The Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie are the city’s most famous sites but the real Berlin is found in polyglot backstreets and neighbourhoods filled with an intangible sense of freedom, space and imagination. For this perfect day in Berlin, join the dreamers who have created an urban playground amid the scars of war and division as you take in galleries and artisan markets, 24-hour bars and clubs, and a former airport and “death strip” that have been transformed into oases. Along the way you’ll discover a city with a special culture of tolerance and openness to new people and new ideas.
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10:00 Following the thrall of the Berlin night, mornings are slow and locals brunch more than breakfast. Grab a bike from Radlager then start in a charming pocket of Kreuzberg cut by Graefestrasse (Graefe Street) and flanked by the Landwehr Canal, where you can take in the fabled city luft, or air, as you wander rustic oak-lined boulevards ringing with bicycle bells and overhung with pretty, flowering tenement balconies. Pass the bookstores, licorice shops and Turkish delis as their doors lazily open, before stopping at Brandi Espresso Bar (Dieffenbachstrasse 63) for a robust coffee and perfect pain au chocolat or panini. Sit outside and taste the easy rhythm of a big city that knows how to get its rest.
12:00 Wandering east along the canal, continue to Maybachufer in Neukölln until it becomes the Turkish Market, a souk-like mile where head-turning fragrances permeate alleys full of stalls selling fruit and vegetables, fabrics and handmade curios (only on Tuesdays and Fridays; art and flea markets happen over the weekends). You’ll find all the pan-continental flavours here – from African stews and German poppy-seed cake to Palestinian hummus and Italian tomatoes – with buskers entertaining the masses on the waterside deck. While it can be a struggle to navigate the crowds in the warmer months, don’t be deterred; here you will see a cross-section of the entire city.
13:00 A vibrant enclave that borders Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Kreuzkölln has recently drawn in young innovators who like to reimagine old shopfronts and factory courtyards. Amid this unassuming axis of cafés cum vintage clothing stores, record shops, bookstores and galleries, have a light lunch (savoury bagels and homemade vegan salads) at Sing Blackbird, a pioneering cafe and preloved boutique that also runs an occasional flea market on the footpath. Or pick up something sweet up the road at Tischendorf café, renowned for its homemade cakes and flat-white coffees. Its German owner lived in Sydney for four years.
14:30 Keep riding or walking south through Neukölln’s Palestinian heartland before drifting west to the impossible expanse of open space that was once Tempelhof Airport. Designated a public park in 2010, the site of the Berlin Airlift (supplies were flown into the city via the airport when Stalin blockaded West Berlin) today offers Berlin’s grandest vista, plus several runways along which the locals skate, ride and rollerblade the kilometres of tarmac. Check out the massive Nazi-built terminal (home to music festivals and now used to accommodate refugees) or wander the organic vegetable gardens that have mushroomed across the northern end.
16:00 Nearby Bergmannstrasse, in one of Berlin’s best-preserved neighbourhoods, offers pristine Prussian architecture (especially around Chamissoplatz) and a sheer abundance of food. Start at the 124-year-old Marheineke Markthalle (Market Hall), where you can pick up wine, cheese and regional delicacies before snacking at counter bars serving Greek, Italian, Vietnamese and more. At the opposite end of the street you’ll find Viktoriapark, a veritable mountain in an otherwise flat landscape. It’s crowned by a monument that marks Prussia’s liberation from Napoleon and, from this vantage point, you can spy the city like the angels did in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire.
17:00 Ride east – or, if walking, catch a cab – until you arrive at the Spree River, the city’s natural divide, across which many tried (unsuccessfully) to escape East Germany. From Schlesisches Tor train station, tread the line of the river east past buildings laden with street art before finding a clutch of warehouses and factories that have been transformed into dance clubs, open-air venues and beach bars. Badeschiff (Eichenstrasse 4) has a surreal swimming pool built into the hull of an old barge. Grab a cocktail and a deckchair and groove to DJs as the sun lowers across remnants of the Berlin Wall on the opposite shore.
18:30 Head back towards Schlesisches Tor station and cross the turreted Oberbaumbrücke (Oberbaum Bridge), a checkpoint during the Wall years and your gateway to East Berlin where amplified rock bands and lone accordionists serenade the human ebb and flow. On your left, a long stretch of the concrete wall that once cleaved the city is now a fresco upon which artists from around the world came to express themselves in the aftermath of 1989, disdainful of division and hoping for a brighter future. The paintings – including 1990’s Fraternal Kiss by Russian Dmitri Vrubel, which lampoons the doomed embrace between Russian and GDR leaders –symbolise the ongoing struggle for an open and tolerant city.
19:30 Follow the now-broken line of the Berlin Wall until you cross back into Kreuzberg at An der Schillingbrücke. Here the former death strip becomes a wonderfully landscaped pathway that takes you in the direction of Oranienstrasse and some traditional Berlin food at Max und Moritz, a gemütlich, or cosy, wood-lined tavern established in 1902 that survived the bombs and serves up a heady half-litre of hefeweizen (wheat beer) before the main course. Specialties include salty pickled pork foot and heavily seasoned meatballs, all with lashings of potatoes and pickled cabbage. You won’t eat like this every day but it’s surely part of a perfect Berlin day.
21:30 Time for a digestif at one of the scores of bars in the area that cater to every possible taste. On Dresdener Strasse you’ll find a row of lively, sophisticated bars that fill into the morning with thinkers, architects and auteurs. Slip into Würgeengel, where the Bauhaus-esque décor is matched by sharply dressed waiters who serve top-shelf cocktails that fuel animated conversation – and smoking; in liberal Berlin, anything goes.
24:00 In a city where nearly everyone is from somewhere else, and where it’s easy to strike up conversation, no doubt you’ll meet some fellow travellers who suggest places to dance away the last of your ideal day. This is the club capital of the world; it’s time to give yourself to the Berlin night. ￼
Sydney-born Stuart Braun has lived in Berlin since 2009. He's the author of City of Exiles: Berlin from the Outside In.