(Photos clockwise from top right: mural by Fin DAC, walkway at Luisenstadt Canal, Topography of Terror, and the Treehouse on the Wall)
Explore the Neighborhood: Kreuzberg
by Bethany Sharp
If you type “hippest neighborhoods in Berlin” into your search bar, you’ll find Kreuzberg near the top every time. Kreuzberg, one of the two neighborhoods that make up the borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, became known as the punk and counterculture center of West Berlin before the wall came down. The neighborhood has only been grouped into one district with the neighboring Friedrichshain since 2001. Before that Kreuzberg stood on its own as a separate district. The Oberbaum Bridge (along with the Berlin Wall) once divided Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, but today the bridge unites them as the most popular Berlin borough for nightlife, music, and everything counter-culture.
Kreuzberg may be one of the more expensive neighborhoods in the city to live in now, but the alternative and punk vibes remain, making the neighborhood a go-to for young people from near and far. Even if you don’t fit the description of a 20-something club-hopper, if you and your Circles friends are lovers of street art, architecture, parks, or want to know more about Berlin’s history and culture, there’s bound to be something in Kreuzberg for you! It’s impossible to list all of the possibilities here, but the following suggestions are a great start.
Learn about German history and culture at memorials and museums
Kreuzberg is home to several museums and memorials dedicated to different events and periods of German history. The following spots can serve as great meeting places for you and your circle.
At the border between Kreuzberg and Mitte is the checkpoint-turned-memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, the most well-known Cold War-era crossing point between East and West Berlin. Located at the intersection of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, Checkpoint Charlie got its name from the NATO phonetic Alphabet. Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo were nicknames of two other checkpoints, and Charlie was the third. In the days of the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the site was the location of multiple escapes and attempted escapes of East Germans vying to reach the West as well as an infamous standoff between American and Soviet forces with tanks on either side. In the years since the Cold War, the original guardhouse has been removed and placed in a museum, and what’s left standing is a replica. In fact, most, if not all, of what’s left at the former checkpoint is made up of replicas, and the location of Checkpoint Charlie has arguably become a tourist trap. Tourist trap or not, this location is still flocked to in droves. If you decide to visit this site, I recommend going to the nearby MauerMuseum (Wall Museum), where you can see real artifacts of the Cold War, including the original “You are leaving the American Sector” sign.*
From Checkpoint Charlie, if you walk west on Zimmerstraß for one block, you’ll find a preserved strip of the Berlin Wall. Just south of that part of the wall is the Topography of Terror, dedicated to the remembrance of the persecution and acts of terror committed during World War II. These exhibits are located on the original site that was the center of the Nazi of the Gestapo headquarters. One of the most frequented remembrance memorials and museums in Berlin, the Topography of Terror is completely free to visit and contains permanent exhibits as well as guided tours of the grounds.* A must-visit for folks interested in World War II history.
Another great resource for learning more about Germany in World War II is at the Berlin Story Bunker, where visitors can take part in an exhibit/documentary titled “Hitler: How it Could Happen.” This audio documentary exhibit covers 3 floors and takes up 3000 square meters in a World War II air-raid bunker.* The information inside provides a deep dive into subjects over a range of topics like Hitler’s early life, his rise to power, civil resistance against the Nazis, concentration camps, battlegrounds of World War II, Hitler’s death, and end of the war. The audio headsets give visitors the chance to absorb the information throughout the exhibit at their own pace. (Be aware that there are stairs to climb, and the exhibit, unfortunately, is not wheelchair accessible.)
One of Germany’s most frequented museums is the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum). With its expansive exhibits, the Jewish Museum provides a vast collection of art, memorabilia, and information on the lives and culture of German Jewish people from the middle ages to the present day. You’ll find upon visiting that the museum itself is a work of art, it’s architecture and layout lending to an overarching narrative. Throughout the museum are voids—empty spaces that pay homage to the empty voids left in Jewish history by the Holocaust. The museum’s installations and exhibits weave a rich tapestry representing the many facets of the Jewish culture and religion, providing an enriching experience I highly recommend.*
Engage in Berlin’s culture through outdoor exploration
Kreuzberg isn’t just for museum lovers. You can find pieces of Berlin history and culture in nearly every corner of the neighborhood. Simply walking outside in Kreuzberg with your Circles connections is a wonderful way to take in the city.
One outdoor activity that I suggest is to go on a self-guided walking tour of Kreuzberg street art. Murals such as the Astronaut Cosmonaut by Victor Ash, Engeika by Fin DAC, and My Head is a Jungle by Millo are just a few of the incredible works of art you’ll find painted on Kreuzberg buildings and walls. There are plenty of extensive lists of Kreuzberg street art online you can peruse to map out a route to take with your circle.
The Baumhaus an der Mauer (Treehouse on the Wall) is another unique site in Kreuzberg to visit. This modest structure built from repurposed scrap materials is not so much a house in a tree but built around a tree. It may not be much to look at from the outside, but this structure has an interesting backstory. As the story goes, this treehouse was built on the no-man’s-land by the Berlin Wall in the 1980s. The builder, Osman Kalin, was a Turkish immigrant who started by growing a garden near the wall. Though this land belonged to East Berlin, the wall in this location was built on a curve instead of right angles, and the result was that a 350 square meter plot of land that technically belonged to the GDR was on the West Berlin side of the wall. The East German guards quickly investigated the garden to make sure that Kalin wasn’t actually digging an escape tunnel but, once satisfied that it wasn’t the case, allowed him to keep the garden. It’s said that Kalin’s relationship with the East German guards became quite harmonious, even when he built the small house on the land. When the wall came down, the treehouse was saved from demolition by a group of locals and Kalin expanded the structure, once again using recycled materials. Kalin passed away in 2018, and his family continues to maintain the property.
Engelbecken (Angel’s Pool) and the former Luisenstädtischer Kanal (Luisenstadt Canal), which is now filled in with greenery, is about 10 minutes on foot from the Treehouse on the Wall. If you take a walk down this former waterway, you’ll see some beautiful sights. Luisenstädtischer Kanal used to connect the Spree to the Landwehrkanal (Landwehr Canal) but was filled in 1926 except for Engelbecken. It ran past St. Michael Kirche (St. Michael’s Church, which is technically just over the neighborhood border of Mitte) and today you’ll find beautiful fountains, graffiti art, and greenery on this path down from the church to Landwehrkanal and its scenic banks filled with quaint cafes and shops.
Just a 20-minute stroll south of Landwehrkanal, and you’ll be at the location of Kreuzber’s namesake, Victoria Park. Inside Victoria Park is the tallest natural elevation in the city with a national monument sitting on top in the shape of a cathedral tower—Kreuzberg (Cross Mountain). Besides the hill and beautiful monument, the park is well known for a picturesque waterfall. There is also a beer garden at the foot of the Kreuzberg called Golgotha,* perfect for a peaceful place to sit with a drink or have a bite to eat while enjoying the beauty of the park.
Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field) is one of the most well-known open green spaces in the city. It’s mentioned on countless lists of Berlin sites to visit for people from all walks of life because this former airfield has so many forms of outdoor entertainment. With a great view of the city skyline, Tempelhofer Feld is a perfect place for a picnic; you can even grill outdoors. Many people ride bikes on the former runway, but that’s not the only way to get around. Plenty of rollerbladers, skateboarders, and even segway riders can be seen around the area. There are also attractions like an artistically conceived mini golf course, and for those with a green thumb, you can check out the community garden.
Take a Walk down Oranienstraße
Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg is synonymous with nightlife and entertainment, as well as the punk and counterculture movements in the 1970s and 80s. Today it has many bars, clubs, restaurants, and great boutiques and vintage stores for unique finds. SO36 is probably the most famous club on Oranienstraße and was frequented in the 70s by Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Many consider SO36 the place where punk began in Berlin. It’s still known for its music, and it’s also a self-proclaimed home to many folks who are part of the Berlin gay cultural scene.* But aside from the clubs and bars, there are plenty of great places to visit up and down this historic street.
See English Theatre
If you and your circle are live theatre lovers but your German isn’t great enough to keep up with the dialogue, English Theatre Berlin performs stage productions entirely in English. Their production seasons have been known to include festivals, staged readings, full plays, and dance pieces. Staying safe and keeping COVID restrictions in mind, English Theatre Berlin has recently limited seating and some of their programming will be performed via Zoom so you can enjoy the performing arts from the comfort of your own home.
*Keep in mind that all activities, events, and places of business are subject to change hours of operation and policies due to COVID-19 restrictions. Circles encourages social distancing when you can and wearing a mask in crowded places.