My husband and I went to Berlin in mid-September 2021. It was the second time in the German capital for me (my first time was on a school trip something like 12 years ago), but not for my husband. For him was the very first time.
I have read contrasting opinions about this city over the years. Many people do not like it, some even despise it. I always thought it to be weird, as I remembered liking Berlin quite a lot. So, I was kind of curious to visit it again. This time with a more adult and “expert” eye, and see if I would change my mind, besides getting my husband’s first-time honest opinion. So, someday at the end of August 2021, we booked a trip to Berlin to find out.
We booked a double room in a hotel at a 10-minute walking distance from Checkpoint Charlie, bought a couple of FFP2 masks as we read they were mandatory on Berlin public transportation and airport, and we were ready to explore.
What about you, though? Are you ready to join us in this new “Two outstanding days in Berlin”? really hope so, as I can tell you, you don’t wanna miss it!
Let’s buckle up and get it started without further ado!
This first day started with the alarm clock going off at 3.30 am. We took a taxi, reached Dublin airport, and flown for around 2 hours to get to Berlin Brandenburg Airport.
Once there, we reached the Welcome Centre at Terminal 1 and bought the 48h Berlin Welcome Card for 28€/ 33$ p.p., which included free public transportation (even from/to the Airport), and discounts we knew we were going to take advantage of.
For days I had considered buying the Berlin Welcome Card All-Inclusive, but then my husband made me realized that even if we have bought this all-inclusive card, we would have had not enough time to take advantage of all the museums whose entry was free with it.
Anyway, as always, do your math and consideration, you will get all the info you need about the Berlin Welcome Card All-Inclusive by clicking here.
Then, we took one of the express trains, running from the Airport to the City Centre, to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the central station. And from there, our new adventure started.
We intended to take the hop-on-hop-off bus tour first thing, but because of some demonstrations scheduled for that day all around the city, a friendly Italian girl working at the Welcome Centre recommended we postponed it to the following day to avoid being detoured or get stuck in one of those demonstrations. And so we did. Thus, once at Hauptbahnhof, instead of jumping on the Hop-on-hop-off bus, we went straight to the Reichstag.
The Reichstag, the current home of the German parliament, is one of the city’s most significant historical buildings.
They completed the original building, modelled after the Memorial Hall in Philadelphia, in 1894, although it didn’t gain its iconic dedication to “the German People” (Dem Deutschen Volke) on its façade until 1916.
It served as the home of the German parliament until 1933, when a fire badly damaged the building. This event marks the end of the Weimar Republic and provided a convenient pretext for Hitler to suppress dissent. Under Nazi dictatorship, the building fell into neglect and severely damaged during the Second World War. In 1945, it become one of the primary targets for the Red Army because of its perceived propaganda value.
After the war, they moved West Germany’s parliament to Bonn, and the building remained a virtual ruin until 1961, when a partial renovation was undertaken in the shadow of the newly erected Wall. Completed in 1964, this controversial restoration saw the building’s interior and exterior stripped of most of its statuary. However, the city made efforts to keep the traces of its more recent history, such as the bullet-ridden façade and the graffiti left by the occupying Soviet soldiers after their siege of the Reichstag in 1945.
Throughout the cold war period, and until the German reunification in 1989, the Reichstag saw only occasional ceremonial use. In 1990, it was the site of the official reunification ceremony. After another year of intense debate, they decided it will once again be the home of the German national parliament.
Unfortunately, we could not visit the dome as fully booked until one month and a half after. Thus, we went straight to the Brandenburg Gate, just a few steps from the Reichstag Building.
On our way to the Brandenburg Gate, we stopped at the Memorial to the Roma and Sinti of Europe murdered under National Socialism.
2. Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most important monuments.
It used to draw visitors who climbed an observation platform to get a glimpse of the world behind the Iron Curtain, on the other side of the barren “death-strip” which separated East from West Berlin, geographically and politically.
From a symbol of the divided city, Brandenburg Gate turned into a symbol of unity after the fall of the wall in November 1989.
They erected the Brandenburg Gate between 1788 and 1791 according to designs by Carl Gotthard Langhans, whose vision was inspired by the Propylaea, the monumental gateway at the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens.
The Brandenburg Gate is 26 metres high, 65.5 metres long and 11 metres deep, and supported by two rows of six Doric columns.
From there, we had lunch close by, at Samadhi in Wilhelmstraße 77. The food was excellent and the owner extremely friendly even though he spoke very little English.
Speaking of which, it surprised us extremely to find out that most of the population in Berlin could not speak English, not even in restaurants and train station information centres. It was unexpected as we had travelled a lot especially around Europe, and never had found ourselves in such awkward situations where we could not communicate nor understand what a person was saying to us before.
Anyway, after lunch, we visited the Holocaust Memorial.
3. Holocaust Memorial
In the middle of the city is the Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an imposing place of remembrance and warning.
Opened in 2005 on a site covering 19,000 square metres, it comprises 2711 concrete slabs of different heights standing on a slight wavelike slope that looks different wherever you stand. The uneven concrete floor gives any visitor a moment of giddiness or even uncertainty. Its openness and abstractness give you space to confront the topic in your way. The sheer size of the installation and its lack of a central point of remembrance call into question the conventional concept of a memorial. This creates a place of remembrance, but not with the usual means.
Beneath the memorial is the Information Centre, which documents the crimes of the Nazi era in themed rooms. This includes biographical details, recordings, and information about memorial sites throughout Germany and Europe.
Then, we walked to Potsdamer Platz.
4. Potsdamer Platz
While before reunification Potsdamer Platz used to be a wasteland with the Berlin Wall running through it, after the reunification it has become a completely new neighbourhood with plenty of restaurants, cinemas, theatres, shopping centres and modern architecture. The Sony Center is one such example, hosting every February the Berlin film festival.
The square gets its name from the Potsdamer Tor, the gate that stood on the main road from Berlin to Potsdam since the 18th century. The square’s heyday was the early 20th century, when it was bustling with life and roaring traffic. In 1924, they installed the first traffic lights in continental Europe to guide buses, trams, coaches and cars. The cultural elite met in the cafes and restaurants around the square.
The Second World War left the square devastated, and not only that, it was the point where the Soviet, British and American sectors met. The only building not destroyed by the bombs was the Weinhaus Huth.
Then, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie.
5. Checkpoint Charlie
On the corner between Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße, Checkpoint Charlie is a reminder of the former border crossing, the Cold War, and the partition of Berlin.
The name Checkpoint Charlie comes from the NATO phonetic alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie). After the border crossings at Helmstedt-Marienborn (Alpha) and Dreilinden-Drewitz (Bravo), Checkpoint Charlie was the third checkpoint opened by the Allies in and around Berlin.
It soon became the most famous crossing point between East and West Germany. On 22 September 1961, Allied guards began registering members of the American, British and French forces before trips to East Berlin and foreign tourists could find out about their stay there. Once the checkpoint was a crossing point for members of the Allied armed forces, a month later in October 1961, it became the scene of a tank confrontation. American and Soviet tanks took up positions and faced each other with weapons primed.
It was not only an important Cold War site but also witnessed many attempts to escape from East Berlin. An open-air exhibition on the corner of Schützenstraße and Zimmerstraße tells the story of those that failed and those that succeeded. An installation by the artist Frank Thiel and a commemorative plate also mark the memorial.
They removed the wooden barrack where visitors to the Russian Sector (East Berlin) were once obliged to pass through for vetting. Reconstruction has included a US Army guardhouse and a copy of the original border sign. You can see the original white booth which served as the official gateway between East and West in the Allierten Museum in Berlin-Dahlem. Cobblestones mark the exact spot of the former border and the poignant photograph by Frank Thiel of an American and Soviet soldier can be seen here. Memorabilia include the nearby Cafe Adler, a hotspot for journalists and spies in the past where informers met their counterparts.
Later, we walked to Gendarmenmarkt.
The Gendarmenmarkt is arguably Berlin’s most magnificent square. It is best known for the architectural trio composed of the German and French cathedrals, the latter of which houses the Huguenot museum, and Schinkel’s Konzerthaus (concert hall) which together form one of the most stunning ensembles in Berlin.
The name derives from the French “Gens d’arms“, a Prussian regiment comprising Huguenots (French Protestants) soldiers refugees from France that around 1700 settled there following the Edict of Potsdam in 1685 which granted them asylum in the Prussian capital.
In summer, orchestras play the most beautiful classical melodies at the Classic Open Air, and in winter, the square transforms into a winter wonderland with a Christmas market.
While we were there, this square was one of those that hosted the Festival of Light, celebrated every fall in Berlin. On this occasion, they filled the city with booths projecting lights on the major landmarks, monuments, buildings and squares of the German capital from sunset to midnight for a couple of nights. Later this first day in Berlin, we enjoyed this wonderful play of light projected on the stunning facade of the concert hall.
From there, we took the metro to Konditorei Buchwald, the oldest pastry shop in Berlin. There, we tried their speciality, the Baumkuchen, a cake baked on a spit, made of multiple layers, looking like brown little rings.
After that, we walked to the Victory Column.
7. Victory Column
Victory Column (Siegessäule) is a 67-meter/220-foot-high symbol of Prussian military victory in the 19th-century Danish-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, and the Franco-Prussian Wars, that originally stood in front of the Reichstag in the former Königsplatz and today’s Platz der Republik. It was moved here, in the Tiergarten’s main roundabout by the Nazis in 1938.
Its previous location was bombed extensively during the war, but the column, thanks to its new location, survived. There are pockmarks in some places where it appears to have been hit by shrapnel, but it otherwise endured the war. In fact, after the Battle of Berlin, Polish troops erected a flag from its top. The golden ornaments are, in fact, Danish and French cannons that had been won in the wars that the column commemorates.
The 8.3m/27 ft tall statue on the top of the column represents both Victoria, the Goddess of Victory, and Borussia, the allegory and Latin name of Prussia.
The monument is reachable using one of the four pedestrian underpasses.
After that, we walked through part of the wonderful and gigantic Tiergarten Park to reach our next stop, Kaiser William Memorial Church.
8. Kaiser William Memorial Church
Kaiser William Memorial Church, known by locals as The Gedächtniskirche on Kurfürstendamm, is a church, a striking landmark and a memorial against war and destruction.
It is the most famous landmark in the western city centre and composed of the ruins of the church that were destroyed by the war, as well as a modern church building.
They built the original building at the end of the 19-century in honour of Wilhelm I, the first German Kaiser, at the behest of his grandson Wilhelm II in the Neo-Romantic style. With five spires, the bombastic design reflected the tastes of the time and that of the Kaiser. The church bells were the second biggest in Germany after Cologne, and when the church was inaugurated, the five bells rang so loudly that the wolves in the nearby Berlin Zoo started howling. During the Second World War, the chimes stopped, and they melted the five bells down for munitions.
Air raids in 1943 damaged the church so badly that the top of the main spire broke off and the roof collapsed. At the end of the war, the Allies were unwilling to rebuild it, since it had been a symbol of excessive national pride. The ruin stood as a constant reminder to Berliners of the horrors of war until 1956, when they decided to integrate the ruin into the design for a new church, completed between 1959 and 1961.
The design of the new church comprises concrete honeycomb elements with stained glass inlays. Inside the octagonal nave, the stained glass produces a rich blue light and an atmosphere of meditative calm. The memorial hall in the old spire is now a memorial against war and destruction and a symbol of reconciliation. It also contains a crucifix made of nails from the burnt roof timbers of Coventry Cathedral, which was almost destroyed by bombs in 1940. The crosses of nails from Coventry, which are also in Dresden, Hiroshima and Volgograd, are a symbol of reconciliation.
After that, we took the metro and then the bus to go to the Berlin War Memorial.
9. Berlin Wall Memorial
On Bernauer Straße, the Berlin Wall Memorial is an open-air exhibition that extends along 1.4 kilometres of the former border strip. The memorial contains the last piece of the Berlin Wall with the preserved grounds behind it and can thus convey an impression of how the border fortifications developed until the end of the 1980s.
The events that took place here, together with the preserved historical remnants and traces of border obstacles on display, help to make the history of Germany’s division comprehensible to visitors.
The memorial comprises the Monument in Memory of the Divided City and the Victims of Communist Tyranny, and the Window of Remembrance. The grounds also include the Chapel of Reconciliation and the excavated foundations of a former apartment building whose façade functioned as the border wall until the early 80s.
The Visitor Center and the Documentation Center, with a viewing platform, are on the other side of the street that belonged to the western part of the city. It was unfortunately closed because of COVID-19 while we were there.
From there, we took a tram to East Side Gallery
10. East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is a 1.3-kilometre/0.8-mile-long open-air art gallery on the banks of the Spree and the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. It is also the longest open-air gallery in the world.
Immediately after the wall came down, 118 artists from 21 countries began painting the East Side Gallery, and it officially opened as an open-air gallery on 28 September 1990. Just over a year later, they gave it protected memorial status.
Some works at the East Side Gallery are popular, such as Dmitri Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss and Birgit Kinder’s Trabant breaking through the wall.
The East Side Gallery stands both as a symbol of joy over the end of Germany’s division and as a historical reminder of the inhumanity of the GDR border regime. Nowadays, it is one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions.
That night we had a delicious Turkish Falafel Wrap for dinner, while enjoying a nice stroll through those stunning murals. After that, we went back to Gendarmenmarkt to see the Festival of Light, and then straight to our hotel as we were exhausted.
The second day we had a delicious breakfast at Einstein Caffee at Checkpoint Charlie and then took the hop-on-hop-off bus tour with the company City Circle. Thanks to our Welcome Berlin Card, we got a 20% discount out of the initial price of the tour.
Thanks to this 2-hour-long tour we had a look at all the major features of the city we could not see the day before, such as Alexanderplatz and the Berlin Television Tower, the Bellevue Palace, the entrance of the Berlin Zoo, the Town Hall, Museum Island, Under der Linden, and Oberbaum Bridge.
After the tour, we took the metro to get closer to the Cathedral and visited it.
The Berlin Cathedral is one of the major landmarks in Berlin’s cityscape, the city’s most important Protestant church, and the sepulchre of the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty.
The history of the Berlin Cathedral goes back to the 15th century. The predecessor buildings were originally part of the Berlin City Palace. In the early 19th century, they transformed the court church into a neo-classical building. In the early 20th century, though, it was demolished and rebuilt in high-renaissance, baroque style as an answer to Saint Peter’s in Rome and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. They severely damaged it during the Second World War, and, after the division of Germany, the Cathedral Church was in East Berlin. The work on restoring the church began in 1975 and ended in 1993, four years after the Berlin Wall fell.
Known as the Hohenzollern family tomb, over ninety sarcophagi and tombs are on display, including those of the Prussian Kings, Friedrich I and Sophie Charlotte, impressively cast in gold-plated tin and lead.
Other important works of art are the baptismal font by Christian Daniel Rauch and the Petrus mosaic by Guido Reni. The Dome’s organ, with over 7000 pipes, is a masterpiece and one of the largest in Germany.
A visit to the 114m/374ft-high Dome requires climbing 270 steps, but the viewing gallery is worth it for magnificent views of Mitte.
Admission fee: 9€/ 10.63$ p.p. or 7€/ 8.27$ p.p. with the Berlin Welcome Card.
After visiting the Cathedral, we had delicious Lebanese lunch nearby at Esra in Oranienburger Straße. Later, we take the metro to visit the Jewish Museum Berlin.
12. Jewish Museum Berlin
The Jewish Museum Berlin, opened to the public in 2001, exhibits the social, political and cultural history of the Jews in Germany from the 4th century to the present, explicitly presenting and integrating, for the first time in postwar Germany, the repercussions of the Holocaust. The new building is housed next to the site of the original Prussian Court of Justice building, which was completed in 1735 now serves as the entrance to the new building.
The visitor enters the Baroque Kollegienhaus and then descends by a stairway through the dramatic Entry Void, into the underground. They tied the existing building to the new extension, through the underground, thus preserving the contradictory autonomy of both the old and new structures on the surface. The descent leads to three underground axial routes, each of which tells a different story. The first leads to a dead-end–the Holocaust Tower. The second leads out of the building and into the Garden of Exile and Emigration, remembering those who were forced to leave Berlin. The third and longest, traces a path leading to the Stair of Continuity, then up to the exhibition spaces of the museum, emphasizing the continuum of history.
A Void cuts through the zigzagging plan of the new building and creates a space that embodies absence, the absence of Berlin’s Jewish citizens. It is a straight line whose impenetrability becomes the central focus around which exhibitions are organized. To move from one side of the museum to the other, visitors must cross one of the 60 bridges that open onto this void.
13. Topography of Terror
The exhibition called “Topography of Terror” is hosted in a building that, during the National Socialism Regime, used to be the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on Wilhelm- and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße.
The principal part of the exhibition is inside the building and focuses on the central institutions of the SS and police during the “Third Reich”, and the crimes that they committed throughout Europe. With the help of mostly photographic material on panels and documents (facsimiles) presented at subject-oriented lecterns, visitors are led through the major themes of the exhibition’s five major segments: The National Socialist Takeover of Power (I); Institutions of Terror (SS and Police) (II); Terror, Persecution and Extermination on Reich Territory (III); SS and Reich Security Main Office in the Occupied Countries (IV); and The End of the War and the Postwar Era (V).
Outside, you can find a site tour in 15 stations, designed to complement the permanent indoor exhibition, introducing visitors to the history of the terrain at the actual site.
Information lecterns with photos, documents and 3-D graphics provide a historic overview of the grounds where the most important institutions of National Socialist persecution and terror, the Secret State Police, the Reich SS Leadership and the Reich Security Main Office, were located from 1933 to 1945.
The tour integrates both the historical remains of the Berlin Wall, which have been designated a historic monument, and parts of the preserved historic sidewalk from Prinz-Albrecht-Straße that were previously not accessible.
Also outside you can find the exhibition “Berlin 1933–1945: Between Propaganda and Terror” that addresses National Socialist policy in Berlin and its consequences for the city and its population. It shows how the National Socialists could gain a foothold in “red” Berlin and gradually establish the city as the political centre of its leadership. The main chapters of the exhibition are arranged in different colours in a trench along with the exposed segments of a cellar wall and provide information about: Berlin in the Weimar Republic (I), Establishing the Führer’s Dictatorship (II), Berlin and the “People’s Community” (III), Wartime in Berlin 1939–1945 (IV); and Berlin and the Consequences of the Nazi Regime (V).
They made most of the exhibition panels of glass, making it possible to view the excavated ruins behind them. The exhibition presents photos, newspaper articles and documents. Media stations provide in-depth information on selected topics.
With more than a million visitors each year, it is one of the most frequently visited museums and memorial centres in Berlin.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit all three of them, but we truly liked the main one inside the building.
After that, we took another bus that took us to the Friedenau neighbourhood, where we had a delicious Neapolitan pizza in a pizzeria called “Malafemmena” in Hauptstraße.
Then, we went straight back to the hotel as the following day we had to get up early to catch our flight back to Dublin.
For the first time since we have travelled together, though, we would have liked to have some extra time to visit a bit more of the city.
If we have had even just a day extra in Berlin, I would have liked to go on a boat tour of the city on the Speer river, visit Charlottenburg Palace, and perhaps Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam as well. My husband, on the other hand, would have liked to visit the Berlin Zoo, as it is the most species-rich in the world, but I have never liked zoos (nor seeing animals locked in a cage in general) so I don’t really know if I would have done it. Maybe an incentive for me to go would have been knowing that they are saving endangered animals, but I really don’t know.
After two days in Berlin, I confirmed my idea of it as a beautiful, multicultural and underground city. I love its historical richness and the contrast between the magnificent remains of what once the city was (before being bombarded by the Allies) and the state-of-the-art buildings that popped up during the reconstruction of the city after WWII. I am also in love with Tiergarten Park, to my mind one of the most beautiful city parks in all Europe.
At the same time, the fact that most of the people in Berlin cannot speak English making it difficult for us as tourists, was quite disappointing. As I noticed that most of them didn’t even make the effort of trying to make us understand with gestures or otherwise, they just spat out words in German and then just shut up, even if we told them we didn’t speak the language. It was not so very cooperative of them. I can’t even imagine how tough must be living there without knowing a word of German! But, apart from that, I really love the city and would come back again in a few years.
As for my husband, he was very sceptical at first; he thought Berlin was nothing special at the end of the first day. By the end of the second day, though, he changed his mind as he understood its history better and could finally appreciate the uniqueness of a city that was on its knees and has got back up, renew itself completely, and be at the head of Europe. The only thing that left him down was the fact that there was no sign of the German culture in the city, no local shops, no local food stands around the city, no traditional beer houses. It seems almost like a city that has done so much to integrated every “acquired” culture that it ended up forgetting its own. And that was sad for me to witness, as I remember that 12 years ago there were still stands of traditional food around the Brandenburg Gate and Gendarmenmarkt, but I couldn’t be able to find them again this time.
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