Weekend in Berlin (April 14-16, 2016)
Berlin has always been high up on my European city bucket list. It is perhaps one of the most unique European capitals that I have visited where the recent history of the 20th century can still be felt. Counter culture is the main culture – there is a strong anti-materialism feel. In Berlin, brand name shops were largely absent from the central avenues of the city. The architecture, perhaps due to over 20 years of division into East / West was distinctive. You always knew what part of the city you were in even if you weren’t crossing the street and could see whether the Eastern “Ampelmannchen” figure was there (recurring figure if you were in East Berlin).
Berlin was the first weekend trip that I planned after transferring to London for work in April 2016. I took the trip with my mother who had also always wanted to go. She had grown up in Communist China during an era where Berlin was still divided – the falling of the wall in 1989 for her is akin to 9/11 for me. She had always regarded Berlin with such fascination – a city you had seen so much in the news but had never gone to…
We arrived in the evening time and took a train from the airport (Berlin Schonenfeld as we had flown budget with Ryanair) to the center of the city where we were staying in Alexanderplatz. Even though we arrived shortly after 11pm on a Wednesday night, the streets were still buzzy with people. Alexanderplatz, home of the distinctive TV Tower, the Fernsehturm made famous by countless postcards and movie intros, had all the architectural distinction that I would soon associate with East Berlin.
DAY ONE – Brandenburg Gate, Museum Quarter and the Jewish Quarter
Morning Orientation Tour of Berlin Center
On the first day, we took the Sandemanns’ free walking tour which started at Brandenburg Gate. The tour was a great intro into the city – we walked through the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s suicide (unmarked, a series of apartment buildings sit above this historic site), Checkpoint Charlie and former military offices of the East Germany government post WWII. We also glimpsed the impressive Reichstag (book in advance for the chance to go to the rooftop!) and the theaters at Potsdamer Platz. Lunch was currywurst (a must try Berlin street snack) and a Berliner donut during the mid-tour break. Not the healthiest meal but a good reward after a morning of walking.
Rainy Afternoon on Museum IslandAfterwards, we walked to the Museum Island and bought the joint ticket for the Pergamon Museum, Neues Museum and Alte Nationalgalerie. All three are great museums – compact and you should be able to get through all three in a focused afternoon. Please note that there is some renovation going on at Pergamon Museum until 2017 so some of the artifacts may not be on display. The overwhelming conclusion from visiting the three museums is the
overwhelming respect that Germans have for the field of archaeology and preservation of the distant ancient past.
Dinner in the Jewish QuarterAfter an afternoon of being taken back in time on Museum Island, we crossed the Spree to the Jewish Quarter where we admired the beautiful exterior of the New Synagogue in Berlin and headed up north to the hip district of Mitte for dinner at Lokal (Linienstraße 160, 10115 Berlin, Germany). The restaurant focuses on seasonal ingredients presented beautifully and an impressive wine list (we had the Riesling, clearly). There are many good dinner options in this neighborhood so worth a wander. For an after meal wander, we headed up to the up and coming neighborhood of Kollwitzplatz for a beer at the world famous Prater. The weather wasn’t good so we couldn’t enjoy the beautiful fairy light filled exterior but no better way to end your first day in Germany on a weekend trip than with a good pilsener in a local, atmospheric bar.
DAY TWO – Going from West to East Berlin with some kebap in between
WWII Remnants and new Shopping District of West Berlin
Day two was time to explore Western Berlin – we took a bus from our hotel in Alexanderplatz to the last stop at the zoo. This up and coming area has the new, sleek Bikini Berlin mall as well as a new Sofitel. The attractions here are the Kaiser Wilhelm church, remnants from the Allied bombing campaign during WWII, its ruined core in stark contrast to the new and hip surroundings. Where the center of Berlin lacked in brand name stores and shopping areas, this area made up for it with Western imports of Forever 21 and Uniqlo opening up alongside famed and historic department store Kaufhaus des Westerns, the Berlin Harrod’s if you will. The upstairs food hall is impressive and worth a wander through. For lunch, we had a different local food in mind – the ubiquitous doner kebap. On the tour the previous day, our tour guide had pointed out where Angela Merkel liked to have doner kebap but we decided to go with local favorite, Mustafa Gemuse Kebap in Mehringdamm.
Cold War history learning and Berlin Wall tour
After lunch, it was back to East Berlin to the Karl Marx Allee for a post lunch stroll down Communist Germany – walking down the wide avenue brought back memories of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and images of Moscow’s center. We checked out the Statsi Museum which was the former headquarters of this fearsome Secret Police. The tactics they used, from total observation of the suspect (recruiting friends and family, reading mail, etc.), driving suspects around in a van for hours on end to confuse and disorient to descriptions of torture (waterboarding) to force confessions out were all so detailed and horrifying. It made me thankful to have grown up in the US and consider the long term implications of losing basic privacy privileges. It was only suiting then after learning about such a tumultuous past that we would head to East Side Gallery which featured moving murals dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall stretched out in one long line.
Dinner South of the Wall
We crossed the bridge into the green, leafy, picturesque West Berlin neighborhood of Wranglekiez. Dinner was at a local Austrian place called Jolesch (Muskauer Str. 1, 10997 Berlin, Germany) – reservations possible on Yelp. After dinner, we made a comfortable path through the West Berlin party neighborhood, ending at Kottbusser Platz where we took a train back to Alexanderplatz. The night had turned dark by then and we could see scores of young Berliners preparing for a night out. Our experience in Berlin had been colored by the dark WWII and Cold War period, but present day Berlin with young people shines bright and I’m glad we left with that image. The scarred city has recovered and is determined to make a new chapter for itself in this world