Once a favoured mode of escape to freedom in West Berlin, the bike is now the most carefree, cheap and relaxing way to explore the city's wide avenues and green spaces
The day was gloriously sunny as I coasted underneath the arches of Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate on my bicycle. I was surrounded by vivacious people in a beautiful square with a vibrant history, and I was absorbing it all under my own steam. There is no better way of getting under the skin of a city like Berlin
than by bike - all the locals do it, and the terrain is marvellously easy to handle. There are dedicated cycle lanes
, plenty of green space and traffic is surprisingly sane for a major capital city.
This city has seen it all: the Nazi regime, the Russians, Communism, the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. But despite the weight of its dark history, there is an air of energy and vitality in this new Berlin. An eclectic city brimming with art, architecture, film, theatres, cutting edge design and a raging nightlife, Berlin is a top destination for 2009. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the opening of a new Dalí Museum and an exhibition of photographer Annie Leibovitz’s work.
With so much history and so many sights to cover, it really is time to get on your bike! Start on the Unter den Linden, the heart of the historical Mitte district and the grand avenue of East Berlin. Its wide tree-lined streets mix history, culture, memorials and sidewalk cafes. You’ll find Berlin’s most important buildings of Prussian and German history from the 18th century to the present.
Take a left at Frederichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing point between East and West Berlin. Stop in the museum and be inspired by the ways that East Berliners got to freedom in the West — such as by hot-air balloon, digging tunnels, and hiding in a kayak tied to the rooftop of a car.
Down the road is the Topography of Terror, where the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS were during the Nazi regime of 1933 to 1945. The excavated interrogation rooms and the second-largest remaining segment of the Berlin Wall share this site, and the imposing Luftwaffe (Air Force) building is across the road. The site’s history is told through an engaging pictorial display that also includes marvellous images of the Wall coming down.
Head back westward to Unter den Linden and the famed Brandenberg Gate in the middle of charming Pariser Platz. Twenty years ago when the Wall was going up, East Berliners had frantically pedalled across the square towards freedom in West Berlin. Once the Wall was up, Brandenberg Gate was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and you’d likely have been shot trying to get through. Lucky for us, there is no longer fear or anxiety — just the careless freedom of being on two wheels, and passing easily through this unified city.
Take a left out of Brandenberg Gate, and stop for a moment at the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. The large field of six-foot columns commemorates the six million Jews and others who perished in the Nazi concentration camps. It’s a silent and powerful tribute.
Continue in the same direction and get to Postdamer Platz, full of shiny high rises and the youth of new Berlin. The newly-opened Dalí Museum is in the glistening Sony Center. If you’re feeling peckish, stop at Café Josty, the legendary haunt for artists and intellectuals in 19th-century Berlin. This is all a sharp contrast to the picture display showing the Postdamer Platz of post-WWII, when it was a no-man's-land fenced off by terrifying barbed wire and armed guards.
Next, lose yourself in the splendid woods of the Tiergarten. There are perfect bicycle paths, overhanging trees to shade you from sun and rain, and lovely pockets of flower gardens. The Café Am Neuen Seen, on the edge of the park’s largest artificial lake, is Berlin’s most popular beer garden, and also serves lovely warm meals and a cooling ice cream for the weary cyclist. Summertime brings beach bars complete with sand; you can find out the locations from the tourist office.
Another possible route, also starting from Unter den Linden, heads east instead. Museum Island is on your left, with five museums and over six thousand years of world history. Across the Spree river is Scheunenviertel, the former Jewish quarter and now a funky area with lots of bars, restaurants and outdoor terraces. On Oranienburger Strasse, you’ll find the Neue Synagogue, which survived the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) of the Nazi regime. In true Berlin fashion, the same street is also home to Kunsthaus Tacheles, a bombed-out department store that now houses an arts centre, a café, cinema, and performance and exhibition spaces. Farther down the same street, Postfuhrant is hosting a new exhibition of photographer Annie Leibovitz’s work. For lunch, stop into the delicious Moroccan restaurant Kasbah, on nearby Gipstrasse.
Put your feet back on the pedals and continue east to Alexanderplatz. From May to November of this year, there will be an open-air exhibit on the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stop at Berlin’s oldest pub, Zur Letzten Instanz , which dates back to 1621 and was patronised by everyone from Napoleon to Beethoven.
Cycling is a relaxing way to get around, more fun than a bus tour, cheaper than the metro, and you’ll cover much more than on foot. Berlin also offers many bicycle tours with excellent guides, including the New Berlin Tour, the Inside Tour and the Fat Bike tour. If you decide to strike out on your own, most hostels offer bike hire, and the hotels can point you in the right direction for a bike shop. You can also take your bike on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn underground lines — you just need a ticket for the bike.
For a colourful place to stay, try the Art’Otel Berlin
in Mitte or Ku’damm, where you can choose from a variety of colour schemes. If a hostel is more your style, try St Christopher’s Inn
in Mitte, which has large rooms, great meals and bike hire. They also have private apartments for two to four people, with separate bathrooms and kitchens. If you’re looking for Westin Grand
on Unter den Linden.
Exhibition: Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990 - 2005, C/O Berlin (21 February to 24 May 2009).
Exhibition: Calvinism: The Reformed Protestants in Germany and Europe at the German Historical Museum (6 March to 19 July 2009).
New Berlin: tours are free — you just tip the guide
Fat Tire Bike Tour: one of Berlin’s largest bike hire companies, with locations in Tiergarten and Mitte.