Berlin

In 12 words: Hip; some interesting bits of history; many museums; yet visually mostly unimpressive.
For your first visit, two full days should be enough to get acquainted with the city and most of its major sights while keeping reasonable pace. If you are looking to visit more than a couple of museums, budget extra time.
Distances are walkable in many cases, but you will need use of the public transport occasionally.
On the other hand: There was a lot of construction and renovation during our visit; when it is over, the city could be sparkling.
Worthy attractions: Brandenburger Tor; Checkpoint Charlie [we did not tour its museum]; Reichstag, with its display on history of the German republic and nice views from under the glass dome; Gemäldegalerie, which holds a respectable selection of old masters; Berliner Dom; Fernsehturm (TV tower) with panoramic views over the entire city; Kunstgewerbemuseum; Schloss Charlottenburg [further afield] with its vast Schlosspark.
Left for another visit: St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale [on restoration work during our visit]; Rotes Rathaus [did not tour inside]; Museum Island with no less than five museums (Pergamonmuseum is supposedly the most interesting one); Jüdisches Museum; Topographie des Terrors; Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche and several others; Tiergarten; other museums at Kulturforum, such as Neue Nationalgalerie or Musikinstrumenten-Museum; Neue Synagoge.
Last visit: May 2005.
 

Neptune Fountain and Berlin Cathedral
Berlin, it should be stated from the very beginning, did not impress us at all. We’ve heard a lot about its newly discovered spirit and dynamic nightlife, but what we are mostly interested in are the architectural and cultural treasures, with fair bit of history thrown in. And Berlin has little to satisfy our architectural tastes, with some impressive edifices here and there largely overshadowed by drab 20th-century buildings or gleaming modern construction. (The weather did not cooperate much on our visit either, further skewing the impression towards negative.)

Things to See

The symbol of Berlin, Brandenburger Tor ♥♥♥, is a magnificent Neo-Classical structure constructed at the end of the 18th century. On our visit in 2005, there was an interesting photo-exhibition of the history of the surrounding Pariserplatz through the second half of the 20th century, but I’m pretty sure that it was temporary.

From here, the main city thoroughfare of Unter den Linden ♥♥♥ runs across the eastern part of the city center, lined with prestigious buildings restored in the years following World War II. A lively boulevard with smart shops and cafés, the street is always full of tourists.

Not far from the Brandenburg Gate is another symbolic structure, Reichstag ♥♥♥. As recently as 1990s, it was redesigned into a modern meeting hall for the return of German parliament. On your visit, you will be able to ascend to its dome for some great views of the city and take in the history of the building and the Bundestag exhibited in photos along the walkway.

On one side of Unter den Linden towards its eastern end is the famous Bebelplatz, scene of the Nazi book-burning act in 1933. The square was undergoing grand restoration work during our visit, and we were not able to properly see it. St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale that sits on the square was closed to the public as well.

We only looked from the street on façades of Neue Wache and Zeughaus, two of the finest buildings on Unter den Linden. The former is dedicated to the memory of victims of war and dictatorship, with an eternal flame inside. The latter, a Baroque arsenal built in early 18th century, is home to the German History Museum.

Slightly away from the main street, Gendarmenmarkt is a striking square with two almost-twin cathedrals guarding it on two sides and the Neo-Classical Konzerthaus between them. The latter can be visited only for a performance, and we decided against stepping into either Französischer Dom or Deutscher Dom.

Unter den Linden ends at Schlossbrücke ♥, one of Berlin’s most beautiful bridges, with Greek mythology statues and the elaborate wrought-iron balustrade. There are several other fine bridges in the city center.

Berliner Dom ♥ is one cathedral that we did step in. The present Neo-Baroque structure was built at the conclusion of the 19th century but, following severe damage during the World War II, restored in a simplified form. The interior is quite airy nonetheless.

The cathedral sits on the narrow island where Berlin’s first settlers arrived in the 13th century. The northern half of the island is known as the Museuminsel, with five museums located next to one another. The mostly hold various collections of antiquities (especially at Pergamonmuseum), with an art gallery among them. We did not visit any of these museums.

Another grouping of museums is in a different part of central Berlin, known as Kulturforum. Here, we actually visited a couple of collections. First, Gemäldegalerie ♥♥, with a pretty good assemblage of Dutch, Flemish and Italian masters; not really comparable with the top galleries in the world, but respectable. Also, Kunstgewerbemuseum ♥, which has a curious collection of craft and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the modern day on display, including goldwork, silverware, majolica, porcelain, furniture, etc. A couple of other museums remain as potential targets for a future visit.

We ascended the television tower, Fernsehturm ♥ for a good view over the city. The view, on balance, is not exactly breathtaking, but I like looking at cities from an elevated viewpoint regardless. There is a revolving café on one of the observation levels, but we decided against spending time on that.

Near the tower are two impressive buildings, Marienkirche and Rotes Rathaus. We did not venture inside either, electing to admire them from outside only.

Also nearby is the small area of Nikolaiviertel ♥, consisting entirely of newly built replicas of historic buildings.

One of the most popular attractions in Berlin is the Checkpoint Charlie ♥♥, a notorious border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors in a divided city. There are several signs and monuments on the block, and a lot of memorabilia being peddled around. If you are so inclined, you can take you picture (for a fee, of course) with a guy in Soviet military uniform and a girl in American one by the checkpoint booth. There is a reputedly very good museum commemorating the history of the Cold War in Berlin, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, but we did not go there.

Potsdamer Platz ♥ is home to the new and glittering financial and business district, boasting a number of splendid modern constructions.

One other famous Berlin boulevard, Kurfürstendamm ♥ (also known as Ku’damm), is lined with luxurious buildings, upmarket boutiques and hotels.

Partially ruined Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche is another famous Berlin landmark, but we only saw it from the outside.

Because of largely unpleasant weather, we did not spend any discernible time at Tiergarten, a landscaped park in the western part of the city center.

We did, however, manage to spend some pleasant time at Schlosspark ♥♥, which surrounds Schloss Charlottenburg ♥♥♥. The palace and the park are located some ways from the city center, but are worth the trip. The palace offers two different tours of its fanciful rooms, of which mirrored Porzellankabinett stands out, and a good art collection. The park consists of the ornate Baroque garden and less formal landscaped English-style gardens, and has several charming pavilions, including Belvedere, which houses a most remarkable porcelain collection. A combined ticket allows entry to both palace tours and three pavilions.

There are several other potentially interesting sights outside of Berlin’s center, but our time was too limited to think about visiting them.

Transportation

Berlin’s metro is frequent and mostly convenient, both for central areas and for excursions further afield. The lines of city U-bahn are well integrated with the commuter S-bahn network.

The important thing to remember is to actually buy tickets and validate them in the ticket machines. Neither turnstiles nor gates impede the entrance to the stations; however, absentmindedly getting on a train without a valid ticket can lead to a hefty fine; ticket checks occur with enough regularity.

Places to Eat

All places last visited in Spring 2005.

Hotel Kempinski ♥♥ on Ku’damm has a very good restaurant, where a Zurich schnitzel was especially well received by hungry travellers. Dessert was also excellent. Our damage: €90, undoubtedly with some wine.

Kafeestube ♥, in Nikolaiviertel, was a random selection that turned out to be a nice small eatery. Potato soup and pork filet were excellent and inexpensive. Paid in cash, which likely means that credit cards were not accepted. No exact records on the damage.

Another walking-by choice was Kartoffelkeller ♥♥, on Albrechstr. in Friedrichstr. area. The restaurant specializes in all kinds of potato dishes, some of which we sampled. Very tasty and not expensive. Again, paid in cash, which likely means that credit cards were not accepted, and no exact records of the damage.

Lodging

As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are plentiful on major online platforms. Berlin is a large city, so no single location will be within walking distance of all points of interest, but the metro system is quite excellent for covering distances.


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