After nearly eight weeks in sunny, hot Italy, it was time to head to Berlin. We figured leaving Italy in July when all of Northern Europe was heading south was a good move. I think we were right.
Getting to Berlin from Palermo took us through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. At the time, all we read about was how bad it was at Schiphol and how long the lines were. So, we were understandably nervous, especially since we were flying EasyJet and we had to recheck our bags in Amsterdam. We had a three-hour layover, which turned out to be more than enough time. Because of lost luggage concerns we only checked the big bag. Happily, our bag arrived in Berlin as planned.
Impressions of Berlin
We decided to stay at the Hilton Berlin because I had read that they had the best lounge. Unfortunately, the lounge was disappointing and so was the air conditioning. It seems they don’t see any reason why we should want it below 21 degrees Celsius (70F). We requested a fan to supplement the mediocre aircon, which made the temperature tolerable.
That said, the hotel was in an awesome location near the French church and the concert hall, both magnificent buildings. It turned out that a stage was set up in front of the hall and a week-long music festival was happening. We couldn’t get tickets but we were able to hang out on the outside of the fence and listen to the music. Locals came prepared with a table, chairs, and a picnic.
On our first morning, we went to the metro station right in front of the hotel and we scored a local train and bus ticket good for all of Germany for the entire month of July for just 9€. We thought that was amazing. Also, there were no turnstiles in the metro, making travel around Berlin super easy.
We then headed to Alexanderplatz to meet our guide for a history tour and boy did we get an overload of information. One of the things we learned was that nearly all of Berlin was on the Eastern side of the wall. But they have been reunified for 30 years. Today, Berlin is modern, prosperous, friendly, full of young people, and clean.
Irony History Tour
Our history tour guide pointed out that all of Berlin is one tale of irony after another. We started in the center of the former East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). From 1949 until 1961, 2.7 million people left the GDR. Most of them were young people and this brain drain was deemed a problem. So in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed, not to keep the people in but to “keep out the Western fascists.” In Alexanderplatz, the communists constructed a TV tower called Berliner Fernsehturm, designed to be the pride of the regime. However, the panels always reflected a cross. Notoriously anti-religious, the communists tried everything to get rid of the cross, but they never could.
Most of Berlin was destroyed during the war and reconstruction was spotty. New construction includes huge, horrible apartment blocks in “brutalist” architecture.
Still, it provided housing with indoor plumbing, a real luxury in the GDR. At some point, the GDR decided that they needed tourist dollars so they set about constructing the medieval town of Berlin. To the naked eye, it looks authentic, but it is really like a Disney recreation. We never would have known.
The propaganda machine and the prolonged lack of prosperity finally weakened the government control by the 1980s. In 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed when the government declared that citizens could go to West Berlin whenever they wanted. There is much more to the history than I can describe here but all of Berlin’s landmarks, old town, beautiful churches, the concert hall, Brandenburg Gate, and our hotel were on the eastern side of the wall.
We were both very interested in The Berlin Wall, so we headed to Checkpoint Charlie. Our tour guide had already told us that what was there wasn’t the real deal either but there were loads of photos and descriptions in the area around the checkpoint. We also learned that there were at least 35 parts of the wall remaining in the city as memorials. One thing we found really interesting was that wherever the wall had been they laid a double row of grey cobbles to mark the location. Today, there are new buildings and parks in many of the noman’s land between the former east and west.
It turned out that we were able to walk almost everywhere in town and of course, we could always hop a bus or subway with our month-long transit pass.
Topography of Terror
Our museum tour began with the Topography of Terror because we happened to walk by. It sits on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. There is a long preserved portion of The Wall outside. In front of The Wall is a chronology of the activities of the Gestapo between 1939 and 1945. Inside is a similar chronology including the activities of the Gestapo in the ‘final solution.’
The DDR/GDR museum gave a detailed description of life in the DDR (German version of the GDR acronym) between 1949 and 1989. In one display, they showed all the different types of workers and how much they earned at their jobs. It was interesting to see that there was only a 500 Mark difference between a miner and a doctor. But the real issue for the GDR was the lack of goods and innovation. Protests started in the mid-80s in places like Dresden and Leipzig and the fight for freedom spread from there.
Our history tour host told us we should definitely visit the Stasi Museum. The museum is a little outside of the downtown in the actual building used by the Stasi (East German secret police). The day we were there it was kind of overcast and the buildings are Soviet Gray, which made everything more depressing. What is really interesting are the details about the overthrow of the government in 1989. At that time a group of young people occupied the building to prevent the destruction of records and other contents of the building. The result is a time warp. Many of the offices are completely preserved, including the office of the head of the Stasi who held that position for more than 10 years.
We also had a number of days planned for the more traditional and well-known museums on Museum Island. But after spending eight weeks in Italy looking at Greek and Roman artifacts we didn’t want to see that in Berlin. After reading about the contents of the museums, we decided to visit the Alte Museum, which is an art museum. Mostly paintings from the 17th century through the impressionists. Lots of nice sculptures, too.
The Pergamon was a highlight of the museums in Berlin. They have some incredible artifacts from Babylon and Syria. The most spectacular, in my opinion, is the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way of Babylon. I have never seen an artifact on this scale beside Abu Simbel in Egypt. The Ishtar Gate was severely damaged in the war and has been beautifully restored. I would really recommend a visit.
They also have the reconstructed Market Gate of Miletus, which is a two-story building that was the marketplace in the Roman town of Miletus. The reconstruction was spectacular. Finally, there is what they call the Aleppo Room which is a painted wood interior from a wealthy merchant’s home in Aleppo.
German History Museum
Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation but a new wing designed by I. M. Pei was open. They had a few interesting special exhibitions. There was an extensive exhibit on Richard Strauss, noted composer, egotist and racist. Quite informative.
The history of the German parliament, the Bundestag, is really interesting. After the reunification of Germany, a new constitution and combined parliament were formed. A decision was made to have the capital in Berlin, but where? The Reichstag building was bombed during the war and never repaired. It was little more than a shell but the government decided to rebuild the building with a beautiful glass roof. We were told that it is the only active parliament building that is open to the public.
I was having trouble getting tickets to visit the dome, so I decided we should go to the restaurant at the top for high tea. It was a bit pricey but really fun and we were able to stay in the dome and enjoy the view for as long as we wanted.
The palace was built as a summer palace for queen Charlotte but she never saw it completed. Rulers then modified it over the next several hundred years. The palace is beautiful but the highlight, in my opinion, was the garden and the mausoleum.
Food in Berlin
Of course, no trip to Germany would be complete without beer. We sampled the best on tap and in bottles. One of the first evenings Mike ordered the quintessential dish, Pork Knuckle. It turns out to be a large joint of pork with lots of meat on it. We saw that dish in every restaurant and it was always huge. Mike said it was really good and there was the red cabbage to go with it.
Then there are the dumplings. There are bread dumplings and potato dumplings, neither of which was really our thing but they always came with certain dishes. There was goulash with dumplings. Sausages usually came with potato salad and cucumber salad. We had more than a few pretzels while we were there too.
Thursday Night Market
I had read that in one of the neighborhood markets they had a food fair every Thursday evening. We decided that we would enjoy dinner in the market sampling the various offerings including beer. We started with a soft bun, like a pork bun but this was filled with spicy chicken and kimchi. Then we got into the longest line in the market, which turned out to be for momos. The momos were huge and really good. We thought about getting more but soon after we got ours they ran out and closed up for the evening. Eating in a market is always an interesting and delicious experience.
I never wanted to visit Berlin before because I didn’t think I could handle the history of WWII. But we had heard really good things about Berlin and its museums. We had also heard about the great vibe that the city had and we had to agree. I’m really happy we visited.
Which museums sound interesting to you?