written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH
Berlin has it all. Culture. Food. And a rich, if complex, historical tapestry that weaves together strands of genteel old Europe, the horrors of World War II, and the Cold War conflict. Now, a new generation is redefining it all.
What to Do in Berlin
1. Get Oriented
Berlin’s double-decker, hop-on, hop-off bus is an interesting way to get oriented while surviving day-of-arrival jet lag. Spend two-plus hours seeing sites such as Checkpoint Charlie, famous palaces and historic plazas.
2. Museum Island
Berlin boasts a concentration of art museums that has won Museum Island a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
It would take a conscientious museum goer two full days to “do” the five museums here: the Pergamonmuseum Altes Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Bode Museum and Neues Museum. The treasures include Rembrandt paintings and Middle Eastern antiquities uncovered by 19th-century German archaeologists. The original bust of Egyptian queen Nefertiti is here. So is the 6th-century BC Babylonian Gate of Ishtar, from Iraq, a monumental tiled wall built by Nebuchadnezzar, who is mentioned in the biblical Book of Daniel.
3. The Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate
Precious little remains of the infamous Communist-era Berlin Wall, though for decades it seemed a permanent fixture that split the city in two. Erected in 1961 to stop a “brain drain” and immigration out of Soviet-controlled East Germany, the Berlin Wall was torn down thirty years later in a display of populist power that riveted people worldwide.
Today the Berlin Wall’s route is marked by a doublewide cobblestone pathway. You can take a walking tour along part of the Berlin Wall, and view the feisty murals along a one-mile strip of it. Or, just stroll – freely! – through the monumental Brandenburg Gate. Here, East met West, often with hostility and sometimes with violence, during the Cold War.
Near the Brandenburg Gate is the center of modern Germany’s democratic government, the Reichstag, in Platz der Republik. Dating from the late 19th century, this building was mysteriously wrecked by fire in 1933 during the social turmoil of Hitler’s early years; the Nazis used the fire as an excuse to curtail citizen freedoms.
Restored, today the Reichstag is home to united Germany’s parliament. Sessions are held in an uber-transparency that’s meant to symbolize a rebuke of the Nazi past. Visitors can glimpse the business of state being conducted in plain view behind a huge glass window on the first floor. Atop the building are an excellent historical exhibit and a sleek restaurant (which serves breakfast) with views of Berlin sprawling below.
5. Jewish History and the Holocaust
The Jewish Museum of Berlin combines exhibits on Germany’s 300-year-old Jewish history with documentation of the step-by-step degradation, and finally murder, of two out of three European Jews during World War II. Designed by Daniel Liebeskind, the building alone is worth a visit; its unusual architecture is punctuated by evocative empty chambers and shafts of light.
Throughout Berlin are dozens of Holocaust sculptures and plaques: in the once-Jewish garment district, in a park that once housed a Jewish cemetery, at a train track where innocents were “deported” to concentration camps. Peter Eisenmann’s large Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is Berlin’s official Holocaust memorial.
6. Hip Neighborhood of Mitte
Depressed when it was an East German neighborhood, this trendy area is host to an active café life, interesting architecture, quirky one-off boutiques, Asian fusion restaurants – and lots of cool European 30-something artists, designers, and musicians.
7. Food Fun
Berlin’s Bloomingdales is the 100-year old KaDeWe. It’s continental Europe’s largest department store. Check out the food court, which rivals Harrods.
Chocoholics are advised to head straight to the elegant, century-old Fassbender & Rausch, where an upstairs café serves hot chocolate with a view of central Berlin, and the enticing shop displays a chocolate Titanic.
8. Berlin Philharmonic
Both the music and the architecture are world-class at what Berliners call the “Philharmonie,” appropriately located on Herbert-von-Karajan Strasse.
Where to Stay in Berlin
For elegance, try Ellington Hotel near KaDeWe department store. For authenticity, try the frumpier 1920s-era German Askanischer-hof. If it’s a last-minute trip, contact Bookings.com which has an overview of available rooms.
Many hotels rates include a substantial breakfast. But ask about such amenities as free wireless, in-room coffee makers, or gym facilities.
For current cultural listings and tourist tips, check the excellent government tourism site, http://www.visitberlin.de/english.