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Real Berlin

Live like a local: Our guide to the real Berlin

Drinks on the canal, a no-directions-needed bike ride, the Soviet War Memorial... this is our guide to Berlin off the beaten track.

Everyone knows the typical hotspots: lakes, clubs, forests, falafel shops. But beyond the must-dos, there is an alternative class of destinations worthy of attention. These places represent the mercurial, wild, ever-changing, bizarre side of Berlin. Here is our guide to the real Berlin.

Sink your teeth into the ultimate falafel sandwich at Sahara Imbiss

Berliners love to play it hot and cold, so what better distillation of the city than a sandwich that just can’t make up its mind? It has to be Sahara: the cool cousin of the ubiquitous döner kebab. The Tofu Magali is the secret winner on the menu, with soft, smoky tofu and deep-fried veggies piled under a delicious dollop of cold peanut sauce. You might spot Sahara copycats across the city, but there’s only one original – with a grand total of seven branches, no less – and they aren’t shy about letting you know that they are the OG spots. In a city where everyone who’s lived here for more than five minutes can’t wait to tell you how much better things used to be, it’s nice to see the falafel joints getting into the spirit as well.

Soak up the anarchist vibe and comic art at Schikkimikki

While trendy art spots like the Gropius Bau and König Galerie exhibit establishment-approved works, the zine scene gives the means of (art) production back to the people. In Berlin, everyone and their mother is an artist, and the nature of self-published and self-promoted fan favourites means that flipping through local zines gives you a much better taste for the artistic soul of the city. Enter Schikkimikki (a play on the German Schickimicki, meaning a trendy person), a non-profit zine library stuffed to the brim with tiny flipbooks, gorgeous riso prints, rare copies of international mags and an endless supply of mini illustrated wonders from local artists. True to the anarchist spirit of the medium, the shop doesn’t exactly seem designed to turn a profit – only a handful of items are for sale and the hours could generously be described as erratic. You’ll just have to take your chances as you pass by their Neukölln pad.

Ease the hangover blues with a dip in Habermansee

The lake so nice they named it twice, Habermansee, has a mythical appeal due in part to its duelling names (Habermansee to some, Kaulsdorfer See to others). A summer afternoon at the lake is a quintessential Berliner activity, but if you’d like to find a choice spot at popular beaches like Schlachtensee or Krumme Lanke, you’ll have to head out at the crack of dawn. Habermansee, on the other hand, is ringed on all sides by lovely sandy beaches with equal parts sun, shade, and FKK frolickers. Most often discovered through word of mouth, it’s obscured from its oddly urban surroundings by greenery. Up against strong competition from the many lakes in and around the city, this is the best place to go for a slightly hungover Sunday with a larger group if you want a guaranteed spot to sprawl.

Enjoy karaoke and kitsch at Warthe Ecke

My personal hot take is that the best of Berlin nightlife is not found in the line to Berghain or KitKat, but in sunset parks, dirty dives and smoky Kneipen. My local bar when I lived on Warthestraße, Warthe Ecke looks like every other Ecke in the bunch, but has become a favourite of my group of friends over the years. It has classic Kneipe energy – smoky as hell, a kitschy and cosy interior, and the same bartender behind the counter no matter what time of day you come in (likes: two women on a date, dislikes: people who order tap water). If you become a regular you might even get to join in for karaoke nights auf Deutsch – who needs famous DJs when you can watch a pensioner belt out Nena’s greatest hits?

Get in the loop on the Ring

Although slightly more famously divided from East to West, Berlin also has another important division: inside the Ring and outside the Ring. Living inside the Ring is generally seen as more desirable and living outside as “uncool”, which makes this particular S-Bahn, much like the eternal looping train of Snowpiercer, a monument to the division of society. A ride on the Ring is a time to peer into those outer neighbourhoods beyond the nexus of the city and appreciate the quiet streets and crumbling Altbaus of the land beyond Berlin central. You can feel the expansiveness of the city riding the entire loop in full and popping off at stops you’ve never visited before – what mysteries await at Jungfernheide and Innsbrucker Platz?

A walk on the wild side in Tegel Forest

This swamp city full of people looking for love in all the wrong places straddles a weird line between urbanity and nature. Foxes dart across your path as you drunkenly stumble home and wild onion springs up in the parks where you canoodle with first dates. The wildlife park at Tegel Forest, where wild boar and deer roam free, is a reminder of Berlin’s savage side. It’s also a glimpse at the deep history of a pre-war Berlin, a time when Tiergarten was a game park and Tegel was best known for the creatures of the forest and not for an infamously dysfunctional airport. This forest is also the rare accessible nature spot for all seasons – the trails are particularly lovely in spring and autumn, and you can stop for a swim in the lake in summer.

Peddle the “two-turn” cycle from Prenzlauer Berg to Krumme Lanke

Everyone always complains that Berlin is too flat, but a city without hills is a boon for bikers, and this easy, no-directions-needed ride lets you appreciate the touristy highlights you’re supposed to not care about. From P’Berg, you’ll cruise down Prenzlauer Allee until it turns into Unter den Linden, riding past the Berliner Dom, Museum Island and under the Brandenburg Gate. Tiergarten, which feels unfairly snubbed by expats in favour of the sexier Tempelhof and Hasenheide, has beautiful wide paths and you can stop off at the famed Rogacki deli in Charlottenburg for a baguette and some smoky fish to snack on lakeside. Your first turn, left at Messedamm, will lead you to the peaceful green path through Grunewald Forest, and your second left turn at Fischerhüttenweg will drop you right off at Krumme Lanke (or Schlachtensee, its next door neighbour).

After-work drinks on the picturesque Landwehr Canal

Many people say Berlin is an ugly city, but I’d like to make a rebuttal: there’s beauty in both the picturesque canals and the dingy areas beyond them. Starting from the western end of the Landwehr Canal, you can stop for an afternoon beer on the lawn outside the hospital, a strangely buzzing after-work drinking location. As you continue on, you’ll get some of the leafy, bridge-laden views that seem synonymous with European living, passing by Populus for a coffee, always-busy La Maison for a buttery chocolate croissant, or grabbing a taco for the road from Victoria Tacos. Once the trendy eateries become fewer and further between, you’ll circle past industrial areas stacked with colourful shipping containers and through the quiet Kleingartens before popping out on the old Mauerweg. Loop back into Rixdorf to end your stroll with a beer at moody, romantic Alter Roter Löwe Rein.

A slice of history at the Soviet War Memorial in Treptow

Berlin is big on “immersive history”, integrating the city’s past into the structure of the city itself, rather than roping it off in museums. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the stumbling stones, the long stretches of the Wall left in their original state: they all seem designed for happening upon history, rather than seeking it out. The Soviet War Memorial, commemorating those who died in the Battle of Berlin, is something entirely different. It feels almost hidden, located in the less-visited half of Treptower Park, and designed so that it’s only accessible from a specific point. As you climb the steps to the memorial, you are greeted by an enormous bronze soldier towering over a broken swastika, a sword in one hand and a child in another, looking over an array of stone sarcophagi. It’s mesmerising and overwhelming and strange in a way that keeps me coming back over and over again.

Feel the vintage love in Humana at Frankfurter Tor

The glitterati of other European metropolises may brag about their designer wear, but Berliners love showing off the clothes they got secondhand (or better yet, from a zu verschenken box on the street). The Berlin style falls somewhere on the spectrum between “90s toddler” and “goth Zenon”, and you can find all that and more in the five-storey mega Humana at Frankfurter Tor. I once went in here looking for a vintage nightgown, a knife and a baby doll dress (for my Rosemary’s Baby costume, of course), and came out with all three in under 15 minutes. That is the joy of Humana, a crucial institution in a city where people love not only to reinvent themselves, but to reinvent themselves from other people’s rejects.