Berlin, the capital of Germany, is known for its historical landmarks, colorful cultural scene, and juxtaposition of the past and present. This unique blend brought Berlin to the top of our list to visit. Although the promise of German cuisines like spicy currywurst and drinks like a crisp Berliner Weiss helped tip the scales.
My impression of Berlin is from my first visit back in 2006, fast-paced and a blur. At that time, I was newly 18 and excited to visit my first ever country in Europe. The FIFA World Cup was in Germany, and although I didn’t know what it was then, I still bought a shirt to commemorate the event. My trip to Berlin was with a large church youth choir, and I was shuffled from one landmark to another with awe and wonderment in my eyes. The limited memories I had of Berlin were shattered by the actual reality while visiting 16 years later.
I’m not sure if Checkpoint Charlie is synonymous with Berlin, but I think it’s pretty high up there. When I mentioned the juxtaposition of the old and new, Checkpoint Charlie is the epitome of this. The street had changed so much from my first visit in 2006.
During my first visit, the buildings around the checkpoint were old and battered. It felt authentic. A large sign stated that you were now leaving American territory. You could feel transported back to what it must have been like to have such a stark border during a dark time. Actors dressed as army soldiers would interact with tourists. Maybe it was a little kitschy, but it made the experience more “real” for an 18-year-old. I even had a giant stamp smacked on my arm from one of the actors that said “Checkpoint Charlie.” Not authentic, but it was fun!
On this visit, sixteen years later, the city recently renovated all the buildings. A large Mcdonald’s sign hung at just the right angle so we couldn’t miss it in photos. A KFC was also across the street with an equally large sign. The actors, once bringing life to the area, had been banned a few years earlier. All that remained of the sign stating we were leaving the American territory were two marks on the ground. We could see where the posts once were.
On some blogs, we read that you could even receive a checkpoint Charlie stamp. We brought our fake Monaco passports we received while visiting the area last summer for a new stamp. But unfortunately, the stamps had been stopped too.
I’m not naive to know things change over time, and I feel like change is our only constant. Checkpoint Charlie still holds a significant historical significance, and had I not known any better, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. But I felt like the history and significance of the area had been washed away to mimic just another European city street.
At any souvenir shop, one could find multiple small pieces of the original Berlin Wall for sale. For only 15 euros, you too could take home a piece of the wall. The pieces did not break for tourists’ souvenirs have been mostly preserved in their original place.
One of the most haunting places we visited was in “no man’s land,” a space between the two walls separating each border where virtually anyone who tried to pass through was shot and killed. We walked through “no man’s land,” seeing the remains of one wall, or in many instances, the steel support beams where the wall once was on one side and a smaller wall on the other. Much of the wall that remained had various graffiti marks. I read somewhere that many of the graffiti was from residents who disapproved of the wall at the time.
Bright light posts that once illuminated the area so no one could sneak by remained standing. A poster depicted all the obstacles one would have to go through to fight for freedom on the other side. We read a harrowing story of an army guard who knocked out his superior so that his sister could have a chance at crossing through “no man’s land” and survive. It was all so violent, and at what cost?
EAST SIDE GALLERY
After leaving this part of the Berlin Wall, we visited the colorful East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall whose dark significance has been taken back by its residents through a series of colorful and influential art. Artists painted the images on the remaining parts of the wall early after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. While refreshed over the years, the paintings have remained mostly the same for 30 years. We could see dates on each panel designating when the panel was initially painted and refreshed.
Some images are considered iconic and can be found on magnets, postcards, and posters throughout various shops. Others are somber, showing the reality of the darkness that existed during the Cold War. Many had an 80s-esque vibe to them. Each photo depicted a story, and we took time strolling through to appreciate each one.
Throughout the weekend, we hit the city highlights that every blog lists as the “must-do” in Berlin. While we aren’t partial to spending time inside a museum on a beautiful day, we did wander through “Museum Island.” It’s an island in the middle of the city with, you guessed it, museums. As we admired the buildings from the outside, we stumbled upon an open art market with unique art and vintage trinkets worth stopping to see. Countless war memorabilia was available for purchase, including pins, badges, and more.
Next on our list was to visit the Brandenburg Gate, an 18th-century monument that is now a symbol of both the division and reunification of Germany. The Brandenburg Gate was home to every protest imaginable on this sunny day. Pro-Nazi, Pro Ukraine, something to do with Asia, and someone with a “Don’t tread on me” flag, were all there. It must have been open protest day.
We typically like to stroll through the city’s parks to find balance during our busy weekends. After all, this is our only time to rewind and refresh from an equally busy work week. Tiergarten Park, the city’s largest park, was full of tree-lined paths jutting off in every direction. Happy dogs eagerly played fetch with their owners. There were also a lot of barriers in the park, to which we stumbled into a women’s half marathon. For a brief instant, I thought I might try to go for my fourteenth half marathon. But I’ll still pass, for now.
One of the more interesting landmarks we saw was the Gedächtniskirche, also known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Initially built in the 1890s, the church bells were the second biggest in Germany after Cologne. The five bells rang so loudly that the wolves in the Berlin zoo started howling. The bells stopped ringing during the Second World War, as the army took and melted them for munitions.
Air raids from World War II damaged the church, causing the roof to collapse and the spire to break off. After the war, the Allies were unwilling to rebuild the church as they considered it a symbol of excessive national pride. Instead, they decided to preserve the ruin to stand as a constant reminder of the horrors of war. As of today, the city constructed a new church alongside the ruins.
In the middle of the city, Berlin has a Holocaust memorial known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This abstract art piece places over 2700 concrete slabs of varying heights in an orderly fashion. As we walked through the memorial, the concrete slabs increased in size, immersing us between tall concrete columns. The artist designed the memorial to be a place of contemplation, a place of remembrance, and a place of warning.
CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT SHOPPING
During our week of Christmas markets in 2021, Käthe Wohlfahrt seemed to have a pop-up shop in each city we visited. If you aren’t familiar with the brand, as we initially weren’t, it’s a designer specializing in Christmas decorations. We only first learned of Käthe Wohlfahrt during our visit to fall visit Bruges but left this store underwhelmed.
At first, we joked about Käthe Wohlfahrt being everywhere. She was a friendly, familiar face we would see at Christmas markets. We would jokingly call out, “oh, Käthe is here!” But then we made the mistake of going inside a Kathe pop-up shop in one of the cities.
As you know, we like to collect Christmas ornaments from each city we visit. And surprisingly enough, we found it difficult at some of the Christmas markets to find Christmas ornaments. So before we knew it, we went into every Käthe pop-up shop during the Christmas markets. We even caved and bought a few hand-painted glass-blown ornaments, too. In Berlin, we limited ourselves to only buying a replacement ornament for one we accidentally broke and a Berlin-specific ornament. But the Berlin ornament is made from wood, so we are less likely to break it than the others!
ENJOYING THE CUISINE
No trip to Berlin would be complete without trying the local cuisine. After all, Berlin is the birthplace of our favorite street food meal, the doner-kabab. The traditional meal, made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie and served on a plate, originated from Turkey. One guy in Berlin transformed this sit-down meal into a hand-held takeaway item by stuffing the meat into a flatbread wrap and respelling it to be the kebap. And the portions are enormous! It may be a quick meal, but it’s enough food to last an entire day.
For our dinner Saturday night in Berlin, we took a chance at going to a popular Belgian restaurant, Schnitzelei Mitte, without a reservation. Typically, we like to make reservations for convenience. But for this trip, we planned what to do and see by the hour and decided to wing it.
We walked to the restaurant tucked away off the main road in a little garden. Two people walked up in front of us without a reservation and the hostess seated them right away. A promising sign, we thought. Unfortunately for us, that was the last available table! When we asked for a table, and the hostess said it wasn’t possible, we initially thought she was joking.
Generally, in many countries in Europe, once someone reserves a table, the restaurant holds it for the entire night. There’s not the same table-turning mentality as in the US, as the staff does not work on tips. But after talking to the hostess for a few minutes, we must have appeared helpless as she advised us to return around 9 pm. We ended up with a dinner reservation after all!
We wandered away from the restaurant to look for a bar with some time to kill. There was a tiny bar not too far way on the corner of the main street street. As it turns out, this bar was home to the oldest beer tap in Berlin. We love unique places like this and proudly drank our local tap beer that (maybe) came from the oldest beer tap in Berlin. When we returned to the restaurant at 9 pm, the meal (and complimentary Berliner Weisse beer) was worth the wait!
As we made our way to the airport, we had to get in one last delicacy, the tangy but not overpowering currywurst. This simple meal consists of sliced sausage covered with a sauce made from tomato paste and curry powder and served alongside fries. While still somewhat full from the kebap we ate earlier, the currywurst was a delicious snack to hold us over for the evening.
As we revisit cities I first experienced when I was eighteen, like Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, I realize my idea of what I thought the cities were versus what they actually are, does not align. I recognize I was almost half the age I am now and had a limited view of what life really was. I don’t think I could mentally comprehend the horrors that went on in some of the cities, like Berlin.
I’m incredibly thankful for my first trip to Europe with my church’s youth choir, as it influenced my reality of the world as I saw what life was like outside of the United States. It fueled my passion for travel, and these experiences have helped shape who I am today. And I’m equally thankful to have the opportunity to revisit these places, so I can continue to learn about history first-hand. We loved visiting Berlin and would recommend it as a place to see for a couple of days!
P.S. Did you like the title of this post? Weekend at [Ber(li)n]ie’s, get it?