Kreuzin through Berlin
Berlin is unlike any other city in the world. The more that we are away from it, the more we appreciate all that it is. It has so many facets of uniqueness; it is a melting pot of cultures with such rich history and a struggle to be seen as a renewed city. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the old and new in Berlin, be it the Berlin Wall or the epicenter of Hitler’s regime, but also to find its own place as a new and better Berlin. It’s a funny concept, its like the more people recognize them for the historical things it brought to the world, the more they want to succeed in being known for crazy nightclubs, tolerance of all cultures, and acceptance of expats from all over the globe. And seriously… the weirder you are, the more you are accepted. The more we think about it, the more it clinches the award for one of our favorite places on our 2015 European tour!
Berlin is extremely easy to travel to – by trains, planes, and automobiles. The main train hub is very big but very easy to navigate and gets you to every part of Germany and to every part of Berlin. We actually came by an overnight bus, nothing luxurious but definitely cost effective. There are a couple of airports that service different sides of the city but have easy access to the central train hub in under an hour. This website is your best resource for finding information on travel and transportation amenities. Berlin is a really walkable city, if you’re willing to walk a couple miles each way, but also has a great public transportation bus/train system for when your feet need a break. Make sure to buy the right type of ticket for the right amount of zones you travel in though, tickets can get very hefty for riding without the correct ticket!
where to stay
Berlin is set up in about 13 different neighborhoods and they are all completely different. Originally we had planned on staying in an AirBnb in Mitte, where most of the big “attractions” of Berlin are found but at the last second it ended up not working out. We found a little hostel right smack in the middle of Kreuzberg – which we later learned is Berlin’s g h e t t o. But, don’t let that stop you, because it is all sorts of bohemian, hippy, gangster, hipster, counterculture and full of life. Anywhere that you research about Kreuzberg, the first thing you will learn that this area is heavily made up of Turkish immigrants and is in the process of undergoing some serious gentrification. We actually really loved this area because it was different and full of so many amazing restaurants! You can make your own judgment call about this area, but trust us when we say we have felt more unsafe in San Francisco than we ever did here in Kreuzberg. It’s a bit further outside of the touristy side of Berlin but to us it was worth the walking!
The hostel we came across was just as unique as the rest of Berlin. It was definitely smaller and more personal than any of the other hostels we had stayed in, but lacked that true community experience that we felt in the other places we stayed. If you’d like to check it out, you can find it here. If you’d like to check out some other resources on all the neighborhoods in Berlin, this and this are great articles highlighting the best areas.
things to do
Berlin is probably one of the only places that looking back, we wish we could have spent more time in. Since it is so historically rich, there is SO much to see and quite honestly, we just didn’t have enough time to hit all of it in two days. We still got to see so much in our short amount of time but we can’t wait to get back to explore more!
East Side Gallery / Berlin Wall
This is one of the most famous and well known parts of Berlin’s history. Located in the district of Friedrichshain, the East Side Gallery is one part of the former Berlin Wall that acts as a muraled memorial. You can walk around this area for quite a long time along the walkway that hugs the River Spree, admiring the art and often times politically charged murals. There are other parts of the Berlin Wall that you can see but this is one of cultural importance because it is the longest open air gallery in the world.
Berliner Dom – Berlin Cathedral
The Mitte district is pretty much the central hub of Berlin. It is where you will find Museum Island, which we surprisingly didn’t venture too far into. One of the main attractions of this area is the Berliner Dom, the largest Protestant church in the city. It’s main attraction is the underground crypt that houses more than 80 tombs of dead royalty.
I’m sure you guys know how much we love walking tours, we try to take them in basically every city we can. A walking tour is essentially a (usually) free way to have your own personal tour guide who takes you to major important parts of the city and gives you a run down on all the history associated with certain buildings and monuments that you wouldn’t otherwise learn on your own. We took the almost 3 hour Sandeman’s New Berlin Tour which took us to a few different neighborhood’s, stopped at local food hubs, and even dropped us at some fun shopping places along the way. In Berlin, they also have specific tours for some of the concentration camps, the overnight clubs, and even one called an “alternative tour” that takes you to all the graffiti ridden places! In our opinion, the walking tours are one of the best ways to see the city and get a ton of background knowledge, along with fun facts you can’t find on the internet, straight from a local!
All the tours depart from Pariser Platz, the square that holds the Brandenburg Gate. Pariser Platz is home to the US and French embassies, luxurious apartments, and the famous Hotel Adlon, that Michael Jackson famously swung his son out the window of. The Brandenburg Gate, the last standing city gate, is arguably Berlin’s most famous landmark, obviously tied with the Berlin Wall. Throughout the course of Berlin’s history, it has been a symbol of separation, from East and West Berlin – but it now exists as a symbol of unity for Berliners. It is modeled after the Propylaeum of Athens’ Acropolis and it is such a beautiful sight. You should definitely take a walk through it to the other side and see it in all its grandeur!
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews is an absolute MUST when visiting Berlin, plus – its completely free! So here’s the lowdown on why this place, also called the field of stelae, looks the way it does. As you can see from the pictures, the concrete blocks are all different lengths, widths, and sizes, and the sidewalks in between them dip and incline all around them. The creator of the memorial, Peter Eisenman (a New York architect), wanted people to walk through the pillars and decide what they would feel. It is not necessarily meant to evoke any kind of feeling, it is very much open to interpretation. Originally, he wanted people to come and spend hours at a time here, sitting atop the pillars or laying out and having a picnic or even going to the extent of painting the pillars. However, this received a lot of flack for being disrespectful and people are not allowed to get on top of any of the pillars. It’s actually quite ominous, even in the middle of daylight, it created a sense of oppression and sadness. Underneath the pillars, there is also a museum, which we explored later on after our tour.
When this memorial was created, they needed a coating on the concrete that would withstand the weather and protect against graffiti. They chose a chemical called Protectosil, that was created by a company called Degussa. Interestingly enough during the Holocaust, one of Degussa’s subsidiaries, Degesch supplied the Nazi government with Zyklon B, the gas used to kill the Jews in the gas chambers. This created so much controversy when the memorial was being made, that they actually stopped production and refused to finish until this was all settled. The committee in charge of the construction eventually decided that since it would be so hard to find a company that didn’t assist the government during the Holocaust that they would have to forgive Degussa and continue on with the project, saving them loads and loads of money – but much to the chagrin of Berliners.
When we finally got to see the inside of the museum, we started in the first room – full of letters that were found during the Holocaust, from kids writing to parents, spouses writing to their lovers, brothers and sisters writing to each other. A lot of them are quite difficult to read and quite emotional.
The second really impactful room was the name room. Here, on all four walls at the same time, the names and brief biography of the murdered or missing Jews are projected. This room exists to give the victims of the Holocaust more than just a legacy of a number from the Nazi’s, and to free them from their anonymity. Their names, date of birth, and date of death are all projected on the walls, while their brief biographies are narrated. Narrating the victims brief histories and names of the 6 million Jews in this way would take approximately 6 years, 7 months and 27 days.
Give yourself a couple hours to fully explore the museum and take your time in the rooms, there is a lot to see and read.
Trav Tav’s Info
These squares are spread out all across Europe, in almost 18 countries now, and they are little individual memorials to the persecuted victims during the Holocaust. These are literally called “stumbling blocks” or “stolpersteins” – created by artist Gunter Demnig, and there are currently more than 50,000 of them across Europe. They say, “here lived” or “here worked”, and then the victim’s name, birth date, deportation date, and death date. We actually saw a lot of these in Poland as well as Berlin and Budapest and it’s a really neat way to individually represent each victim and make people stop to look and pay respect.
Hitler’s suicide bunker
We actually don’t have a picture of this, mostly because there is absolutely nothing to see. Hitler’s bunker that he cowardly hid out in until he committed suicide is nothing more that a slab of parking lot and a park within a pavilion of an apartment building. When the Nazi regime finally came to an end, German’s decided that they shouldn’t memorialize anything that had to do with Hitler’s death so the only thing reason why you’d even know his bunker was once under your feet is because of a tour. There actually may have been a tiny little sign in the corner of the lot, but we never walked over to see what it said.
Georg Elser statue
From first glance it kinda looks like a randomly placed piece of abstract art, but the story behind it is quite interesting. Johann Georg Elser had planned an elaborate assassination attempt on Hitler while he was making his annual speech in a Munich beer hall on November 8, 1939. However, Hitler unexpectedly left early from this speech, and the bomb that Elser had planted went off just after Hitler had escaped. It killed 8 people and injured around 63 others. The ceiling right above where Hitler had stood collapsed in – leaving people to wonder if he would have stayed, if he would have been killed. Elser was arrested and subsequently killed not too long after the war.
Ministry of Aviation Building, “Aufbau der Republik”
Whew, get ready for a mouthful. Okay, this mural sits on the backside of part of the building that used to be the headquarters of aviation for the Nazi government, which meant they designed and built all aircraft for the Third Reich. This building is one of the only buildings to escape the Allied bombings during the war. After the war, since it was one of the only buildings left intact, it held the Council of Ministers of the New German Democratic Republic. After WWII, Germany was split into 4 different sections, a different country taking a different country to control. The side of Germany that formed the Democratic Republic, or East Germany, was run by the Soviet Union. The other side, West Berlin was run by the US, France, and the UK. In 1953, under the Soviet government, there was an uprising that started with a strike from construction workers when they disagreed with the demand for increased productivity. This strike was continued on by millions of East Berliners protesting the communist government and they even gained support of the US. Adjacent from the mural in this picture is actually a monument to commemorate the 1952 uprising, and you can even see bullet holes in the pillars that hold the building up. The mural itself, which surprisingly has stayed up all this time, is actually a bit controversial. The gist of the painting’s theme is one of a socialist society; peaceful, happy, and thriving, even though at the time time of it’s erection, Berlin was nothing of the sorts. They think it serves as a good piece of history but it is just a reminder of all the sadness that the government brought on Berlin. Currently, this building now is the seat of the German Finance Ministry.
The Topography of Terror / Berlin Wall / SS & Gestapo Headquarters
This is tied for our favorite Berlin monument with the Holocaust museum. This area has so much crazy history, it’s a little bit unbelievable. Get ready for another mouthful! These grounds housed the headquarters of the Gestapo Police and the SS officers during the war. From the building that stood on this corner, they carried out all the plans for war, mass murder, invasions of neighboring countries, as well as housing political prisoners. The headquarters building was mostly destroyed in the Allied bombings, and subsequently demolished after the war. Ironically, this exact same ground (on the corner of Prinz-Albrecht-Strausse) is where the second largest segment of the Berlin Wall stands – after the East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain. The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 by the Soviet government who took over East Berlin after WWII to keep out the Western “fascists”, but it really was constructed so the East Berliners stuck in communist East Germany couldn’t flee to the democratic West Berlin. This symbol of division lasted almost 30 years, tearing families apart and the country divided. Could you imagine not seeing some of your family members for 30 years? There was (not surprisingly) lots of people who died trying to get across the Wall, but there was guessimated about 5,000 people who did make it over without getting caught. On the East Berlin side of the Wall, there was what they called the “death strip”. It was a field of soft sand (to show footprints), attack dogs, floodlights, trip-wire machine guns and patrolling soldiers with orders to shoot on sight. The division between the two sides of Germany ended in 1989, when one of the GDR representatives accidentally said that the East Berliners were free to cross over the border immediately – even though it wasn’t supposed to go into effect until the following day, with lots of stipulations as to how you could cross the checkpoints. Obviously people flocked to the Wall to celebrate that they would get to see their friends and family and were freed from the oppressive government. There was still a lot of people who died trying to get over the Wall that day, either getting killed by soldiers or falling to the death strip because of the miscommunications of the representative. But alas, in 1990, East and West Berlin was reunified and could live in peace as one country.
SOO, now what occupies this space, is the Berlin Wall and the Topography of Terror. This started out as a temporary open air World War II museum and became so widely popular that it never left. This place has SO MUCH INFO. We are forewarning you – it’s a lot of reading! But, in our opinion, worth it to take the time to read it all. There are pictures of documents from the Nazi’s, pictures of the SS officers and their war crimes, pictures of the different groups of people the Nazi’s targeted to kill, videos/pictures of concentration camps, and tons more stuff that is too much to even list. One of the craziest sections, which just kind of makes you angry honestly, is towards the end and shows you what happened after the war. There are different biographies of the different officers who fled and got away with their war crimes, Nazi’s who were tried and given a small sentence, Nazi doctors who were experimenting on mentally handicapped and children who were allowed to go back into practice. It’s actually quite horrifying. There are pictures of some of these very infamous men out watering their lawn in their late 70’s and 80’s living a normal life. It’s absolutely maddening to walk through and see the things they participated in and in most cases, got away with nothing but a slap of the wrist.
Adjacent to the building of the museum is a little walkway that runs the length of the Berlin Wall with little signs telling the history from Nazi Germany up to the Berlin Wall and everything in between. Make sure to take a good chunk of time if you do visit here, it is worth the extra time to see all of this!
Checkpoint Charlie was the main border crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, and only for foreigners and diplomats. In 1961, there was a tank face off due to another miscommunication between the Soviet Union and the US, which everyone thought would begin WWIII. The original guardhouse of Checkpoint Charlie is now a museum that has some neat photos and little trinkets, but it’s in a pretty busy touristy area and in our opinion not worth spending a lot of time.
The Gendarmenmarkt is a square in Mitte where the Berlin Konzerthaus Hall and the French and German churches rest. The Französischer Dom (French Church) was created first in 1705 for the French speaking Calvinists and Deutscher Dom (German Church) came a couple years after in 1708 for the German speaking Lutherans. Oddly enough, the tower in the French cathedral is completely separate from the actual church, but you can go up into the tower and have a full panoramic view of Berlin. Also, if you look closely at the top of the cathedrals you can see the statues that line the outer rim. The story behind these are actually really cool – they are different statues of apostles and during the war they were in jeopardy of being either stolen or destroyed by Hitler. He was taking all the works of art around Europe and hid them for his Fuhrermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. This is where he wanted to showcase all the important artwork of the world, and it is estimated that over 5 million artifacts had been stolen – a lot of them never being recovered again. Hitler was fixated on the Ghent Altarpiece (the most stolen pieces of artwork) as the centerpiece of the museum, especially the Righteous Judges panel of the Altarpiece which to this day has still never been found. The actual statues on top of the cathedrals were taken down and replaced with replicas, while the originals were hidden away until after the war. These buildings were all badly damaged during the war, so someone had really good judgement on taking the statues down because they potentially would have been destroyed and the works of art would have been lost forever. If you’re interested in learning more about the stolen artwork and Fuhrermuseum, we recommend the movie The Monuments Men. It lays out the story of the group of men who sought to regain the stolen artifacts and save the all the history that Hitler wanted to destroy.
Humboldt University & Book Burning memorial at the Bebelplatz
In the beginning of the Nazi reign, Hitler started implementing a Nazi-only based society. This meant everything was Nazi focused and any other view contrary to Hitler and his regime were wrong. In 1933, the Nazi’s took 20,000 books that threatened Nazi ideology from the Humboldt University in Berlin and burned them all in the Bebelplatz square. There was books from many philosophers, journalists, scientists – including many originals that are lost forever. Hitler did not want any free thinking, nor anything that was contrary to the German spirit.
This large underground room serves as a visual reminder of all the literary works that used to share the space on those bookshelves.
There is a plaque on the ground next to the glass that says,
“That was only a prelude, there where they burn books,
they burn in the end people.” – Heinrich Heine 1821
This concluded our walking tour but since we had more days in Berlin, we got to see a couple more highlights of the city not included on the historic walking tour.
Spreepark is an old, abandoned amusement park located in lower East Berlin. Originally this area was home to East Germany’s only amusement park, then called Kulturpark. Kulturpark was opened in 1969 and wildly popular until the fall of the Berlin Wall, causing its demise in 1989. The property was sold to a man named Norbert Witte in 1991, who had high hopes of attracting the number of visitors that the park had when it was in its peak in the 70’s. They renamed it Spreepark (since it lies right next to the River Spree) and although it was successful the first year, they ended up filing for bankruptcy and closed their doors in 2001. For a long time, you could walk around the abandoned grounds and see the attractions left to rot. After many acts of vandalism and a fire in 2014 that burned down a significant section of the park, there is now a pretty sturdy fence around the property, complete with guards and dogs that threaten to fine you and take you to jail if you are caught trespassing. Because the fence prevents you from really jumping over or finding a weak spot, many people have found holes dug by rodents and shimmy under the fence that way. The day that we were here, we didn’t see any guards, but in the middle of the day it was going to be hard to get through the holes without someone seeing and tattling on us. We didn’t ever get in the interior of the park, but we did get to see a lot of stuff that is abandoned on the outer rim of the park closest to the fence. Even in the middle of day, this place is kind of eery – especially when the ferris wheel catches the wind and you can hear its rusty screech. Spreepark is in a really quiet, relaxed part of Berlin, adjacent to Treptower Park. Even though we didn’t go into the actual abandoned park, the walk to it from our hostel to Treptower park was worth it, especially on such a beautiful, sunny day!
Mauerpark flea market
This is another must go in Berlin! Mauerpark is located in the Prenzlauer Berg District and on Sunday’s there is a huge flea market, live music, and food in the beer garden. Part of the Berlin Wall and the Death Strip are still on these grounds as well, artistically painted with lots of graffiti.
In the biergarten, there’s also a lot of really unique food trucks for lunch, snacks, and drinks. Grab yourself some lunch and meander along the flea market side of the park and maybe even sift through some of the treasures. Then you should find a sunny area to sit on the hill overlooking the park and hopefully catch a band playing I the park to enjoy with your food. This is one of the best local experiences in Berlin and absolutely captures the essence of the city.
where to eat + drink
Berlin takes the award for the best food that we had on our trip because every place we tried was top notch, in quality of food and in atmosphere. Their restaurants definitely reflect their unique and diverse culture. Most of where we ate was in the Kreuzberg neighborhood near our hostel and a couple street food stops around the town. Our recommendation is to step out of your comfort zone and try every kind of food that Berlin has to offer!
◊ Ritter Sport – This place is a MUST GO in Berlin. It is a 3 story chocolate shop that gives you one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever have with chocolate. They have a little assembly line of chocolate making, where you can either make a drink or you can make your own chocolate bars and pick up later after it’s done cooling off. The cool thing about this place is that you can add in all the fixings to your chocolate that you want, such as nuts, peppermint bark, caramel, fruit chunks, etc. You can literally make the chocolate bar of your dreams! You can find Ritter chocolate bars in specialty places like World Market – so you can at least get a taste of what they can do in the States.
◊ Hello Good Pie – If you make it to one place in Berlin, this one NEEDS to be it! This has got to be one of our favorite places we have ever eaten, for the food and the staff. It’s so good in fact, that we ate here twice which is something we usually don’t do when we travel. Grab yourself a seat outside if the weather is nice and enjoy a pot pie and a hand crafted coffee. You’ll probably get a chance to meet the owner Matt and manager Peter – the two men behind the delicious, flaky heaven in your mouth. They are so sweet and friendly, and have great recommendations for which pot pie to devour and what local things to see in Berlin. If it’s still around, you have to try the Guinness pot pie and compliment it with a bottle of Guinness!
◊ Sadhu -We came across this little Pakistani gem in our Kreuzberg neighborhood. Sadhu is such a cozy, inviting place with some of the most unique and delicious menu. Try any of the curry dishes and be prepared to share and take home leftovers, the portions are really huge! Wash it down with one of the local lagers on tap and enjoy the intimate, colorful setting – or sit outside and people watch on the patio with the locals.
◊ I Golosi Briganti – This cute little Italian restaurant was a perfect “date night” kind of spot, very romantic and intimate. Grab yourself a window table, a glass of wine, and a plate of pasta that you can enjoy by candlelight. Seriously, it is perfect.
◊ Any Kebab shop in the city – These little babies are filling and cheap, the best on the go travel food. Still haven’t found anywhere in the US that can make them like they do in Europe, so whenever we’ve been abroad we eat our fill of kebabs. There are many shops around the city of Berlin to indulge your cravings, so you will never be without a kebab while exploring.
Berlin was a bit unexpected for us – it’s so unique because it’s unlike every preconceived notions we had of it. Maybe we were thinking of it like typical war movie status – a city left in the wake of battle, with remnants of the destructive past and a city struggling to make a comeback. In some senses Berlin is a little of this, but we found that it is so much more. It’s so full of life and personality, so much beauty within so much pain. Berlin is not just its past though, the Berliners are progressively changing the scene in such a positive way and truly making it a place unlike anywhere else in the world!
We know there’s so much more that we missed in Berlin, what are some of your favorites? Let us know below!