Munich has the beer, Cologne has the cathedral, and Hamburg has a super-fun miniature wonderland. But Berlin's my favorite German city. Last year, while living in Germany, I spent a long weekend in Berlin and recently spent another few days in the city, sneaking off for a Viator tour of Potsdam. Here is a summary of the highlights:
Let's get into one of my favorite places in the whole city: Tiergarten. In the middle of the Tiergarten, this guy, the Victory Column, is in honor of the 1864 victory in the Danish-Prussian war. The column was moved just prior to WWII, which was good luck for the column; otherwise it would have been decimated in bombings. It's in the middle of a roundabout and there are several underground tunnels to get out to the thing without getting hit by a car.
Tiergarten is chock-a-block full of random things, like this flower garden on an island in the middle of the expansive garden. There are also fountains and bridges and sculptures. Honestly, it's a place you can spend some time in. I realized last year, during my three month travel-spree, I really appreciate a good city garden. The one in Munich is excellent - it has a beer garden! - and Central Park is iconic for a reason, but I really enjoy the Tiergarten.
It has been a park since the 1700s. Before that, it was boar-hunting ground for Prussian royals. Watch out for Robert Baratheon types.
Look at this place! On my Central Park tour, the guide mentioned how there are limitations on building size around the park to limit how much the city can impugn upon the nature of the gardens. No offense, Central Park is a gorgeous piece of greenery in the middle of chaos and I love it, but that is bullshit. It's impossible to walk around Central Park and forget you're in the middle of a big city. Skyscrapers are always visible, car horns always audible. The Tiergarten, on the other hand, has accomplished this masterfully. It's quiet, it's peaceful, it's green. And it's in the middle of a huge city.
Also in the Tiergarten? World-famous Berlin Zoo! This is from last year but, honestly, if I had an extra hour or two this past weekend, I would have gone back. First, I really love zoos in general. Second, this is a really great zoo! It has the usual suspects but also more Australian animals than I've encountered before and also mountain goats! On a pseudo mountain! The zoo in general was well laid out and not that expensive. It's world-famous for a reason, promise. More importantly, look how close I got to this lion! I don't know if it's evident on this blog yet, but I am a certified cat lady. There was this closed space where you could hang out with the lion, who was taking a break, and also see a window into the tiger enclosure. The tiger was hanging out right next to the window! It was very exciting.
This is the Holocaust Memorial. It consists of around 3000 slabs of concrete. When I first saw it, my honest reaction was, this is it? What the heck? It's just around the corner from Bradenburg Gate and Tiergarten and I was disappointed. What is this? Then I started walking...
The piece means to demonstrate the nonsensical nature of the Holocaust, to be uneasy and unnatural, and to demonstrate how far we strayed from the natural human order.
And it definitely captures this. Walking among the slabs, it's easy to get lost and disoriented. People slip in and out of your view. You turn a corner and don't know where you are, what you'll see. The slabs get tall quickly, you walk up and down inclines.
Nearby is the site of Hitler's bunker. An underground lair built towards the end of the war, Hitler spent the last few months of his life here. It's where he committed suicide. Today, it's a shitty parking lot in Berlin with nothing but a sign to commemorate its historical significance. Nearby is a modern mall. It's all very fitting.
Just around the corner from Hitler's bunker and the new Mall of Berlin: Potsdamer Platz! Side note - Berlin is a very walkable city. A lot of the major sites are within a couple of blocks. The only thing really requiring a hop on the train is the East Side Gallery, which is way over on the East side (get it?) of the city. Everything else just walk to. Meaning - when you book a hotel, make sure you're near Museuminsel, Freidrichstrasse, or Tiergarten.
Potsdamer Platz was destroyed during WWII and cut in half during the Cold War. Today, it's a hopping city center, the site of major downtown buildings. As pictured, we also have a few remnants of the Berlin Wall here.
Just down the road from Potsdamer Platz is one of my favorite sights in Berlin: Topographie Des Terrors. This museum, built upon the remnants of the Gestapo headquarters, details life in Berlin from the end of the Weinmar Republic to the beginning of the Cold War. It's informative and well-put-together and on an important site. And free! Also, taking something macro and big and complex like WWII and focusing just on life in Berlin is a great way to break into the subject and focus on one piece of the war while also attempting to understand the bigger picture. There's another exhibit inside that is also free. I highly recommend dedicating a few hours here. It's a great piece of work and will help one appreciate the city and its history.
Just down the road from Topographie (seriously, everything is in the same couple of blocks) is Checkpoint Charlie. Side note: when I looked at this in thumb nail, I really wondered why I took a picture of a McDonalds. Checkpoint Charlie was one of the major gateways between East and West Berlin and is a remnant of the division across Germany. There are several museums in the area. I recommend checking out whatever you have the time for. It's become very commercialized and touristy but it's an essential part of the city.
And now we come to Gendarmenmarkt, a major square in the city. The square is comprised of two churches (one French, one German) and the concert hall. To be honest, I don't remember which church was which, but I was able to go up the tower of one of them for a nice view. The square itself is fun - lots of street performers and restaurants. I had lunch here one day. Aside from good food, it also offered prime people watching.
Near Museum Insel is Bebelplatz. It was the site of one of the first Nazi book burnings in the 1930s. Today, it's a site of free libraries and a great place to sit and relax on a Saturday afternoon.
Circling back to Tiergarten, here is Bradenburg Tor, at the entrance to the Tiergarten. The two weekends I was in Berlin, both had serious happenings around this gate. The first weekend, some type of fair that included food booths and live music. The second weekend, it was the starting off point for the Berlin marathon.
Haribu market at the Gate - Germans have their priorities going at least.
The Reichstag, near the Tiergarten. It's home to the German federal government.
The dome on top of Reichstag. First, there's an elevator to take you up! After schlepping up several sets of stairs across Europe, primarily in churches, elevators are appreciated. As for the dome itself, it's a nice view, especially of the Tiergarten. It's free to go up, but you do have to make a reservation ahead of time. It's worth the hassle. I showed up right when the office opened and was able to get in for later that night.
Back over to Museum Insel, here is Neue Wache. Originally a guardhouse for Prussian royalty, it's been a war memorial since 1931. When I visited, there was a painted message outside: 'Nationalism ist keine Alternative.' Yeah, they would know.
Right next to the Neue Wache, and almost to Museum Insel - is the German History Museum. Literally centuries of history here. It's extensive and overwhelming. I enjoyed the museum but was walking quickly by the time I made it to the last century or so. It might need to consumed in chunks. Also, pictured here is the side of the museum that runs along Museum Insel. This section is filled with artisan stalls on the weekends. If you're looking for an easy and quick souvenir, check it out.
The Berliner Dom, also known as Berlin Cathedral. Built in 1905, it actually isn't a cathedral as a bishop never called it his residence. The more you know! Impressive and massive on the outside, the church is surprisingly delicate and intricate on the inside.
Inside the cathedral, a bit of a walk gives you a nice view of Berlin. The hot air balloon was up both times I visited. It's a handy marker for Topographie of Terrors, which is nearby.
And now we get onto the Museum Insel, starting with the most impressive. Pictured here is the interior of the Pergamon Museum. It's most famous piece is unarguably the Ishtar Gate, a Babylon city gate from 500 BC. There are several other Egyptian and Arabic artifacts. A Roman wall. Incredible and crowded and be prepared for a line. If you only have time for one museum, it should be this one.
Next up: The Neues Museum. The building was decimated during WWII and the reconstruction, opening in 2008, has won several architecture awards. While the architecture is certainly interesting, the stuff on display is nice as well, mostly early history and Egyptian history. The most impressive might be the bust of Nefertiti. I couldn't take a picture of it but it was beautiful and so well made, a person and artist reaching across the centuries to you.
The other famous artifact and the one I can take a picture of: Berlin Gold Hat. One of four such hats, this specimen dates back to 1,000 to 800 BC. The complex symbols across the hat represent a lunisolar calendar. The museum also provides plenty of information on the object. The hat and the bust both have a room dedicated to each one.
Up next: the DDR museum. This interactive museum provides a peak at daily life in East Germany during the Cold War. It's an excellent museum, offering insight into everything from nude beaches, hand grenade play at school, and a knock off version of the VW Beetle. I actually came here twice - once last year and again this year. I only lasted five minutes last year because the place was crazy crowded and I spent the entire trip looking at the backs of other tourists. This year, I was there right when the doors opened and had a much better experience. Early bird is worth it!
Next stop: the Natural History Museum. It's a natural history museum, with lots of variety of animals and plants, if that's your sort of thing. It does have a unique claim to fame - this guy pictured here is the largest dinosaur in a museum. Neat!
Pictured is a very small part of the East Side Gallery. It requires a train ride from the heart of Berlin (one of the few spots that is not walkable) but the trip is worth it. Here, 1.3km of the Berlin Wall have been preserved and are covered in murals. It's interesting to see the wall as is but some of the art is truly fantastic.
Finally, Berlin is a fun city. There are plenty of bars and nightclubs for those looking for entertainment. I had spent one evening at Strandbar Mitte, a bar along the Museum Insel. Great for people watching as the place had dancing lessons going on while I was there.
And now on to Potsdam! I did a guided tour that took a train from central Berlin to Potsdam, then a bike tour around Potsdam itself before heading back to Berlin. The tour took most of the day but was a great way to see Potsdam.
First stop in Potsdam was the Altermarkt, which marks the beginning of downtown Potsdam. The square was surrounded by beautiful, ornate buildings. That are a total lie - this square was decimated during WWII or were only rebuilt in the past few years.
This is the image from all the guide books. Park Sanssouci was built by Frederick the Great as a summer palace. It's modeled after Versailles and is beautiful. If I wasn't doing a tour, I probably could have spent a day here, just exploring the grounds. The castle itself is on the small side but still elaborate.
Another view of the grounds at the base of the castle.
Like Versailles, the grounds are spotted with intricate structures like this one, the Chinese House.
This one housed servants. Seriously. Also, following WWII, many Potsdam and Berlin residents found themselves homeless and these buildings were converted into temporary housing for these individuals. One of the people in my group suggested we do the same for Syrian refugees today. Tourists seem to always have answer.
Poor Frederick the Great. He always wanted to rest at the Park, buried next to his hunting dogs. It just took him four tries and two hundred years. After his death, he was buried next to his father in a church. During WWII, Hitler had his coffin moved to salt mine for protection. Hitler was a huge Frederick fan but the joke is on him, as Frederick was probably gay, and we all know how Hitler felt about homosexuality. After WWII, his remains got moved around a couple of times until, finally, in 1991, he was moved to the Park and buried next to his beloved dogs.
Why the potatoes? Frederick was the guy who convinced Prussians that potatoes were actually edible. Prior theory was that any root vegetable would soak up dead human juice in the ground and was therefore a bad idea to consume. Frederick convinced them otherwise, frequently dining on potato dishes. And if it's good enough for the King... As someone who has been dining on German cuisine for a year now, let me tell you, his plan stuck.
Next up, we have Cecilienhof Palace. Built during WWI, the palace was intended for the Crown Prince. But instead the dynasty came to end. The palace was only briefly lived in but had a much larger role in history after WWII: the site of the Potsdam Conference. Pictures were no-no but I did get to check out the offices of Churchill, Stalin, and Truman, including the place where the order to drop the bomb was given and the grand room the three Allies agreed upon German bifurcation.
Nearby, we have the Bridge of Spies. Like from the movie! This is the actual place where spies were exchanged. This became a frequent practice during the Cold War. However, the Russians deployed way more spies than the Americans to the point that the exchange became rather lop-sided, one American being traded for as many as seven Soviet spies. Thanks for the reminder that I really need to watch The Americans.
Finally, note that the bridge is two different shades of green. Soviet/American communication during the Cold War at its finest.
And we wrap up back in Berlin, where they're really proud of their Ampfelman.
In general, Berlin is a fun, modern city with a little bit of everything - excellent shopping, world-class museums, tons of history, and a thriving nightlife. The latter is according to my hostel roommates, who came in every morning around five after dancing the night away. This was around the time I was getting up to start my day... Curmudgeon behavior in transition already.