Berlin: Germany’s capital where the past is gone but not forgotten

After our short overnight stop in Cologne, my friend and I were ready to begin our German adventure in the capital of Berlin. While my friend had to been to Berlin before, this was my first time, and I was excited to be in this edgy city with its fashion and political history. Below are the things that I did while I was there.

 

What to Do:

Walking tour. Berlin offers a variety of walking tours, and there are several large companies running tours. There is definitely some overlap between the tours and the companies, and the prices are comparable so choosing one over the other may not make too big of a difference. In the end, though, I chose to go with the Discover Berlin tour through Original Berlin Walks because of its high rated reviews and its comprehensive itinerary. I chose to do this four hour tour on my first morning in Berlin to get an introduction the city and its history. My tour guide was very knowledgeable. He was a history student studying in Berlin, which I think is typical for many of the guides. And he was able to provide my group with helpful tips and suggestions for the rest of our time in the city. Through this tour I was able to see many of the major landmarks of the city and to get a better idea of the city’s layout. While four hours may sound like a long time for walking, the tour is not overly strenuous. The tour goes at an even pace, and there is a lot of stops to look at sites and hear stories. There is also a break in the middle of the tour to grab a drink and snack and to use the restroom. While on this tour I was able to see the Jewish Quarter, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also known as the Holocaust Memorial), Reichstag building, Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, part of the Berlin Wall, and much more. The price for this tour was reasonable, and I felt like I got to see a little bit of everything and was able to better plan what I wanted to go back and see on my own.

Museum Island. This island is located near central Berlin on Spree river. It is named for the five museums that it houses. Visitors can buy a single pass into any of the museums or combination tickets that will allow entry into more than one museum. There are several combinations offered so visitors will have to choose the one that best suits their needs. For visitors planning to visit more than one museum, a combination ticket will definitely save money. I opted to visit two of the museums while I was here. I went to the Pergamon Museum, which is famous for housing the Pergamon Altar. However, this museum is undergoing renovations and has been partially closed since 2014 with renovations not expected to be completed until 2023. The Pergamon Altar is currently not open to visitors, and I was unable to view it. I was still able to see the Ishtar Gate, the Roman Market Gate of Miletus, and many other antiquities and art from the Middle East making a trip to this museum worthwhile despite the partial closure. I also went to the Neues Museum, which is located next door to the Pergamon, and is famous for housing the bust of Nefertiti. This museum contains a lot of Egyptian and prehistoric artifacts. And the building itself is a piece of history having survived and been rebuilt after WWII. Visitors can still see areas that were damaged during the war. When I visited these museums, it was not tourist season so the lines were not too bad but there are large queuing areas for visitors that can be a couple of hours. Plan to spend 2 hours at each museum and longer if there is a large wait time.

East Side Gallery. While pieces of the Berlin Wall remain preserved in several locations throughout the city, this gallery is the part of the Wall that has been painted in murals to celebrate the fall of the Wall and the end of the iron curtain. This is the part of the Wall that travelers have likely seen in pictures. This outdoor gallery features cool artwork on a significant piece of history. Visitors can stroll down the long gallery and take pictures. Plan to spend about 30-60 minutes walking around.

Holocaust Memorial. Visitors to Germany will not be able to and should not ignore the country’s dark past. When visiting Berlin, the one WWII memorial visitors should go to is this one. For those taking a walking tour of the city, this stop will likely be included. For those not taking a tour, go visit this separately. This memorial is dedicated to all of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust not just the ones from Berlin. For those passing by who are not familiar with this work, it may just look like a bunch of different size blocks in the middle of a city square. The meaning of these blocks are open to interpretation, but visitors should remain respectful. I visited this memorial as part of a guided tour. And according to our tour guide, he has seen people standing on the blocks and running around through them. Luckily, this did not happen during my visit. Although this memorial can mean different things to different people, visitors should respect the solemnity that some people will associate with this place and act accordingly. Plan to spend 30 minutes here.

Reichstag Building. This German parliament building has a huge glass dome that visitors can walk up as part of an audio guided tour. Visitors must register in advance to do this and must have an ID for a quick security check. Unfortunately, I did not take the tour. I waited until my last day and did not register in time. My friend had done this tour on a previous visit and really enjoyed it. This tour was also recommended by several locals. The dome is supposed to provide an impressive view of the city. And there is also a rooftop restaurant. I would definitely recommend for visitors to plan ahead and register to do this.

Shopping:

Berlin definitely offers a lot of shopping and a lot of cool fashion. During my limited time here, I did not specifically seek out shopping areas, but I did pop into cute boutiques that I saw while walking around to see the other sights. Serious shoppers can definitely find everything from cool streetwear to high end fashion. One store I would recommend stopping in is Falke. This brand is for people who like unique tights, and its flagship store is located in Berlin. For those travelers, who are not looking for fashion, Berlin is also the place to buy some cool kitsch, including fun graphic prints, tees, and other items that will remind visitors of Berlin’s cool vibe.

What to Eat:

Berlin has a lot of fare that is similar to other Central European countries, including schnitzel and wurst, but it does have a couple of dishes that are really prominent for Berlin. One is the currywurst, which is fast food dish of pork sausage covered in curry ketchup and served with fries. We did not opt to try this one as both of us really dislike ketchup, but travelers who love ketchup will want to try this dish. The other one is doner kebab, which is another fast food dish of seasoned meat stuffed into a sandwich with vegetables and spices. As this dish is originally from Turkey, and I had just left Turkey before coming to Germany, I had my fill already and chose not to eat this dish here either. For travelers who have not been to Turkey recently, this dish is a good bet. Instead, my friend and I really took advantage of all of the international cuisine Berlin had to offer. Normally, when traveling I always recommend sticking to local food to better immerse in the culture. But we had been eating a lot of Mediterranean and Central European food for the past few months so we were craving something different. In particular, we were really craving some Asian food because we had both moved from Korea three months earlier before beginning our travels through Europe. We ended up eating at a couple of good Vietnamese places, Miss Saigon and Co Co Banh Mi Deli, and a good Ramen shop, Cocolo Ramen X-berg, that were located in the area we were staying. We did not feel as bad trying these non local cuisines since we knew would be eating more German food the rest of our time in the country.

Where to Stay:

We stayed in an Airbnb near the U Kottbusser Tor subway station. We really were not sure where to say so we looked at places based on price and convenience to a public transport stop. This area turned out to be a good one. It is located near two subway lines and nearby a lot of foreign food restaurants. As I mentioned above, by the time we arrived in Berlin, we were really missing Asian food. So this area really worked out well for us but may not be the place for those wanting to be near local cuisine.

Getting Around:

We arrived to Berlin by train from Cologne. We originally planned to take a bus but missed our ride and so had to go with a train instead as there were no more buses for that day. The train takes about 4.5 hours whereas the bus takes about 8-10 hours. So in the end we paid more but got there faster. The train station is located in a central location and next to a subway stop so it was easy to hop on the subway and get to where we were staying, which was also located about a 5 minute walk from a subway stop. Berlin public transport is easy to navigated because it is linked to Google maps. Tickets can be purchased at the subway stations, and most machines take credit cards. Berlin is also a very walk-able city. When we left Berlin, we took a bus to Munich, and we took public transport to the bus station. There are two main bus stations in the city (one in the airport and one closer to the center of the city) so make sure to go to the right one. As stated in a previous post, the taxis in Germany are expensive so try to avoid them, if possible. Also, there is no Uber so public transportation is really the best way to get around.

Overall:

This city has so much history, and a lot of it is the darker history of WWII and Stasi. But this city offers much more than its dark history and has actively built over much of it in order to not forget it but to move past it. Today this city is a leading cultural and political center in the area and is home to many international residents. When we visited in September, the weather was starting to turn cooler, and it was overcast and drizzly much of the time. It was not overly crowded though at the tourist sites, which was nice. We stayed here for three days and this was enough time to be able to see the highlights. Visitors wanting a more thorough exploration of Berlin should plan to stay longer. Travelers looking to spend time in a modern cultural center will enjoy Berlin.

Additional Tip:

After visiting Berlin, I wanted to learn more about the city’s past during the time the Wall was up. A lot of books and movies exist about Germany during WWII but not as many exist about Germany’s time as a divided country. One popular book about this period is Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. This book recounts stories the author gathered and heard from former Stasi men and victims of Stasi policing. The book provides an interesting look at the effects of the Wall on the lives of several East Germans, but it is not written in the style of a social researcher or journalist. Unfortunately, the author does not have a lot of information to pull from and her research was slightly inept. Her writing style was a little difficult to overlook (it was more appropriate for a novel than a nonfiction account), but this book has received acclaim and it did make me interested in learning more.

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