There are places in the world that you can connect to. It could be the farmhouse you grew up in, the city where you went to university, or the beach you spent a summer saving turtles on.
These are the places you fall in love with – that feel like a home.
It could be because a place healed you, or you shared it with someone you loved or maybe the atmosphere just completely matched your mentality.
I’m in love with Berlin for all of the above.
I followed the boy I adored there with wide eyes, excited to experience the city I had spent so much of my life studying (History degree).
The history of Berlin has always fascinated me, whether it was learning about the Beer Halls where frustrated ideologists plotted revolutions, the Ghettos designed to ostracise undesirables, or the wall which divided a city both physically and politically.
The liberation of the city created a boom in creativity and celebration which has continued to this day. People from all walks of life reside in the city. Music, art, politics, technology, food and fashion – for each Berlin has its own genre.
1. The Cycling.
I cycle around London every day. It’s not particularly enjoyable in the more central areas – cyclists are viewed as a nuisance.
And I’m certain bus drivers have an ongoing competition to see who can hit the most bikes.
Like most cities on the continent, cycle lanes in Berlin are wide, consistent and respected which means cycling is the best way to get about.
It’s fast, you can see more of the city and it’s cheap.
If you really want to experience life like a Berliner, it’s the only option. According to trusty Google, “in the German capital around 500,000 daily bike riders accounted for 13% of total traffic in 2010… Among cities with more than one million inhabitants Berlin is a metropolis with one of the highest rates of bicycle commuting in the world.”
What a dream.
The city itself is nearly completely flat; you can cycle on the pavement, through the parks and can take your bikes on the underground. But the main joy is that drivers in Berlin are actually expecting you to be there – and looking for you.
Basically Berlin is a cyclist’s paradise. If you enjoy a good ride, visit the Berlin Tempelhof Airport, which is an old Nazi airport turned park. The long runway strips are perfect for having a little race with your mates and practicing tricks.
2. The history.
There’s so much to see, you’ll need a couple of lifetimes to know it all.
Whether you’re getting lost and discovering oddments from a darker time in history, admiring the political rhetoric etched into the East Side Gallery, mapping the grey and gloomy pillars of the Holocaust memorial or spending an entire weekend at Museum Island, there’s much to learn about the History of Berlin.
From the Brandenburg Gate – now a major tourist attraction – was once a symbol of imperial power. It survived the bombings of Berlin in the 1940s and then became forgotten, squeezed into the East and West border and now, once again, a symbol of unity and peace – as it was when it was initially commissioned by Frederick II in 1788.
Now it is the place where mourners gather, holding candles and offering flowers as the national flag is projected onto the Gate after an attack on a Christmas Market.
Berlin is no stranger to violence but it survives through the chaos.
It has been a centre stage for political movement for most of its existence, particularly for student activism over the past millennia. The acts of the German student movement in the 1960s challenged the conservative way in which we were educated.
3. The Music.
You can mock the Berlin techno scene, I understand that it doesn’t appeal to everyone’s tastes. However, this is a major attraction for visitors seeking a weekend escape: entering a club like Berghain on a Friday night and not leaving till Monday morning.
This creative scene attracts the best of music; the ambiance combined with cheap rent and a high quality of life make it an artists’ paradise. Some of our most beloved musical idols have called the city home, including David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
With most venues filling out at around 2am and people not leaving until 9am, it’s worlds away from your local Lola Lo’s with girls wearing Topshop’s latest pink ensemble and enough make up to repaint the East Side Gallery. Here, poor is cool. Go casual, go to enjoy the music and go to de-stress. No Jeremy Kyle style dramas here please.
It’s not just sweaty basements and super clubs. Berlin is home to three world class opera houses, maintaining its high status amongst the arts.
But if you’re like me you’re probably more interested in finding a good venue with a chill crowd, preferably close to the water front where you can close your eyes and sway in front of the decks until the lights come on.
4. The food.
It’s really not my cup of tea but I felt obliged to mention the traditional German sausage. In fact, Berlin has an array of breaded meat – knock yourself out, Champ.
But being a modern cosmopolitan city with many nationalities, you can find a surplus of foods.
The different districts in Berlin can dictate (to some extent) the quality and type of food you’ll find, with exceptions of course. But to keep it basic, the rich and popular area of Mitte offers fine dining, leading to Charlottenburg where you’ll find five star hotels and all the gelato ice cream you could desire.
Downtown in Kreuzberg the popular Oranienstraße and Bergannstraße roads attract hipsters and artists so naturally it’s thriving with burger joints and vegan cafes. Oh, and some of the best falafel in the world thanks to the Turkish population who settled in the area.
Friedrichshain offers an infamous flea market and cheap student dining. It’s an ideal place to pick up some street food and go wandering round to admire the graffiti, as long as you don’t mind a bit of hostility from the students.
5. The clothes.
Vintage kilo sales. Need a say much more?
Like I said, poor is cool. Even the places which seem like complete tourist traps where you’d never catch a true Berliner dead in, are actually pretty damn good value for money – especially compared to London.
I’m currently wearing one of my favourite Berlin purchases, a brown jumper from a little boutique in Mitte. It’s designed with rips and holes all down the sleeves and bottom half of the body so naturally I receive a lot of moth jokes whenever I wear it…
But besides from my own questionable sense of style, it doesn’t take long walking around the city to realise that Berliners have ‘it’. An effortless, trendy and confident sense of style which although mainly revolves around black, isn’t completely dependent on it.
The uniform of long black coats, sexy leather trousers and a killer of pair of shoes makes everyone look like they should be on the cover of Vogue, but they’re far too cool to be bothered.
I suggest arriving with nothing but the clothes on your back and leaving with a new suit case filled with gems.
Please don’t break the bank though.
6. The people.
With all these incredibly sexy and stylish people, great music and superior lifestyle, you would assume all Berliners to be pretentious arses.
But every single person I met was warm and kind. From the Rasta selling bracelets at YAAM Beach, to the shop owner who gave me a free Snickers as I walked into his shop at 8:30am straight from a night in Watergate, the group of students at a party who made sure to speak in English in front of me even whilst completely drunk and even after someone smashed the bedroom window whilst trying to climb through the balcony for a smoke, or the artist who told me she couldn’t sell as many photos as she used to because of the iPhone but still wanted to look at my panoramas and made sure I attended the opening to her latest gallery exhibition.
They all shaped my experience of the city.
One of my favourite memories was the evening we went to the apartment block’s roof. Three of us (my boyfriend of the time, Doug, his cousin Ffloyd and myself) had somehow acquired the loft key – I think from moving furniture to the storage.
Ffloyd led us up a rickety old ladder, probably dating back to the 1940s, we had to hop up spider webs through a trap door and onto the roof top.
We watched the sunset, talking about the future, the past, family, music and friends. Summer was ending, Doug and I had to return to university where we had already missed the first week of our final year.
We promised to return for New Years, Ffloyd explained how everyone celebrated on the rooftops, how they glowed with lights and how the sky would illuminate with fireworks.
We missed New Years.
The next time I went to Berlin, it was the spring. Ffloyd had fallen ill and had to return to France. And the boy I thought I had loved was actually just a boy I knew.
But the city still felt the same to me, it still felt like home.
Ich bin ein Berliner.