In February we spent a week house sitting in Berlin and spent much of our time wandering around and eating all the delicious food. We love taking walking tours to learn about the unique history of each place we visit, because what is a place without its historical, cultural, and contemporary context?
We’re insatiably curious to the streets and buildings that comprise cities. Our travel mode of operation means engaging with how people live in a city – both past and present. So take a stroll with us through the intriguing streets of alternative Berlin, with its abundance of street art, subculture, and lesser known history.
SQUATS IN BERLIN
Squatting has happened all over the world for hundreds of years, but Berlin has a particularly rich history that continues in full force to this day. Berlin’s current squats aren’t tucked away and coexist proudly next door to apartment buildings throughout the city.
The Rauchhaus, allegedly the oldest continually occupied squat in Europe, has been in place the 1970s. The historic building used to be a hospital that the occupying American forces tried to demolish to create a highway. Berliners took to the streets and protested the hell out of the situation until the city bought the land and gifted it to the city. Today it is a cultural center with the squat occupying the building and yard next door. Many squats offer homemade meals for cheap to any and everyone. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to try them next time!
The Treehouse on the Wall
Our favorite squatter story comes from a Turkish man named Osman Kalin who set up shop just down the road from the Rauchhaus when there were still two Berlins. The vacant lot was technically under the jurisdiction of the East German authorities, yet fell on the Western side of the wall because of cost-saving measures to build the wall in a straight line.
Osman saw an opportunity and started to grow a small garden on the land, eventually also building a makeshift treehouse entirely from found materials. The nearby church allowed him to use their water without charge to grow his garden. He quickly became a beloved figure in the neighborhood and indeed all of Berlin. After the fall of the wall, authorities wanted to demolish Osman’s treehouse to build a road, yet locals and the nearby church rallied behind him. Osman, now in his nineties, and his family live in a nearby apartment building. Apparently, he often sits outside in the treehouse garden, happily waving and smiling at passing admirers.
STREET ART IN BERLIN
The famous street art scene in Berlin draws street artists from around the world to paint the town with their creativity. Some examples of famous street art in Berlin include:
Berlin is covered with street art no matter where you look, but you can get concentrated doses in many spots, including:
Dead Chicken Alley
This tucked away alley is easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it. One of the last remnants of what East Berlin used to look like before the wall fell. Shortly after, artists moved into the abundance of abandoned apartments and East Berlin quickly became an artists’ haven. The Dead Chicken group was one of these artist collectives and their space has been preserved to this day.
One side of the alley is reserved for professional artists who can come and paint murals while the other side is a free side, meaning it is open to anyone (including visitors!) to leave their mark. Some of our favorites from the ‘pro side’ included:
There’s a lot going on today in the alley, with a small museum dedicated to a man who created a workshop to employ blind Jewish people during WWII, a very smokey bar, and an underground show of robotic monsters and probably one of the weirder ways we’ve spent half an hour.
An old railway complex turned subculture compound, this spot was one of our favorites in Berlin. And this is even considering the fact that it’s mostly outdoors and we froze our asses off exploring it.
RAW Gelande is a great example of Berlin’s culture of reuse and repurpose. The complex is home to a climbing gym (with an outdoor climbing wall on the outside of an old bunker!), an indoor skate park, famous clubs, bars, food trucks, and of course, lots of street art. We even got to meet the Momo Master himself (read the full story in our Berlin Vegan Guide).
Berlin Graphic Days, a graphic design pop up market that happens once a year, luckily was taking place right as we arrived. Artists from all over the Europe come to showcase their wares – all of it was incredible. Though we don’t want to accumulate stuff in our temporary home, most artists had little postcards for sale for a euro or two. We always try to support local artists and were happy to buy a bunch to adorn our apartment’s walls back in Madrid.
East Side Gallery
This one is hardly an underground or unknown spot as the most famous example of street art in Berlin. The East Side Gallery is a 1.3 km long preserved section of the Berlin Wall. Poignant murals of street artists from around the world .
Possibly the most massive example of site reuse in Berlin is the 300 hectacre Tempelhofer Feld. The former airfield is steeped with history and is named after the Knights Templar that inhabited the land in the medieval era. In addition, Tempelhof was the site of the Berlin Airlift of 1948, when the Western powers supplied Berliners with food and other essentials. For more history of the site, The Guardian has a great recent article. Today the airfield is a public park that often has concerts and other events.
Berlin’s dramatic recent history and the many hands that took part in its reconstruction. The near leveling of the city during WWII and reuse of existing buildings leaves the city with a bit of a hodge-podge feel – in an interesting way. The city’s multiculturalism can be felt in the large Turkish neighborhood aka Little Istanbul, in the many languages spoken everywhere, and the abundance of eateries from what feels like every country dotting the streets.
We thoroughly enjoyed Berlin and can’t wait to explore it more in the future!
Are you a fan of street art – are there any pieces in your city? Would you like to visit Berlin someday? Or maybe there’s some alternative culture we missed? Let us know in the comments!