In between a two-week trip to London, I arranged a short side trip to Berlin, a first visit to this amazing city. Berlin with so much history, art, antiquities, and greenery didn’t disappoint. It is a surprisingly green city with Tiergarten Park and gardens and squares everywhere.
Arriving on a Saturday evening, I reached out to a local tour guide, Chris Taylor, who operates “Taylor Made Tours” to see if I could arrange a tour of the city on Sunday. Chris warned me that Sunday temperatures were expected to reach 104 degrees. Weather aside, I was “all in” for a two-hour afternoon walking tour of central Berlin.
A short walk from my hotel (Grand Hyatt) is the Shoah memorial, Berlin’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Before WWII, Berlin had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. The memorial, designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, is composed of 2,711 rectangular, concrete blocks laid out in a grid formation (photo).
The memorial is located just one block south of the American, British, French, and Russian Embassies and the Brandenburg Gate.
The Brandenburg Gate is perhaps the most iconic symbol of Berlin. The Gate was built in the 18thcentury on the orders of Prussian King Frederick William II. Today, it is considered a symbol of European unity and peace. (Photos). Also, nearby is the Reichstag, home to Germany’s parliament. The Reichstag dome was designed by British architect Norman Foster and provides a spectacular view of Berlin. Note: Please book several weeks in advance if you want a tour of the Reichstag.
Before meeting Chris, I stop at the Hotel Adlon to have one of many cold drinks of the day. The original Hotel Adlon was destroyed in the closing days of WWII and has been beautifully rebuilt and furnished. I also indulged in an apple strudel with vanilla cream, a Viennese delicacy but a popular dessert favorite in Berlin.
Feeling refreshed and fortified, I meet Chris, a friendly, knowledgeable tour guide, who hails from Australia, but has called Berlin home for 10+ years.
With record-breaking temperatures, we embark on our tour of central Berlin with a stroll along Unter den Linden. “As long as the lime trees still blossom in Unter den Linden, Berlin will always be Berlin,” sang Marlene Dietrich in homage to this impressive boulevard strewn with many historic buildings including St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, Humboldt University, and, Bebelplatz, a beautiful square that in 1933 became the scene of the infamous Nazi book burning. Today, the event is memorialized by a designated place on the floor of the Bebelplatz where you can look through a glass window and see bookshelves –all empty!
On the square is another beautiful Berlin Hotel, the Hotel De Rome. Stop in and have a drink in its cozy bar, complete with English-language newspapers.
As we leave Unter den Linden, my tour grows more serious as we walk near the area where Hitler’s bunker was located as well as the building that once housed the Ministry of Aviation, commissioned by the notorious Hermann Goring.
Berlin constantly reminds one of the best and the worst of human nature. Not far from the site of Hitler’s bunker is a memorial to Georg Eiser who tried to kill Adolph Hitler in 1939, but failed as Hitler left the building 13 minutes before a bomb was scheduled to detonate. Eiser was executed at Dachau concentration camp shortly before the end of the war. (Photo).
Aside from Berlin’s Nazi history, there are many reminders of the Cold War, notably remnants of the Berlin Wall, where thousands tried to flee from East Berlin to West Berlin, after the Wall was built on August 13, 1961. For 28 years, it split the city in two. The best place to see the remnants of the Wall is along Bernauer Strasse, now an official place of remembrance. The Wall fell in 1989 and Germany was officially reunited in 1990. We also take a short walk to Checkpoint Charlie, which has become a major tourist attraction.
My tour with Chris ends at Museum Island (Museumsinsel), a collection of museums on an “island” on the Spree River. Many of the museums are closed on Sundays, but, fortunately for me, I was able to return on Monday to see perhaps the most impressive museum of all – the Pergamonmuseum. The Pergamon houses an amazing collection of architectural treasures evacuated by German archeologists in the late 19thcentury. It also contains an impressive Islamic art collection. Included among the Pergamon’s treasures are the Ishtar Gate, the Market Gate of Miletus, standing 52 feet high, and the Aleppo Room, a beautiful example of Ottoman architecture. The Ishtar Gate was built under Nebuchadnezar II in the 6thcentury B.C. in Babylon, present day Turkey. (Photos).
I would recommend buying a combo ticket so that you can see both the Pergamon and the nearby Panorama. The Panorama museum has a 360-degree visual reproduction of the Greco-Roman city of Pergamon. It’s an alternative to seeing the actual Pergamon Altar. The hall, housing the Pergamon Altar, is currently closed for renovations. The Pergamon and the Panorama should be on your must-see list.
No visit to Berlin would be complete without taking advantage of its vibrant food scene. Some of the top restaurants are closed on Sundays, but for a good option try Katz Orange, located on the courtyard of an old brick brewery building. It offers a small but creative menu. On Monday, I had lunch at the Food Hall at KaDeWe, Berlin’s famous department store. KaDeWe is definitely worth a visit for both visual and gastronomical reasons.
For my last night in Berlin, I had dinner at the Michelin-starred Pauly Saal. As I was on my own, I was pleasantly surprised to have a German family, who spoke beautiful English, invite me to join them for dinner. The set, five-course menu is definitely worth the splurge.
But, Berlin, for all its wonders, is never far from its history. After dinner, the daughter of the German couple points out to me that prior to WWII, Pauly Saal had been a Jewish girls school. Today, the restaurant exhibits a poignant reminder of the building’s history. On the wall in the restaurant’s foyer are several black and white photos of the girls at school and at play. I couldn’t help but think about the girls’ fate as I left Pauly Saal, which is not far from the Neue Synagogue that miraculously escaped destruction in WWII. (Photo).
Berlin has much to offer both first- time and repeat visitors. My only regret on leaving was not having enough time to explore its fascinating neighborhoods, art galleries, and complicated history.
Opening photo of Georg Eiser Memorial
All photos by Robin Weaver
Grand Hyatt Berlin, Marlene-Dietrich Platz 2
Hotel Adlon, Unter den Linden 77
Hotel de Rome, Behrenstrasse 37
Katz Orange, BergStrasse 22
Pauly Saal, AugustStrasse 11-13
KaDeWie, Food Hall, Tauentzienstrasse 21-24
Transportation: Cabs are readily available from hotels; the Berlin subway is user friendly, walking and cycling are options too. British Air offers good fares between London and Berlin.