“Go in October,” the guidebooks said. “You will only need a light jacket.”
I went in mid October. I not only needed a light jacket for the 39 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, but had to invest around 50 euro in buying gloves, hats, and scarves at the nearest TKMaxx (I wonder why Germany needs the K instead of the J?). Obviously you shouldn’t trust the guidebooks, but you can trust me.
I left Barcelona when it was still warm enough to go out in a sundress and sandals (70-75 degrees Fahrenheit), and entered East Berlin. It was sunny for about 2 hours of my 5-day trip. I was staying in the East portion of Berlin in Alexanderplatz and then Potsdamer platz.
I arrived October 11, right in the middle of The Festival of Lights, where for 2 weeks, many of the most-famous sights, like the Brandenburg Gate or the Berlin Cathedral, are illuminated with colorful projections.
East Berlin is where you will find all the museums, nightlife, ethnic food, coffee houses, and general trendiness. West Berlin is filled up with suburbia. At the end of WWII, most buildings were bombed. East Berlin, in particular Wilhelmstrasse and the area around Potsdamer platz, was the site of most of the buildings of the Third Reich. In place of all these important and more architecturally-artistic buildings, that were destroyed, the Soviets constructed rows of boring structures with clean lines, and as intended, without any power to stimulate or distract. Though the weather was gloomy, and the backdrop of the Soviet buildings oppressive, it only aided in me enjoying the museums all the more and appreciating Barcelona for being so sunny and beautiful.
There aren’t many Vietnamese places in Barcelona, but Vietnamese cuisine seems to have infiltrated Berlin and was the most appealing place to get lunch and dinner deals. This was fine by me as I hadn’t had any Vietnamese or sushi since being in Barcelona. After being in Berlin and eating it almost every meal, I am sated. Looking around at Vietnamese lunch specials, I was able to find a lunch (usually a pho meal) for less than 10 euro after tax, which included a ginger tea and a pho soup.
Dinner at one of the Vietnamese places will set you back 15-25 euro. Beer is typically around 3 euro if you don’t go to a club or super trendy place.
Of course one could opt for the street food and try the currywurst (if one likes a ketchup smothered frankfurt wiener sans bun), but after trying it once, it was no longer appetizing.
I mostly came to Berlin to meet up with my friend from the US who was there for a conference. She only had 2 days to sightsee so we both decided unanimously to skip the world-renowned and UNESCA certified ancient museums on Museum Island and focus on the WWII history and the DDR.
Want to have a super thorough and close glimpse of what life really looked like for those East Berliners (or “essies”)? This museum is perfect. It’s decked out with information on the daily surveillance of its citzenry, toys, obsession with Levi jeans (they were seen as a luxury and symbol of capitalistic materialism) and bananas. This museum was worth the 8 euro and took around 3 hours to really study closely.
This is a really important museum that covers so much that I think it deserves 2 days. I missed the beginning history which covered not only the Prussian history, but the Reformation and Martin Luther. Instead I started with 1918 to modern history (or the end of WWI until now).
Then I went to the temporary exhibit “Reunification” about the reunification following the fall of the Berlin Wall between the East and West Germans. The West Germans thought the East Germans were weird because they were obsessed with bananas (something that was really hard to acquire in the East), had weird clothes and fuzzy-permed hair. The East Germans thought the West Germans were arrogant and spoke too freely.
One aspect that I didn’t expect to see was that there still exists, even today, some former citizens of the DDR who yearn and are “ostalgic” for the way things were. They felt cared for by the DDR. You were guaranteed a job by the Soviets and even if you were a single mother, you never feared that you would end up in an apartment without heat and worries about food. In contrast, after reunification, many never found a job and turned to state benefits.
In the DDR, though there is evidence that the elderly seemed to get meager pensions, and seemed to live in abject poverty, some of the artists and musicians claimed to have a good life. Some even moved to East Germany from West Germany to pursue their art.
After seeing the Brandenburg Gate you will see the Reichstag in the distance. This was rebuilt in 1999 after the “communists” (aka really the Nazi’s who wanted to use this as an excuse to have marshall law) burned it down in 1933. This needs advanced planning to see. People who had reservations were waiting for hours even. This wasn’t a must for me, especially with a long queue, so we skipped. In warmer weather the wait would have been tolerable.
Unless you’re really into film or Marlene Dietrich, I would say skip, except that on Thursdays between 4 and 8pm, it is completely free. The lights, the films, the history of Nazi propaganda, all worth a good stroll through the museum during the free entrance even if you’re not so into the history of film. It’s actually still pretty entertaining even for non-camera/non-film buffs like myself. Some really like this museum.
5-Topography of Terrors
This was built on the former SS and Gestapo headquarters. It also has a portion of the wall behind it. In the picture above, that’s the outside-portion exhibit (there’s also an exhibit inside). Behind the exhibit there is the wall. ToT doesn’t contain any artifacts. It’s more like reading a book in an exhibit, but it’s free, and it covers all the “terrors” that the Nazi’s perpetrated. This was where I first learned about the Jew Catchers, one really infamous Jew Catcher being Stella Goldschlag. She accepted the bribe by the Gestapo (of saving her and her parents) in exchange for hunting down her own people and sending around 2,000 to certain death in concentration camps.
After the war, she was imprisoned for 10 years. In her old age, she was a sad lonely woman. She became an open anti-semite (self-hating Jew) and committed suicide by jumping out her apartment window in 1994.
If you go to the Topography of Terrors museum, you’ll also be beside the wall. (See picture of Topography of Terrors above).
You won’t find many remnants of the wall in East Berlin, but this is a long stretch of one.
7-Oranianburg Concentration Camp
I’m not sure if I really am ready to see a concentration camp. It just seems like something you cannot unsee. Of course part of being ready for the future, is in knowing the past, so we can prevent things like this from happening again. This one is really easy to get to from Berlin. I didn’t get the chance to see it, but will when I return next time. You should also get a guide/go with a guided group as that’s the only way you’ll really recieve any in-depth information.
This was not a holocaust museum, but a museum of the history of the Jewish people and the religion itself. Since Ancient Babylon, when Israel was conquered, the Jews have been persecuted and restricted in their professions. Sadly, a lot of the time, Christians have wanted to seek revenge on them. One of the parts that I found interesting was the media coverage of the Frankfurt-Auschwitz trials from 1963 to 1965. The trials were widely attended by University students, and there was a news crew going around and interviewing them on whether or not it was too late to bring these men to justice. It was super interesting to hear their opinions of their shared infamous history after the fact, in the 1960s. Some questions posed to the younger and older generations of German citizenry: Did you know what was happening during the Holocaust? Do you think most of the people in the Nazi party should be held accountable? Should there be a statute of limitations? Is it better to keep talking about the atrocities or is it best to forget about this dark part of our history?
TOURIST TRAPS (Not worth the money unless it’s burning a hole in your pocket)
1- Hitler’s Bunker
Many years ago, they took off the roof and filled it in with dirt. What’s left is a parking lot with an entrance to a Halloween-themed area for children, and at 13 euro, only worth it if you’re looking for a Halloween fun house for the kiddos.
2-Checkpoint Charlie Museum
Not any original relics though there are replicas they created of the trabi cars. Most of the exhibit is comprised of tales of people’s escapes using the trabi cars. The museum has repeated information you can find in the DDR museum which is more highly regarded and cheaper (13 euro for CC Museum vs. 8 euro for DDR).
What I Wish I’d Done Differently?
Gotten the Museum Pass. For 24 euro, it includes more than 50 museums and exhibits, including all the museums on Museum Island and the Jewish Museum. Unfortunately it does not include the German History Museum nor the DDR museum, but for those who want to see more museums (among them being the UNESCO sites), this is the best deal.
I would return to Berlin, but only in late spring or summer. This is a city best experienced through its museums, but during the warmer months you can also enjoy its beer gardens. If you’re into art, architecture, or history, I would fully recommend you go, but just don’t go for the food or weather. That’s what places like Barcelona are for.