A cultural tour of the German capital offers endless possibilities. Explore a city in constant self-renewal, from a floating swimming pool to a Weimar-era ballroom.

A cultural tour of the German capital offers endless possibilities. Explore a city in constant self-renewal, from a floating swimming pool to a Weimar-era ballroom.

Morning: The sunny side of the Spree
On the eastern banks of the River Spree, among the skeletons of warehouses and watchtowers left over from the Cold War, Berliners make their way to the shore for a morning dip. Towels tucked under arms, they head for the Badeschiff (‘bathing ship’) – a huge heated swimming pool made out of the shell of an industrial barge that floats in the cold river. As the day draws on, the temperature rises and sun drenches swimmers and the city. Deckchairs scattered around the pool’s sandy terraces fill with people escaping work for a lunchtime drink with friends.

Badeschiff may be unique in engineering terms, but it is not alone: few cities have taken to the urban beach quite like Berlin. There are nearly 30 here, bringing new life to the wastelands that remained when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Many are tucked behind the East Side Gallery, a section of the Wall covered with graffiti art that lies across the river from Badeschiff. One longstanding favourite here is Yaam, an African- and Caribbean-themed beach bar where sunseekers listen to reggae while sipping imported bottled beers. It doubles as a community centre: small groups congregate on the grass to make artworks or sell handmade knickknacks, while kids play on the sands surrounded by people lazing on blankets or tucking into picnics.

The concept of urban sunbathing may have originated here. The city’s surrounded by huge lakes, which have drawn urbanites from the centre for generations. Sections of the shores around the huge manmade lake at Wannsee, a plush suburb to the west of the city, have acted as faux-beaches since 1907. YouTube videos poignantly show a generation who were to be wiped out in WWI happily frolicking in the shallow waters, and not much has changed. Today, the main stretch of its 1,000 metres of sand is packed with young couples snuggling up in stripy two-seater beach baskets, gazing out over the midnight-blue lake. An elderly woman lies back in a deckchair enjoying the sunshine, while a trio of grandchildren race around her and construct elaborate sandcastles. It doesn’t take much imagination to feel like you’ve been transported 500 miles north to the coast.

Early afternoon: Mind the art gap
Squats get a bad rap in Britain, but in Berlin they were the creative engines that helped get the city on its feet when the Wall came down. Today, they offer the visitor a unique way to tap into the changing cultural life of the capital.

Hundreds of buildings lay abandoned after reunification in 1990. The Kunsthaus Tacheles department store was one: used as a Nazi prison in WWII, it fell into disrepair under East German administration during the Cold War. It was primed for demolition after reunification before a group of artists moved in, transforming its maze-like passageways and endless rooms and halls into studios, nightclubs, cafés, performance spaces and even a cinema.

Martin Reiter, one of the group’s founders, recalls how ‘this area was ruined back then. It was very close to the Wall, on the East side, lined with military. No-one wanted anything to do with it. Yet suddenly, in the middle of the developed world there were these spaces free, places where new things could happen, and artists from Berlin and internationally began to make them happen.’

There is no sign of dereliction today; Tacheles is now surrounded by designer stores, opulent arcades and marble mosaics. A huge arch marks its entrance and a winding staircase covered with paintspattered imagery and graffiti leads up five floors. Doors are left open, inviting the curious into rooms filled with artistic projects: sculptures, paintings, huge pieces of machinery reshaped into twisted new forms. There’s a scattering of people here, some tourists (Tacheles gets around 400,000 a year), some partygoers who haven’t made their way home from the night before.

Jochen Sandig, one of Martin Reiter’s co-founders at Tacheles, moved on to transform other neglected buildings in Berlin, including RADIALSYSTEM V, an impressive cultural centre that opened on the banks of the River Spree in 2006. Once a water pumping station, it is now one of the city’s leading spaces for dance, concerts and contemporary art. ‘I love abandoned spaces, and Berlin has a lot of them,’ says Jochen, a sparky and gregarious veteran of the city’s counterculture. ‘Berlin has always been a city of poor people with big ideas.’

Late afternoon: Out of the ruins
Tempelhof Airport was once the international gateway to Berlin. In the mid-20th century, this vast building was a backdrop to news footage of arriving celebrities, and became a lifesaver in the Berlin Airlift of 1948, when Western air forces dropped in food and supplies after the Soviets blockaded the city.

In the years following reunification, Tempelhof found itself surplus to requirements, shutting down for good in 2008. Yet its closure proved the adage that where space appears in Berlin’s urban fabric, remarkable things happen. In 2010, Tempelhof was re-opened as a vast park. Walking through this windswept flatland is a peculiar experience: the runways are still intact, the airport building looks much as it did when it was receiving thousands of visitors a day, and signs warning pilots to contact air traffic control remain. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that a jumbo jet might be moments from landing on your head.

Berliners have now adopted Tempelhof as a public park. Every afternoon, its runways are packed with cyclists, joggers, footballers, rollerbladers – and rather appositely, one man zooming a toy plane over the landing area, its tiny shadow casting memories of a former life across the heads of the new visitors. Martin Dixon, a British ex-pat who has lived in Berlin for a decade, says that Tempelhof’s lack of trees and huge, flat expanse explains its popularity. ‘It’s completely exposed to the wind, so it attracts kite-fliers, wheeled windsurfers, or just those who enjoy the kind of bracing walk you’d normally find on the coast.’

A similar story of renewal can be found at Planterweg, just south of the city centre. Here a huge railway terminal, once home to battalions of steam trains and engineers, has been transformed into Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände. Thick woods have sprung up around the crisscrossing train tracks, some of which have been filled in and turned into woodland trails. The former train depot building has been turned into an art space, while industrial hoardings and even an old steam train are dotted across the park as art exhibits.

That this peaceful haven could once have been a pulsating mass of hot steam, burning coal and industrial noise seems somehow preposterous – which is a true testament to Berlin’s capacity for transformation.

Evening: Man cannot live on sausage alone
For a reason why Germany doesn’t have the greatest culinary reputation, look to the bratwurst. Around every corner in Berlin, you’ll see people tucking into cardboard trays of the German sausage, piled high with chips. Though undeniably delicious, it is more teatime snack than grown-up gastronomy.

For years, the city’s top tables showed off a cavalcade of multinational cuisines while German cooking lagged behind. Now, however, Berlin’s best chefs are returning to the food of their forebears. Matthias Gleiss’s restaurant, Volt, is set in a former electricity station on the banks of the Landwehr canal. Matthias takes elements of traditional German peasant food and local Berlin dishes – such as meatballs, veal chops and blood sausage (aka black pudding) – and expertly transforms the heavy, rustic ingredients into lighter meals.

‘I like to evoke a traditional image in the name of the dish and then surprise people with its execution – taking the comfort of homecooked food and putting it into a new setting,’ he tells me. One of his most popular inventions is a brilliant combination of halibut and black pudding, its smoky weight a pleasant contrast to the light white fish.

In the borough of Mitte, Weinbar Rutz is split between a Michelin-starred dining space upstairs and a ground floor wine bar. Its stated aim is ‘the rescue of the German cuisine’. Dishes like ham sausage from the Berlin district of Neukölln, lightly crisped on the outside and intensely meaty within, are a banishment to the humble bratwurst. The floor-to-ceiling wine racks are rigorously nationalistic too, with every Riesling imaginable squeezed on the shelf.

Matthias believes that while the stereotypical Prussian mentality of all work and no play has meant that culinary indulgence has historically taken a back seat, it is now coming in handy. ‘The work ethic plays a big part in German kitchens,’ he says. ‘That strict focus on detail benefits more elaborate dishes. We take a very clean, disciplined approach, and it is taking German cuisine to new levels.’ Berlin is a city where little details matter, and where even a dinner plate can contain a revelation.

Night: Life is a cabaret
The aloof exterior of the building belies its former life. Now home to the Speisekammer Bio Supermarket, the only clues to its infamous Eldorado club incarnation are an Art Deco sign above the door and black and white photographs on an inside wall. They show a bar filled with glamorous women – and men in drag – by a portrait of Marlene Dietrich. Ninety years ago, this was the heart of the city’s cabaret scene, known for its decadent, sexually charged stage shows.

‘This has been a gay area for 100 years,’ says Brendan Nash, whose Cabaret Berlin blog chronicles the buildings that have survived the Weimar years, a period of particular cultural intensity in Germany. He lives nearby in an apartment backing on to the former home of British writer Christopher Isherwood, and gives tours of the area. Isherwood moved to Berlin in 1929, capturing the era in his book Goodbye to Berlin; when he left in 1932 it was well on its way to destruction. ‘When Hitler came to power, one of the first things he did was to bring in closing times for all bars featuring decadent or “homosexual dancing”,’ explains Brendan. ‘Eventually, most clubs were raided and shut down.’ The Eldorado building itself was turned into a Nazi headquarters.

Yet the spirit of Weimar Berlin and cabaret survived the onslaught. The 1972 movie Cabaret, inspired by Isherwood’s stories, provoked renewed interest. And in recent years, Berliners have set about recreating and reimagining the excitement of the Golden Twenties once more. For Viva Misadventure, a cabaret dancer taking Brendan’s tour in order to research the roots of her vocation, Weimar Berlin still has untapped potential. ‘It was a period of so much hope and energy, of real freedom and lust for life. And it all went horribly wrong. People want to know why, to understand what happened and get back that feeling.’

The swanky Las Vegas-style cabaret shows at the vast Friedrichstadtpalast offer a taste of the Twenties, but true authenticity can be found at smaller club nights. The raucous all-night parties of the cabaret-era Clärchens Ballhaus draw Berliners of every generation, while the Bohème Sauvage events are joyous celebrations of the Weimar era. Every month, a crowd dressed in scrupulously authentic outfits dug out from the city’s vintage stores descend on the fantastically opulent Weimar-style mirrored tent of Bar Jeder Vernunft. Red velvet drapes hang across a tiny stage, where bands play whipsmart jazz and swing, and singers in ballgowns, silk gloves and slick bobs smoulder in front of an audience sipping cocktails long into the night.

The article 'Berlin, a day in the life' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.