berlin, germany

We left Brussels and headed to our next stop: Berlin, Germany. Berlin was unique in a couple of ways but for me especially because I had no idea what we were going to do there. Planning a three-week trip to five countries with less than a month’s notice is a little bit daunting, so when Danny asked how he could help, I suggested he could look up things to do in the cities we were visiting. He was willing to do more, though, and suggested that he could plan an entire stop on our trip. At first I was pretty unsure about this idea – you mean you want to be completely in charge for that segment of the trip? I’m not going to help at all? – but then I realized that I had no choice but to do some outsourcing. I just didn’t have the time to plan it all.

So that’s how Danny became in charge of Berlin. I offered him the chance to write this post on our time in Berlin, but he declined, so I guess you’re stuck with me. Without further ado, our time in Berlin!

We arrived around midday and stopped by our Airbnb to drop off our luggage before walking around Alexanderplatz Christmas market and eating currywurst for lunch. I was incredibly skeptical of the currywurst, to be completely honest with you. For one, at home we eat vegan, and when we eat out, I eat vegetarian and as close to vegan as possible – so meat isn’t really my thing. Secondly, I don’t like curry – at all. But we were aiming to try to local specialties in the places we were visiting (i.e. waffles, fries, and chocolate in Belgium), and in Germany, currywurst and other meats were high on the list.  Well, much to my surprise, currywurst was one of my very favorite things I ate on our entire trip! It was so good!

After lunch, we walked to Berliner Weihnachtszeit Christmas market, which we really liked and found a bit more charming. There was an ice rink in the center, although not many people skating, perhaps due to the fact that it was midday on a Monday or because it was warm enough to have puddles of water on the ice, I don’t know.  We tried a pretzel there, which may have been more attractive than it tasted – it was good, but it was a bit drier than we were hoping.  The market also had great views of the Fersehtum, or the TV tower, which was built between 1965 and 1969 by the East German government.  It was a point of great pride for the DDR government, and from the top you can see 360 degrees and as far as 25 miles away.  It's the tallest structure in Germany, and the second tallest in the EU (it's shorter by only two feet).

From Berliner Weihnachtszeit, we walked to the Berliner Dom, which is Berlin's biggest Protestant church. It was built between 1894 and 1905 and is quite the beautiful sight. We decided not to go inside, as it was rather pricey, so we appreciated it from the outside, and walked alongside the River Spree for a little while.

Along the River Spree and behind the Berliner Dom is the DDR Museum, and probably one of my very favorite things we did in Berlin. The DDR Museum focuses on everyday life in East Berlin, and it’s very interactive, very well done, and very informative. At the museum we got to 'drive' a Trabant (a type of car produced in East Germany), see the interior of an apartment in East Germany under the DDR government, and practice our spray painting skills on a mock Berlin wall. We learned a lot in just a couple of hours, and so much that we had very little or no prior knowledge of.  If you visit Berlin and only have a short amount of time, I’d visit the DDR Museum, and from there walk to the Brandenburg Gate, seeing the Berliner Dom on your way (it is pretty amazing as well, to be fair).

Afterwards it was dark, and as we walked along Unter den Linden (which is Berlin's main thoroughfare going all the way from East Berlin to West Berlin) towards the Brandenburg Gate, we stopped at Bebelplatz. Bebelplatz is a square that has now become infamous as the site of the first book burning by the Nazis in 1933.  Underneath where I’m standing in the following picture is an empty library, with space to hold the 20,000 books that were burned on that May evening.

We kept walking along Unter den Linden till we reached the Brandenburg Gate.  The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin's most famous landmarks, and was a symbol of German division during the time that the country and city were divided, although now it has come to represent unity.  It was beautiful lit up at night, and large as well, although it’s no Arc de Triomphe (size wise).

For dinner, we ate at Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt. According to our tour guide, Danny, it’s the Mercedes-Benz of Christmas markets in Berlin – they even charge a euro to get in (most Christmas markets are free)! It was a bit swankier than others, and thus our food may have even been a bit tastier than others – my soup was vegan and served in a real bowl (which I returned after using and got my 10 euro deposit back), or maybe the atmosphere just made it feel that way. There was even an all-accordion band playing Christmas music while we walked around and ate that was really festive and fun!

We were sufficiently tired and cold after looking at all the booths, so we walked back to our Airbnb, warmed up a bit, and got a chance to meet our host, as he wasn’t there earlier in the day. We spent the rest of the evening chatting with him, his girlfriend, and their friend over a traditional German dessert and great conversation. We went to bed much later than we should have, but we were reminded of some of the joys of traveling and (some reasons) why we love Airbnb – meeting interesting people, learning new things about the world, and trying delicious foods.

On Tuesday we began our day bright and early at the Reichstag. The Reichstag was built in 1894 and after being severely damaged in 1933, it was restored after German reunification in 1990 and is now the home of the German parliament.  It’s free to visit, but Danny had to make an appointment in advance and we had to pass through a security screening in order to go. We chose the morning in hopes of seeing the sunrise from the top of the glass dome, but they let us in late, and instead we got to watch it from the line...I’m sure it was gorgeous no matter where you got to see it from.

We walked around the ramps to reach the top, and were rewarded with a great view of Berlin once we did. The top of the Reichstag is open, so it’s rather chilly inside, but it’s such a neat structure, and when you look down, you can see into the room where Parliament meets. While we were at the top, we were so busy looking around, we forgot to listen to the audioguide, so we did that on the way down. We walked around outside the Dome for a bit, and then headed outside to see the building in the light now that the sun was fully up.

The Reichstag is located very close to a couple of other top Berlin sights, including the Brandenburg Gate. We wanted to see it again, but this time in the daylight. On our way, we came across the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under National Socialism.  Between 220,000 - 500,000 Sinti and Roma people (sometimes called Gypsies), like many Jews, were interned, killed, or deported to camps in Germany or eastern Europe by the Nazis, depending on the country.

Across the street from the Brandenburg Gate is Tiergarten, Berlin's largest and most popular inner-city park. We walked along some of the quiet paths, talking and wondering how beautiful the park must be in the spring and summer, although it was still pretty nice during the winter, just very quiet and deserted. It was mostly just us and a few runners, some barren trees, and a whole bunch of fallen leaves.

After Tiergarten we went to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is a Holocaust memorial that was finished in 2005.  Above ground there are 2,711 concrete pillars of different sizes and shapes, and underground is a museum and information center that tells of the persecution of Jews before and during World War II, as well as many of the different sites where some of the most awful crimes against Jews took place.

We had lunch at Winterwelt at Potsdamer Platz, another Christmas market. This time we had bratwurst, and something that made this Christmas market unique is that there was a toboggan hill in the middle of the market! Danny had planned for us to take a ride down the ‘mountain,’ but after seeing it, we decided against it, as I suppose we’ve gotten spoiled by real snow (and not just a slick surface, as this was) being from Colorado. We also tried out schneeballen, or snowballs in English. We selected the white nougat filling snowball, so it was a bit like a bunch of pieces of shortbread with white nougat frosting and filling. It was good, just not exactly what we were expecting, I think.

On the docket for the afternoon was the Topography of Terror. Located where the SS and Gestapo headquarters used to be found, the museum has indoor and outdoor exhibits (although we only got to see the indoor ones due to the weather and time of day) and gives an overview of the Nazi regime from 1933-1945.  There is also a portion of the Berlin Wall standing outside, and an exhibit focusing on Berlin as the capital of the Third Reich that is open from spring to fall.

On our way back to where we needed to go for the evening, we stopped by Checkpoint Charlie, which was the most famous crossing point of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin when the city was divided by the Berlin Wall from 1961 - 1989. We looked at the small exhibit, but didn’t go into the museum there. Although we were interested in it, we just ran out of time to do everything.

We stopped by Berliner Weihnachtszeit Christmas market again on our way to dinner before meeting up with a friend of a friend, Amanda, at a small German restaurant close to the market. We met Amanda while she was in Madrid just a few weeks prior, and talked to her about our upcoming trip to Berlin, and she offered us some tips as she’s been living in the city for the past few months. Our schedules worked just right, and we were able to meet for dinner, which was really fun. It’s always great to be able to talk with another American living and traveling in Europe, and it was really nice of Amanda to take the time right before Christmas to hang out with us. Danny and I both had currywurst (I couldn’t resist one last time!) and potato salad, and they were both great.

On our final morning we packed up and walked to the East Side Gallery. It was about a 20-minute walk from our Airbnb, and as it was all we had planned for that morning before we went to the airport, once we arrived at the gallery, we walked along it a couple of times. The East Side Gallery is a 1.3 kilometer (0.8 mile) stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been painted by artists from all over the world.  Many of the paintings, though, have been damaged by graffiti or vandalism, and seems to be in a constant state of being repainted/re-graffitied/repainted and so on.

We had lunch at a place Amanda recommended located underneath a train line and housed in a former public restroom. Burgermeister serves, well, burgers and fries. We both got the tofu burgers, and Danny was a fan, and I ate most of mine because it was lunch, but I should’ve remembered that tofu isn’t my fave. We arrived just minutes after they opened, but it seems to be a very popular place - we read online that there often long lines - and I’d recommend it if you’re at the East Side Gallery around a mealtime.

And that just about wraps up Berlin! We didn’t leave quite when we had hoped, as our flight to Bratislava (where we caught a bus to Vienna) ended up being delayed about 3.5 hours, but other than becoming more familiar with Berlin Schonefeld Airport than I’d ever wanted to (we spent about six hours there and I can confirm that there are exactly two electrical outlets available to the public for charging devices and far too few seats for waiting passengers), we had a great time.

Berlin felt cold - not only because of temperature, but the city itself.  Perhaps it was a combination of the Cold War architecture, the difficult history, and the barrenness of winter, but Berlin wasn't the cheeriest stop we made on our trip.  We took in a lot, absorbed a lot, and perhaps should have gone directly Malta to decompress a little bit because Berlin felt heavy.  But at the same time, so important.  What we saw and learned in Berlin is so critical to understanding German history, European history, and world history, and thus, while Berlin may not be our favorite place we visited over the past three weeks in terms  of 'fun,' I think I could make a case that it was the most important place we visited.

We hope to return, because there's still much that we didn't get to see and do, and also because I think that our impression of the city would be different in another season.  Nonetheless, we're so glad we went.  I don't think I have to tell you that Danny did an amazing job of planning our time there - we were there for just about 48 hours (not including all that extra airport time) and saw so many highlights plus ate a bunch of delicious food and still got to spend time in the evenings with our Airbnb host and our new friend Amanda.  Berlin was one of those places, for me at least, where I left a little different - and I'm really glad - I hope we're better people because of what we experienced there.