Sights and attractions
The Federal German Parliament was welcomed back from Bonn in 1999 with a new glass dome, a potent symbol of political aspiration, designed by British ‘starchitect’ Norman Foster. The Reichstag was built in 1894 to house the united German parliament; the terrible fire that was started there on 27 February 1933 not only gutted the building, but was used by the Nazis as a catalyst for withdrawing basic freedoms. Foster’s renovations aim to establish a ‘dialogue between old and new’. The glass cupola materialises aims for political transparency and is open to the public for tours to the heart of government. The dome, rising like a phoenix from the flames, sheds light on the governmental workings below, thanks to energy-efficient mirrors.
Albert Speer’s influence on the city may be hard to muffle in the expanse of Tempelhof, but amidst the woods of the Grunewald forest, another Speer creation remains silenced underneath a pile of rubble. The “devil’s mountain” of Teufelsberg was created due to the resilience of Nazi architecture, with Allied forces unable to demolish Speer’s Military-Technical College. The broken bricks and mortar of 400,000 decidedly more fragile Berlin buildings was used to cover up the college, creating Berlin’s largest mountain in the process. At the very top of the 375ft of Teufelsberg, another abandoned space remains – the former NSA (National Security Agency) listening tower, built in the 1960s during one of the many paranoid peaks of the Cold War. The audible tradition of Teufelsberg has since been replaced by the visual, with visitors to the hill treated to relative silence and a spectacular panorama of Berlin. The tower has become one of the city’s most famous abandoned sites, with regular tours (including one in English) of the tattered entrails of Teufelsberg established through a privately owned company.
The rebuilding of the east in the 1960s happened along totalitarian lines – and rising up out of Alexanderplatz, the 368 metre-high Fernsehturm (‘Television Tower’) marked the centre of a new capital. As the fourth highest freestanding structure in Europe, on a clear day you can see as far as 42 kilometres from its top, while from the ground the ball-on-spike makes an excellent, if bizarre, compass point. It started life as a symbol of Communist ideals, looming high above the wall into the West – an icon straight out of the pages of science fiction novel. But political statement was marred by iffy engineering: only after construction was completed did it transpire that the sun was reflected in a cross-shape across the stainless-steel dome, earning it the nickname ‘the Pope’s revenge’. For a truly high-end experience, dine in the rotating restaurant at the top of the ball, which turns a complete revolution every half an hour. Handily, visitBerlin now has a Berlin Tourist Info Point at the tower.
Recommended Berlin museums
Ask five German film enthusiasts about the state of contemporary German cinema and be prepared for five different responses. Local buffs agree, however, that the Deutsche Kinemathek gives a consistent account of the story of German cinema. Thirteen rooms contain over 1,000 films, scripts, documentation, props, costumes and other memorabilia – the exhibition takes us from cinema’s earliest, flickering manifestations to the industry's Weimar-era heyday and through veering ideological extremes (via didactic Nazi and DDR-era propagandist productions) to the present day, with substantial coverage of Marlene Dietrich to boot. Situated in the unlovely neon and concrete environs of Potsdamer Platz, this expansive museum is an absorbing and entertaining experience.
Finally reopened in 2009 after extensive remodelling by the British architect David Chipperfield, this stunning building now houses the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History and various artefacts from the Collection of Classical Antiquities. The museum’s most famous object is the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, which Germany refuses to return to Egypt despite repeated requests, and the skull of the Neanderthal from Le Moustier. The Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Prehistory & Early History), which traces the evolution of homo sapiens from 1,000,000 BC to the Bronze Age, has among its highlights reproductions (and some originals) of Heinrich Schliemann’s famous treasure of ancient Troy, including works of ceramics and gold, as well as weaponry. Keep an eye out also for the sixth-century BC grave of a girl buried with a gold coin in her mouth. Information is available in English. The Neues Museum has become such a hit that the museum authorities have had to limit visitor numbers by issuing timed tickets – book in advance if you can, and turn up within a half hour of the time you are given. You can sometimes buy tickets at the counter, but don’t count on it.
Family-friendly things to do
Germany is proud of its toy-making tradition, and puts an emphasis on alternative education for children. V.Kloeden is a charming shop in West Berlin that proves that educational toys don’t need to be boring. There are shelves of picture books, some handily in both German and English for bilingual families, and even Asterix comics in Latin for particularly adventurous parents. It’s rammed with toys of all sorts too – wooden Brio train sets, eerily lifelike Käthe Kruse dolls, Kersa puppets as well as more practical kit like rocking horses, detective sets and Little Prince suitcases.
Gay and lesbian Berlin
Berlin art galleries
König (half-brother of New York gallerist Leo and son of museum-man Kaspar) is one of Berlin’s bona fide iconoclasts. Upon opening his gallery at the age of 21, in 2002, he promptly eschewed convention by inviting his friend, artist Jeppe Hein to install a wrecking ball, which swung about perilously, knocking chunks out of the gallery walls whenever anyone entered the room. Amazingly, eleven years later, not only is König very much still in business, and is regarded as one of the leading lights in a gallery scene that’s certainly not short of willful, eccentric and obstinate characters. Today Konig’s main premisis at Dessauer Strasse has been augmented by his acquisition of a space at St Agnes Church, a must-see brutalist former church, if you can imagine such a thing. Across his venues, König continues to showcase regular shows which challenge, perplex and more often than not, reward the curious viewer with their eclectic positions and recherché choices of media. Alongside old König stalwarts such as as Jeppe Hein and Tatiana Trouvé, recent highlights included a lone, swinging lightbulb illuminating the vast interiors of the St Agnes space, by Berliner Alicia Kwade (‘Nach Osten’) as well as a welcome return for local girl Katharina Grosse. Other location: St Agnes, Alexandrinenstrasse 181-121.
Galerie Eigen + Art/Lab
Gerd Harry ‘Judy’ Lybke is one of the more idiosyncratic characters of the Berlin art scene. A charismatic, compact colossus in the post-Reunification German art scene, Lybke – along with Christian Ehrentraut and tutor Matthias Kleindienst – nurtured the so-called ‘Leipzig School’ in the early 1990s. Lybke, perhaps more than anyone, recognized the value of exporting the distinctive blend of figurative and abstract painting, executed at a time of unprecedented upheaval and change in the country, to collectors worldwide – making art stars out of the likes of Neo Rausch and Matthias Wiescher, artists for whom he once life-modelled, back in the early 1980s at Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Such was his conviction, even then, the life model began holding exhibitions in his tiny apartment, sowing the seeds for a colourful, peripatetic and hugely successful career which has brought the world Akos Birkas, Birgit Brenner, Marc Desgrandchamps, Martin Eder, Tim Eitel, Nina Fischer/Maroan el Sani, Stella Hamberg, Christine Hill, Jörg Herold, Uwe Kowski, Rémy Markowitsch, Maix Mayer, Ryan Mosley, Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Nicolai, amongst many others. Today, having achieved so much, Lybke remains a vital presence on the city’s art landscape through his two Berlin art spaces, which remain essential pitstops on any gallery tour of the city. Augustrasse 26 sees the gallery proper, which presents a selection of older and mid-career artists (many of his artists have stuck with L
KW Institute for Contemporary Art
Housed in a former margarine factory and sporting a social event-friendly courtyard designed by Dan Graham, Kunst Werke has been a major non-profit showcase since the early 1990s. Recently, the institution embarked upon a new phase in its 20-odd year history with a new Chief Curator Ellen Blumenstein, who took over in 2012. Incidentally Blumenstein, along with Klaus Biesenbach, was one of the curators behind KW’s controversial ‘Regarding Terror: RAF Exhibition’ in 1995, which caused such a public stink with its references to the 1970s German terrorist group that government funding was withdrawn. Today, Blumenstein promises more emollient, audience-friendly programmes, insisting that the institution move back from the realms of the (occasionally) utterly esoteric and baffling and return to engaging with the public. Always a lightning rod for the local art scene, the new, open approach sees KW engaging with other galleries and organized projects around town, from the recent ‘Berlin Art Week’ initiative, which saw the space co-host the multi-part ‘About Painting’ exhibition to hosting the annual and cheerfully never-less-than-controversial Berlin Biennale. A lively programme of exhibitions, film screenings, talks and presentations means that twenty years on, KW remains implacably at the heart of Berlin’s cultural agenda. The proximity to the Jüdischen Mädchenschule across the street has of late become another reason for making at least one trip to Auguststrasse absolutely essent
Launched in Kreuzberg in 2008, Chert’s multi-national aspect means that there’s always something of interest on show, from points right across the globe. With a current roster of around ten artists, including Mexico’s Alejandro Almanza Pereda, the British sculptor Carla Scott Fullerton and Swiss experimental installationist Jérémie Gindre, Chert is a small, perfectly formed and consistently rewarding experience.
This new arts centre is doing much to revive the somewhat moribund area by Revaler Strasse in Friederichschain known as the ‘clubbing mile’. The re-purposed industrial buildings are something of an adult playground, with clubs, concert venues, bars and even an outdoor climbing wall on offer, but has seen its popularity wane in recent years. Urban Spree, the new project from the French crew behind the much-missed HBC, houses an art gallery, concert hall, studio spaces and Bunsmobile food truck, with an emphasis on the experimental and DIY. There are frequent performances and concerts, ranging from freeform jazz, to acid-folk and improvised instrumental noise. Look out for gigs by far-out noiseniks Psychic Ills and ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki, as well as the occasional curveball like hip-hop mega-producer Swizz Beatz.