I studied history in college and wanted to see a place where the "history" was so recent. To see what a city divided for 28 years looked like years after reunification. To see the vibrant cultural scene that's talked about so often. We spent four days in Berlin and I would love to go back. Berlin captivated me in the way that Buenos Aires and New York do. I can't say that about every place I've visited — I enjoyed Amsterdam and Mexico City, but they don't fascinate me in the same way.
Neither of us had a great grasp of German history. We had learned about WWI, WWII and the Cold War in school, but were iffy on German colonialism, the Holy Roman Empire and other earlier periods of German history. We decided it made sense to start at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Of course, taking in centuries of German history in a few hours proved difficult, but we learned a few basics. And along the way, a university student interviewed us for a school project. It went something like this:
Student: Did you feel you learned anything about German colonialism?
Us: No, we wanted to, but we didn't see anything about it.
Student: You didn't see the case of artifacts from the colonial era?
Us: No, where was that?
Student: In the chest, under the staircase, in the German colonialism section.
Us: There was a section on German colonialism?
Student: Yes, that's why we're doing this project, because we don't think people actually know that it's there.
Us: Yeah ... we had no idea.
- DDR Museum: A museum about life during socialism. Exhibitions include a East German kitchen and a Trabi, the only car most East Germans could afford (and/or were allowed to own). The car was powered by a two-stroke engine and the doors were made out of resin mixed with cotton.
- Unter Den Linden: The most famous boulevard in Berlin, lined by imposing structures built under various Prussian kings.
- Gendarmenmarkt: Berlin's most impressive public square housing German and French cathedrals.
- Bebelplatz: The public square where one of the Nazi book burning ceremonies occurred in 1933.
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: Berlin's Holocaust Memorial with 2,711 gray concrete slabs, identical in their horizontal dimensions, but differing in height, arranged in a rectilinear array over 4.7 acres with long, straight, and narrow alleys between them, along which the ground undulates.
- Brandenburg Gate: Originally built in the late 1700s, on the former border between East and West Berlin, site of Ronald Reagan's famous admonishment, "Mr. Gorbachov – tear down this wall!"
After German reunification, the German Bundestag decided to use the building as a seat of Parliament again, but first it had to be restored and redesigned. The neo-Renaissance exterior was kept intact as a reminder of the past while the interior was modernized. A glass dome was added to echo the technologically advanced iron dome that had existed in the original construction. The new dome uses a mirror system to reflect natural light into the chamber during the day and reflect it back at night. From the dome, it's possible to look directly down into the parliament chambers below — a symbol of government transparency.
The dome is ringed by walkways that lead to a central platform. A free audio guide describes the history of the building and the workings of German government. There's plenty to admire between the striking architecture and the views over Berlin. It was one of the most memorable experiences from our time in Berlin.
See more photos of the Reichstag dome
Berlin is famous for its museums — Museumsinsel hosts five world-class museums. One of those, the Pergamonmuseum, contains significant collections from ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon and the Middle East. To see Museumsinsel demands at least a day, and with limited time in Berlin, we decided to skip the big museums and focus on Berlin-specific sites. Thus we began our second morning at the Berlinische Galerie, containing modern art, photography and architectural models, all created in Berlin since 1870. We particularly enjoyed an exhibit contrasting the architecture between East and West Berlin.
Next we headed to the Topographie des Terrors, an indoor-outdoor museum on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. The indoor exhibit focuses on the central institutions of the SS and police during the Third Reich and the atrocities they committed throughout Europe. The outdoor exhibit addresses how the National Socialists were able to gain a foothold in Berlin and gradually establish the city as the political center of its leadership. The exhibits are moving, unsparing and informative. Though we both studied WWII in school, we knew more about the concentration camps and military campaigns than we did about Nazi control in Germany. In going through the exhibit, we were dismayed by how quickly many former Nazis were released after the war.
|East Side Gallery|
We refueled with fries and currywurst, a Berlin speciality of sausage drizzled with spicy tomato sauce and curry. Then we headed to Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin. It's the scene of numerous fictional spy swaps, such as in John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and James Bond crosses through the checkpoint in the 1983 film Octopussy. Today the intersection consists of a replica of an American guardhouse and signage, plus cobblestones that mark the old border. It's a tourist trap.
Nearby sits the privately run Checkpoint Charlie Museum. The museum is the pet project of a human rights activist and contains much too much information written in bad English. They clearly need to hire a real curator. But amid all the clutter, they've accumulated fascinating stories about the most ingenious escapes from East Germany, including:
- A family constructed a hot air balloon out of scraps of canvas and old bed sheets. The engine was made out of old propane cylinders.
- Two friends fashioned a zipline by firing an arrow tied to a thin fishing line from the attic of a five-story building to a building in West Berlin.
- One West German seduced a West German woman who resembled his East German girlfriend. He then took the woman for a weekend to East Berlin where he stole her papers and passed them to his girlfriend, allowing her to escape to the West.
- A diving instructor built his own miniature submarine and reached Denmark after a five-hour voyage.
- Many East Germans escaped in vehicles, including by hiding in the modified fuel tanks of Volkswagen beetles.
- An artist hid herself in the loudspeaker cabinet of a visiting Dutch singer.
Fascinatingly, nearly all these museums and historical sites sit in former East Berlin. Wanting to see more of West Berlin, we headed to the neighborhood of Charlottenburg. West Berliners used to take weekend strolls down its main avenue, Kurfürstendamm. The street is still a major destination, but most of the shops were closed on Sunday when we were there. One of the main historical attractions in the neighborhood is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, built in 1891-1895 to glorify the first German emperor. The church was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943 and rather than tearing down the ruins, they were integrated into the new church.
For our final day in Berlin, I wanted to explore the neighborhoods of East Berlin. We started in Friedrichshain, known for its artsy vibe and many bars, clubs, pubs, and cafes. While West Berliners used to stroll along Kurfürstendamm on weekends, East Berliners frequented their own central boulevard, Karl-Marx-Allee. The long, monumental boulevard is lined by grand Stalinist apartment buildings, conceived of as “palaces for the people” that would show the superiority of the Communist system over the Capitalist one. While Berlin isn't known for its architectural beauty, we enjoyed observing the different architectural styles present throughout the city. The central neighborhoods include a mix of pre-war buildings, modern structures and Stalinist construction, often standing side by side.
We spent the morning in the Computerspielemuseum, the most unique museum we visited on our trip. The main exhibit traces the development of the computer games over the past 50 years. Among the games on display are Odyssey (the first home video-game console from 1972), Commodore C 64 (the first game computer) and Computer Space (the first mass-produced arcade game). Other famous pieces include the legendary Pong-Machine, Nimrod, PainStation and the Giant Joystick. Ben enjoyed learning about the history of gaming — apparently gaming often drove innovations in hardware — while I enjoyed playing games from my childhood like Super Mario Bros.
Next we rented bikes to explore the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, which was fun until I got my wheel stuck in a train track and fell off my bike. Once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall, the former West Berlin neighborhood drew punks, artists and anarchists, as well as a large Turkish population. Today, it’s still a bit edgy, but more upscale. We hoped that the Turkish influence would make it the perfect place to try a döner kebab, but we had some trouble communicating with the Turkish-speaking vendor and ended up with meat stuffed into a box with fries. Normally the sliced meat is served in a flatbread with tomato, onion, sumac, pickled cucumber and chili.
We finished our sightseeing with a stroll along the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, painted by 118 artists from 21 different countries. The most famous murals include an East German Trabant car that appears to be breaking through the concrete and GDR leader Honecker and Soviet leader Brezhnev locked in a kiss of brotherly, socialistic love.
Berlin doesn't have the best culinary reputation, and our meals there were hit or miss. The first night we ate at a very hip and very yummy Vietnamese restaurant near our apartment. The next day we grabbed a delicious lunch at Mogg & Meltzer, a Jewish/NY-style deli. Dinner that night at a Moroccan restaurant was good, but the atmosphere was a bit dull, compared to the fun at the Vietnamese restaurant the previous night. An all-you-can-eat Russian brunch was disappointing because of the deceptive billing and because the promised blinis were missing. Ben enjoyed street food for lunch, but the dinner food at the Spanish restaurant wasn't authentic. We followed the recommendation of a friend of a friend to a coffee shop in Friedrichshain, with good coffee and impressive decor. On our last night, we ditched a not-too-happening bar in Kreuzberg 36 before ordering a delicious Hemingway cocktail at a much cooler bar. We met up with a friend at a Korean place for dinner. After eating traditional German food in Munich and the Alps, the cuisine in Berlin was much more international.
For lodging, we stayed at an AirBnB rental in Prenzlauer Berg. The formerly working class neighborhood has morphed into an oasis of artisanal bakeries, cute kids clothing stores and couples with baby strollers, with gorgeous, perfectly renovated buildings shaded by giant plantain and chestnut trees, in the words of our guide book. Our apartment included a laundry machine (clean clothes!), a funny shower and a comfortable bed. We enjoyed living like Berliners for a few days.
- The urinal/toilet-to-space ratio is much higher in Germany than in U.S.
- We found the "hard water" in Berlin to be undrinkable. Apparently Berliners like it and think American tap water has too many chemicals. And truthfully, when we got back, we could taste the chlorine in our water.
- Lots of people of all ages bicycle in Germany. It's still a younger person's mode of transit in the U.S.
- Germans smoke a lot.
- At coffee shops, you can sit for hours and not pay until you leave.
- Germans speak English amazingly well.
- They were also really helpful. At some point, a German heard us discussing how to buy bus tickets and told us in English where to go.