Berlin is historic and hip, serious and free-spirited, traditional yet cutting edge. A trip to Berlin will take you back in time to explore its many layers from its Prussian period to Imperial rule to the violent 20th century to its present-day renaissance. Experience the evolution and modernization of this fascinating multicultural German capital. And, if you can, try to visit outside of summer’s high season when crowds are thinned. In April and May, gardens will be blooming and during my recent visit in October, temps were pleasant and not too cold — perfect walking weather. Here are just a few items to put on your itinerary:
Berlin Wall Memorial:
Two days after sealing off passage between East and West Berlin with barbed wire in 1961, East German authorities begin building the Berlin Wall to close off access to the West. For the next 28 years, the heavily fortified wall stood as the most tangible symbol of the Cold War–a literal “iron curtain” dividing Europe. The memorial contains the last piece of the Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it.
This 18th century neoclassical monument, a symbol of German division during the Cold War, is now a national symbol of peace and unity. It was here, on June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan issued his stern command to his cold war adversary admonishing him with the words: “Mr. Gorbachov – tear down this wall!” Nearby is where Adolf Hitler hid at the end of WWII. Fittingly and deliberately, it is now just an ordinary concrete covered parking lot.
In 1947, Checkpoint C, nicknamed ‘Charlie’ by the Allies, was established as a crossing point between East and West Berlin, something that became increasingly important after the Wall was built. Checkpoint Charlie was the only official crossing point for Allied troops and foreigners between the two sides of the city. After reunification, the adjoining Mauer Museum was created to help bring the history to life. (Rent “Bridge of Spies” to see Hollywood’s depiction of this famous span).
Jewish Berlin Tour:
Explore the city’s Jewish heritage from the days of early 17th century immigration though the horrors of the Holocaust to present day. Learn about some of Berlin’s famous Jewish residents who changed the world including Albert Einstein and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Visit the grounds of the Old Synagogue destroyed during WWII and the “Block of Women” memorial dedicated to those women who attempted to peacefully save their Jewish husbands and fathers from deportation by the SS and Gestapo. Stop by the Moorish-style Neue Synagogue, the main synagogue of the Berlin Jewish community and an important architectural monument. Tour the Museum Blindenwerkstatt, a 1940’s era factory where owner Otto Weidt bravely protected his blind and deaf Jewish workers from persecution during the Holocaust.
American architect Daniel Libeskind’s design for this building is meant to depict German-Jewish history. Its zigzagging lines and crisscrossing shapes leave visitors with a sense of insecurity or disorientation. The building allows for many interpretations: for some, it suggests a broken Star of David. In the center of the structure are empty voids to address the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah, which cannot be refilled after the fact. Libeskind wanted to make this loss visible and tangible through his architecture.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:
In the middle of the city stands this imposing monument which serves as a place of contemplation and a symbol to never forget the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during WWII. Architect Peter Eisenman placed 2711 concrete slabs (reminiscent of coffins) of varying heights in a site encompassing 19,000 meters — an area that evokes a graveyard. The memorial is positioned on a slight slope and the uneven flooring gives you a sense of uncertainty and uneasiness.
Walk across this public square to the location of the infamous book burning by the Nazis. A glass plate is set in the paving stones; below sits an underground room with empty bookshelves. Symbolically, the underground shelves have space for 20,000 books, a reminder of the books that went up in flames on May 10, 1933 under orders of the Nazis.
This island in the middle of the city’s Spree River includes five world-renowned museums. Check out the New Museum with its famous bust of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the Pergamon Museum with its remarkable Ishtar Gate from the ancient city of Babylon.
Berlin TV Tower:
Soaring 368 meters above Alexanderplatz, this tower is the city’s most visible landmark and the highest building in Europe open to the general public. Amazing 360-degree panoramic views can be experienced from its roof top restaurant and observation deck. No longer just a symbol of East Germany, the tower has become an integral element of Berlin’s new cityscape.
A newly revitalized courtyard complex situated adjacent to the Hackescher Markt in the Mitte area is now a vibrant shopping, eating and meeting place in the art nouveau architectural style. The complex consists of eight interconnected courtyards, accessed through a main arched entrance at number 40 Rosenthaler Straße. Today, the eight courtyards play host to over forty businesses, including cultural institutions, street art exhibitions, a cinema, cafés, shops and apartments and has become a popular nightlife magnet.
Festival of Lights:
This annual October event transforms Berlin’s most famous landmarks and historical monuments such as Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral and the Victory Column into massive video art installments using light projections, CD mapping, and music. This free event casts the city in a magical light brought to you by some of the top international artists all contributing to this massive open-air art gallery — it will leave you breathless!
No trip to Berlin is complete without a taste of traditional German Wiener Schnitzel. Try Lutter & Wegner for servings so large they barely fit on the plate. For truly farm to table fare, visit eclectic Katz Orange — its cozy rustic dining rooms are accented with antiques and plush couches. Famous for its international cuisine, take a break at one of Berlin’s many Vietnamese restaurants for a hearty bowl of Pho, a popular “street food” consisting of savory broth, plentiful rice noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, and sliced chicken or beef. After a hearty evening meal, head to Orania.Bar, Berlin’s contemporary yet timeless bar for artisan drinks and crafty compositions of exotic ingredients accompanied by nightly jazz concerts.
The Kaufhaus des Westens, abbreviated to KaDeWe, is the second largest department store in Europe after London’s Harrods. Head upstairs to the food halls to pick up delicious confectionery and chocolates or sip some champagne and nosh at one of the many anti-pasta bars. Friedrichstrasse, the high-end retail district in the heart of Berlin is home to fashion stores from high street brands to international luxury and upscale home décor. Flea Markets can be found city-wide (check opening dates): pick from an eclectic assortment at Town Square’s Marheinekeplatz; the original Arkonaplatz; trendy Fesche Lotte flea market; and historical market at Rathaus Schöneberg.
CITY PAIR TIP: combine a visit to Berlin with a visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic — they are only about four hours apart by train.
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