By Saul Schwartz
Follow in the footsteps of America-based Saul Schwartz and his family as they learn what the capital of Germany has to offer. From free walking tours to a day in the museums, Saul suggests an exhaustive itinerary of Berlin’s finest attractions. Whether you want to dig deeper into the Jewish legacy of Berlin or are game for exploring Berlin further afield, here are some great tips on what not to miss – and where you can economise.
With dry and very hot weather during our stay in Berlin, the sweltering August heat required us to keep hydrated throughout the days. With some tourist sites outdoors and others indoors but not air conditioned, we may not have covered quite as much ground as if the weather had been more typical for a Berlin summer. Nevertheless, my wife Fern, my daughter Danielle, Fern’s daughter Courtney and I felt like we captured Berlin’s key sites during our five-day stay.
Our favourite time in Berlin was spent on the free ninety-minute English language tour of the Parliament or Reichstag. The guided tour must be requested on-line no more than two months in advance.
The German Bundestag is the National Parliament of Germany. Its seat is in the Reichstag building in Berlin, located at Platz der Republik. We were able to sit in the voting chamber of the Parliament with its striking purple seats and silver Federal eagle coat of arms at the front.
The tour was conducted by Sebastian, an employee of the Parliament who was able to answer a wide variety of questions concerning Germany’s government. Sebastian explained the functions, working methods and composition of the Parliament, as well as the history and architecture of the Reichstag Building. The building was restored after German reunification. He also provided explanations of the extensive art in the building, created by established German and foreign artists.
After the tour, we had approximately thirty minutes to visit the dome. The roof terrace and dome of the Reichstag Building offer spectacular breath-taking views of the government district and Berlin’s sights. The new elliptical dome with its glass cupola was added in 1999. By booking a summer tour at 8 p.m., we were able to climb to the top of the dome and see day turn into night over Berlin.
“Free” Walking Tour of Berlin
The Sandeman New Europe 2 ½ hour walking tour was a great way to orient us to the city. Our tour guide Max had emigrated from New York and was extremely knowledgeable about Berlin’s unique twentieth century history.
We began at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark. This triumphal arch and symbol of Berlin is the only remaining historic city gate. Completed in 1795, the gate (tor) once marked the cities’ western boundary. The magnificent sandstone structure contains scenes from Greek myths and is crowned by a sculpture of a horse drawn chariot driven by the goddess of victory. Max explained how the gate had been the scene of many of Berlin’s important events, including military parades marking Hitler’s ascent to power, the raising of the Russian flag at the end of the Second World War, Ronald Regan’s speech admonishing Gorbachov to tear down the Berlin wall and massive celebrations when the wall was finally torn down.
We stopped briefly at the site of Hitler’s Bunker. Max explained that with Hitler’s suicide in the so-called Fuhrerbunker on April 30, 1945, the Second World War drew to an end in Europe. The bunker was demolished after the end of the war and is now only marked with a simple information board at the corner of In den Ministergärten and Gertrud-Kolmar-Strasse.
Next we walked to the site of the former Luftwaffe Headquarters on Wilhelmstrasse. Built in 1936, the former Nazi HQ is a classic example of “muscular” Nazi socialist realistic architecture and housed the former air ministry. At the time of completion, this was the largest office building in Europe with 2.800 rooms. Max explained that this building survived war-time bombing and following World War II, served as a centre for the Soviet military and then as headquarters to the East German Council of Ministers. The exterior facade contains an enormous mural added in 1952 to display the joys of socialist life and its hardworking citizens. Hand painted from porcelain tiles, this mural is considered a masterpiece of socialist art and an outstanding relic of life behind the Iron Curtain.
We spent a few minutes at Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between West and East Berlin on Friedrichstrasse. Max showed us how the surrounding area has become a commercial tourist trap with a replica checkpoint booth complete with sand bags, the famous sign on the western side that reads “You are now leaving the American sector,” two large photographs of an American and a Russian soldier and fast food restaurants galore.
A section of the Berlin Wall survives nearby. He explained that the name of this notorious border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors stemmed from the word that signified the letter C in the International Phonetic Alphabet. Between 1961 and 1990, this checkpoint was the only crossing point for foreigners between East and West Berlin. In October 1961, Soviet and American tanks faced each other at this checkpoint during one prominent cold war incident. Markers in pavements on the street show the position of the former location of the wall, labelled “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989.”
Book Burning Memorial
Our tour finished near Bebelplatz, the site of the Book Burning Memorial. In May 1933, this square was the scene of the infamous book-burning act organized by the Nazi propaganda machine. Approximately 25.000 books written by authors considered to be enemies of the Nazis were burned. An interesting monument at the centre of Bebelplatz commemorates this dramatic event. Underneath a translucent panel inserted into the surface of the square there is a room filled with empty bookshelves. Next to the monument is a plaque bearing the tragically prophetic words “Where books are burned, in the end people will burn” by poet Heinrich Heine.
Max concluded our tour by focusing on the irony of the book burning right in the shadow of Humboldt University, where many famous scholars worked and studied, including Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. On this tour, you pay by tip and we paid $10 euros per person.
A Day on Museum Island, Museumsinsel
Crossing the Spree River and entering Museum Island by the Berliner Dom provides one of the most scenic spots in Berlin. The island features five major museums and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We spent much of one day at the museums, but began to wilt since the museums did not appear to be air conditioned on a hot summer day.
First in line was the Pergamonmuseum, opened in 1930. This museum is world famous for its immense reconstructions of ancient towns and its collection of antiquities. Currently the Pergamon Altar, which gives the museum its name, is not on display during a period of reconstruction. Nevertheless, the large reconstruction of the 6th century B.C Babylonian Ishtar Gate and processional street with original blue and ochre glazed bricks and towering two story market gate from Miletus (120 A.D.), a Roman town in Asia Minor, are spectacular. Audio guides with several different language options are included as part of the admission.
Completed in 1876, the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) houses major works of art and sculpture, primarily from the 19th century. The exterior of the building resembles a temple with beautiful columns and an equestrian statute. We particularly enjoyed some first rank early Impressionist works and sculptures (including Rodin’s The Thinker). Again was audio guides in different languages part of the museum’s admission fee.
In addition, we spent time in the Altes Museum (Old Museum). Opened in 1830, the building is a beautiful neo-classical structure with two impressive equestrian statutes and 18 columns. The Altes’ collection focuses on antiquities, primarily Greek, Roman and Etruscan. We particularly enjoyed viewing the stately rotunda, decorated with antique sculptures modelled after the Roman Pantheon. An audio guide was included in the museum admission price.
None of these museums offered English language guided tours.
Neues Museum Restaurant
Lunch in the Neues Museum Restaurant offered a nice break, but we did not have sufficient time to view the New Museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian art. The menu was made up of lighter fare, but it was one of the better salads we ate during our Berlin stay.
Prior to the rise of the Nazis, Berlin was home to approximately 170.000 Jews. Today, Berlin’s Jewish population is on the rise, and is now estimated to be about 40.000. We found Berlin’s Jewish sites to be of great personal interest.
The very moving Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also known as the Holocaust memorial) is a short walk from Brandenburg Gate. The memorial for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 was inaugurated in 2005. Above ground, we walked through a field of tilting concrete slabs set slightly askew. The 2.711 stelae are of different heights, placed on a grid on a sloping field. The memorial is the central Holocaust memorial in Germany. It is a place of remembrance and commemoration. This gripping site is right within the bustling heart of the city. The impact is most visceral when wandering through the labyrinth formed by the greyish rectangles. Although abstract, we found the experience both unnerving and meaningful.
Beneath the memorial is an extensive information centre with an exhibition on the history of the genocide. The exhibition documents the persecution and extermination of the Jews of Europe and the historical sites of these events. In one room, the names of victims are read aloud with information about the individual. In another room, information is provided on the fates of fifteen different families. The memorial is visited by almost half a million guests every year. There is a small fee for the audio guide, but the information centre is free.
Once Germany’s largest synagogue with 3200 seats, the Neue (New) Synagogue is a very different Jewish experience. Located on Oranienburger Strasse, this structure was partially destroyed during the Night of Broken Glass (November 9-10, 1938) and then further damaged by bombing in 1943. The Moorish style building was partially reconstructed in 1995, and is now connected with the Jewish Centre and crowned by an eye catching dome. The entrance is easy to recognize thanks to the police permanently stationed outside. We stopped to admire the architecture and learn about the history of the building.
Berlin is one of several European cities where Stumbling Stones, or Stolpersteine, are inserted into the pavement as mini-memorials to Holocaust victims. The stones are brass bricks placed in front of homes where individuals or families were forcibly removed by the Nazis. This project is yet another way Germany is working to change how the Holocaust is remembered. Each stone is inscribed with the name and details about the people who once lived in these houses.
There are about 30.000 commemorative stones across Germany. The stumbling stones make it clear that each victim was an individual. We saw stones honouring Ida Bremer born in 1898 and taken to Auschwitz in 1943, Max Adler born in 1914 and killed in Auschwitz in 1944, and Herbert Budzislawski born in 1920 and taken to Berlin Plotzensee prison in 1943, among others. Adjoining stones for other Bremer and Adler family members showed how families were split apart and sent to different prisons or camps.
Danielle and I spent the better part of one very sombre day visiting Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp memorial and museum, just 45 miles away from the heart of Berlin. The camp was built in 1936 by prisoners from other camps. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned here between 1936 and 1945. At first, the prisoners were mostly political opponents of the Nazis. Later increasing numbers of Jews, Soviet prisoners of war and homosexuals were included, especially from occupied European countries.
Tens of thousands of people died here of starvation, disease, forced labour mistreatment or were victims of extermination operations. Then thousands of prisoners died during the death marches following the evacuation of the camp in April 1945. Ironically, at the end of World War II, from 1945 to 1950, this camp became a special Soviet camp where thousands of Nazi prisoners were imprisoned, sentenced and killed. Today the camp consists of several original structures (including guard towers and barracks), some recreated buildings and a museum with extensive signage in English. You enter the prisoner’s camp with the infamous slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). The museum presents the personal stories of various inmates through photos, audio clips, letters and movie clips.
Berlin Further Afield
East Side Gallery
Since 1990, the East Side Gallery has displayed a huge collection of paintings, murals and graffiti. On this one mile section of the Berlin Wall that remains standing, the works of about 118 artists from 21 different countries are displayed. The paintings symbolize deeply meaningful themes such as the joy of the falling of the wall, the overcoming of the Iron Curtain in Europe, the hope for a more humane society, and the euphoria of peacefully won freedom. Small sections of the wall are left open to allow tourists to inscribe their own words.
Located in Muhlenstrasse in Friedrichshain, the East Side gallery is said to be the world’s largest open air art gallery and the longest remaining portion of the wall. Of particular interest, there are paintings on what were once the inner and outer portions of the Berlin wall.
The vast Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest park, reminded us of New York’s Central Park. Once a hunting estate and forest, the Tiergarten became a landscaped park in the 18th century. The park’s paths are lined with statues of figures such as writer and statesman Wolfgang von Goethe. The Goethe monument depicts the allegorical figures of drama, poetry and science on a base beneath the statue of Goethe himself.
A very different structure is the memorial to homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis. Opened in 2008, the structure looks somewhat like one of the concrete slaps of the Holocaust memorial. Through a small square window, you can see a film depicting a kiss. This memorial serves a lasting symbol against exclusion, intolerance and animosity toward homosexuals. We could have enjoyed strolling further in the park if the weather was better!
Taking the elevator to the top of the TV Tower Fernsehturm provides a panoramic view of Berlin. Built in 1969, the television tower is the city’s tallest structure. At 1207 feet, the tower is one of the tallest structures in Europe and is visible from almost any point in Berlin. Prior to ascending the tower, we enjoyed lunch in nearby Alexanderplatz, a large public square.
Throughout Berlin, we were impressed by its public sculptures. The Buddy Bears placed throughout the city are joyful. Inspired by the idea of bringing art to the streets of a metropolis, the initiators of the art project began in 2001 to design this project. The bear is Berlin’s heraldic animal and has a high level of public appeal. There are now around 140 bears within the city. Berlin’s vision for the bears was to communicate friendliness, optimism and a positive atmosphere. The bears reminded me of the Panda Mania exhibition in Washington, D.C. in 2002 and 2004. Unfortunately only a few remain of the panda sculptures remain scattered around DC today. We wish DC had kept the sculptures up, like Berlin!
Skip the Hop On Hop Off bus
Normally we find the Hop On Hop Off bus to provide us with a good initial orientation to a new city. However, we found that the Berlin bus experience to be uncomfortably hot and far too slow due to traffic and lack of information provided at each site with this English language audio guide. It look about 2 ½ hours to make a loop.
Take the S Bahn Train
The largely above ground S Bahn is faster than the below ground U Bahn, with stations spaced further apart. Trains run very frequently in peak hours. Although there are a total of fifteen S Bahn lines, four of them travel along the same track within the central portions of the city. The all-day ticket provides the best value, allowing the same ticket to be used on all local buses, trams, S or U Bahn lines. At 7 Euros, the fare for two passengers within the central Berlin zone for the all-day ticket provided a great value. Even though the announcements and the signage were only in German, the S Bahn system was very easy to use.
Berlin Museum Pass or a Museum Island Ticket
Consider purchasing The Berlin Museum pass, that allows entry to thirty museums during a consecutive three day period for 29€. Alternatively, you can buy a pass, which allows entry to all five of the museums on Museum Island for 18€. Either pass saves you money. Keep in mind that not every museum in Berlin is included on either pass. We did not visit any museums outside of Museum Island.
Lodging and Eating in the Ku’damm area
Our hotel allowed us easy access to the S Bahn in Savignyplatz square. The square is contained within a pleasant neighbourhood with plenty of restaurants and cafes. There are many hotels and upscale stores along Kurfurstendamm (Ku’damm) to choose from. Kurfurstendamm is an elegant broad long boulevard that runs for over two miles. Although a little far removed from central Berlin, staying in this area provided us with plenty of restaurant and market choices for food options. We stopped for a snack at Princess Cheesecake and ate outside watching life go by! One evening we ate outside at Cous Cous Schale, sampling different couscous plates.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
One day we walked from our hotel to tour the beautiful neo-Romanesque Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The original church was built during the 1890s. It was badly damaged during World War II bombing, but the original spire remains. The ground floor of the church has been made into a memorial hall which documents the history of the church and contains some of the elaborate original ceiling mosaics, marble reliefs and liturgical objects from the church.
Tribeca Ice Cream
On a hot day, we really enjoyed Berlin’s own Tribeca Ice Cream. Tribeca uses a mix of native coconut oil and rice milk, which makes the ice cream both vegan and gluten-free. This ice cream was refreshing, creamy and flavourful! The pistachio variety was delicious.
A Berlin guidebook is helpful
We found Eyewitness Travel Berlin to be very useful, based on its neighbourhood by neighbourhood organizational scheme and details on all major attractions. In addition, this guidebook provided a transportation map with extensive travel information. This guide is updated periodically to provide the most current information.
In five days, we felt that we had covered Berlin’s major sites of within a city which covers a large geographic area. It was uplifting to see how tolerant Berlin has become of individuals of different backgrounds. Given its historical importance, Berlin is well worth visiting.
If you’re not keen on visiting Berlin when it’s a hot melting pot, how about strolling the capital to the sound of christmas music and the smell of glühwein and lebkuchen? Here’s our guide to its Top3 Christmas Markets.
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country. Although Saul and Fern had traveled to Germany before, this was their first trip to Berlin.