City breaks by the BBC: Berlin
In the third of our series that taps bureau staff for local knowledge, Damien Mcguinness, Berlin reporter, recommends the view from the Reichstag and Currywurst beneath the U-Bahn.
Where's the Berlin bureau and what's the view?
The bureau is 22 Schiffbauerdamm, in the district of Mitte, within sight of the Reichstag.
What should I see in Berlin?
Of course, the Wall - if you can find it, that is. Berliners hated the barrier that cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany. So when communism fell in 1989 there was little appetite to preserve it, and most of the Wall was destroyed. As a result it can be hard to find authentic remnants that give a sense of what the Wall looked like and what it meant for the city. Forget Checkpoint Charlie, unless you want to have your picture taken with out-of-work actors dressed as Soviet soldiers.
The former border crossing has become a tourist trap, packed with tatty souvenirs stalls. And although the East Side Gallery is worth a visit, the well-known brightly painted murals to freedom actually recall the euphoria of the early 1990s of newly reunified Berlin. Any artist attempting to paint on the eastern side of the Wall before November 1989 risked being shot by border guards.
The best place to get a feeling for what the Wall meant to Berliners is the atmospheric outdoor memorial at Bernauer Strasse, the best-preserved section of the Wall. Also keep an eye out for a subtle line of bricks laid into the ground throughout the city centre. This charts the route the Wall once took, and is often the only indication that you're crossing what was once the deadly division between capitalism and communism.
What should I do in Berlin?
Start your day having breakfast in one of the countless cafés in leafy Prenzlauer Berg or funky Kreuzberg. Then check out the galleries and boutiques in the maze of side streets near Hackescher Markt in Mitte. From there go past Museum Island along the river towards the Reichstag. If you've got the patience to queue, or are organised enough to get tickets in advance, you can walk up into Norman Foster's glass dome on top of the Reichstag, which has a great view of the city - as well as a view down into the parliamentary debating chamber below, enabling voters to check that MPs are working hard enough.
The Reichstag is surrounded by an space-age complex of futuristic government buildings, including Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, dubbed the 'washing machine' by irreverent Berliners. From there walk to the Brandenburg Gate, the Cold War symbol which in 1945 found itself stuck forlornly in no-man's land, and which today is a gleaming emblem of German unity. On the same block is the enormous Holocaust Memorial, a field of sinister black tombstones, symbolising a Jewish graveyard, with an underground museum directly below.Where should I stay?
Depends on your tastes. Anyone wanting to see the cool side of Berlin should stay in Kreuzberg in western Berlin, an ethnically mixed district with a long-standing reputation in Germany for anti-establishment thinking. Before the fall of the Wall, it was a hotbed of squats, anarchists and creatives trying escape the constraints of West German society. Today it's more mainstream. And the few remaining squats serve more as an edgy backdrop for hipsters looking for a good time. But it's a colourful, buzzy area with lots of quirky nightlife.
The district of Mitte in eastern Berlin is the centre of the city, with most of the main sights and the most convenient base to see the whole city. And the prettiest area is probably Prenzlauer Berg in eastern Berlin: in East Germany this was home to anti-communist dissidents and artists, and is today a gentrified enclave of cafes and playgrounds.
What local delicacies should I eat or drink while I'm there?
Berlin is traditionally known in Germany as a rough proletarian city, with rough proletarian eating tastes. The local specialty is the Currywurst - an unlikely combination of sausage, tomato ketchup and curry powder. The ketchup is poured over the sausage, and the curry powder then liberally sprinkled on top. Best eaten accompanied by chips and a beer while standing up at a kiosk under the tracks of the U-Bahn. Drinking beer and eating sausage or huge pretzels in a pretty lakeside Biergarten is also a must. If sausage isn't your thing try Kaesespaetzle, a Southern German type of pasta with cheese and onion, accompanied by a glass of dry Riesling.
What would be the best night out?
Fancy food may not be a Berlin specialty. But nightlife is. There's no official closing time in Berlin, so many bars simply close when the last punters go home - which in Berlin can be very late indeed. Many of the city's most iconic clubs, such as Berghain, have become so well known with tourists that cool Berliners now avoid them. But there are still plenty of unnamed cellar bars or quirky underground clubs to discover. A lot of the mainstream nightlife these days happens in Kreuzberg, or the neighbouring district of Neukoelln. And for anyone more adventurous the really edgy stuff is in Lichtenberg, a more industrial district on the eastern edge of Berlin.
What's the best local secret?
Not a secret with Berliners, but possibly not in all the guidebooks yet, is the former airport Tempelhof, which was one of the world's first airports opening in 1923. The enormous terminal was built in the 1930s by Hitler's architect Albert Speer and is one of the few remaining examples of Nazi architecture. Later in 1948 Western allies used Tempelhof to airlift food and supplies to West Berlin, which was being effectively blockaded by the Soviet authorities. After much controversy, the airport was closed in 2008 to make way for a new airport further to the south east of the city. The new airport's construction is mired in delays and scandal.
Meanwhile Berliners - who are proud of being an obstreperous bunch - have taken over Tempelhof and use the former runways to skate, cycle and picnic upon. In May a proposal to build apartment blocks on the edge of the site was roundly rejected by the city's residents in a referendum, despite a growing housing shortage. The no vote was partly a way of punishing the local government for the mess with the new airport. But also a clear signal that Berliners would rather keep their free spaces than have more luxury apartment blocks. Worth a visit if you want to know what it feels like to picnic on an airport runway.