I went to Berlin, Germany, for the first time this summer and it was such a great experience. Berlin is a culturally rich city with lots of things to do and it’s easy to do it on your own (or with friends/family). I went with my mom and brother and met up with my brother’s friend, Dovi, who has been living in Berlin for a couple of years. He showed us around the city all week and from our “insider’s tour,” I made a top five list of places you MUST see when you visit. In another post, I’ll have other notable places.
Berlin is an easy city to get around on foot or by subway. On the first day we were in the city, my brother and I took the subway to get around:
The subways are partially elevated and partially underground and the train cars are very short compared to the ones in New York. One interesting thing about the Berlin subway system is that it’s all based on trust – they don’t have gates that you have to pass through or anything! You have to buy a ticket and get it validated before heading onto the train, but no one checks! Well, there are people that OCCASIONALLY check, but I’m guessing it’s not very often. But, I wouldn’t recommend not validating your ticket because if you get caught, it’s a 40 euro fine (which is a little more than $40USD). A great thing about the Berlin subways is that even though it’s underground in parts, you can get cell phone/blackberry service everywhere.
1. Brandenburg Gate/DZ Bank/Reichstag/Holocaust Museum (okay, I cheated because technically that’s four different places, but they’re all very close to each other so you can catch all of them in one short walking tour).
a. Our first stop was the Brandenburg Gate:
The Brandenburg Gate is one of the major historical landmarks in Berlin. If you don’t know the history, you can look it up here. I pulled this from wikipedia to give you a short summary of what the significance is: the gate has played varying roles in Germany’s history. First, Napoleon took the Quadriga to Paris in 1806 after conquering Berlin. When it returned to Berlin in 1814, the statue exchanged her olive wreath for the Iron Cross and became the goddess of victory.
When the Nazis rose to power, they used the gate to symbolize their power. The only structure left standing in the ruins of Pariser Platz in 1945, apart from the ruined Academy of Fine Arts, the gate was restored by the East Berlin and West Berlin governments. However, in 1961, the gate was closed when the Berlin Wall was built. Another way you would know about the landmark is through Ronald Reagen, because he said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” while he was giving a speech at the Brandenburg Gate:
b. DZ Bank
From the outside, it looks like a normal building….but if you go inside the bank, you’ll see THIS:
It was designed by Frank Gehry and I’ve heard people say it reminds them of a horse’s head. I don’t know if I can see that…but, to each his own. There are private apartments behind the work of art and the rooms on the side are actual office buildings. I’ve heard it looks pretty cool if you’re in the basement looking up, but you can’t go in unless you have a pass to get through security.
Reichstag is behind the Brandenburg gates and is home of the Germain parliament. You can actually go into the building and watch parliamentary proceedings, but David and I didn’t have time to do it (you have to reserve a spot the day before). The building suffered some damage from World War II, but in the 1990′s, was remodeled by British architect Norman Foster in the 1990s and features a glass dome over the session area:
d. Holocaust Museum/Memorial
The Holocaust Museum/Memorial is in the general vicinity of the Brandenburg Gates and Reichstag. There was a lot of controversy over construction and design of the memorial, but it was finally unveiled in 2005:
There are 2,700 stone slabs, which was designed by Peter Eisenman in 1999. There aren’t any names on the stone slabs (the designers feared it would look too much like a graveyard, which they didn’t want), but it’s meant to be somewhere people would go everyday, not just for holy reasons. Underneath the memorial is a museum:
This mirrors the idea of the stone slabs above – on each of these slabs, there is a postcard/letter/some form of correspondence between family members separated due to the Holocaust. It’s very sad to read the desperation some of the letters, especially the ones children write to their parents.
Here’s a picture of the areas in Europe where Jews were affected:
The museum is free and it doesn’t take too long to go through (there are only four rooms, one of which is a darkened room with a projector listing the names of each person that died from the Holocaust and their age).
2. Check point Charlie
Check point Charlie is the crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin, and important area during the Cold War. There’s a private museum that has artifacts from East and West Berlin:
The museum shows a lot of ways people tried to flee from East Berlin (if you were successful, you were allowed to stay in West Berlin, which was safe). One family escaped by a hot air balloon that they built themselves:
There are a lot of heroic tales – a bunch of them were of boyfriends saving their girlfriend’s (and the girl’s entire family) by smuggling them out through cars, guys that dressed up as US soldiers to deceive Russian soldiers, and true tales of bravery.
3. Berlin Zoo
David and I took a morning to visit the Berlin Zoo, one of the largest zoo’s in Germany with the largest amount of species in the world:
The zoo has a LOT of gorillas:
When I travel, I usually don’t go to zoo’s (I dunno…too kiddie like, maybe?) but it was a great excursion and if you go to Berlin, you definitely have to visit the zoo. Recently, the zoo’s been in the paper a lot because of Knut, a cute polar bear that was rejected by his mother. Some people say the zoo should’ve killed Knut (oh no!) but zoo keepers decided against it. I mean, Knut was the first polar bear born at the Berlin Zoo in over 30 years! Thomas DÃ¶rflein, shown in the picture below, took on the task of taking care of Knut 24 hours a day while he was still a baby cub (he was born the size of a little guinea pig):
Knut and Thomas were playing peekaboo with the blanket (it was so cute) and whenever Thomas hid himself, Knut would paw at the blanket to find his friend!
Another great area is the petting zoo – David and I stopped by and said hello to some animals:
I was about to pet this fella (I was already a little scared to pet him) and right when I was about to pet him, he let out this huge BAAAAA and then stuck his tongue out at me! He wouldn’t do it again for my picture, but I literally jumped and my brother thought it was the funniest thing ever.
The weather in Berlin this summer has been very cool and somewhat wet. On the day we went to the zoo, it would shower on and off – scaring the animals, especially this tiger:
There’s an indoor area where you can see all of the animals that are inside cages or through glass windows and this tiger just get pacing back and forth. I snapped that picture when the tiger was inches away from my face!
4. Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer platz is a major intersection in the center of Berlin – actually, it has one of the first traffic lights in Germany:
And the Sony Center, where the European headquarters are located:
Potsdamer Platz is actually close to Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gates, so you can theoretically walk to all of these places (and we walked to Checkpoint Charlie from here, too).
5. The Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon Museum is based off of the ancient Greek City, Pergamon. The museum houses original-sized, reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate, all consisting of parts transported from the original excavation sites:
When you initially walk in, you go past the gift shop, security, etc, walk around a hall, and then enter the massive reconstruction of the Pergamon Altar:
It is really quite breathtaking!
A model of the Pergamon Altar (how it used to be):
Inside, you can walk around all of the ruins and it’s so magnificent!! The Market Gate of Miletus was actually under construction when we visited, but we did get a chance to see the Ishtar gate:
The Pergamon Museum also has a large Islamic collection, which features a ton of antique rugs. It takes a couple of hours to get through the entire museum, but it’s definitely worth the walk.
I’ll be back with updates of other notable places to visit while you’re in Berlin, things to eat, and little treats that make Berlin special. Hope you enjoyed the update!