Several people told us how much they loved Berlin, and a few of the travel blogs we read regularly raved about it. “It’s special,” a Londoner that we met on the train told us.
We spent a week there in August 2015, and summing up our reaction to the city has not been easy. It’s not simple enough to say that we liked it (which we did). It’s just that, for many reasons, Berlin is not a city that’s easy to sum up in a few hundred words.
First, there’s the history—Berlin was Hitler’s center of power, and both World War II and the Holocaust were orchestrated here. It was spine-tingling to be near places where Hitler and his henchmen had walked and talked and made their horrific decisions years before. And then came the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, which led to immense suffering for many Berliners. So the city’s history was never far from my thoughts, and it colored my experience.
Berlin also has a grittiness to it, a roughness around the edges, that was compelling. It’s not traditionally beautiful by European standards, not surprising since much of the city was destroyed during WWII. Then, after the war, there was the Berlin Wall and the divided city, and neighborhoods on both sides of the Wall gradually decayed as the Cold War stretched on. The Wall fell in 1989, but in some of its neighborhoods Berlin feels like a city that is still rebuilding.
Finally, there’s heritage and expectations. My hometown was settled by German immigrants and still actively celebrates its heritage (check out Wurstfest, our awesome celebration of sausage and beer held each November). As a kid I attended the festival with my parents every year, and Dale and I continue to go as adults. It’s a lot of polka dancing and oompah bands and general drunken frivolity, and I suppose my expectations of German behavior have been shaped more by Wurstfest than I’d like to admit. Secretly, Dale and I both hoped that Berlin would be full of cheerful, beer-drinking people clad in lederhosen and particularly adept at yodeling and doing the Chicken Dance.*
Like anything, reality is often different from imagination–not necessarily better or worse, just different. Berlin is nowhere near the German alpine paradise that I envisioned; while green and lush, it’s also flat and humid. The language barrier was an issue; German was confounding, and Dale and I both felt isolated at times because of our ignorance of the language. And while there were lots of festive biergartens around town, and delicious German beer was cheap and readily available, there weren’t polka bands on every street corner, and only once did we see a man in lederhosen!
But as we got to know Berlin better, we learned to appreciate the city for what it is: the capitol of Germany, one of the biggest cities in the European Union, and a city whose population is incredibly diverse; about 15% of its 3.5 million residents are of foreign nationality, representing 190 different countries.
Here are some random facts about this fascinating city:
- Berlin was established in the 1230’s or so. It’s been the capitol city of Prussia, the German Empire, and the German Republic, all of which Germany has fallen under over the centuries.
- Berlin is situated on the River Spree, and it surprised us to learn that the city has around 1700 bridges, many more than Venice, which only has around 400. Berlin has over 180 km (100 miles) of navigable waterways, so one can explore the entire city by boat.
- Berlin has one of the coolest government buildings around–the Reichstag, a historic building that currently houses the German Bundestag, or parliament.
The Reichstag was damaged in 1933 by a mysterious fire (the Nazis are the prime suspects) and was not used again until it was fully restored in the 1990s. As part of its redesign, a large glass dome was placed atop the building. The dome offers a 360-degree view of the city and, more importantly, of the parliament chambers below, where visitors can observe what their leaders are up to at any given time. The dome symbolizes Germany’s determination to have an open, accessible governing system. The Reichstag observation level is free and open to the public, but you must have reservations, which were sold out when we were there in August.**
- Berlin has one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, the Brandenburg Gate. It was built as one of a series of city gates in the 18th century, most of which were torn down in the 19th century to allow for city expansion.
In the 1930’s and ’40s, the Brandenburg Gate became a national symbol for the Nazis, and then it was badly damaged by Allied bombings in World War II. After the war, it was partially restored and used as a check point between East and West Berlin, but once the Berlin Wall was built, it was situated just east of the Wall and accessible to no one. It has now been restored to all of its glory and was a thrilling sight to see.
- Over one-third of Berlin is made up of parks and green spaces, and this includes the Tiergarten, an enormous urban park (one of the largest in Germany) that once served as private hunting grounds for the royals. It was almost completely deforested by Berliners after WWII due to lack of coal but has since been reforested and rehabilitated, and we spent several beautiful summer afternoons enjoying the shade underneath the many tall trees within the park.
- The Tiergarten is divided by a long, wide boulevard called the Straße des 17. Juni (or “17th of June Street”), which runs east to west through the park. The street was called Charlottenburger Chaussee until 1953, when West Berlin renamed it to commemorate the uprising of East Berlin construction workers on June 17, 1953. The workers went on strike on June 16 and marched through the streets to protest proposed pay cuts. Word of the uprising spread, and on June 17, 40,000 protesters took to the streets of Berlin, and demonstrations against the oppressive German Democratic Republic (GDR) cropped up throughout East Germany. The GDR turned to the Soviet Army and East German police to suppress the uprising, which they did so violently. The troops and police opened fire on protesters in Berlin, and others were arrested and later sentenced to death. The ultimate number of people who died during the protest and in its aftermath is unknown, with estimates ranging from 55 to 125 victims, but the events of June 17 have been memorialized with Straße des 17. Juni, so that they will not be forgotten.
At the east end of Straße des 17. Juni is the Brandenburg Gate. The street passes the Siegessäule (Victory Column), which commemorates the Prussian victories over the Danes, Austrians, and French in separate 19th century wars.
Berlin is known for being a vibrant center for the arts and cultural activities:
- Berlin has two zoos, including one of the world’s largest, Zoologischer Garten, which has over 19,000 animals.
- Berlin is one of the few cities in the world that has 3 opera houses, and the city hosts more performances annually than any other city in the world.
- Berlin has three Unesco World Heritage sites, including Museum Island, which we visited and will write more about in a later post.
- Berlin has 180 museums, including ones devoted to World War II and the Holocaust and Berlin’s role in both. The city seems to be facing its horrific past head on, with memorials and museums to be found all over the city. There’s also an excellent memorial to the Berlin Wall that explores the brutality of the Cold War for Berliners, and there are of course multiple world class art and history museums. We’ll have posts on several of these museums in the future.
- The East Side Gallery, a 1.3 kilometer stretch of the Berlin Wall, is the longest open-air gallery in the world. After the reunification of Berlin in 1989, artists from all over the world painted artwork on the east side of the wall. The artwork gradually fell into disrepair, but much of it has now been restored and is open to the public.
Germany’s dynamic capitol is a city that is evolving and, after decades of turmoil, learning who it is. In the end, I do agree that Berlin is special because it’s in the process of transforming itself into one of Europe’s most vibrant cities while also doing an admirable job of facing its past. We took an excellent walking tour with a company called New Europe Tours, and our tour guide described Berlin as a city in transition, still reinventing itself and healing old wounds. He also said that many people, especially from the younger generations, are discussing the war openly and trying to understand how the Germans, an intelligent, pragmatic people, could allow such dark things to happen. The hope is that with deeper exploration, a repeat of history can be avoided.
*Note: I published a portion of this post back in September 2015, a month before Dale and I hiked the Camino del Norte, where we met lots of Germans. When I shared these thoughts with them, (especially the whole “oompah music and lederhosen” thing), they laughed and said that Berlin, with its multicultural, modern vibe, is about as far from the stereotypical Germany as we could get. If we wanted to see “traditional” German culture, we would have to go to the region of Bavaria, which many Germans consider to be a whole other country. “There’s Germany, and then there’s Bavaria,” one of our friends told us. Now we know.
**Fair warning, sold out museums and long lines were a typical side effect of traveling in Europe in August, the busiest month of the European tourist season, so in the future we will avoid traveling to Europe in August.