‘Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome’ – thus sings the master of the ceremonies in Cabaret, the musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s novel Goodbye to Berlin. But let’s not start a city guide with a leave-taking. Berlin is, rather, ‘happy to see you, enchanté!’ The fast-paced metropolis of the golden twenties is once again at the forefront of Europe’s places-to-be, now, as almost a century ago, pulsating with life in the arts, architecture and politics. History is written all over the city in a way that can, perhaps, only be rivaled by the outdoor museum that is Rome. But Berlin’s is a recent history, still very much in the making, still very present within the living memory of its inhabitants. 24 years seems a lot of time for Cold War wounds to heal, but the Wall continues to exert its pressure on both people and places. Like most Germans, Berliners still think of themselves as either “Ossis” (easterners) or “Wessis” (westeners), more or less humorously perpetuating old clichés of communist vs capitalist mentalities. But you can also read Berlin’s divided history merely by looking at a map of the city: everything is double! East and west have their respective city centres, universities, zoos, TV towers, opera houses – the list goes on and on.

The Berlin Cathedral with the Fernsehturm, or TV tower, in the background
The Berlin Cathedral with the Fernsehturm, or TV tower, in the background

This dispersal of cultural activity invites you to discover little by little what the city has to offer, and confers a unique atmosphere on Berlin that is simultaneously urban and provincial. Just take one step out of these pockets of sightseeing interest and you will be dropped in relaxed, quiet side-streets where people actually live.

[pullquote]I still have a suitcase in Berlin, so I have to return again.[/pullquote]

Unlike London, Berlin does sleep at night! When you amble through the city at day, however, watch out for the line of cobbled stone that runs like a scar through the heart of the city and marks where the Wall used to stand. Now there are only short stretches of it left, among these the East Side Gallery with its sprayed paintings on freedom and peace, definitely worth a look. You had better be quick, though! The building boom of pricy town villas is sadly mutilating the city’s generously spacious urban design, its democratically cheap rents, and puts into doubt the visibility and future of what is left of the Wall. Times are a-changing in Berlin, too, and gentrification will sooner or later catch up with the city’s bubble-like existence during the Cold War years.

The Berlin Wall in east Berlin. This area is now being filled with high-end residences
The Berlin Wall in east Berlin. This area is now being filled with high-end residences

But we all know that change is necessary and a sign of life, in human bodies as it is in cities. “Berlin is poor but sexy,” its socialist party-loving mayor proclaimed in 2004. And so the young and trendy have discovered new places to be young and trendy in, such as the Hackeschermarkt in the east, the old working-class neighbourhood. Its houses have up to five courts one behind the other where you can chill out in cafés, get a crazy haircut for ten euros or the latest hand-tailoured dress for rather more. From there just walk along the river Spree, past Bertolt Brecht’s playhouse, world-famous museums and the German parliament to the Tiergarten, a big park in the centre of the city. From there, go and buy the city’s best ice-cream at the Potsdamer Platz or climb up the 285 steps of the Prussian Victory Column and enjoy a windy 360° view. Or visit the Jewish memorial and museum and learn about the city’s darker past. “Ich hab‘ noch einen Koffer in Berlin,” Marlene Dietrich, the 1920s filmstar, sings: “I still have a suitcase in Berlin, so I have to return again.” May you never say ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, but always keep that suitcase and come back.

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