I have lost count of how many times I have visited Paris. Obviously there is something that pulls me back there again and again. However, after my first Berlin vacation, I found a new “love.” I could describe the city as Germany’s “Paris”, with its wide boulevards, interesting architecture, quality cultural scene, dining possibilities, and much more, but both cities definitely have their own character and individuality.
Considering the upheaval Berlin went through after World War II, it is not surprising it has been almost totally reconstructed. My first visit to Berlin was when the West and East sectors still existed. West Berlin appeared to be sophisticated and charming, whereas East Berlin was run down, dowdy, and not offering the visitor very much, except a peep into a segment of the city which had seen much better days. The two sectors were separated by a large tract of space which was a no man’s land and just a barren wasteland.
My second visit was well after the reunification of the two halves, and I was taken aback by the changes to the original Eastern sector. I hardly recognized it! What we now have is a Berlin absolutely transformed, and a city which figuratively had “risen from the ashes.” The wasteland to which I refer had disappeared and been replaced with the most modern of buildings and structures imaginable.
So, let‘s delve into why you should go on a Berlin vacation to begin with, apart from a natural curiosity to see how it has evolved. First let’s look at some of the major changes since reunification. The Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961 and lasted until 1990, was originally 140 kilometres/87 miles long. Today, only approximately 2 kilometres/1.2 miles of the wall is still intact. To appreciate the wall, head to the East Side Gallery, a section of around 1.3 kilometres/.8 miles, which consists of over 200 murals painted by international artists, and possibly the largest and longest lasting open-air gallery in the world. The paintings express political, social, and cultural themes from the time of the reunification. Check Point Charlie was the check point between the American sector and Eastern Berlin. On its original site stands the Check Point Charlie Museum, where you will find displays, photos, and related memorabilia about successful escapes from the East at the time. Hitler’s Bunker may be deemed as somewhat gruesome, but it is now an interesting and informative open-air display with photos and information about the period. The Potsdamer Platz is one of the most transformed sites. Built on the wasteland that divided the two sectors, it is now a very contemporary plaza with modern highrise office buildings and also contains many restaurants and shops. The Sony Centre here is an eye-catching monolith of glass and steel, featuring an unusual roof with an observation platform.
For culture lovers, a Berlin vacation is hard to beat!
Museums and Art Galleries
Can you imagine anywhere else an island sits in the middle of a city almost totally devoted to museums and art galleries? Berlin’s Museum Island houses five of Berlin’s major cultural centres. These include the well known Pergamon Museum, with its impressive collection of ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek artifacts, The Bode Museum with its sculpture collection, said to be one of the most comprehensive in Europe, as well as its Byzantine art and old numismatic collection of 500,000 coins and medals, the Altes (Old) Museum which houses the Museum of Antiquities (ancient Greek and Roman decorative art and a large coin collection), the Neues (New) Museum, which includes Egyptian antiquity artifacts, the highlight of which is a bust of Queen Nefertiti dating back to 1360 BC., and the Old National Gallery, with its fine collection of 19th Century paintings from the Impressionist period, including works by famous French impressionists such as Degas, Monet, Manet, and Renoir. A day ticket is available permitting entrance to each museum.
On the subject of museums, the Jewish Museum is a very striking and poignant one. The unique building was designed by Daniel Libeskind. The exhibits relate to the Jewish social, political, and cultural history in Germany from the 4th Century to the present. One more venue to visit is the Neue (New) National Gallery, home to a collection of 20th century art, with masterpieces by artists such as Picasso and Klee. One highlight is a picture by the German artist, Kirchner, of the Postdamer Platz.
Our Guide to Museum Hopping in Berlin
For aficionados of architecture and music, your Berlin vacation offers two exceptional venues. The Staatsoper (Berlin State Opera House) is a beautiful, ornate building dating back to 1741, located on the Unter Den Linden, and is one of Europe’s leading opera houses. The Berliner Philharmonie, home to the famed Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, is acclaimed for both its acoustics and its architecture. The contemporary style of the building is unique both inside and out.
The best known two streets you should visit on your Berlin vacation, are the Kurfurstendamm and the Unter Den Linden. The former is in the original western sector of the city and hasn’t really changed since reunification. It is a sophisticated street, considered the “Champs Elysees” of Berlin, and is lined with shops, houses, hotels, and restaurants. In particular, many fashion designers have their shops here. The latter has gone through a total transformation. It now has a unique charm of its own, with many beautiful buildings on both sides of this wide boulevard. At one end is the impressive and stately Berlin Cathedral. Then, there is the aforementioned Opera House, the Berlin City Palace and beautiful Palace Bridge, and the Humboldt University building. Look out for the Hotel Adlon, a traditionally-styled luxury hotel which will catch your eye.
Other major landmarks include the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark and a symbol now of peace and unity. It stands on the western side of the originally divided city and was designed as far back as the late 18th Century, inspired by the Acropolis in Athens. The Reichstag, home of the German parliament, is close by and has gone through many reconstructions. Be sure to go onto the large glass-domed roof for a 360 degree view of the surrounding cityscape. Entrance to the roof is free but you must register in advance. The Reichstag looks amazing when illuminated at night.
You can’t miss Berlin’s major green lung, the Tiergarten, the largest and most popular park in the city. A former hunting ground, it is a great place to just stroll around, with its landscaped gardens, ornamental lakes, and small zoo. It is truly a park of great beauty, with diverse landscapes for you to discover on your Berlin vacation.
Charlottenburg Palace is Berlin’s answer to Versailles. It is an exquisite baroque building with opulent private apartments, festival halls, collections of precious porcelain, and paintings by French 18th Century masters. It was built at the end of the 17th century and greatly expanded during the 18th century. You can stroll around the gardens with its shady avenues and manicured lawns. The gardens are a gem, modelled on the decadent style of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King.
Every city has neighbourhoods, and as you’ll discover on your Berlin vacation, this city is no exception. Here each neighborhood is as uniquely fascinating as it is different. Some of my favourites include Prenzlauer Berg, which was once a poor downtrodden district, but has now been gentrified and become more upscale. For Berliners, it is one of the most sought after neighbourhoods to live and work in, with its trendy designer boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, bars, and cafes. Another neighbourhood is Kreuzberg, which for decades was a district for hippies, creative types, and liberal-minded thinkers. The neighbourhood has a rich cultural flair, as many Turkish immigrants call Kreuzberg home. Street art can be seen with the countless graffiti work and wall paintings that line the streets. It is just a short walk to the East Side Gallery. Friedrichshain has a bohemian air about it. With its mix of architectural styles ranging from high-rise buildings to 19th century town houses, it is popular due to its alternative bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and coffee shops. Not exactly a neighbourhood, but a special place is the Hackesche Hofe. This is basically a courtyard complex situated adjacent to the Hackescher Markt. It consists of eight interconnected courtyards accessible through a main arched entrance. The complex was designed in the Art Nouveau style. All around the courtyards are numerous bars, restaurants, and clubs. It is now a trendy place to visit at night. The Alexanderplatz is basically a fairly dull plaza, but close to some interesting buildings such as the traditional seat of city government, the Rotes Rathaus, the former East German parliament building, the Palast der Republik, and the Berlin TV Tower, which has a visitor platform for panoramic views of Berlin and a revolving restaurant.
Two personal likes, while on a Berlin vacation, and both very different from each other, are a cruise on the River Spree and shopping (or simply browsing) at the KaDeWe department store. The River Spree cuts right through Berlin, allowing for river cruises which show off the city from a different perspective. Cruise lengths and themes vary, but you are assured a glimpse of many of the highlights of the city. The KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus des Westens) is known to every Berliner by its nickname. We are talking here about the city’s Selfridges of London and Galleries Lafayette in Paris. It is Europe‘s largest department store, offering a fantastic range of merchandise for those with a larger budget. My first time of entering this store, I was immediately struck by its ambience. This was no ordinary shop. I simply roamed around, discovering little bars offering everything from champagne to chocolate and truffles. I do suggest lunch on the 7th floor in the Wintergarten, where you can eat while enjoying some breathtaking views of the rooftops of Berlin.
I could go on about other things to see and do on your Berlin vacation, but space does not allow me to. Therefore, I suggest you go there and find out for yourself just how much is on offer. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.