We stayed for a week in Berlin and, being that the city is rich in history, had no trouble finding cultural sites to visit every day. I’ll start here with a rundown of the usual suspects: the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall.
The Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin is one of the original 14 gates of Berlin. It’s in the Unter den Linden area, where many historic buildings are located. I was surprised to see a lot of tourists milling about in the middle of winter, so I can only guess at the press of people during the summer months. Its original purpose was essentially a customs gate, and its imposing height probably has something to do with its evolution into an iconic structure of Berlin. The Neo-Classical gate was modeled after the Acropolis’s entrance in Greece.
Checkpoint Charlie is in Kreuzberg, and it used to be the border crossing between the U.S. and Soviet sectors of Berlin during the Cold War. People tried to escape the Communist block through here. Today, Checkpoint Charlie has become just another tourist attraction integrated into the street life of the city. The booth is a replica, and the kitsch factor obscures the struggles of Berliners yearning to be free during the Soviet era.
Remnants of the Berlin Wall, an icon of the Cold War, remain as isolated pieces standing throughout the city. We stopped at a stretch of the wall flanking what used to be the Nazis headquarters, where there is now a museum featuring examples of propaganda extolling the Aryan ideal under Hitler.
The Holocaust Memorial is in a public space, near where Hitler’s bunker was located. The artist wanted the memorial to be open to interpretation. It is filled with 3D rectangular structures of varying heights that reminded me of tombstones. When I walked through them, I felt an eerie sense of stillness. The museum on the grounds is worth visiting. I found it more interesting and informative than the official Jewish Museum in town, which is based on modern, conceptual art. The museum at the memorial is underground, and it is filled not just with facts of dates and the number of people killed but also intimate stories of families.
If you only have a few days in Berlin, I would add Museum Island to your list, specifically Berliner Dom and Pergamonmuseum. On a cloudless day, Berliner Dom is spectacular from the outside. The copper domes play beautifully off the bright blue of the sky. It looked like a Catholic cathedral to me because of the grandeur of the architecture and the symbolism of the art inside, but I discovered it’s actually a Lutheran church when I looked up and saw one of the statues toward the ceiling had the name “Luther” written on it. Berliner Dom includes exhibits and a crypt open to visitors. Members of the royal family are buried at Berliner Dom, and I noticed there were several graves for babies and children. The entertaining video exhibit said that, back in the day, upper-class women thought it was unseemly to breastfeed their babies, so they would give them things like alcohol to drink, which led to untimely death.
If you’re willing to take the stairs, you can go all the way up to the roof, where the reward is a spectacular view of Berlin, with the River Spree winding through. We were lucky to see it on a sunny day. This is where a scene from the Wim Wenders’ indie classic “Wings of Desire” was filmed.
I loved the Pergamon. It’s an antiquities museum, and there is so much to learn here. There are three collections: Greek and Roman, Near East, and Islamic art. The Ishtar Gate from Babylon is at the start of the museum, and it is a wonder to behold. It dates to the 6th century B.C. and features original glazed bricks. It’s decorated with animals and flowers on a cornflower-blue tile background. It feels like you’re walking through a movie set. The archeological finds at the museum are fascinating, ranging from delicate artifacts such as ancient decorated glasswork to entire architectural structures such as the reconstructed interior of an Assyrian palace dating from the 9th and 13th centuries B.C.
For art history buffs, I recommend the Gemäldegalerie, a world-class collection of European paintings from the 13th to 18th centuries. There are so many masterpieces here, and if you pick up the audio guide, you will learn a lot about individual paintings. Some of the painters I zeroed in on: Raphael, Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer and Vermeer. The painting that struck me the most is one by Hans Holbein the Younger (see above); it’s a portrait of a merchant that is full of detailed clues of the man’s working life. Even the writing on the notes behind him is visible.
We took the S-Bahn on a Saturday to Potsdam, a city next to Berlin, and the day didn’t turn out as we originally planned, but it was still enjoyable. For starters, it was bitterly cold, so our intention to see as much as possible wasn’t realized. It was just too cold to walk around outside for long stretches. I regretted not wearing tights under my pants. It was so cold, I started losing some feeling in my face.
We ended up visiting only Sans Souci, which was the summer palace of Frederick the Great. The palace opens up into a sprawling park, which we walked through to get to Neues Palais, the larger palace. Both palaces date from the 1700s. The tours to the palaces are timed, and you must pay extra for photo privileges. By the way, there is no heating in the palaces, so be prepared if you go during winter. Each group is ushered into each room in the palace at set times, and audio guides are relied on to give you the stories behind the rooms. The audio guides are helpful, but my major quibble was they did not explain why Frederick the Great was so, well, great. They just assume you know why Frederick the Great is an important historical figure.
If the weather were more tolerable, we would have visited the site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, the Cecilienhof Palace, but we were ready to get back to Berlin after lunch for the creature comforts of a warm place to stay and local beer and pretzels at hand.