Europe, Germany

4 days in Berlin

We recently came back from a short break to Berlin. We spent a lot of time researching the city and finding out about things we’d like to do while we were there. So like our trip to New York, I’ve written up a daily report of our visit, in the hope that if someone comes across this it’ll help them, the way others helped me. If not, then it’ll just be nice to look back on and read one day!

Day 1 – 17th December

We flew from London Gatwick at 6:30am with Easy Jet. Our flight was perfect – on time and the staff were lovely – and they’ve started rolling out allocated seating, so booked our seats (with extra legroom) there and back.

I slept throughout the whole flight. Unfortunately I used my boyfriend as a pillow which meant he didn’t get much sleep at all, but before we knew it we’d arrived in Berlin at Schönefeld Airport, at 9:30am (local time). It was freezing when we arrived and there was snow everywhere (I was very excited!)

From airport to city centre

We had read online that we needed to catch the Airport Express (RB14) to Alexander Platz, where we could then catch the underground to Gendarmenmarkt, where we were staying. We headed for the train station (which is only a short walk from the airport and very well sign posted), however, we didn’t see any mention of a train heading for Alexander Platz. After a bit of dithering, we decided to stop wasting time and just ask for help back at the airport.

Within half an hour we were on the double decker train (“just like in Source Code” was my boyfriends reference) heading for Lichtenburg, where we caught the underground to Alexander Platz and then again to Gendarmenmarkt. We were chuffed to bits with public transport in Berlin. We paid €37 each for a 7 day, all zone (ABC) ticket, which we found out not only covered trains and underground, but trams and buses too! Well worth the money.

On our double decker train

Our hotel

We arrived at our hotel, The Winters Hotel Gendarmenmarkt, nice and early (about 11:ooam). Our room was already cleaned and ready for us, so we checked in and dumped our bags in the room, ready for some city exploring. Overall we were incredibly chuffed with our hotel. We paid £60 for our return flights and not a lot more for the hotel either. We were after a happy, no frills hotel, but I think we probably got more than most budget hotels elsewhere offer.

Our room and bathroom were spacious and very clean and the staff were lovely. The hotel was great value and we’d definitely stay here again.

Hotel

Afternoon

After the leaving the hotel, the first thing on our list was to see Brandenburg Gate. From what I remember, Berlin was once a completely walled city, so a number of gates were built allowing access in and out of the city – Brandenburg Gate was one of these, built in the late 1780′s.

Our hotel was about half an hours walk away, so we took a slow walk to the gate, taking in the city as we went – travelling by foot really is the best way to see the city.

The gate is incredibly impressive up close, you can see why it’s such a well known landmark in the city. There was also a huge Christmas Tree in front of the gate, which was lovely. From this part of the city, you have Tiergarten on the one side of the gate and from the other side, really clear views of the TV Tower – which I think is a beautiful looking building.

Brandenburg Gate later that evening

We spent about half an hour wandering around the area of Brandenburg Gate before walking down to the Holocaust Memorial, about 5 minutes away. The memorial is both haunting and interesting. It lets you do what all good memorials do – allows you to think. It is built up of over 2000 concrete blocks, built on uneven ground. All the blocks are of different height (some reach 15ft) and some have odd or sloping angles.

The memorial is free and you can walk amongst the blocks, exploring and getting lost. Apparently it was designed to create an uneasy and confused feeling – perhaps to reflect the feelings of the victims? I’m not sure. I love the memorial though, it is both structured and organised, yet a complete Labyrinth at the same time.

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It was still early afternoon by this point, so we had plenty of time left. After this we took a walk through Potsdamer Platz, towards the Topography of Terror. A WW2 museum, by the old SS and Gestapo headquarters. However, on route, we passed by this old German Watch Tower.

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There are very few of these left, I knew of one other but didn’t get time to see it. There is no information of these on sight, they seem practically forgotten about in the city. But I believe these watch towers are from when the Berlin Wall was built. To ensure no-one crossed the border or entered the “no-mans land” between the walls, about 300 of these towers were built. A German would sit up in each tower and shoot anyone who dared to cross the wall.

From here the Topography of Terror was just a short walk away. We spent about 3 hours inside the museum, which details Hitler’s rise to power, the start of the SS and the roles they played before and during WW2. It’s free to get in and carries a huge wealth of information; you wouldn’t do it any justice to just skim over all the photos and information. It’s an incredible museum.

Evening

After the Topography of Terror, it was starting to get dark, so we made our way back to Potsdamer Platz, where we went to Panorama Punkt – a viewing deck over looking the whole of the city. We’d read that on average there’s a waiting time of 2 hours at the TV Tower and can be quite expensive. However, Panorama Punkt cost us €5 each and there was absolutely no queue at all.

As I mentioned before, I love the TV Tower and I think it’s what makes the Berlin city so recognisable. One thing that dawned on me while looking across the city towards it, is that you may have to wait hours on end to go up the tower and admire the views of the city, but of course you don’t get to see it. And I personally think it’s not the same to look out over the city, without seeing the tower somewhere. So I was even more pleased with our decision to go up Panorama Punkt first. It was a slightly cloudy evening, but we could still see for miles – the building offers 360 degree views.

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After this we took a walk back towards our hotel, via Brandenburg Gate (see the photo I included earlier) and arrived at Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market at about 7:00pm.

This Christmas Market was by far one of the best things we did! It cost us €1 each to get in (the other markets in Berlin – there about about 60 – are free to get in, but this one is very much worth it!) We were greeted by 10′s of stalls, selling hot food, something sweet and mulled wine. Beyond these were stalls and stalls, selling handmade items and crafts. A lot of them had the sellers making their items there and then and then putting them out on display as they were ready. It was a brilliant market and put all the ones we have here at home every year to shame. We bought the last 2 handmade reindeer christmas tree decorations – I love them!

It was jam packed, but it didn’t feel chaotic or claustrophobic. It was a great atmosphere and full of people just having a great time.

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We stayed at the market for about 2+ hours, before deciding to head to a bar we’d seen not far from our hotel called Newton Bar. It was busy and bustling, but we got a table no problem. I ordered a cocktail while my boyfriend ordered some local beer. It was a great bar, nice atmosphere, with low lit intimate lighting – I’d definitely recommend it.

After about an hour we wandered back to our hotel to get some well deserved rest!

DAY 2 – 18TH DECEMBER

Morning

Our first full day of our 4 days in Berlin, so we woke up nice and early, ready for another full day of exploring. We grabbed some fresh croissants for breakfast from the local supermarket and walked down to Check Point Charlie.

I’d read online that Check Point Charlie is a bit of a tourist trap now and not really that highly rated and I’m a bit sorry to say that this is true. There’s an “American” guard at the check point who for €2 will have a photo taken with you (why would you want this?) Or for another €2 you can have your passport stamped. It really is very tourist orientated. It’s worth seeing all the same, simply for it being a historic point, but that’s about it. We took a photo and then popped into the local Einstein Kaffee for a coffee and hot chocolate.

The sign stating that you are entering American territory is original (I believe – don’t quote me on that though), but if that is true then I was pleased to see that.

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After this we took a walk back to the hotel because the most incredible chocolate shop was just around the corner there – Fassbender and Rausch. I have a huge sweet tooth, so I was very much the kid in the candy store. It’s a brilliant store and there’s a chocolate cafe / restaurant upstairs. I unfortunately didn’t get to take advantage of the restaurant (next time I will though).

The thing that originally caught my eye when I walked past the store though are these amazing chocolate sculptures they have in their window!

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After a nose in there, we caught the underground to see the East Side Gallery, which is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall – acting as a memorial to the wall, with over 100 paintings covering the length. In 2009 the artists were paid to re-paint their work, due to the amount of graffiti that was covering it. However, even when we went, just 3 years later, a number of sections of the wall had been graffitied again which I thought was a bit of a shame.

We caught the tube to Warschauer Straße‎ and started to walk down towards the crossroads, where the start of the wall is. On the way down from the tube we passed an old multi-photo strip booth (“photo automat”). A bit of a novelty to us being that we don’t have any of these at home, we couldn’t resist using it, (just a little tip if anyone else fancies doing it too), they’re nice keep sakes.

From here though we walked the length of the wall and continued all the way up to Alexander Platz.

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Alexander Platz is a really nice part of Berlin, we had a good explore and wander around before coming across an Italian place called Trattoria Piazza Rossa, just opposite the TV Tower. We popped in there for some lunch (I ordered a Gorgonzola pizza – yummy!) before walking over towards the Berliner Dom.

We had been hoping to go up in the roof of the dome, but unfortunately they had to close it due to the snow. We had a good walk around the cathedral though and then did a bit more exploring, ending up in a cute German pub, Zum Nussbaum. Despite it being a cold, very grey day, we had a great day looking round the city.

Evening

By the time we left the pub it was getting dark, so we nosed around the Christmas Markets in Alexander Platz quickly, before catching the tube down to Schlesisches Tor for a bite to eat at Burgermeister, an old public toilet converted into a small burger bar. A bit of novelty perhaps but the burger place is incredibly popular in Berlin and does very nice quality burgers too.

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After a day on our feet all day, we fancied going somewhere in the evening where we could relax and put our feet up. So we ended up at a quiet little piano bar just off Friedrichstraße called Van Gogh. They did various beers and cocktails, so we drank the evening away, quietly chatting and listening to the piano – a lovely way to spend an evening.

Day 3 – 19th December

Morning

Today was the day I was most excited about, as we had booked online a month or so beforehand, with Insider Tours to visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

We met a rep of Insider Tours outside Berlin Zoo, who took us to our tour guide at the local train station. We then caught a train (free thanks to our ABC zone passes) for the 35 minute journey over to Oranienburg. The day was incredible, we both learnt so much that day, thanks to our tour guide. We paid €15 each and spent the day at the camp, covering all the different areas and sections of the camp and what they were used for. Our guide, Maria, was so insightful; not just about the camp and the war, but the local area too. We got so much from the camp thanks to her, I felt that if we had visited on our own, without a guide, it would have been a wasted journey. There’s so much to learn. It was harrowing and eye opening, but an incredible experience all the same.

One thing which I was surprised to learn, was just how many people today still support Hitler and his values / ethics. We arrived in this lovely little street, which leads up the camp. We learnt that each house had been built by the camps prisoners specifically for members of the SS, yet today, the whole street is still inhabited by Neo-Nazi’s. In fact, most of Oranienburg is inhabited by them and was originally known as SSburg.

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Sachsenhausen was the second camp to ever have been built, where it opened in the late 1930′s. It was never intended as an extermination camp, but a labour camp and a political prisoner / prisoner of war camp. When Hitler became Chancellor in the 1930′s, he managed to send all his opposition and those who voted against him to the camp, which helped him greatly when it came to gaining more power, because he had no opposition.

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As we walked through the entrance to the camp Maria told us what a typical day at camp was like for the prisoners (before the camp was over-run by them). Prisoners would be given 45 minutes to have breakfast and get washed. Winter’s would typically reach minus 15 degrees and they would all be expected to line up for roll call twice a day, in all weathers, where their numbers were read out to ensure everyone was still present. If someone turned up late (which they often did because there were so many of them – 3000 or more – and so few utilities) roll call would start all over again, until they reached the end.

Most of the prisoners worked at the back of the camp, in the Brickworks, which was hard and heavy labour involving digging clay with their own hands and shifting and burning bricks. Around the perimeter of the camp was a section called the Neutral Zone. This was a small patch of land, only a couple of feet wide, away from the camps fence, which was lined with electric fencing. Maria told us that when prisoners felt that they couldn’t stand the camp any longer this was their only method of suicide, if they even got the chance for the fence to electrocute them in the first place, as members of the SS up in the watch towers would shoot anyone who entered that zone straight away.

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Sometime after WW2 had began, the SS learnt that they had quite an important prisoner – Stalin’s son. I don’t remember the exact details, but Stalin was holding someone from Germany’s side prisoner, so they decided to negotiate with Stalin, offering his son in return for whoever he was holding. However the gist of Stalin’s response was “why would I swap a soldier for a lieutenant?” Stalin’s son later committed suicide by running into the Neutral Zone.

From here we headed into two of the last remaining barracks, built for the Jewish prisoners. About 400 jews would have to stay in these tiny barracks at any one time. When the camp was opened as a memorial, a new exhibition was put in place in one of these barracks. If I remember rightly, Maria said the Israeli President came to visit the exhibition and later made a public speech declaring how great the exhibition it was. Later that night though two Neo Nazi’s got into the barrack and attempted to burn it down. The fire damage has been left untouched, for everyone to see today.

From here we visited some of the prison cells and the kitchen. Maria told us about the hierarchy of the camp; homosexuals were at the bottom and treated the worst, above them were jews, then the likes of political prisoners and prisoners of war, but at the very top, who were treated the best, were criminals. Anyone from thieves and murders to rapists, as these were seen as people which could use at some point.

In the kitchen’s basement Maria told us a story about a famous Cartoon Artist who ended up being held at the camp. His job was to peel and wash potatoes all day. At some point he managed to get hold of some paint and started drawing artwork on the walls, which was really interesting to hear about.

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From here though we unfortunately had to move onto Station Z, the area where the gas chambers and chimneys were. Originally, the SS dug a trench, where they would line up the prisoners and shoot them one by one. This apparently took too long and was too impractical, so they began bringing in chimneys from other areas so they could dispose of the bodies quicker. However, the chimneys couldn’t deal with the work load, so they started to crack from the heat. The SS commissioned to have their own chimneys built and so Station Z was created.

All that remains now are the foundations, because the Soviets took over the camp and destroyed and flattened a lot of the camp. The part we saw was the gas chamber they built. They would tell prisoners they would be going in for a shower – the only way they could get them to willingly take their clothes off – once in the chamber, they would gas everyone inside using Zyklon B.

The next part we saw was an area they called the “doctors surgery”. Prisoner’s would enter the “surgery” one at a time. They’d be told they were having their height taken and so to stand up against the wall, however, behind them was a small slit in the wall, where a soldier would shoot them in the base of the neck with a low caliber gun, killing them instantly. They’d then be put in the next room, along with all the other bodies, where they’d later be moved to the chimneys they built themselves.

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Sadly the stories only got worse after this point, where we moved on to a part of the camp where they used to do medical experiments on the prisoners. I won’t go into detail here, I don’t think I need to. Although this was one of the nastiest parts of the camp, I think it was also my favourite part…favourite probably isn’t the right word to use, but it was certainly one of the most eye opening parts. The building is also completely untouched and intact, it stands today, as it did in the 1940′s when it was used. I think this is why it made such an impression on me, knowing I was stood right where all the horrific stories I was hearing had happened.

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Evening

I couldn’t recommend visiting the camp enough. We had an incredible day at the camp. Our guide was fantastic, well worth the €30 we paid and we learnt so much – which I think is needed in a place like that. It’s important we never forget.

Once we arrived back in Berlin city, we headed for Potsdamer Platz, where we grabbed some dinner and enjoyed a nice relaxed nose all round the area. Our first stop was the Sony Centre, which looked very impressive at night, all lit up, with their Christmas decorations on display. There wasn’t much else to see though so we went off to the Christmas Market instead, where there was more mulled wine and a spot next to the open fire there. It was lovely and cosy – a really nice and festive atmosphere. We stayed there for a while before deciding to move closer to the hotel as it was getting late, but to stop off at Newton Bar for a couple of cocktails again, before getting some more well deserved rest.

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Day 4 – 20th December

Sadly it was our last day of our 4 days in Berlin. Feeling sad to leave, we checked out of our hotel and caught the tube down to Berlin Zoo. We bought a combi ticket which cost us €2o each, but allowed us into both Berlin Zoo and Berlin Aquarium.

We had a great time at both places, the enclosures were big and clean and all the animals seemed very happy and relaxed, which is the most important thing. The zoo is in the grounds of Tiergarten which is a lovely park, so it was nice that the park didn’t just stop because you were in the zoo, but continued on inside.

We spent most of the morning at the zoo and aquarium. We had a booking at the Reichstag at 2:30pm, so this gave us plenty of time for a slow walk through Tiergarten, which is a really lovely park. It took us about half an hour to walk through the park from the zoo to Tiergarten. We were still a bit too early, so we looked round the Soviet War Memorial for a bit, before heading back for our Reichstag slot.

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We booked our slot for the Reichstag about a month or so in advance online. It’s free to go up in the glass dome and we received confirmation of our slot after about 2 days – quick and very efficient. We had to take our passports to get in and then go through a security check, which lasted all of 30 seconds. It took longer to take all our coats and gloves off than it did to go through security. Really quick, so very pleased on that front.

As the glass dome (Reichstag) is on top of a Government building (Bundestag), you can pay extra for guided tour of the whole building if you wish. We originally decided not to when booking our slot, but having been inside the building on our way up to the dome, we kind of wished we had. It’s a very cool, very secure building inside. It would have been interesting to have learnt more about it. Maybe next time we go to Berlin.

The dome itself is very cool though. There is a curved walk way that follows the dome sides all the way up to the top, so you get to experience clear 360 degree views over the city. It was overcast and a little rainy unfortunately when we went, but we could still see quite clearly. The views cover Tiergarten, over look Brandenburg Gate and then back over to the TV Tower and Berliner Dom. There’s no time limit in the dome either, so you can spend as long, or as little time as you’d like up there. The top of the dome is completely open, so it was quite cold inside, we didn’t stay for too long, but it was long enough to take advantage of the views.

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We were into the last few hours of our 4 days in Berlin, so we walked back over to Friedrichstraße, where we’d heard about a great Bavarian restaurant called Maximilians. We arrived mid-afternoon, so we had no problem getting a table. They had lots of reservations for that evening though. I am so glad we chose this place for our last meal in Berlin, the food is amazing. They serve huge portions, of great, hearty meals. Absolutely delicious. My boyfriend ordered a curried sausage meal and I ordered homemade meatballs, with a sauce and some veg. Both were very yummy! They also had Apple Strudel on the menu, with homemade ice cream, so we thought it would be rude not to try some too.

We walked away very happy, grabbed our bags from the hotel and got the Airport Express from Alexander Platz over to Schönefeld Airport, ready for our 9:40pm flight back home.

We had an incredible 4 days in Berlin and after planning a dream German road trip, Berlin has made desperate to see as much of Germany as I possibly can. Berlin’s an amazing city and I absolutely loved it there. Thanks Berlin!

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