Berlin is a city full of gloomy history yet full of life with its vibrant street art. Berlin the capital of Germany has quite a historic past, from surviving the devastation of the Thirty Years War, to the rise of Hitler after WWI, destructive bombings during WWII and separation of its people during the Cold War. It’s amazing how much this city has gone through and how it has flourished despite all these setbacks.
My first visit to Berlin was 8 years ago, when I was studying abroad. Being 20 years old at the time, all I can remember is how cold, rainy, and miserable it was walking around the city on a free guided tour. Yes, it was very informative but honestly the highlight of that trip was the pub crawl where my roommate and I got treated to drinks by Jim from Microsoft. Thanks Jim! Where we ended up dancing the night away at Maxxim Night Club to “Rise Up” and catching the 5am metro back to our hostel just as the locals were on their way to work in the morning. Oh, can’t forget drinking beer out of a shoe stein and seeing framed pictures of David Hasselhoff everywhere. (Reason for his popularity: On New Year's Eve in 1989, Hasselhoff performed his hit "I've Been Looking for Freedom" in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate just two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A very iconic moment in Germany’s history.) Fast forward 8 years and here I am going back during the exact same time of year with my two friends Cassandra and Leah from Prague. I was ready to take in all the history and sites I somehow missed the first time around. Here's what I learned and what I recommend see when visiting Berlin.
The Berlin Wall one of the most iconic landmarks in European History. Constructed by Communists in 1961 the wall was built to divide Communist East Berlin controlled by the Soviets from free westernized West Berlin which was occupied by American, British and French troops. The main purpose of this wall was to keep East Berlin from fleeing to West Berlin.
For 30 years, the Berlin Wall was the defining symbol of the Cold War and to think its fall was only 27 years ago in 1989.
Interesting Fact: The west side of the Berlin wall was covered in graffiti. The East side was not. Today both sides are covered in graffiti and surrounded by chained fences to keep others from vandalizing the wall.
Travel Tip: Head to the East Side Gallery and walk along both sides of the Berlin Wall. After exploring the Berlin Wall cross Oberbaumbrucke bridge and head onto Falckensteinstrasse street for some good cheap eats. We discovered this district by chance, mostly Asian, Indian, Mexican, and Turkish restaurants. We enjoyed some delicious Asian cuisine for under 6 euros.
Probably the most famous painting on the Berlin wall is “The Kiss” which shows Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker what appears to be a passionate kiss on the lips. At first I thought this was a humours picture someone created but in fact it’s based on an actual photograph taken in 1979. Brotherly kisses among socialist leaders were not unusual at that time but as the image shows it’s a bit more passionate than your average Communist dictator kissing. It’s said that there was a popular joke in which Brezhnev made a comment about Honecker: “As a politician, rubbish…but what a good kisser!”
One of the best-known crossing points between East Berlin and West Berlin is Check Point Charlie. This is where Western Military Forces had to register before entering East Berlin. It was a border crossing strictly for allied personnel and foreign tourists, Germans were not allowed through this checkpoint.
Today Check Point Charlie serves as a tourist attraction. More like a tourist tramp. As many tourist want to take pictures in front of this iconic checkpoint it comes with a price 5 euros per person. Luckily for us three pretty American girls we got a bargain price of 5 euros for the three of us. Needless to say we got our money’s worth, each having individual pictures with a few different poses and one with the three of us as a memory.
Interesting Fact: Check Point Charlie guard house was constructed of a wooden building this was because they knew it wouldn’t be a permanent thing. The original guard house can be found in the Allied Museum.
Be sure to keep an eye out on the cobblestone paths this is where the original Berlin Wall stood. Today these cobblestones remind us of the divide in the city.
Topography of Terrors is an outdoor and indoor history museum. Located on Niederkirchnerstrasse. Here you can view the gravel and foundation of where the Gestapo and the SS headquarters used to be, which were the principal tools of repression during the Nazi era.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church located on Kurfürstendamm in the center of the Breitscheidplatz a very busy shopping district is a famous landmark of West Berlin. It was badly damaging during a bombing raid in 1943. It’s nicknamed by Berliners as "der Hohle Zahn", meaning "The Hollow Tooth".
Tiergarten a former huning ground now refers to the parliament, government, and diplomatic district along with Berlin's largest and most popular inner-city park. A great place to enjoy a nice stroll, jog or bike ride through the park.
Brandenburg Gate is one of the best-known landmarks of Germany. It was here that U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave his powerful speech, “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located close to the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin is a memorial that serves as a central place for remembering and reminding people of the Holocaust. The memorial is one giant maze constructed of concrete slabs.
The design of this monument is to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, whereas the whole sculpture is intended to represent a ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.
Gendarmenmarkt is Berlin's most magnificent square composed of the German (Deutscher) and French cathedrals (Französischer Dom) and concert hall (Schinkel's Konzerthaus) together they form this square that dates to 1700.
Museum Island located on the Spree River is home to five internationally significant museums and the most beautiful building in Berlin, the Berlin Cathedral.
Safety Tip: Beware of deaf scammers. Earlier in our trip we ran into a young man who put a paper in front of our faces that was a signed petition to donate money to the deaf. Later on, at the Topography of Terror museum we saw a big poster warning visitors of these scammers. The next day at Museum Island we saw a whole bunch of gypsies with these petition papers and people actually giving them money. Be aware of these people they will come up to you and ask you to sign and donate for a deaf-mute charity, just say no and walk away. Don’t be caught as a victim for who knows they might even pick pocket you as you are preoccupied with signing the petition.
Berlin is a great weekend destination. All you need is 2-3 days here and you will be sure to leave enriched with history.
A comfortable 5-hour bus ride from Prague via Student Agency, Regiojet and you are there.
Leah, Cassandra & I in front of the Berlin Wall