An Afternoon in Berlin’s Botanic Garden


An impossibly high greenhouse, all glass and steel arches, rises up against the first blue sky we’ve seen in February. Surrounding it, the vast landscaped garden seems austere with its winter branches but a few proud evergreens scatter touches of dark green at least. Despite the whip of the wind and a rain cloud on the far horizon, crowds of people, young, old, local, visiting, wander along the broad central path, turning off onto small winding ones when they spot a plant or bush that captures their attention.

Last Sunday we celebrated a few hours of winter sunshine with our first visit to Berlin’s world-renowned Botanic Garden. Second in size and diversity only to Kew Gardens in London and established in its scale and scope in 1910 way out west in Dahlem, the Botanic Garden is rich with the imperial optimism and bourgeoise intellectual aspiration so typical to Berlin in that late imperial era. Continue reading

Frühling: five top tips for visiting Berlin this season

I left our apartment for a run on Saturday morning and noticed it immediately: the air was softer, the sun warmer, more people were on the street. In the park round the corner, trees wore tiny green buds, a whisper of the bountiful green to come. In the sheltered spots, daffodils were about to bloom. Yes, the day before Easter, almost at the very end of March, winter was over and spring had arrived.

There is always that moment in Berlin, when you know that though the temperature might drop below 10C again, the harshness of winter has gone for a good for months at least. Exactly when it happens is unpredictable – mid-March is a wonderful treat, mid-April a longer slog. But when it does, you know it. The light changes, the smell of the city freshens, it’s inhabitants crawl out from their hibernation inside apartments and cafes and flood the streets.

Volkspark Friedrischshain last April

Volkspark Friedrischshain last April

In spring and summer Berlin is at its best for visitors. The combination of weighty history, visible on almost every street you walk down, plus superb pavement and park-life, becomes so much more accessible for the casual tourist. Gone are the beleaguered looks of people marching head down to the wind, battling with their umbrellas. Instead, crowds stroll, marvel, repose, taking in everything the city has to offer. 

Our repeated advice to visiting friends is to leave time to lounge in Berlin’s many and varied places – to pause and watch the world and his dog go by whilst sipping on a top notch cappuccino. But the worst you can do is pay for overpriced coffee of dubious quality in a tourist trap. So if you’re planning a visit in the next few months, a few insider tips.

1. Cafes

La Tazza (Prenzlauerberg): Serving the strongest coffee I’ve ever drunk in Berlin, in a low-key, not hipster overrun atmosphere.

The Barn (Mitte): The focus here is on quality coffee, so a great recommendation if that’s your thing, but mind the many young men and women in skinny jeans, tapping away on their Macbooks.  Continue reading

Airbnb in Germany: The Debate Continues

Souce: Ansgar Koreng CC

Berlin Wedding Source: Ansgar Koreng

Every year, millions of tourists flock to Germany, a number that has been increasing year over year for over a decade. Most choose to stay in traditional forms of accommodation, but an increasing number are renting rooms directly from locals through websites like Airbnb. This has caused to a backlash against the site in many cities with limited housing, such as Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and led to a regulatory pushback that has seen the outlawing of unregistered vacation homes and the creation of compliance forces authorized to enter suspected illegal housing without a warrant. But despite this, Airbnb continues to grow in popularity, gaining new listing every day. So, you’ve got an apartment with an extra room, or you’re out of town regularly on business. Should you list your apartment on Airbnb, and what do you need to consider before doing so?

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Berlin Day Trips

This summer’s disappointing weather has vacillated between pouring rain and all-consuming heat that leaves you dripping with sweat. Both ways, you end up wet. And not entirely happy.

Perhaps that is why I am casting my eyes outside of Berlin for some summer fun. Sometimes you’ve just got to get out of the city and into the Berlin countryside (or a little further afield). Here are several Berlin day trips with something for every breed of expat or traveler.

 Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel)

Pfaueninsel

For the Nature Lover

Pfaueninsel – “Peacock Island” is a walkable island on a nature reserve in the River Havel. It couldn’t get more peaceful…except for the occasional shriek of a peacock. Yes – real peacocks live on the island!  Once the summer escape for Frederick William II (and a haven for his mistress), this island had all the reminders of long-ago decadence. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a shuttered castle, exotic birds and an air of elegance, all easily reachable by public transport and a very short ferry ride from Berlin.

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Berlin Suburbia: An Expat Guide

Prenzlauerberg

View of the Fensehturm from Mauerpark in Prenzlauerberg

We decided against buying a fancy coffee machine when we moved to Berlin because right downstairs from our flat is a cafe which serves a good espresso; the coffee in the cafe two houses further is even better. At the end of our road is a gloriously big park and at the other end the full spectrum of food shops – from Lidl to a high-end organic deli. 10 minutes from Alexanderplatz, 15 minutes from Mitte and its world-famous museums, 20 minutes from Kreuzberg and 20 minutes from Hauptbahnhof (Berlin’s central station): we live centrally and happily so. But friends who used to live nearby have upped sticks and moved to the suburbs. Missing them and curious to know how it has changed their lives, we ventured out to visit at the weekend. It was a lovely spot – green and quiet. Their flat is much bigger than their old one and they have something near unheard of in the city – a garden. Their children will be able to walk to school along quiet tree-lined streets; no tram-tracks, heavy lorries or police sirens to contend with. Because living as centrally as we do is not typical for most major cities, especially with a family, got us thinking about what life might be like if we too were to consider Berlin suburbia – useful knowledge for any expat considering a move to Berlin.

1. Zehlendorf

Main features: South west Berlin, formerly in the American sector, now part of the administrative district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, less ethnically diverse than many other parts of Berlin, votes predominantly CDU.

What you might like: The small but bustling high street right next to the S-Bahn station reflects Zehlendorf’s earlier history as a separate village on the outskirts of Berlin – it has everything from arthouse cinema to H&M, from fancy cake shop to rustic bakery. Continue reading

Nude bathing and traffic signs: 10 things that didn’t fall with the Wall

Lichtgrenze - East Side Gallery, Berlin

Temporary Lichtgrenze in Berlin to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Wall
PHOTO: Andrea Goldmann

Last Sunday (9th November) Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A momentous occasion movingly marked by temporarily dividing the city again with a 9-mile “Lichtgrenze” made up of illuminated white balloons along the old division, which were then let off into the misty night sky at the same time the first people crossed the border all those years ago. Though the few remaining stretches of the Wall in Berlin are only there for the sake of history and tourism, not all aspects of GDR-life have been so thoroughly dismantled. From politics to bathing habits, what has survived these past 25 years? 

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Playing Monk in Switzerland

It’s unusual for me to find that it’s my turn to blog and not have a topic or two that I’m bursting to write about. When that happens, I virtually leaf through Spiegel online and its English section, The Local and Deutsche Welle. My Facebook feed also sometimes triggers some inspiration, so the common piece of news that has led me to today’s topic is Switzerland’s vote to reinstate an immigrant quota.

I’m not actually setting out to discuss this disturbing vote, but I’ll summarize it here: basically, a very narrow majority of Swiss (50.3%), mostly in the rural German parts of the country, have bought in to the fears that Switzerland will become overcrowded if they don’t put a cap on the number of foreigners coming in. That cap has been set to 80,000 immigrants. The short-sighted truth is that these voters succumbed to some scare-mongering thinking that these immigrants were only refugees, migrant workers and benefit-sucking immigrants. Sadly, Switzerland’s history of keeping refugees out is just as disturbing today as it was during the Holocaust. 284,200 Germans currently live in Switzerland. That’s second to Italians. As Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said, this referendum is going to “cause a lot of problems for Switzerland.” Continue reading

White Knuckles

Galavanting about Europe in my early twenties, I spent a spring holiday in Italy. The journey began in Germany, meandering from Frankfurt down through the Black Forest, into Switzerland and through the Gotthard Tunnel (17 km!) to get to the Italian border. The entire landscape was breathtaking and awe-inducing, and the drive through Switzerland is still one of my favorite stretches of road anywhere. After a lovely week full of Italian food and culture, we headed back toward Germany to return our rental car. Just one little side note: it was my first time actually driving in Germany, and the trip to return the rental car was an hour and a half of Autobahn driving.

The Autobahn is famous worldwide for its seemingly un-German personality: carefree, unlimited, full-force driving. The experience of the Autobahn as a complete novice is something more like white-knuckles, sweaty-palms, full-force nerves. I spent my entire first trip as a solo driver on the Autobahn in a state of complete terror, gripping the steering wheel, following my leading driver, listening to static on the radio the entire trip because I was too afraid to look away from the road to find a new station on an unfamiliar car stereo. In fact, I think my muscles were sore the next day from all the tension. Continue reading