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Berlin, Germany – A City Reborn

Shannon Essa (Shannon)

Tired of having the entire Bundesrepublik Deutschland painted with a lederhosen, beer and cuckoo clock brush, Diana and Shannon have joined forces to write their impressions of the fascinating northern German cities of Berlin and Hamburg. The two cities differ from each other, and together they differ completely from central and southern German culture, providing an opportunity for a completely different experience in Slow Travel.

With a distance of approximately 160 miles or 250 kilometers between them, both cities can certainly be experienced as part of one trip.


Walking through Berlin today, it is hard to believe that sixty years ago, it was a pile of rubble and less than twenty years ago, a 103 mile wall wound through the city, dividing Berlin into two very distinct places. Even ten years ago there was a wasteland where now impressive city monuments and well-designed business and shopping centers stand. The city has managed to rebuild itself in a remarkably short period of time and, once again, Berlin is one of the most vibrant, energetic, and interesting cities in Europe. From the bazaar-like atmosphere of the Turkish quarter in Kreuzberg to the trendy shops and restaurants of Mitte and the urban cool of Prenzlauer Berg, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to run out of things to do in this world-class city.

Though the city center was almost completely leveled by bombs during World War II, there is plenty to see – much of it as a reminder of the war and the years that followed. While you won’t find any ancient structures in Berlin, you’ll find an immense number of antiquities in some of Berlin’s museums and while many of the cities churches were damaged, some still stand.

It would be a shame to have anything less than a week to explore Berlin – and if you like museums allow even more time. There are lots of vacation rentals available, and a vast array of food shopping options, from outdoor markets to department store gourmet shops with everything from bagels to caviar to the famous “doner kebab.” Berlin, visited this way, can be a great value.

Getting around. You’ll need a good map, such as Streetwise Berlin, to get around. Berlin has an excellent transportation system and you can get virtually anywhere with the U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains (the S-Bahn is faster) and the city’s streetcars and buses. Taxis are not over the top expensive. When walking, make sure to stay out of bike lanes – many people get around by bike and you’ll get run over or at least “honked” at if you are in their way.

This list of things to see and do is but a tiny representation of what Berlin has to offer.

Sites to See

The Brandenburg Gate. Probably the most symbolic and certainly the most photographed of Berlin’s historical sights, this monumental city gate was completed in 1795. Watching tourists snap photos below the gate now, it is difficult to imagine that not so long ago, the Berlin wall was built on both sides of it, separating west from east.

Memorial for Jews Killed in the Holocaust. A stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate is this effective monument to the Holocaust’s victims. It is difficult to not be moved by this large area (205,000 square feet) with concrete slabs of varying heights. It’s one of those places that looks different on any given day, and is worth more than a passing glance.

Memorial for Jews killed in the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial

The Reichstag. The German Parliament building was built in the late 19th century and was the site of many important events, including a fire in 1933, which was blamed on communists, and led to the Nazis gaining power. Now, a beautiful glass dome sits on top of the building, with a viewing deck and a restaurant.

Museum Island. Even if you don’t like museums, this island in the heart of the city is where it all began – the first settlements appeared here in the early 13th century – and it is a lovely place to walk around.

Alexanderplatz. While not pretty in any traditional sense, this square and the nearby Fernsehturm are vivid examples of 1960’s East German architecture. In the square itself, you will find the Weltzeituhr – the “World Time Clock,” which must have been cutting edge in its day, but now looks pretty dated. Also in the area, there is a train station and subway station (where you’ll surely make a transfer sometime during your stay); department stores, and a lot of businesses and restaurants. The Fernsehturm, a 1,197-foot TV tower that is visible from almost everywhere in the city, has a view platform and revolving café at the top. It is worth the 10 Euro to get up there, but it is even better to get up there and then have a drink at the revolving café.

Tiergarten. This large city park (525 acres) is home to the Kulturforum where a complex of museums, including some of the city’s finest, and the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall can be found. The rest of the park is lush, green space that is perfect for a day away from asphalt and artifacts. Well, maybe not completely. The affecting Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, a monument to the 300,000 Soviet soldiers killed in Berlin during WWII and the famous Siegessaule - another landmark, the 223 foot “Victory Column” – are both in the Tiergarten, along with lots of bike paths and outdoor cafés.

Checkpoint Charlie. This famous crossing between East and West Germany has the iconic images of a Soviet and American soldier overlooking it and is surrounded by some pretty touristy restaurants, but between 1961 and 1990 this was the only crossing place and therefore has a symbolic place in recent history. The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie museum, adjacent to the border crossing, is worth a visit – try to get past the first couple of rooms, which can be very crowded, to the rooms beyond. There are a number of exhibits about the Berlin Wall, people who escaped, the fall of Communism in other countries, and much, much more.

Ku’Damm. This beyond-bustling West German district is a testament to capitalism, but also has its own really cool vibe. Shops, cafés, hotels, and restaurants line the streets and there are people everywhere, but the hollowed shell of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-Kirche stands, literally in the middle of it all, as a reminder of the war. Saturdays here are impressive, with many people out and about shopping, eating, and hanging out at outdoor cafés.

A Spree River Cruise. Kind of touristy, yes; kind of cheesy, yes. But, also a really great way to see some of the incredible modern architecture of Berlin, and to get a general sense of the layout of the center.

Modern architecture along the Spree River

Modern architecture along the Spree River

Potsdamer Platz. If there is one place to see the nothing-short-of-miraculous rebuilding of Berlin, this is the place to do it. In the beginning of the 20th century, this area teemed with people and had a vibrant nightlife; by the middle of the century, there was nothing left. As late as the mid 1990’s, the area was still an empty wasteland. Now, there are a number of incredible new buildings and the area has been reborn. If you like modern architecture, definitely visit the Sony Center if nothing else – it is a remarkable complex of glass and steel with a really inviting atrium. The Filmmuseum there is an absolute must for anyone interested in film, and especially, German film.

Gendarmenmarkt

This lovely city square has an old-world feel, though the buildings here were badly damaged during WWII and rebuilt. You’ll find two important churches here – the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral), and the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral), which was built by French Huguenots in the early 18th century. Also in this square is the Konzerthaus, home of the Berlin symphony, and some nice cafés on the perimeter.

The Gendarmenmarkt from a cafe window

The Gendarmenmarkt from a cafe window

Museums

You’ll find some amazing museums in Berlin. From history - ancient and more recent – to art and antiquities, you’ll find it all. Some of the not-to-miss museums:

Pergamon Museum. This museum houses three amazing structures, among many other things. The Pergamon Altar is a Greek altar dating back to 170 BC, removed from the city of Pergamon in what is now Turkey and installed here along with other fragments from the same region and period. Another attraction is the Miletus Gate, a 52-foot entryway to a market in Miletus, a Roman outpost in Asia Minor that dates back to 120 A.D. Even more striking is the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, a stunning gate and processional made of colorfully glazed brick built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 B.C. These are just three destinations in a museum crammed with ancient things to see – allow at least half a day.

German History Museum. This vast museum houses art, sculpture, artifacts and memorabilia from the earliest of German civilizations to the present day. Parts of the museum, particularly those related to the Holocaust, are pretty intense and you won’t leave feeling particularly happy. So, don’t visit here if you want your vacation to be a completely carefree one.

Jewish Museum. As with the German History Museum, a visit here is worthwhile, but not the most uplifting of experiences. The galleries are housed in a zigzagged building that is in itself meant to symbolize the path of the Jews in Germany and the exhibits cover a period from the Middle Ages to current times. The Garden of Exile and Emigration, instead of feeling calming, will instead leave you feeling out of sorts and wondering “why?”

Gemaldegalerie. This museum in the Kultureforum area in the Tiergarten houses contains hundreds of paintings, from the 13th century onward. In addition to a stunning collection of German painting, there are impressive galleries housing Dutch and Italian paintings, including many masterpieces from the Renaissance, and collections from France, Spain and England.

Kuntstgewerbemuseum. Lovers of arts and crafts will take great delight in this museum in the Kultureforum, which has a collection of crafts and decorative art from the Middle Ages to the present – tapestries, textiles, ceramics and furniture, among many other things, are represented here.

Slow travel in Berlin

It is easy to find goods for your vacation rental in Berlin. There are food shops, wine shops, and bakeries everywhere. The streets are teeming with cafés, bars, internet cafés, and other necessary places for the traveler. Berlin also has great outdoor food markets.

Ka De We. This department store has an unbelievable gourmet department on the 6th floor. While not cheap, foodies can spend an insane amount of time just wandering around. In addition to a bakery, a deli, a wine and liquor department, and a large counter dedicated to smoked fish, caviar and other decadent delights, you’ll find all manner of spices, imported foods, sweets, and many food bars and counters where you can sit and partake of some of these delights.

The Galleria at Alexanderplatz. The gourmet department here, while not quite as impressive as the one at Ka De We, is geared more towards the typical shopper – local, and foreign. You’ll find almost anything you’d find at Ka De We, just maybe not packaged as beautifully and at a much better price. They have a fantastic chocolate department here, as well as fresh made sushi, among many other things.

Winterfeldmarkt. This market in Schoenberg, every Wednesday and Saturday in the Winterfeldplatz has everything the upwardly-mobile young resident could want – incredible looking pastries, olives, vegetables, honey ... even fresh bagels. There is a cute outdoor café/bar right in the middle but if that is too crowded, there are lots of other outdoor cafés in this hip neighborhood.

The Turkish Market. Step into something completely different at this outdoor market, held on Tuesdays and Fridays on Maybachufer in Kreuzberg. You’ll find incredible breads, olives, cheeses, and other items from the daily Turkish table, plus a lot of household goods, shoes, and toiletries. It’s impressive and an absolute must for foodies.

Restaurants

You’ll find everything in Berlin. Besides German food and such street delectables as Currywurst and Bratwurst, you’ll find everything from Chinese to Mexican to Thai to Italian. A good book to invest in before going, if you are a foodie, is A Hedonist’s Guide to Berlin. It has some really great recommendations of all cuisines, in all neighborhoods, and in all price ranges. It is also worthwhile to check out chowhound.com for ideas.

Nightlife

Let’s put it this way – the bars and clubs in Berlin don’t close until the last customer has gone home. There are hundreds of cool places to hang out, from coffeehouses to retro-bars to jazz clubs. Even the subway stations can be fun. If you are into bars and nightlife, once again I recommend A Hedonist’s Guide to Berlin. This book has a lot of really cool places to hang out in it – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Sleeping

It won’t be a surprise to anyone that I recommend staying in an apartment or vacation rental in Berlin. I just think it would be a shame not to be able to partake of the glories of Berlin’s food shops and take-out places (not to mention being able to have coffee when you wake up at 11:00 AM and chill all those fine wines you bought for an afternoon break.)

One apartment I can highly recommend is here (and reviews):

This place looks lovely as well:

Resources

Some useful websites which provide good info for travelers:

An excellent overview of Berlin’s public transportation can be found here:

Some restaurants I like:

Some bars I love:

Cool Berlin blogs:

Some excellent Berlin trip reports:

And some Berlin photos from our gallery:

Related sections

Sarah Walker Photo Essays: Photo essays on Munich, Berlin, rural Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Vancouver, New York City.

Hamburg

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Shannon worked in the wine business since 1986, saved her money and spent a year in Venice, Italy till she ran out of money and had to come back. She is the author, with Ruth Edenbaum, of Chow! Venice, a book on eating in Venice. Shannon also owns and operates GrapeHops, Small Group Wine & Beer Tours to Europe and Beyond. Besides traveling (and thinking about traveling), Shannon regularly attends services at the Church of Rock 'n' Roll.

© Shannon Essa, 2008

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