Berlin and Dresden trip, September 2012

I went with my mother to Berlin and Dresden (4 nights in Berlin at Hotel Pension Kastanienhof, 3 nights in Dresden at the Ibis Lilienstein, and 3 nights back in Berlin at Pension Peters). The trip was mostly planned with Rick Steves Germany. In addition, while it was my mother's first trip to Germany, I had previously been to Berlin in 1999 and 2004, and to Dresden in 2004 (different trip). We had a wonderful trip. Rather than giving minute-by-minute details, I'll try to focus on what could be useful to others. My impressions of Air Berlin are on this thread elsewhere on this board. Summary: they were fine, and I'd fly them again. Hotel impressions: Kastanienhof negatives: WiFi is only in lobby; rooms have only wired internet (fine for me with a netbook, but not for those with tablets/smartphones/iPods only).
Kastanienhof positives: everything else! Wonderful and helpful staff, great breakfast (most diverse of three hotels we stayed at), right at a tram stop, a few blocks from Oderberger Strasse with a great collection of wonderful and inexpensive restaurants, elevator in hotel (although our rooms were up a few stairs from the elevator, and there are stairs to get to the lobby, so it's not suitable for someone unable to do a few stairs). For a single room, it was very well laid out, and it was the only one of our three hotels with grab bars in the shower and with a magnifying mirror (both important to my mother). Continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. We'd both stay at the Hotel Kastanienhof again. A Rick Steves tour was there for part of our stay, so if you want to stay there, book early. Ibis negatives: no Internet in room; pay Internet computers (not cheap) in lobby. The immediate neighborhood had mediocre food options. Ibis positives: short walk to train station, and not far from several different tram stops. Good breakfast (10 euros extra with our particular hotels.com rate; included in other rates). Air conditioning with individual controls in each room (symbols only on the control, no words; luckily I could figure them out, as my mother was unable to). Nicely laid out room. Staff was very helpful We stayed here because smaller Dresden hotels were booked. I'd still try for one of these, but would stay at the Ibis again if none were available (I stayed at the Ibis Bastei on my last trip, and so knew what to expect). continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Pension Peters negatives: No elevator. This became important because my mother injured her leg, and having to go up and down stairs was not comfortable. Some of the hallways in the older section (where I stayed) have lights that have to be turned on with a switch (they are not on all the time). Having stayed in an old Berlin pension before, I knew how to do this, but it was NOT explained at check-in, and should have been. The newer section, where my mother stayed, had motion sensors to turn on the hallway lights. TV a little hard to use (again, I figured it out - eventually). No phone in the room (we had to buy local SIM cards so we could call each other affordably). Pension Peters positives: Very helpful staff who take pride in making sure you get the most out of your stay. Good breakfast. WiFi in room (although you need to sign in every time you use it; I know this is more secure, but it was also annoying). Near very nice neighborhood with a variety of restaurants on and around Bleibtreustrasse, and a few blocks from the Savignyplatz S-Bahn stop. Good value for money. I'd stay at Pension Peters again, but do recognize that it is a pension and not a hotel. The desk is staffed only during the day. It was a good value, but not quite as "hotel-esque" as some would want (the Kastanienhof was more "hotel-like"). One other thing about Pension Peters: even more than the Kastanienhof, sometimes the breakfast room looks like a Rick Steves convention. If this bothers you for any reason, stay elsewhere <g>. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Things that struck us about Berlin that were surprises to one or both of us on this trip: 1. It's very low rise. Yes, there's some new skyscrapers, and some older buildings that got called "skyscrapers" but aren't really that big (I'm talking about the Europa Center, all of 21 stories but described by some as though it were 121 stories). But most of the buildings are only a few stories tall. 2. It's very spread out and spacious feeling. It has over 3 million people, but they're spread out over an area 8 times the size of Paris (or so I've read). It certainly doesn't feel as dense as Paris or New York. 3. It's very green. I've read that 1/3 of the city is some form of "greenery" (parks, water, etc), and this certainly seems true. Moreover, tree-lined streets are the rule rather than the exception. 4. Many old buildings, of various vintages, are either still standing or reconstructed to look as they did before the war, and are then intermingled with new buildings. It's not done in a "theme park" way either, but the mix of old and new feels "authentic" (I realize these are all very loaded words; what I mean is, it feels neither like "Berlin land at EPCOT" old nor "Blade Runner" new). 5. It's very mellow. This was the biggest and most delightful surprise to my mother. The combination of space, low buildings, trees, and a helpful and polite populace all combined to make a big city that was not nearly as frenetic or "busy" as New York or Philadelphia (her points of reference). She loved the laid-back attitudes. Now, for those from small cities or towns, this distinction may be lost (we met people who were quite frazzled by Berlin), but we found it relaxing. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Some of my prior impressions about Berlin, and why I respond so strongly to it, are on This thread elsewhere on this board (scroll down about halfway). There were many impressive sights in Berlin. Particular highlights: We both loved the German History Museum, the DDR Museum, the Aquarium (a particular surprise for me; I had seen the zoo on a prior trip and thought it was only OK, but the Aquarium was really great) and the Bernauer Strasse section of the Berlin Wall (a particular surprise for my mother; she mostly went to please me, but the two films in the visitors center held her interest as much as mine, and best of all, it's free). The Botanical Garden was nice, but very poorly signed (starting with figuring out how to get there from the S-Bahn, and continuing inside). A two hour double-decker tour bus ride for 10 euros each was a great start to our trip, and a boat ride from Schlossbruecke to Jannowitzbruecke for 15 euros each was a great way to end it. The Hackescher Hoefe were interesting (not as much as I had hoped, though). The only real disappointment in Berlin was the Gemaeldegalerie. After the one in Dresden, which exceeded expectations, this one had a few good paintings, but mostly second rate works by famous artists (or, more likely, their workshops), many in need of restoration. Overall, both of us look forward to returning to Berlin. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Dresden impressions: while we liked the sights we saw there, neither of us were taken with the city as a whole, and don't need to return. Part of that may have been her leg injury, part of it may be our hotel neighborhood, but part of it was the city itself. The Altstadt is very much "Dresden land at Epcot" and the part of the Neustadt that Rick recommends walking around (the only part we got to see on this trip), the area near Goerlitzerstrasse and Luisenstrasse, struck my mother as irredeemable scuzzy (it didn't bother me as much, but didn't impress, either). While it's impressive that they've reconstructed the Frauenkirche and other buildings, they didn't hit either of us emotionally or aesthetically (different strokes, I know). We were very impressed with the Historic Green Vault; unless you really like this sort of stuff, though, we'd say you can skip the New Green Vault. As I said above, the Gemaeldegalerie exceeded expectations; not the Sistine Madonna, but so many of the other paintings. We were particularly blown away by the unusual still lifes by Frans Snyder, which were anything but still, as they included lions, dogs, people, and all kinds of drama - wild. We also enjoyed the Hygiene Museum. On my last trip, I had seen the porcelain collection in the Zwinger, and liked it a lot, too. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. From Dresden, we took a daytrip to Goerlitz (very easy, and cheap with a SaxonTicket). We followed Rick's suggested walk, and even crossed the footbridge into Poland (so now we can both say we've "been to Poland"). It's lovely - a mini-Prague in style, without crowds. We also had a wonderful meal there at the Restaurant Nachbar on the Untermarkt. My mother had a salad topped with mixed bird livers, and I had a stew of potatoes and hot dog-like sausages. I know neither of these sound particularly appetizing, but they were delicious. We then went to the Landeskrone by tram, but just missed the hourly bus to the top (it leaves at 15 minutes after the hour, and even though our tram was just arriving then, it didn't wait). However, the ride out was interesting. Since Goerlitz is a small town, you can see the transition from central old city to inner suburbs (fancy apartments built around 1900 for wealthy people) to single family homes to almost rural, all in 15 minutes. Many European cities have a similar progression, but not nearly as compressed. If you're in Dresden, I highly recommend the side trip to Goerlitz (it's far from anywhere else in Germany). continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Trains: we took a large variety, all fine and on time. One tip I had got from various Internet sources, that I'll "pay forward" to others: if you know your train days and times, and it's not a regional route, get tickets in advance. We saved a lot this way on our Berlin to Dresden and Dresden to Berlin runs. What I hadn't known is that while full fare tickets are per person, the advance tickets have a discount for two traveling together. It was 19 euros for one person in advance, 29 euros for two in advance, and 38 euros per person (so 76 euros for two) full fare. We printed our ticket and presented the ticket and credit card; the conductor swiped the card and scanned the code, and we were set. Amusingly, since I actually bought the ticket, it was in my name only, and was good for me and one other person (not named); we had fun joking that my mother was my "plus one." One tip I got from this Helpline that I hadn't known before and I'm very glad I followed, so I'll emphasize it: Even though reservations are not required on German trains, they are a VERY GOOD IDEA. Our Berlin to Dresden and Dresden to Berlin trains actually started in Hamburg and ended in Budapest, and went through (among other places) Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. In other words, they were quite the Central Europe Express, and our return from Dresden was particularly crowded (it was an old-fashioned "compartment" layout, and people were standing in the passageway). Without reservations, we would never have gotten two seats together with space for our luggage. So, well worth the 4 euros per person, per trip. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Language: I speak some German, but can have trouble understanding it (particularly spoken rapidly or in quantity, such as more than a sentence at a time). My mother can understand much more German than me (she spoke Yiddish with her grandmother as a child, which helps tremendously), but was quite fearful of speaking, lest she make a mistake (I tried to reassure her that no one cared, but she is a perfectionist in languages and worried). However, most of the time there was enough English for our needs. We did have some German-only menus, and there were some situations where our German was handy (that Goerlitz restaurant comes to mind), but an English-only speaker should not have any problems, and it would not impede their enjoyment of the places we saw (and I don't say this about every place). Food: we had good food all over the place, all reasonably priced. The only problem would be for someone looking for stereotypical "German" food (the kind that should come with oompah band accompaniment). We didn't see much of this on offer where we went, and it didn't interest us, so we didn't seek it out. We had Turkish, Vietnamese, Singapore, Italian, wraps...and all were delicious. Again, even if you're not staying near them, Oderberger Strasse (in the former East, near Prenzlauer Berg, at the Schwedterstrasse stop on the M1 or 12 trams) and Bleibtreustrasse (in the former West, right near Savignyplatz S-Bahn stop and a few blocks from the Uhlandstrasse U-Bahn stop) are great places to look at a variety of restaurants, patronized mostly by people who live in the respective neighborhoods. continued..

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

continued.. Phones: we had not planned to need to make many calls, so we started with our T-Mobile US prepaid plans, which roamed to T-Mobile DE at a rate of $1.50 a minute to send or receive, and texts as $0.50 to send, $0.10 to receive. We ended up not using this at all, as we were together most of the time, and our first two hotels had phones in the room so we could call each other (to coordinate schedules, etc). But in the Pension Peters, there were no phones in the rooms, and our rooms were in separate sections of the pension, separated by locked doors only opened with room keys from that section, so we couldn't even knock on each other's doors. Furthermore, the desk is not staffed after 6 PM or so; there was an emergency number listed in the book in each room, but no way to call it without your own phone. So, we decided to get local SIM cards (luckily, we both had unlocked quad band GSM phones). Vodaphone wanted 45 euros for a SIM with 45 euros of credit; a fair deal for someone staying a while, but a fortune for just a few days. Luckily, T-Mobile had a great deal: 10 euros for a SIM with 10 euros of credit, and rates of 5 cents per minute or text to send to other T-Mobile phones, 15 cents per minute or text to non-T-Mobile phones, and 0 (yes, free) to receive from anyone. While we each used less than a euro of this, it was great for the convenience and peace of mind. That's all I can think of for now (and I think that's enough, period). Overall, a great trip!

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Great trip report, Harold! And yeah, I don't really think Berlin is the best place for "traditional German food" either - but it's a great place to eat cheaply and internationally!

Posted by Anna
Lawrenceville, Georgia
692 posts

Thoroughly enjoyed your report, Harold! Thank you for taking the time to go into detail. Dresden is on my itinerary for next year; I've never been there and perhaps am expecting a little too much from my upcoming visit (even though it's the capital of my home state of Saxony, I've never had the opportunity before to see it). I want to visit the museums, go to Meissen and especially, take an Elbe river cruise into Saxon Switzerland (also known as Elbsandsteingebirge or Saechsische Schweiz); now I wont be disappointed if the city ambience is missing. I've been to Berlin several times, before and after the wall came down. It's a great city, isn't it!

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Since you linked to this I reread it and still think it might be one of the most helpful and informative trip reports written here! And I wanted to note: You talk about how Berlin feels low-rise, and it did to me too, but on my most recent trip one of my traveling companions was a young German guy from Freiburg who'd never been to Berlin, an MAN you should have seen his face at Potsdamerplatz. He was just staring up, up, up, and was quite vocal in how impressed he was at the skyscrapers and the "big city feel" of Berlin. I guess compared to most cities in Germany... to me, it's also a "relaxing" urban area without the hussle and bustle. Meanwhile my Danish friend and Dutch friend thought it was way too big and while they enjoyed visiting said they couldn't stand to live there. Funny to me.

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2821 posts

Sarah: Thanks for the plug! Yes, different strokes indeed. "If we all liked the same places - they'd get awfully crowded." So, we'll just enjoy Berlin ourselves, and let others go elsewhere.

Posted by Irene
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
8 posts

Harold
Great information. I will plan on getting Rick Steve's book on Germany. You really gave me such great detailed information. I am very much looking forward to our trip in Sept 2013.

Posted by Pamela
New York City, NY, USA
3296 posts

Good to hear that the Hotel Pension Kastanienhof is still serving a great breakfast! I stayed there before and during a Rick Steves tour and really liked the hotel. Pam

Posted by David
Florence, AL, USA
1960 posts

Thanks for the report on these two great cities. My relatives quickly left Dresden one night in November, 1938. They were on the last U.S. ship departing Hamburg before the German military closed the harbor. Sailing into New York Harbor and Ellis Island on Thanksgiving Day, 1938 to start a new life in New York City was a thrill. Going from being a wealthy silk importer to running the concessions at the Metropolitan Opera was an adjustment.
Dresden was indeed the most beautiful city in the world until the Allied Forces intensely bombed the city at the end of the war in retribution for all the atrocities discovered by the ground forces. They've rebuilt some of the city, and much of their art has finally been brought home. There's still much to see and do there.

Posted by Jaye
Dallas, OR, USA
99 posts

Hello Harold, I just read your report, such great and helpful information! We plan on visiting Berlin next year and I have already started my research. I will be copying a lot of your info. to my notes. Thank you so much, enjoyed reading it! Happy Travels!