Berlin: Beyond the Wall
After visiting Poland, the next destination on our 6-stop Central Europe was Berlin, Germany. Despite all my travels throughout Europe, I had yet to visit one of the continent’s most popular tourist destinations, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about.
Our first day in Berlin started grey and rainy, which seemed appropriate for our first stop, the Topography of Terror museum, which somberly reflects on the country’s Nazi history. Walking to the museum, without realizing we were heading toward it, we stumbled upon the Berlin Wall. Though it now is simply a decaying, graffiti-covered, hole-ridden plaster structure, I was immediately overwhelmed by its historical importance. Traveling, you see in person tons of landmarks you’ve read about and seen pictures of all your life, but seeing the Berlin Wall was especially powerful, perhaps partly because running across it took me by surprise, as well as because its history is so recent and relevant.
The Topography of Terror is built on the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS. Without pomp, through photos, documents, and text, it explains the rise, reign, and fall of the Nazi regime in Germany. One significant thing I noticed in Berlin is that Germany does a fantastic job of confronting its shameful recent history by offering numerous informative and interesting free, government-funded museums on Nazism and communism. Traveling around Spain without previous knowledge, you’d never have any idea that it saw a devastating Civil War 70 years ago, followed by almost four decades of an oppressive dictatorship. Spain buries its history, while Germany acknowledges it and attempts to make amends for it.
On a more uplifting note, the other major theme I witnessed throughout Berlin was a youth-centered sense of optimism. As a city that saw tremendous grief, corruption, and destruction over the past century, it’s been given a chance at rebirth, and there’s certainly a sense that, out of the ashes, the youth of today can build the city into whatever they want it to be. Berlin may have been around for at least eight centuries, but it’s effectively a new city with a vibrant youth culture that can be observed in the street art, nightlife, architecture, and attitudes. We finished our first day in Berlin wandering around some of this street art and consuming one of my favorite European foods — and something Berlin in particular is known for — a delicious döner kebab.
On day two, we began with a free walking tour through Sandemans New Europe, who I had a great experience with in Dublin in 2009. Our guide was wonderful and did a fantastic job of bringing Berlin’s history to life. Perhaps more than any other city I’ve visited, I could feel the place’s history with every new spot I visited. We saw the Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the seemingly innocuous parking lot under which Hitler’s bunker is buried, and more fascinating sights.
I would have loved for the tour to go on forever, but, alas, it came to an end, and Linnaea and I headed to the DDR Museum, not, ahem, about Dance Dance Revolution, but rather about life in the GDR, East Berlin under communist leadership. It’s an interesting, interactive museum that shows what education, fashion, and culture was like in East Berlin, without really villainizing the communist regime, most likely because, despite all the horrors, there are many people who still idealize their lives in that time. I suppose I like that the museum allows you to reach your own conclusions.
We then made a long trek to the East Side Gallery, a long stretch of still-standing Berlin Wall covered in art: some political, some humorous, all captivating…except for the recent graffiti expressing various fans’ love for Justin Bieber. True story. Horrifying. After that, we walked back to our hostel, passing through a young, hip area called Kreuzberg that reminded me a bit of the cooler parts of New York. Later, we wrapped up the night at a quiet bar, where we first tried Berliner Weisse, a refreshing Berlin favorite that combines light beer with raspberry syrup. So delicious.
We kicked off the following day with one of Berlin’s most popular spots, a kebab stand called Mustafa’s, which some deem the best kebab in the world (and oh how I love kebabs). It was certainly good, although not the best I’ve ever had. From there, we continued walking throughout the city, visiting the modern area of Alexanderplatz, seeing the Reichstag building, which houses Germany’s parliament, and returning to the Holocaust memorial, where we paid a visit to its underground museum, an overwhelmingly moving experience. As much as we’ve all heard about the Holocaust, being in the city that not so long ago controlled the entire tragedy makes it all the more real and heartbreaking.
Berlin is an insanely artsy city, and our next stop was hands-down one of the coolest things we saw there. Tacheles is an artist squatters building filled with endless, fascinating, modern artwork, galleries, and studios. It’s difficult to do the place justice, but it was truly a remarkable and unique sight bursting with creativity. Sadly, a few months ago, the government shut down Tacheles, but I feel extremely grateful to have been able to see it when it was still around.
The sun had come out in Berlin after a few cold, rainy days, so we sat near the river, soaking in the sun and sipping Berliner Weisse. We passed by some of Berlin’s older buildings and Checkpoint Charlie, picked up some currywurst for dinner, and then returned to our hostel to get a good night’s sleep before heading to Prague early the next morning.
Between its artsy culture, gripping recent history, delicious and inexpensive food, and friendly people, I must say that Berlin is one of my favorite cities I’ve visited in all my travels, and I’d love to go back for more some day. But on to Prague it was, so stay tuned for more Central European adventures!