The most dangerous worldviews are the worldviews of those who have never viewed the world.Alexander von Humboldt
Berlin does not have the happiest past, but it does have a bright future and you can see that when you visit the city. It was Alexander Von Humboldt that said, “The most dangerous worldviews are the worldviews of those who have never viewed the world.” This is what we plan on doing! We plan on exploring all of what a city has to offer: past, present, and future. We were so excited to be able to explore this city with our two friends that traveled with us (check out our other travels to Amalfi Coast/Path of the Gods and Munich/Oktoberfest).
While we were in Berlin we stayed at Motel One Berlin-Alexanderplatz. This hotel was very new, accommodating, and centrally located in what was once known as the East side of Berlin. Fun fact: the crosswalk lights are different on the East side versus the West part of Berlin and what we are used to in the States. Instead of an orange hand or white walking signs, East Berlin uses a little guy with a hat called the Ampelmannchen, or “little traffic light man.”
If you have time, we recommend that you follow along with Rick Steves’ free walking tour app of Berlin. He does a great job and really has you walking around the whole city. We learned a lot listening to him, but an interesting fact we didn’t realize is that Berlin is actually built on top of low-lying, marshy land. As a result, during WWII there were a lot of bombs that didn’t explode and are still in the water to this day. There are still signs that you can see today that say, “don’t drop anchor.”
Here are the top activities we recommend for Berlin!
When you first get to Berlin, we recommend heading straight to the ticketing office and getting a timed ticket to go into the Reichstag Building and take the elevator to the Dome. It is so impressive and has some amazing views of the city. Don’t be surprised if there’s a line to get a ticket because we did too, but it did go by fast.
This building also helps show the complex history of Berlin. The building was established in 1895 under the German Empire. Later, it was the home of the German parliament during the Weimar Republic. In 1933, the building was mostly burned down. No one is sure how this happened, but the Nazis blamed the communists and used the incident to consolidate their control. Others speculated that the Nazi’s may have even started the fire to gain more power. The Nazis rarely used this building during World War II and never repaired the fire damage. The building was heavily damaged in the war and, when Berlin was divided into East and West during the Cold War, the building was never used. It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Germany becoming unified once again that the Reichstag was renovated with the added glass dome and it became the parliament building once again.
If you are facing the building and take a right, you will come across 96 stone slates that represent the “Memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler.” These 96 politicians were murdered for disagreeing with Hitler’s political viewpoints.
The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 18th century by order of the Prussian King, Fredrick William II. This gate has been the focal point for a lot of historical events. When Napoleon defeated the Kingdom of Prussia, he stole the top part of the gate that is known as the Quadriga, modeled after the Roman triumphal statues with “a car or chariot drawn by four horses abreast.” When Prussian forces occupied Paris in 1814, they retrieved their statue back and marked it as a triumphal arch by placing on top of the staff the Prussian eagle and a cross with wreath oak leaves circling it. For the longest time, only the families that were worthy could pass through this gate. During the Nazi’s reign, they used this gate as a political symbol and after the war was over the gate was one of the only structures that was still standing in Berlin. It showed the marks of war with gunshots in the columns and the only piece of the original Quadriga that survived was one of the horse heads that they later put in the Märkisches Museum (we did not have time to go in there to see it). The gate later was restored with the help of both the East and West Berliners, but then the Cold War started. The gate was closed off in 1961 and wouldn’t be reopened for people to walk through freely until 1989. Later in 2009, this gate was refurbished to be the symbol of freedom and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This gate was present and prominent in all aspects of Berlin history… both bad and good.
A structure you can see from a lot of spots in Berlin is the Berliner Fernsehturm. This TV broadcasting tower was built by the German Democratic Republic (DDR) in East Germany. At first, they built this to symbolize the city and the Communist state. During this time, the DDR leaders were removing all the crosses from churches. Ironically, when the sun would hit the TV tower the light would create a cross on the mirrored dome and for this reason a lot of people called this “God’s Revenge.” However, when Germany became reunited the tower changed its symbolic meaning to be that of reunification. This building is the tallest in Germany and one of the tallest in Europe. This tower is frequented by a lot of visitors throughout the years. We didn’t find time to go up because there was just so much of Berlin we wanted to see in a short amount of time. However, if you’re able to make time for it, it’s a short elevator ride to the top for some amazing views of the city, plus a restaurant.
Berlin Wall Memorial
You can’t think about East and West Berlin without thinking of the Berlin Wall, which divided both areas. Most of the wall was taken down, but you can still see a section of the original wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer). This combination indoor and outdoor memorial includes an original watch tower, a small documentation center museum, and a viewing platform. The site also includes the Chapel of Reconciliation, rebuilt on the site of the 1894 Church of Reconciliation, which was isolated when the Berlin Wall went up and was eventually demolished by the East German authorities. The original altar piece and bells are preserved in the chapel. We highly recommend a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial, as the site includes many other interesting exhibits and features. Watch towers were placed all along the wall so soldiers could make sure no one was crossing over to West Germany. There were two sets of walls and between them was what they called “no-man’s land.” Many people tried to leave East Germany and go to West Germany by crossing through that no-man’s land, but would unfortunately never come out of it alive. Many people on the West Germany side would paint graffiti on the wall to express themselves, while graffiti on the East Germany side that was not allowed. Now though when you see the small parts of the wall that remain, you can see graffiti on the East side. This wall stood for 28 years until it was torn down in 1989. The memorial is a powerful reminder of the divisions of the past.
The Berlin Cathedral is so captivating internally and externally and it sits majestically on the water. This elaborate church was built in the Neoclassical style during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign. It is a Protestant church and there is a fee to enter. You can walk to the top and enjoy some views of Berlin. Then make your way all the way down to the bottom where you will find the dynastic tombs of German kings and emperors. One beautiful tomb you will find is King Fredrick I.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This memorial covers a big area of land that has different level slabs scattered throughout. It was opened two days after the 60th anniversary of World War II ending in Europe. It took the community awhile to figure out what they wanted the memorial to look like. After many competitions, Peter Eisenman, a Jewish American architect, got the project. There are many speculations on what the meaning behind the memorial is. Some say that the slabs represent a graveyard where the slabs are the coffins. Others say that the grey slab represents the loss of identity during the Nazi regime. There are more ideas of what this memorial means, but the one thing we can all agree on is that it is a way for all of us to never forget those beautiful souls that were lost.
During the Cold War this was one of the crossing points between East and West Germany. The checkpoint was the only one where Allied troops and other foreign visitors could pass to the other part of the city. In history, this entrance was considered a symbol of division between the two sides. In 1961, a dispute as to whether or not the East German DDR guards could look at American diplomats’ passports led to American and Soviet tanks at a standoff in front of Checkpoint Charlie. After six stressful days, the tanks retreated. A lot of East Berliners would try and climb over the wall to get to Checkpoint Charlie and there are some stories of those that got out unscathed, but others unfortunately did not make it.
Topography of Terror
This combination outdoor/indoor history museum, library, and research center was built on the location of the the SS Reich Main Security Office, the headquarters of the Gestapo and other agencies of Nazi repression. When we got here it was pouring down rain, so we didn’t get to walk around the outside area. We did pay to see the inside and get an English audio guide. The museum was very well thought-out and flowed well from topic to topic. The museum uses preserved photos, documents, audio files, and videos to chart the Nazi’s institutionalized oppression across Germany and Europe. It portrays the organizational structures and the crimes of the Nazi security services in stark and somber detail. After going through the museum we all had heavy hearts. This museum is an important documentation center of this painful part of history, and a powerful reminder to never repeat it.
Directly across the water from the Berlin Cathedral is the DDR Museum, a fun and enlightening museum about life in East Germany (the DDR). This museum is well structured and had a lot of interactive elements to it. As shown in the picture, the museum had a section where you could walk around a traditional communist East Berlin apartment (kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom). Within this area you could pull out drawers or open the refrigerator and inside there are fun facts and historical information on how that side was living. Other areas of the museum had games to help you understand what was going in East Germany, such as a test to see if you could figure out how East Berliners were expected to dress every day. There was also an old Trabant car with a virtual screen on the window and you could go in and drive around East Berlin to see what the streets and buildings looked like. We recommend visiting this museum close to when it opens. We did that by accident and the museum filled up quickly. By the time we left, there was a long line to get in.
Mustafa Demir Gemuse Kebap
Besides having amazing German food, Germany also has an abundance of kebab restaurants and they are spectacular! As you can see from the picture, this restaurant did not skimp you on the filling. We all got the lamb meat and then you can pick cheese and/or a lot of vegetables, spices, and sauce options. All the flavors we wanted were there and we couldn’t have been more excited about our meal. They also had some hot tea, which was perfect during the rain and cold weather we were experiencing that day. Or you could also get what our friends got, which is a traditional Turkish drink called Ayran, where you mix yogurt, salt, and water. We tried theirs and it was very good! I can see how this could be made wrong, but this restaurant did a great job at making it and had a whole vat of it filtering to keep it stirring on its own.
We stumbled upon this bakery one afternoon in need of a snack. They had so many pastry options. This picture does not even show all of what they had, but they did have an impressive array of cinnamon buns. After trying it we can say that the picture lived up to its hype. We ended up all trying a bunch of different pastries and there wasn’t one that we did not enjoy eating. It was nice to just be able to sit down in a nice café before continuing our walk around Berlin.
Another dish that Berlin specifically seemed to excel at was the currywurst. You can find currywurst in other parts of Germany, but Berlin is where it originated. A currywurst is a pork sausage that is doused in a curry ketchup. Make sure to get the French fries too while you are here because they pair well with it. If you have some extra sauce left over, then make sure to dip your French fries in there. This is a great fast food option if you are wanting something quick before continuing to walk around.
Zur Letzten Instanz
This restaurant is known as the oldest restaurant in Berlin, which dates back to 1621. This cottage-looking building is tucked away between tall, modern buildings. When you go inside it is like you are being transported to a German cottage/ bar in a small town somewhere. The food quality was so superior. They did a great job with taking traditional German recipes and transforming them into something more modern. Make sure that you make a reservation ahead of time. Pictures speak a thousand words and really any dish you get there you cannot go wrong. We all shared three large dishes and all of them had flavors that were dancing on our tongues. We got the pork knuckle, sauerkraut, spaetzle, and meatballs with capers and mashed potatoes. This was a perfect bookend meal to our amazing adventures traveling around Berlin.