Berlin is an energetic global city, bursting with creativity and a broad spectrum of art, culture, nightlife, food and people. There is also an underlying gritty, artistic energy as if the Bohemians of the 1920’s Berlin are seeping through. It feels more creative and storied here compared to some of the other notable locations in the country like Munich. The history of this city is complicated; rich with division, painful learnings, rising from the ashes and a future facing optimism. If you’re interested in experiencing Berlin and also paying homage to the profound past follow me to learn the top ten ways to honor history while experiencing future facing Berlin.
Prologue: It’s a Cold War life, for us
I’m a child of the 80’s. I grew up during the height of the Cold War and even in Oregon it impacted me. From Sting’s 1985 “I hope the Russians love their children too” to Nena’s 1983 “99 luftballoons,” pop culture oozed Cold War gritty ness mixed with the punk movement and electronica.
But as a gay kid in the 80’s, my favorite Cold War tune was Elton John’s 1995 release of Nikita. Maybe it was just the furry hat and Elton’s preposterous red convertible, but something about a gorgeous East German woman patrolling the Berlin Wall spoke to me.
Aesthetics aside, the thought that people were being held against their will in a mysterious block of countries controlled by the USSR captivated me, and I tried to soak up as much as I could from the adult discussions around me to try to understand more.
And then there was always the East German judge at the Olympics. Usually a total hard ass.
Part I: In order to honor the history of Berlin a quick review is important
After WWII the remaining world powers met at Potsdam Conference and divided Germany into four occupation regions: Russia in the north/east, US in the south/east, British in the north/west and smaller sections with the French in the south/west.
Berlin was very unique. Although located entirely within the Russian region, the Soviets were persuaded to allow the US, UK and France to remain in control of about half of the city.
But as Russia became more entrenched in early Cold War attitudes, they started putting soviet pressures on the government of East Germany and citizens which ultimately led to people fleeing the east to the freedoms available in western occupied areas of Germany.
Educated and talented people were leaving, and in response the government, backed by the USSR, tightened the grip on East Germany. Initial checkpoints were created in Berlin starting 1961.
A full on wall would rise up throughout the city, creating an island of West Berlin surrounded by the rest of East Germany. Checkpoints developed with Checkpoint Charlie (standing for the phonetic C) one of the more iconic since it was in the central part of the city and represented the border between US and USSR. This icon of Cold War separation would overwhelmingly rule Berlin history for the rest of the century.
This divide heavily impacted Berlin from 1961 to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. There was also a wall completely dividing East Germany from the west, with a narrow fenced in highway connecting West Berlin to the remainder of West Germany.
Part II: Evolving visits honor the history of Berlin through changing landscapes
I recently visited the German capitol with my sister Kelly, who last experienced the history of Berlin in 1987 when there was still an active wall. Her experience was much more of the full on cloak and dagger suspicion around every tourist, even students on a bus tour to learn about art. Since the prominent museums were in the former East, it was required to go through a checkpoint from their hotel in the West to visit the museums.
In 1992 this wide eyed college student traveled to Europe to study for a year in Salzburg, Austria. It was the dawn of a new era, as the coal soaked iron curtain continued to fall throughout Eastern Europe. We now had easier access to places like Prague, Budapest and of course Berlin. I spent time in the central part of Germany near another section of the wall with a former exchange student and his family and we had a number of insightful conversations about the integration between the two Germanys. We took several drives from the western area into the east, through former checkpoints. I remember the austere nature of the industrial based towns; everything was covered in sooty black dust and it smelled like a mixture of damp moss and burning coal.
The Germans I talked with had doubts the country would ever successfully be reunited. There were issues with the currencies coming together to the German Mark, and the united nation was having merging pains between two drastically different cultures.
Later in 1993 I traveled to Berlin. The city never disappoints and we experienced so many aspects of the culture, explored sights and tried out our fledgling German with the locals. I remember the smell of coal burning in the streets, with many sections of the wall still intact. The modern, efficient commercial areas around the Berlin Zoo station, for example, were in stark contrast to much sleepier, almost abandoned streets of the former east.
I returned to Berlin again in 1997 on a road trip around Germany with two college friends, and by this point real estate in the former east was more affordable and available for new development. We loved the edgy galleries and performance art stations popping up in the east.
I remember going to an art installation, which was on the second floor of a half bombed out building. We viewed the art while also looking through en entire section of wall missing; bricks teetering off the beam. The outside of the early 20th century building was soaked in black soot from years of coal and peppered up with graffiti. The divide between former east and west was still very apparent, though this time the east was cool.
Fast forward to modern day. My sister and I stayed in an Airbnb located in the former East Berlin near Alexanderplatz, but you wouldn’t know it without looking at an old map. This is now a trendy part of town, with vegan/vegetarian restaurants and places serving Acai bowls. Although many of the streets house high end fashion icons, the buildings still give away a few secrets of the past; in a brighter, more optimistic approach. It seemed very important to honor the history of Berlin, so we spent an entire day dedicated to this effort and another dedicated to visiting Potsdam.
My favorite part of staying in an Airbnb in this revitalized neighborhood was the friendship I seemed to develop with the looming TV tower that welcomed me each morning as I stepped from the flat. It opened almost 50 years ago in October 1969 and was designed to show the world of the west that USSR and their magnates were just as strong and efficient. Today the “Death Star” design stands as an icon of the Cold War and a landmark representing the central area of the city.
Even in my lifetime Berlin continues to change, revitalize and reinvent. It feels like a new city every time I visit and I love the optimistic forward-moving energy which is intermixed with the relics of the past. A week long visit allows for so many adventures; delving into the nightlife, the food scene, exploring museums, walking through the Tiergarten park and even a relaxing day-trip to nearby Potsdam. My favorite of Europe. And, amongst all this opportunity, there is time to look back at the varied bricks chock full of painful learnings and perseverance that rebuilt Berlin to what we see today.
Part III: The top ten ways to honor the history of Berlin
The energy yearns to move forward, but first it seems important to give full attention to the bricks of the past that are the foundation of this great capitol. It wasn’t always easy, happy, just or moral. Modern day destruction hit first in the demonizing of a whole generation of citizens that didn’t fit the world view of the leadership at the time. Followed by obliteration brought about by the Allied “liberators.” And as Berlin rose from the ashes a new set of shackles were placed around the legs, holding part of this city to a communist ideology that would eventually fail. If you’re like me and feel it important to honor this painful history, and especially the people who persevered through it all, the following are the top 10 ways to do this in Berlin.
10. A day trip to Potsdam
Potsdam is a lovely village about 45 minutes southwest of Berlin. This area is steeped in Prussian history, as many of the kings and the Kaiser resided here until the end of WWI. There are a number of inter-connected lakes and the planned out grounds with both formal and informal gardens remind of Versailles. One of the more famous attractions, Sanssouci, was the summer home of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. The palace and grounds make up the largest World Heritage site in Germany.
Potsdam also has significance in the 20th century as the location of the negotiation and signing of the treaty ending World World II. The Potsdam Conference was held at Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm in Potsdam, the summer of 1945. The home is famous for photos taken of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin together as they divided up Germany and Berlin and established the groundwork for the new world order.
During the Cold War, the KGB held offices on one end of Potsdam and would trade spies with the west on the famous Glienicke Bridge. To add to the cloak and dagger details, the illustrious Vladimir Putin served in Potsdam during his time with the KGB, explaining his fluency in the German language.
Details: The S7 train leaves Berlin frequently and costs 7€ for the round-trip. It takes about 45 minutes each way. There are hop-on/hop-off open top bus tours that leave from the train station regularly and stop at all the main attractions for about 15€ per person and then all sorts of other guided tour options. The bus does not include entrance fees. Entrance to Sanssouci palace is 12€ and photo permit 3€. It is also possible to buy a one-day pass to all the palaces in the area for 19€. If you have time and energy it is entirely walkable, or you can take the bus to the farthest point on the tour, New Palace and wind back through the beautiful grounds to the train station.
9. Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was built in the 1890’s and stands as a tribute to the people of Berlin, who were determined to persevere and rebuild after the destruction of WWII. This church remains as a reminder of war and what the citizens of Berlin endured. The bombed out steeple rises above a busy “Times Square” area of the former West Berlin, with a Mercedes building in the background and lodging by every major hotel chain hovering around the Berlin Zoo train station. The church is still open today for mass services and is an icon against war as well as reconciliation and peace.
8. Trabi museum and tours
The iconic East German Trabant (nicknamed Trabi) represented years of savings and waiting for East Germans, who wanted something practical and iconic to show for their hard working success. Today, the Trabi Museum Berlin is a fun way to get a glimpse into the history of this iconic car. Across the street there are also hilarious Trabis-Safari tours which allow you to drive one while perusing various areas of Cold War significance in the city. Museum admission 5€. Trabi Safari starts at 49€ per person for about 75 minutes.
7. Brandenburg Gate
Perhaps no other landmark in Germany has seen so much history take place. This is definitely an important icon to honor the history of Berlin. Originally built in the 1790’s as an enhancement to the approach to the city, the sweeping pillars and ornate statue on top remind us of the division of Germany and the eventual reunification. It was at the base of this marble marvel in 1987 where Ronald Reagan made his famous speech, “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall.”
The gate is in a central location and also serves as an entrance to the commanding boulevard which drives through the Tiergarten. If you’re interested in a Free Walking Tour of Berlin, they meet here, usually around 11am every day and you only pay what you’d like as a tip at the end of the tour.
6. Everyday life in the GDR Museum
Everyday life in the GDR museum is an effective, succinct way to try to better understand the world behind the iron curtain. Learn about everything from factory working to the rationed vacations that were stingily awarded to places like Hungary, where Levi 501 jeans were actually available. We couldn’t figure out why East Germany seemed to have it tougher than other eastern block countries. Maybe the Russians particularly wanted the Germans to feel the reparations for the war? This attraction is an important way to honor the history of Berlin by way of the regular citizens who had no choice but to follow the controlling propaganda all the while readily aware of what life offered in the West. Admission is free of charge but you can rent audio tours. Closed on Mondays.
5. Checkpoint Charlie area
This was a famous checkpoint in the Berlin Wall era transitioning between the Russian sector and the American sector. There is a free museum that does a nice job outlining the history as well as a specific Mauermuseum – Museum at Checkpoint Charlie that is also informative. Adult admission 14,50€. From here you can just wander around and find the Trabi Museum, a hot air balloon ride and a few blocks more the Topography of Terror Center.
4. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Poeticly placed on the grounds that once housed the SS Offices, this block wide sculpture garden and museum gives homage to all the jewish people who were first demonized, businesses trashed and then taken into “protective custody” and finally killed in concentration camps. Almost 3,000 slabs of various heights are arranged on a flowing topography of peaks and valleys with passageways flowing in any direction. The site is open 24/7 and essential to honor the history of the jewish people of Berlin and all of Europe.
The memorial is a bit controversial because of the vagueness of the blocks of rock. While there are informational murals associated with the information center, the memorial itself is rather austere with little to no actual written information. I view this as a way to allow visitors to explore their own personal place of honor and respect, inspired by the patterns of brick and geometric shapes.
The information center is embedded underneath the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe and houses several themed rooms. Entrance is 2-3€.
This memorial is steps away from the Brandenburg Gate and also in the near vicinity of the spot where Adolf Hitler housed his war bunker. There isn’t anything physical to see except a placard and it’s a mere block from this jewish memorial.
3. East Side Gallery (Berlin Wall Walk)
Just across the street from the Berlin Ostbahnhof in the former East Berlin is a three quarter mile long section of the wall that was not demolished and serves as a memorial park today. Starting in 1990 commissioned artists created their form of expression on the divide of ideology, people, culture, peace and reunification. Some cleverly compare the plight of the wall with more current events. Strolling along the varied murals you can’t help but let the various colors of emotion seep into your bones. This feels like another important way to honor the history of Berlin through artistic interpretation.
Perhaps the most iconic mural depicts Mikhail Gorbachev kissing Ronald Reagan, poetic because of their work effectively negotiating the end of the Cold War. In our new era you can see this mural bastardized with a version of President Trump kissing Putin, available for purchase on post cards and other paraphernalia.
Both sides of the wall are painted, but the more interesting part is on the side facing the street. If you’re walking from the Ostbahnhof you’ll eventually come to another famous landmark, the Oberbaum Bridge which is a double decker crossing that is a key site in Berlin for symbolizing the unity of the city. From here you could jump back on the train or turn around and walk along the other side.
2. Topography of Terror
Topography of Terror is an outdoor and indoor history museum located only a few blocks away from Checkpoint Charlie and very important to understand the rise, power and fall of the Third Reich. The block used for this museum/park was important during the WWII era because many of the influential war departments were housed in the buildings on this block, which were all destroyed when Allied forces reached Berlin in 1945. Admission is free for the main exhibits.
The exhibition hall seems to house a variety of traveling shows, but the primary title “Topography of Terror” works hard to provide extremely comprehensive information outlining all the atrocities of the Nazis. Submerging into this much detail to honor the history of Berlin is not particularly uplifting but important to never forgot, nor allow this to happen again.
1. The top of the list of ten ways to honor the history of Berlin is subtle yet so important to me; cobblestones remembering the vanished Jewish citizens
Perhaps the most emotional part of my recent visit to Berlin was noticing the copper tiles amongst the many cobblestone sidewalks in the areas predominately habituated by Jews leading up to World War II. Particularly concentrated around the area of our Airbnb near Alexanderplatz. I can translate enough German to understand these powerful stories, scattered amongst the hustle and bustle of the modern city.
The poingant three inch tiles impacted me more than a memorial or any of the other top ten ways to honor the history of Berlin listed here. We took time to stop at each set of tiles to fully absorb the feeling around what it must’ve been like for a family of four (photo above) to be taken from their homes. Standing in a doorway, it’s much easier to picture the kids running in the street and life taking place in one of the apartments above. My heart paused with each copper tile.
Epilogue: Honor the history in Berlin to protect the future
The concept of history repeating itself is very frustrating to me. After all, we have a mapped out story of the world that involves endless wars and fighting and disputes over everything possible. There is a past of separating out certain kinds of people for various reasons that go against the grain of those in power. In another post, The Darker Side of Travel, I talk about my visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion site and the power that comes with aknowledging painful and darker parts of human history.
My time dedicated to honoring the history of Berlin was not depressing, but more empowering and invigorating in a way that opened my heart, mind and spirit. Modern day culture must study history and heed the warnings in order to learn and grow in directions that evolve humans away from the sordid past.
Berlin holds so many profound lessons for the world. My hope is that this top ten list inspires you to incorporate meaningful connections to important information of the past into your time spent exploring and enjoying this fascinating city.
If you want to go to Berlin to honor history
Berlin has everything a large capitol city should in terms of hotels, restaurants of all budgets and excellent transportation options. Here are a few hints for planning purposes. A great site overall to help you plan is visitBerlin.
Berlin has two main airports.
1. Tegel, (TXL) which is more prominent with international flights and most of the main European airlines. Delta, United and American all offer nonstop service of some kind from the US to Berlin. Other European airlines like Lufthansa, British, Icelandair and KLM utilize this airport as well. The main terminal A/B of Tegel is a hexagon shape with most of the main airlines operating and then a make shift Low Cost Carrier terminal C about 100 yards away. My departure from Berlin on Air Baltic showed terminal C on the flight information but used terminal A, so double check to be sure you know where you’ll be departing. The airport is a bit of a shit show because of it’s age and services seem very limited, although there is functioning free WI-FI throughout the airport.
It takes about 30 minutes to drive from the airport to a central location like Alexanderplatz. The trains do not operate directly to the airport, so busses are your option for public transportation. Uber and cabs are plentiful, and will cost about 20€.
2. Shoenefield, (SFX) which is more of the low cost carriers and charter airlines. Airlines like Norwegian, Ryanair and EasyJet use this airport. Both busses and trains go to this airport, and driving takes about 45 minutes to get to Alexanderplatz in the Mitte area.
Note that most European airlines, especially the low cost carriers, charge to use the ticket counter to check in for your flight. So figure out how to do this before you arrive at the airport. In most cases, the airline will have an efficient App available or at least online checkin. For example, Air Baltic fee for checking in at the airport is 40€. It is also helpful to learn your baggage weights in Kilos and understand what that looks and feels like for your luggage in order to save stress and money during your airport experience.
Long Distance Trains
There are many train stations in Berlin, but Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Central Station) is the primary station for the longer distance Inter-City Express (ICE) that can take you to/from Munich, Frankfurt, etc. Some, but not all of the ICE trains also stop at Berlin Suedkreuz on the way out of the city. Otherwise, you’ll likely connect trains from Berlin Ostbahnhof (East Train Station) and the other stations. The Berlin HBF is super efficient and you can connect to all forms of transportation from here (S-Bahn, U-Bahn, Local trains.).
Uber exists in Berlin and is very convenient. Taxis seem to be about the same price.
If you’ll be using public transportation for a few days, it might be easier to download the BVG App on a smart phone, which helps coordination of all the various transportation methods. A day ticket is 7€ while a week pass will cost 30€. We found the week pass very useful, especially to help prevent fumbling for change on the tram or bus system. The train to Potsdam is not included in the pass, so be sure to check on outer city areas when using the card.
There are also scooters and bikes for rent all over the city. There are a few different companies that offer these services, and you can download the app, set up payment and ride away.
Berlin has a wide range of lodging options, from hostels to outstanding and expensive boutique hotels. I stayed near Alexanderplatz and found the area to be charming with a variety of food options and the transportation hub of the Alexanderplatz Station with U-Bahn, S-Bahn and other rail and bus connections extremely convenient to reach any other part of the city. Also very walkable to “Museum Island” where you can visit the Pergamon Museum and Berlin Cathedral, among other sites.
We opted for an Airbnb in a quiet enclave of apartments, but I saw many different levels of hotel nearby that would be suitable for a variety of budgets. The other area that probably serves best to stay near centers around the Berlin Zoo area, again mostly because of the convenience of transportation options and also a variety of lodging choices.
General German Customs
Tipping is only just to round off the bill for drinks and maybe a little more for meals and such. Credit cards are commonly accepted and ATMs seem readily available. I usually withdrawal a supply of Euros when I arrive at the airport just to have cash available when needed.
Germans tend to follow rules, including waiting for the WALK sign at cross walks, even though no cars are coming. Cross and you’ll have to put up with judgey eye rolls.
Although most people in Berlin speak perfect English, for best results try to say a few words, if possible, in German and you’ll get much more kindness and assistance for trying. This can be said for anywhere in the world.