Germany’s capital was once known primarily for its Cold War stand-offs, with the Berlin Wall looming as a potent symbol of all that was bad about East–West relations. Then the Wall came down and Berlin was reunited. It now has one of Europe’s most buzzing arts, cultural and media scenes and boasts a host of new skyscrapers, nightclubs and fashion stores that make it one of the capitals of cool.
In short, Berlin is again one of Europe’s great cities, and at no better time is the capital’s newfound confidence felt than in spring, when residents have a new bounce in their step, the first leaves appear on trees, cherry blossoms bloom and boat cruises start up once more on the city’s lakes and waterways. Easter is another spring highlight. In Germany, this is a time for chocolate eggs, and marzipan rabbits and lambs. Birch branches are brought indoors and decorated with wooden eggs, and children carry baskets decorated with painted hares, in which they collect chocolate eggs and other small gifts on Easter Sunday, which falls on April 1 this year.
Charlottenburg Palace features ‘Easter Concerts – Spring Awakening at the Palace’ (March 30–31) with a gala dinner and musicians in historical costume playing light classical music. The grand palace started as a simple hunting lodge to the west of the city and morphed into a great masterpiece of German baroque architecture. The vast palace is crammed with artworks and Chinese porcelain, and is surrounded with lakes and gardens that pop in March with daffodils and tulips. The gardens and lakes alone might take half a day to stroll around.
Another monument is Spandau Citadel in Berlin’s northwest, a former summer residence of the Hohenzollern royal family, and later Prussia’s main military headquarters. Its Easter Knights’ Festival (March 31 – April 2) sees the fortress transformed into a medieval marketplace, with recreations of battles and jousting by knights in armour, and other family entertainment. Kids will also enjoy the month-long Spring Festival (March 28 – April 22) on Kurt-Schumacher-Damm, with its bumper cars, carousels and roller coasters. If you’re there on Easter Sunday, the Easter bunny is sure to be handing out chocolates.
In the city centre, the Brandenburg Gate stands as the symbol of Berlin past and present. The triumphal arch was erected between 1788 and 1791 at the western end of Unter den Linden, the broad avenue that runs through the city centre, making it a fine place for visitors to start off an exploration of central Berlin. Walk along Unter den Linden and you’ll find museums, churches and the buzz of a university campus, not to mention plenty of cafés setting out their tables in the spring sunshine after their long winter retreat.
Follow Unter den Linden to its eastern end, where it turns into Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse and leads into Alexanderplatz beneath the soaring Berlin TV tower. Alexanderplatz was once at the heart of old East Berlin, as can be seen in the rather unappealing façades of the buildings, now somewhat enlivened by street markets and buskers beneath. A highlight of Easter in the city is the Alexanderplatz Easter Market (March 30 – April 2), which is popular among locals for its handicraft and food stalls, live music and festive decorations.
The surrounding Mitte district is undergoing a renaissance. Its fashion and arts scenes are focused on Hackescher Markt and the Scheunenviertel or ‘Barn District’ where former tenement houses now have a second life as galleries, shops, nightclubs and classy apartments. This is the place to wander for some people-watching, trendy dining and good theatres. Look in particular for Die Hackeschen Höfe, which crams in over 100 cafés, boutiques and restaurants in a series of art nouveau courtyards. It’s a good place to try another springtime treat in Berlin: white asparagus, something of an obsession among Germans at this time of year, and typically served with ham and butter.
Further out from the centre, Prenzlauer Berg is another of Berlin’s hot quarters, where the latest in fashions vie for attention with hip restaurants and energetic nightclubs. It’s the place of the moment for hip young Berliners. Another fine district for wandering, and quite a contrast, lies just to the south. The Nikolai Quarter is the old 16th-century district that was lovingly restored after the Second World War. It’s especially atmospheric at night, when its alleyways are lit in soft yellow by gas lanterns.
From here, it’s time to head towards the former West Berlin, and where better to stop on the way than at Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous Cold War crossing point between the US and Soviet sectors of the city. Nearby, the Wall Museum tells the fascinating story of the divided city and those who attempted to cross the Berlin Wall and escape to the West – many of whom lost their lives in the attempt. A bit further along is Potsdamer Platz, dominated by large corporate headquarters. The square boasts some spectacular ultra-modern architecture and has one of the city’s best shopping malls.
From here it’s time to explore more of former West Berlin. Kurfürstendamm (usually known by its abbreviation Ku’Damm) became famous in the pre-war period for its avantgarde cultural scene and dance halls. Now, it’s one of Berlin’s main shopping drags and has everything from chic stores to outlets for souvenirs and trinkets. Breitscheidplatz at the eastern end of the avenue hosts a week-long Easter market with food stalls, a carousel and visits from the Easter bunny.
At nearby Tauentzienstrasse you’ll find the chicest department store in town, KaDeWe, as well as Europa Centre, Berlins biggest shopping mall and one of the largest entertainment complexes in Europe, complete with restaurants, theatres, bars and cinemas.
If you want some culture after all the shopping, Gemäldegalerie is one of the best art museums in Germany, particularly interesting for its medieval German art, with works by masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer, though it also features plenty of Italian, Flemish and Dutch works as well. Once done, you are now near the vast Tiergarten, a huge green space that encompasses meadows, lakes, meandering paths and great swathes of lawn. Trees are freshly green in springtime, and the perfume of tulips fills the air. The former royal hunting ground has over 20km of leafy walks, just the place to relax for a while before throwing yourself back into the bustle of the city.