Travel Report: Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
Travel Report: Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
Once upon a time I managed to clear my work schedule for a week of downtime in the German capital. I was living in Amsterdam back then, so it was just a breezy 1 hour 20 minute flight from city to city. I’d been planning a trip to Berlin for years, so boy was I really excited when I finally jumped off the Berlin Metro at Alexanderplatz, the city’s giant public square named after the Russian Emperor Alexander I.
I stayed at the swanky H4 Hotel right on Alexanderplatz itself. Located in the heart of Berlin’s lively Mitte district, it felt good to treat myself with some digs that were as central as central gets. Indeed one of the area’s top attractions, The TV tower (Berliner Fernsehturm) was just a few minutes walk from H4.
Photo courtesy of Taxiarchos 228.
Completed in 1969, this is the tallest building in Germany, a structure that once stood as the country’s ultimate symbol of Communist power. With the tower right on my doorstep, this was the first place I visited. Up I went in the elevator to its 203 metre high observation deck.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
The tower’s views over the city are magnificent. Unfortunately, the weather that morning was far from magnificent, a misty haze holding court over the German capital. Still, it did give proceedings a certain allure. And there was a palpable sense of expectation as I gazed out across the city I would come to know so well over the coming seven days.
It was also from Alexanderplatz that I jumped on the U-Bahn (metro) each day for my explorations of the city. You know what they say about the Germans being punctual, organised and efficient? Well, for the most part the U-Bahn lives up to those stereotypes.
Indeed I remember the system being a joy, with sparkling stations, on-time trains, patient, orderly commuters and very little in the way of line closures. A far cry from the chaos of The London Underground and a genuine rival for the outstanding Tokyo Subway.
On that first day I spent an hour soaking up Berlin’s cafe culture on Hackescher Markt. This central square dates back to 1750 when Frederik The Great ordered its creation as a market square.
It got its current name in 1840 in tribute to the fearsome Prussian general Hans Christoph Friedrich Graf von Hacke. How about that for a name? In fact, I hung out at a joint called 1840, a restaurant, cafe and bar with a retro railway theme. Inside, you’ll find archive photographs of the square and the old 19th century steam engines that used to run through it.
However, I was far happier outside on the square itself watching people come and go. Being in the heart of central touristy Berlin, 1840 gets patchy reviews. Yes, it’s a bit overpriced and uh huh, the service was slow. But man I really enjoyed my tall glass of creamy banana beer. So much, actually, that I quickly downed it and ordered another.
In the first few days I was content ticking off Berlin’s iconic landmarks. Step forward Brandenburg Gate, an 18th century Neoclassical monument that stands as a reminder of a particularly tumultuous period of German history.
Again it was Frederik the Great who commissioned it. His express desire was that it would symbolise a new era of hope, peace and stability following a temporary period of order during the Batavian Revolution.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
Elsewhere, on a roundabout at the entrance of Tiergarten Park, I stopped to admire the towering Berlin Victory Column. Constructed from red Swedish granite, sandstone and bronze, it commemorates Prussia’s victories in the Second Schleswig War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War. A lot of wars, eh? The bronze sculpture that crowns the column represents Victoria, the Roman Goddess of Victory.
Speaking of iconic structures, they don’t get any grander than the stupendous Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). Although a church of some kind has stood here since the 1400s, much of what we see today belongs to the Italian Renaissance style building of 1894.
Inside one can almost taste the history. Thus I found myself audibly wowing at the sight of the main altar, a white marble and onyx affair designed by the famed Prussian architect Friedrich August Stüler.
Underground meanwhile, in the Hohenzollern Crypt, one can see over a hundred sarcophagi containing Germany’s historic rulers. Resting on one of the wooden pews, I tried to imagine the scene in May 1944 when Allied Forces bombed the cathedral, completely destroying the roof.
Exploring the German Capital.
The main pipe organ isn’t too shabby either. An absolute beast, as church organs go. It sprang from the talented hand of Wilhelm Sauer, a legendary German pipe builder.
Historians reckon Sauer put together over 1000 organs during Germany’s great Romantic Period. And they say the organ in Berliner Dom was his undisputed masterpiece, featuring over 720 pipes and 113 registers.
Eventually, I dragged myself away from the cathedral’s stunning interior to climb the 270 step Imperial Staircase for sweeping city views. Do a 360 and there are landmarks galore, including another angle of the TV Tower as it looms over St. Mary’s Church.
After a couple of days exploring I felt it was time to do what one cannot avoid doing in Berlin. Yes, I was ready to roll up my sleeves and get to grips with the German capital’s dark but fascinating World War II sights. I began with a visit to the Topography of Terror, a museum and remembrance centre that serves as “a warning from history”.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
The museum sits on the site of the former Gestapo Headquarters. Just outside the main entrance, I took in the longest preserved section of The Berlin Wall. At 200-meters long, this once marked the border between the districts of Mitte (East Berlin) and Kreuzberg (West Berlin).
Inside, I wish I had properly braced myself for the awfulness detailed within the exhibition. Largely told through black and white photographs, video installations and authentic documents, the museum provides a thorough overview of The Nazi Party, their rise to power and the story of World War II right through to its final days.
Much of the Topography of Terror deals with The Holocaust of course. Furthermore, Berlin has literally dozens of memorials honouring victims of Nazi atrocities. One is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a huge open air installation by the American architect Peter Eisenman.
Photo courtesy of Alexander Blum.
This 19000 square metre complex features a staggering 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern. According to Eisenman himself, the memorial aims to symbolise the emptiness of war and genocide and acts that have “lost touch with human reason”.
Having taken 18 months to build at a cost of 25 million Euros, public reaction to the memorial has been varied to say the least. Some have branded it cold, overpriced and ugly. I found it quite thought provoking and moving. Hence I’m glad I took the time to wander its seemingly identical alleys, with their slabs that appear almost like unmarked gravestones.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
One of Berlin’s most understated World War II spots is where Adolf Hitler’s Bunker once stood. Yup, this inconsequential looking car park used to be a large complex of bunkers dating back to 1936. Hitler himself moved into a bunker here in January 1945 when it became the Nazi regime’s Berlin HQ.
And this is where he ran German operations until it became increasingly clear that the game was up. On the 29th of April 1945 he married Eva Braun in one of the bunkers, just a few days before they took their own lives. Today just a few of the original underground corridors and rooms have survived, but remain sealed off to public access.
One could probably spend a week simply on Berlin’s WWII sights. However, I was also keen to dive into the Cold War, especially as I wasn’t so familiar with this period of German history. I started my investigations with a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, what was once the Berlin Wall’s major crossing point.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
Head for the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (also known as The Wall Museum) for the stories of Berliners who lived through this chaotic period. The exhibit does a fantastic job of bringing those old times to life. Particularly the photo boards detailing successful and failed escape plans and wall crossings.
It’s one of those museums that reminds me how damn lucky I’ve been to win the passport lottery. That I haven’t had to experience such unstable times. It really is impossible not to be moved by stories of Berliners creating fake military uniforms and squeezing themselves into suitcases in order to be reunited with loved ones.
Another essential Cold War exhibit is the DDR Museum. Here, one gets a real sense of daily life in socialist East Germany between 1949 and 1990.
I like how touchy feely the museum is. In fact, I could immerse myself in the home decor of the times by watching some TV in a typical 1960s plattenbeau apartment. These large prefabricated concrete monsters sprang up all over East Berlin in areas of mass housing developments. The interior was usually a festival of plastic, chrome and a bit of wood. The TV in this house was considered a luxury, whoo hoo!
Just about every aspect of life gets its own section. Below is one of my favourite shots from the East Berlin Fashion exhibit. Generally female clothing was grey and somewhat shapeless. And yeah, as you can see, stripes seemed to be very popular. In addition to archive photos, the museum also has authentic clothing donated by locals. There’s even a dress-up booth with replica items!
A number of glass cases contain old socialist household items. From medicine and cosmetic products to butter, soda and cookies, you’ve gotta love the designs. My favourite was probably the Fewa laundry detergent boxes. Invented by the German chemist Heinrich Bertsch, Fewa was the world’s first mild and fully synthetic detergent.
I also explored a room dedicated to The Stasi, East Germany’s Secret Police and so-called Ministry for State Security. Finally, before leaving, I checked out a presentation on The National People’s Army, showcasing original uniforms, gas masks and weapons. All in all an excellent museum!
Outside of war and hard times, Berlin has some wonderfully unexpected sites. Such as the brilliant Ramones Museum, a lovingly crafted exhibition on the U.S. punk rock band Ramones. “Hey ho, let’s go!”
A super fan by the name of Florian Hayler launched the museum in 2005. Softly spoken and fittingly leggy, Hayler attended over 100 Ramones concerts over the years and collected as much memorabilia as he could get his hands on. Eventually, he figured he’d amassed enough “Ramones junk” to open his own museum.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
There are over a thousand items on display, including rare photos, signed t-shirts, stage outfits, handwritten letters, limited edition posters and personal effects from just about every band member. All cleverly integrated into a sprawling narrative of the band’s backstory.
Moreover, the Ramones Museum is a major event venue that puts on live music, movie nights and art shows. The cafe is well worth hanging out in, with good coffee, solid WIFI and, of course, great music.
If I ever make it back to Berlin I’d love to do an article on the city’s fulsome art scene. Indeed there seemed to be fantastic murals on just about every corner. You can find a concentrated mass of these in Haus Schwarzenberg Street Art Alley, a narrow passage near Hackescher Markt to the side of Cafe Cinema.
The non profit group Haus Schwarzenberg works to give Berliners access to mostly free and sometimes low-cost art. Dozens of high profile artists have contributed to the graffiti, sculptures and installations on display. What’s more, the organisation’s thirst for evolution ensures the works are constantly changing.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
One mainstay however is the Berlin Anne Frank Memorial by the English artist Jimmy C. His striking portrait of Frank holds court over the stairwell entrance leading up to Schwarzenberg House.
The house hosts a number of galleries, exhibitions and an arthouse cinema. Some are free, while others require a ticket to enter. Even the stairwell itself deserves some attention, plastered as it is from head to toe with paintings, scribblings, signatures, handwritten messages and spray-painted quotes.
On my final day I spent the morning at Charlottenburg Palace, a 17th century royal summer residence. Completed in 1713, this exquisite baroque structure boasts opulent apartments, priceless art, historic treasures and a simply gorgeous garden.
The palace got its name from the woman it was commissioned for, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the wife of King Frederick I of Prussia. And what a history it has enjoyed over the centuries. Charlotte herself died aged just 36 after catching pneumonia and it subsequently became home to a succession of Prussian kings.
In 1804 none other than Napoleon moved into the palace where he had a military headquarters following his victory against Prussia in The Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Later, during World War II, Charlottenburg suffered heavy bomb damage and almost had to be demolished. However, a huge 1960s rebuild managed to recapture the essence of its former glory.
I liked the garden best of all, with its meticulous lawns, baroque fountains, pretty flower beds and tree-lined walkways. While exploring, I came across the handsome Belvedere, designed and installed by the royal architect Carl Gotthard Langhans in 1788.
Inside, I took the spiral staircase to a royal porcelain exhibit in the former teahouse. There, I got to see dozens of fancy cups, plates and crockery belonging to a host of kings and queens.
Last but not least, I entered the palace’s neoclassical mausoleum, dating back to 1810. It was built following the death of the hugely popular Queen Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and was originally intended to exclusively house her marble sarcophagus.
But as the years rolled by, lots of German royals ended up joining her. The likes of Luise’s husband, Frederik William III, along with Emperor William I and his wife Augusta in 1888.
Once Upon a Time in Berlin.
I’ll wrap this piece up with a few words on my favourite Berlin dining experiences. Germany sometimes gets a bad rap, I feel, when it comes to food. But I have great culinary memories of my time there, from Bratwurst at Curry 61 to steak, beer and monster ice cream at (the now permanently closed) White Trash.
My favourite though was traditional wiener schnitzel and beef goulash with dumplings at Pratergarten. Situated in the northeastern district of Pankow, Pratergarten is a Berlin institution known for is cavernous beer hall and leafy garden. I went there on my final evening, the perfect way to raise my giant beer mug and celebrate an amazing week in Berlin.
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I first visited Berlin on a business trip when it was still divided. Since the wall came down, I’ve visited a number of times and most notably attended the opening of the Reichstag. But my last visit was 2006, so I’m due another one sometime soon.
Seeing Berlin when the wall was up must have been something else, Sheree. I love the concept of history tourism, where (time travel permitting of course) I could check out places at key times of history. Perhaps Washington DC during Martin Luther King’s Speech. Or London in the summer of 66. Thanks for reading!
That’s a brilliant idea Leighton and would get my vote.
An excellent review of your stay in Berlin Leighton and your photo from inside the cathedral is stunning. I’ve only visited once and that was in January when the ponds at Charlottenburg were iced over and the statues in the gardens encased in boxes to protect them from the frost, it was a great trip but now that I’ve read your post I’d like to see the city sparkle in the summer sunshine! Hope you’re both enjoying a sunny weekend over the border as we are a little further south!
Thanks Marion, I’m glad this somewhat stacked piece appeals. While Germany in general isn’t high on my to-do list for future trips, I think we’d love to spend some time travelling around the country one of these years. I’m sure, as you say, you’d have a whole other Berlin experience in better weather. A bit grey here today unfortunately, but hoping for better weather tomorrow as we head off to Edinburgh.
I was really interested to read all this for so many reasons. I have been to Berlin and visited some of the places in your write-up, but wasn’t there long enough to do the city justice and I really want to return. Michaela isn’t a huge fan of Germany so a bit of persuasion is necessary, especially now you’ve rekindled all that interest. Reason my Berlin trip was a bit brief? I was at the World Cup final – the one where Zidane was red carded! And as a real football trivia aside – did you know that Paulton Rovers (Southern League) have a player named Leighton Thomas?
Hey Phil, great to hear from you and thanks for reading. Your own Berlin trip, while not taking in much of the actual city, must have been a hell of an experience. Ha, I had no idea there is a current Leighton Thomas footballer. I shall have a Google, surely he can’t be half as dashing as I 😉
Oooh I don’t know, Paulton Rovers is pretty impressive!!
Even with the hazy conditions, you still had a great view of Berlin. Ah, the U-Bahn … I remember its efficiency way back in 2002 on a work visit to Hanover (I was super impressed)!
Wow, look at those impressive photo’s of the Bradenburg Gate (both of them)! Berlin is not short of monuments and impressive buildings it seems … and of course the dark history can’t be missed. I can see that the DDR Museum must be a great visit (love that fashion photo)!
I can’t remember that I didn’t like their food … in fact, I enjoyed many plates of different sausages, oh and their hot potato salad was amazing! Thanks for sharing yet another great post – you made me remember a good time in Germany as well.
Thanks Corna, gathering all the material for this one extended article took quite some time but I’m happy with how it turned out. Hope you and Berto are well!
We visited Berlin twice, once during the soviet era and one after reunification. The Wall and Check Point Charlie were truly intimidating (as intended) and the contrast between East and West was dramatic but the latter visit was more enjoyable. Charlottenburg struck me as huge and cold. Much preferred Tiergarten Park. If we went back it would for things like the Street Art Alley. You certainly fit a lot into your week.
I’m actually a bit jealous you got to see Berlin in those modes, if that makes any sense. I didn’t really explore Tiergarten Park, so that would be a solid reason to return in itself.
Fabulous exploration of the city Leighton. I have never been here, but am with you. You can not go to a place and not explore the bad side. People need to see what was done in the name of Hitler and racial purity so we can try to avoid it recurring. Oops, too late the outlier Russians, they are repeating it now. The museums are indeed sobering. Love the staircase photo. Thanks for sharing. Happy Sunday. Allan
Cheers Allan! I have so much Berlin material but, frustratingly, not enough from each site to justify individual articles as I prefer to do. Anyhow, it’s also fun to do longer bumper articles with everything in one place. Thanks, as ever, for your readership and your contributions to the chat.
Thank you for your very interesting and fun to read portrait of Berlin. It is a fascinating city which one can visit and visit … I never miss the Currywurst when I am in Berlin. But Banana Beer, really ?
Yes, really!!! Ha ha. Not for everyone I guess but it was a winner for me, and sadly I’ve not had one since. Thanks for reading and dropping a comment, appreciate it!
A great review of Berlin Leighton. I was there as a teenager before the wall came down. We even went across to East Berlin for a few hours. At that time I didn’t know much of the history of most of the places we visited or probably didn’t even care. This is a great resource if and when I’m able to revisit. Maggie
It’s surprising (to me at least) how many WP bloggers were in Berlin while the wall was still up. Thanks for reading Maggie, glad you enjoyed the overview.
I visited Berlin way back in 2012, and despite living in Europe later on (and returning to Germany several times), I never went back to Berlin. Such a shame, though, as I only had one, long day in the German capital. But I managed to tick off the main sites like the Brandenburg Gate, the Berliner Dom, and a bit of the Berlin Wall remnants. Also got currywurst, which was tasty. Your extended stay in town yielded plenty of covered ground, and it makes me want to return to see more!
Well, I’d say a long day in Berlin is better than no visit at all. I’m sure one day you’ll get back there and go deeper. Currywurst is great eh?! Thanks for reading this longer piece Rebecca.
It’s an atmospheric article with a retro feel to it, which confirms that I too should return to this city that has so much to do with European history. I have classic memories of following the route of the Wall or being discouraged by the work on the Reichstag, yes it has been too long.
Thanks for reading! There is a recurring theme, it seems, among myself and my readers. We all need to go back to Berlin.
Wow you really saw and did it all! I didn’t know that #danglegate happened in Germany. I am amazed how much you can remember about your previous trips!
I think, for some ridiculous nightly rate, it’s even possible to stay in Jacko’s former suite. Thanks for reading Lyssy!
Sounds like you had a wonderful time exploring Berlin. I love the wide range of activities and attractions to visiting the Berlin Cathedral, exploring museums, finding street art, tasting beer, and eating the food. You really packed it in.
Thanks for dropping by, as always. Berlin really is a varied city. I’m sure, if I ever go back, I’d have enough to fill another week without repeating any of the sites featured in this article.
I visited Berlin in 2014 if I’m not mistaken, visiting a friend studying in Germany at the time. I was quite stricken by the memorial to the the murdered Jews of Europe and I also spent some time exploring Charlie’s checkpoint and the remains of the wall. I think I spent way too much time digging in such dark history and during my short time there I could’t stop thinking about it, which definitely planted a shadow in this city. I would love to visit again and focus precisely on the artsy side – Berlin has become such a culture capital in Europe and I feel I’ve missed out! Thanks for sharing this, a pleasure to read, as always!
I know exactly what you mean Nic. I think though, that you did the right thing by going into the dark stuff as… well… it’s all right at the heart of the city’s history and identity. And I do agree that next time, when you focus on art and altogether more positive things, that it’ll be a wonderful payoff. If that makes any sense. Thanks for reading this longer piece and for leaving such a thoughtful comment.
Great overview of this iconic city! The TV Tower reminds me of the Space Needle in Seattle. Brandenburg Gate is stunning! I enjoyed your post; thanks!
Thank you! I am familiar with the space needle and yeah, you’re absolutely right! How I would love to spend some time exploring Seattle one of these years.
I hope you get to visit someday. I know my opinion is biased since Seattle is my hometown, but it’s a pretty awesome place.
A great recap of your time in Berlin! #danglegate made me laugh! I also didn’t remember that that happened there
Hey, thanks for dropping by, glad you enjoyed this overview of Berlin. I think the Michael Jackson window dangling would make a good pub trivia question!
Wonderful article, as you know I absolutely love Germany and Berlin holds a fine place in my heart. I’ve been to all the spots on this list and think it’s one of the best cities in the world 🙂
Glad you are as equally passionate about Berlin. I took to the place straight away and found the locals to be really welcoming, with a great sense of humour. Thanks for reading Hannah.
I have never been to Berlin, in fact I have only travelled through Germany and never had a chance to explore it, but I do hope to remedy that sometime soon. Your post and photos are very atmospheric, I am glad you did visit some of the more sobering sights, but balanced it out with lots of fun things also.
Hi Gilda, great to hear from you again. Driving through Germany must have been fun too, hope you managed to get some decent views. Thanks for your kind words, Berlin is an incredible city, really hope I get the opportunity to return one day and peel back some more layers.
Fascinating read on this city. I love how you took us through so many different aspects of the city from the grisly history to more of the pop culture through the years. Truthfully, Berlin is a city that I know little about so it was great to see so much of it and learn so much about it.
Hey Meg, glad I could paint a picture of the German capital for you. Hope all is well with you guys as, ever so slowly, we edge towards summer. I bet you can’t wait, with so many trips to look forward to.
Thanks, I hope all is well with you guys too 🙂
I visited Berlin in 1984 and took the underground train from Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin. What a memory. I enjoyed your post and look forward to going again.
What an experience that must have been! Thanks for reading, I hope you get to reacquaint yourself with Berlin’s delights in the near future.
I cannot wait for the opportunity to travel. Thank you for sharing your amazing experiences with us!
Hey Juliet, I’m glad you were able to take a little inspiration from this. I hope you can get on the road soon. Are there any specific places you’re planning to visit?
I’ve been to Berlin twice (the first time when it was still a divided city) but never thought to go up the Fernsehturm – something for a return visit. I’m with you on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I found it very moving and the museum too of course. You’ve highlighted several places we didn’t get around to, such as the DDR museum which looks a must next time..
Hey Sarah, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. The Jewish Memorial is one of the most stunning memorials I have ever seen, people can be hard to please sometimes.
Hi Leighton, thank you for this fabulous and in-depth travel report!! So fun to read and take in! I have been to Berlin plenty of times, maybe 15 or so, and it was fantastic to read about your experiences there and to indulge in some nostalgic memories! Loved it! The Jewih Memorial is outstanding indeed. Cheers 🙂
Oh wow, sounds like you are a Berlin veteran, you must know it like the back of your hand. Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.
My pleasure! Yes I got to visit quite a few times as I am originally from Hamburg, lived in Germany for a long time, and have a few relatives in Berlin. Enjoy your day:)
Been to Germany many times but never gotten over to Berlin, great read!
Thanks for reading and commenting Swankie! And for following Leighton Travels.
No worries pal, keep up the good work! Feel free to read some of my stuff on losertravels.com 🙂
[…] Travel Report: Once Upon a Time in Berlin. […]
Thanks for the repost!
Brilliant post on a brilliant city. Not sure how I missed this one when you published it. I love Berlin, hands down one of my favourite places to be. You packed a lot into a relatively short visit! I do miss Germany, a busy year has kept us from getting overseas so far, but it’s definitely a country I intend to get back to.
Aw, I’m glad this one resonated Helen. Thanks for reading and for dropping your thoughts into the thread.