Several weeks later, it's time to delve right into our Berlin Trip Report The weeks following our trip to Europe were absolutely hectic, leaving me with not enough time to post here. I finally managed to post about the first half of our trip last month - 4 Days in Paris: March 2017 Trip Report. Now it's time for the second half: Our 4 Days in Berlin trip report!
Arriving in Berlin
Having left our Paris apartment, we took an uneventful (in the best sense of the word!) Easyjet flight to Schonefeld airport in Berlin. A local airport taxi got us to our destination in half an hour: The Novotel hotel in Mitte.
We usually opt for cheaper options but at a hundred euros a night, the Novotel put us in the middle of the highly recommended Mitte quarter. Since it also had great reviews, I decided to reduce travel times within the city and enjoy a nice hotel experience. Our room was really nice, everything seemed brand new and well-maintained and the service was friendly and helpful. So, overall, thumbs up for the Novotel.
We arrived in Berlin on Tuesday and spent the evening meeting up with a friend in her home, having a nice dinner. Nothing too touristy so I'll start our report with the first full day in Berlin.
Berlin Trip Report Day 1: Wednesday, March 29th
We woke up to a nice cool gray day. A welcome break from the hot days of Paris. We left our hotel and headed West. The The Mitte Novotel is in the formerly eastern part of the city, so we were excited to cross the Berlin wall for the first time and then walk along it all the way to Checkpoint Charlie.
Visiting Checkpoint Charlie
Of course, nearly all of the wall is really easy to cross these days. In fact you can step right on it -
Near Checkpoint Charlie we got to see a few pieces of the wall and learn more about it in the open air display -
We actually spent a while going over the display. The kids were anxious to get to the nearby McDonalds so we skipped the paid exhibition nearby, stopping just for a quick photo with a piece of the original Berlin wall.
Of course, there was Checkpoint Charlie itself to cross to get into the McDonalds. The reconstruction of the checkpoint itself was nice, with "soldiers" in costumes available if you wanted to have your photo taken.
I thought it was interesting how they had McDonalds right by the checkpoint, on the formerly eastern side of Berlin. I guess that clarifies who won the cold war, ha?
From Potsdamer Platz to Museum Island
We kept walking west until we reached Potsdamer Platz. This square was a no man's land for years, a symbol of the price divided Berlin was paying. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Potsdamer Platz was rebuilt and given its current - very modern - look.
We headed north from there until we reached the Holocaust Memorial where we spent a while, walking among the concrete blocks. We didn't get into the visitors center, choosing not to overwhelm the kids with the displays. Insteads we paid our respects, admiring the unique memorial.
We reached the nearby Brandenburg Gate and crossed it, this time heading back east, back towards Museum Island.
Visiting the Pergamon Museum
Following an online recommendation, we had purchased a three-day museum pass in the airport. As it turns out, this wasn't necessary in March. The line at the airport was much more slow compared to the ones at the museums. We also discovered that we had to stand in those lines anyway because our sons are under 18. They got in for free but we had to queue to get that free pass for them...
We started with the Pergamon museum. The main display was the reconstruction of one of the entrances to a city in ancient Babylon. We spent about an hour walking from one point to the other, taking in everything the audio guide had to tell about the place.
Overall, the Pergamon doesn't compare to the British Museum (which we had visited several times in the past). It's smaller and there are fewer exhibits. However the colorful street reconstruction is very impressive and was well worth the visit. Other displays were interesting as well but at that point the kids were getting tired. We split up with me taking them back to the hotel and their Dad exploring more of the Pergamon. He continued with the nearby Alte Museum to check the Greek and Roman collections. He reported that they were "okay".
Berlin Trip Report Day 2: Thursday, March 30th
Our day started with a nice short walk to the DDR museum, located right by the Museum Island, five minutes away from our hotel.
A glimpse of life in Eastern Germany
The DDR Museum had varied interactive displays about life behind the iron curtain. They covered every aspect of daily life. Food, clothes, school, vacations, cars, homes and of course the behind-the-scenes workings of The Party and its infamous security services, the Stasi.
You could even try on the latest communist fashion. Just pick the item from the wardrobe in the bedroom and you see yourself wearing it on the computer screen.
We spent a couple of hours in the DDR museum. It's not huge but there is a lot to see and do. It was fairly crowded too but not to the point of preventing us from enjoying the displays.
Visiting the Anne Frank Center
We continued our day in the Mitte quarter by walking through the Hackescher Markt area -
Our destination was hidden away in a small alley with graffiti-covered walls -
One of the images was that of a young girl, letting us know we had arrived at the Anne Frank center in Berlin.
We climbed several flights of stairs and reached a small peaceful museum. In what was virtually one large room, one wall told the personal story of Anne Frank and her family. The opposite wall showed what had happened in Germany during the same years.
The display is low-keyed. Black and white photographs that avoid graphic images. When you're telling such a dramatic story, less is more so the overall effect was respectful and educational.
Our boys were very interested in the story. We only had half an hour to spend before meeting a friend for lunch and we made the most of it. We could have spent another half an hour there. It is a small place though so if you're working it into your itinerary, anything between 15 minutes and an hour will probably do, depending on your level of interest in the Anne Frank story.
The Berlin Cathedral
After lunch, we headed back to the Museum Island, this time to visit the Berlin Cathedral.
When I first saw pictures of the Berlin Cathedral I was sure it was one of those European super-fancy Catholic churches. I was wondering how come one would be located in East Berlin of all places. After all it is a bastion of protestantism and a formerly communist area. As it turns out, the cathedral is in fact protestant but it's still amazing that it made it through the Nazi regime and Soviet occupation.
It's a beautiful building, inside and out.
Climbing up to the roof, we got a great view of the surrounding Mitte quarter -
On the way up, you go through several exhibitions so if you're interested in the story of the Berlin Cathedral, allocate one to two hours for your visit. Don't miss out on the crypt with the grim display of coffins -
Berlin Trip Report Day 3: Friday, March 31st
Our Berlin museum passes were valid for three days and Friday was the last of those three. We decided to make the most of the cards.
Museum für Kommunikation Berlin
Our museum of choice was the Berlin Museum of Communication - Museum für Kommunikation Berlin. I think we must be spoiled when it comes to museums. Having visited so many of them in London, New York, Washington and other big cities, our expectations are exceptionally high.
This one was not the Science Museum of London but it was actually a very good museum. Several floors with exhibitions, many of which included fun interactive displays.
The museum was not busy at all so we could really take our time and enjoy everything. We spent three hours wandering among the galleries and learning about all things communication -
Most displays - though not all - had explanations in English as well as German. Three hours later, the kids said they needed a break from all "the museums". We took them back to the hotel where they anxiously hooked up to the WiFi to enjoy the wonders of modern communication systems.
The Neues Museum
We - the parents - went out to see one more museum: Neues Museum ("New Museum") where the Egyptian collections are kept. The story of the museum is as interesting as the displays. The building was heavily hit during World War 2 and the reconstructed halls and rooms preserve some of the destruction. The ancient artifacts are well worth seeing too.
Our favorite part was the prehistoric displays in the upper floor. The reconstructed neanderthal was pretty cool-
We stayed until closing time - a total of two hours - and then wandered along the streets and visited the famous Alexanderplatz before heading back to the hotel.
Berlin Trip Report Day 4: Saturday, April 1st
Our last day in Berlin!
Visiting the Reichstag Dome
I had made reservations in advance as required for our Reichstag dome visit. We showed up at 9AM, went through a quick and efficient security check and joined our group. I think the guides were German youth doing their national service. They were there just to make sure we stay with the group and get on the right elevator going up to the dome.
Once on the upper level, we were given audio guides and sent into the dome where we slowly climbed along the spiral path to the top. At certain points, the audio guide would kick in and provide an explanation on what we were seeing outside and on the reichstag building itself.
The self-guided tour was interesting and the views outside were totally worth it. We were lucky with the weather during this trip and in particular during our last day in Berlin.
The entire tour took us about an hour and we were wondering what to do next. I really wanted to check out the Story of Berlin museum. The kids really wanted to spend time outside and away from any "museums". So we compromised and hopped on a bus and went to the zoo, on the other side of Tiergarten park.
Apparently, we weren't the only family who thought the zoo could be a good destination for a sunny spring weekend day. Shocking, I know. A slow and long line of families with toddlers at the zoo gates was too much for us to handle. We left and just wandered along the Kurfürstendamm, that long and wide avenue of western Berlin. It did feel like everyone was out on, enjoying the sun in cafes and just walking along the streets.
One more museum after all!
Guess what? We ended up in the Story of Berlin Museum. Ok, so not entirely "not on purpose". At least one of our teenagers was really grouchy about this but since we had tried the zoo earlier, they agreed to tag along. The museum was interesting but it was far less interactive than I had hoped it would be. The kids found it dull and spent most of the visit sitting on a bench and playing on their phones. The adults took an hour to go through the displays, showing the story of Berlin through the ages.
As you reach the 1940's there's a sense of something ominous coming soon... the display stops at that point and you're directed to a separate part of the museum. To get there you have to go down several flights of stairs, creating the overall sensation of going down to some kind of hell... and indeed, you come out to the Nazi regime and the way it affected Berlin: a short and grim display, all in black and white.
Moving out of the Second World War, the Cold War comes next with an eerie display showing two living rooms - similar yet different in so many ways. One is a typical Western Berlin living room, the other its Eastern counterpart. Between the two, a huge atomic bomb is literally hanging over your head. The Berlin Wall itself is also there, of course and your tour ends with the story of how the wall fell.
A short elevator ride later, we were united with our kids and took them to the meeting point of the highlight of The Story of Berlin: A visit to an authentic Cold War atomic bomb shelter.
A young tour guide, who spoke excellent English with a nice German accent, took our group outside and down the stairs of the building next door. There he unlocked the door and took us into the huge shelter, intended to be used by 4,000 people in case of an atomic attack.
The guide was excellent, telling us a lot of what the experience would have been like. Imagine 4,000 people crowded in an underground space, steamy and hot and with a limited supply of food and water. Not too many toilets either.
They would have spent their days standing in lines for food and bathrooms. Apparently, the supplies would have lasted for no more than a few weeks, at which point these poor survivors would have had to get outside anyway, in all likelihood to die of radiation sickness.
If you're into apocalypse movies, you're going to love this tour. It was scary, daunting and moving and left us all thinking. It certainly felt good to get outside into the sunlight once the tour was over!
Tada! Berlin Trip Report Done!
That's it! This was our trip report from Berlin, 2017. The phrase "steeped in history" doesn't do this city justice and the fact that most of that history is relatively recent - from the past century - means there is a lot to see and do. I know we only scratched the surface.
I hope this post helps people who are traveling to Berlin. If you're reading this and have any questions or comments, do let me know in the form below.