To explore the German capital, it is not enough to walk the length and breadth of its streets. If you want to catch the Berlin Feeling and understand what makes this city really tick, you must enter a world that lies hidden behind the façades – the parallel universes of the Berlin courtyards. There is no other city in the world where this style of building construction is so seminal to its architectural style. Berlin’s ‘Höfe’ (singular: ‘Hof) contain apartments, offices, workshops, shops, galleries, cafés and gardens. They may be chic or shabby, interlinking or individual, but one thing is sure, this multiverse of courtyards pumps energy into Berlin street-life in a unique and fascinating way.
Berlin courtyards – My very own Berlin courtyard
The history of the Höfe goes back to the second half of the 19th Century when Berlin’s population began to boom. In the 1870s, there were over one million people living in Berlin; whereas in the 1820s, it stood at about 220,000. This massive population increase had dramatic effects on the social and economic aspects of city life. The city centre residential districts had to be utilized as much as possible and this resulted in the construction of tenement blocks called ‘Mietskasernen’ (literally ‘rented barracks’). These blocks were often built behind the prestigious street-front buildings that served as homes for the bourgeoisie and housed domestic employees, workmen, and poorer families.
Kreuzberg Hinterhof today
The ‘Hinterhof’ (‘backyard’) separated the various social strata and there were sometimes three or four such courtyards in a row, with the buildings at the very back having little sunlight and a darker atmosphere. Yet these courtyards were also the focus of daily life – even the bathrooms could be located there. Most of these historic tenement buildings have now been renovated and are highly-coveted residential properties. And with their varying garden styles and sizes, the back courtyards are a large part of their charm.
Berlin courtyards – 21st Century chic courtyard
There are several well-known refurbished and renovated courtyards in the central borough of Mitte in the ‘Scheunenviertel’, a poor working-class area just outside the old city walls. Although they are firmly on the tourist route, I always take visitors to the Hackesche Höfe. The eight intercommunicating courtyards have been wonderfully restored and now contain upmarket apartments, galleries, boutiques and cafés. The main entrance at 40, Rosenthaler Straβe opens into to Hof I, festooned with art nouveau tiling and containing restaurants, a cinema and the Chamäleon cabaret theatre. Hof VII leads to the romantic Rosenhöfe with its sunken rose garden and elegant balustrades.
Berlin courtyards – Hackescher Hof I
An absolute must is a walk through the Hinterhof of Haus Schwarzenberg, at 39, Rosenthaler Straβe where the buildings have not been gentrified. This backyard is now famed for its street art, but it also contains three excellent small museums about Jewish life in Nazi Berlin and an art-house cinema that shows films outside in summer.
Berlin courtyards – Central CInema in Haus Schwarzenberg
Around the corner in pretty Sophienstraβe, there are more courtyards to explore. At number 21, the Sophie-Gips-Höfe boast both the Hoffmann Art Collection and Café Barcomi in the shaded Hinterhof. The high walls of the first courtyard are inscribed with an interesting list of German adjectives expressing opposites. It is also worth looking into Paulinenhof, just along the street at number 28/29, an earlier example of the courtyard style, built in 1842.
Berlin courtyards – Sophie-Gips-Höfe
On the opposite side of Rosenthaler Straβe is Münzstraβe, a gently curving street lined with shoe boutiques and coffee shops. Until recently, the courtyards at number 21 still gave a wonderful impression of pre-war Berlin. Now they too have been spruced up and are clearly one of the on-trend places to hang out in Mitte.
Berlin courtyards – Breakfast in Münzstraβe
Nearby Auguststraβe is a street oozing with history, well-known for its galleries and restaurants. The KW Institute for Contemporary Art at number 69 has a pretty courtyard with a café and the legendary Clärchens Ballhaus, set back from the street at number 24, looks on to what was originally a Hinterhof – although in this case the Vorderhaus was destroyed in the bombing and no longer exists. Further along Auguststraβe, just before Tucholskystraβe, there is a sign into the Heckmannhöfe, a courtyard complex which links Auguststraβe with Oranienburger Straβe. This idyllic urban retreat dotted with shops and restaurants surrounding a small playpark, comes as a complete surprise and gives a photogenic view of the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge.
Berlin courtyards – Lunch in the Heckmannhöfe
For a final courtyard visit in the Scheunenviertel of Mitte, I recommend the Missing House Memorial at 16, Groβe Hamburger Straβe, created in 1990 by French artist, Christian Boltansnki. Here, a tenement building on a Hinterhof was destroyed by bombing in 1945. There is now just an empty space with large plaques bearing the names of the people who lived placed at the relevant level the plain walls of the surviving buildings on either side. The café next door to the memorial is called ‘You’re so welcome’ and lives up to its name. Its terrace opposite the Jewish School and the Jewish Memorial outside the Jewish Cemetery is a perfect place to reflect on the pre-war life of the courtyards in this part of Berlin.
Berlin courtyards – The Missing House
I never miss an opportunity to walk through entrances and open gates to see if there is more discover behind the buildings that line the pavements; the Hinterhöfe are the Narnia of the Berlin. For further reading, follow this link to an interesting article on the Deutsche Welle website.
With its vast tracts of forests and parks, Berlin has always been a green metropolis. Now the city centre has a growing number of urban oases created out of wasteland (‘Brachland’) left behind by wartime destruction or the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. One of the latest triumphs is the Park am Gleisdreieck (‘Park on the Railway Triangle’). It is a wonderful example of how a wilderness of overgrown and disused railway tracks and yards can be transformed into a beautiful and vibrant recreational space.
Panorama view of the park
This large park in Kreuzberg and Schöneberg has been created from a former railway junction, which was badly bombed in the Second World War and left as wasteland. It became part of a Reichsbahn enclave belonging to the GDR and remained untouched for decades. Left to its own natural devices, it developed a rich diversity of vegetation. A citizens’ group was formed with the aim of ensuring that this refuge for flora and fauna did not fall into the hands of developers, and in the end they were successful. The planning process took the views of local residents into account and the result is a resounding victory for ‘people power’. It was also a multi-cultural venture, with immigrant women helping with planting and gardening. Very Kreuzberg.
An urban oasis
The Rosenduft (‘rose scent’) garden
A railway track running north-south and leading to the Deutsches Technikmuseum still separates the grounds of the Park am Gleisdreieck and a museum train operates along it in the summer months. The 42-acre Ostpark was opened in September 2011 and the 22-acre Westpark on 1st June 2013. In March 2014, the smaller Flaschenhalspark (‘Bottleneck Park’), completed the project, making a trio of parks in the Gleisdreieck. The whole complex stretches from the Landwehr Canal to the Monument Bridge.
The museum train
Each part of the park has a different character. The Westpark features expansive lawns, play zones and beach volleyball courts. The Ostpark boasts a nature discovery area, a skateboard half-pipe, a little maple and oak forest and even an outdoor dance floor. Historic relics such as railway tracks, signals and ramps have been integrated into the landscaping as a permanent reminder of the past use of the land, especially in the Flaschenhalspark. There is always something magical about spotting overgrown, disused railway tracks amongst trees. The imagination starts to run free.
Old tracks among the trees
The Park am Gleisdreieck has something to offer everyone – young and old, walkers and cyclists, joggers and ramblers. I went there recently on a Sunday and was enchanted. Despite being so popular, there are plenty of quiet corners and interesting views. Locals were enjoying picnics and barbecues on the grass and there are a number of kiosks and pavilions with tables in the shade, where you can stop for drinks and snacks.
Beach Volleyball in the Westpark
Picnics and playparks in the Ostpark
The coolest kiosk is ‘Café Eule’
The various park entrances are listed below. The Yorckstrasse entrance is a good place to start if you want a stroll through nature before hitting the more populated areas. Because the original pre-1945 ‘railway triangle’ was formed from the viaducts of overhead rails, the park feels as if it is on a plateau, magically above street life and yet so close to it. There is something wistful and poetic about this urban retreat. The essence of pre-war Berlin still lingers, providing simple outdoor pleasures for city dwellers.
Ostpark U1 U7 Underground Station Möckernbrücke Entrance Tempelhofer Ufer/Ecke Möckernstraße
S1 S2 S25 U7 S-Bahn and Underground Station Yorckstraβe, Bus M19, N7 Entrance Yorckstrasse
Westpark U2 Underground Station Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park, Bus M 29 Entrance Schöneberger Ufer
U1 U2 Underground Station Gleisdreieck Entrance Schöneberger Straße
U1 Underground Stations Kurfürstenstraße and Bülowstraße Entrance Kurfürstenstraße
U2 Underground Station Bülowstraße Entrance Bülowstraße
Viktoriapark in Kreuzberg is the perfect choice for a sunny spring afternoon. This pretty park comes complete with an impressive historic monument, an artificial waterfall, fabulous 360° views from the top of the hill and a cool Biergarten. Who could ask for more? Few cities can compete with Berlin when it comes to green spaces and water. In fine weather, people flock to the Tiergarten and fill pleasure boats on the Spree. Or they head off to the outer edges, full of forests and awash with lakes. But why get caught up in the crowds or leave the city centre when there is a green hill, not so far away?
The park in summer
Viktoriapark’s history is fascinating. In 1821, on a hill known for its vineyards and originally called the ‘Tempelhof Berg’ or ‘Runder Berg’, the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel unveiled his national monument to commemorate the Wars of Liberation. Schinkel’s neo-gothic cast-iron edifice consists of a 20-metre high column, adorned with twelve statues symbolising the twelve major battles against Napoleon and topped by a huge iron cross. It was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia who instituted the award of the Iron Cross in 1813. In 1821 the hill was duly renamed the ‘Kreuzberg’ (Cross Hill).
Cast-iron statues around the monument
In 1878, the monument was made even more impressive by being elevated on to a massive granite and sandstone base. It was around this time that the land on the slopes of the hill was laid out as a public park and named after Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and wife of the future Kaiser Friedrich III.
The monument seen from its base
Then, ten years later, Berlin’s Director of City Parks decided to give the park a mountain-like character by adding a 24-metre high waterfall, a miniature replica of the Wodospad Podgórnej waterfall in Poland, once a popular tourist destination for wealthy Berliners. As there isn’t a natural source of water on the Kreuzberg itself, water is pumped up the hill to feed the waterfall and the water circulation is now 13,000 litres per minute. The cascade over the rocks is an amazing sight and remains a big attraction.
Admiring the waterfall from above
Greater Berlin was formed in 1920 by merging Berlin’s suburbs into 20 boroughs and Viktoriapark found itself in ‘Hallesches Tor’. Only a year later, this borough was renamed Kreuzberg after its illustrious hill and now it is one of the most multi-cultural and liveliest areas of Berlin, known for its cafés, bars and nightlife. The fireworks in Viktoriapark on New Year’s Eve and the May Day street fairs all add to Kreuzberg’s explosive colour.
Artist’s impression of colourful Kreuzberg (Martin Schwartz)
But last week in Viktoriapark, I felt a million miles away from any urban vibes. We had taken the U-Bahn to Mehringdamm, then turned right into busy Yorckstrasse. We paused for a few moments of peace in the wonderfully-restored Sankt Bonifatius Church and then strolled through the calm courtyards of Riehmer’s Hofgarten towards Viktoriapark. We were already in another world.
The entrance to Riehmer’s Hofgarten
Viktoriapark was a haven of budding trees and birdsong. We climbed the winding path up to the monument and noticed several people walking or sitting among the rocks by the waterfall. Once at the top, the view across the city is fabulous. You might not see the Brandenburg Gate, but there are plenty of other landmarks to pick out, including Potsdamer Platz and Tempelhof Airport.
The Fernsehturm, seen through the spires of Sankt Bonifatius
When we’d soaked up enough afternoon sun and read every inscription on the 12-sided spire, we wandered down the grassy slopes to the legendary Golgatha Biergarten at the back of the park. Only a few tables and benches were occupied and the large sandy playgrounds were relatively empty.
One of several large playparks
In summer, it’s a very different picture. As the temperature rises, the atmosphere in Viktoriapark heats up too. The open spaces are packed with sunbathers, picnickers and musicians, and dogs and children frolic about in the waterfall. Watching the sunset from the steps around the monument is a must and Golgatha’s opening hours are from 9.00 am for breakfast until ‘Open End’.
Golgatha in early Spring
Although we didn’t come across it, there is apparently still a small vineyard in Viktoriapark which produces ‘Kreuz-Neuroberger’ wine. It was founded in 1968 when the vines were donated to the Borough of Kreuzberg by the town of Wiesbaden. Only about 300 bottles are pressed each year and they are mostly used as ‘prestigious gifts’ presented on special occasions. But I have heard that a 10 euro donation at the ‘district office’ will get you at a half-bottle. I will be following this up on my next visit to Kreuzberg. In the meantime you can find an interesting feature on the vineyards of Berlin by following this link.
If you look at a map of Berlin, the district of Moabit is pretty central. In the aerial photo below it takes up most of the top right-hand corner. You can clearly see the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and the green areas of the two Moabit parks, the Geschichtspark and the Fritz-Schloß-Park, described in my last two posts.
But despite its relative proximity to the Brandenburg Gate, Moabit gets left behind in the Berlin neighbourhood popularity stakes. It is generally viewed as a poor, working class district with cheap rents and a large prison. When the city was divided, the Berlin Wall placed Moabit on the very edge of West Berlin, leaving it rather neglected.
This map of Berlin shows the Berlin Wall and Lehrter Station in Moabit, now replaced by the Hauptbahnhof
Surrounded on all sides by the waters of the river Spree, the Westhafen Canal and the Berlin-Spandau Navigation Canal, Moabit is still technically an island. But since the fall of the Berlin wall, Moabit is no longer a border town between east and west and there has been substantial construction of new government buildings as well as the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Moabit has been incorporated into Berlin-Mitte and things are beginning to look up.
Modern Moabit – on the Spree
The name ‘Moabit’ may be traced back to 1716 when the French Huguenots came to Berlin in the time of King Frederick William I of Prussia and settled in ‘Alt-Moabit’ (Old Moabit). These Protestant refugees are supposed to have called their new homeland after the biblical Kingdom of Moab. Another possible of origin of the word may be from ‘Moorjebiet’ which in Berlin dialect means ‘swamp area’. At any rate, it was poor wasteland until industrialisation followed in 1820. (You can read the full history on the Wikipedia website). For many visitors to Berlin, their first taste of Moabit is from the windows of a 109 or TXL bus which whisks them along Turmstrasse into the city centre from Tegel Airport. It is a multi-cultural scene with an abundance of Turkish and Arab-speaking shops, cafés and markets.
A short walk from the Turmstraße U-Bahn station is the fabulous Arminius Markthalle, a beautiful market hall from the 1980s, where you can eat good food and buy fresh produce and crafts. There is a bar inside that brews its own beer and a stall with the best fish and chips in Berlin. The Markthalle even hosts films, and live music and theatre.
Another ‘big name’ street in Moabit is Lehrterstrasse. It’s a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof or take the M27 bus to Quitzowstrasse. This street has a real ‘Kiez’ (neighbourhood) identity and has earned the local nickname ‘billige Prachtstrasse’ – ‘cheap Grand Boulevard’. Some of the buildings are magnificent, but have seen much better days
The ‘Kulturfabrik’- ‘Culture Factory’ is downright shabby, but exudes its own unique energy. Built in 1911, it was originally a meat factory, a biscuit factory and a home for many other industrial uses. Between 1976 and 1991 it lay vacant and neglected and was taken over by squatters. After reunification the Kulturfabrik Moabit was born. Artists, locals and students together founded a co-operative of non-profit clubs or associations including the Fabriktheater (alternative theatre), the Filmrauschpalast (an art house cinema which also runs an Open Air programme in summer), the Slaughterhouse Club (rock, punk and gothic and wave music concerts) and the Kunsthalle Moabit (an art gallery which existed until 1996).
There are a couple of restaurants along Lehrterstrasse worth crossing town for. Mediteranneo is an Italian place, very popular with locals. It opens from 4pm until midnight. I also love the friendly, retro atmosphere of Kapitel 21. This café-bar opened in 2012. It offers a gallery space and brings in an assortment of live bands, theatre, poetry, book readings and more. Kapitel 21 is somewhere special and officially opens from 5pm until very late. If you’re lucky you might catch coffee or one of their amazing juices the following morning.
For a chilled brunch, lunch or supper, head for Birkenstrasse. The U-Bahn station of the same name on line U9 will bring you out right on top of three of four good café bars. I have two favourites – both serving good food and drink at very reasonable prices and with tables outside. The iconic ‘Dicker Engel’ – with the eponymous ‘Fat Angel’ hanging comically from the ceiling – is best for traditional German specialities. ‘Arema’ on the other side of the street has a more eco feel and is well-known for its ‘Maultaschen’ (South German style ravioli).
For a really special evening meal try Grünfisch at 26, Gräfestrasse, in Kreuzberg. It is one of those wonderful restaurants hidden away in a big city, but so good that everyone would love to find it. Grünfisch has been going for several years and has built up a considerable reputation among Berlin food-lovers. The joint owners, Dang Vu Pham, originally from Vietnam and his partner, Giovanni di Liberto, from Sicily, started with a small 22 seat restaurant. As word spread and they grew bigger, they moved premises several times, eventually arriving in this leafy urban neighbourhood in 2012.
Grünfisch originally served just fish – hence the name. But why green? Apparently Fengshui says that green creatures with their harmonious colour bring happiness and luck. And that’s the way these two chefs create their dishes – to please both themselves and their guests. The food can be described as modern Italian with an Asian twist and it is both expertly prepared and served, along with a very good selection of wines.
The interior is tastefully decorated and the pavement terrace is equally inviting. The menu changes daily according to what is available and in season and many ingredients are sourced Sicily. You can always be sure of some fabulous seafood, fish, meat and pasta dishes (average ‘menu’ price for three courses is €27).
Grünfisch is open from 6pm-12pm daily, except Sundays. It’s best to make a reservation (030 -6162 1252) and the nearest U-Bahn stations are Südstern and Schönleinstraße, each about a 10 minute walk. Or start the evening with a stroll along the Landwehrkanal, admire the sunset from the Admiralbrücke and then make your way through the Gräfekiez (the name of this great local neighbourhood) to the Grünfisch.
Berlin’s vitality is best discovered in one of its Small Worlds (described in some detail in ‘Berlin Unwrapped’). The word often used to describe one of these city neighbourhoods is a ‘Kiez’. It implies an area with positive vibes, where local inhabitants get together and conjures up an image of pre-war buildings and a lively scene with plenty of culture, pubs and clubs. If it’s especially arty, it might get the tag ‘Kunstkiez’, which I recently saw translated into English as ‘Art’hood’ . One Kiez that really comes to life in summer is the ‘Rheingauviertel’, centred around Rüdesheimer Platz in Wilmersdorf (directly outside U-Bahn Rüdesheimer Platz). This square was built in the first decade of the 20th century and named after the town of Rüdesheim am Rhein in Hessen, famous for its Rheingau wines. Many of the surrounding streets are also named after towns in the Rheingau region and Rheingau wine is served from May until the end of September. (more…)