Most people come to Berlin for two primary reasons: 1. They want to see the history and reflect on the horrors, as well as the joy of when the wall came down; or, 2. They’re interested in the infamous (more than famous) trendy, punk, inclusive, cutting-edge party and club scene.
Berlin is not the European destination to go to for fairytale streets, beautiful vistas, romance, or an abundance of world class food and beverage choices, and Berlin is still very much still a city under construction. Berlin balances is dark past and the still somber monuments to terror found throughout the city, and an exuberant need to celebrate and support individuality.
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend Berlin as your first-ever stop in Europe, we did have a wonderful time. We found the Pergamon Museum to be the most interesting and enjoyable museum in Europe, as it was more architectural and archeological than oil and canvas. (or some ridiculous modern art “installation” of colored lights or a hanging rope in an open room).
Berlin would also be one of our highest recommendations if you’re looking to visit Europe in December. The typically bad weather in late November and December will have less an impact on your trip than other cities in Europe, because there are so many things to do indoors and the must-do monuments certainly don’t need blue skies in order to view them and contemplate the history. Best of all, the many, many Christmas Markets in Berlin are a fantastic way to spend a few hours or a full day. You could easily spend a couple days touring the markets, and they have wonderful food, shopping, atmosphere, and sometimes a live band singing US hits in an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent, which is always a good time.
Being both Jewish and a child of the 80s, touring Berlin on vacation was a weird combination of nostalgia, retrospection, curiosity, and, of course, just plain sadness. There are a million Websites and tours to give you all the information you want to know about the many, many Berlin monuments, so I’m not going to try to inform here. I’ll just share a few of my favorite pictures.
A five minute walk from Brandenburg Gate is the visually powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:
Potsdamer Platz is just another 5 minutes from here. Potsdamer didn’t do much for us, as it’s super commercial and kind of feels like any large city, but just when you think you’re in “any” city, you come across something like this:
Just around the corner from the Potsdamer Platz is the last remaining DGR watchtower. I have to admit, I didn’t expect to find this:
Continuing on down Stresemann Strabe (yes all of these monuments are an easy walk from each other, starting at Brandenburg Gate and walking south), we came across the Topography of Terror exhibit. We recommend both walking the wall and going inside, as the exhibit is very well done.
Just a block to the East from the Topography of Terror is perhaps the most famous of the Berlin attractions: Checkpoint Charlie.
As you can see, the entire walk is about 30 minutes. When you finish at Checkpoint Charlie, we recommend walking a few blocks north to Rausch Schokoladenhaus for some of the World’s best chocolate, or take the Metro a few stops south and try the famous currywurst at Curry 36. Of course, if you go to Curry 36, you really need to try something at Mustafa’s Gemuse Kebap next door. Both are cheap and delicious!
Another one of the popular cold-war era sites is the Eastern Wall. It’s the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall and has been gloriously painted over with all sorts of artistic and symbolic messages of love and peace. It’s nice stroll, but the best part is where the wall ends, you can cross a beautiful bridge, have a cheap hamburger that’s better than most you’ll find back in the states, and then enjoy a visit to the Neun Markethalle. The Nuen Market is a renovated, loft-like marketplace full of local specialties and an absolutely delightful little beer garden: Heidenpeters.
You won’t have room after the burger, but walk around a little and make your way over to the Nuen Markethalle. Have a beer at Heidenpeters and wait until you’re hungry again, then enjoy as many food booths as possible!
The next day we were back on the tourist track and ready to knock out a few other landmarks. The Reichstag Building is a fabulous and unique monument. It’s definitely one you want to get tickets a head of time and don’t be late. It’s a nice stroll up and around the dome and the view are spectacular. There’s even a little café a the top if you need a snack, beer, or cup of coffee.
After the Reichstag visit we took a wonderful walk through Berlin’s largest park, the Tiergarten. Despite it being late December, we somehow lucked out and had clear blue skies and relatively warm temperatures. Perfect morning for a walk.
In the center of the Tiergarten stands the Siegessaule Victory Colomn. Every city in Europe has some tower that needs climbing and this is the tower to climb in Berlin. The first stop on the climb has some incredible mosaics, but keep climbing and you’ll be rewarded with 360 degree panoramic views of Berlin.
After climbing the Victory Tower, we walked over to Kaufhaus des Westens, known by the locals as KaDeWe, to enjoy their famous, indulgent, enormous, and simply delightful 6th-floor food court. On the way, we stopped at one of the better reviewed Christmas markets, that would turn out to be the site of the terrorist attack just 9 days later.
As stated earlier, Berlin is a great city to visit in December because so many of the monuments, attractions and museums aren’t weather dependent. Perhaps our favorite “thing to do” in all of Berlin was the Pergamon Museum. While Berlin is famous for its “Museum Island”, and I have to say we really enjoyed the Neues Museum and Altes Museum, the Pergamon is outstanding. It’s not a museum full of paintings or even artwork, but more of a time machine that shows you actual architecture recovered from past civilizations that feel more like mythology than actual history. Think “Nebuchadnezzar” is just a name for “The Matrix”? At the Pergamon, you can see the actual Ishtar Gate which led the way into the city of Babylon, which was ordered to be constructed by, yep, King Nebuchadnezzar.
Was this the inspiration for Han Solo’s carbonite freezing?
While certainly not as historically significant or grandiose, we also really liked our visit to the DDR Museum. Part of this museum is humorous flashback, but it’s also an educational and insightful look into life in GDR. It’s an interactive museum, and the highlight is a fully recreated flat showing insight into a day in the life in the GDR.
Feeling good and cultured, we decided to make a run to the Stone Brewery just outside of central Berlin. Stone opened the first US-based brewery in Germany and after watching a couple of TV shows about it I decided it was worth the 20 minute cab-ride.
Just before we took off to the brewery, the sunshine and clear blue skies were replaced with fog and drizzle and before we knew it we had the kind of weather we were expecting to have for the entire trip.
With it now dark outside, and our taxi taking us further and further out of the city, I was beginning to second guess my decision to pilgrimage out to the Stone Brewery. This became a third and fourth guess when we were dropped of…here…
It was dark, foggy, and there wasn’t anyone else around as the taxi pointed down the cobblestone street as if giving us directions, and then sped off. While the blue dot on my GPS had us hovering right over the Stone Brewery, it sure didn’t look like it. Fortunately, the entrance was indeed around the corner and I was so happy to see that it was and anxious to get inside that I pulled on the “push” door at the entrance so hard that in popped the hinges and scraped across the floor, making a loud, offending sound that caused the entire room to look our way. The stares made me uneasy so instead of stopping I just kept pulling on the door…it was quite a scene. After apologizing for my obnoxious entrance, we walked into the Stone Brewery, took a deep breath, and began to soak in one of the larger, nicer, modern brewery tasting rooms and restaurants you’ll find anywhere.
In addition to the great beer you knew they’d have at Stone – including a few brews only found here at the brewery – the restaurant was excellent. Duck confit rolls, sautéed mushrooms, and short rib tacos all came out delicious. I’m sure this place gets packed during warmer weather months, but I have to say it was great having this huge, beautiful facility all to ourselves. If you’re a beer snob, this place is worth the trip.
If I haven’t mentioned it yet, Berlin is quirky. All you have to do is look to the official mascot of Berlin, the Ampelmann. One look will tell you how he got his name. In addition to seeing Amplemann stores throughout Berlin, you’ll see him at every streetlight crossing. Below are a few other interesting finds as we walked around.
If you have some free time and you’ve done all the must-do attractions on your list, go on a quest for the Hackesche Hofe. It’s just Northwest of the (overrated) Alexanderplatz, hidden in plain sight. Just to the left of a Starbucks is a small entrance titled “Die Hackeschen Hofe”, off of 40 Rosenthaler Street. Walk through and out of nowhere you’ll find yourself in a lovely Art Nouveau courtyard. The courtyard leads to a maze of 6-7 others, all full of interesting local shops and boutique cafes and restaurants.
If you do visit the Hackesche Hofe, or even if you don’t, it’s worth the walk to find Curry 61 just around the corner. It’s nothing life-changing, but for about $2 you can get a good portion of delicious sausage or hot dog covered in Berlin’s beloved curry sauce. I’m sure it goes great with beer, but it was just fine on its own!
Speaking of beer, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to mention that Berlin has its very own Hofbrau House! While not as enjoyable or (obviously) authentic as the one in Munich, and overlooking how much of a tourist trap it was, it was nice to enjoy a good German Dunkel in a proper liter glass!
Berlin is not the romantic, gingerbread house architecture we love about Bavaria, but there is one small little corner of Berlin that provided just a little taste of that part of Germany. Find the Nikolai Quarter, just southwest of the Alexanderplatz.
If you do make it over to this area, we recommend having a meal at Zur Gerichtslaube. Although this restaurant breaks one of our rules to only eat at places with 4.5 circles on TripAdvisor, we really enjoyed the atmosphere and the Weinerschnitzel was excellent. It also served as a reminder of an old trick that’s fooled us a few times already during our travels… “sausage” = “hot dog” in Germany. Take a look at the “Sausage Soup” we ordered…
If you’re the type of traveler that will go on a quest for a good beer or brewery, then take the Metro just a little bit north of the Mitte District into the Wedding District. There are three excellent beer temples here: Eschenbrau, Hopfen & Malz, and the Vagabund Brewery. We went to Vagabund, and loved it. They had a perfectly chewy stout with just a hint of warmth from chilies that hit the spot on a cold, December night. It’s only about a 2 block walk from the Seestrabe Metro Stop.
On the way back to central Berlin, we stopped at the SchwartzkopfStrabbe Metro stop and walked one block East to Hackenthal’s, where we had reservations for dinner. Hackenthal’s is truly a local gem, run by a father/son team with more locals dining than tourists. As it was just a week before Christmas, we were fortunate to see traditional Christmas Dinner as an option on the menu – meaning slow cooked goose with sauerkraut and dumplings. Anytime you walk into a local restaurant and the only menu is a chalkboard on the wall, you know you’re in for a treat. The goose was sublime, the beer was exceptional, the service was perfect, and we enjoyed every bite.
Finally, I could do an entire blog entry just on Berlin’s Christmas Markets. We went to at least five of them, and they are magical. For my wife, there is certainly plenty of Christmas Spirit to enjoy, but for me, it’s all about the food booths. The one area we both agree: we can never get enough of that magical elixir: Gluehwein!!!!
One final note. As you walk around Berlin, look down, and keep an eye out for small brass squares in front of certain shops, restaurants or buildings. They are called “stolpersteins”, and while there are now thousands placed all over Europe, the first 50 of them were placed in Berlin in 1996. These small plates were placed in front of buildings to commemorate the former residents of those buildings that were among the individual victims of the Nazi’s.
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