A few weekends ago I traveled to Berlin with two of my work friends turned expat travel buddies. We left on Thursday evening and returned Monday morning before work. The flight plans were my doing and as one of them commented, “This trip schedule reeks of eagerness, you’re sucking every last second out of seeing Berlin.” I didn’t disagree with him, that’s exactly what my plan was for our three full days in Germany. Of course I’d prefer to travel for weeks at a time but until I win the lottery or figure out another way to make a living, I’ll make the most of weekends, bank holidays, and vacation time.
I knew very little about Berlin before visiting, so any chance to learn more about the city’s vast history in person made it onto my travel agenda. We stayed near an area called Alexanderplatz which was formerly part of East Berlin. From there we were able to take the S-bahn or U-bahn (Berlin’s overground and underground trains) or walk anywhere we wanted to go.
Our first destination was Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing gate between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Nowadays the city has turned it into a site for learning about the Cold War era. There is also a Checkpoint Charlie Museum we paid to visit which documents the various ways people tried to escape East Berlin and the politics and historical events surrounding the wall’s creation and tear-down.
After a few hours at the museum we stopped at a coffee shop with free wifi for a rest. One of the guys had the TripAdvisor Berlin app on his cell phone and noticed that the Ritter Sport flagship store was just around the corner. I didn’t have to be told twice, off we went to chocolate heaven.
Newly energized after our coffee + chocolate detour, we walked on. Next up was the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most well-known symbols of the city. It’s in what was formerly West Berlin and is the site of many a presidential speech. Pop culture side note: it’s also near the hotel where Michael Jackson famously held his baby over the balcony.
Just a few minutes from the Brandenburg Gate sits the Reichstag Building, constructed in 1894 but destroyed during WWII and only recently re-established as the meeting place of parliament in 1999.
Next up was the Holocaust Memorial which is comprised of over 2,700 concrete slabs made to represent the disorder and chaos of the human system, but which many people (myself included) think resembles a cemetery. Either way, a powerful reminder of the suffering Jewish people have endured in Germany.
The last destination for our walking tour was Potsdamer Platz, a large square in the city centre that has been renovated and rebuilt since the 1990’s and shows off the modern side of Berlin. Also home to an amazing Christmas Market where I found hot chocolate with wodka (that’s vodka for us non-German speakers) and other food and sweets vendors.
After the excitement of our first day we chose just one major outing for Saturday which combined two tourist activities – a football match AND the 1936 Olympic Stadium. I’m not the world’s biggest soccer fan but I love people watching, and seeing a local sport that’s popular is one of my favorite ways to learn more about the culture.
The game we saw was Hertha BSC vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Two teams I know absolutely nothing about, so we cheered for the hometeam Hertha BSC who unfortunately lost. Overall, still a great experience to see the match and the stadium. This is the stadium where American Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track despite Hitler’s proclamation that blacks were a sub-race. Yay Jesse Owens!
Our last full day in Berlin we dedicated to museums since Berlin is known for them and even has a section of the city called Museum Island, which is exactly what it sounds like. But first, we dined at Cafe Einstein Stammhaus which had been highly recommended by a few friends. It. Was. Amazing. We ordered seconds on the coffee and stayed for dessert because we couldn’t get enough delicious food. Exhibit A, empty coffee cup and half eaten apple strudel.
On our walk to the museums we noticed some of the crosswalks had a little guy with a tophat and others had the more traditional stick figure. After some digging, we learned this is ampelmännchen or “little traffic man” and was used on crosswalk signals in East Berlin. Today it’s one of the last remaining symbols of East Berlin.
Our first museum stop was the Topography of Terror which formerly housed the Secret State Police, the Gestapo. The building was destroyed by WWII bombing but a museum has been constructed on the site to document all the horrors of the Nazi regime so that history never repeats itself.
The museum is near the Berlin Wall remnants and here is a section of the wall that still stands. You can see the cover over the top of the wall that was used to prevent people from climbing over (along with several other security measures to prevent crossing without permission).
The last museum we had time for was the Pergamon which houses ancient and Middle Eastern art. Like this Roman marketplace entry that is reconstructed inside the museum, unreal.
There is so much more we could have done in Berlin but I’m happy with our checklist of activities we accomplished. I loved the city and was sad to leave. The people were welcoming, the food delicious, the history thought-provoking, and the coffee and wodka much more affordable and drinkable than London. Danke, Berlin for a memorable trip!
Know Before You Go:
- Download the Ulmon Berlin City Guide app on your tablet or phone. It has a map that works without wifi and lists tourist sights, restaurants, train stops, you name it. Very handy.
- Snag the Berlin Welcome Pass at any tourist shop or train station. You’ll get a city map and discount booklet for Berlin attractions and it also serves as your train ticket. You can buy day, weekend, and week-long passes.
- Christmas Markets don’t fully open until the last week in November and run through January. I got a sneak preview at one in Potsdamer Platz but we left the day most of them opened. Learn from my mistake and go while the Christmas Markets are in full swing. Here’s a list of the top 5 to see.
- Find time to dine at Max & Mortiz for authentic German food frequented by locals.
- You don’t have to speak German since most Berliners speak English perfectly, but a few German phrases won’t hurt your experience.