Last year’s trip to Berlin was all about soaking up culture. This time, I felt compelled to dive into the historical sites. After all, I (a Yank) was meeting up with a German friend and her Russian au pair.
My friend was an exchange student at my high school when the Berlin Wall fell (she was instantly snapped up for quotes in local papers and speaking engagements at civic institutions), but the young Russian was barely a toddler at the time and has no recollection of it. (It’s interesting foreshadowing that last year I wrote about the youth in Berlin who couldn’t remember the Fall….)
I know, you’re probably curious about the clash of perspectives as three people representing the three major players in the partitioned Berlin retraced the footsteps of history. But the truth is, in today’s flat world of open borders, opinions tend to converge and there’s really not much to debate.
In just 48 hours, we sweated our way (it was a hot June, and AC isn’t popular, even on public transportation) through museums, memorials, and tours. Here are some things to do and see:
The TV Tower
At a whopping 1207 feet, you can see it from around the city … and it can see you. Built to dominate the skyline, this is also where East Berlin watched over the West. When it’s sunny, optics produce a glowing cross on the sphere, causing Berliners to call the phenomenon the “Pope’s Revenge.” Now it’s a spinning restaurant and lounge with a very hefty cover charge. Go at day so you can see the city, and skip the lines by coughing up extra for a VIP pass (check with CityTourCard and other discount operations for reductions).
The Story of Berlin
Called an “interactive exhibition,” it’s actually a large museum that chronicles Berlin from inception to present. Hats off to what they’ve done here: This place has the most creative displays I’ve seen, and each is interactive. Throw up a bunch of text on a the wall to explain the city’s major religions? Why do that when you can categorize them in an antique bureau where each drawer displays a different aspect of ritual or daily life, complete with relics, photos, and audio? If you’ve only got time to see one (history) museum in Berlin, my advice is to make a beeline for this place. You’ll get a bit of each of the others, displayed much more engagingly.
Head below the busy Kurfürstendamm (or “Ku’damm,” the principal avenue of West Berlin) and visit a dimly lit, eerily quiet nuclear fallout shelter from the Cold War. The bunker is part of The Story of Berlin museum, which rescued it from its interim use as a parking garage and restored it to original condition. The guide will happily detail how futile the attempts at survival would have been and how miserable the living conditions for the two weeks prior to running out of air and water. But it’s fascinating to see the methodically well-laid plans given the information and technology of the time.
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum (the Mauermuseum)
I hate to criticize anyone’s life’s work, but my honest opinion is that this is one famous museum that should be skipped. While the subject is fascinating (primarily showcasing escape attempts and successes of the Wall) and the work commendable (the institute was active during the Cold War in giving voice to East Berliners and aiding escape), it’s almost impossible to process the information due to poor organization. Imagine room after non-ventilated room plastered floor to ceiling with faded newspaper articles and numbered captions that are mismatched with corresponding pictures…. Berliners have told me the museum has remained unchanged in order to honor the memory of its venerable creator, Rainer Hildebrandt. I hope they change their mind and initiate an overhaul, perhaps at the creative hands of The Story of Berlin curators, so that Mr. Hildebrandt’s research can become more accessible to all.
The East Side Gallery (Berlin Wall)
The last remaining portion of the Berlin Wall fronts the Spree River, where you’ll find people sprawled on the grass, enjoying the summer evenings while musicians play for tips, or even sipping a beer on one of the docked riverboats which have been converted into youth hostels. The Wall itself is now an arts space devoted to the celebration of freedom and personal liberty whose murals stretch for over three quarters of a mile. It’s an inspirational last stop on a historical tour of Berlin that makes everything you’ve been reading about tangible and real.
I just couldn’t go an entire post without slipping in a bit of local culture, especially after visiting in summer, when it seems every single Berliner is outside enjoying the weather, and the parks are filled with families and friends cooking, hanging out, and playing sports together. My recommendation, then, after a long day of sightseeing, is to take a break at one of the beer gardens in Berlin’s largest park, the Tiergarten, and order a Berliner Weisse. Ignore the fact that it’s either red or green and served in a big shallow glass with straws, and get ready for some top-notch summer hydration. This beer is light and acidic, sometimes called the People’s Champagne, and the touch of fruit syrup makes it go down awwwwwfully easy. Prost!