For two cities within a city Berlin has so much culture, history and nightlife to experience 48 hours hardly seems adequate. This guide will help to give you the most out of it in a short space of time.
For close to 300 years Berlin has been the centre point in almost every modern historical European conflict. Unless you are familiar with the orchestrations of the Franco-Prussian War, the establishment of the first German Empire, World War I, World War II, the Cold War and the reunification, not to mention the figures behind the events, the weight of the history alone can seem totally overwhelming.
Then there is the intensive artistic side. Make your way through museums and galleries that display ancient Persian works through to the avant garde collections of modern artists. Travelling from one side of the city to the other takes you on a journey through 20th Century politics, from fascism to communism to democracy.
It is recommended that to be able to gain a full picture in an interesting and in depth way to take a guided walking tour. There are several well respected and reputable companies offering comprehensive walking tours that cover all aspects of the history of Berlin. Some specialise in particular periods but a more generalised overview is preferable. The knowledge of the guides helps to make the history come alive in a way no guide book ever could.
To familiarise yourself with the central layout you can cover the main interest sites by foot either as part of a tour or on you own armed with a comprehensive guidebook, that probably weighs as much as you do.
Few people realise that the Cold War west Berlin was actually more of an island, east Berlin merely surrounding it as the city itself lies in the eastern half of Germany. ‘West’ Berlin was connected by a transport corridor to the western half of the country.
Start yourself off in the centre of the ‘capitalist west’ with the sights and sounds of Zoo Station (Bahnhof Zoo), made famous by the U2 song. This is the stop next to the Zoologischer Garten, home of the city’s zoo. The unique layout has the animals hemmed in with moats rather than fences and some are even left to roam free.
The area is also around the corner from the Ku’Damm, the rather more expensive shopping district with huge mall type department stores.
Next door is the Tiergarten, the central green space of Berlin, where many of the city office workers like to spend their lunchbreak on sunny days letting it all hang out, and more often than not completely naked. You don’t need to run for the nearest cop shop as they are merely partaking in the ‘frei korpo kultur’ or free body culture.
On the way through the Tiergarten you may spy between the trees the rather impressive Seigessaule, a 70m high golden statute. Some may recognise it as the statue that features in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, and also as the heady focal point of the Love Parade. The column is decorated at the base by bronze reliefs depicting the Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria and France, made from melted down captured cannons.
Continuing eastwards down Strasse des 17 Juni you will arrive in front of the Brandenburg Gate. This has undergone extensive restoration recently returning it to its former glory as a triumphal arch. This was the symbol of Berlin during the cold war, sitting forlornly in no-mans land between the divisive walls. The goddess Victory stands in her chariot drawn by four horses that look rather like the ones seen in Paris atop the Arc du Triomphe du Carousel and in Venice above the door of St Mark’s Basilica.
The newly revamped Reichstag is close by, the transparent dome arching above the debating chamber of the German parliament. Entry is free and you can climb the spiral walkway to the top of the dome for a view out over the city.
Further to the right of the Brandenburg gate lies the completed Holocaust memorial. This outdoor site covers 19,000 square metres and consists of 2,711 granite blocks of varying height conceived by American architect Peter Eisenman. It has provoked some controversy throughout its construction, not the least being how it sits over part of the former Nazi HQ bunker complex.
Heading further into Berlin-Mitte you will reach Checkpoint Charlie. Little remains of the original checkpoint, the hut standing in the road is a replica. There were three checkpoints between east and west, this was the only one with vehicle access.
The Checkpoint Charlie museum is small and houses a collection of wall memorabilia as well as harrowing recounts of survivors and non survivors attempts at crossing over. Across the road is Café Adler, the old American CIA offices were upstairs where agents would keep an eye on their Russian counterparts across the way.
Berlin-Mitte is the cultural centre where many of the city’s important landmark buildings are located. Opposite the Humboldt University on Unter den Linden is Bebelplatz where the first Nazi book burning took place. The Staatsoper holds world class recitals and performances lead by conductor Daniel Barenboim. With the audience seats laid out in a circular shape around the orchestra pit every seat is a good one.
Gendarmenmarkt is a square surrounded by the cathedral Franzosischer Dom and its twin the Deutscher Dom along with the rotund looking Konzerthaus.
Following the Unter den Linden eastwards you will reach the island of museums or Museuminsel.
The most striking feature here is the Palace of the Republic, looking rather more like a dairy factory it sits incongruously opposite the neo-Renaissance Berliner Dom. For more aesthetically pleasing objects on the eye the world class Pergamonmuseum is a far more attractive option.
It is worth it to spend a few hours looking over the ancient artefacts from Persia, including Roman, Greek, Islamic and Oriental classical works. Some of the more notable items to see are the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, the Pergamon altar from Asia Minor and the Market Gate from Greek Miletus.
Walking towards the west you may have noticed a striking tall tower with a ball shape stuck on a spike. This is the Ferhnsehturm TV tower, built by the communist east as a signal to the west of their technological prowess during the Cold War. As an example of tasteless communist era architecture is doesn’t compare but the view at the top is sensational. At least from inside you don’t have to look at it.
Down below on the other side of the train station is Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin Mitte and another shopping centre with Galeria Kauthof.
Berlin has a multitude of international styles of food to choose from. From Indian, vegan, Asian, Turkish through to the more traditional Bavarian styles loaded with bread sausage and potatoes.
For later on it’s a choice of either the hard core or the soft option. Berlin’s legendary nightlife moves from the mainstream to the off the planet. Dance clubs cover house, hip-hop, RnB, trance and techno. Old haunts include Tresor and WMF but up and coming hot spots include Watergate, Icon and Delicous Doughnuts.
For the more laid back approach there’s the Red Rooster, the Oscar Wilde or the Haifisch bar. Plenty of beers, cocktails and some less ear drum bursting sounds. You could always try an evening with the Philharmonie at the Staatsoper, cheap performance tickets for a great night out.
Or if you are feeling particularly adventurous there is the Kit Kat club. The dress code is ‘the lesser the better’ and as for the dance floor, well anything and everything goes and usually does.
Anywhere around Oranienburgstrasse in Mitte has loads of bars, clubs and local hangouts. One popular place is Tacheles. A former department store it was bombed out during the war and virtually left to disintegrate. Squatters moved in and over the years it has transformed into an art forum as well as café and bar. For a real sense of urban graffiti lifestyle and boho culture this is a great place to begin an evening.
The morning offers a couple of choices depending on preference. For the historical and art buffs the museums have informative displays, either choosing the Museuminsel and viewing the remaining museums or there is the German Russian Museum, where the second World War met its end on the 8th May 1945. If the Cold War piques your interest there is the Stasi Museum, which documents the intense scrutiny of the general population by the Stasi, probably the most feared police force of modern times.
For a combination of art, history and archictecture there is the Berlinische Gallery, a real one stop shop that displays Berlin’s creative side from the past 120 years with photos, models and paintings.
For those wishing to build on their understanding of the Holocaust an S Bahn ride and a moderate walk will get you to Sachsenhausen concentration camp at Oranienburg. This was a ‘model’ camp built by the Nazis and opened in 1936. Over the next nine years 220,000 men passed through the gates and around 100, 000 died there.
Time for a spot of shopping. Potsdamerplatz has a special place in the Berlin skyline as the tidal wave of building that began after the fall of the wall meant that most of this are was filled with cranes. The architects went wild with excitement at the opportunity to build some cutting edge sky scrapers filled with shopping malls and of course the Sony Centre.
If you can stomach one more museum there is the Filmmuseum located here that takes you behind the scenes of many big name German films and their special effects.
Head for Kreuzberg and alongside Carl Herz Ufer you will find the Van Loon Barge where you can enjoy a hard earned beer on the deck in the sun and watching it reflect off the water. They also serve food here or you can check out some of the other tasty eateries such as ‘Hasir’ for the best Turkish in town or ‘Austria’ for the best Wiener schnitzel.
Staying in the Kreuzberg area there are plenty of jazz bars chill out in for the remainder of the night, including Yorkschlosschen and the Junction Bar. If your energy levels haven’t been entirely sapped there is the opportunity to take on a pub crawl, mixing and mingling with fellow travellers as well as shots and the various German beers.
So, after walking your feet off, absorbing an incredible amount of history and sinking more than a few ‘wheat’ beers you should find yourself with a greater understanding of this amazing city. It should be an unforgettable 48 hours.
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