Whistle Stop Europe: 2.5 Days in Berlin

[posted after getting to my Prague hotel tonight, but written earlier in the day]

10:46 a.m. I have just bid adieu to Berlin and am writing this on the train to Prague. I thought that this nearly-five-hour train ride would be a good time to write about my last few days in Berlin.

Getting to BerlinI took a Norwegian Air red-eye from JFK Tuesday night — the cheapest flight I could find run by a reputable company. I had a great experience flying Norwegian Air (Dreamliner).  I watched The Imitation Game, which was entertaining but nothing amazing. Forgoing sleep, I arrived in Berlin Schoenfeld Airport at 2 p.m. local time after a brief layover in Oslo.  I took a taxi for 40 euros to the Generator Hostel in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin (very clean and safe, and the location was perfect for exploring the city). In retrospect, I wish I had taken Berlin’s excellent public transportation to get to my hostel, which would have been significantly cheaper (3.3 euros) and probably even faster.

Berlin Itinerary.  I knew very little about Berlin before I started planning for this trip, other than its place in the history books. I ended up enjoying the city very much.  I thought that two and a half days — which included a half-day trip to Potsdam — was the perfect amount of time to see all of the main sites and get a good feel for the city. My itinerary for these two and a half days is below.

Day One (Half-Day):  The first thing I did after landing in Berlin was to take a free walking tour of Berlin with Sandemans at 4:00 p.m., which I highly recommend. I find walking tours to be a great way to get oriented in a new city, especially when there is limited time to explore. The tour lasted 2.5 hours. It started at Pariser Platz and the iconic Brandenburg Gate, commissioned by Frederick II of Prussia in the 1790s. Among other historic events and speeches, the Gate formed the backdrop of President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech.

We then walked to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — a vast field of towering gray monoliths hammered into the ground at slightly different angles and different heights, through which visitors could walk and interpret in their own way. The Holocaust museum lay underneath. The tour guide led us to the next street over to a car park and apartment complex — which she revealed sat on the site of Hitler’s bunker.  A few more streets down, we saw the austere former Luftwaffe headquarters (one of the very few Third Reich buildings still standing and now home to the Finance Ministry) and caught our first glimpse of a standing portion of the Berlin Wall next to the Topography of Terror museum (sitting on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters).  We passed by Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most famous crossings between East and West Berlin (and tourist trap) and the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt public square.

The tour concluded at Bebelplatz, where Humboldt University stands on one side and the State Opera House (currently under heavy construction) stands on the other. Most infamously, Bebelplatz is the site of the book burning of May 1933, when 20,000 books went up in flames. An 1821 quote from German playwright Heinrich Heine is engraved on a plaque in the square: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (in English: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”). Near the plaque, a window on the floor of the square opens into a white room below containing rows upon rows of empty bookshelves — large enough to hold 20,000 books.  I returned to each of these sites on my own over the course of the next two days.

Following the tour, I walked up the Unter den Linden (think German Champ-Elysees) from Bebelplatz to admire the Berliner Dom (Cathedral of Berlin) and then back in the other direction to the Brandenburg Gate to watch it light up after dusk.  For dinner, I had a delicious Kalbsroulade at Lokal, near my hostel.

Day Two:  In the morning, around 8 a.m., I headed to the Reichstag — the seat of the Bundestag (German Parliament) — to see whether there were any last-minute tickets to tour the dome (normally, you need to book months in advance).  I got lucky!  They had ample tickets for the next day, and I booked a visit for the very next morning (note:  you must bring your passport with you to book tickets).  I then took a day trip out to Potsdam and Sansoucci Palace, the summer residence of Frederick the Great (also known as the “Versailles of Potsdam”).  (Tip:  Get an all-day ABC Zone ticket for 7.80 euros).  The train took about 30 minutes — I got off at the Park Sansoucci stop (with the help of a graduate geology student at Potsdam University). The stop was a short walk from the Neues Palace, which stands at the opposite end of the park from the Sansoucci Palace. From there, I took my time meandering through the park (which is made for meandering — a myriad of rambling paths criss-cross the park, dotted with the occasional bust or gazebo) until I reached Sansoucci Palace.

Following lunch, I went to Cecilienhof Palace, which was the site of the Potsdam Conference in 1945, attended by the Big Three – Churchill (later Attlee), Stalin, and Truman – and took a short tour there for 6 euros. The highlight of the tour was definitely the conference room in which the leaders sat to hammer out the Potsdam Agreement.  I got back to Berlin a little past 4 p.m. (so I spent a total of seven hours in Potsdam, which included the travel to and from).

Back in Berlin, I walked through Potsdamer Platz, where the few skyscrapers in Berlin are clustered, to the Topography of Terror museum, where I spent two hours reading up on the chilling history of the SS and how the Nazi party came to wield such total power and control. I had a currywurst dinner (one of the foods Berlin is known for) at Curry 36 and ended the night walking up Friedrichstrasse (the equivalent of Fifth Avenue) and seeing the Gendarmenmarkt lit up — though, inconveniently, all while attempting to dodge and wait out the intermittent pouring rain going on all evening.

Day Three:  I began the day with a self-guided audio tour of the Reichstag dome, which I thought was absolutely stunning (there needs to be a Mission Impossible or James Bond scene set there!).  It also afforded some great views of the city.  After an hour there, I walked over to the Bundeskanzleramt (the personal office of Angela Merkel) and cut through Tiergarten, the big park in Berlin. I particularly enjoyed the Beethoven-Haydn-Mozart memorial and Lowengruppe monument. Emerging on the other side of the park, I walked a short distance to Bendlerblock and the courtyard in which Claus von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators of the July 20, 1944 attempted assassination of Hitler (Operation Valkyrie) were shot. It is now the site of the German Resistance Museum (free), which I browsed briefly.

I walked back through Tiergarten to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and spent 1.5 hours in the museum portion underground. The exhibit that hit me the hardest was a room containing excerpts of correspondence from Holocaust victims to their loved ones, inscribed and lit up on the floor. One postcard was from a 12-year-old girl, Judith Wishnjatskaha, to her father — apparently written moments before she was murdered. “Dear father!” she wrote, “I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly. Yours, J.” I had to take a few moments to compose myself after reading this one.

After this sobering visit, I headed to Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and the Pergamon Museum, where I saw its awe-inspiring reconstruction of the Gate of Ishtar and Processional Way. (Note:  The main attraction of the museum, the Pergamon Altar, is closed to visitors until 2020). Following the museum, I continued my way up Unter den Linden to the Cold War-era TV tower (constructed by East Berlin to demonstrate prosperity) at Alexanderplatz to rent a bike from Fat Tire. For 7 euros, I got a bike, helmet, and lock for 4 hours. I biked down to the East Side Gallery, a 1.5 mile portion of the Berlin Wall covered in graffiti art.  Artists from all around the world were invited in 1990 to paint on this portion of the wall, the most famous painting of which is that of U.S.S.R. leader Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker (based on an actual photograph, I learned; I actually always assumed it was satire). From there, I biked across the Oberbaumbrucke bridge — great view of Berlin at sunset — to the Brandenburg Gate and then back up the Unter der Linden to Alexanderplatz to return the bike. Biking was a fantastic way to explore the city, and I’d highly recommend it!

I spent the rest of my final night in Berlin writing postcards. I slept in the following morning, had a delicious traditional German breakfast at a nearby cafe in the Mitte, and headed to Hauptbanhof (the main Berlin station) to take a 10:46 a.m. train to Prague.

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