For me, it's not really the grit the draws me in. Quite the opposite in fact. Sure, I like the romance of those crumbling buildings, and graffiti that decorates the city is beautiful in its own right. Kind of. It's actually not a pretty city. Not at all. But it's fascinating.
Berlin is very gray. When you step out onto the streets in the morning, that grayness sweeps around you and transports you back in time. Sometimes, on a misty, drizzly day, when I'm wandering around Berlin I feel like I can see the Berlin that was, before the fall of the wall. It feels so so close. I don't know if I've ever experienced that closeness of history in any other city. It still surprises me to think about how Berlin was an island practically cut-off from the rest of the world until the fall of the wall in 1989 (quite literally, a happy accident) and then formal reunification in 1990. That's just over two decades. I was alive when the wall came down....
It's hard to fathom, because that Berlin of the past seems like such a different world. And yet not, as I've said - some of it really lives on in the Berlin of today. I'm not being very articulate, am I?
Until I came to Germany, I honestly didn't really think much about post World War II politics and the Cold War, and what it must have been like for people living in the Eastern Bloc. I had even lived in Kyrgyzstan, and of course I had learned a lot about the Soviet influence on that part of the world, but Kyrgyzstan feels different. It's Asia. It's not Europe. Can that be it? Whatever it is, Berlin hit me hard. I met several people when I moved there that had grown up in East Berlin, and they all had such tales to tell. Some were harrowing stories of escape, and others were stories of close-knit communities and less a feeling of deprivation but more a feeling of belonging. When you walk around the streets of Berlin you can still see remnants of the wall (though there's not much left), old buildings riddled with bullet-holes, dilapidated and abandoned Soviet-era structures, and the faces of people - some younger than me - who lived on the other side of that wall. And those who lived in West Berlin! What a place that must have been - it was literally surrounded by East Germany on all sides. There must have been an electricity in the air - or at least some sort of magnified awareness - living in such a place. I can still feel it today.
So I like to get up to Berlin every now and then for a weekend. And you should too! Actually, if you're taking any sort of European trip, I would highly suggest that Berlin be on the agenda. There is so much to see and do, and learn, there.
And then we get on to the next reason to go: the food. Berlin is experiencing a culinary boom, and every time I go, it seems like excellent restaurants are popping up left and right, and this has literally happened in the last 3-4 years. I think the city has just the right mix of factors to become a culinary destination: cheap rent, lots of part-time workers, an influx of immigrants from everywhere around the world, an obsession with "start-ups" and small businesses, lots of creative sorts.... I'm just waiting for the food truck movement to take over the city next! Though I'm thinking it would have already happened, so there must be some German regulations getting in the way?
So I thought that I should give some great recommendations on places to visit in Berlin, but then I thought that actually, I'm not the most qualified. I do have my favorite places of course (Cocolo Ramen, Yam Yam, Dolores, Barcomi's, The Barn, Wok Show, and more....), but most of those are probably favorites more because there isn't much of an equivalent in Munich. I like to eat Asian, American, and Mexican when I'm in Berlin! Instead, I will point you to these blogs for more on good Berlin eats:
Berlin on a Platter
Berlin Food Stories
(There are plenty more Berlin food sites, but I particularly like those ones).