Polabian Berl: Swamp
Once again, almost without any free time to prepare our future trips since these are one after another and without any rest in between; it came the time for Berlin. City we’ve already been many years ago! Possibly 8 or 9, hence the reason why there was not a travel guide for the capital of Germany in my blog until now, where I will make the best to combine some good information from both of the times I’ve visited and a quite extensive section on what to see and do in the city itself.
On this occasion I must admit the time planned for the city was very limited. Extremely limited would describe this better, but this was in the other hand not the usual weekend trip where we go to a new destination and we do non-stop walking everywhere through the city to see everything and all of the sights. No it wasn’t. Was instead a much more relaxed weekend spent abroad for the sake of enjoying going elsewhere and to a place so long we’ve never returned but very well worth it to revisit. I’m sure it won’t be that long anymore until we return to Berlin to keep enjoying it and for visiting the many nearby wonderful cities and places.
So before you wonder how long you would need to enjoy the city, plan no less than 3 days. While a weekend is great to give you an idea and see a lot, it is still short as you cannot physically see everything in just 2 days. There is really a lot in the many districts, plus when talking about museums then well… that will take a long time. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Museumsinsel (Museum Island) can easily take you an entire day for itself alone; yet here, of course, from all of the museums, there is one you cannot miss: the Pergamon; where you can find the original world renown altar brought stone by stone from the Turkish city of Pergamon among other treasures, noteworthy the galleries about Persepolis and the Middle East cross-roads of civilizations.
I would say that everyone knows pretty much, or have an idea, of what happened in the city during the WWII and afterwards (or at least I want to believe everyone does as it’s basic history). No need to describe about how the city was split in two from 1945, as was the entire country, in West Germany and East Germany lasting until the reunification on 9th November 1989. As usual, I rather concentrate here in a travel guide than a lesson of history which Wikipedia for example, has a brilliant article to read.
The city is very wide spread and so are the sights in each of the districts. While walking around is the best option to enjoy and see all, it is quite impossible to rely only on this as you will definitely need some public transportation sooner or later. In this matter, something you should really consider (one of the must do’s while in Berlin) is going up the Fernsehturm (TV tower) at Alexanderplatz. The viewing platform is at over 200 meters above the street level and you will get to see and understand what I mean with wide spread city. Furthermore, you do not get to see many high-rise buildings but instead a more Parisian urbanism with streets well planned and buildings following similar volumetries and heights all over. A good side of the story is how the most important and relevant districts a tourist would need to visit can be easily divided, so you can plan your day accordingly a pre-planned route. In the next section below you will see I have already split the city in the relevant districts.
Berlin is world known for being one of the greatest cities to go for party. Through Europe are thousands of people coming every weekend seeking for this. There are hundreds of discos and clubs of any kind and for everyone’s likes, taste or wishes. From the very trendy and posh to the more underground and hidden scene. But not only about discos and clubs, it is also about the many thriving areas to go out for some drinks and good music. It is certainly guaranteed you will have a great time wherever is that you plan to go.
On the same note, food subject cannot really be described for the vast choice anywhere you go in town. Whichever kind of world’s food you want you have it in Berlin, and it’s no surprise since it is one of the very few cities in the world that can be proud of having the representation of over 180 nations living there! That is almost the entire nations currently existing in the world (195). As usual, I would advice you to check around few different places to compare and have an idea on how much more or less things are. The last anyone wants is to be ripped-off or coming to a tourist trap which are plenty, especially around the major tourist landmarks.
Something to keep in mind and not to miss are the trademarks born in Berlin: Currywurst, (invented in 1949) and based on a sausage with french fries covered with curry sauce. Buletten (or Frikadeller) which is meat loaf; and something sweat, the Berliner Pfannkuchen, aka doughnut. All of these you can find anywhere, even at the bakery shops in almost every underground station.
For more information about Berlin check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Germany’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Berlin
- Berlin Mitte This is the heart of the city and core of the old town. The large majority of sights can be found here and it’s by all means the focus and unmissable part of Berlin.
-Hauptbahnhof The Central Train Station occupies the space of the former beautiful Lehrter Station that stood from 1871 until 1958. The current superb impressive large structure in glass and steel is a sight on its own. Designed by German architect Meinhard von Gerkan, was opened in 2006 and still today tops the lists of largest train stations in the world. It lies north of the River Spree.
-Tiergarten The massive urban park, lungs of Berlin lies to the west of Mitte but all within the district limit. An incredible fact through its history was the almost entirely deforestation after 1944. The Brandenburg Gate marks the eastern side. Within the park you can find hundreds of paths, ponds, monuments and a wide variety of trees and flowers. Definitely the best recreational part of the city.
-Reichstag Building Where the Parliament (Bundestag) is. Built in 1894 was engulfed by a deliberate fire in 1933 claimed to Hitler’s orders. The next world historic event took place in 1990 when both East and West Germany reunified having the proclamation here. Afterwards the complete refurbishment with the addition of the imposing Norman Foster cupola made the building alive once again. Tourists can get to the top of the cupola but expect long queues.
-Potsdamer Platz Is one of the most important squares in Berlin and also one of the nicest and most impressive. Located to the south of the Reichtag and Brandenburg Gate, on the southeastern edge of the Tiergarten. Entirely devastated after the WWII and then left empty and further decaying during the Cold War, was once again revived after the German Reunification. Divided into 4 was then promoted to different developers to carry on the reconstruction.
-Berlin Wall A large section of the infamous world wide known wall that once divided the country in East and West between 1945 and 1990 has been preserved.
-Traffic Light The first public traffic light was installed in the square due to the enormous traffic the square once handled. Today you can see a replica with a clock on it.
-Daimler Section Is the largest of the 4 sections, where Italian architect Renzo Piano was put in charge of the development. 19 buildings form the project.
-Debis Building With 21 floors and 106 metres high is the tallest building in the entire new Potsdamer Platz development.
-Potsdamer Platz No. 1 Building Also known as Kollhoff Tower, surname of its architect Hans Kollhoff, has 25 floors and 103 metre high. It is one of the nicest in design in the entire complex with its characteristic red brick facade and similarities to art-deco style.
-Weinhaus Huth One of the very few structures that was still standing after the Cold War, was restored and implemented into the complex.
-Residential Buildings Designed by Richard Rogers.
-Sony Centre The next largest section of the 4. Designed by architect Helmut Jahn as the European headquarters of Sony is a striking piece of architecture in glass and steel with the famous tent-like conical roof covering all buildings below and thus creating a public piazza.
-Bahn Tower With 26 floors and 103-metre high is the headquarters of Deutsche Bahn AG, the German state railway.
-Hotel Esplanade Remains were kept and integrated in the project. The entire piece of wall had to be moved 75 meters to the current resting position. A huge glass covers and protects it.
-Beisheim The third section of the complex, not of special architectural importance as the other two.
-Park Kolonnaden The smallest of the sections in the complex, along the east side of Potsdamer Bahnhof former site and parallel to the Daimler Section.
-Unten den Linden Is the major thoroughfare linking Pariser Platz with Stadtschloss and the Museum Island. Along it and at the immediate streets nearby lie many of the landmarks of Berlin.
-Pariser Platz Probably the most memorable square in Berlin because of the most known of any monuments in the city, the Brandenburg Gate, but other notorious buildings around. It is the beginning of Unten den Linden Avenue.
-Brandenburg Gate Symbol of the city, once you are there you can definitely say you are in Berlin. This monumental gate was built in 1791 and it’s the only surviving gate in Berlin.
-Hotel Adlon Although the original building was entirely destroyed after WWII, the current is a reincarnation of the predecessor but not following the exact original design. It’s one of the top hotels in the city.
-Holocaust Memorial Meters south of the Brandenburg Gate is this enormous memorial to the Jewish people killed during the war. Composed of 2711 blocks of grey concrete of different heights on a maze-like position.
-Russian Embassy Built between 1949 and 1951 is the best example of Stalinist style architecture in Berlin.
-Humboldt University Is the oldest in the city. This beautiful building is almost by the bridge connecting with the Museum Island and the other end of Unten den Linden Avenue.
-Bebelplatz Right opposite of the University sits this nice square where currently (September 2015) a lot of work is been done in rebuilding and revamping the area.
-Saint Hedwigs Cathedral Behind the Babelplatz, was built in 1773 and it is ever since the seat of the Archbishop of Berlin. Modelled after the Pantheon of Rome had to be completely restored and partly rebuilt after the Cold War.
-Neue Wache Next to the University is this small guardhouse built in 1818 for the former Imperial Palace, nowadays used as a cenotaph for war memorial.
-Theatre im Palais Located behind the Neue Wache.
-Old Arsenal The Zeuhaus is the oldest building in the avenue still standing. Built between 1695 and 1730 in baroque style, formerly an arsenal, it is nowadays the German Historical Museum.
-Kronprinzenpalais Translates as the Crown Prince’s Palace. Originally built in 1669, in neo-classical and with few changes and rebuilds through the years, was destroyed in the WWII and once again rebuilt in 1968. It is used as a great exhibition hall.
-Schinkel Pavillion Located behind the Kronprinzenpalais is one of the world’s best art institutions housed in a beautiful building from 1825.
-Gendarmenmarkt This large and beautiful square lies few streets south of Unten den Linden and its entirely surrounded by great constructions with the Concert House and both the French and German Cathedrals as centrepiece.
-Konzerthaus Built in 1821 on the place of the former opera house that burtn down. After the war it had to be partly rebuilt, transforming it to the current use as the main Concert Hall of the city that opened its doors in 1984.
-French Cathedral Built in 1705 modelled after the Huguenot Church in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, France now extincted. The top of the dome is a viewing platform, yet for the best views stick to the TV Tower.
-German Cathedral Built in 1708 was completely destroyed in 1945, with the rebuilt finished and reopened in 1996.
-Friedrich Schiller Monument Depicting Schiller, a poet, philosopher and historian. Built to commemorate the 100th birthday (1859), was not unveiled until 1871.
-Checkpoint Charlie Just a bit more south from the Gendarmenmarkt is this major sight of key importance due to the history that represents. Was the major crossing point between West and East Germany during the Cold War (dividing the American to the Soviet sectors of the city).
-Museum Island The so acclaimed world first class compound of museums is definitely one of the key highlights in the city and a must do. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site it is easily justified why once you are there and visit some of those great museums. Following towards the east east of Unten den Linden you will come across the bridge accessing the island.
-Pergamon Museum Built in 1930 is dedicated entirely to ancient architecture. One of the most prestigious part of the collection is the Greek altar taken from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, nowadays in Turkey.
-National Gallery Built in 1876, it is nowadays closed for refurbishment and re-arrangement, it will host the collection of art from the 19th century.
-Old Museum Built in 1830 is the oldest of all the museums, a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture on its own. It houses the antiques collection of the State Museum of Berlin.
-New Museum Built in 1859, it is entirely dedicated to archaeology, among them, the largest and most complete is the Egyptian collection.
-Bode Museum Built in 1904, it is located on the edge where the river Spree splits in two, forming a very beautiful rounded corner. It houses the sculpture collections and late Antique and Byzantine art.
-Lustgarten Translates as the Leisure Garden, forms part of the Museum Island and is the former garden of the Berlin City Palace nowadays all gone and replaced in 1970 by the awful cube that was the Palace of the Republic, thankfully demolished in 2008 to start the reconstruction of the former palace.
-Berlin Cathedral Originally built in 1454, the current building dates from 1905 in historicist style. Its dome was completely destroyed after a bomb reached its top and a fire spread afterwards in 1944.
-Alexanderplatz Next in importance while visiting the city. Although the area was severely damaged during and after the war, nowadays there is a great mix of new and old, rebuilt and restored structures. Located few meters to the east from Museum Island, farther ahead from the Berlin Cathedral.
–Weltzeituhr This communist era world clock built in 1969 has 24 sides, each corresponding to one of Earth’s 24 time zones. Not only it became one of the famous sights in the city, it is also a major meeting point.
-Saint Mary’s Church Is the second oldest church still standing in the city from the late 13th century, in Gothic style. Located at the base next to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).
-Fernsehturm Built in 1969 in clearly Soviet style that was the norm in East Berlin broke records at the time it was finished. It is still today one of the tallest in the European Union at 368 meters high. The viewing platform at over 200 meters offers the best view of the entire city you will ever get.
-Rotes Rathaus Translates as the Red City Hall, and it’s not mere coincidence why. The entire huge building is covered in red bricks, built in 1869 becoming the 5th City Hall in Berlin.
-Neptunbrunnen The statue of Neptune right in front of the Red City Hall was erected in 1891 and it’s one of the nicest and largest monuments in the area.
- East Central Surrounds Mitte from north, east and south. One of the poorest districts in the city rapidly changing and evolving with many trendy bars, galleries and retaining its Bohemian flair it always had. Plenty of shopping align many of the streets.
-Jewish Museum Designed by famed architect Libeskind depicts the best history about the Jewish community in the city through the years.
-East Side Gallery Where the longest portion of the Berlin Wall still stands at over 1300 meters. Do not miss the graffiti of the car “crashing” into the wall and the one where Brezhnev and Honecker are kissing each other.
-Oberbaumbrücke The most beautiful bridge over the River Spree, entirely in red bricks. It links the boroughs of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg.
- South As a first or second time visitor to the city, this area is not really relevant as there is not much to see. Still, here you will find one of the many palaces inscribed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site “Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin”.
-Glienicke Palace Built in 1826 as the residence of Prince Carl of Prussia. Located to the southwest of the city, quite far from the city centre.
- Outside of the city There are plenty of places you can go near Berlin, but one that cannot be missed, if not on your first visit, then on your second when you have more time is Potsdam with its incredible palaces and gardens, all of it inscribed by UNESCO as World Heritage Site. I have created a separate travel guide for this here.
The city is well served by 2 international airports, both of which in the near future, (expected to be some time in 2018) will closed-down after the newly one that is still being built, Brandenburg, will enter service. For now, you can count on the following:
Tegel International. This is the largest and the one used by main flag carriers offering trans-continental destinations plus hundreds of continental and internal flights. Located in the northwest of the city, the easiest and most cost effective way to get to downtown Berlin is by bus. There are different routes, all heading towards Alexanderplatz, Hauptbahnhof and Zoologischer Garten where you can change to the metro and continue the journey to your final destination at no extra cost since the bus ticket allows for transfer. Bus TXL heads to Alexanderplatz and Hauptbahnhof while buses X9 and 109 head towards Zoologischer Garten.
Schönefeld Airport, to the southwest of the city, caters mostly low cost carriers. In this case there is a train station linking the airport with all the major stations in Berlin. A ticket covering the entire Berlin area costs just 3.20 Euros, and while you can take the commuter trains (S-Bahn S9 or S45), you can also take the regional trains instead that do the journey in much less time as it does not stop along the way in any other station. If you see the next imminent departure is for a RE7 or RB14 then aim for those. For both train types, the major stations served in Berlin are Alexanderplatz, Hauptbahnhof and Zoologischer Garten.
Arriving from any other country in Europe overland is also very easy and popular. Of course this will take much longer than flying but the rail and bus network is one of the most impressive for this city. Being at the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and looking to the arrivals/departure boards is fascinating, with routes as far as Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Minsk or Kiev to name a few, and even a once weekly to Astana. Same applies on long distance buses.
Within the city you do not need to worry about how to move around. The public transport network is one of the largest of any in the European Union. With one of the oldest metros in the world, nowadays greatly expanded, commuter trains, hundreds of buses and dozens of trams and even ferry services along the river and canals, you are never far from any station/stop, plus with the ticket you get, it allows you to transfer to any other public transport free of charge within the validation period of 2 hours. The entire system is planned on 3 zones, A, B and C. The likes you will need a ticket for the farthest, zone 3 are very limited and only if you need to go to Schönefeld Airport or Postdam. As a tourist everything you need to see in Berlin lies between zones A and B. A single ticket for both zones costs 2.70 Euros, for the three zones is 3.20 Euros. I would suggest you get either a day travel card, or other combination of tickets. The day card costs 6.90 for zones A and B, and 7.40 Euros for ABC.
As you can imagine for a city of this size and world importance the number of accommodation is vast and countless. From top luxurious hotels to more modest bed & breakfast style there is absolutely everything on mass for the likes of everyone, and so for everyone’s pocket. While during summer months the fares are higher, like anywhere else in the world, there are still plenty of great choices if not around Mitte, in the nearby districts. With such great public transportation you are guaranteed to reach wherever you want in few time from wherever you are based. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Novum Hotel City B Centrum in Potsdamer Strasse 129. Literally few steps away from Bülowstraße metro station on the southwest of the city and near Mitte. With so many buses, trams and metro line to everywhere, it could not be better located! The hotel was very nice and offered us a great deal on value for money. We only stayed there for a night hence why we did not go this time for something more grand or with larger facilities such as pool, jacuzzi, sauna and the likes. We knew we would not have time at all to enjoy any of these but what we definitely enjoyed was the great rest and sleep after killing our feet sightseeing the entire city. Comfortable bed, large well kept rooms and very friendly staff, and a great breakfast.