You know those cities that you never really thought of visiting? Those cities that are kind of closeish to your home and that you never really deemed worthy of your bucket list? But then, as the opportunity presented itself to visit that city, you thought to yourself “Well, why not?” and went and then that city totally blows your mind? Well, for me that city was Berlin. As an austrian, Germany in general, was never high on my bucket list, but when a friend decided to do her internship in Germany and flights were cheap I took the opportunity to go to Berlin, and honestly, I’m so happy that I did! Berlin is such a beautiful, historic place full of amazingly diverse people, totally worth being high up on any bucket list!
When I got to Berlin, my friend had to work during the day, so the first thing I did, was participate in a free walking tour to learn about the city and maybe meet some cool people to hang out with. And boy, was I not going to be disappointed. What I learned, was that there are few places in the world so drenched by ist history. The city fascinated me with its recent (WWII and everything since then) history – and this also becomes kind of obvious in this list of my favorite things to do in the city.
1) CHECKPOINT CHARLIE
Legend has it that the last soldier who left Berlin was named Charlie – I have to disappoint you, this is not true. The checkpoint was operational during the separation of east and west, and was the only place at which foreigners visiting Berlin could cross the border. The name actually comes from the phonetic alphabet – other checkpoints were called Alpha, Bravo,… – A, B, C. The reason Checkpoint Charlie made it on my list is not so much because of its history, but rather because I’ve never seen another place where it was this obvious who won the Cold War. This place, formerly the only place where Americans and Russians would cross, now has a McDonald’s to its right and a KFC to its left. What is more, at Checkpoint Charlie you can take a photo with people who are dressed up as soldiers from either side – which ironically will cost you 3€ per picture. Capitalism at its best, don’t you think?
2) EAST SIDE GALLERY
Some of the guys I bonded with on the free walking tour (ironically over the fact that none of us, four fairly well-educated adults couldn’t calculate 160 000km by 1.6 in our heads, trying to figure out the length of the Berlin Wall in miles) and I took the afternoon after the tour to visit the East Side Gallery. It’s the last piece of the Berlin Wall that’s still standing and it’s covered in pictures by artists from all over the world. While some are more impressive than others, it’s definitely worth walking along the entire gallery and thinking about the meaning behind some of the pictures.
3) THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE
This memorial is at one of the most central places in the city, right beside the Brandenburg gate. This central location doesn’t really have anything to do with the Holocaust – rather, it was part of the “death strip” were people who wanted to cross from east to west during the Cold War were shot and killed. However, the location was chosen because of the importance of the memorial. The German government purposefully chose this central spot in order to constantly remember what happened and to not put it away in some corner of the city where nobody would ever see it.
The memorial itself consists of 2711 different, but very similar, concrete blocks. Nobody actually knows what the memorial is supposed to represent and the only thing that the artist said about it is that the number of blocks doesn’t mean anything. However, we realized that the beauty of the memorial lies in this mystery: it got us talking, it got us speculating about the potential meanings and discussing the history associated with it. And who knows, maybe this is exactly what the artist intended.
4) TOPOGRAPHIE DES TERRORS
This was definitely one of the most touching places I visited while in Berlin. It’s a museum on the SS (“Schutzstaffel”, a paramilitary organization that controlled Nazi – Germany) and the SA (“Sturmabteilung”, the original paramilitary wing of the party, later effectively superseded by the SS) and Berlin during the Second World War – the rise to power of the Nazis and their reign. The exhibition is very informative, based on a mixture of facts and figures and personal, individual stories.
5) ABHÖRSTATION TEMPELBERG
Tempelberg is a former communications intercept station, leftover from the Cold War and it’s a little outside of the city. It’s a fascinating place with loaaads of graffiti on the walls where a great variety of art and sustainability projects come to life nowadays. The history is fascinating, but still little explored. As a bonus, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view over the city! Make sure that you properly check on how to get there in advance – we thought we had but still got lost on our way up and met quite a few other lost visitors. As soon as you found it, it’s totally worth it though!
What’s fascinating about the Gendarmemarket is that there is two almost identical churches on either end of it. Religious freedom and equality among all nations were a core part of the city’s identity as early as the 17th and 18th century. That’s why after the French built the so-called French Church where all masses were held in French, the Germans decided they also wanted their own church. To show that both are equal and no one was better than the other, a replica of the French Church was built – no better, no worse than the original.
7) BOOK FLEAMARKET
The students of the Humboldt University in Berlin constantly organize a fleamarket for books – not just because, but in memory of the bookburning by the Nazis. On the plaza in front of the university there’s a memorial that says “Whoever starts by burning books will end with burning Humanity.” While Heinrich Heine said that years before the Nazis even took control of the city (he referred to the Spanish inquisition), this is exactly what happened then – and students from the university took part in it; thousands of books written by jews, gays, POC or even just containing content that went in contra the Nazis’ ideology were burnt. That’s why today, students organize this fleamarket in order to make sure that something like that will never happen again.
8) TECHNISCHES MUSEUM
The technical museum in Berlin is one of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever been to. They have exhibitions on all different kinds of topics: photography, trains, sewing, planes, and, and, and. It’s a place you can easily spend an entire day in exploring exhibit after exhibit.
I hope this gave you some insight into the great places you can visit when in Berlin! Oh, and if you’re craving some food, get yourself a “Kebab” – while it’s turkish food, it was developed in Berlin and they truly have the best Kebabs!
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