It’s impossible to visit Berlin and not feed off the energy of this unique city.
I arrived feeling a bit drained of the travel enthusiasm that fueled me through the Mongol Rally. I was overwhelmed at the prospect of spending one more week on the road before returning home to my own bed — and to the terrifying, albeit presently suppressed reality that I’d have to find a new apartment and a new job when I returned.
Then along came Berlin, with this artsy and edgy, yet comfortable vibe that immediately reignited my weary traveling, soul.
It would take some deeper exploration to discover what is was about Berlin that had such a motivating effect on me, but eventually I’d be wondering if Berlin could be more than a city to end my travels. Could this also be a city that I could call home?
Entering my GoWithOh apartment rental was the start I needed to get my Berlin adventure off the ground. I started off in a hostel but after three nights of waking up to drunk roommates between five and six am (and they say NYC is the city that never sleeps??) I was relieved to escape to a place of my own.
The apartment was adorable — warm and cozy with all the little luxuries that come with a hotel but with the charm of a guest room in your best friend’s home.
When a friend flew in from London the following day, I was ready to outdo those teenagers who kept me up all night. OK, maybe I never actually partied to the early morning hours, but we did host our very own wine and cheese night in our very own apartment like the sophisticated adults we sometimes pretend to be…
We powered through our wine hangovers the next morning, charged with excitement for the city at our doorstep, just waiting to be explored. I had wandered the city streets for a few days, sipping on wine at outdoor cafes and lounging with a book in public parks, but now it was time to actively explore the city that already had a mysterious hold on me…
TV Tower Berlin or “Fernsehturm Berlin”
The tallest structure in Berlin (368 meters tall to be exact) looks like the Epcot Ball has been speared by a jousting pole and hoisted into the sky. Its also the perfect landmark for navigating the city. I’d been starting each day by finding the spire and navigating accordingly, as it stands in the centrally located Alexanderplatz plaza. I’ve heard the trip to the top is worth your time for a sprawling, 360 degree view of the city, but I’ll call us ground level tourists in bypassing the trip up.
Just across the river from the TV Tower and Alexanderplatz lies the Berlin Cathedral. I just can’t keep my eyes off gothic architecture like this, with its deeply layered details and shadowy coloring, faded with centuries of history. Originally considered a castle upon its construction in the mid 1400′s, the Berlin Cathedral has never been a cathedral in the traditional sense as a bishop has never lived there. In 1465, it became a “collegiate college” which in colloquial German, is also considered a cathedral — so they aren’t lying here.
The lawn of this massive museum is the perfect place to join the masses and rest your feet on the soft grass, as locals and tourists lounge on the lawn. Its right next to the Cathedral and it was perfect timing for a break. Once we made it inside the museum, we were slightly overwhelmed by the massive collection of antiquities, filling up the huge space. (To be honest, it wasn’t my favorite museum, but the lawn is fantastic.)
The Berlin Wall
From the Berlin Cathedral, we made our way West where we eventually came upon the East Side Gallery on the Berlin Wall. Here you can walk along 1.3 kilometers of the former barrier between East and West Berlin, on ground that previously would have gotten you shot for crossing. The wall was originally painted in 1990, one year after the fall of the wall. It boasts the work of 105 artists from all over the world and it’s a stunning expression of freedom against a medium that once declared the opposite.
The artwork on the Berlin Wall is what really brought the spirit of Berlin home for me, and tied together what I love about the city so much.
It’s history is at times, ugly, but it isn’t hidden, and looking back at our delightful day of sightseeing, it was present all along.
Berlin’s history stands at 368 meters in the TV tower, which was built by the German Democratic Republic — the same oppressive government of East Berlin that trapped its citizens behind a wall — in celebration of the anniversary of their state.
It sits on the river in the Berlin Cathedral, a landmark that was damaged by bombs repeatedly during World War II. The dome of the Berlin Cathedral was reconstructed in 1967, 23 years after a bomb of combustible liquid set it on fire and it came crashing into the main floor.
It’s presented in glass cases and detailed explanations in both German and English behind the walls in the Altes Museum, The Berlin History Museum, The Jewish Museum, and over 100 others.
It lies in a park — one we enjoyed that morning and watched kids play ping pong on public tables and couples sip wine on benches. An old water tower casts welcomed shade on much of the park, and contains some of the priciest apartments in all of Berlin. But a nearby paste-up by renowned street artist, JR, is a clue into the darker shadow of the sunny park. The water-tower, seen behind the image of the man with his face in his hands, served as Hitler’s first concentration camp and Jews were tortured and murdered within its thick, brick walls.
Berlin’s history crawls across the Berlin Wall which still stands sporadically throughout the city, most prominently as the East Side Gallery where famous paintings intermingle with tagged messages from the people of Berlin.
Walking along the wall in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood known for its gritty exterior and hidden abundance of quirky bars and all night clubs, the captivating personality of Berlin becomes obvious.
It’s a city that has survived a painful past, from the Hitler regime to the dividing Cold War era– and there are plenty of citizens amongst Berlin’s colorful streets today who lived through those years. But history remains a part of their story, however ugly it might be. It can be a depressing and terrifying story at times, but it wraps up in the uninhibited expression of the creative minds and independent thinkers that make Berlin what it has become.
Artists share their creativity on walls because although its technically illegal, its a form of expression that most of the city embraces — and a strong opposition to security cameras on streets makes it difficult to prosecute.
Commuters hop on a metro that operates under an honesty policy — no scanners or swipers here, but Berliners still seem to consistently pay for their tickets. When I asked a local how this works, she told me that the German government takes such good care of its people now, that no one feels the need to steal a ride.
Families mix with young hipsters in public parks in the early evenings as the adults sip on alcoholic beverages of choice. No open container laws on these streets — and no out of control, drunken behavior, either. (For the most part, at least.)
The free-spirit of Berlin works, because they know of alternatives that do not. And they’re reminded of that alternative in public parks and in popular landmarks. They celebrate freedom of expression on public walls, in community spaces, and in the new startups that continuously crop up in office buildings, up and down the trendy streets.
It’s a city that refuses to be contained or quieted, and that is what intrigued me so much about Berlin — how an ugly past meets a beautiful present and both exist on the same spirited streets.
After a long day, discovering a new city while simultaneously falling in love with it — an emotionally uplifting but exhausting process — what’s left to do but dance in the street as strangers convene around a band that just started jamming under a bridge? Just a typical night on the streets of Berlin…
That night we returned to our GoWithOh apartment and I couldn’t help but think that Berlin is a place I would love to regularly come “home” to. It’s a truly unique city that in just one day, captivated me with its history, its creativity, and the beautiful convergence of the two. Of course, moving to Germany was a lot to think about before first getting a good night’s sleep…
This year’s travels would end after Berlin, and I’d soon have to face the reality of finding a place to call home. But could Berlin be that place, rather than NYC? Its a question I’d ponder for the rest of my time there, as there was still so much left to see…
Have you been to Berlin? Did you fall in love with it like I did? Stay tuned for more as I continue to explore this incredible city…
*Accommodation in Berlin was provided by GoWithOh apartment rentals, but all opinions are of course, my own.