My trip to Berlin happened literally by chance. I found a flight offer and within a couple of weeks I was on a plane to Berlin. This was the most improvised trip I’ve ever done so far. I usually plan every detail of a journey and the itinerary to follow, but not on that occasion. Indeed, honestly, I bought the travel book during the stopover at Rome Fiumicino Airport.
I took this trip in March 2015. Meteorologically speaking, March is not actually the ideal time to visit Berlin. I found a fairly harsh climate, with two very gray days and some rain; only the last day I was able to walk around the city with sunshine, even if with very low temperatures.
My arrival in Berlin
Once landed at Tegel Airport, I bought the Berlin WelcomeCard. It is a card that offers an unlimited use of Berlin public transport for the number of days purchased (for more information on the Berlin WelcomeCard, click here), and discounts on entry tickets for many Berlin top attractions.
With the card, you also receive a small city guide and a complete list of discounts to which you are entitled, as well as a map of Berlin.
My first evening in Berlin
Immediately after dinner, despite the cold, I took the opportunity to take a first walk to Berlin city centre. Despite being a Friday night, the streets of Berlin city centre were very quiet, with a few people around. I went to Alexanderplatz and the Berliner Dom (I recommend seeing the Museum Island in the evening); I then crossed the long Unter der Linden avenue up to Pariser Platz, where the Brandenburg Gate is located. My walking tour continued towards Potzdamer Platz, passing first in front of the Holocaust memorial.
Here is the itinerary I followed during my three-day trip to Berlin:
Day 1: the Mitte and Kreuzberg districts
The day started from Alexanderplatz. It couldn’t be otherwise, since it is the beating heart of the city, reachable from three tube and four S-Bahn lines. Those who visit Berlin will find themselves passing through Alexanderplatz several times, whatever their destination. Near Alexanderplatz you’ll find the Fernsehturm, one of the symbols of the city. It is the second highest television tower in Europe and the sphere at the top is visible from almost every corner of the city. For this reason, it is a great reference point when you walk around Berlin, because it allows you to understand if the direction taken is right, even without consulting the city map.
At the feet of the Fernsehturm, Alexanderplatz offers its visitors many shops and shopping centers, but also one of the main attractions: the Weltzeituhr (World Clock).
Other things to see in Alexanderplatz are the Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall) and the Neptunbrunnen (Fountain of Neptune) right near the town hall.
Next stop was the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). Built at the end of the 19th century, it was very damaged during the bombings at the end of the Second World War and only in the 1970s the restoration work began. The Tauf- und Traukirche (the baptismal and nuptial chapel), the Kaiserliches Treppenhaus (imperial staircase) and the crypt of the emperors Hollenzollern are worth seeing. Of course, you can’t miss the experience of going up the dome, from where you can admire a fantastic view of Berlin city centre.
Unter der Linden
After leaving the Berliner Dom, I crossed the long avenue Unter der Linden, which connects the cathedral to Pariser Platz, where the Brandenburg Gate is located. Along the boulevard there are several monuments, such as the Humboldt Universität, the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s Palace), the Staatsoper Unter der Linden (State Opera House), the Zeughaus Berlin (Arsenal of Berlin) and several embassies.
The Brandenburg Gate
Once in Pariser Platz, I was at last in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which became a symbol of the reunited Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.On that occasion, the square was crowded with football fans, because in the afternoon there would have been a match of the German football championship at the Olympiastadion. For this reason, I remember being a little disappointed, because I didn’t have the opportunity to fully enjoy that place. Fortunately, I had the chance to come back on the last trip day (when I took the picture below).
On the top of the Brandenburg Gate stands the Quadriga with the sculpture depicting Victory. It also deserves a little stop the Raum der Stille (Room of silence), where you can enjoy a moment of tranquility.
Passing through the Brandenburg Gate, you find yourself in Platz 18. März. Going left, you go towards the Holocaust Memorial; on the right, instead, you go towards the Bundestag. Instead I crossed the long avenue, which starts from the square through the wide Tiergarten, to reach the Siegessäule (Victory Column). Along the Straße des 17. Juni (this is the name of the boulevard) you find the Soviet War Memorial, but also getting into the Tiergarten park offers beautiful views… even in bad weather, as in my case.
The Victory Column
At the end of the avenue, I reached the Siegessäule. This 67 metres high column is located in the center of the Großer Stern. The column was built at the end of the 19th century and originally stood in the square in front of the Reichstag (today Bundestag), but Hitler moved it to the position where it stands today. Paying 3 euros, you can go up the column to admire a wonderful view of the city. Alas, I chose the wrong day, meteorologically speaking.
Come down from the Siegessäule, I returned to Alexanderplatz, where I ate a tasty curry wurst, a Berlin street food specialty.
In the afternoon I visited the Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas’ Quarter). The district develops around the Nikolaikirche (Church of St. Nicholas) and is considered the core of Berlin, because there the first houses of the city were built in the 13th century. Although apparently the houses seem ancient, in reality the district was almost totally razed to the ground during the 1944 bombings and the buildings were restored only in the 80s.
The name of the district derives from the church we can visit there. The Nikolaikirche – now a museum – is the oldest church in Berlin. It was built in the 13th century, although over the centuries it has been modified several times, up to the current appearance characterized by its very high spires, visible from different points of the city. That afternoon, unfortunately, the Nikolaikirche was closed, because a concert would have taken place inside in the evening, so I was forced to postpone the visit until the following day.
The Jewish Museum of Berlin
After the tour at the Nikolaiviertel, I took the underground (U-Bahn) towards the Kreuzberg district. The final destination was the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, the largest Jewish museum in Europe. The visit to the museum had a perfect timing, due to the pouring rain that fell that afternoon on Berlin.
At the entrance I had to pass security checks similar to those we are usually subjected to at the airport. After passing the checks, you pass to the museum’s actual building, designed by architect Daniel Liebeskind, in a zigzag shape. The museum has a permanent collection that witnesses two millennia of Jewish history in Germany. The part that touched me most was undoubtedly the one dedicated to the Shoah. The exhibition areas are organized in such a way as to create an emotional link between the visitor and the exhibits.
In addition to the exhibited collection, there are three sections that impressed me in particular. The first is the Garden of Exile: it is a surface outside the museum, consisting of 49 concrete columns, positioned so that it is impossible to see outside.At the top of each column is a plant of oleaster, symbol of peace.
The second is the Holocaust Tower: it is an empty and not air-conditioned structure, which can be accessed through a very heavy door. The light enters through a narrow opening and it is not possible to see what is outside. Getting in there makes the visitor experience the condition of deported Jews.
The third section, I think the most striking, is Shalechet (fallen leaves): it is an example of emotional architecture, in which ten thousand steel faces are thrown on the floor of an empty space. The visitor who enters this space is invited to walk on these faces; as s/he moves forward, the din of the faces slamming on each other because of the steps of the visitor becomes more and more intense. This creates a sense of anguish in the visitor and the desire to leave the room as soon as possible, but in order to do so s/he is obliged to retrace the room, trampling faces again and thus increasing the sense of anguish. This was by far the strongest experience of my visit to the Jewish museum in Berlin – so that I forgot to take pictures.
After the visit to the Jewish museum, the rain had also stopped falling and this allowed me to go to the Checkpoint Charlie, only a ten-minute walk away.
When Berlin was divided by the wall, Checkpoint Charlie was the roadblock that allowed the passage from one part of Berlin to the other only to authorized persons. It is located in Friedrichstraße and in the past served to “connect” the Mitte district, under Soviet occupation, with that of Kreuzberg to the west, under US control. Today, fortunately, it has lost the purpose it had in the past and is a mere tourist attraction that still remembers a sad past.
Day 2: Charlottenburg Palace, Museum Island and East Side Gallery
My second day in Berlin began with the visit of the Nikolaikirche, closed the day before.
Then I headed to Alexanderplatz station to take the S-Bahn to the district of Charlottenburg, where the palace of the same name is located.
Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg) was built as a summer residence of the first Prussian queen, Sophie Charlotte, from whom the name of the castle itself and the surrounding neighborhood come from. Inside, it is possible to see how the palace has been enlarged over time, given that the styles, with which the various areas were created, are different. The most beautiful rooms are undoubtedly the Chamber of Porcelain (room 95), whose walls are decorated with Chinese porcelain, and the Golden Gallery, a large hall used for dance parties.
Don’t miss the amazing French style gardens (with free admission). From the photos, you can see that my visit to the gardens was ruined by the rain, but given their beauty, I decided not to give up.
After lunch, I toured the Museum Island (in German Museumsinsel). It is located in the northern part of the Spree river, which crosses Berlin, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. This museum complex consists of five museums: the Altes Museum, which houses objects of Greek and Roman art; the Neues Museum, dedicated to prehistoric, Egyptian and Etruscan art (the highlight of the museum is the bust of Queen Nefertiti); the Pergamonmuseum, which reconstructs to a natural size some monumental buildings, including the famous Altar of Pergamum; the Bodemuseum, which houses a Byzantine art collection; and the Alte Nationalgalerie with its collection of 19th-century paintings.
Of course, I didn’t visit all the museums, because it’s impossible to visit all five of them in just one afternoon.
East Side Gallery
Last stop of the day was the East Side Gallery. It is the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing and is located in the Mühlenstraße, in the former East Berlin. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many street artists have made over a hundred murals with peace and freedom messages, making this section of wall the longest outdoor art gallery in the world.
Among the many murals, all really beautiful, the most famous ones are undoubtedly the kiss between Erich Honeker and Leonid Breznev and the Trabant that breaks through the wall.
The only sore point is the fact that these beautiful murals are ruined by tourists. It is really a pity, especially when I see that a most of these mockeries are committed by Italians. I close this polemic note.
Day 3: Berlin Zoo and dome of the Bundestag
My last day, the only one with good weather, started from the Brandenburg Gate. Two days earlier, as I wrote above, the square was crowded with football fans and I had not been able to fully enjoy that corner of Berlin.
Just the time to take some pictures, I moved by underground to Gendarmenmarkt, considered the most beautiful square in Berlin. In my opinion, whoever tells this is right. It is a very elegant square, with the two twin churches of the Französischer Dom (French cathedral) and Deutscher Dom (German cathedral) and the Konzerthaus. The first church to be built was the French cathedral, built by the Huguenots who fled to Berlin from France (hence the name of the French Cathedral); the German cathedral was built a few years later, following the design of the French one.
Left the Gendarmenmarkt, I took the underground to go to the zoo ( Zoologischer Garten, not to be confused with the Tiergarten park and district). The Zoo Berlin is one of the most famous in the world and became even more famous with the birth of the polar bear Knut a few years ago. Unfortunately, the polar bear Knut is gone and it remains just a memorial celebrating it.
So, I am going to open a little parenthesis… Morally speaking, I am not much in favor of zoos, because I believe that animals should live free in their natural habitats. It is also true that today’s zoos – or at least the most important ones in the world – work responsibly for the maintenance of endangered species.
Zoo Berlin is one of these and promotes the European Program for Endangered Species. For this reason, I decided to visit it, also to see with my own eyes the state of the animals. What to say? The animals were well kept, I saw the employees of the zoo working diligently in cleaning the rooms and giving food to the animals themselves. I spent 4 very pleasant hours, in contact with animals that I probably could have never seen otherwise, but on a safari. I recommend to see the aquarium, where you can see many types of colorful jellyfish and, among others, the clownfish (a species which became famous with the animation movie Finding Nemo). The only area I skipped was the one dedicated to reptiles and amphibians, because of my phobia for snakes.
After having left the zoo through the famous Gate of the Elephants, I went to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche (Memorial Church of Emperor Wilhelm), which is right there in the area. It is a neo-Romanesque church, built at the end of the 19th century but destroyed by the bombings of 1943. After the Second World War, reconstruction projects were presented, but in the end it was decided to leave the ruins of the old church untouched to remind Berliners of the horror of war.
After lunch, I took the bus n. 100 (it is a strategic line, because it passes through Berlin main attractions) up to the Bundestag (or Reichstag if you refer to its old name), the seat of the German Parliament.
The Reichstag dome
If you want to visit the Reichstag glass dome for free, you have to make a reservation on the website www.bundestag.de (if you want to know how to book the visit, click here). When booking, you must provide personal data and choose the time of visit among those available. The day of the visit, you must arrive at least 30 minutes before the chosen time, in order to overcome the strict security checks (similar to those we undergo at the airport). Attention: if you arrive later than the chosen time, they won’t let you in and you have to book another visit… so, I recommend punctuality!
Once arrived on the dome, I was given an audio guide in Italian, which described what I saw from the dome as I went up and the history of its construction.
Once I got off the Reichstag dome, I spent the last part of the afternoon walking along the Unter der Linden boulevard, looking for some souvenirs.
My visit to Berlin was over. That improvised trip made me discover a city that has never ceased to amaze me, a city where the signs of a not so far past are still visible. Although the wall is no longer there, the division between east and west is noticeable. It’s enough just walking around Berlin in the evening to realize it: the west side is very bright, while the east one is characterized by a darker light. Berlin is a city that not everyone likes, but, as mentioned, I was struck a lot by it. This itinerary I followed is just the result of a selection of the many things that the city offers and is therefore suitable for those visiting Berlin for the first time and having a few days available. I hope to come back soon to see much more.