Bliss and Jude on Museum Island

Before we arrived in Berlin, we read that it had recently become the third most visited city in Europe, ahead of Rome, but still behind London and Paris.  Now having seen it, we can see why.

First, there is history everywhere.  Is there a city in the world where more happened in the 20th Century?  We can’t think of one.  From the Berlin Wall, to a lot of interesting monuments and exhibits detailing Germany’s shameful Nazi past (and those Germans brave enough to stand up to the Third Reich) there is a lot to see here.  More than history, Berlin has art by the bucket load to offer visitors.  There are obvious places to look for art in Berlin (for instance, Museum Island), but there were also modern art exhibits everywhere, including in the neighborhood where we stayed, Prenzlauer Berg, and also on walls (including the famous one) where many graffiti artists have plied their trade in the form of some fairly impressive murals.

With so much to see and do, and with surprisingly affordable prices (more on that below), Berlin qualifies as a great place to visit.  Because it has a first-rate public transportation system and everyone speaks English, Berlin is also very easy to navigate.  (We had worried about showing up at the airport without a child seat for the taxi; we needn’t have.  The taxi dispatch officer, who spoke good English, turned away the first cab that tried to pick us up without a car seat, got on his radio, and then one with a car seat showed up in several minutes, capping off a smooth day that started in Tallinn, and included a 12-hour pit-stop in Copenhagen.)

Visiting the Berlin Wall

Among the many interesting sights that we visited in Berlin, the one that made the biggest impression on us was the Topography of Terror, which is a permanent exhibit built on a lot in Central Berlin that once housed the headquarters of the SS and Gestapo.   The exhibit contains many fascinating photographs and documents detailing Hitler’s rise to power and then the terror wrought onto the world by the Third Reich.  The exhibit itself is remarkably candid, and does little to sugarcoat the country’s role in WWII.  (Bliss and I have both spent time in Japan—she lived there for a total of 15 months, and I lived there for a total of four—and both of us felt that the Japanese, in their public forums, were far less forthright about the atrocities that their country committed during the war.)


The Topography of Terror is adjacent to a stretch of the Berlin Wall that we took the opportunity to visit, and is also near a great currywurst stand, on Wilhelm and Leipzig Streets.  (Currywurst is a popular and delicious Germany fast food, which consists of sliced grilled pork sausage covered in spicy ketchup and dusted with curry powder.)

Another highlight of our stay in Berlin was having dinner at the home of Bliss’ first-cousin-once-removed (her mom’s first cousin) Lucy, and Lucy’s German husband, Gunther.  Lucy cooked us a fantastic lamb dinner with potatoes, and apple crumble for dessert.  Jude was thoroughly entertained, for the entire evening, by the Brio train set Lucy’s children had once played with.  Best of all, Lucy drove us home on the Autobahn, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.

As alluded to above, one thing that surprised us about Berlin was how affordable it was (especially compared with some of the countries we had recently visits; I’m thinking of Russia, Finland, and Denmark).  Because we were concerned about high prices, we had scheduled only four days in Berlin.  If we had realized that the prices wouldn’t be so bad, we would have stayed longer, and maybe traveled to some other parts of Germany as well.

Some considerations about where to stay in Berlin: as noted, we stayed in Prenzlauer Berg, which is a very residential neighborhood just under two miles northeast of Central Berlin, in an apartment that we found on Airbnb.  We chose this neighborhood, not really knowing what we were doing, because we read that it was the “in” place in New York magazine, and a Berliner quoted in the article said that, “Staying in that area, immediately you’re an insider.”  OK, so we’re pretty lame.  In any event, having to do it over again, we would still stay in Prenzlauer Berg.  The downside is that it is quite far from the main tourist sights, such as Museum Island, and requires a subway ride, so if sightseeing is your priority, then it’s probably not the best place to stay.  However, by staying in Prenzlauer Berg, we felt that we got a sense of how real Berliners lived.  The good cafes and restaurants were non-rip offs and crowded with people speaking German.  (Staying in an apartment, for our purposes, is far preferable to staying in a hotel.  We like having access to laundry machines and kitchens; it is also nice not to have to tip-toe around a single room during nap time.  On top of that, renting an apartment is usually cheaper than a hotel room.)

Playground in Prenzlauer Berg

On our last day, we opted not to go into Central Berlin at all, and instead wandered around the neighborhood, grabbing a currywurst, getting Jude’s haircut, and spending some quality time at the Kollwitzplatz farmers market and playground.  While Bliss and Jude napped in the afternoon, I walked over to the nearby Mauer Park, a not-so beautiful, but somehow endearing, neighborhood park (which will remind New Yorkers of Williamsburg’s McCarren Park), containing a stretch of the Wall showcasing a lot of locals’ graffiti, which is permitted under park/city rules.




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