Travel Notes: Berlin

In May and June of 2011, I spent 5 weeks traveling around Europe. This post is one of a series chronicling the different places I visited on that trip.

Ah, Berlin. I really, really loved you. You are different from most of my very favorite European cities – less cozy and charming, less historic and pretty. Instead, you are modern, large, energetic, sprawling. But I love that about you too.

From Prague, we headed onto Berlin. We had one evening and then three full days there, and I still probably could have stayed longer and explored more. In fact, I think I could add Berlin to the list of cities that I could see myself living in someday. I liked it that much.

After a long train ride, we arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), which is huge and modern and pretty fantastic, as far as train stations go. We grabbed a cab to our hotel and absolutely loved our cabdriver – he was so nice and had lots of helpful advice. So things were already off to a great start.

Because I traveled an insane amount for my last job, I had a lot of hotel points. So, in Berlin and later in Amsterdam, we got to enjoy large, super-American chain hotels for free. Yes, I like the cozy little family-owned hotels that are more authentically European. But, after weeks of tiny bathrooms, walking up several flights of stairs, and using gigantic wooden room keys, I was ready for some sleek, generic comfort. Janelle, I think, was even more ready. So when we arrived at the Marriott and got a free snack upon arrival because I’m a Platinum member, she got a little excited:

Since we arrived in the evening, we didn’t do much except venture out to grab dinner. We found a little place a few blocks from our hotel and grabbed a few of the dishes we had loved in Munich – spatzle, pretzels, and Radler. Always a solid combination.

The next day, we headed to the Reichstag. It is a beautiful building, but the highlight is clearly climbing the dome. Except, we did not get to climb the dome – apparently, because of security reasons, there’s a brand new online reservation system. And, because you have to reserve several days in advance, it was impossible for us to get reservations during our time in Berlin. Bummer.

From the Reichstag, we walked to the Brandenburg Gate, stopping en route to look at a memorial to the victims of the Berlin Wall (people who tried to escape but were killed doing so). I know the Brandenburg Gate is one of the iconic sites of Berlin, and it was very cool to see in person.

Next, we headed to the Holocaust Memorial. Above ground, it’s like a massive abstract art installation – hundreds of giant blocks of concrete. Below ground, it’s a small museum commemorating some of the Holocaust’s victims. It was fascinating and sobering;

From the Holocaust Memorial, we continued down Unter der Linden, stopping here and there to check out famous buildings. But, if I’m being honest, I’d tell you that the site we were most intrigued by was…Hotel Adlon, the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby off the balcony. Because, you know, in a city filled with landmarks, that’s what really matters.

We continued down Unter der Linden until we reached Museum Island. We didn’t actually visit any of the museums (yet), but we did spend some time admiring the Berlin Cathedral. We didn’t go inside, but it’s a spectacular building – and I love the green dome.

We also had a bit of a funny incident there – in front of the cathedral, there’s a large fountain. For some reason, my sister and I thought it would be funny if I walked into the fountain and posed for a photo. While I was doing that, a goofy Russian man ran over to me, and asked if he could take a picture with me. I have NO idea what was going on there. Did he think I was someone else? Did he just want a picture with the crazy American girl in the fountain? The world may never know.

After the cathedral, we headed to Brauhaus Georgbraeu, an awesome beer garden right on the river. We sat outdoors; it was a great, fun atmosphere. I ordered schnitzel and spargel and the portions were huge!

Once we had finished lunch (and I was in a schniztel coma), we headed to Checkpoint Charlie. I can honestly say that the museum there was one of the quirkiest I have ever visited. First of all, it’s filled with stuff. Literally, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, covered in memorabilia and lengthy descriptions. There was room after room of objects, photographs, letters, and fun displays. It was overwhelming and fascinating. There was also an entire room dedicated to Ronald Reagan – because our dad’s a big admirer of him, we took a bunch of pictures of his display.

After visiting the museum, we headed out to see a few fragments of the Berlin wall. There’s not much left, and it’s not much to see, but it’s a lot to think about. I made a mental note to check out a book on the Wall’s history (though who knows when I will have time to read it).

We headed on to Fassbender and Rausch, a fancy chocolate shop. Our Rick Steves guidebook told us that we would find an “erupting chocolate volcano” there. We were intrigued. We wanted some molten chocolate. But, when we asked our waitress about it, she only gave us blank stares. I ended up with plain old hot chocolate, which was tasty, but disappointing. We noticed that downstairs, they had a giant chocolate volcano model – so maybe that’s what the book was referring to? If so, I cry foul, Rick! Misleading advertising! (Seriously, though, I still love your guidebooks).

Our day was pretty jam-packed, so didn’t do much that evening. In fact, we could only muster up enough energy to visit a Chinese restaurant near our hotel for dinner. It turns out that a Chinese restaurant in Berlin is pretty much like a Chinese restaurant anywhere in the US – and that’s oddly comforting, I suppose.

The next day, we headed to West Berlin and visited the zoo. This was Janelle’s idea, and I have to say that, generally, a zoo is just a zoo to me – not very exciting. Plus, since the Berlin Zoo’s star attraction, Knut, recently died, I felt even less motivated to visit. However, it was actually a pretty cool zoo with a large and diverse collection of animals. And, you know, lots of gorilla statues for us to pose with.

We also stopped by the aquarium, which was really awesome. Seriously, you would not think a collection of fish could be cool, but it was. There were so many different species of fish, plus collections of jellyfish, coral, and other assorted unique things. Fascinating.

From the zoo, we walked over to KaDeWe, a gigantic department store. A little backstory is necessary here: my mom visited Berlin in 1983 (1982?) and absolutely loved the KaDeWe. Naturally, she said that we had to make a visit to the store too.

I have to say that – no offense, mom – it was pretty much just a department store to me. Sure, it’s huge and has just about anything you could ever think of wanting, but a store’s a store. So says me, the girl who hates to shop, so take that for what it’s worth.

We also ate lunch at KaDeWe, upstairs at what was the most dangerous buffet ever. I say dangerous because the pricing system was in German and completely unclear to me. So I picked some random stuff and ended up with a 26 euro plate of food. It was tasty, but not 26 euro tasty.

Next, we headed to the train station to get our tickets to Amsterdam and Paris all sorted out. Sadly, we wound up waiting in line for about two hours. I was not a happy camper after that one, and we both decided that we needed a drink (or four) stat.

We took the U-Bahn to the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, which was very funky and fun; Janelle said it reminded her of New York’s Lower East Side. We made our own happy hour miniature bar crawl – 2 bars, 4 cocktails each, plus some garlic bread. Good times.

After we were done drinking, we grabbed some Asian noodles (a cheap food staple for us while traveling) and headed back to our hotel.

The next day – our final in Berlin – we finally hit some of the city’s many museums. We started at the Gemaldegalerie, which had a fantastic collection of 13th-18th century European art – I’m talking Rubens, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael. But my favorite was, by far, Caravaggio’s Love Conquers All. Mostly because Cupid was totally rocking out.

In the afternoon, Janelle was museum-ed out, so I soldiered on alone to the Neues Museum, which is famous for housing the bust of Nefertiti, which was gorgeous. There was also an interesting collection of other Egyptian artifacts – from etchings to murals to jewelry to small statues. Very cool.

For our final dinner, we revisited the same restaurant from our first meal in Berlin and ordered the exact same thing. It seemed a fitting way to end our stay in Germany, a country that turned out to be way more amazing than I had initially imagined. Like I said already – not only would I love to visit again (many times over), I could also see myself living in a place like Berlin. It has an amazing energy.

One final note. This didn’t really seem to fit anywhere else, but one thing we kept noticing in Berlin was giant bear statues everywhere we went. I started taking Janelle’s picture with them and we wound up with quite a collection. I did some digging and found out more about them – they are apparently United Buddy Bears. Kinda cool.

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