe 3-400m. Tuesdays and Fridays it is a classic groceries market dominated by Turkish and Arab vendors and one of the best places to buy fresh produce. Especially towards the end of the market in the afternoon, you are likely to make a ridiculous bargain, like a whole box of limes for a fiver. Saturday is Neuköllner Stoff, which started as pure cloth-market mainly catering to turkish housewives and DIY-folks, but is now focussing more on handmade design from Berlin. You still get cloth by the bundle, but will find all kinds of jewelry, ceramics, toys – basically all the pretty things people like to surround themselves with to make their lives more beautiful. The market week clothes on Sunday with the Nowkoelln flea market. While the vibe differs depending on market day, it’s always an authentic experience and a great place for a stroll and some tasty street food. If that is all a bit passive for you, just cross over to the Kreuzberg side and join any of a number of groups playing Petanque in the sun.
A regular part of the Kreuzberg/Alternative Bike tour
Märchenbrunnen aka the Fairytaile Fountain
Sitting right on the border between the districts of PRenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain on the tip of the park with the same name sits one of most beautiful and romantic landmarks on this list. If you approach it from the city it is like entering an oasis. Outside the crazy Berlin traffic with 6 lanes buzzing day and night, only separated by a low wall and a high hedge. You climb a handful of stairs and stand in front of shallow terraced fountain with a cloister at the other end, that looks a bit like the royal library at Bebelplatz. Once you circumvent that, there’s another round plaza with a fountain in the middle where for a while tango dancers would meet in summer. But the real stars are the statues, of course. All the fairytales of your youth are present, be it Puss-in-boots, Hansel & Gretel or Snow White, whose sculpture features a dwarf with the face of famous painter Adolph Menzel.
~ aka “Angel’s Pond”, a more or less sqare pool of shallow water connecting to long and narrow parks between the districts of Kreuberg and Mitte. Standing in the rose garden, with a little buddhist fountain bubbling behind you, you look over the water and right behind it, a church – still missing its roof after the war – with the archangel Micheal on top guards the place. Part of the magic stems from the fact, that pool and park are both below street-level, because it used to be a canal. When contstructed the whole project was more about creating jobs, than solving any kind of logistics problem. The pool was way too narrow to let boats safely navigate the corner and the incline was the shallow, that the water as basically stagnant. And like every body of water everywhere it was used as an impromptu sewer right from the start, creating an unparalleld olfactory and health hazard. One of my absolute favorite places, that even has a nice Cafè right at the water.
Coming upon Körnerpark by accident is both very unlikely and incredibly satisfying. While the days of Neukölln’s image as a hotbed for crime and violence are a bit over – TV series like 4 Blocks and actual crime notwithstanding – it is far from being a quiet burgeois neighbourhood. This part of the district is mainly dominated by lower-middle-class post-war residential buildings, to the west Tempelhof airport and a number of leafy cemeteries are just 2 blocks away and to the East, the medieval village of Rixdorf still looks a lot like it did a few hundred years ago. Like Engelbecken it is a park, built not on top of something but in the ground. Once a gravel pit it was donated to the city as a park. The erstwhile owner spent lavishly to create an upscale baroque garden ensemble with an orangerie and some water works. The combination of gritty Neukölln realness with this tidy, luxurious garden paradise sets Körnerpark apart from all the other parks in Berliin
DongXuan Center is a small piece of Vietnam in Lichtenberg. It is both wholesale and retail and needs to be seen to be believed – and smelled. It is an incredibly colourful place that never fails to get my imagination running. Get a closer look in our blog post about “Little Hanoi“.
At the south-eastern tip of the Spree island lay about two dozen historical boats (ships, maybe? Not sure about the correct nomenclature here) and celebrate Berlin’s long connection with water. The Berlin harbour was first mentioned in an official document in 1298, but by then there was already steady trading with Hamburg and the low countries. One source of Berlin’s wealth at the time were tarriffs from out-of-town merchants. At some point they were forced to offer all their wares for sale in Berlin for a number of days, and only if none of the Berlin traders bought were they allowed to take their stuff further. This happened at Mühlendamm, a little downstream and we don’t know exactly were the real historical harbour was, but the museum’s location is close enough. Shortly after the Fall of the Berlin Wall boating enthusiasts from both sides of the border got together to form a club for the preservation of historical boats and the rich heritage connected with them. Timing was perfect, since no one really knew where the city would be going and the place was unclaimed, so there was no reason not to give it over to the club. These days there’s a restaurant boat, that houses theatre shows and starting in summer 2020 possibly another cargo ship will be turned into a café. Right now it is still something of a swimming garden, because our waterman Ralph Steeg – who taught me everything I know about Berlin water – is using it to show what kind of plants would grow here, if it were still a natural stream. The restaurant, the little pedestrian bridge and the small park between Märkisches Museum and the river are all great spots for a Feierabendbier with a spectacular view of the high-rises on Fischerinsel, the Stadthaus and the TV tower.
Is a treasure trove of 1950s and 60s interior design and GDR architecture. Built from 1951 when the Western Allies evicted the East-German radio stations from the central broadcasting building at Masurenallee (where RBB still is located) it’s a rare example of complete ensemble saved from both mismanagement and gentrification. The big recording hall and a number of studios are entirely preserved. Over the last years the place changed hands more than once. These days it’s a mixed use with big plans for the future including one of the biggest recording complexes in Europe, studios both for musicians and other artists, like designers or photographers, there is space for festivals like Arte’s “30 Jahre Techno” and you can get guided tours through the historical building
Not far from it, just across the river sits Berlin’s most famous ‘lost place’ that even was featured in a number of Hollywood movies, like Hanna, feat Soairse Ronan and Kate Blanchett. Opened in 1969 as ‘Kulturpark Plänterwald’ it was the only permanent amusement park in the GDR and hugely popular. If you think of Universal or Disneyland, you are a bit off target. A big part of if, was just an immense paved flat filled with regular carnival rides turned into permanent installations. It had a giant ferris wheel, that still stands today, a wild-water raft and a rollercoaster. Compared to today’s high-parks it was all a bit quaint. After the reunification it lost visitors every year, had to give up a big percentage of the land, that was turned into protected landscape, changed hands a couple of time, but since 2002 it essentially rotting away, adding more and more patina, to this already spooky place. Currently it is owned by the city and starting 2020 they want to give it back to the public bit by bit. So, if you still want to experience this wonderfully haunting experience write them an email right away.
-the end – for now, there’s more to come