EuropeMore than Mitte

A journey through expansive Berlin

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The gardens of the Charlottenburg Palace, the largest royal palace still standing in Berlin.
The gardens of the Charlottenburg Palace, the largest royal palace still standing in Berlin.

Given that Berlin is 344 square miles, nine times the size of Paris, it's not a surprise that many visitors tend to stick to one part of the city.

Visitors often set up shop in Mitte, a centrally located district and home to the city's most popular attractions, including the Reichstag building, Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie.

Nonetheless, since 1989, when West and East Berlin were unified, the city's other 11 districts have evolved and developed their own personalities, making them just as worthy for a visit as Mitte.

"Most visitors focus on the central districts, and we want to make them aware that there is much more to Berlin: the many green spaces on the outskirts, amazing museums off the beaten track, neighborhoods where you rarely find any tourists but lots of authentic local flair instead," said Kirsten Schmidt, a representative for VisitBerlin.

To encourage visitors to extend their explorations beyond Mitte, VisitBerlin has created tourism materials and launched a free app highlighting attractions in other parts of the city, perfect for repeat visitors or people like myself, who prefer to escape the crowds even on an inaugural stay in a city.

Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg

A personal interest in street art immediately led me to Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a district known for its mix of hipster culture, radical art and underground edge.

Along the Spree River, a woman poses at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall.
Along the Spree River, a woman poses at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. Photo Credit: JoAnna Haugen

Along the Spree River is the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. It's like an open-air museum with 105 works of art created by 118 artists from 21 countries.

Though more than 25 years have passed since the city was unified, nothing illustrates how long ago that actually was like teenagers taking selfies in front of the famous mural of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker sharing a kiss.

On the western bank is an area known as Little Istanbul due to the Turkish population that filled this pocket of West Berlin after World War II, and walking these streets felt, and sounded, like I'd stepped out of Berlin altogether.

"There's a vibrant bar and restaurant scene that encapsulates the area's spirit of experimentation and multiculturalism," said Natalie Holmes, Central and Southern Europe program director for Context Travel, which specializes in walking tours. "The independent art scene is also really taking off, and there are plenty of great galleries to explore."

• Stay here: The Almodovar Hotel features a vegetarian/vegan restaurant on site and many upcycled or recycled furnishings.

Tempelhof-Schoneberg

There is something eerie about the abandoned Tempelhof Airport, but Berliners have made the best of the space since the airport's closure in 2008. Though the building is an event venue, it's the airfield that is heavily used by locals.

"It is a sprawling park, complete with community gardens, dog [parks] and swaths of vast, open space that gets taken up in summer by kite surfers who take advantage of the windy conditions," Holmes said.

While walking along the landing strips, I also encountered dozens of cyclists, runners and families enjoying the sunny day.

A visit to this district wouldn't be complete without a stroll past Rathaus Schoneberg, the town hall where John F. Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 1963. Though there are numerous flea markets throughout the city, the one held here, with 70-plus vendors, is a favorite among locals.

• Stay here: The Ellington Hotel is steeped with character held over from the late 1920s and early '30s.

Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf

Admittedly, the Charlottenburg Palace is considered a popular tourist attraction, but it is certainly worth the visit. This is the largest royal palace still standing in Berlin and is a labyrinth of impressive baroque state rooms. It is also surrounded by several other museums featuring renowned pieces of classic and modern art. If the weather is nice, take the time to walk through the palace gardens, which are beautifully in bloom during spring.

A pleasant departure from the culture-heavy side of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf is its attractiveness for active travelers. The Olympic stadium is located in this part of town, and there are opportunities for ice skating, sailing, horseback riding, rowing or swimming. If, like me, you're ready to rest your feet after a long day exploring Berlin beyond Mitte, make your way to Grunewald, a quiet and serene forested region on the bank of the river Havel.

• Stay here: The 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin features a 360-degree rooftop terrace offering stellar views of the city.

Getting there

Though a number of flights from the U.S. connect through other European cities to reach Berlin, travelers can fly directly to Berlin’s Tegel Airport from New York or Chicago via Airberlin, or from Newark via United Airlines.

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