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Berlin 201: Beyond Berlin's "Greatest Hits." A Trip Report.

A friend and I spent 10 nights in Berlin in early May. This was our third May in a row to spend at least 8 nights in the city. The two previous years, we started in Berlin and then moved on to other places in Germany and Austria (2016 and 2017 trip reports). This time, the trip was limited to Berlin. Since we had hit many of Berlin’s top spots in the previous two trips, we were able to visit some less-visited sites this time.

Resource for Planning

The main resource used for planning this year’s trip was The Rough Guide to Berlin, which is EXCELLENT. I will offer thanks to Fred for directing me to it. The guide was supplemented with the Atlas Obscura website, the Going Local Berlin app created by Visit Berlin, this forum, and numerous other websites.

Lodging

We once again stayed at mittendrin, a 4-bedroom establishment located in a flat in the former West Berlin near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The owner calls it a “boutique hotel;” I call it the world’s greatest B&B. The building was built in the early 1900’s and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin during WWII; solemnly, there are 6 Stolpersteine at the entrance to the building. The flat itself has been wonderfully updated while maintaining its historical character. The owner Sabine is a former stage actress and a vivacious, gracious, lovely hostess. Breakfasts are unbelievably wonderful with many healthy options and are shared with Sabine and the other guests around a communal table. Mittendrin is a very, very special place to stay in Berlin.

Memorable Restaurants

Yarok is a Syrian restaurant that has two locations in Berlin. Both locations serve very good Syrian food at a reasonable cost in simple digs.

Momos a vegetarian dumpling place in the northern part of Mitte that makes 6 varieties of dumplings that are served steamed, skillet fried, or in soup. My friend and I went for the 24-dumpling plate for two people (2 of each dumpling fried and 2 of each steamed + 3 sauces). It was pretty pleasurable sitting at the outdoor table, guessing which dumpling we were about to eat and then being delighted by whatever we chose.

Kid Creole is a Cajun/Creole restaurant (!) in Friedrichshagen that we noticed on Google Maps as we plotted our path from the Köpenick Hbf to the Friedrichshagen Hbf. The restaurant was incredibly cute and full of ambiance. It also had excellent food – think Creole with a healthy European twist.

The Itinerary

I’m going to write this so that each day’s major activities are bolded for anyone who may want just to skim what we did. Details/thoughts/reflections will be in regular type under each day.

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Day 1 – Rathaus Schöneberg. Wandering through Schöneberg. The Kammergericht.

Want to hear a great speech? Watch JFK’s 10-minute speech in Berlin. You will understand the Ich bin ein Berliner line and will never fall prey to the urban legend that there was chuckling about JFK calling himself a jelly doughnut (plus you get to see one of my favorite historical figures, Lucius Clay). The speech was delivered in front of Rathaus Schöneberg, which has an impressive façade, along with internal features that are a real treasure; I’m guessing the inside looks similar to its appearance when JFK walked its halls. In the back of the building, there is an exhibition entitled Wir waren Nachbarn (We were neighbors), which has 159 biographical sketches of Jewish residents of Schöneberg (including Albert Einstein) who were impacted by the rise of the Third Reich – some (children) were sent to live with relatives in other countries, some emigrated, some were murdered in death camps. It’s a sobering but pretty amazing collection that is primarily in German. The desk worker heard my friend and I talking in English and brought us English translations of selected biographies. After we left the Rathaus, we passed through Heinrich-Lassen-Park (which has a playground that is so cool that I wished I were a kid, so I could go play on it) on our way to get a Döner at Rüyam Gemüse Kebab, which, rightfully so, appears on many “Best Döner” lists for its chicken Gemüse Kebab (€3,90). Our post-dinner walk led us past David Bowie’s old flat and on to the Kammergericht building, which houses several courts, including the Berlin Superior Court. The building’s long history includes being the home of the Volksgerichtshof and the post-war Allied Control Council, which was not officially dissolved until after German reunification.

Day 2 – Berlin Zoo. Classical Concert at the Konzerthaus.

We were scheduled to do a tour that included the former US spy station at Teufelsberg that has been taken over by squatters and converted into a show place for street art. But… the facility was apparently closed temporarily for safety reasons, so we decided to go to the Berlin Zoo instead. The most interesting thing at the zoo for me? The exhibition in the antelope house on the history of the zoo, of course, including an honest assessment of the Nazi years when the Zoo was directed by committed Nazi Lutz Heck (featured in the film The Zookeeper’s Wife), who ended up living a fairly charmed post-war life, writing prolifically about animals/hunting and receiving the German Hunting Association’s Literature Award in the 1970’s for his life’s work. As for the Konzerthaus, The Great Hall is absolutely gorgeous and a great place to see a concert.

Day 3 – Breakfast at Café Einstein Stammhaus. Skype meeting for work. DDR Museum.

We were the only guests in the B&B this morning, so we gave the owner the morning off and went to Café Einstein Stammhaus for breakfast, after a great experience there last year. The environment remains old-school Berlin and quite nice; the food this time was merely ok. After breakfast, we walked around a little and then headed back to the B&B, so I could Skype into a work meeting. For the afternoon, we hit the DDR Museum near Museum Island. It’s quite interactive and “fun;” one departs this museum fairly happy (which a for-profit museum probably desires/needs). I particularly liked the area of the museum that is set up like an old DDR flat. The FKK exhibit was a little unexpected!

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Day 4 – Berggruen Museum. Siemensstadt (Siemens City), including Großsiedlung Siemensstadt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We had a late-morning tour of the Berggruen Museum with Jason Benedict from Context Travel. The Museum contains the art collection of Heinz Berggruen, a Jewish resident of Germany who left the country in 1936 as the National Socialists rose to power. He spent some time in the US as a journalist and later became a gallery owner/art dealer in Paris. He counted Picasso among his friends and the museum’s collection includes more than 120 works by Picasso, plus a nice collection of Paul Clee’s work, along with works of a few other “modernist masters.” I have to admit that I went more because I was intrigued by the collector’s story than because of a desire to see the art. In fact, I knew I would be stretching myself a little (or perhaps a lot) by exploring the art in this museum; after all, I grew up in a no-nonsense, working-class family that had little time for the frivolity of modern art. I am SO glad I did this tour – I left with a much better understanding and appreciation for Picasso and Clee due to our excellent guide, who made the art approachable and interesting. Small plug for Context Travel: Context offers tours with Master’s- and PhD-level “docents”/guides; their tours are a little more cerebral than the average tour. Group size is limited to 6, so they are more expensive than the typical tour, but I find the expertise and personal attention well worth the money. Jason, for example, is an artist and curator living in Berlin who also founded an arts foundation there. We really enjoyed our time with him and ended up going for coffee with him after the tour ended.

Next, we headed out to Siemensstadt (Siemens city), where we saw Siemens’ expansive headquarters, its memorial to its workers who died while serving in WWI & WWII, and Großsiedlung Siemensstadt, a large residential complex built in the 1920’s and 1930’s to provide housing for Siemens employees and (along with 5 other residential complexes in Berlin) a UNESCO World-Heritage Site. It represents cutting-edge architecture in the “Neues Bauen” style of the Weimar Republic. There is an information station at Goebelstraße 2; this address is also used by photographer Christian Fessel, who seems to have become the unofficial ambassador for the complex. We were fortunate to catch him working there on the day we visited. He invited us in and eagerly discussed the development with us, using a huge model on the wall to discuss the various buildings and architects. He seemed really happy to have someone there who was interested in the development.

Day 5 – Köpenick

Köpenick is a southeastern suburb of Berlin that has long been known for manufacturing. It has a rich history that includes a 1906 event that reinforced the notion that Prussians will follow anyone in a uniform and a 1933 event called the Köpenicker Blutwoche (sorry about the links – too much text if I try to explain). There is a wonderful example of socialist realism sculpture in the 23-April-Platz (the square that “celebrates” the Russians entry into Köpenick in 1945); the sculpture memorializes those who died during the Köpenicker Blutwoche, but then ties their violent deaths (and sacrifice) to peaceful, productive DDR life. The architecture in the Altstadt (old town) is great, and the gardens of Schloss Köpenick permit a peaceful walk amidst nature. Somewhat distant from the Altstadt is the Spreetunnel Friedrichshagen, a pedestrian tunnel under a river that was built in 1926. I thought it would be leaky! Or at least damp. It wasn’t. I shouldn’t doubt German engineering. I had hoped to do more hiking in the area, but my travel companion had a bum knee that limited us.

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Day 6 – Underground Berlin’s Myths of Germania Exhibition. Underground Berlin’s Dark Worlds Tour. Flakturm (anti-artillery tower) in Humboldthain Park. Walk through Mauer Park. Museum in der Kulturbrauerei.

This was a pretty packed day. We hit the Myths of Germania Exhibition, which has an enormous model of Albert Speer’s plan for the world capital Germania (Berlin). The exhibit was excellent. Then, we did the Dark Worlds tour, which takes visitors into a WWII bomb shelter that contains a variety of exhibits related to the time. It was also quite excellent. After that, we had a nice view of Berlin from atop a partially-collapsed anti-artillery tower (and bomb shelter) in Humboldthain Park, which is an excellent park in its own right. A walk through Mauer Park brought us to the Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, Berlin’s “other” DDR museum that is free. It’s a much starker presentation of the DDR than the commercial DDR museum near Museum Island. Here one does not experience so much happiness as at the other museum. Instead, one sees things like an interview done by DDR media of a DDR citizen who had asked the government to leave the DDR and to go to the West; he subsequently could only find work as a grave digger; further shaming the guy, the interview is conducted while he is digging a grave. One leaves here with a good awareness of the lives of DDR dissenters.

Day 7 – German Resistance Memorial Center. Context Travel tour, “From Bauhaus to Futurism: Berlin’s 20th Century Architecture.” Dinner at the TV Tower.

This day started with a planned 1-hour visit to the German Resistance Memorial Center. For me, this ended up being too little time. The museum is packed full of information and worthy of more time. We pulled ourselves away, though, so that we could meet our next Context Travel guide, Jasmine, on time. She gave us an excellent walking tour of 20th century architecture in Berlin. We then headed to the TV Tower for dinner. Touristy? Absolutely. But the views are pretty amazing, and the food is actually quite good.

Day 8 – Checking out some Prenzlauer Berg shops. Tour of the abandoned Spreepark theme park for a mere 5€. Wonderful dinner at momo’s, a vegetarian dumpling restaurant.

We hit a few shops in Prenzlauer Berg that we could not hit on Day 6 due to a German holiday. Places like VEB Orange (a store that sells DDR goods/products) and Onkel Phillipp’s Spielzeugwerkstatt (a second-hand toy store). After that, we headed to the Plänterwald, where he had a 90-minute tour of an abandoned theme park, Freizeit Spreepark in Plänterwald. The tour was a mere 5 euro. I found it super cool and snapped lots of pictures; my travel companion was not such a big fan but said she enjoyed the natural surroundings.

Day 9 – Potsdam, including Cecilienhof (site of the Potsdam Conference at the conclusion of WWII), the Dutch Quarter, and the Sanssouci gardens.

I hit Potsdam a few years ago but just wandered around outside Cecilienhof. This time I took the self-guided tour inside. This history buff totally loved it. Many of the rooms used during the Potsdam conference have been left the way they were at the end of the conference. The round table and chairs are still in the room that was used by the Allied leaders (minus France, which was not invited) during the conference. It was really, really great. The Dutch Quarter is definitely full of Dutch architecture and shopping (groan), though I did find a great little pottery store there with German-made items. The original plan for this day was to get started on the 66-Seen Wanderung (the 66 Sea Hiking Trail), a 17-stage, 400+ km trail that goes around Berlin. Stage 1 goes from Potsdam to Marquardt. My companion’s bum knee put this on hold for this year.

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Day 10 – Lunch with a fellow RS Travel Forum member. Invalidenfriedhof. Revolverheld concert.

I met a fellow RS Travel Forum member for lunch in Berlin, and then we headed out to the Invalidenfriedhof, a Prussian cemetery in Berlin, where I received some excellent history lessons while standing at the foot of the graves of the men in the lessons. There is also a plaque in the cemetery marking a mass grave of Berlin women and children killed in a WWII air raid, which was pretty sobering. The 2018 Berlin trip closed with a very fun concert at Lido, a small venue in Kreuzberg. Revolverheld usually plays in arenas and headlines outdoor festivals, but they happened to be doing a “club tour” throughout Germany in May to support the release of their latest album. I stumbled on the website at the right time to get 2 of the 500 or so tickets for Berlin. What luck! Great, great show. No opening act. Hopefully, I will see them on their 2019 arena tour in Bremen!

Day 11 -- Departure.

Flew out of Tegel to begin the journey back to the good ol’ USA.

Reflection

I really love Berlin. The history. The art. The music. The people. The variety of quarters/neighborhoods within the city. I also enjoyed getting out to some of the suburbs, where life seems a little slower (and there are fewer car horns being honked!). Once again, there were a bunch of things on my list that I didn’t get a chance to do. Guess I have to return next May????

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Sounds like me and my affair with Budapest for the past 3 years in May. I had considered Berlin for my second city this year but ultimately chose Munich, so your report is a strong incentive to make Berlin happen next year. I also enjoy getting out of the mainstream and into smaller neighborhoods/suburbs, feels like I'm really seeing and experiencing life in that city rather than skimming the surface as a tourist. Thank you for a great report!

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This city has many layers and you could spend a lot of time there and never discover it all. Just like Paris, London, and Rome. Good for you for returning to go the next layer down. My wife and I were in Berlin for four nights (three full days) at the same time--our stay was May 10-14. Thanks for your report and glad you had a great trip!

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great report, I loved the detail and the clear writing. Berlin has been on my must-do list for so long, it's ridiculous. The one and only time I was there was in 1977, the year I was an exchange student, and the trip into the DDR was very scary. I imagine it all looks just a bit different! Thanks again for the captivating trip report.

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@Nelly... A handful of people have given me their stories of visiting the DDR in the 70's. I understand it was quite stark. I would love to hear a little more about your visit in 1977, if you have time to share.

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Thanks for sharing your list of interesting restaurants. Hopfully I can try out some of them next week.

May I share one of my favourite places: Joseph Roth Diele, Potsdamer Straße 75, in the house in which the Austrian author Joseph Roth ("Radetzkymarsch" "Die Kapuzinergruft") lived during his Berlin years in the twenties.

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sla019,

Thanks for the recommendation. That place looks really cool, and the Speisekarte is awesome -- lots of German favorites at reasonable prices. It's saved to my Berlin folder for the next trip. Thanks again.

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Dave, excellent report. But did Sabine ever fuss at you or your friend for not eating enough at breakfast?

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Richard--

I laughed out loud at your post. Yes, Sabine did "encourage" us to eat well at breakfast. I approached it as a 4-course breakfast: the egg course, the salad course, the yogurt with fruit and Muesli course, and the bread with cheese/cold cuts/jam course (she taught me how to eat this course the German way). We shot down the sweet course early in the stay. With the hearty breakfast, though, we skipped lunch.

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@ Dave...very nice and interesting report. On the event in Köpenick and the deference to the uniform referred to above, see the classic film on that incident, "Der Hauptmann von Köpenick," based on C. Zuckmayer's play, with Heinz Rühmann as "der Hauptmann" and, in particular, on the deference the scene where he comes out of the public WC at the station. All in all it is really a rather sad film.

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Fred,

Der Hauptmann von Köpenick is on my list of movies to see. I need to get a European DVD player so I can watch older movies like that one that are not available on subscriber services like Amazon (I canceled Netflix... never watched it).

Remember saying that your last memory of German rock was the Scorpions? They're on a world tour!