Berlin, the capital city of Germany, has transformed itself after World War II and the Cold War to become a major social, cultural, and political center of Europe and the world. Yet, much of its past, especially its recent past, is visible throughout the city. We were able to explore a fair bit of the city during a recent trip there and found Berlin to be an interesting city full of history.
After flying into Berlin Tegel, we took the train to our hotel, a nice, modern building in former East Berlin. Although the area was rather neat, it was quiet and desolate, with lots of high-rise block-style apartments with very little character. After settling in, we ventured out to see a few of the sites around the city. First, we stopped by Checkpoint Charlie, one of the old checkpoints between East and West Germany. While it is interesting to see once, the checkpoint is, unfortunately, more of a tourist trap than anything else, with large crowds of people around and Germans dressed as Soviet and American soldiers. After staying for a moment, we walked down the street to a restaurant called Vapiano, an international chain serving quality Italian food quickly.
After enjoying our lunch, we walked to the Brandenburg Gate, built on the site of an old city gate. The Brandenburg Gate has since become one of the symbols of Berlin, and more recently is remembered as the backdrop for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The gate itself is rather grand, especially in the light of the setting sun. In front of the gate, one of Berlin’s most famous thoroughfares, Unter den Linden, stretches into the former East Berlin.
We walked into the Tiergarten, the large park in central Berlin. After strolling around the park and stumbling upon the Soviet War Memorial, we walked to the Reichstag building to take our scheduled tour. The Reichstag building was used in the early 20th century and was the setting for the fire that allowed Adolf Hitler to take control of the German government. After the reunification of Germany, the building was repaired and parliament began using the building again. A large glass dome was added to the top of the building, a symbol of the German people “looking” at their government. If you book a tour in advance, you can go to the top of the roof and inside the dome, both of which afford sweeping views of the city, including the Spree River, scores of church steeples, the Fernsehturm (TV tower) in the former East Berlin, and the skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz. This was one of our favorite sites in Berlin, well-worth booking the tour.
The next day we decided to retrace our steps from the previous day, also stopping at the Topography of Terror museum, which tells the story of how the Nazis came to power and the means by which they inflicted suffering on their victims. The museum was very informative, but horrifying. Outside stands a large portion of the Berlin Wall.
Then, we walked to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a somber memorial to the Jews killed during the Holocaust. The memorial consists of large blocks of concrete of differing heights in a grid-like pattern. Visitors can walk among these concrete blocks, which look rather like tombs.
After returning to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building, being sure to get a view of the imposing facade and the words “dem deutschen volke,” Then, we rode the train to Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin. As soon as we walked into the square, it was much different than further west–the buildings were large and block-like, there were fewer people, and everything seemed to be in a bit of disrepair.
We walked west, in the shadow of the Fernsehturm, until we stumbled upon Brauhaus Lemke, a Swabian-style brewery and restaurant. The brewery has a large patio with lots of greenery in front of a modern, glass and steel structure. The interior is a blend of styles–lots of intricate wood details, but with industrial light and wall fixtures. The beer was largely brewed to style, and we enjoyed our sample flight. Even more, we enjoyed our meal. We had Kässpätzle and Maultaschen, both Schwäbisch dishes and both very good.
From the brewery, we walked to the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral. We spent a long time walking around the church and staring up at the ornate walls and ceilings, including statues of Reformation figures. Beneath the church is a crypt, filled with the tombs of Prussian monarchs and their relatives.
We chose to walk up to a small museum above the church, and then further onto the outside of the dome, where we walked around the perimeter, getting spectacular views of the city.
From there, we made our way back to our hotel, weaving through the streets to see some more of the character of the city. Before ending our trip, however, we made sure to get a few pictures of the Ampelmännchen, the rather cute men who function as the “walk” and “stop” signals for pedestrians in the former East Berlin.
Berlin was an interesting city, and we were happy to get the chance to explore it. While we saw a lot, there was much more that we didn’t see, so we look forward to exploring the city again soon.