The unofficial status of Berlin and Tel Aviv as sister cities is easy to understand. Both cities are drenched with nightlife, culture, and cafés. Especially in the gray, rainy winter, “Tel Aviv envy” creeps up among Berliners. But in the summer, Tel Avivers may get a case of Berlin envy, especially as heat waves plague the Israeli metropolis. The hot Tel Aviv beach sometimes doesn’t provide that same summer satisfaction that comes with the lively bodies of water, parks, beer gardens, and outdoor markets that the German capital provides as compensation for depressing winters.
For those seeking a summer weekend in temperatures that are unpredictably mild, or who want to delve into this creative, multicultural city for more than just Germany’s dark past and tortured history, here’s a mini-weekend guide taking you across the city from west to east:
Start at the west with the historic Berlin Zoological Garden for the paradox of wildlife flourishing within a European capital. The vast grounds house a diverse selection of members of the animal kingdom, from Indian elephants to a polar bear. (Hanging near some gazelles is a plaque marking and apologizing for the purge of Jewish shareholders in 1938.)
If you don’t have enough time to spend at the Zoo, but would like to get a taste of wild, cosmopolitan Berlin life, then stroll through Bikini Berlin, a concept mall showcasing young designers and shabby chic retail outfits. Its name hints to the summer, and its windows and rooftop terrace overlook the animals. If you crave a taste of Tel Aviv, take the elevators up the 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin to a very stylish and Israeli-owned restaurant and bar, Neni. You pay a lot for that hip falafel and schnitzel, but you also get an incredible view of the urban jungle that is Berlin.
Venture further into the best of the “west,” i.e. the best of capitalism, to KaDeWe (Kaufhaus den Westens), Berlin’s beautiful, high-end department store catering to the rich, although the luscious “gourmet” 6th floor offers free samplings of local herbal liquors (which you’ll then be tempted to buy).
Once you’ve had enough of the west, begin the transition to the east with a train (or bike ride) to Tempelhof, an airport once used in the Nazi era but whose airfields have since been transformed into one of the largest urban parks in the world, thanks in part to locals who protested against using the land for housing developments. You can exit Tempelhof into Kreuzberg, the most “east” of the “west,” having served as a destination for immigrants and counter-culture hippies after World War II, and still today one of Berlin’s hippest “kiez” (districts).
At Moritzplatz, another example of creative use of urban landscapes is Prinzessinnengarten (Princess Garden), an ecological vegetable, herb, and beer garden within a mini-forest. It was transformed from a wasteland into a green urban getaway as a pilot project. For dinner, Bergmannstr is the main café-lined artery where you can’t go wrong with most restaurants, although nearby, Mustafa’s Gumuse Kebap always has lines down the street—if you want the closest thing to a famous falafel stand.
The closest Berlin gets to Jaffa is further south in the Neukolln district. This outpost for Turkish and Arab immigrants has gained popularity among creative types, leading to gentrification. Near the main square Hermannplatz, you could walk a few blocks and imagine that you’re in an Arab city with all the kebab joints, tacky bridal shops, and male-only coffee shops. But lots of alcohol can still be had. Buy a beer at a ubiquitous “Späti” (late-night kiosk) for a tipsy walk along the canal, brave a seedy bar, or watch the long Berlin sunset at the funky rooftop beer garden, Klunkerkranich.
Sundays in Berlin, despite the city’s secularism, are still treated as the Christian Shabbat, with most everything closed. But fear not! This is the day for outdoor fairs and flohmarkts (flea markets), such as those at Mauerpark in the yuppy neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, right on the former east/west border. Here you’ll find street food (with plenty of trendy vegan options), street performances, and booths for vintage clothing and knickknacks. But the highlight? Outdoor Karaoke! This attraction invites all aspiring singers to an outdoor amphitheater to make fools of themselves or to show off to a fun-loving, encouraging crowd.
Berliners have come up with another solution for dealing with beach envy. Further east, in the happening Mitte district, outdoor recliners have been set up along cafés by the Spree, the part of the Berlin river overlooking the Berlin Cathedral and a museum hub.
“Strandbar” (beach bar) at Monbijoupark features an open air dance floor with themed dance nights from tango to foxtrot to swing. Now if only they’d offer Israeli dancing, a Tel Aviv-like Berlin summer experience would be complete.
Orit Arfa (JNS.org)