Berlin

Posted by Kevin Dowling on Dec 4, 2018 10:57:19 AM

You’re a little groggy from an early morning flight that began with a restless night without sleep because you decided Indian food was the right choice. But the flight is short and pleasantly quiet.

You descend comfortably through the thin mist that announces the cold weather that punctuates the city. Disembarking the plane, you wonder why you put your gloves & scarf in your tightly packed carry-on and not in your pocket. That all goes away when you see the horror of the airport; Tegel. You’re reminded of the hilariously non-typical story of German infrastructure failure as Berlin, one of Europe’s finest cities, forgot how to build something so important as a good airport.

But you’re in Berlin. One of Europe’s top capital cities, arguably the power house of the European economic recovery over the last few years. Home to some of the world’s most incredible recent history & a beacon of weird European ideals meshed with modern tech startup oeuvres.

Berlin, for some reason, has always resonated with me. I can’t pinpoint why, or when it happened, but something about the city makes me happy & deeply comfortable. I think there’s two things that caused my passion for Berlin to light up. The first is more than 10 years ago my now wife & I came here to experience the Christmas markets. Slugging down gluwein in the cold and eating the local cuisine - always something with sausage - while making friends with rowdy Berliners near some of the world’s most famous tourist traps (Alexanderplatz being the noteworthy one to punctuate the city skyline). We’ve been back almost every single year since, and more recently my job has allowed me to visit one or two extra times a year.  

The second reason is the totally bizarre mix of cultures. No, not the multicultural city vibe that is evident everywhere you go. No no, it’s the mix of diplomatic consulates, tech brat expats and old socialist hippies that makes this city so unique. They definitely don’t love each other, but if everyone’s suitably upset with each other a “misery loves company” kind of culture emerges.

There’s nothing more Berlin than the mad-hatter socialist Berliner serving €1 bottles of beer branded with Lidl logos in some trashed ruin of a building featuring a ping pong table (see X-terrain as a good example). That table typically has 15 patrons circling it to pass the ball back/forth until it comes down to a final 2 competitors. Then it spins back up again. Want to join as a total stranger? No problem, ask the bar tender for a paddle and off you go. Just make sure you have a bottle of beer in the other hand. 

Playing ping-pong in a place like “Dr. Pong” in one of the more hipster areas of Berlin (Kreuzberg & Neukoln are noteworthy) can only be experienced as long as you’ve had some of the incredible cuisine in an undoubtedly expat-founded establishment. Eating out & drinking in Berlin is easygoing, casual & incredibly cheap by any standards, let alone European capital city standards. The best foods are in weird allee’s that have very little to offer architecturally, so the locals try to jazz things up with graffiti (distinctly different to “street art”). It offsets the vibe for folks unused to graffiti signalling a “bad” area. To the contrary, graffiti on a building means very little in terms of the social status of what lies within. For me, though, going to a terrible looking bar, invariably down the Oranienburgertor & surrounding area has lead to the best nights hanging out with locals, grabbing some incredible Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese grub and continuing onto one of the many nostalgia-inducing 90’s vibe nightclubs.

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But the best food, for me, is middle-eastern or close to it. Perhaps that's because there's very little choice or variety in Dublin. But in Berlin, there’s a massive community of second or third generation Turks, Lebanese and even further flung Iranian, Iraqi folks. Folks who came to Germany for a new life and ended up gifting the country, and certainly Berlin, with some of the best (and cheapest) food treats out there. It’s not hard to seek these cuisines out, which makes the difficult part choosing which place to visit. A recent standout for me is a small Turkish place in Wedding (there's a lot, but most of the spots on Prinzenalle are worthwhile). We had incredible food, a good vibe and friendly cooks slaving away behind the counter.

Outside of that, Berlin has some incredible Asian & fusion foods. A standout for me is Shiso Burger near Hackeschermakt, which is conveniently near the surprisingly bearable Irish bar, Kilkenny just below the S-bahn line. It’s also near my favourite coffee roaster in the city; The Barn.

I had an absolutely beautiful meal in a Peruvian spot in the hip neighbourhood of Kreuzberg. Typically you hit X-berg up for Turkish or Lebanese food - and you should - but this meal in Chica was outlandishly good. Worth a visit for sure.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a specific note of the locally lauded dish: Currywurst. Bratwurst, the large meaty sausage in a comically small bread wrap is more famous abroad but it’s Currywurst that really cures all booze-induced ailments. It’s not really curry, which can be a bit jarring at first. The dish features one or two diced sausages in an easy-to-hold tray of curried sauce that’s more reminiscent of ketchup than your typical Chinese or Indian curry. When (not if) you decide to grab some of this local delight, don’t do it in a restaurant or your local hotel. Get it in a proper street vendor. Curry36 is your best bet, and if it doesn’t end up with a Michelin star (and not just a mention in the publication) in the future, I think we’ll be safe to discredit the guide entirely!

Speaking of Michelin stars, Berlin has some catching up to do. It’s a city still figuring out gentrification so these kinds of restaurants are rare. But where they exist, they’re fantastic. Tim Raue is the local hero worth visiting.

If your evening needs to keep going, luckily Berlin has you sorted with some 24-hour spots; like Schwartzes Cafe in Charlottenburg which flips between bar & brunch spot depending on the time. And if you happen to stumble in at a time not suited to someone preparing good brunch fare, they’ll satiate your appetite with some cake or sweet treats - and it’s only a few minutes from the Zoo U/S-bahn station which mercifully has a 24-hour Currywurst stall outside.

All of the areas I mentioned so far are strewn across the city. As you likely know, a wall once divided this storied city up until 1990. Today, remnants are still there. Berlin wears it’s past like a proud, open wound to remind everyone of what happened and to warn the world that it’s not worth pursuing such a path ever again. It’s never more relevant a story to hear than today. Taking a walking tour (which typically starts at the Zoo station) is a must to get your bearings (do it on the day or day after you arrive) and get the narrative of the city.

But it’s worth noting that the East of the city tends to be the cheaper, more hipster-dominated area while the West is more up-market and bordering on lunacy in an attempt to ape some sort of low-rent Paris vibe (which it fails to do). West Berliners are far too proud of the upmarket KaDeWe shopping mall, which features several stores side-by-side selling Rolex’s. That’s not to dismiss the West, I absolutely love the Bikini Berlin mall, which is somewhere I love visiting but have never actually bought anything in (shoutout to Mykita, the Berlin-based glasses manufacturers who adorn my face & have given me free glasses cases in that store). That said, if I was to ever move to the city I’d set up camp in Charlottenburg. Simply because I always tend to stay there due to it’s proximity to the Zoo station which has some of the most regular U/S-bahn train lines running into it.

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Which leads me to a reasonably obvious point: public transport in Berlin is world class. Locals will dismiss it but they’re comparing to Swiss rail. Berlin is outstanding. The benefit of having had a war, if there is one, is that you get to start your public transport from scratch (Tokyo has a similar situation, for example). But like all things Berlin, it’s also incredibly cheap. Buying a week-long ticket costs around €30, and for a little more you can get the tourist-friendly “Welcome Card” that entitles you to discounts in tourist destinations. The best of which are walking tours, bus tours and the Zoo + aquarium.

There are also a lot of free things worth seeing. Mostly history-related (because that’s what I’m into), but the living history of the city is something you come here for. Topography of Terror is a highlight for me. If you’re really into it and want to take a day to feel incredibly depressed & introspective, a day-trip to Sachenhausen, the closest Death Camp to Berlin, is worth it. Remembering the horrors of the past by being in the place where it happened changes your worldview. When I was there a number of years ago, some neo-nazi’s had broken into one of the buildings and tried to burn it down to propagate their narrative of the genocide being a false story (“fake news”). Instead of cleaning it up and making things as they were for tourists, the camp decided to leave the burn marks and signs of tampering to remind people that neo-nazi’s and their sentiment exists. Like I said before, Berlin likes to wear it’s flaws on it’s sleeve for all to see.

Berlin is a special kind of city. Its food & drinking culture almost rivals Japan in terms of convenience & value. Getting around is a doddle for even the most confused of tourists. And everyone speaks English because Berlin is such a deeply multicultural city. Experiencing this feels like experiencing the future of everything. I don’t want to be too over-bearing here, but Berlin is special enough that it could change your worldview. I come here regularly just to remind myself to be more human and lean into my inner “East Berliner.”