First Impressions

First Impressions of Berlin From a Longtime Fan

by Becky Cheang
An An evening in Kreuzberg. All photos by Becky Cheang.

After drinking her body weight in bier in Munich, contributing editor Becky Cheang took a quick trip up to Berlin for a change of pace. Here are her first impressions.

BERLIN, Germany – Berlin is intoxicating. The city has been at the top of my travel list for ages now, but I never expected to fall for it as hard and as fast as I did. The whole city feels like one giant social experiment with the freedom to explore anything you might be into — all with the undercurrent of a heavy past.

I came to Berlin after a few days in Munich — drinking my body weight in bier and soaking in all that tradition. While the train ride was less than four hours on Rail Europe, the differences were stark. Don’t get me wrong – I love Munich and Bavaria’s rich history. But stepping out of the train onto the bustling platform, nearly getting run over by a harried businessman, I got an immediate sense of that gritty energy that I love so much in places like New York. It felt like coming home.

Sleeping Arrangements

I stayed at Hotel Adlon Kempinski, a Fathom favorite. It was the perfect hotel for this casual history buff’s first time to Berlin. I was sleeping in what used to be no-man’s land when the Wall was still up, three doors away from the presidential suite (where Obama stayed on his last visit). From my balcony, I could see the famous Brandenburg Gate to my left. If I squinted a little, I could even make out the faded cobblestone-line running past the gate that signified where the Wall used to be. To my right, I could catch the sun rising behind the iconic TV tower in the east.

Yes, this was the hotel where Michael Jackson had that infamous Lion King moment with his baby. But the staff there will insist on reminding me about more honorable guests like the Queen. The key takeaway: It's fit for royalty.

Cafe Botanico salad.
Onkel Toms Hutte.

Hunting for Bauhaus

This is a big year for Berlin and Germany as a whole: 30 years since the wall came down (I know this because the wall fell two weeks after I was born) and the centennial celebration of the school of Bauhaus.

While I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Dessau (where the Bauhaus school was founded) this trip, I got connected with Bettina Gueldner, an art educator and freelance tour guide. She brought me on an incredible tour of Hansaviertel, a tiny area nestled between Tiergarten and the River Spree. We explored buildings from a 1953 design competition that attracted the likes of Walter Gropius, Arne Jacobsen, Le Corbusier to propose new housing solutions. It’s hard not to fall in love at first sight with the way the harsh Berlin light interacted with the severe geometric lines. Not to mention the colors! Sure, not all architects will claim to be students of Bauhaus, but you can’t deny its influence. I could have spent all afternoon here, but we weren’t done.

Bettina and I made our way to the outer neighborhood, Onkel Toms Hütte. There, we saw the works of Bruno Taut and learned how heavily Bauhaus influenced him. The primary colors on the buildings were a lovely complement to the tree-lined streets. For a moment, I was transported to another life in another time where I could call this home.

Park Hopping

Who knew Berlin had so many parks. My favorite experience of Tiergarten (one of the largest, central parks) was actually from Monkey Bar, which overlooks the sprawling green acreage as well as the monkey enclosures inside Berlin Zoo. I also loved Viktoriapark for its waterfall and vantage point over the city.

On a bike tour with Berlin on Bike, I was introduced to the beautiful and poignant Mauerpark and my favorite: Tempelhofer Feld. Berlin on Bike has been the mainstay of bike tours in the city for almost two decades now. Ask for Sascha, he’s been in the business for ages, and knows the city like the back of his hand. In between pedaling and stopping for the occasional photo op, he will regale you with stories about his own father crossing the Berlin Wall twice.

Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field) is a giant (like 303-hectare-giant) decommissioned airfield that was slated for new developments until locals rallied together in 2014 to keep this space a public recreational area. On the balmy Sunday afternoon that we went, the park was alive with families barbecuing, kids racing up and down the runway on their bikes or skateboards, kites flying. At the far end of the park, there is a space reserved for a refugee camp. Sascha said something that stuck with me, “If you give us humans room to express ourselves, we don’t have to fight each other.” It was a lovely reminder that magic happens when we are able to value humanity over money.

Viktoriapark sunset.
The view of Tiergarten from Monkey Bar.

What Is Berlin Food?

Foods that we know to be German — schnitzels, pretzels, bier — aren’t particularly popular in the cosmopolitan, ever-evolving capital city. Dining in Berlin is then perhaps a little less about any specific dish, and much more about the environment in which the food is served.

Located within the David Chipperfield Architect's office, I felt like a real local having lunch at the sleek Kantine. The menu is short, but very affordable and absolutely delicious.

Element in Neukoølln has fantastic pasta and a fun bar program. I had a rhubarb fizz cocktail (rhubarb’s a big thing in Berlin in the summer) and I regret only having one.

Coda is the best place for dessert. It was a sensory overload over a delightful three-course meal. Each new dessert played around with textures, tastes, and smells. I was especially excited to try the pandan shochu that reminded me of my childhood in Singapore.

My favorite meal goes to Cafe Botanico. I had the prettiest, freshest salad, followed by a tour with the owner to his garden where almost all the produce from the restaurant comes from.

When in doubt, Kreuzberg is a great neighborhood to restaurant hop. Or book a Gastro-Rallye tour with the very cool, very charismatic Henrik Tidefjard. Henrik knows about everything new in the city. You’ll learn more about the local dining scene in one evening with him than you would in a month exploring by yourself.

I learned a lovely local phrase over one of the meals. As a way of saying goodbye, one would say “Mach’s gut!” It directly translates to “make it good.” I love this sentiment of challenging one another to make the best of it. It's Berlin summed up in two words.

Keep Exploring Berlin

At This Refugee Camp In Berlin, Relief Hits High and Low Notes
7 Culture Stops to Make Before You Party Like an Idiot in Berlin
A Berlin Primer

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