In November we travelled on Viking River Cruises’ Fontane ship on the Elbe River, formerly in the Eastern bloc countries. We spent several days in the former East Berlin and were amazed at what a difference two decades can make, since the Wall came down in 1989 and Reunification of East and West was accomplished in 1990. Today, to see a city, which had so much destruction in World War II, a prosperous, thriving, unified, and Social Democracy is a miracle of modern history. We enjoyed the good location of the Berlin Hilton Hotel, which makes the public transportation system easily accessible, whether you choose to traverse the city by taxi, subway, public bus, or the way we chose: The Hop on Hop Off Yellow Berolina Sightseeing Buses using the three day WelcomeCard, which stop every 10 minutes at each of the 20 most interesting areas tourists want to see. We found the buses to be convenient, plentiful, and they have excellent narration in any language as you tour around the town using the free earphones your ticket gives you. You can purchase the ticket for one or several consecutive days. We recommend riding it all the way on the complete 1-20 stops (beginning at any one of them) for an excellent city tour in a couple of hours. Then you can stop at any place you choose to remain for a visit.
Checkpoint Charlie, the once famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors, is of great historical import for everyone to see. Along one block the street is lined with a temporary wall of billboards with photographs depicting life in Berlin before, during, and after the War and Division of the city. This is the location of the museum and another one which is being built in the future. At the beautiful Brandenberg Gate you can find many Embassies and the most photographed place of the city. Nearby is the Jewish Memorial with 2,700 concrete blocks of various sizes which offer one the chance to wander contemplating what ethnic hatred did. At one point you can look down into a bare room similar to where the Jews were tortured in the most horrible ethnic cleansing the world has ever known.
We chose to spend the better part of a whole day at the Jewish Museum, a huge building which portrays Jewish history all the way from Biblical times through the 20th Century. To see the indomitable spirit of the people who were displaced many times through history is both poignant and inspiring. The attendants at this museum were some of the most friendly and helpful people we met in all of Berlin. And the food in the little cafe there is delicious!
Everyone wants to know about the famous Wall, which extended around Berlin a little over 100 miles and separated the Soviet sector of the city from what was known as West Berlin, went up overnight with barbed wire and was later constructed of iron, stones and concrete, and was backed by wire which tripped easily setting off automatic guns and sirens. This wall ran at times along the Spree River, dividing the city into two parts impenetrably, and even went through some houses and businesses causing forced evacuation and the cementing up of windows and doors. West Berlin, which was controlled by the US and its World War II allies, became an island where lifestyle was better and people felt more freedom of movement and thought, finding themselves isolated from friends and family in the Soviet sector suddenly, overnight.
Today a double cobblestone strip along the walkway beside the Spree River shows the exact location of the Wall. And then when the Wall came down some of it was preserved for history to see in various sections of the Berlin of today. Part of that is a bit of concrete with rebar steel struts and another part is concrete walls which form the longest outdoor art gallery in the world: many artists being invited to decorate specific portions of the wall with the unique modern art depicting all kinds of symbols and portraits of that troubled time in Berlin. To visit this peaceful, thriving, modern city today and enjoy all the fun and sites of a prosperous and happy city is truly a miracle!
Along with the Hop On, Hop Off Bus ticket, we also recommend the Berlin Welcome Card for discounted tickets to numerous ;museums and attractions for tourists. Berlin contains more museums than just about any city we have ever visited, five of which are on Museum Island and are treasured as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Welcome Card gives you a very good discount on most of these impressive places and 12 different city tours. The grand historic buildings house these museums and are worth a tour for the architectural significance. Since many of these buildings were were leveled in War, one can marvel at their having been reconstructed to their original magnificance. It seems impossible that this city has been rebuilt in such a short time.
The largest collection of Old Masters paintings is housed in the huge Gemaldegalerie Museum in Central Berlin close to Berlin’s modern concert hall and is a place you will want to spend many hours. Beside it is the Museum of Handicrafts, another place really worth a visit. There are too many museums to describe, and you will enjoy making your own selection according to your specific interests. Charlottenberg Palace is one of the grand places in this city and nearby is the film center that begs to rival Hollywood.
And no one can miss the Kurfursdambur Street of beautiful homes and fabulous shopping to rival Paris’ Champs-Elysees. The enormous KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens) is one of the largest department stores in Europe (with prices just as large!) and not to be missed. Be sure to make it to the upper floors, where you will find highly select foods of all kinds from meats and cheeses to beautiful breads and desserts, chocolates, spices, teas, coffees and much more. You can eat here or go up to the top floor for a lovely food court with glass walls overlooking the city.
As one of the world’s premier cities, we adored Berlin and were surprised by this in every way. The little coffee bars which are everywhere beckon tired sight-seers to stop for coffee, tea, hot chocolate (the BEST in the world!) and alcohol of any kind, at almost any time of day or night. This is the city built for modern tourism and will meet your every expectation of service, interest, and delight.