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I have wanted to go to Berlin for years. I’m not sure why it took me so long. Since we have traveled to Germany, France and Italy several times, we haven’t made those countries a priority on the Grand Adventure so far. But Berlin was different. I had to go. Berlin for first timers was a whirlwind. And worth it.
We arrived on the Deutsche Bahn train from
Brugge via Brussels on a Sunday afternoon. It had been a very long journey involving three trains and 4:30am wake up. We checked into our Airbnb and headed out to the neighborhood market only to find everything shuttered on a Sunday. So we ate delicious Turkish food for dinner in our very Turkish neighborhood and then fell fast asleep.
With only three full days in Berlin we hit the ground running on Monday morning. Literally. We got up and did an early morning run through our neighborhood park. Refreshed, we stopped at the now open market for supplies before heading back to our apartment to get ready for our day.
Since we are training for the Camino we walked everywhere in Berlin, but Berlin for first timers is easy by subway, elevated train and bus system accessing most of the greater Berlin area. There is also a wonderful taxi system and Uber.
Our first day we walked and walked enjoying the Tiergarten, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and several sites where you can see and touch old remnants of the Berlin Wall. These included the Topography of Terror, Checkpoint Charlie Black Box Cold War Interpretive area, and Potsdam Plaza.
Currywurst with beer
Since we had already eaten one of Berliner’s favorite fast foods (Turkish kabob) we tried the also famous Currywurst . The invention of Currywurst is attributed to Herta Heuwer in Berlin in 1949, after she obtained ketchup (or possibly Worcestershire sauce) and curry powder from British soldiers in Germany. She mixed these ingredients with other spices and poured it over grilled pork sausage.. You can have Currywurst with skin or without (skin being the casing for the sausage before cooking ). We tried it both ways and I preferred with the skin – a nice crunchy texture. That said, Currywurst was not my favorite. On another day we also had Bockwurst. Served with potato salad and I really liked that.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Checkpoint Charlie a recreation
Day two began early with a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, officially titled Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This controversial memorial encompasses 2711 concrete blocks of different heights taking up an entire square block of the city. Underground is a very poignant and somber, yet interesting and thoughtful museum that focuses on families and the humans who lost their lives during this evil period of history.
Black Box Cold War Interpretive Panels
On day two we also signed up for a Free Walking Tour, always one of the things we search out in any city. Of course Free Walking Tours aren’t really “free”. You pay the guide at the end what you think the tour was worth. And our Free Walking Tour in Berlin was the best one we ever did. Our guide Georgia was exceptional. We loved it and I highly recommend New Europe Tours.
On our tour we visited a lot of the same places we had seen the day before, but seeing them with Georgia our guide was a whole different experience. We learned amazing history starting with ancient history of the region right up through the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin wall and of course a great deal of history about Hitler and WWII. It was fascinating.
Car park over the bunker
By the way, throughout Berlin there is almost no reference to Hitler. That is by design. There is a point to not have his name included in most things. In fact, we stood on a car park that is on top of the bunker where he committed suicide. There is only a simple sign, added only recently when Berlin hosted the World Cup in 2006. Did you know Hitler’s remains were dug up from the original burial site in East Germany and dumped in a river? This is so there is no final resting place for this horrible human being and so no one can ever have a place to go and glorify him in any way. The Nazi Swastika is outlawed in Germany.
Following our tour we headed for lunch. We wanted some good hearty German food so we ended up at Augustiner am Gendarmernmarkt. More Bavarian than Berliner but it was delicious. I had Wiener Schnitzel and my husband had a gigantic Eisbein (pork knuckle). No dinner was necessary after the delicious lunch!
Site of the Book Burning
Next we walked to Museum Island, just over the river you’ll find a gathering of Berlin museums. We stopped at the Bebelplatz, where famously the Nazis burned all the books. Here a unique memorial to that fateful event lays underground. Then we visited the Alte National Gallery – Berlin’s best regarded Art Museum. This is certainly no Louvre or Uffizi, but the museum is compact and easy to tour with a lot of German artists as well as nice collection of Impresionist from Renoir to Monet.
We ended our day taking a narrated boat ride on the river Spree. It was a beautiful day and it was fun to see the city from the water and enjoy the narration providing us even more interesting facts about Berlin. There are numerous locations around the city where you can start these boat tours.
The west side of the East Side Gallery Wall
Day three was a walking day. We had over the past couple of days enjoyed seeing some of the remains of the Berlin Wall that are in the city, but the longest remaining part of the wall is actually about six miles from the main city area. So we walked. It was hot, but we enjoyed the walk which took us through Alexanderplatz, where Berlin’s TV tower stands – an iconic modern soaring spire that includes a restaurant on top. You can see the tower from anywhere in the city.
The most famous mural at the Eastside Gallery
Our destination, the East Side Gallery is the name of the mile long portion of the wall, consisting of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world, painted in 1990 on the east side of the Berlin Wall. According to the Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery e.V., an association of the artists involved in the project, “The East Side Gallery is understood as a monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people”, and has more than three million visitors per year. This was something I had seen so many times in photos and I really wanted to see it for myself. It was amazing. A highlight of our time.
You don’t need to walk the six miles to the East Side Gallery. You can take the subway, busses, taxi or Uber as well as several local tours include it.
We wandered back along the river and stopped at the Tiergarten Biergarten to enjoy a couple of German beers as our amazing time in Berlin was coming to an end. The Biergarten in this beautiful park sits on a tiny little lake and you can enjoy pizza and pretzels, gelato and beer. You can also rent a little row boat and row around the lake. Such a pleasant way to spend a sunny day in this fascinating city.
Berlin for first timers could include a few
more things that we unfortunately didn’t have time to do, mainly going up into the observation dome at the Reichstag. You need to make a reservation to do this, and we just didn’t know that with enough advance notice. I wish we had because I understand it is really amazing. Do it if you can.
With a few more days we also would add some live performances. Berlin has a thriving theater and musical performance scenes including outdoor theatre, symphony and opera.
Finally, a great way to see the area would be by renting a bike. Berlin is as flat as it possibly can be, has literally hundreds of miles of bike lanes and paths, including beautiful paths through forested parks and along rivers. On a beautiful day seeing the city by bike would be a lot of fun.
The view from the River Spree
So there you have it, Berlin for First Timers. I really loved this gritty, indomitable city. Even with all the tourists it felt real and raw. I can’t think of another European city that has witnessed so much history and hosted so much strife and animosity and come out shining on the other side.
Berlin for First Timers. I highly recommend it. Fabulous. Fabelhaft!