When planning our European vacation, Berlin was a must see city for me but I quickly found out that not many other people felt the same way about it. I don’t think that it has shaken off the stigma it gained from WWII, and the Cold War that followed. I would argue, though, that it is the fact that Berlin is so intertwined with some of the most important events of the 20th century that makes it so interesting. The clash between history and the modern-ness meld together into one of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever been to.We arrived at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) around midday on February 3rd, 2009 after a long train ride from Frankfurt.We had arranged staying accommodations through craigslist.org and were supposed to meet our contact (Norbert) at 5pm at the apartment we were renting in Kreuzberg. In the mean time, we were plopped in the middle of Berlin with all our stuff and decided to take a look around.Berlin is truly a grand city. Immediately noticeable a few steps from the train station was the famous Reichstag. It is an imposing building that sits opposite a vast lawn. This is a popular tourist area and there are a number of signs that will point you towards other attractions. The signs are in German, but will be understood by anyone who speaks English. From the Reichstag we moved on to the Brandenburg Gate, and strolled down Unter Den Linden to Museum Island.
Museum Island holds some of the grandest museums in the world and includes the Pergamon Museum, which holds some of the largest artifacts from antiquity in the world. Included within the stark walls of this world class museum are the Pergamon Altar (the museum’s namesake), the Ishtar Gate, and the Muschatta Wall. This is a museum that is not to be missed by anyone visiting Berlin.
As day shifted to evening, we made our way via U-Bahn (subway) to Kreuzberg to meet Norbert. Kruezberg was an interesting neighborhood inhabited mainly by Middle Eastern immigrants. Our apartment was a short walk from the U-Bahn and the building sat adjacent to a large daily outdoor market. We arrived at the front door of the apartment a few minutes early and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. At nearly half past five, there was no sign of Norbert and we were starting to get concerned. Maybe craigslist was a bad idea?
We were a few minutes away from taking off and finding a hotel when Norbert opened the door to the apartment building. While walking up the stairs through the unheated common space of the apartment building, Norbert turned to us as we shivered and said ‘Welcome to Germany’.
The apartment was a studio with one main living space and a sleeping loft. It was nothing amazing, but was sufficient for our needs. Nearby were the two essentials – laundry mat and grocery store. We capped off the day with some pizza bought from an outdoor stand ‘zu mitnehmen’ (to go).
For the next few days we explored many of the famous attractions of Berlin. Highlights included (of course) the Pergamon Museum, the Altes Museum (Old Museum) which houses the famous bust of Nefertiti, and Schloss Charlottenburg.
Schloss Charlottenburg can best be described as the Versailles of Berlin, except better in some respects. A short, absolutely gorgeous tree-lined walk from the U-Bahn station, Schloss Charlottenburg is situated in a beautiful area of Berlin. We arrived in the morning and were surprised to find that no one was there with the exception of the staff. The palace was huge, void of tourists (much unlike Versailles), and full of period furniture. A person could easily spend a day at Charlottenburg, but we were a bit short on time and had to get a move on.
I’m not exactly one for shopping, and I certainly wasn’t planning on buying a boatload of souvenirs (Reiseandenken!) to lug around for the rest of the journey. Nevertheless, we decided that the shear enormity of the KaDeWe warranted a visit. Inside it looked like a normal upscale mall, but the highlight was definitely the top floor buffet. We left the KaDeWe with a small Berlin Bear magnet, and we continued the practice of buying magnets for at least every country we visited throughout the trip.
Another surprising highlight of our Berlin stay was the Stasi Museum. Located in the former East Berlin, the museum was the location of the old State Security headquarters and it has been preserved as such. It’s provides an eerie look into life before the wall fell in East Berlin.
Our stay in Berlin seemed brief, and it is definitely a city I plan on returning to in the near future. We took a risk by renting an apartment off of craigslist but it paid off for us. By staying a little outside the normal tourist area, we were able to observe what life is really like in Berlin, and even got to play the part of Berliners for a few days. I learned that Berlin is not the city of our parents’ generation anymore. It managed to be both world class and feel cozy at the same time. In fact, of all the great museums and cultural sites the city had to offer, my best memory from Berlin is something entirely mundane.
Our first morning in the city, we got up early to take a walk around the neighborhood. It was just above freezing and we purchased a fresh croissant and a chococinno (hot chocolate and coffee mix) from a local bakery.
We then proceeded to stroll happily down the residential streets of Berlin, croissant and coffee in each hand, freezing our butts off, and loving every minute of it.