One of the best things about Berlin is all the water – especially in summer. And I don’t just mean the rivers and lakes on the outer edges. There’s plenty of it in the city centre too. In fact, there are apparently 960 bridges in Berlin, more than in Venice. Last weekend temperatures soared to 30°. Definitely weather for chilling by the waterside.
One particularly sunny stretch of the River Spree is on Schiffbauerdamm, between Albrechtstrasse and Friedrichstrass, opposite Friedrichstrasse Station. For about two hundred years, between the late 17th and late 19th centuries, this promenade used to be part of the shipbuilding area of Berlin (hence the name in German). After industrialisation the dockyards were replaced by factories, warehouses, office buildings, a covered market and apartment blocks. In 1892 the neo-baroque style ‘Theater am Schiffbauerdamm’ was built and then in 1919 an expressionist revue theatre and music hall was completed and given the name ‘Friedrichstadt Palast’ in 1947.
The original ‘Friedrichstadt Palast’ alongside the ‘Theater am Schiffbauerdamm’
The original theatre escaped severe damage in the war and still exists as the famous ‘Berliner Ensemble’ founded by Bertolt Brecht in 1949. It is under a historic preservation order and has retained its ornate interior. Its neighbour eventually had to be demolished as the building was unsafe. A glittering ‘Neue Friedrichstadt Palast’ opened in 1984 around the corner on Friedrichstrasse.
The ‘Neue Friedrichstadt Palast’
In GDR days this end of Schiffbauerdamm was a drab-looking street, famous for its one beacon of culture, the Berliner Ensemble. On the corner by the theatre was the Ganymed, a restaurant for the “elite”, visited by known artists such as Brecht, Weill or Weigel, the GDR political establishment or members of the Allied Armed Forces. During the 1980s I often ate there and was convinced we were being spied on by the Stasi. By all accounts, this turned out to have been true. Now the Ganymed is a French-style brasserie with red and white checked tablecloths and the street is bright and buzzing, with a row of café-bars and summer terraces overlooking the water. The Cold War frisson of danger has been replaced by 21st century consumerism.
The Ganymed today
Despite the crowds, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings, the atmosphere on Schiffbauerdamm is relaxed and civilised. During the day it’s less busy and the promenade has the advantage of being on the south bank of the Spree. Sitting on the sunny side of the waterfront with a close-up view of the pleasure boats gliding past, and watching the S-Bahn rumbling across the elevated railway, it seems a pretty good place to be. There’s so much to look at. The historic façades on Schiffbauerdamm have been nicely renovated and Friedrichstrasse Station has a certain charm, harbouring all the stories of the past. There are no riverside banks here; just massive concrete walls which make the river seem more like a huge canal.
The Schiffbauerdamm at dusk
The big question is which restaurant to choose? If you are looking for something typically German then a good bet is ‘Die Ständige Vertretung’ (often abbreviated to ‘StäV ‘), on the corner of Albrechtstrasse. The name means ‘Permanent Representation’ and refers to the years when the capital of the German Federal Republic was in Bonn and the West German government only had ‘representation’ in East Berlin. The restaurant was established after Germany was reunited and the government moved back to Berlin in the 1990s. It was originally a haven for the Rhinelanders who had left their homeland and all the food and drink is typically ‘Kölsch’ – from the Cologne area. Even the terrace is called ‘Die Rheinterrasse’. The walls are plastered with posters of politicians and events from West German days and the atmosphere is noisy and upbeat. Booking is recommended and it’s worth taking a look at the StäV website.
Inside the Die Ständige Vertretung
The Berliner Republik next door has a similar feel and Brechts also serves German-style food, although more in the line of steaks than sausages. It has a good set lunch menu and more upmarket décor, especially the greenery. Then there are a couple of bars that don’t open until early evening. The Van Gogh ‘Piano and Cocktail Bar’ is perfect for after shopping or before the theatre. It’s open until the early hours, every day of the week. Finally, there is the famous Ganymed, first opened in 1931 and named after the cup-bearer of the Greek Gods. Its communist heydays are over, but the chandeliers and murals remain and its reinvention as a brasserie is entirely in keeping with the Francophile feeling of the ‘Friedrichstadt’ quarter of Berlin.
Inside ‘Brechts’ behind the greenery
A final tip; the best way to get to and from this stretch of the Schiffbauerdamm is to walk across the iron girder bridge underneath the railway. It can be accessed from the street or at the end of the S-Bahn platform 5 or 6 on Friedrichstrasse station. The dark waters of the Spree swirl visibly below you and at night it’s just possible to imagine yourself in a John le Carré spy novel, if only there weren’t so many other people around …
The passenger bridge underneath the railway