There are few cities with a history as rich and complex as Berlin’s. Visitors to the city can see visible markers remaining from the Weimar Republic, Nazism, and Communism when the city was divided in two. Today, it’s a fascinating place to visit with world class museums and accessible culture.
1.) Topography of Terror–Berlin is a city where you can really see all of the different layers of history interacting with each other. From the depraved “sin” city of the Weimar Republic to a city bombed by one war and then divided by another and finally reunified twenty-five years ago. At the Topography of Terror, these layers of history are tactile. An original strip of the Berlin Wall remains and in the ground underneath are Nazi bunkers. Looking out from inside the sight, you see communist offices from East Berlin beyond the wall (pictured left).
2.) The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe– This is as much a memorial as an experience. The memorial is made up of stelae organized in a grid. Upon entering, you are instantly enveloped by narrow alleys and have a sense of submersion. When my friends and I went, I felt that I was very quickly overtaken by the stelae as they start out at waist height but were soon three times taller than me. The artist behind the sculpture, once he’d completed his work, wanted the memorial to be left and used however people pleased: to eat in, play tag, do whatever they would. While that may have been his preference, there are still guards at the memorial who remind visitors to get down from the tops of the stelae and to not jump from one to another.
3.) Currywurst–Another thing that I think my friends and I all agreed on in Berlin was the currywurst. It’s one of those foods that you really can’t think about and just have to eat as it’s sausage in this ketchup, curry sauce which becomes exceedingly weirder the more you think about it. My friends and I who took the class I mentioned last semester got some recommendations from our professor, and she suggested that we go to Curry 36, saying that a visit to Berlin wouldn’t be complete unless we’d tried this spot along with a couple of others. We waited for about twenty minutes in line with Berliners, bellied up to the counter, got currywurst and some German beers and ate it standing up at one of the tables outside the stand. It had a feel very similar to Pat’s in Philly in both the way you order and the way that the food weighs you down once you’ve finished.
4.) Film Museum–My Berlin professor also recommended that we check out the film museum in Potsdamer Platz, knowing that two of my friends are film minors. The museum is located right in the Sony Center, which is a super modern and cool place in and of itself, and shares some history of film (similar to the film museum in Turin) and then details German film and stars. There were rooms dedicated specifically to icons like Marlene Dietrich and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Following the thread of history that was central to our weekend visit, the museum also traces film through different periods in German history.
5.) Monuments & Trampolines–I’ve heard from others that Berlin is an ugly city, and I would disagree. No, it’s not a very classical, traditional European city. It’s overwhelmingly modern with some uglier industrial buildings, but looking at the city from a historical perspective really helps you appreciate its quirkiness. I’m not going to beat a dead horse and talk more about the course I took, etc. etc. but I will say that something that was very pleasurable was just walking the city and seeing all of the monuments we’d studied, walking through the colored leaves at the Tiergarten, and finding some random tiny trampolines in the ground outside of the TV Tower in Alexanderplatz (which we definitely monopolized for too long). Another big thing in Berlin is it’s nightlife, and my friends and I made an attempt at going out but got turned away at the door because we’re not all 21, and some clubs limit entry to only those older. We still had the experience of getting home from the club at 5:30 AM, but without actually ever stepping inside. At any rate, I was so captivated by all of the city’s monuments that I went for one last run Sunday morning (three hours after going to sleep) past the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag to see them one last time before catching my flight back to Bologna.
Here are some of my other Berlin picks:
- The Victory Column–A symbol of Prussian military might near the Tiergarten. Worth a stop by if you’re in the area
- Tiergarten–A really impressive and pretty park
- Jewish Museum–talks about the history of Jews throughout time in an evocative structure built with voids and empty, distant spaces.
- Brandenburg Gate–iconic Berlin gate with a rich history of Prussian military excellence, but it also tells a story of the city’s division
- Reichstag–head inside the dome to see into the German parliament
- Potsdamer Platz–a very modern square today but can also tell a story if you look carefully and are observant. There’s a fun Christmas market here too.
- East Side Gallery–I didn’t see this, but it’s an interesting, modern way of using remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall (note: the graffiti on it was not painted until after the fall of the wall)
- Stasi Museum–take a peek inside how the invasive East German secret police worked
- Berliner Dom–the old cathedral
Berlin’s U- and S-Bahns are famously efficient and useful for getting around the city. Ironically, when I was visiting from Italy, they were on strike, but the U-Bahn still ran and I was impressed by its service.
- Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd provides a good overview of Berlin’s changing architecture and monuments through its tumultuous history.
- A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
- The Lives of Others is definitely “Hollywood,” but it provides a dramatic look at the extensive spy network of the East German Stasi during the Cold War.
- Goodbye, Lenin! is a generally lighthearted movie about the fall of the Wall and shows some of the transition from German reunification.
For some more advice on Berlin, check out this guest post from Ellis on her Berlin Top 10.