Global Gumshoe | Ron Stern
Berlin is a phoenix reinventing itself. Decades of war and oppression are being replaced by trendy boutiques, sidewalk cafes, retail-shopping areas, and renovated historical monuments and museums.
Since World War II much of this German capital was in ruins after intensive bombing. Then, for more than 28 years, it was a divided city with a barbed-wire fence erected under the cover of night, eventually turning into a permanent concrete barrier. When the wall fell, the rush of freedom and new hope was almost inexpressible.
As a first time visitor, part of what impressed me the most was that this city doesn’t hide its dark past. Instead, it’s put on display in the hopes that future generations will never forget what happened here. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum, for example, is one of the most popular spots for visitors. Inside are displays, newsreels and artifacts from those who successfully escaped. Some hid in hollowed out gas tanks, others tried to swim, and one family constructed a hot air balloon and floated to their freedom in West Berlin.
There are many other public displays around Berlin with photos of people who lived under the Communist regime. You can also visit the former Gestapo headquarters; the Stasi Museum; and the departure hall for the border checkpoint at Friedrichstrasse Train Station, known as Palace of Tears, or “Tränenpalas” in German.
Since the 1960s, Berlin has been on a building spree, and in some areas the city skyline looks like an eerie sci-fi film made out of construction cranes. But the locals and visitors don’t seem to mind, and tourists can get around all that on foot, by subway or by bicycle, with the latter appearing to be the most popular means of getting around.
You can rent a bike at various places around the city and you can take a variety of tours, including the Berlin Wall Tour at Berlin on Bikes, where local guides take you around and give you the fascinating history of Berlin, covering a lot of ground in just a few hours.
Berlin is a place where you can see the old and new, side by side. Some of the original building façades, riddled with bullet holes from German and Russian fighting, are intentionally left intact as another reminder of the historical past. Architectural buffs and photographers like yours truly will have a field day here, as there are enough churches, government buildings, bridges and modern designs to last for a month of touring.
In West Berlin, there are several streets lined with shops, restaurants, a zoological garden and statues. Seeing some of the sidewalk cafes with people having a glass of wine or beer while enjoying the sunshine, reminded me of Paris, but on a more affordable level. One of the more interesting shops I visited was the Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe for short. Located on the sixth floor of this department store is a massive gourmet gallery and food court, the likes of which I have never seen under one roof. You can find just about anything else you can imagine. This is a good place to have a meal or a drink before heading out for, well, more shopping.
Once I figured out the underground and train systems, it was easy to go from the West to the East. I walked to the Brandenburg Gate, the World War II Memorial and the Victory Dome. I also hopped on one of the many sightseeing buses that take you around the city for a headphone-narrated tour. You can buy the tickets at many hotels and tourism offices around town.
Berlin is generally more affordable than other cities of its size, which is what attracts many to come for a visit; some never leave. I met a number of people who ended up staying permanently due to the affable culture, art, food and friendliness of the people. Indeed, many locals have a fondness for Westerners and remember the Berlin airlift, where a United States aircraft dropped care packages for Berliners during the war, rather than let them starve.
As you’re greeted with a sincere “guten tag” by friendly residents who call this city home, you will probably find, as I did, that you feel quite comfortable and welcome. If you have been to Germany but have never been to Berlin, you owe it to yourself to come for a visit.
Where to stay: Winters Hotel – The Wall at Checkpoint Charlie
There are three Winters hotels, but the one at the wall is steps from Checkpoint Charlie and close to train and shopping areas. You can find deals in the winter for as little at 49 euros.
—Ron Stern can be contacted at email@example.com or by visiting ronsterntravel.com and globalgumshoe.com. Promotional considerations were provided by Visit Berlin (visitberlin.de/en), the Winters Hotel (winters.de) and other partners mentioned in this article.