If you’re hunting for off-beat Berlin, these top 10 things to do in Berlin will uncover Berlin’s famed quirky side, from squat-house cinema to underground supper clubs.
There are many top things to do in Berlin, from Berlin’s Museum Island to picnicking in an abandoned airport, but if you want to get off-the-beaten tourist track, here are the 10 best quirky things to do in Berlin.
1. Spreepark, an amusement park in decay
This is the place to see toppled dinosaur statues that look like they’ve been lifted from the set of Jurassic Park, a 45-foot, multicoloured Ferris wheel with nobody riding on it, or de-railed go-carts painted to look like moustachioed men sitting among weeds and underbrush. This eerie yet poetic setting is all a part of the run-down, abandoned grounds of Spreepark – once the GDR’s only permanent amusement park.
Formerly known as Kulturpark Plänterwald, the amusement park, hidden in the depths of Treptower Park, was opened in 1969. At the time, its main attraction was the famously tall Ferris Wheel of Berlin. Legendary performers from all over the Eastern Bloc, such as Nina Hagen, performed there and the park attracted up to 1.5 million visitors per year. After reunification, however, the park’s fate became somewhat more troubled. Under the ownership of Norbert Witte, the park, now called Spreepark, reopened in 1991.
Over the next decade, Witte’s company gradually accumulated millions of dollars of debt and, in 2001, the company declared itself insolvent. Witte was subsequently arrested for trying to smuggle approximately 14 million dollars of cocaine from Peru to Germany in the masts of one of his ‘flying carpet’ rides.
The fate of the park is up in the air, although increased security (fence-jumpers beware: there are guards) has sparked speculation about the owner’s plans. Part of the problem is that prospective investors would have to assume about 15 million dollars of debt. Nevertheless, passers by can still enjoy the site’s plenitude of magical oddities – for free. Tours and events are also occasionally held in the park, which in the past have included a Planet of the Apes movie screening, Christmas markets and a one-day concert by British band xx.
Address: Kiehnwerderallee 1–3, 12437 Berlin
Public transport: S-Bahn Plänterwald
An abandoned Ferris wheel is one of the many relics visible from outside the gates that enclose the perimeter of the Spreepark, the GDR’s only permanent amusement park.
2. The history of the bears of Köllnischer Park
Once lurking in the shadows of Knutmania were Schnute and Maxi: Berlin’s ‘official’ city bears. These living mascots, to the dismay of many animal rights activists, were lodged in a small, open-air bear bit (Bärenzwinger) in the middle of Köllnischer Park, in the city’s historical centre. Although the last surviving bear, Schnute, died in October 2015, the one-hectare park is still worth exploring as one of Berlin’s registered landmarks, with five historical buildings, such as the Märkisches Museum, numerous attractions and a kids’ playground.
Berlin’s bizarre bear-keeping tradition began in 1937, on Germany’s 700th anniversary, when four bears were presented to the city to celebrate Berlin’s close connection with the animal: Bears have been on Berlin’s city seal since 1280. Throughout the years, Berlin’s living symbols underwent a lot. Allied bombing during World War II heavily damaged the bear pit, killing all but one of the bears. Later, one particularly fertile representative, Jette, bore 33 cubs before earning her retirement in Tierpark. There was even an official association, Bärenfreunde Berlin (Friends of the Bears in Berlin), dedicated to their history and well-being.
Address: Am Köllnischer Park, 10179 Berlin
Public transport: U-Bahn Markisches Museum
One of Berlin’s ‘official’ city bears resting in its open-air pit (Bärenzwinger) in Köllnischer Park.
One of Berlin’s most unusual swimming pools, the Badeschiff (bathing ship) is part art project, part contemporary solution to living in a polluted urban centre. Originally conceived by local artist Susanne Lorenz and made out of an old river cargo container, the Badeschiff floats atop Berlin’s long-neglected and unswimmable River Spree. In the summer, the pool is completely uncovered, creating a mini-oasis of clean, cool water that puts swimmers almost eye-level with the Spree. DJs spin tunes as people frequent the open-air bar and hang out on the wooden boardwalks.
The peak of Badeschiff’s bizarreness, however, is definitely in the winter when, thanks to the designs of architect Gil Wilk, the pool is turned into an indoor health complex covered by three translucent shells. Berliners can seek refuge from the cold in the Winter Badeschiff’s two saunas, lounging area with deck chairs and heated pool. Those especially brave souls (or Canadians) can even duck out under the pool’s hanging flaps and swim a little outside, catching a view of the Berlin skyline. Foreigners be warned: German sauna culture typically demands full nudity and the staff are strict about it.
Address: Eichenstrasse 4, 12435 Berlin
Public transport: U-Bahn Schlesisches Tor
4. UFOs in Berlin: The Futuro House
Off-the-beaten-path architectural buffs will delight in catching a glimpse of Berlin’s only UFO, more accurately known as one of the world’s 96 Futuro Houses. It was the brainchild of Finnish architect Matti Suuronen, designed in 1968 at a moment when the belief in the transformative power of technology combined with a fascination in outer space and an increase of leisure time.
The result was the Futuro house: a prefabricated, mass-produced flying saucer living complex for the future, which could even be delivered right to your home via helicopter. The Futuro houses became a brief international phenomenon. Playboy magazine featured a Futuro as a bachelor pad in a photo layout, and The New York Times on the day of the first moon landing announced the Futuro’s arrival in America. However, the Futuro dream came to an end by the mid 1970s, when the Oil Crisis pushed the price of the house, made out of polyester plastic and fibreglass, up too high for the average buyer.
Berlin’s Futuro, the 13th, is currently a private house. However, interested visitors can gaze at it from across the Spree or hop on one of Berlin’s few public ferries to get a closer look.
Address: Blockdammweg and Köpenicker Chaussee, near the former radio station of the GDR (Gelände des Rundfunks der DDR) in Nalepastraße. (On Google maps, search for ‘Futuro haus‘ for an exact view)
Public transport: S-Bahn Baumschulenweg, Ferry 11
A Futuro House, vintage 1969, can be seen in Berlin-Treptow. The ellipsoidal house has an area of 36sqm and is made of fiberglass-reinforced polyester.
5. Squat movies
According to American journalist Robert Neuwirth, there were one billion squatters across the globe, or roughly one in seven people. Some of them, evidently, are film buffs, and Berlin is home to quite a few squats that regularly host film screenings. While some are fairly underground, there are others that are more open to strangers.
In Kreuzberg, the punk squat KØPI 137 hosts movies every Monday and Thursday night, alongside other events. New Yorck 59, in Bethanien Haus, hosts Latino Kino on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of every month, as well as some other unannounced nights. In Friedrichshain, the old punk haunt Filmrisz hosts a range of events, including a ‘summer fest’ with kids’ activities, food and art and music performances. Whether you want to catch a film on the cheap or are interested in squat culture, these events are definitely worth checking out.
A good place to start looking for listings is www.stressfaktor.squat.net, a site that lists events for alternative and left-wing culture.
KØPI 137: Köpenicker Str. 137, Kreuzberg | S-Bahn Ostbahnhof | koepi137.net
New Yorck 59: Mariannenplatz 2, Kreuzberg | U-Bahn Görlitzer Bahnhof, U-Bahn Kottbusser Tor | www.newyorck.net
Filmrisz: Rigaer Str. 103, Friedrichshain | U-Bahn Frankfurter Tor | www.filmrisz.org
6. Soviet War Memorial
The Soviet War Memorial, sometimes translated as the Soviet Cenotaph, is a spectacular site for its size and scale. Nestled away in Treptower Park, the memorial envelops visitors in its sheer, stark grandiosity: an entrance flanked by two 15m-high triangular forms in red granite; a square, 200m long and 100m wide, with 16 stone sarcophagi on either side that depict military scenes and quotes from Joseph Stalin; and a 12m-tall monument of a strapping Russian soldier holding a hulking blade in one hand and a child in the other, while standing over a broken swastika. The monument was a gift from Stalin to the fallen soldiers and their families and a reminder to East Germans who liberated them from the Nazis.
Designed by Soviet architect Yakov Belopolsky and built between 1946 and 1949, the Soviet War Memorial was the central war memorial of East Germany. It commemorates the 20,000 Soviet soldiers that died in the Battle of Berlin from April to May 1945. The memorial sill serves as a living memorial for Red Army veterans, who regularly hold ceremonies at the site.
Address: Treptower Park, by Am Treptower Park and Herkomerstr.
Public Transport: S-Bahn Treptower Park or S-Bahn Planterwald
A massive sarcophagus depicting Soviet soldiers in battle is part of the colossal Soviet War Memorial adjacent to Treptower Park.
7. Guerrilla dining: ‘Supper Clubs’ in Berlin
A trend in foodie culture is the so-called ‘underground’ restaurant: top chefs serve up multiple-course gourmet meals to lucky diners in the comfort of the chef’s own home. With Berlin renown for its underground lifestyle, it comes as no surprise that Berlin’s underground supper club scene is thriving and a great way to sample unique cuisine, such as seared scallops over artichoke purée with crispy bacon or mint-cured fillet of lamb with goat’s cheese.
Getting in typically requires a reservation-only policy and a hunt to find a front or back door. Diners are typically grouped in an intimate one-table setting, making it a great way to meet friends. Some well-known supper clubs in Berlin include the gourmet Daniel’s Eatery, Mother’s Mothers, who started inviting refugees to cook local specialities in 2016, the exclusive gourment raw vegan supper club b.alive!, or Muse, a supper-club-turned-restaurant that preserves their original concept on Saturdays with guest chefs or other events.
8. Underground tours
For those interested in taking a peek under Berlin streets, the non-profit Berliner Unterwelten society will lead you on a fascinating tour of Berlin’s extensive networks of subterranean architecture. Since 1997, the society has been working to open up Berlin’s hidden spaces and structures to the public.
Their main tour takes place around the underground train station Gesundbrunnen, which is a gateway to a myriad of civilian shelters and bunker complexes used during the bombing campaigns in Berlin. Left untouched since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the bunkers hint at the psychological and physical reality of living in Berlin during World War II. The concrete rooms are dank and claustrophobic. Storage rooms contain bunk beds, polyester jogging suits for 3,500 people and several stacks of body bags.
Bunkers were a key part of civilian life during the war: From 1940 to 1944, there were more than 1,000 of bunkers in Berlin, often connected by underground tunnels. These tours will leave you wondering just what other worlds are sitting quietly beneath your feet.
Address: The ticket office for most tours is at the Berlin Underworlds’ office in the southern exit of the U8 station Gesundbrunnen, Brunnenstrasse 105.
Public transport: U-Bahn Gesundbrunnen
9. Urban farming
It was a glint of light that first inspired Detlev Zastrow to found an urban farm 30 years ago. Camping in Bavaria with some children, Zastrow was about to slaughter a sheep for dinner when suddenly sun rays landed on his knife. The flicker of light alerted the children to the sheep’s impending death and, scared, they protested it, eventually causing Zastrow to let the sheep loose.
Back in the city, Zastrow wanted to create a forum for city children to get to know animals and forge a better understanding of the natural world. The result is a working farm that sits unassumingly in the middle of Kreuzberg, right across from the Berlinische Galerie. The farm’s main program revolves around its three horses, Stella, Max and Cici, which children belonging to the co-op can ride and help care for, whenever they want.
The farm also has a veritable menagerie of animals that children and others visit, including goats, turkeys, hens, pheasants, rabbits and ducks. The farm also has sheep – the first three of which were donated to the farm from the now-defunct Tempelhof airport, where they were being used to mow the grass. For a glimpse of agriculture amid a city of high culture, this is the spot.
Address: Franz-Künstler-Straße 10, 10969 Berlin
Public transport: U-Bahn Kochstrasse
One of the three horses that live on an urban farm for children in Kreuzberg bares its teeth.
10. Tropical Islands
As rainforests around the world are increasingly threatened, Malaysian entrepreneur Colin Au set out to build one of his own in an unlikely spot: the inside of an old airship hangar. Located in the desolate fields between Berlin and Dresden, where the Nazi Luftwaffe once trained pilots, the massive hangar was first built for a project that hoped to bring back the blimp and give a boost to the flagging eastern German economy. After the project’s demise, Au bought the hangar and converted it into the Edenic theme park now known as Tropical Islands.
The artificial paradise is essentially a cross between a botanical garden and a public bathhouse, except on a much larger scale; the hangar is so huge the Statue of Liberty could stand upright under the complex’s lofted roofs and the Eiffel Tower could lie on its side and fit within its walls. On top of its lush rainforest, Tropical Islands boasts one of the world’s largest indoor water park, a tropical sea, a beach, a lagoon, a gourmet restaurant, music and dance shows and a spa and wellness centre. You can also camp overnight in one of their tents or tepees, among other accommodation options. Whether you’re a grumpy Berliner looking to escape the grey winters or a curious visitor looking to catch some rays, Tropical Island is guaranteed to tan away your gloom.
Address: Tropical Islands is located just off the A13 Berlin/Dresden motorway, approximately 35km south of Berlin Schönefeld. Turn off the motorway at the Staakow exit and follow the signs to Tropical Islands for a farther 3km.
Public Transport: The Regional Express RE2 runs hourly from Berlin and Cottbus to Brand (Niederlausitz). The Regionalbahn RB14 also runs hourly to Brand from Berlin Ostbahnhof, via Karlshorst and Königs Wusterhausen, or from Senftenberg via Lübben. From the railway station at Brand, a shuttle bus to Tropical Islands leaves shortly after trains arrive.
Jessica Dorrance / © Associated Reporters Abroad / Expatica