My first two days in Berlin were disappointing. Not because the city had nothing to offer, but because there wasn’t enough time to discover the true Berlin. I’d joined a walking tour that focused on Berlin’s dark past during the Third Reich. We popped into the main, historical points of reference and sure, there was an incredible amount of history. The city was virtually destroyed during the war and Berliners pride themselves on its restoration, but what I saw on my tour seemed a little soulless. I knew there was much more to Berlin, so the next time I had some time off, I decided to spend a full week there. Surely seven days would be sufficient to rediscover the city and figure out what makes it tick. Well, once again, the more I got to know Berlin, the more I wanted to know and the longer I wished to stay. It’s an endless question and an endless answer.
Berlin’s hidden treasures
Haus Schwarzenberg street-art alley
One of my primary aims of this trip was to find Berlin’s unusual, lesser-known street-art. Everyone knows about the East Side Gallery. Fewer people know about an inconspicuous little alleyway right next to the Café Cinema. Haus Schwarzenberg, a non-profit arts organisation, takes up residence in the adjacent building. If you happen upon the alleyway, you’ll discover a dazzling courtyard full of commissioned pieces and paste ups. Although like all street-art the appearance of the alley changes constantly, a painting of Anne Frank, located next to a museum dedicated to her story, has remained intact for over five years. It’s wonderful to see other artists respect the subject matter of the painting.
Not too far a walk away is the Radisson Blu Hotel. These exist in many parts of Europe, but what you may not know about this one here in Berlin is that it boasts the largest free-standing aquarium in the world! If you’re lucky enough to afford a room here, you can enjoy the aquarium every day. If you’re sneaky enough like me to traipse in for an inconspicuous photograph, then go enjoy it for a moment.
I took a train and two buses to reach the Grunewald forest. It blew my mind, walking through this wintery, gloomy expanse of trees, to think that somewhere in the middle lay Teufelsberg (meaning Devil’s Hill), a hill made of rubble. Originally the area was just mud and marshland, but during World War II, the Nazis constructed a school for military technology on the land. The Allies later attempted to destroy it with explosives, but it proved more effective to just cover it up by dumping rubble from the rest of the city’s devastation. This clearly didn’t fit in with Berlin’s landscaping aesthetic view, so they planted some trees on top and voilà — or as the Germans say, sieh da! (don’t quote me on that translation)— Teufelsberg was born.
I think somewhere in the back of my mind I’d imagined rubbish or debris lying everywhere. And yet, Teufelsberg just sits there like any other natural hill, so inconspicuous that even Google Maps struggled to show me the entrance and actually led me up the wrong one. Teufelsberg is now minding its own business — although it did just the opposite during the Cold War, when Field Station Berlin, a listening station used by the United States for espionage, was constructed on its summit. In summer, many Berliners enjoy the views from Teufelsberg with a picnic, and visit the nearby Teufelssee (Devil’s Sea). No matter what season you’re in Berlin, this listening station is a must see for its street art. The ruins are covered in graffiti. More run-of-the mill tags intersperse with huge murals, all celebrating the power of art through freedom of speech with comments on society and politics. Some of the art is wonderfully weird, other pieces exceptional in their form and beauty. Even opponents of street art will find it hard not to enjoy this constantly transforming gallery. The abandoned site is the perfect mix of historical and modern spectacle — walking through the rooms and seeing equipment and structures left behind is a rather dismal affair, until you step out again and find joy in the comedy of paintings from the likes of Tobo, to more romantic murals like those of El Bocho. In one of the main buildings, several storeys containing row upon row of brick feature pieces from commissioned street artists. You pay a small fee to enter (plus a little more if you have a camera — although phone photography is free!) and it is more than worth it.
In an old, vacated car workshop, doomed to be demolished, the group Wandelism, put on a temporary art show like no other. It was originally around for just a week – the week before I arrived in Berlin – and I felt jealous hearing the amazing things about it from other travellers at my hostel. Through some stroke of luck, due to its popularity, the show was extended for another week. Given not many people knew this, or had already visited the previous week, I was able to saunter in with no queue and enjoy the art unjostled. Wandelism is a witticism combining wandel, German for “change”, with vandalism, playing with the notion that graffiti is an act of destruction. This philosophy is something the group specifically wishes to deconstruct, renewing the word with more positive connotations, while endeavouring to take back and transform public spaces with art. It is well worth keeping an eye out for their events, as should you ever find yourself in Berlin, a street art capital, they will ensure you fall in love with this side of the city.
Whatever your views are on public nudity, you’ll end up with a million stories to tell if you visit this nude spa, designed to look like a circus tent, near Potsdamer Platz. Despite my initial apprehension regarding stripping off in front of a bunch of strangers, not to mention steaming the life out of myself in a tiny sauna, this visit for me was indispensable. Step one: experience zero body weight while jamming out in the musical, salt-water floating pool, where, if you are shy about your body, you’ll be pleased to know you must wear a swimsuit. Laying myself flat on top of the water, so just my ears were submerged, I relaxed and enjoyed the musical offerings. With Berlin being renowned for its electronic music scene, it was no surprise that this comprised much of what was played at the Liquidrom. Certain nights, well known DJs come and play sets at the pool! Step Two: Strip off! Nudity is a requirement of entry into the saunas, to protect the wooden seats. I don’t speak German, and given I usually can’t handle much heat, I expected to only be there for a moment, just to say I’d done it. With my luck, though, I unknowingly became part of a salzpeeling session. Different infusions were poured on the hot coals and a spa attendant brandished a towel around to let the sweet scents waft over us. We then stepped out and rubbed coarse sea salt into our skin to exfoliate. I tried to be mature and ignore the fact I was surrounded by a bunch of naked Germans rubbing themselves and each other down. The whole spa requires open-mindedness and a level of body confidence — although if it’s any comfort, no one cares what your body looks like or what you’re doing. This is part of what Berliners call the Urban Bathing Culture.
Seek and you will find
Unearthing these treasures in Germany’s largest city really reinforced the benefits of going off the beaten track. And you can bet your bottom Euro that if I’m in that part of the world again I will spend more time looking for the unexpected in the city that rose from the ashes to become one of the most exciting in Europe.