Biking through Berlin in the spring is one of my favorite things about living in Europe. As a teenager I would not be caught dead on a bicycle but by the time I was in college I had rediscovered the joys of pedal assisted, two-wheeled transportation. As a freshman in 1992 Boston was a beautiful city to bike through but back then there were no bike lanes and often in summer there would be warnings of a high smog index and not so subtle suggestions to stay off the streets to avoid the unhealthy ground-level ozone. Nonetheless I continued biking all through university and even ended up bringing my Gary Fischer bicycle to Berlin when I arrived in 1998.
The first thing that struck me about biking through Berlin was how little traffic there was. In communist East Germany all citizens were equal and therefore all entitled to own a car. Even though this was Germany however no one was allowed to buy a Mercedes, Porsche, Audi or even a Volkswagen. The only option for a car was the slightly comical, two stroke engine, plastic shelled Trabant. To acquire one meant waiting up to 18 years before receiving this substandard form of Eastern European automotive transportation. This meant that when the wall came down on the 9th of November, 1989 there were relatively few cars on the streets of East Berlin, and almost all of them Trabants. Even when I arrived in 1998 I was pleasantly surprised to find that cyclists owned the roads and took little notice of the few cars on the streets. Germans being a very orderly and law abiding folk in general meant that motorists fully accepted the velo culture. For me it was a biker’s paradise, properly kitted out with bike lanes and drivers who respected the cyclists right to share the road.
Nowadays with the influx of westerners and their fancy cars occasionally traffic does get backed up and parking is slowly becoming an issue. In 2009 the German government attempted to address this problem with the introduction of the car sharing program Flinkster, similar to its US counterpart Zipcar. Being such a flat city cyclists however still own the road in true European tradition. Biking through the German capital is without a doubt the best way to appreciate all the city has to offer. The only mountains to be found in the city nowadays are the piles of rubble from WWII which were piled up on the outskirts of the city. The highest of these artificial mountains is the Teufelsberg which was once a secret US military radar installation during the Cold War. It has now been turned into a tourist attraction.
Although there are many biking tours one of the most interesting ways to see the city in all its multi-faceted glory is to bike the Mauerweg (wall path); a trail following the 160 km of the Berlin wall. Some people are not aware that the Wall did not just cut the city in half but in fact surrounded West Berlin and sealed it off completely from the ‘people’s paradise’ of communist East Germany. The Mauerweg can be done ideally in three days and you can also hop on and off public transportation if biking gets too exhausting.
Berlin is 880 square kilometers spread over 12 different Bezirk or boroughs so it can be a quite daunting to explore. Here is a brief guide to what is where in the German capital. In the south east is Kopenik which is known for its beautiful lake the Muggelsee. The Germans know the district as well from the famous story of the Captain of Kopenick. In the south west of the city is the Grunewald which is the largest forest in Berlin. A lovely ride is through the Grunewald down to the Wannsee Lake and across the Havel River to the historic city of Potsdam.
In the northeast of the city is the district of Pankow which is now comprised of some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the former communist east; Prenzlauer Berg and Weissensee. Once this area housed the farmlands to the north of the city. It was known for the purity of its water which led to numerous breweries (even vineyards for a time) making their home here. Today Prenzlauer Berg is becoming an exclusive residential district and with more and more money moving in, the charm of the beautiful houses and quiet streets is being replaced by the upscale (uberhip) clique moving in from the West.
In the east is the district of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. Along with the industrial revolution in the 19th century came the workers’ tenements and housing projects. In GDR times Friedrichshain experienced a bit of a revival as the entire city focus moved east, but since the fall of the Wall it has become the refuge of the counterculture who are not buying into the capitalization of Germany’s new government center.
Kreuzberg to the south is named after a 60-meter rise in the beautiful Viktoria Park. The neighborhood is split between the more affluent Kreuzberg 61 (one of two former postal districts) in the west and Kreuzberg 36 for the anarchist punks and hipsters in the east. Still a part of West Berlin though with the division of the city much of the district found itself geographically more in the east rather than west. Since the 1960′s it has become the home of Berlin’s burgeoning Turkish population. After the fall of the wall it fell into the shadow of the newly created city center but a unique vibe still exists here well worth experiencing. On the southern border is Neukolln which has becoming the trendiest area in the past couple of years and now houses the growing hipster population. This area has been recently dubbed Kreuzkolln.
West Berlin has its charm as well. In the roaring 20s Charlottenburg and Schöneberg experienced the heady thrills that came to define the Weimar Republic. Here you could find artists living the hedonistic high life mingling with the upper crust of the Jewish community. After the division of the city, West Berliners were quite content to be a free market island surrounded by the GDR. To this day many still fail to see how they benefited from the fall of The Wall, although few will admit it. Only here in the west can you still experience real Berlin culture that has not yet been replaced by the post- wall, hipster invasion.
The center of the city is known as Mitte and was occupied in its entirety by the Soviets after the war. With the near complete destruction of the historic heart of the city during WWII the ghosts of Berlin’s illustrious Prussian past are hard to find here today. It was only in the 1980’s that the GDR began in earnest to tear down the bombed out ruins and dilapidated buildings and replace them with the nondescript, prefabricated architecture. Nowadays the Mitte is still trying to define itself with a glut of start-ups, art galleries, concept bars, restaurants, and modern architecture along with the big name corporations which can be found in all western cities. The Mitte to the north of the river Spree was historically known as Spandauer Vorstadt. It was once the center of a thriving Jewish community and is now one of the hippest neighborhoods in all of Berlin. Oranienburger Str. is rapidly becoming known as the red light district for its bawdy nightlife while on the side streets art galleries, lovely courtyards and cafes can be found en masse.
Renting a bike costs around 10 Euro a day and is the ideal way to experience the city as the locals do. As Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” It’s as easy as riding a bike!