Posted by: Ciaran | November 26, 2009

Changing places – Berlin

Berlin is a fascinating place: it is steeped in history which still resonates deeply throughout the city, from its wide boulevards around the Brandenburg Gate to its seamier quarters to the east of the wall.  The best way to orientate yourself and begin to experience the richness of the city is through one of the brilliant free walking tours.  I did one with New Berlin Tours and it was great; the guide, Mike, was funny and extremely knowledgeable, and the atmosphere was really friendly.

The majestic Brandenburg Gate

You meet close to the imposing Brandeburg Gate and spend the next three hours or so visiting all of the main attractions in the city as listed on the link above.  The new Holocaust Memorial, in the news recently after Easyjet ran fashion photographs taken there in its in-flight magazine, is a sombre and moving site, and the impact is probably sharpened by its proximity to the location of Hitler’s former bunker (which, unsurprisingly, is barely commemorated).

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The museum is a terrifying reminder of the Third Reich, and is a difficult but truly worthwhile experience.  The personal stories which are told are evocative and harrowing, and a visit leaves you very contemplative for the rest of the day and a long while afterwards.

On a happier note, the memorial is next to a strip of truly dreadful cafeterias serving up second-rate reheated drudge to budget travellers such as myself.  I had the misfortune to eat a spaghetti bolognaise served up by a guy who looked like he was from the Village People, before being chased out of the bathroom by a very small woman wielding a can of air freshener and shouting at me in German.

I spent a lot of time in Berlin running away from toilet attendants who would attempt to extort half a euro every time as I so much thought about paying a visit to the loo.  I actually sprinted out of Dunkin’ Donuts near Zoologischer Garten station one day to escape from a particularly angry man who was brandishing a tip tray at me and making vivid gestures towards the toilet.

The Hotel Adlon

Opposite the Brandenburg Gate is the Hotel Adlon, where the late great Michael Jackson famously dangled one of his children out of the window.  The Presidential Suite on the top floor costs $12,000-a-night and has bulletproof glass in the windows among its many very cool features.  If I win the lottery…

The Reichstag is the home of the German Parliament, and its roof alone makes it worth a visit.  You can look down into the chamber when parliament is in session: “a reminder to the politicians that we are always looking in on them and that they are accountable to us,” an ageing Berliner told me.  Get there early to beat the crowds, and be prepared for a very thorough (in my case, patently illegal) level of frisking.  All I will say is avoid the security guard with the handlebar moustache.

The Reichstag roof

The Berlin Wall, which collapsed 20 years ago, is an integral part of the visit, though very few parts of it remain intact and those that do are protected by fencing.  As with many parts of the city’s history, there’s a residual feeling of shame and embarrassment about it amongst the city’s residents, who you feel would rather live without the permanent reminders of their country’s past.

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie is very artificial and one of the few attractions in the city which is a little underwhelming.  But you can take your disappointment away by heading into the unbelievably decadent Fassbender & Rausch chocolate shop which has models of things such as the Reichstag and the Titanic, all made out of chocolate.  The only thing stopping me from plunging my face straight in was concern about how long they had been there.

The Reichstag - made of chocolate

My face upon being told not to eat the Brandenburg Gate

The city’s musems are excellent; the Pergamon Museum has the Altar of Zeus poached fromPergamon in Turkey (and, having been to the latter, it somewhat misses it).   They are pricey to get in to, but if you are prepared to brave the crowds and do them fairly quickly they are all free on a Thursday afternoon.

Pergamon Museum entrance

They are clustered towards the chic but still somewhat down-at-heel east of the city, in the shadow of the TV Tower.  It affords phenomenal views across Berlin, even on murky days, and has a revolving restaurant more than 200 metres above the city.  Again, an early start equates to a more enjoyable visit.

The TV Tower - all 368 metres of it

The zoo is the other must-see attraction within the city; it has an outstanding range of animals including gorillas, pandas, elephants, and tigers, and of course the world-famous Knut the polar bear.  Set aside at least an afternoon to spend here, and go when the weather is going to be dry as the best animals are all outside.

A penguin doing his best Marilyn Manson impression

To end on a sombre note, though, Germany’s 20th century history permeates virtually everything in and around the city, and perhaps nowehere is more important to visit than Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  Take a train out of Berlin to either Sachsenhausen or Strasse der Nationen.  If you walk from the former you can follow the death march which some of the prisoners were led on.

The sign marking the death march

As with the Holocaust memorial in the city, it is a very graphic realisation of the horrors of what went on there less than a century ago.  The tour around is well-constructed and allows plenty of time for personal exploration and reflection.  Imposing, thought-provoking, and with a huge underlying unease, it in many ways replicates the city itself.

'Freedom through work'



  1. Visiting Europe has never much appealed to me before but reading your travel posts makes me want to experience the cities you write about.

    This post fuses travel tips and advice with humorous anecdotes particularly well.

  2. Thanks for the nice feedback 🙂 Are you going to blog when you’re away?

    I don’t know if I would do Europe in the sustained way that some people do, like inter-railing, but I love the cities for short breaks.

  3. I hope to do some sort of online travel update whilst I’m away – the family insist I at least email them regularly. They won’t know what’s hit them while I’m not around for five months, they might actually have some peace and quiet for once!

    It depends what internet access is like, although for Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada I’ll definitely try a blog. It will be separate to ’51 Wishes’, but that’ll need updating as I tick a few more things off too.

    • If you go with STA I know they actually set up a blog for you on organised tours – you should check out this one by my mate Matt who just got back from South America

      • Fantastic! Thanks for the link – I’ll give it a thorough read and most likely take notes since he’s in Buenos Aires. As it stands, Im due to have a few nights there by myself before my flight to Venezuela.

        STA are so useful, they’re making it very difficult for me not to travel with them!

      • Great; can you text me Tuesday and remind me and I’ll give him you number and email and/or vice versa and get something sorted for you.

    • This is posting in the wrong place but anyway… I’m seeing him for dinner Tuesday night, do you want me to put you in touch with him? He went with STA for three months around South America, had a great time.

      • That’s be great, thankyou! I’ve cut down my expected plans for South America but Buenos Aires advice (as well as other travel tips) would be much appreciated.

  4. Having travelled a lot in Europe in the last few years I have “bumped” into a number of German’s who were just rude and arrogant, so when I planned to visit Berlin I was expecting the worst.

    I was surprised though to find that the locals were incredibly friendly and helpful. The city itself is full of history, and it was awe inspiring seeing sights like the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

    Getting around on the public transport was a breeze and again puts the English public transport to shame.

    Great post, it brought back some good memories of Berlin.

    • Totally agree with you about the people, really nice and in contrast to the common conception. The transport is absolutely first class; on time, clean, cheap, fabulous stations – everything we don’t have!

  5. […] and lions are a bit more exciting than your average guinea pig that does it.  As I mentioned in this post on Berlin, going to foreign zoos can be […]

  6. Your comment about dunkin donuts made us laugh as we were attached by the toilet lady today. We bought coffee at Starbucks who proudly told us their loos were out of order and to go use the dunkin ones. Never been to DD before and never intend to go again. DD explained to us that they don’t actually own their own loos….they are franchised out and have no control over any charges made….currently 70c but that’s off season!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: