Reunited in 1990, Berlin still has its division lines, separating it into districts, Bezirke. With due respect to administrative functions, district names pop up in every conversation – people seem to consult an inner map, based on generalizations about each part of Berlin.
From a tourist’s point of view, the districts are just names. Your overburdened memory would rather content itself with street names, until you realize the value of knowing a few characteristics about each district. That means you get your own map, which you can update whenever you like. For example, when the media claim there is a local baby boom in Prenzlauer Berg, that statement could necessitate a revision of your previous knowledge.
Wall-related expressions like “Wessies” and “Ossies” do occur, inspiring you to reinsert an overall division line on your map, which immediately raises a new question – accommodation – in West or East.
West is shining, known and safe. East is partially shining, less known and safe, as long as you take care. Choosing the East side may be a challenge, but it’s a way of gaining confidence with the new Berlin – a mix of cultural treasures and a state-run past.
Right where Schillingsbrücke bridges the River Spree, you find one option: the Ibis Ostbahnhof, quality at a reasonable price, suitably painted red and only a few minutes walk from Ostbahnhof. The area of Friedrichshain is colorful due to the graffiti on its many factory ruins.
Reserve this place for sleeping, and catch the S-Bahn westward to more central districts, first Charlottenburg where Bahnhof Zoo is a strategic starting point, at the southwestern corner of Tiergarten.
Once you set foot on it, you know it must be Kurfürstendamm, the elegant boulevard considered the heart of Berlin, to which the side streets also contribute. Window displays, practically works of art themselves, have spread to the pavement: a line of elegant glass boxes arranged with military precision, containing Hermes, Valentino, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent, on the opposite side challenged by Cartier, Chanel and Tizian.
Less perfumed is the air on Breitscheidplatz, close to Bahnhof Zoo. In the noise and smell of traffic, busy shoppers and travelers no longer notice the landmark balancing above their heads – the remains of Gedächtniskirche. Local painters produce copies, already imprinted on their own retina. Another landmark is more horizontal: Tiergarten, the easily recognizable green strip in the middle of every Berlin map. It’s framed by tourist attractions, well connected through bus routes 100 and 200, quite cheap with a special tourist ticket – valid two, three or seven days – it even includes U-Bahn, S-Bahn and Strassenbahn.
Tiergarten belongs to Mitte, vastly extended from the old Mitte district in the eastern sector. There are other districts close at hand: Schöneberg and Kreuzberg today are actually parts of two different districts. Starting as an imitation of Ku’damm, Tauenzienstrasse gradually loses its gloss, forgotten when you stand before the restored U-Bahn station on Wittenbergplatz in Schöneberg. Local “kneipen” enjoy a good reputation. The next square, lazy Nollendorfplatz – adorned with faded rainbow flags – turns lively at night when lights and music come on. You hear men imitate the Mayor of Berlin, Regierender Bürgermeister Klaus Wowereit, Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so, I’m gay, and it’s okay that way.
Leaving Schöneberg means g’day to Kreuzberg, neighbor of the bygone Wall and famous for Checkpoint Charlie, now with a Turkish atmosphere. Kreuzberg was traditionally Berlin’s alternative district, but the creative minds went with the Wall, to become western pioneers in Prenzlauer Berg. You too may be tempted to leave Kreuzberg awhile, favoring a skyscraping paradise in the Mitte district, up at the southeastern corner of Tiergarten: Potsdamer Platz, the pride of Berlin in terms of mega-level architecture and constructions.
Once a roaring traffic center and amusement spot, bombed to pieces in the war, a no-man’s land in the Wall era, now reaching to the sky, clad in glass and steel – Potsdamer Platz appears brand new, and it’s becoming Berlin’s leading city center. The old center with the governmental institutions is near, just move northeastward, where an army of grey-black coffins, the Holocaust Memorial, may bring on a depression.
To cure you, there is Brandenburger Tor, a great place to hang around, before literally reaching the top by climbing the glass cupola of Der Reichstag, while Tiergarten lies below like a safety net.
It sounds like poetry – Unter den Linden – the parade street of Berlin that takes you into the East, past Guggenheim, the State Opera and the Humboldt University to Museum Island with Pergamon. On the way you cross a modernized Friedrichstrasse, favored for shopping and going out. Also popular is an untraditional, tiny DDR Museum, where you are allowed to putter about in a private home, admire the family’s wardrobe, kitchenware and toilet design – everything in bright colors.
While the State and Party Leader, Erich Honecker, keeps thundering on TV, you turn into an eavesdropping Stasi officer, long enough to make you feel hated. After leaving, you cannot stop looking for a plastic gem that survived and still characterizes the DDR: Trabant cars, today cuddled like babies, when not participating in a Trabant Safari. Continuing toward Alexanderplatz, you wonder how long your Ostalgie is going to last. The DDR nostalgia is a well-known phenomenon.
The size and design of Alexanderplatz, normally just Alex, represent central planning in need of improvements, and those will be high-rise. The elevator of the ostentatious Fernsehturm, the TV mast, shoots you 207 meters into the air to a revolving restaurant where the icing on the cake is a complete Berlin panorama. The other day it was possible to participate in a midnight attack on Alex’s new partner, the shopping center, Alexa, advertising cheap laptops for their grand midnight opening, causing people to fight their way in – several were taken to hospital.
Prenzlauer Berg, the scene of the baby boom, lies north of Alex. Baby carriages abound at the local oasis, Kollwitzplatz – trendy, a pulsating nightlife and apartment prices under pressure by yuppies. There’s no good news for the pioneers of Prenzelberg, creative and alternative types, who risk being renovated away from this former working class area. A similar yet different destiny was in store for Scheunenviertel, the Jewish quarter. After years of decay, its narrow streets and grocers’ houses were reshaped into cafes, eateries, galleries and shops, exemplified by Hackesche Höfe, nine connected inner yards, a popular rendezvous day and night, though with respect for local history.
You set out to acquaint yourself with the localities of Berlin, but only after reinserting the Wall – still going strong in people’s minds and a useful helping line, in your case revealing that you spent more time in East than West. If the enthusiasm for DDR could only be personified – it can – in Angela Merkel, the Kanzlerin, herself a product of DDR. Her sheer presence creates optimism, sends unemployment down and the share index up. The Ostalgie is for her very obvious – a longing for a more simple life.