Visiting the Berlin Wall

Visiting the Berlin Wall

Berlin is a city you have to visit to truly understand the Europe of the 20th Century and the Europe of today. For so long it was the symbol of division, the only place where the Iron Curtain was a tangible divide. On the 13th August 1961, construction began on a wall that for 28 years would separate friends, break up families and completely divide a city. The Berlin Wall was the frontline of the Cold War.

berlin wall CV

Today only two small portions of the wall remain, left as permanent reminders of a barrier that brought so much pain to this city. The largest section can be found near Wasrchauer Strasse Station and runs for about 1km parallel to the river along Muhlenstasse. However today it is no longer a long bland concrete slab guarded by guns but an artistic mural known as the East Side Gallery.

Visiting the Berlin Wall is best done by a leisurely yet thought provoking stroll that will take you half an hour or considerably more depending on how long you stop to appreciate the artwork. Predictably for such an iconic political structure, much of the work is of a political nature but the range of artists that took part in creating the mural means that there are many varied themes. The underlying one is that of freedom, something the wall denied Berliners on both sides of the divide for almost three decades.

Nowadays of course the city of Berlin is totally different to what it was in 1914, 1939, 1961 or even 1989. A century on from the start of the first of two World Wars which many countries blamed almost entirely on Germany, the new Berlin is a modern liberal peace-loving city and the seat of the unified German Parliament once more. The motherly Angela Merkel is revered by many Germans and wields greater power than anyone else in the European Union.

From a travellers perspective, many come to Berlin for the brilliant nightlife which is fueled by 24 hour techno raves in industrial factories converted into giant night clubs. While it may lack the style and medieval feel, that many of Europe’s great cities possess, there are few more fascinating places anywhere in the world. The city is constantly evolving and changing but does so in such a cool uniquely German way.

But of all the things that the city has to offer, a visit to The Berlin Wall Mural has to be number one on the to-do list of anyone new to the city. It tells the tale of division better than any museum could do yet manages to maintain an upliftingly positive feel of hope and freedom.

berlin wall 2014

There are quite a few nice passages in German and English. Some feel a little bit dreamy but there’s certainly some truth in this.

berlin wall 2014

One of the more controversial features the black, red and gold of the German flag with the Star of David in the middle. Clearly not everyone is a fan of this new German-Israeli flag. Much of the mural has been covered in the kind of graffiti you might see on a wall in your local car park which is a bit of a shame but given that freedom of expression is kind of the point of this thing it’s unlikely to be removed.

berlin wall 2014

This ‘forced thumbs up’ is one of the most powerful pieces. The secrets of life behind the Iron Curtain are still being revealed and there are few fascinating spots around town where you can learn about life in East Berlin under Soviet rule.

checkpoint charlie in berlin

At the site of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie there is a somewhat comical mural which remembers it’s history as the official border crossing between East and West Berlin although in reality only a select few had access to it.

berlin wall 2014

There’s an area of grass in what used to be effectively ‘no man’s land’ in which anyone who tried to enter would have been greeted by bullets. Today it’s a nice place to sit down and reflect at what is an eerily emotional spot.

Find out more about the Berlin Wall and it’s mural on the East Side Gallery Website.


This article was published in September 2014.


Top 10 Best Cities for Street Art in the World

Top 10 Cities for Street Art

Bristol, England

bristol banksy

Home of the world’s most famous street artist, the mercurial Banksy. This city perhaps better than any tells the story of how in no time at all street art has grown from something people frowned upon to something which is widely accepted in society and has helped attract thousands of new visitors to Bristol. Head to the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery for a Banksy exhibition or follow the walking tour routes to discover his work which still decorates the walls of several streets in this city.

Berlin, Germany

berlin

The German capital is now barely recognisable from the divided city it was for 3 decades in the late 20th Century. Thankfully street art is everywhere and helps tell the story of torment and change that this incredible town has gone through. The best of it is to be found on one of the few remaining stretches of the old Berlin Wall, known as the East Side Gallery. You can find out more about it here.

Mexico City, Mexico

mexico city street art

The enormous capital of Mexico has often struggled to forge a positive reputation for itself and has never really been a big travel destination. However if you do find yourself in Mexico City, then be sure to check out its street art which is popping up all over the place. There’s even a pretty good tour you can do which isn’t a bad idea here as you’ll easily get lost if you don’t really know where to find it and you even get to meet one of the city’s prominent street artists. Find out more about the Mexico City Street Art Tour.

Lisbon, Portugal

lisbon street art

The crumbling Portuguese capital is a fabulous location for street art with rustic buildings and cobblestone streets prime for adaption. It has a huge number of abandoned buildings and factories which have been converted into grungy night clubs, art galleries or just left to rot. Many of them are now covered in gigantic pieces of street art and with the Portuguese government seemingly helpless to salvage this city, the underground artists have taken things into their own hands and have successfully managed to brighten up the decaying walls of Lisbon.

Melbourne, Australia

melbourne ACDC street art

Almost certainly the best city in Oceania for all things urban art. The local powers that be have approved many outdoor sites across the city to be adorned in street art. Some of the best locations to check it out include Centre Place, Union Lane, Hosier and Rutledge Lane, opposite of Federation Square and of course ACDC Lane!

Valparaiso, Chile

valpa street art

One of the most colourful cities in South America, Valparaiso is a wonderful place for those with an artistic inclination and is a great example of a city that has truly embraced street art. Valpa is just a cool place to hang around for a few days and has been rather aptly described as a mini Berlin by the sea.

São Paulo, Brazil

batman alley

The largest city in South America is perhaps the continent’s best for street art although it has some stiff competition with the likes of Bogota, Buenos Aires and Rio also good places to go. Head to the brilliant Batman Alley and its neighbouring streets for some wonderfully artistic designs. It’s not the only district worth checking out though but in such a huge city you have to do some digging around to discover the best of it.

Read more on our take on the urban monster that is Sao Paulo here.

Taipei, Taiwan

best cities for street art

One of the best cities for street art in Asia. Taipei has always been one of the most rebellious cities in the continent with the ongoing battle against Chinese influence and the protection of Taiwanese culture the overlying theme. Head to the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory, currently subject to demolition plans, for what might be the last chance to see the best of the city’s street art in a derelict building come unofficial art gallery.

Montreal, Canada

Montreal Street art

Montreal is another city with a big underground culture and its walls are increasingly being covered in street art. There are plenty of murals and galleries to check out while it holds a large festival of urban art each year that is well worth checking out.

Penang, Malaysia

penang street art

Malaysia is perhaps one of the more surprising places you find quite a lot of street art. There is plenty in the capital Kuala Lumpur but the most interesting work is found further north in Penang. Plenty of it is quite peculiar and will leave you scratching your heads as much as anything in this extremely diverse and intriguing city.


This article was published in July 2015.


Backpacking Route for Central Europe

europe routes

iberia | central europe | baltics | balkans


Central Europe by Rail: 10 Cities in 3-4 Weeks

This is a pretty hectic schedule that will keep you diving in and out of European countries as you take in one thrilling city after another. Almost every other day you pass through new cultures and languages in a small yet hugely diverse continent. Our Backpacking route for Central Europe takes in some exciting Western European capitals either side of a trip beyond the former iron curtain into some charming and budget friendly Eastern Europe cities.

To do this route Europeans (including non-EU countries & Russia) can buy the InterRail pass enabling travel on any 10 days over a one month period costing €301/£262 for under 26’s and €378/£329 for people 26 and over (as of January 2017).

Non Europeans would probably be best to buy a Eurail pass enabling 7 days of travel over a 1 month period costing US$409 for under 28’s or $513 for those 28+ (as of January 2017). However you will need to buy separate tickets for the legs in Poland and Slovakia as they are not covered by the Eurail global pass.

It’s also worth noting that some trains on this route require you to pay for a seat reservation or other small surcharge even with the railpass. It’s best to check at the station before boarding any train.


TIME NEEDED – 3-4 WEEKS

2 days should be a reasonable amount of time in most cities on the route. However you’d be wise to allow for a bit more given there’ll be days where you spend a lot of time on trains and won’t get much done on arrival.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1075 €1250 $1325

(PLUS COST OF RAILPASS!)

If you’re planning on partying most nights you can probably double that but you can still have fun on our suggested budget but you’ll have to be a bit savvy to stick to it. The likes of Paris and Zurich are very expensive cities but there is good value to be found further East. Certainly in the West, it’s highly advisable to join couchsurfing and sleep for free where possible, which will allow you to get by on much less per day.

More details on backpacking costs in different European countries.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR EUROPE

All the cities on this route are in the Schengen Area of Europe. If you’re from the EU you can travel freely around them for as long as you want. If not you will either get 90 days to spend in the region visa-free or you will need to apply for a special Schengen visa.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

None of these cities are particularly dangerous but petty theft and pick-pocketing are common in almost all of them. Therefore it’s advisable to arrange some travel insurance in advance. We recommend World Nomads.


Backpacking Route for Central Europe



1. Amsterdam

This ultra liberal city is the perfect place to start any eurotrip and is a popular stop for most travellers on a Central Europe backpacking route. The large airport is a major hub with flights to and from cities all around the world and the train station offers excellent info and advice in English on Europe rail passes, a luxury that is less common as you head east, so is a good starting point. As for the city well for starters, yes you really can walk into a cafe in Amsterdam and buy weed. This alone is enough to convince many travellers in Europe that the Dutch capital is worth a visit. If you’re looking for more then this attractive city is full of lively squares, loads of canals and the fantastic Anne Frank Museum. It’s slightly dangerous in parts, especially the red light district which you may find an unpleasant eye-opening experience but it is an important place to visit to fully understand the city.

(Amsterdam to Berlin: 6 hours)


2. Berlin

backpacking route for Europe

Germany and its capital especially has very much got its cool back. Germans have got a renewed self-confidence and sense of national pride that was lacking for the latter half of the 20th Century. Berlin has been practically rebuilt since the Wall was knocked down in 1989 and has been done so with great style and planning that is rarely seen in big cities across the world. The city also has a rebellious streak and there are some interesting districts to visit while you attempt to understand the immense history of this until recently divided city. It’s nightlife scene is also not to be missed with some incredible warehouse clubs.

(Berlin to Prague: 4-5 hours)


3. Prague

Europe by train

It is true that Prague has become very touristy over the past decade or two but there’s good reason for it and it’s still a lot cheaper than its western European counterparts. The city is perhaps the most beautiful in Europe with stunning churches and bridges. There’s also excellent and ridiculously cheap beer, available in the student areas for well under €1 for a pint. The nightlife is lively and best on weekends when the clubs are packed with a mixed crowd of Czechs and mostly European tourists. There are also literally hundreds of youth hostels and budget hotels of varying quality, most of which are very reasonably priced while Prague Castle is perhaps the main highlight in terms of things to see.

(Prague to Krakow Night Train: 8-10 hours)


4. Krakow

If you liked Prague, you’ll most likely enjoy Krakow. It’s another city with a fascinating history with a lively old quarter and a once thriving Jewish district which still intrigues and charts the troubled history of Jews in the city. A visit to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp is a harrowing daytrip that can be done by using your rail pass. At night the city has some crazy cellar bars and clubs which are great places to beat the cold Polish winters.

For more on Krakow check out our Backpacker’s Guide to Poland.

(Krakow to Budapest Night Train: 9-10 hours)


5. Budapest

The Hungarian capital on the Danube river has a distinctly different feel to it from other European cities. There is a definite Turkish influence and with such a vast history the city has certainly stuck to its traditions. Famous for its baths, stylish architecture and interesting nightlife, there is plenty to entertain visitors here. Cross over the river between Buda and Pest, the two ancient cities which combined to make the modern city which is here today. Climb to the top of the hills near the castle on the Buda side of the river to get some stunning views across this vast city.

(Budapest to Bratislava: 2 hour 30 mins)


6. Bratislava

Bratislava provides a taster into Eastern Europe and what life before the fall of Communism might have been like. Just an hour or so from Vienna but in many ways it still feels like a world away. The capital of Slovakia has a nice old town and castle and is perhaps at its best in December when the Christmas market comes to town. While relatively small the city has a growing reputation for lively bars and clubs.

(Bratislava to Vienna: 1 hour)


7. Vienna

Backpacking route for Central Europe

Vienna is a stylish city with fashionable residents. Austrians are easily among the friendliest people in Europe and don’t let the German accents fool you, Vienna is in many ways more like Milan than Munich or Berlin. Come on a nice day and you will see scores of Viennese out drinking beer in the sun and the city’s colourful streets have a more relaxed feel than most European capitals.

(Vienna to Munich: 4 hours 20 min)


8. Munich

Back in Germany and the southern city of Munich in Bavaria. This is the country’s cultural centre with an outrageous number of museums on everything from motors, theatre and art to Bavarian history. This is also home of the 200 year old Oktoberfest which sees millions of litres of beer drunk by the huge numbers of visitors who flock to Munich every autumn. The city is also home to Bayern Munich, one of the most successful football clubs in the world who play at the stunning Allianz Arena.

(Munich to Zurich: 4 hours)


9. Zurich

A trip to Zurich is worth it just to see some of the stunning Swiss scenery you pass on the train in and it’s certainly worth looking to book a train during daylight hours either side of your visit.

It is the largest city in Switzerland but still has some small town charm to it. It is a city of churches, lakes and gardens but there are also plenty of lively shopping streets and a larger concentration of nightclubs than any other city in Europe. The city is known as a gateway to the Alps and it’s a short hop on the train to nearby ski resorts.

(Zurich to Paris: 4 hours 30 mins)


10. Paris

backpacking route France

View from Sacré-Cœur, CC BY-ND 2.0

Paris is the most visited city on the planet and although its reputation as a romantic getaway and high prices make it more popular with couples and wealthy foreign tourists than backpackers, there can hardly be a better place to end a trip around Europe. From the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre and the Champs Elysées, Paris is a city full of world famous landmarks that keeps tourists snapping away for the duration of their stay in the French capital. Aside from the essential places to visit, there’s plenty of interesting and more wallet-friendly districts to eat, sleep and party in this beautifully artistic city.


 


Budget Accommodation in Europe

With the exception of Bratislava and maybe Zurich, there are at least 50 hostels to choose from in each of the cities along the route. Be careful to check the ratings and customer reviews online as you would be surprised how bad some of them are. Anything rated 80% or above should be fine. If you’re looking to party there are plenty of party hostels, especially in Amsterdam and Prague. You should be paying in the region of 10-15 Euros per night for a dorm bed. It will be a bit less in Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Bratislava but slightly more in Paris or Zurich.

Another good option in Europe is Airbnb, which often works out cheaper than staying in hostels or cheap hotels. Read our Airbnb review and get 30 Euros of free travel credit.

 


This page was last updated in January 2017.