March 28, 2016

Highlights from Berlin

Germany’s capital city is a big gulp of things to see and do. It’s also a good travel bargain. If you time things just right, you can pay less than $130 a night for a 5-star hotel in a fantastic area.

Speaking of area … I spent my first night in a little boutique hotel on the West side of the city near Kurfüstendamm, known as the Champs-Élysées of Berlin. Technically, it was a great location and in the thick of Berlin’s amenities. But I quickly realized that I wanted to be in the former GDR/DDR, so I headed east to a borough named Mitte, and I liked it so much better!

I also liked Berlin better than other cities I’ve visited in Germany. Places like Munich (and surrounding towns) are so beautiful, but I prefer Berlin’s gritty realness. On my train ride from Paris to Berlin, my (Czech) seat neighbor had a T-shirt that said “Funky Vibe” on the front. I kept thinking … that’s Berlin!

Of course, that’s only part of it. Berlin also has a brutal history, and there are no lack of reminders throughout the city owning up to that very dark past.

Here are some places I visited while in Berlin:

  • The Reichstag. This is the government building which, historically, bookended the Nazi Party’s rise and fall in Berlin. You can read more about its history here. You need a reservation to visit the dome, but I was able to make mine the same day. So cool!
  • The haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s just as mesmerizing wandering through this outdoor memorial as it is watching others do the same. 
  • The former Stasi Prison, known as the Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. Tours of this complex are often led by former prisoners. The experience is fascinating … and also very sad and bleak. In the DDR (what we’d refer to as the GDR in the U.S.) neighbors, friends, co-workers, and even spouses informed on one another. It was not uncommon for the Stasi to spy on you, bug your home, read your mail, or bring you in for interrogation if you were suspected of a “crime”. Prior to visiting this prison, my only Stasi frame of reference was the deeply moving film The Lives of Others, which I highly recommend.
  • The Soviet War Memorial, built after WWII, looks even more imposing in person.

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  • The iconic Brandenburg Gate! It was in front of this landmark on June 12, 1987 where President Ronald Reagan famously said: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. It’s also where Tom Brokaw reported the destruction of the wall on November 9, 1989.
  • Another bit of Brandenburg trivia … Did you know it was in Berlin where Michael Jackson dangled is baby (Blanket???) over the balcony? Apparently, the dangling took place at the swanky Adlon Hotel, which is steps away from the Brandenburg Gate.

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  • Oberbaumbrücke (Oberbaum Bridge) crosses the River Spree and links two boroughs that were once separated by the Berlin Wall.

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  • Hackescher Markt is a bustling area with shops, weekend markets and the beautiful Die Hackeschen Hoefe courtyard.
  • This building was once the New Reich Chancellery, designed by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. It’s often used as a backdrop for Nazi-themed films, like Valkyrie.

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  • Hitler’s WWII bunker (and the place where he committed suicide) is under this parking lot. Its entrance was sealed long ago and, for decades, the location was undisclosed. Eventually, a small sign was added, and it’s a now a routine stop on Berlin’s various Third Reich tours. Downfall, a fascinating depiction of Hitler’s final days, is another film I highly recommend. 

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  • The DDR Museum. Through a series of hands-on displays, this museum paints a vivid picture of day-to-day life behind the Iron Curtain. What did people read, wear, drive, and eat? Where did they live, work and vacation? From DDR Boxer brand jeans (meant to compete with much-coveted Levis) to the kinds of items you’d find in a (poorly stocked) grocery store … it’s room after room of Cold War reality, coupled with plenty of fascinating ostalgia.

Other things:

  • You know you’re in the former East Berlin when you see crosswalks that still feature the much-loved Ampelmännchen.

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  • Currywurst! Berlin is a melting pot of ethnic cuisines. You’re just as likely to find a good bowl of Pho here as a tasty plate of schnitzel. If Berlin has a signature street food, it would be currywurst … a bun-free sausage covered in curry powder and a sauce that’s a (varying) combination of worcestershire and ketchup. You can order your sausage mit darm (with skin) or without. I prefer mit because I like the snap!

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  • If you lived in the DDR and wanted to own a car, it could take ten-plus years of waiting, sometimes longer, to get one … and, even then, your only “choice” of vehicle would be an East German Trabant. Time magazine called the 1975 Trabant one of the 50 worst cars of all time, calling it a hollow lie of a car. Harsh words! If you feel like taking a Trabi for a sentimental spin, you can rent one from Trabi World.

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LAST THING: Since I choose to travel very lightly, figuring out how/where to do laundry is a constant concern. Staying in AirBnBs helps, but sometimes I stay in hotels where laundry service is expensive. I’ve washed my clothes in hotel bathtubs and sinks (with hotel shampoo) when needed, but I’d never used a laundromat … until Berlin! Luckily, I found THE BEST laundromat that was fast, cheap and set me up with a tasty macchiato. It wasn’t close to my hotel, but it was worth the subway ride. If you’re ever in Berlin and need to do laundry, Freddy Leck Waschsalon makes doing laundry (almost) fun.

All clean!