Guten tag, everyone!
My sincere and heartfelt apologies for posting this trip report so atrociously late – in all likelihood this degree of procrastination is an ignoble first for TA (it’s already the one year anniversary of our Berlin mini-vacation). Entschuldigung.
But…better late than never, so here it is, specially dedicated to the stalwarts on this forum who were ever prompt with their answers to my often-dumb questions. All of you set a great example with your courteous, informative, kind and most of all, non-judgmental help. So, Tausend Dank to ( in no particular order) : Abalada, Lynda, Lylou, Xxrrttyy, Treplow, Fraporter, Alabastron, Pericoloso, Scousetwirly, Marcopolko. My very first queries were posted on the Frankfurt forum and I am especially grateful to two TA members on that forum who gave generously of their time and knowledge – Bornheimgirl and BlandineForberg.
Many people volunteered information additional to that given by all of the above. Vielen dank: Buttery, Londonwelsh99, Altamiro,EUReviewer, ThePastyMan, Angietravels1,HP07, Londonwelsh99,50plustropicallover, Lglasgow1982, LilyLarkin,srfer2,BavariaJG, Patdad, november_moon and finally, NickBerlin33 ( who posted a reply a couple of days after we’d left so it remained unread until we came back – nevertheless, we truly appreciated your thoughtful input on Berlin Currywurst ).
I hope I have not left anyone out, but if I have, I’m very sorry. Know that *every one* of you contributed to making our trip so much more meaningful and enjoyable.
Although we spent only 4 full days and five nights in Berlin (March 13 th through March 17th, 2011), this wonderful city sneaked into our hearts. Beautiful, gritty, homely, imposing, busy, deserted, modern, old, bright and dark (in all senses of those two words), opulent, impecunious, flamboyant, subdued, split – Berlin is all these and yet, obviously united in its quiet pride and hospitality. That it is so, is a tribute to its citizens who may appear restrained to the first-time visitor (an impression that is heightened by their uniformly dark clothing :-) ) but who are in actuality, warm, friendly and helpful.
We could not see everything we wanted to, of course, in such a short time, but all four days were memorable and we enjoyed every minute, despite freezing cold and rain on two of those days - in fact, the weather only enhanced the city’s atmosphere, hehe.
In lieu of a day-to-day account which would bore you to death, here are our experiences, observations and comments that I hope may be of some help to new travel(l)ers planning their trips.
Airline and Airport:
We flew Lufthansa for the first time from the U.S to Berlin via Frankfurt. We had a very pleasant experience overall, from the friendly and attentive flight attendants to food that we actually liked. Berlin’s Tegel airport (which I understand will close for good this summer) charmed with its unexpected smallness (relative to other capital city airports), simple layout and an air of sleepiness on a Sunday afternoon. Quite a few shops were shuttered when we arrived and the lobby was not crowded with passengers. Baggage claim was quick and efficient; however, we discovered that one of our suitcases had been damaged, with the TSA lock missing and the zipper tab and slide completely ripped away so the suitcase could not be closed. We surmised that the lock had snagged on a conveyor belt; luckily the contents of the suitcase appeared intact. Lufthansa staff were fantastic – they had us fill out a form and check the contents to make sure nothing was missing, apologized and said they would pay for any repairs. (At our hotel, we borrowed rope to tie the suitcase shut during our stay; since we were going on to Asia after our Berlin trip, and since we could not find anywhere in Berlin Mitte that could do the repairs, we ended up using duct tape (again provided thoughtfully and gratis by our hotel) all around the darn case. The suitcase had to be discarded on our return home, as the repair cost was not worth it – Lufthansa sent us a check for $100 which we thought was very gracious, given the age and wear of the suitcase and the fact that locks can break away during transit, on any airline.
The afternoon had advanced by the time we left the Lufthansa office and walked to the BVG counter at Tegel to purchase the Berlin Welcome Card. The counter was unmanned, with no customers, so we waited for about 20 minutes before a man appeared and directed us to the window booth outside that linked to the counter. Wonder why he just didn’t give us the card inside – there was no one but us buying it!
Berlin Welcome Card:
The AB, good for 72 hours (Euros 22.90 each), comes with a nifty booklet and a great, easily readable map of the S-bahn and U-Bahn network, which we used a lot during our stay. (A similar map comes with the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Top Ten Berlin; however it’s in much smaller print, so the BVG map was truly ‘welcome’:-).) We didn’t go to many of the attractions listed in the booklet, didn’t eat at the suggested restaurants and didn’t even get our souvenirs at the place listed there and we figure we broke about even with the card. However, we thought it was a great buy chiefly because of the unlimited travel on trains, trams and buses and the convenience of not having to purchase tickets each time. The card has to be validated only once (at first use) at the red (or yellow) ticket validation machines that are easily discernible at all stations , usually right next to the automated ticket dispenser, and on buses and trams. Just don’t lose it or throw it away! Even though we were not asked to show our cards anytime during our travels, surprise checks do occur and the fine can be expensive if you don’t produce the card (or ticket). A word here about the honor system – we’ve been to travel destinations where people unscrupulously circumvent the rules so we were truly impressed by the honesty of Berliners.
A taxi rank was right outside Tegel, a hop, skip and jump from the BVG window; we were directed by a very polite man to the first cab in line, paid around Euros 20-23 ( I forget the exact amount) and reached our hotel in about 20 minutes. If you have minimal luggage, bus and train are cheaper alternatives to a taxi from the airport. Berlin’s taxis are an efficient and not-too-expensive way of getting around the city’s heart. Cabdrivers are honest and helpful; one of ours was a young German woman who took it upon herself give us an excellent tour upon learning we were first-time visitors. She pointed out sights we might have missed otherwise (it was raining) including various embassies, Schloss Bellevue, and imposing statues – she even pulled over, in busy traffic, so we could take quick pictures. Another, an even younger African man, took us to Potsdamer Arkaden as we’d asked, but then told us to stay seated while he drove right up to a side-entrance, so we would not have to get wet walking in the rain (despite the fact that we had umbrellas) and even though it meant he would have to reverse all the way back.
All taxis are metered; the rate is displayed digitally on the left upper corner of the rearview mirror (we could not stop marveling over this!) so there is no haggling or arguing, thank goodness; all our taxis were Mercedes’ (wow!); our rides were comfortable and smooth and for short distances they even have a ticket called Kurzstreckentarif ( I think we paid Euros 4.50 and not Euros 4 as I’d read on the threads..that is, if I remember correctly, as long as you ask for it when you get in.
A million thanks to TA member Lynda for recommending our fabulously-located hotel – NH Berlin Friedrichstrasse. It is situated in Mitte, extremely close to all major sites ( easy walk to Pergamon Museum Complex and Brandenburg Gate among others and is right across from the historic Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse ( station). The street outside is full of people even at night, the surroundings are very safe and there are plenty of stores including a Starbucks (which we didn’t use) and a McDonald’s (which, despite our dislike of fast food, came in very handy on our first night after many hours of travel) as well as a Dunkin Donuts further down the street. Be warned however that this is not the Dunkin Donuts that has free wireless and is mentioned a lot in this forum.
For first-time visitors, we highly recommend this hotel. The staff is polite and helpful, rooms are cleaned daily, and you can pick up maps and useful information at the concierge desk. We were upgraded to a spacious room on the very top with an even more spacious bathroom. If you do stay here, ask for a room at the back (which we did) as those are very quiet and you will not hear the trains in the nearby station. We even had a huge balcony – no view except for buildings, but nice to have, nonetheless). We truly lucked out with this hotel – tausend dank, Lynda.
We carried only one small guidebook – DK Eyewitness Travel Top Ten Berlin – which is excellent for travelers who have time constraints, as we did. Since the book lists top tens for every conceivable attraction in the city, we made good use of it while touring the Pergamon Museum, the Berlin Historiches Museum etc., and also found the suggested day walks outlined in sidebars on the right-side pages a great resource that we could tailor to our needs.
We’d already bought a Streetwise Berlin city center map before we left on our trip; however, thanks to TA Member Xxrrttyy’s timely and excellent recommendation, we then purchased the Berlin map by Borch – this is far easier to use even if slightly bigger in size. Both are laminated. The Borch map is one of the best purchases we made – thank you *very much*, Xxrrttyy.
As I said before, the train/metro map given by BGV was another great help to us throughout our stay. With just these two in your daypack, you’ll be ready to explore the city to your heart’s content.
At the tourist information office next to the Brandenburger Tor, we also bought a Busline 100 Map/Pamphlet ( it’s titled 100 but is good for both the 100 and 200 buses) because : 1) it was freezing,so we stepped into the office for much-needed warmth and felt we *had* to buy something ( ;-) in return; 2) we thought we might as well take this bus back to Unter den Linden and the Deutsches Historisches Museum instead of walking in the biting rain and cold. The map cost us E 1.95; it is useful if you plan on taking either bus 100 or 200 at least a couple of times as it outlines the route and gives brief information about each of the sights on the way. The drawback is that these buses are also ‘regular’ ones used by Berliners and are usually crowded – at least the one we took was standing room only. So we really couldn’t get a look at the sights passing by and had no time or space to read the information on the pamphlet . We were afraid we’d miss the stop as we heard no announcement, so we spent the short ride bending down and trying to peer through the windows to locate our stop, lol. The map is a nice souvenir of our trip, though!
Lastly, I’d recommend all first-time travelers to Berlin to read and print out two great Traveller Articles posted on TA Berlin Forum – one by Fraporter and one by Lynda. Here are the links to both:
We chose to go with the Famous walking tour given by Insider Tours, on the morning after we arrived. The tour cost E 8.50 (discounted price with the Welcome Card). Due to the inclement weather, we took the S-Bahn from Friedrichstrasse station to Hackescher Mkt which is just one stop away. We waited at the meeting spot opposite AMT coffee, sent grateful thoughts to TA member Abalada who had posted a photo of the spot for me on the forum :-), got tired of waiting ( we were early), walked around, ended up at a small bakery( bakerie) on the opposite side, where we enjoyed a breakfast of croissants and coffee and tried to look as if this was something we’d done a hundred times before in Berlin, hehe. Walked back to AMT, waited longer, started shivering, got another coffee from AMT just so we could sit on the dry benches under the umbrellas outside the shop and finally set off on our tour after our guide had collected some latecomers to the group. The tour covered a number of attractions including the car park raised over Hitler’s bunker, Fassbender Chocolates ( from the outside, sadly! – but just looking at the window display of a huge chocolate Brandenburger Tor left us awestruck as well as salivating), Bebelplatz ( to look down through the glass, see the empty shelves representing the Nazi book-burning there and to imagine that moment gave me goosebumps), Gendarmenmarkt with the lovely French and German cathedrals on either side of the Konzerthaus, the Air Ministry building on Wilhelmstrasse, Checkpoint Charlie ( teeming with tourists and quite ruined by the fake” soldiers” with whom every tourist seemed to want to pose for a photograph in front of a replica of the guard building… but thrilling for us, all the same because of its Cold War history; we did skip seeing the museum later on, thanks to a tip from Lylou), Berliner Dom ( got great pictures there), a part of the original Berlin Wall, the Museumsinsel Complex ( from where we also could see the golden dome of the Neue Synagogue shining against a rain-gray sky), Humboldt University ( from the outside), the moving Kathe Kollwitz sculpture in the Neue Wache, etc., ( oh, and a stop for lunch at a place called Logano where we had hot tomato soup and used the restrooms, whew), and ended at Pariser Platz and the magnificent Brandenburger Tor.
Although such a tour is a good way of getting one’s bearings in any new place, in retrospect, we think we’d have better accomplished that by taking the 100 and 200 buses all the way to the end and back – and then exploring on our own. We had planned the bus rides for the evening before but because we were delayed at the airport due to our damaged suitcase, we had to scratch that plan as we were tired and jetlagged and it was already dark.
We could not stop for long at each of the sites on the walking tour; often we could not hear what the guide was saying; on one or two occasions people got briefly separated from the group as some walked slower than others. The tour lasted 4 hours ( lunch break included). Almost all of the information given by the guide is available in any good guidebook or online on anumber of good sites. This tour is probably best for: those who are in the city for just a day; for business travelers who don’t have much time outside meetings; for people who don’t know anything about Berlin and its storied history or who don’t like reading up on it before their trip!
Highlights of our trip besides the Brandenburger Tor:
We booked this tour in advance ( a must) via e-mail and got a very courteous reply complete with an impressive eagle masthead. We were asked to come at 9.30 a.m on Wednesday; there was only one other person who had signed up, so it felt like a private tour. Our guide was dignified, professional, polite, patient and full of information – she gave us one of the best tours we have ever experienced anywhere. Before we got into the building, we had to go through a security check of our bags; it was done so efficiently and so thoroughly that we wished TSA could have seen it, hehe. We were each given a fascinating booklet titled German Bundestag- Facts- The Bundestag at a Glance; we visited the impressive plenary chamber, the non-denominational chapel, saw still-standing parts of the old Reichstag walls( on which Russian soldiers had scrawled their names) which were incorporated into the new building along with parts of the original ceiling. At the end of the tour we were allowed to explore the glass dome area on top, Norman Foster’s stunning creation. From there we had rain-drenched, panoramic views of Berlin. This is one tour no one should miss when visiting Berlin.
2)Haus der Wannsee- Konferenz:
Wannsee looked so peaceful, almost bucolic, when we finally reached it after a train ride, then took a bus to the historic villa. The early-20th century villa is an architect’s dream and overlooks tranquil grounds and a lake, yet this was where the plan to massacre millions of European Jews was discussed and put into motion, in 1942. The exhibits in the villa are understated in their display which makes them all the more eloquent. It’s so hard to grasp the magnitude of the horror hatched in this place when all around it is Nature’s serene beauty.
3)Glienicker Brucke ( Glienicke Bridge):
Scene of three Cold War spy exchanges between the US and the Soviet Union, this green-patinaed bridge still shows traces of the original border line that separated West Berlin from East Germany. Since we are both WW2/Cold War buffs, we spent quite some time on this bridge, imagining the drama of the exchanges. It was empty of all traffic except for an occasional bus so our imaginations really went wild :-). The bridge spans the Havel river and we watched a splendid cargo ferry crossing beneath us. Bare-limbed trees dotted the river’s banks and the sun glinted on gray-blue water. Potsdam ( and Cecilienhof) beckoned temptingly at the other end of the bridge but we had to turn back, due to lack of time.
Back at Wannsee, we had a simple lunch at Kebab Haus, opposite the bus terminus, overwhelmed by our visit to this historic area at one edge of Berlin.
4)Deutsches Historisches Museum:
You need time to do justice to this wonderfully comprehensive museum dedicated to Germany’s history. It is the oldest building on Unter den Linden and was formerly the Zeughaus ( Royal Arsenal). There is a section of the Berlin Wall here as well as an original Trabant car, exhibits from Nazi Germany and a great photography exhibit on an upper level with some photographs from WW2. Striking reliefs line the upper walls of the courtyard – The Dying Warriors. Unfortunately, we could not linger there because staff were setting –up for some event taking place that evening.
5)Guided tour of the Hohenschonhausen ( Stasi) prison:
The only guided tour in English was on Wednesday afternoon at 2.30 p.m so after our tour of the Reichstag we headed here. We called ahead to let them know we were on our way; somehow (and as is usual with us on any trip we take, sigh) we managed to get lost, after getting off at Genslerstrasse and not spotting any signs to guide us further.
This was where we had the most interesting encounter of our trip. Wandering around, looking desperately for the Hotel Kolumbus as a landmark, we came across two matronly women who appeared to be in their late sixties, walking a dog and animatedly chatting with each other. Hoping they’d understand my German (I’d learned a few phrases before our trip), I said, “Entschuldigen sie, sprechen sie Englisch?” Their faces beaming, they launched into a barrage of German, none of which I understood except for ‘nein” at the very beginning. “Gedenkstatte Stasi?” I said and because I blanked on the word for ‘where’, I gestured enquiringly with my hands. The woman who owned the dog promptly grabbed hold of my arm and signaled that we should walk with them. So we did, and believe it or not, they included me in their conversation as if I spoke and understood German, hehe. And the funny thing was that I *did* understand, from their words, expressions and gestures, that they were saying they knew a lot about the Stasi because they had grown up with Stasi around them in that very place. I’m sure they even told me that they knew of some still-surviving Stasi who lived close by – amazing what facial expressions and body language can offer when combined with words that are faintly recognizable! Since it was now close to 2.30 p.m and we were worried about making it to the tour on time, my other half started walking faster, ahead of them, looking left and right for any signs of the prison or the hotel. The woman holding on to my arm, looked at me, then looked at OH, clapped her hands and cried out, “Halten!” in such a commanding voice that OH automatically stopped. She waved OH vigorously over, shaking her head at OH’s apparent cluelessness. Telling me to keep OH in check (at least that’s what I told OH she said ;-)) she and her companion continued strolling (to our despair) - then stopped, pointed..and there it was! We threw in every kind of Danke we knew- Danke Schoen, Danke Vielmals, Tausend Dank, Vielen Dank – to their glee, for they clapped and waved and sent us on our way, calling out Auf Wiedersehen over and over, until we walked through the gates. Danke, lovely ladies – we will never forget you!
The prison tour had just begun so we didn’t miss it after all. Our guide was a young man ( mid-thirties) with so much gravitas and such passion in his voice as he described the horrors of the prison and took us around the building, that we were all visibly moved by the end of the tour, as much due to his narrative as to the actual sights in the building. Because we felt overwhelmed ( as we had after visiting Wannsee and later, the Stauffenberg Memorial) we went to the café on the grounds to simply sit and digest everything we’d seen and heard, over a cup of coffee.
When we left, we got lost again (sigh). A German woman who had been on the tour with us immediately came to our rescue. She not only directed us to the bus stop, but when she followed later and found us loudly wondering which bus to take (turns out we were on the wrong side of the road) she put us on the correct bus and then accompanied us to the tram, after which we were able to get the train back to our hotel. This was our experience throughout our trip – ordinary Germans voluntarily aiding us and always with a smile. She left us with a wish that we would love Berlin as she did. Aww.
6)Holocaust-Denkmal: (Memorial to the Killed Jews of Europe) :
It was here that I got the most poignant picture of our trip – a single large raindrop on a grey stele. The memorial looks ordinary until you start wandering through the rows of steles. The information center below the memorial adds to your experience after you’ve walked, sometimes dizzyingly, up and down and all around the standing slabs.
I must also mention here the equally simple but evocative memorial in front of the Reichstag with its jagged rows of stone slabs, inscribed with the names of 97 delegates ( Communist and Social Democratic) who were murdered during the Third Reich.
7)Gedenkstatte Deutscher Widertsand ( Bendlerblock):
Former Wehrmacht headquarters and site of the foiled assassination attempt on Hitler by von Stauffenberg and others. We spent a long time here; Stauffenberg’s office upstairs is now the site of a splendidly curated exhibit about him and the attempt. The spot in the courtyard where he was executed and the simple wreath on the wall moved us so much - we just stood there for ages contemplating man’s bravery and courage.
8) Pergamon Museum:
We mention only *this* museum among those in the Museumsinsel complex because we had time to visit only this one; however, it would stand alone no matter where it’s located. We visited it in the late evening when the sky was dark; we actually stopped a poor man who was hurrying home from work ( overcoat, briefcase and all) and asked him where the museum was – when it was hardly half a block away! He was so sweet; he took the time to tell the two biggest dolts he must have ever met, that if we just kept walking we’d see it in two minutes. Then he hurried along, smiling away our thanks. Oh, you lovely Germans! :-)
The museum was beautifully lit up outside. As others have said, there is no grander sight inside than the Pergamon Altar. The Ishtar Gate was our second fave but the entire museum is a treasure trove of unique artifacts /structures that you simply have to see to believe. At the end of our visit we were also lucky to be able to see, with no additional charge, the Tell Halaf exhibit, a painstakingly reconstructed and restored sculptural display from the Tell Halaf Palace ( location is now in Syria) dating to the 1st millennium BCE ; all the artifacts were destroyed in WW2 bombing and have finally been put together over 60 years and placed back on display. Magnificent!
With the Pergamon visit we ended our mini-trip to Berlin (sadly and reluctantly).
We saw and did lots of other things such as:
A leisurely stroll on Kurfurstendamm, window-shopping at stores like the House of Villeroy and Boch, people-watching on its wide sidewalks, admiring the sculptures ( I did like the interlinked chain sculpture!) and topping it all off with kaffe and kuchen on Ka De We’s seventh floor( yummmm).
A visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Church ruins – ornate, glittery mosaics still on the ceiling and walls, a huge and simple figure of Christ that survived the bombing, and the Coventry Cross.
A visit to the DDR museum (kitschy, not necessarily a must-see for all – but we did like sitting in the Trabant!)
A visit to The Story of Berlin - although the history of Berlin is presented in a very thorough and chronological manner, the exhibits don’t have a feeling of continuity. Our initial delight gave way to fatigue as we tried to go back and forth between the glassed wall displays, reading the almost encyclopedic information in each. At the end of the visit, we toured the nuclear bunker beneath – this was fascinating and I’d recommend it if only to get a sense of the anxiety about nuclear destruction that permeated Cold War Berlin – but since you can’t see the bunker without visiting the Story of Berlin, you ‘ll have to decide. Do go when you have plenty of time, though. Also, the bunker tours are not all in English so enquire ahead about the time, otherwise you’ll have to sit in the lobby, waiting for a couple of tours in other languages to end.
Bahnof Friedrichstrasse – worth visiting if only for its history and the life-like sculptures of children outside- part of a mini-exhibit exhibit titled Trains to Life and Trains to Death. Emotionally difficult to view. The station houses a mini-world of shops and restaurants on various levels and just standing inside on the platforms, made us think of the all the infamous trains that have passed through, from WW2 through to the 1980’s when people crossed between East Germany and West Berlin.
The supermarket at the station and an Asian restaurant that served the most delicious veggie noodles I’ve ever eaten, were lifelines for us on our way back to the hotel after a long day.
Berlin Medizinhistorisches Museum, Charite Hospital: If you are interested in Science/Medicine, this is a great place to visit. There’s a huge display of pathological specimens collected by Rudolf Virchow ; but we went mainly to see the ruins of the magnificent lecture hall where Virchow taught medical students – it was bombed in WW2. Outside the hospital are life-size statues of Virchow and Koch.
Potsdamer Arkaden: We went to the sub-level where the Ampelmann shop is located and I got my souvenir of Berlin to take home – green Ampelmann bookends! Yesss!!!!
Olympiastadion: We decided to take a chance on an afternoon and reached the Olympiastadion exactly when the gates and the Visitor Information Center closed :-(. Nevertheless, we had a fine time, walking all around the stadium, admiring giant statues in the grounds, even took photos of restroom signs ( Herren and Damen), hehe. We loved seeing the street name – Jesse-Owens-Allee. There was an information board about the 1936 Olympics with a picture of the stadium on the day the games opened. Getting to the stadium was an adventure in itself :-).
Fernsehturm: This iconic tower is visible from almost everywhere within the heart of the city; we got our best pictures when it loomed out of the mist and rain. We didn’t go inside or up – it was enough for us to just see it.
Marx-Engels Forum: Saw the statues of Marx and Engels through a barricade – don’t know why it was there. Got a picture taken with the two ;-).
Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten: We had to be content seeing it from Unter den Linden but not up close as it was raining and we were hurrying to get somewhere inside.
The Must-Sees on our list that turned into Couldn’t-Sees:
Due to time constraints, we could not visit a number of places we had eagerly anticipated seeing, such as Cecilienhof in Potsdam, Sachsenhausen, Treptower Park’s Soviet Memorial, the German-Russian Museum, Karlshorst ( thought of TA member Xxrrttyy at all the places we went to that were related to WW2 or the Cold War ), Bernauerstrasse Berlin Wall Memorial, Stasi Museum, Allierten Museum and Flak Tower Humboldthain :-( :-(
We didn’t get to eat at Literaturhaus Wintergarden or at Einstein’s Café and we couldn’t go on a River Spree boat cruise due to the weather. We also had to skip the Berlin Unterwelten Tour as some scheduling overlapped (day and time).
But – we had a *fabulous* time, enjoyed everything we did see, loved our mini-trip and hope to come back one day to splendid Berlin, the city-that-surprises.
Danke! Auf Wiedersehen!