Insiders Berlin A Berlin city guide by the people who live here Mon, 27 Mar 2017 15:12:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 45032905 See the CIA’s maps of divided Berlin and the zones of occupation Sun, 11 Dec 2016 07:37:38 +0000

The CIA has just declassified some really cool material including this awesome map of occupied Berlin showing the different zones of occupation.

Berlin map with occupied zones in 1945

CIA map showing Berlin in 1945 with the occupied zones

You can find more of the maps that the CIA has released here

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GM26: East Berlin Cool in the Cold Heart of West Berlin Sun, 03 Aug 2014 11:52:10 +0000

GM26 in BerlinWest Berlin has a lot going for it, from the amazing lakes and woods to broad, tree-lined avenues. But it still lacks a bit of the edgy cool that characterises East Berlin and neighbourhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain. That is starting to change with the opening of GM26, a new and super-cool coffee shop in Steglitz.

At the time we visited (July 2014) it had just been open for a short while and was still finding its feet, but it has a great atmosphere and looks set to become a firm favourite. In summer you can chill out in the relaxing quiet of the courtyard a
nd in winter it will likely provide a great and cozy atmosphere. Food is good, even if getting something is still a bit hit and miss (they seem to still run out of food quite a bit – not a bad thing as you know you are getting fresh stuff). The beer is cool, the coffee is good. What more could you want?


gm26-2 gm26-3

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The Restaurant Pasternak – A taste of Jewish and Russian Food in Berlin Tue, 04 Feb 2014 10:20:38 +0000

restaurant pasternak berlinThere is nothing that says Jewish or Russian food quite like Blini with salmon, horseradish sauce and sour cream (except perhaps for Borshtsh, Latkes or Kreplach). Whatever your fancy, whether Russian food, Jewish food or just good old winter-warming food, you won’t be disappointed by the Restaurant Pasternak in Berlin.

Pasternak is a firm favourite of both locals and visitors. The food is good, but not prize-winning. Instead people go there for the excellent ambiance and friendly service. It is also incredibly well-located in Prenzlauer Berg very close to the Rykestrasse Synagogue (and just next door to another Russian-themed favourite of ours, Gagarins). It is also very close to the fantastic Wasserturm Prenzlauer Berg, a beautiful old water-tower that has since been turned into apartments, and a great park with a lovely view.

The restaurant is named after the Russian author Boris Pastenak,  who wrote Doctor Zhivago, and the internal decor is atmospheric. The best place to sit, however, is outside where you look out onto the water-tower and see people passing along the old streets. It can get a bit chilly in winter but they offer cozy blankets and have heaters. Plus a hot chocolate with a bit of Vodka or their own craft beer usually take the chill off a cold winter’s night.

The time to really experience the Restaurant Pasternak is on a Sunday morning, when they lay out an excellent buffet brunch (as do most restaurants in Berlin). You cannot book for this as it gets really crowded. The best strategy is to go a bit earlier than the rest of the late-sleeping Berlin crowd. You can book in the evenings but I found that in the evenings you can usually get a table by just showing up. Their popular brunch will set you back about 12 euros a person. It is well worth it because you won’t want to eat again for the rest of the day. Trust me.

Oh yes, and be prepared to have some vodka. A meal at restaurant Pasternak without Vodka just wouldn’t be the full experience. To read a lovely review of a meal at Pasternak by a real Eastern-European cooking guru check out this post on the Food Perestroika Blog.

Getting to the Restaurant Pasternak

To find your way to Pasternak, the easiest thing to do is to take the U2 from downtown, get off at Senefelderplatz and walk up the hill. It will be off to your right down Knaackstraße as you get to Kollwitzplatz. Another option is to take the M2 tram to Knaackstraße stop. From there walk towards your left (if taking the tram up the hill away from Alexanderplatz.)


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The New Synagogue Berlin (Neue Synagoge) Mon, 20 Jan 2014 18:15:44 +0000

New synagogue berlin

The New Synagogue in Berlin

The New Synagogue in Berlin is by a very long shot my favourite. This is partly because I have attended a wedding and several Bar-Mitzvahs there, and have come to love the close community feel of the small congregation that still worships in the New Synagogue. But it is also because of the amazing building and sense of history you get from entering it.

The first impression you get of the synagogue is as you approach it along the busy Oranienburger Straße in the buzzing heart of Mitte. The gold dome glittering above the street and the impressive doors windows all shout out that the Jewish community in Berlin was comfortable and confident. The building, which was completed in 1866, is a splendid Moorish design, and was the largest in Germany at the time with space for 3,000 congregants.  I often contrast this “loud-and-proud” reflection of Jewish identity in Berlin in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the much more modest, almost hidden buildings that Jews built for themselves in many other European cities.


The history of the building is also quite inspiring, not just because of the splendour with which it was built but because it also brought out the best in some people during Germany’s darkest period. Most memorably it survived the pogrom of November 1938 when synagogues were attacked and burned across Germany. The night has since become known as Kristallnacht because of all the glass in the streets of German cities after Jewish-owned shops had their windows smashed.

This building was also attacked along with many others, yet remarkably it survived because of the actions of one brave police officer, Lieutenant  Otto Bellgardt. Lieutenant Otto arrived outside the synagogue while it was still under attack by a mob of local Nazis. He bravely pulled out his gun and confronted the mob, allowing firemen to put out the fire. The building was repaired and remained in use as a synagogue until 1940 when it was seized by the Army and used as a store-room. It was later badly damaged by allied bombers in November 1943.

The building was only restored in the early 1990s and although most of it now houses offices for the administration of the Jewish community, it has a large museum with a permanent and visiting exhibitions. It also houses a small working synagogue that hosts a Masorti service (in which women are allowed to take part fully).

Visiting the New Synagogue Berlin

You need to plan your visit as the New Synagogue is closed on Saturdays (the Jewish day of prayer). You can visit on on most other days between 10 am and 6 pm, though it also closes early on Friday.

The permanent exhibition deals mainly with the history of the building. You can also go up and look out of the dome on the roof for a view over Mitte.

You can find out more about the temporary exhibitions by clicking this link.

Attending a service at the New Synagogue in Berlin

Visiting Jews who wish to participate in a service and attend a Kiddush afterwards on a Saturday (or about once a month on a Friday night) are always welcomed by the community. Because security is very tight at the building it is best to send an e-mail in advance giving your names.

You can find the latest times of services by clicking this link and you can contact the Rabbi’s office by calling +49-30-88028-253

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What is the cost of living in Berlin? Sun, 12 Jan 2014 13:35:43 +0000

livinginberlinAre you thinking of moving to Berlin? Great. That means you probably already know it is one of the coolest and most vibrant cities in the world. The rest is all detail, but to be fair, a pretty important part of the detail is figuring out the cost of living in Berlin.

Let’s start with the good news first. Berlin is a lot cheaper than most other places in Europe and is one of the reasons it has become such a magnet for writers, musicians and other artists who can live cheaply while devoting themselves to their art. The bad news is that prices have been going up quite a lot lately.

Before we get to the detailed analyse and cost-of-living comparison there are a few obvious points to make. The first of these is that these numbers are hugely variable. Take rent. Choose a big apartment on Kollwitzstrasse and you will pay way more than if you get a quiet little spot on a backroad a bit further out. Want to eat organic vegetables all the time and your food will cost more than if you pop into the local Aldi.

One of the best sources of information on how much it costs to live in various cities is which collects information and prices from its users. According to its calculations living in Berlin is almost half as expensive as London (strictly speaking 40% cheaper than in London). In other words you can comfortably have the same lifestyle in Berlin for about  €2,760 (about £2,200) as it would cost you £4,000 in London.  Let’s look at some of the specifics.

How the cost of living compares to London, New York, Prague and other cities. Source:

How the cost of living compares to London, New York, Prague and other cities. Source:

In London a big mug of draft beer would cost you £3.62 at a bar or restaurant. In Berlin you’d pay about 1/3 less or £2.45. A reasonably cheap meal would be about £11 in Britain and about £5 in Berlin. For most groceries the difference is less stark with bread and similar items costing roughly the same. Alcohol bought in stores in Germany is stupidly cheap (they tax it a lot less). So whereas a bottle of beer in a supermarket would cost about £1.50 on average in London, a similar bottle of very nice German lager will be about 60p. In other words you can get almost 3 bottles of German beer for the price of 1 bottle in Britain.

The other massive difference in costs comes from renting an apartment. Berlin still has loads of space and cheap neighbourhoods. Whereas an  apartment in London will set you back about £1,500, one in Berlin would be less than £500.

In terms of the detailed costs here are some indicative costs of things in Berlin:


  • Meal, Inexpensive Restaurant         6.45 €
  • Domestic Beer (0.5 liter draught)   2.95 €
  • Cappuccino (regular)           2.19 €

Utilities (Monthly)   

  • Basic (Electricity, Heating, Water, Garbage) for 85m2 Apartment          164.78 €
  • 1 min. of Prepaid Mobile Tariff Local (No Discounts or Plans)    0.09 €
  • Internet (6 Mbps, Unlimited Data, Cable/ADSL)  21.05 €
  • Apartment Rent (1 bedroom) in City Centre        545.16 €
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Why tour Berlin by Bike Fri, 21 Jun 2013 16:20:50 +0000


Berlin by Bike

Berlin by Bike

Seeing Berlin by bike gives you a whole new outlook on the city.  Should I say that again? The best, and I mean the best, way to tour Berlin is by bike. This is why.

1) Berlin is one of the friendliest places in the world to cycle.

The famous Copenhagenize Index that measures the world’s most cycle-friendly cities lists Berlin as No 8. Now that may not sound great but it has Berlin competing with some pretty serious competitors (Amsterdam ranks first, Copenhagen second…you get the picture). It has wide cycle paths, cars know to watch out for you and there are plenty of friendly cyclists around.

In fact, the Copenhagenize index says:

“Berlin seems to have the right pragmatic attitude towards bicycle traffic that you see in Amsterdam and Copenhagen. People just on with it.”

2) Berlin has plenty of bikes.

You can rent them by the hour (or even just for a few minutes) using the awesome Call-A-Bike system run by the national rail company or you can rent a bike by the day or week from loads of companies. In fact most hostels and even a bunch of little corner cafes will rent you a bike.

3) There are plenty of guided bike tours in Berlin

There are various tours through the city that will take you to most of the major sights or just through cool neighbourhoods. Popular ones include Fat Tire Bike Tours and Berlin Bike Tour.

  • The most popular itinerary offered by Fat Bike Tours is their “all in one city bike tour” that takes in the main sites. These include Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, a whiz along part of the Berlin Wall, a look at a watchtower, the Reichstag, and Museum Island among other sites. It takes about 4.5 hours to complete and costs €24 (or €22 for students and pensioners). It always gets rave reviews from visitors, mainly because of the amazing quality of the guides, who are just fantastic story-tellers and very knowledgeable when it comes to Berlin’s history.
  • If you have a bit more to spend then you consider their e-bike tour. Seeing Berlin by e-bike is a totally different experience as you cover way more ground (about 23km in 5.5 hours) and see both sides of the city. This bike tour costs €45.
  • Slightly less well known that Fat Tire are Berlin Bike Tours, which also get rave reviews and offer a similar range of itineraries ranging from a tour of the Berlin Wall to the main sights in Mitte.

4) Take a Rickshaw

If you don’t feel like peddling y you can get a tour on a Rickshaw with BerlinRikschaTours or get a ride on a cycle taxi.

5) Have a post-ride drink


Take a rickshaw ride in Berlin

Last of all, after a hard day’s cycling you can get to drink a nice cool glass of Radler or “cyclist”, a mix of beer and something soft like lemonade.

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The Berlin Wall: Facts I Bet You Never Knew Sat, 02 Jun 2012 20:48:47 +0000

It is a bit unfortunate that a city as amazing as Berlin has ended up being largely defined by the Berlin Wall. That said, this was a pretty stark division of a city in living memory and its traces are still everywhere, not just in the city’s architecture but also in the minds of its inhabitants. Astonishingly, even today Berlin votes as if it were two different cities. Those in West Berlin still support their traditional and somewhat conservative parties such as the CSU (or Christian Socialists) while those in the East are far more likely to support left-wing parties such as Die Linke (the left) or the Pirate Party.


When was the Berlin Wall Built?


The official start date of the construction of the Berlin was was 13 August 1961, but the truth is that the division of the city had started long before with an agreement between the victorious Allied forces (America, Britain. France and Russia) to divide the city into four sectors at a conference held in Potsdam in 1945. In May 1949  the Federal Republic of Germany (what we think of as West Germany) was established with Bonn as its capital city. It prospered whereas the German Democratic Republic, or GDR (East Germany), which was established later that year, struggled along. As the West grew richer, people crossed the borders as refugees, flowing in growing numbers from the east to the west. Finally in 1961 and literally overnight the East Germans set up barbed wire barriers across Berlin and started building the wall.

The wall initially went up overnight but was then continually strengthened and reinforced over the following 28 years

Facts About the Berlin Wall

How long is the Berlin Wall?

 The wall running around West Berlin stretches 156.4 kilometres in length; the border between West and East Berlin accounted for 43.7 kilometres of it.

How long did it take to build?

The wall went up officially on 13th August 1961. On that day the main roads and traffic routes (including public transport) were cut. But it took several days before it was completely finished. In the first chaotic days people managed to wander across and escape.

How long did it take to destroy?
The demolition of the internal city wall started on 10th November 1989 with the opening up of new border crossing points. It was officially completed on 30th November 1990. In the surrounding area of Brandenburg the last sections disappeared in November 1991.

What is left of the Berlin Wall?

Some of the sections of the wall can be found today in different places throughout the world. The US Secret Service, the CIA, secured a few artistically decorated segments of the wall for its new building in Langley, Virginia. A few segments of the wall with St. Michael’s Church painted on them were erected in the Vatican Gardens in August 1994. Another piece of the wall is on view in the House of History (‘Haus der Geschichte’) in Bonn.

How many people were killed crossing the Berlin Wall?

The most definitive numbers are from the Centre for Research into Contemporary History (‘Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung’) – Potsdam and the Berlin Wall Memorial Site . They think that between 1961 and 1989 at least 136 people were killed on the Berlin Wall . Most of those killed were escapees trying to get across from East Germany to the west.  More than half of the 136 casualties met their deaths in the first five years following the building of the Wall.

What is the best place to see the Berlin Wall?

A memorial showing where a section of the Berlin Wall once ran alongside Bernauer Strasse.

The best place to see the Berlin Wall as it once stood is along the East Side Gallery. This is a 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall that runs alongside the Spree river. It has been transformed into an international memorial for freedom and has 106 works of art covering the old concrete of the wall.

Another site to visit is the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. This is much closer to the centre of Berlin and is situated on a part of the old wall where it cut right through neighbourhoods, separating friends and families. It gives a vantage point over the border strip that runs alongside Bernauer Strasse and conveniently runs right up towards the Mauerpark, which was also once part of the death strip alongside the wall. It also shows a section of memorial that has been constructed to show where the wall ran (pictured here).

Where can I see the Berlin Wall’s Ghost Stations?

Guards at a ghost station underneath the Berlin wall.

An exhibition at the  Nordbahnhof  station displays some of what happened below ground when Berlin was divided by the wall. It talks about how some stations on the old underground rail network were closed where trains crossed between East and West Berlin. A friend of mine was there when one of these was first re-opened after the wall came down and told me how she found old train tickets with stamps dating back to 1961 lying on the platform. Many of these stations were considered security risks by the East German state, so it guarded them to prevent escapes. Many of the guards were themselves blocked off from the tunnels with only small viewing ports to look through to ensure that they too didn’t sneak out and try to escape.

Other parts of Berlin’s underground were also closed off to prevent escape. This included the sewers, where bars were inserted into the tunnels to prevent people from sneaking across the dividing line.



What is the Best Berlin Wall Documentary?

There are several really good documentaries on the Berlin Wall. A very good one that shows the extent of the fortifications is Walled In (shown here)


Another exceptional source is an interview of Thomas Hoepker, a photographer, on life behind the Berlin Wall.





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Summer in Berlin: A Few Watery Tips to Fill the Lazy Days Sun, 20 May 2012 08:43:23 +0000

Berlin’s natives can be laconic at the best of times. Ask them about summer in the city and they will shrug or mumble. A few might even complain about the weather. I think it is all because they are intent on trying to keep a secret — that while tourists flock to Berlin for the Christmas markets and winter festivities, the city is really at its best on the hot languid days of summer.

The skies are often blue, the heat is sultry and turns thoughts to pleasures of the flesh. The beer is ice cold and the lakes surrounding the city are crystal clear and cool. For a good few years after we first went to Berlin we decided not to take our usual summer holidays on the beach in Italy or Spain, because Germany’s capital just had so much to offer.

Here a few pointers to get the best out of your summer in Berlin.


For a sunny weekend day you have to go to hang out at the Mauerpark and catch some of its world-famous bearpit karaoke. I’ve already sung the praises of the Mauerpark enough elsewhere so click here to go and check it out. You can also fire up your barbecue along Schwedter Street (be warned, the Ordnungsampt gets pretty upset if you light a fire in anything but the designated zone.

Hang out at a swimming lake

When you fly into Berlin Tegel during the day, just look down and you will see a wonderland of forests and lakes. Berlin is virtually surrounded by these. The forest (or Wald) plays a huge role in Germany storytelling (think of little red riding hood) and also a big part of the German psyche (oh dear, there I go making generalisations – whatever, Germans really do like to have nature nearby and they especially love forests).

This means you are completely spoiled for choice for great places to go to swim on a hot summer’s day.

My favourite is Schlachtensee, a gorgeous tree-shaded lake that is about 30 minutes (give or take a bit) from the middle of Berlin. It is also huge so that you can usually find a nice quite spot in the shade on the far side of the lake from the maddening crowds. Feel free to bring a lilo, pool noodle or just about anything else that floats. This is about as relaxing and peaceful as life gets.

Canoe trips up the Spree

If you are feeling lazy, jump on to a boat and take a lazy, beery boat cruise (I’ve written a whole bunch about how to find it and which ones to use over here). But if you are feeling a bit more adventurous and active, consider a canoe trip. One of the more popular is the  “Sperrzone Spree” (“prohibited

Spree zone”) that goes up the river from the Oberbaum Bridge in Kreuzberg. It goes as far as the east port (don’t worry, it comes back to) and gives a good overview of the Berlin wall and border defences that the DDR built along the river.  You can find out more and book a ride at the  Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum (

Fly in a Floatplane or Balloon

This is about as wild as it gets, catching a plane that takes of and lands on the river itself. The floatplane uses Treptower port as its runway and lets 4 people go for a flight. If you really want to splurge and make it a romantic escape consider a lunchtime flight to Hubertushöhe Castle about 20 minutes away with champaign and lunch. Hard to think of a better place to romance or propose.

Or zoom up in the famous “Die Welt” balloon that rises near checkpoint charlie and gives and unbeatable view over the city. It costs €19 for an adult. You can find out more about it by clicking here.


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New Direct Flights to Berlin from Los Angeles Sat, 12 May 2012 21:51:51 +0000 Berlin’s status as the must-visit city in Europe just keeps getting stronger and stronger. This week Air Berlin, the city’s flag carrier (well, sort-off) said it will fly directly between Berlin and Los Angeles three times a week. That takes their number of flights to America to 10 a week.

The company had this to say about its new route:

airberlin CEO Hartmut Mehdorn said about the inaugural flight this morning at Berlin-Tegel: “Los Angeles is a major route expansion for our Berlin hub. Attractive destinations such as Los Angeles make our hub an engine of growth for airberlin, for tourism and the economy.” He added: “With this offer, we particularly want to attract connecting passengers from our German and European route network.”

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Berlin’s New Airport Will Be Delayed Tue, 08 May 2012 21:30:35 +0000

I just saw a statement that the new Berlin Airport (BER) has delayed its opening. That will be good news for all those who love good old Tegel. Meanwhile flights are still going into Schoenefeld as usual.

Here is their full statement:

Berlin, 8 May 2012 Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg GmbH announced today that the new airport Berlin Brandenburg (BER) will not open on schedule on 3 June. Technical problems in the field of fire protection engineering make a postponement indispensable.

Burkhard Kieker, CEO of visitBerlin, stresses: “This is a responsible decision. In the interest of the tourism and convention destination Berlin a launch of BER on a safe and comfortable basis is better than a possibly bumpy start, which impairs the arrival and departure of our guests.”

Kieker continues: “What we now expect is a calm approach and an opening date which will demonstrate the full qualities of the new airport.”

20120508-223439.jpgBerlin can be easily reached through the existing airports Schönefeld and Tegel; all flights to and from Berlin can be carried out as scheduled. At the beginning of the year Berlin recorded a double-digit growth in room nights, and visitBerlin expects a further positive development during the months to come.

Meanwhile, Air Berlin has said it will keep operating its flights as usual from Tegel until the new airport opens although it may have to make a few changes to its schedule. I guess the guys over at Heathrow who messed up the move to Terminal Five (the new British Airways terminal) must be laughing into their tea.

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