Berlin was a very mixed place to visit, with a complicated and tragic history but a vibrant and modern present.
My other half Tom managed to join me on this trip, which was fortunate not only for his company but also as he is a bit of a history buff. We had a couple of days on our own before my friend and colleague Monica joined us. We stayed in the picturesque Friedrichshain , with cobbled streets lined by vibrant coffee shops, restaurants and bars. We didn't explore the area as much as we had hoped due to the pouring rain, but if we were to return we would definitely stay in this area again - as it's not far from the East Side Gallery, Museum Island and the nightlife area of Kreuzberg. After some fantastic coffee and pastries at Cozy's coffee we jumped in a tram over to the Museum für Naturkunde, a favourite rainy-day activity of mine anywhere!
It's very true what they say about Berlin public transport - over the next few days we would take the tram, train and bus as well as Uber, which is available in Berlin unlike a lot of German cities. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of German, it was all easy to navigate and pay for digitally using the Fahrinfo BVG app as well as being very cheap. We only jumped in a cab a couple of times when there were wild thunderstorms.
The Natural History Museum is actually an underrated gem and is one of the best I've ever visited (which is saying something, I try to visit them wherever I can). A huge Brachiosaurus
greets you as you enter, and their exhibit on 'Tristan the T-Rex' was very informative. You do have to pay entry (€8, which is very reasonable) but you can download a free app to lead you around which was handy, although from what I can remember there were mostly English translated signs anyway. One highlight was opening some large wooden doors and entering into a room straight out of a movie - a huge room filled with amber jars of specimens on a labyrinth of shelves right up to the high-ceilings. Another highlight was getting to look through glass windows into a 'behind the scenes' area, where staff were hard at work examining and even excavating fossils. I couldn't help but note that all the staff (scientists, palaeontologists, anthropologists, archivist... I'm not sure exactly what their job description would be apart from being impressive) were almost all female. I am a big advocate of visibility being hugely inspiring, and I couldn't help thinking about how this would have been even more inspiring to a young girl than it was already to me as an adult woman. I applaud the Museum for having this in mind and all those who probably feel a little bit self-conscious while just trying to do their work on the other side of the glass.
Monica and I spent the next couple of days working while Tom saw some friends in the area and visited some of the heavier museums such as the Topography of Terror, which displayed the darkest side of Berlin's history. I was interested to hear about his experience here, but I sometimes struggle with this type of tourism and travel so was happy for him to visit it without me.
After work was done we moved to stay at Hotel Zoe in Mitte, a central area of the city close to many of the landmarks. We crammed a lot in the following couple of days with our activities mostly decided by the weather, which was unpredictable to say the least. After heading to Museum Island for the day anticipating rain, we decided to continue walking to make the most of the unexpected sun and walked along the south side of the River to Tiergarten. A couple of people recommended this route around the city to me, walking along the South Side of the River and back along the North (vice versa) which brings you past the Reichstag building, Brandenburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and more. The Jewish Memorial was incredibly poignant, designed to make you feel uneasy, overwhelmed and disorientated. We walked through it in silence on our own routes, but all spoke about the intensity of the experience we had shared after. It is very effective.
On our second day we headed to the East Side Galleries, a famous portion of the wall that still stands covered with murals, many of them featuring political and social commentary. I felt a bit weird posing for a picture on front of the wall at first, but I would rather celebrate the city's colourful now than dwell in it's dark past. That being said, learning about Berlin's past was terrifyingly reminiscent of what is going on today. Building walls, closing borders, isolating countries, and dividing groups of people. How much tragedy will it take to learn from our mistakes? For me the galleries embodied this, and was a symbol of remembering in the hope of not repeating humanities past mistakes, or at least standing up against them when we see the signs.
As the rain started again, we headed to spend the afternoon at the Spy Museum which a lighter yet very informative look at spy technology through the ages and the impact they had. It has more of a family-friendly appeal, with interactive activities like a laser maze that kept us entertained for a while (well, Tom and Monica, I had no desire to be reminded of my dimensions and clumsiness).
We made the rather poor decision to go out to try and find some of the famous Kreuzberg nightlife scene in the evening, forgetting completely that it was a Sunday and, fair to say, it wasn't a huge success. We went to a club known for having many rooms with different music, similar to a place I had enjoyed in Budapest, to find that only one room was open and drinks were extortionate. We had a good laugh people watching but before long decided to cut our losses and head back to the hotel.
Our last morning in Berlin was spent at the Berlin Wall Memorial a little North of the city centre. It was great to have Tom here, who while basically giving us a guided tour stood us on the line between what was once East and West and pointed out the different architectural styles of the buildings on either side of the divide - something I probably wouldn't have noticed on my own. The Memorial is a whole strip of museums, artifacts and installations along where the wall once would have stood. I was particularly hit by a stand of pictures of those who died trying to cross, shocked to see half of them in colour. It was a reminder of really how recent this history was, even if we are separated from the actual war by a couple of generations.
As much as I believe that it's important to keep events from history in current memory, it must be very strange to live in a city which people often visit for a past that it's trying to move on from. People must live with these constant reminders on their doorstep, and be reminded every day of things that may have affected their own lives of that of their families not so long ago. From my own distanced perspective, it was frustrating to see how many parallels it's history has with current day. Yet Berlin has a vibrant character and a strong cultural presence that I really enjoyed. We experienced both sides of the city and appreciated them both in their own way, but you could easily visit just one or the other.
The Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) was a personal highlight, but visiting the East Side Galleries is a good way to appreciate the history of the city while also getting to appreciate the amazing artwork. If you're not going specifically to learn more about the city's history around WW2 and so are unlikely to spend much time at relevant museums or memorials, I'd definitely recommend at least including this.
Where to stay:
Different areas have different appeals. Personally I would stay in Friedrichshain again, but for your first visit Mitte is very central, if a bit touristy.
What to eat:
I'm not a huge fan of German cuisine as I don't eat a lot of meat. However there is a really big offering for East Asian cuisine, and our favourite was District Mot on the North edge of Mitte. It has a great vibe, Instagram-worthy decor and a fantastic menu. You will also be spoiled for choice when it comes to coffee and cafe culture. Plant lovers will love House of Small Wonder, and Distrikt Coffee is a good stop off for breakfast on the way to the Berlin Wall Memorial which is a little bit of a walk from the centre.
How long to visit?
I think a long weekend would be plenty of time to get acquainted with the city, but if you wanted to make the most of all the museums the city has to offer you could easily spend a week here.
Unlike our time in Munich, Berlin has a lot of vegan places so you shouldn't have a problem. However do read the ingredients or double check with staff, as I found a few things I ordered at restaurants which weren't exclusively vegan had fillings like soy or tofu but also had sauce containing fish or elements containing egg which could easily catch you out.
Would I go back?
I would, though we managed to see so much I probably wouldn't go back without a purpose. We definitely didn't make the most of Museum Island so that would be my first stop.