Berlin unfettered

ARM aber sexy, in English...poor but sexy.That is Berlin’s calling card, a tourism slogan manufactured in 2001 by Berlin’s city mayor – Klaus Wowereit. The branding worked and the city became Germany’s tourism engine as well as one of Europe’s top travel destinations.

There’s a vibrant glow, a youthful energy that seems to reflect what Berlin represents – freedom, acceptance, creativity. It bursts out in every nook and cranny – expressive graffiti, performances at the parks, stylish dressing, trendy shops. Everything about this city of 891 square kilometres screams of individual identity and cultural cool, without forgetting its past, in fact, far from it. You stumble into its colourful history at every turn, the past is present here, and wherever you go, you’ll find history waving, poking, staring you in the face.

Culture of cool

Right after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, 118 artists from 21 different countries flocked to Berlin and painted, in what is now the East Side Gallery, the longest open air gallery in the world, which is also the longest remnant of the Berlin Wall. It’s more than a kilometer of striking paintings, obviously to compensate for those artless years during the Cold War. Most of the paintings underwent restoration in 2009 and today, many paintings, if not all, are marred with tourists’ writings scribbled in marker, perhaps with the intention of leaving a mark, without considering the damage inflicted.

Graffiti and vandalism engulf the city, besmirching not only the East Side Gallery, but also buildings, bridges, and subway stations. You feel the pulse that’s hungry for experimentation, expression, the need to be seen, the desire to leave a mark. Even so, Berlin appears to be a city of acceptance and respect, an unsurprising melting pot of people who think and do what is outside the box.

Many of Berlin’s top tourist spots are nearby the River Spree and an hour-long boat cruise allows one a glimpse of the city’s famous sites from the waterside, among them: Berlin Cathedral, TV Tower (the tallest building in the city), Museum Island, Reichstag (the House of the Parliament), and Friedrichstrasse (shopping area with elegant architecture, here you can also find Checkpoint Charlie, the best known border crossing between east and west Berlin). The city also teems with beach bars, and in the winter, one will come across some “badeschiff”, or a barge turned into pool.

Berlin is the greenest city in Germany. Parks, forests, lakes and rivers swathe a third of the metropolis, so it’s a snap to take a break from the tourist track, just visit one of the city’s major gardens and stand in the middle of tall trees and lush forests. It can feel like you’re not in the middle of the city at all. And if these activities are not cool enough, you can always head on to Mauerpark on a Sunday. There are versatile activities here: grilling, shopping for second-hand products in the flea market, or listening to live bands playing at random spots in the park. Famous in the park is the Bearpit Karaoke, where you can enjoy performances of a wide range of musicians and sing along with everyone until the area bubbles into one huge party. How cool is that?!

The past is present

It’s hard not to admire the city after all it has been through – revolution, invasion, bombing, division, and finally, reunification. Take note, all these just in the 20th century!

Berlin abounds with icons and historical sights. The interior of the largest palace in the city, the Charlottenburg Palace, is lavish, with its exquisite baroque grandeur and opulent private apartments, including the flamboyant private chambers of Frederick the Great designed in 1746 by the period’s greatest architect. From room to room, the palace exudes excessive glitz, elaborate furnishings, standout designs, all staggering in power display.

Another architectural wonder is the Berlin Cathedral with its extravagant splendor. Almost completely destroyed during the WWII fire bombs, it took until 2002 to reconstruct a simplified form of this cathedral, which embodies the prominence of feudal religion. The House of the Parliament, the Reichstag, with a roof terrace and glass dome, offers spectacular views of the surrounding areas including the government and parliamentary districts. The city also boasts of “more museums than rainy days,” with its 200 museums (and an average of 105 rainy days per year). Add to that the numerous exhibition halls and galleries, and you’ll never really run out of things to do in this capital city.

The interactive Spy Museum gives unique insight into the gloom of espionage, the DDR Museum promises learning by playing as it gives a hands-on experience of history. There is also the Topography of Terrors which recounts the tragic history of the Nazi forced labor and the crimes committed throughout Europe. If that’s not enough, head on to the Museum Island, a Unesco Heritage site made as a sanctuary of art and science and home to five of Berlin’s major museums.

You may not want to miss Berlin’s signature attraction – the Brandenburg Gate – a grand classical archway which used to be a symbol of Berlin and German division during the Cold War, now stands as a national symbol of unity and peace, not to mention is a backdrop of presidential speeches, New Year’s celebrations and world cup public viewing parties. Cathy Perez
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