In the late summer of 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Germany as part of a summer internship. I participated in a two-week course in Potsdam, located just outside of Berlin. Wanting to make the most of my time, I flew out early, ahead of my coworker who had been to Germany several times before. The idea was to arrive on Saturday and have an extra day to explore before continuing onto Potsdam, but when all was said and done, I got to my Air BnB in the mid-afternoon, amidst cloudy grey skies and rain. Seeing as I had left St. Louis at about 5:00 the previous day, I did what you’re never supposed to do when flying east, and I took a nap. I’m getting a bit better at the traveling thing though, because after an hour or two I woke up and took myself out to dinner in the neighborhood of Bergmannkiez, south of central Berlin. My host recommended a burger place along Bergmannstraße, a very happening little street. It was unfortunately closed, so I ended up eating Mexican for my first night in Germany (mostly because I could somewhat understand the menu).
On the topic of understanding things, I had a hell of a time in Germany. In my defense, the trip was quite last minute, so I didn’t really have time to learn much German. My boyfriend, who had lived in Germany, also insisted that everyone there speaks English. Ideally I would have liked to learn the local language as much as possible, because it’s polite, but see the previous sentence. So I arrived feeling bad about not knowing much German, but also not panicked because I figured I could survive with a few dirty looks. What he failed to mention is that all of the young Germans speak English. So anyone over 40 working in a train station, selling tickets, and giving directions, for example, I had no chance with. And yes, many German words are fairly similar to English, but I was still having a hell of a time navigating Berlin by myself, at least on my first weekend. For what it’s worth, after a week in Potsdam with other young Germans who spoke English, I picked up a decent amount of helpful phrases, which made the rest of my trip run much more smoothly.
And on a final note, I must be an idiot because for all the talk of German organization and efficiency, I had absolutely no idea how to navigate their insane train system. Maybe it was because I started in their central station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where all five types of trains run through. Perhaps baby steps would have worked better.
Now, with all that out of the way, what to do in Berlin? Before we left, we got tipped off by some coworkers about Insider Walking Tours. They had visited previously and had several guides they absolutely loved, so my coworker and I decided to meet up on Sunday and do The Third Reich Berlin tour. This didn’t work out either because we couldn’t connect at the station, so I ended up on The Famous Insider Walk, which I probably would have preferred to start with anyways. (On a side note of all the trouble I had getting started in Germany, American Airlines and Air Berlin spent about a week both denying losing my coworker’s luggage, both claiming they hadn’t seen it even after it appeared in his room. So my troubles could have been much worse.) Also, shoutout to Brian from Canada, an awesome tour guide!
The Insider Walking Tours were fantastic, but long. There is a small break in the middle, but it is four hours of straight walking for the most part. I definitely recommend it, but maybe bring some snacks (and definitely an umbrella, it came in handy)! Among other sites, we passed Checkpoint Charlie, a beautiful memorial for a Nazi book burning, the Berlin Cathedral, the Berlin Wall, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Brandenburg Gate. And in the midst of all that I managed to visit the Potsdamer Platz, the beautiful Tiergarten (their version of Central Park), and an adorable little alleyway with artwork and nice beer. On my final day in Berlin two weeks later, I targeted the sites I wanted to revisit and photograph during the golden hour.
There were so many interesting facts I learned on this tour, that I will never remember, but I’ll try to provide my favorite fact about every place here (with the assistance of Wikipedia to remember):
Berliner Dom : The original building at this site was established in the 1400s. While the current building looks old, it was only completed in 1905. The building was severely damaged during World War II and was reinaugurated in 1993.
Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) : an all-inclusive memorial to the victims of war and tragedy, from the Wars of Liberation to the reunification of Germany, most recently signified by Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà, “Mother and her Dead Son.” A really touching, stark memorial to show the sorrows of war.
Federal Ministry of Finance (building) : One of the only (three?) completely undamaged Nazi structures remaining today; a great example of the intimidating and bleak architecture. The mural is from 1952, and is supposed to show happy East Germans looking toward a bright future. However, after five revisions the initial intent fell by the wayside.
Führerbunker (Hitler’s Bunker) : The entire story is one big fun (depressing?) fact, and there is plenty of information to read about it online. Instead of a favorite fact, I’ll say that my favorite thing was standing in the square, above the bunker, listening to an enthusiastic guide tell the dramatic, warped history of the location.
Some additional fun facts for the above photos:
Art by the Haus Schwarzenberg coffee shop : The coffee shop is actually located in a little alley which is highly recommended for a visit. After our tour we were encouraged to try the Berlin green beer (Waldmeister), or red beer (Himbeer), a wheat beer with a shot of syrup added. I didn’t try it but heard it was very sweet!
Berlin Bear : The Berlin buddy bears, seen all across the city! Not sure if the above photo is one (they tend to be more colorful), but the bear is the symbol of Berlin as it appears on the Berlin Coat of Arms.
Potsdamer Platz : A site of urban renewal after German reunification, bringing city life into an area that was once deserted.
One of the largest remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall can be found near the Topographie des Terrors, a museum showcasing the horrors of the Holocaust, located in the old headquarters of the Secret State Police and the SS (also near the Federal Ministry of Finance from before). Just beside the Berlin Wall is a series of displays describing the lead up to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and World War II. New clippings and personal stories make it a sobering experience. One of my favorite stories from the Insider Tour was how the Berlin Wall falling was more or less unintentional on the East Germans’ part, mostly due to miscommunications and showing up late to a speech. Read more about Günter Schabowski’s mistake here.
Another one of my favorite sites in Berlin? Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), designed by New York based architect Peter Eisenman. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars of varying shapes and sizes, built on a slanting hill, allowing a different perception wherever you stand. My first instinct, and I assume many other peoples’, is that this represents a massive grave site. However, Eisenmann provided no details about how his memorial should be interpreted, and various other ideas have come about as well. While doing research for this post I stumbled across an article in the New Yorker, where the author is less than impressed by the memorial, but I found it quite nice, aside from all the people climbing on the stones (on that topic, read about this project called Yolocaust from an Israeli photographer).
And finally, we conclude with the Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of a city divided, now a symbol of a city reunified. It was here that Ronald Regan made his famous “Tear down this wall!” speech in 1987. The fun fact? In 1963, to sympathize with the Germans, Kennedy declared that he, too, was a Berliner: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” As the story goes, Berliners never refer to themselves that way; the term is saved for their favorite jelly doughnuts. So basically, Kennedy announced himself to be a jelly doughnut. While a fun story, some online searching indicates that while “Berliner” can mean both jelly doughnuts or a person from Berlin, Germans fully understood what he meant and there was no tittering in the crowd.
This post was long, because I learned a lot on my Insider Tour. I hope you learned something reading this too, and for any Germans reading, I sincerely apologize if anything in here is incorrect (please let me know)! I tried my best to research everything a second time around, but I am sure a mistake made it through somewhere. I had a really really fantastic time in the city (the phenomenal weather helped a bit), and highly recommend anyone to visit Berlin. Stay tuned for posts from Potsdam and Hamburg!