Berlin is huge! Last time I visited this amazing city, I managed to fit in a ridiculous amount of sightseeing and I remember leaving not only exhausted, but with the realisation that there is simply too much to do. I would have to come back! And, as circumstance would have it, here I am four years later, in an apartment in the quiet suburb of Köpenick, with all the time in the world to explore. Not sure where to start? Here are ten ways to get to know the city better and hopefully start feeling like a local:
1. Brandenburg Gate
This is the first place anyone should visit on a trip to Berlin. Brandenburg Gate announces a grand welcome to this beautiful city, which has been through horrific times, but has come out the other side with a new enthusiasm and appreciation for life. This 18th Century neo-classical monument is located at the beginning of the Unter den Linden and was commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a sign of peace. It was built between 1788 – 1791 and has stood the test of time, especially through World War II, where it underwent considerable damage. The gate has been a significant landmark for many historic marches and parades. Imagine being the lady in the horse-drawn chariot on top and witnessing history unravel in front of you. Brandenburg Gate has seen much turmoil, but now stands for peace and unity in this fresh and vibrant city.
The official house of parliament, this beautiful building, dating from 1894, is another grand landmark in Berlin, with its magnificent glass dome, triumphant pillars and German flags. I am yet to take a tour of the parliament – whilst the visit is free, you must book online well in advance if you wish to see inside. I have booked an appointment for the beginning of September – almost two months away! It was the first available time slot, so you can see it pays to be organised, especially if you are in Berlin for a short time only. The visit will include a trip up to the dome, which I’ve heard offers magnificent views over the city. The great thing about Berlin is that it is a very low city, so uninterrupted views are easy to find. I will look forward to the start of September and report back!
3. War Memorials
When I first visited Berlin, I was unsure how I would react to the horrific history that has gone on here. The aftermath of war is still clearly visible in the neglected buildings, remnants of the Berlin Wall and excessive construction work, which is trying to preserve what is left of the city. However, rather than trying to hide their past (which I suppose is rather impossible), Berlin is full of memorials, acknowledging the terrors of war and the people who suffered greatly during these awful times.
If you want to explore the many war memorials in Berlin on limited time, I would highly recommend a free walking tour, which takes you around a majority of the significant inner-city memorials and offers a comprehensive overview of Berlin’s history. If you prefer to do your own explorations, you won’t have far to walk. A short walk from Brandenburg Gate will lead you to the Holocaust Memorial, where you will happen upon a huge array of ordered grey coffin-shaped boxes, commemorating the millions of Jews that were killed during this horrific genocide in World War II. As you walk into the passage ways, you will notice the boxes getting taller and taller. All of a sudden, you are lost amongst a forest of grey pillars, which seem to run on forever. Occasionally, you see someone appear and then disappear amongst the columns, eerily symbolic of people being lost forever.
Another memorial worth visiting is the Book Burning Memorial in Bebelplatz. You will find this memorial easily, as there will be a huge crowd of people standing around a small, metre square glass window on the floor. Once you make your way to the front and look beneath the ground, you will see huge, white, empty book shelves, which would hold approximately 20,000 books (the approximate number of books burnt by the Nazis in 1933). The memorial highlights the destruction of literature and knowledge by allowing onlookers to sense an immense feeling of emptiness.
The last memorial I will mention here (as there are just far too many to recount in detail) is the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. This highly impressive memorial not only serves to remember the thousands of Soviet deaths in World War II, but also serves as a grave yard. It is hard to imagine the terrors of war when you are wandering around this sunny park, but the images and statues that make up this large area help convey the loss and destruction that tore apart the country.
4. Berlin Wall
When I first arrived in Berlin, I was fascinated to see that parts of the Berlin wall were still standing today. The idea of constructing a physical cement wall around the West of Berlin to stop the movement of people from East to West, is such a ludicrous idea, that it is hard to believe it actually happened. However, evidence of this wall is still seen throughout the city in many forms, which helps foreigners understand just how big and real the divide actually was. When you are walking around the city, you can see where the wall stood by the bricks, which have been laid on the ground as a physical reminder of the division. It is also said that nets were laid under the water of the river to stop people from trying to swim across. This naturally led to many people drowning. Of course, if you tried to climb over the wall, or swim over the surface of the river, you would be shot.
There were only three official crossing points in the whole of the city during this time. You can still visit Checkpoint Charlie today, though try not to be sucked in by the ‘soldiers’ who will take your picture at the ‘checkpoint’ for a mere 5 Euros! It is far more interesting (in my opinion) to soak in the information and historical photographs on the walls nearby.
What is most shocking to me is that the Berlin Wall was only taken down in 1989, less than thirty years ago. Berlin is doing very well, considering this divisive history is so recent. Today, Berlin is a vibrant, multi-cultural city, with a great sense of peace and opportunity. The differences between East and West Germany can still be seen in the architecture and the funny traffic light men, but Berlin is now, most certainly, a unified city.
5. Parks and Gardens
One of the most relaxing ways to spend an afternoon in the Berlin Summer is by taking a picnic in one of the many parks around the city. Tiergarten is one of the more obvious choices, right in the city centre, you can walk through Brandenburg Gate and arrive on the glorious, green lawns, which stretch on for miles. Treptower Park is also a beautiful green area within the city, which also houses the Soviet War Memorial. I will not name all the parks – there are so many that they may deserve a post of their own in the future! Just be sure to take a rug, a bottle of wine, some cheese and crackers and a good book. Yes – it is perfectly acceptable to take your alcohol to the park – you won’t even need to hide it when the police drive past!
6. The Museums
Where to start?! Berlin is museum central and it is hard to know where to begin. I would suggest a trip to Museum Island, where you can choose between a number of museums, galleries and churches. If you are planning on seeing a lot in a short space of time, the museum pass is worth looking into, as the individual entrance fees will add up quickly. The Berliner Dom, my favourite building on the island, can be visited for 7 Euros. Inside, you can admire the beautiful church interior, before taking a climb to the dome, where you can soak in panoramic views of the city. Later, go downstairs into the basement to the second largest family crypt in Europe – a little creepy, but fascinating nonetheless! The Pergamon Museum is my next favourite choice on this island, with a huge collection of Islamic art and Middle Eastern antiquities. Granted, I haven’t explored all the museums yet, but Altes Museum is next on the list, amongst others!
If you are more interested in learning about German history, I would highly recommend visiting the Deutsches Museum, located just next to Museum Island. If you still have time, it is also worth checking out the Topography of Terrors and the Holocaust Memorial Museum (both free entrance), which offer a wealth of information about more recent German history.
7. Exploring the palaces
If you’re anything like me, exploring a good palace is always a delight! There are a number of palaces and castles near Berlin, the most famous being Schloss Charlottenburg, which I will be visiting in the near future. Built in the late 17th Century, with interior baroque and rococo styles, the palace is surrounded by large, formal gardens, with lavish extras, such as a theatre and a belvedere. I cannot wait to see it in real life!
Schloss Köpenick is a smaller, less well-known palace, which has been converted into a decorative arts museum. Being the first palace I visited in Germany, I experienced a small thrill as we walked over the moat and into the open grounds and garden of this beautiful building, situated right next to the river Dahme. We enjoyed admiring this baroque water palace and all the marvels inside, including oriental cabinets and furniture, wall hangings, a large silver buffet collection (which has only ever been used to show off the wealth of the palace) and wonderful, elaborate ceilings covered in paintings and relief sculpture. Originally built in 1558 as a hunting palace, the building has had numerous rulers since, before its conversion into a decorative arts museum in1963.
A few other palaces and castles on my to-do list include Spandau Citadel (a fortress in Berlin) and Sanssouci Palace (the former Summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, located in Potsdam). There are many more palaces around Berlin, which I’m sure will be discovered in due time.
If you’re after a good night out, Berlin is the place to be. With thousands of bars and clubs all over the city, Berlin comes alive at night, with music, drinking and dancing. Not only this, drinking in Berlin is so much cheaper than anywhere in Australia – it’s easy to shout a round of beers, even if you’re on a budget. As it doesn’t get dark until quite late in the Summer (around 10pm), going out starts late, resulting in staying up until daylight and awaking with severe hangovers! Nothing a good kebab can’t fix – and Berlin is full of good kebabs that won’t put you out of pocket. Two euros later, you will be satisfied and ready to pass out in a comfortable bush! Oh, and if the football is on, watch out! Every bar will be showing the match, on several screens – be prepared to see hugs and tears, as well as thunderous applause, when Deutschland scores a goal!
9. German cuisine
When I moved to Germany, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d be eating (aside from the odd pretzel, sausage and lots of beer). It turns out, not all German food is based on sausages! Yes, it is obligatory to try the currywurst (sliced up sausage covered in curry tomato sauce), but you can opt for a vegetarian version, which might not taste the same to meat-eaters, but for us vegetarians, it is delicious! Another traditional German dish is the spätzle, a shredded cheesy pasta that will keep you going all night.
Of course, you can’t go past the fresh bread rolls (Brötchen) for breakfast, covered in slatherings of cheese. You can also enjoy a wide variety of peanuts, that are deposited in little cans from vending machines at night clubs – 1 Euro a tin! Of course, if you prefer something a bit more international, there are thousands of Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants scattered throughout Berlin. The suburb of Neukölln has a particularly large selection of well-priced international cuisine. Here, you can find Arabian feasts, authentic Thai curries and Japanese sushi, from one restaurant to the next. You certainly won’t go hungry!
10. Learn the lingo
Guten Tag! Das ist meine Currywurst – ja, lecker! Well, my German skills are very basic, but they are improving slowly, as I am continually surrounded by the German language. I am particularly proud of my skills in ordering food, though as soon as I seem to open my mouth and speak in broken German, the store owner starts smiling and speaking English to me, which is a relief, I must admit, though not very good for practising. When I have my translator next to me, I seem to be swamped with fast and complicated German, but when I am speaking by myself English pops up everywhere.
Not only this, I hear Arabic, Turkish and Russian words all over the place. No wonder I get confused! Still, I am now enrolled in a German language school and before you know it, my Deutsch will be soaring to great heights! Even though you don’t necessarily need German to get around Berlin, it’s always good fun learning some phrases to impress the locals, even if it means saying that you had “ten Euros of sleep last night”, rather than “ten hours.” Everyone likes a good laugh!
What are your favourite things about Berlin? Have you found any hidden gems that are worth exploring?