Visiting Berlin: Course 101


The Reichstag os the set of the German Parliament.
The Reichstag is the seat of the German Parliament.

For the moment, “25” is the number to remember about Berlin, as the city celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and by 2015, Berlin will have been Germany’s modern capital for a quarter-century. To this visitor, that seems a short time for a destination to have transformed from a place traumatized by Cold War division into the “cool capital” of Europe.

Drawing up a list of “10 Top Things to See & Do” would be rather presumptuous for a first-time tourist; however, recently my husband and I were indeed following a 101 beginners-in-Berlin course full of head-turning urban delights. We’d like to share these highlights, which started aboard hop-on hop-off buses that roam the city and offer tours lasting between two and four hours. Like Venice, Berlin is shaped by water, so we switched to a Spree River boat cruise for the final relaxing lap, soaking up the sun while drifting past the capital’s finest monuments.

Visitor interest in the Berlin Wall remains high, and one shouldn’t miss the East Side Gallery, the longest intact section of the Wall. It’s a brilliantly colorful memorial to freedom, fashioned by some 100 artists from all over the world who covered the Wall in murals. Other “Cold War” points that make up a more in-depth Berlin Wall experience include Checkpoint Charlie, the main entry point for visitors to cross the infamous Iron Curtain to East Berlin during the division of the city.

The Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament, is also one of Berlin’s most famed landmarks. It was most recently capped with a fancy transparent cupola designed by Sir Norman Foster. The view from the dome is breathtaking and panoramic, including just to the south, the Brandenburg Gate, totem of the city and the backdrop for President John F. Kennedy’s famous Cold War Speech in which he proclaimed “ich bin ein Berliner.” Note: Tourist queues for visiting the dome can be daunting; best to book a tour of the building that will include the cupola.

Museum Island is simply a cultural wonder, rightly awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. This small island (less than a half square mile) on the Spree River—accessed by five pedestrian bridges—hosts five top museums displaying major collections of world art and antiquities. Each museum is a destination within its own right and deserves at least a half-day to explore. We only had time for the Neues Museum, incorporating Berlin’s world-famous Egyptian treasures—some 2,000 of them; here’s the place to find the bust of Queen Nefertiti (1340 B.C.) and the Temple Gate of Kalabsha, built by the Roman Emperor Augustus in 20 B.C. And then the island’s superstar, the Pergamon Museum, which, if clients have time for only one museum in Berlin, this is it: artifacts from the fabled empires of Assyria, Babylonia and Mesopotamia, including the Great Altar of Pergamon, originally constructed in the sixth century B.C. in what is today western Turkey. Note: Combination tickets are available for all five museums.

Beer bike tours, a different perspective on Berlin.
Beer bike tours, a different perspective on Berlin.

Both historically and architecturally, the Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, is a must-see. The zig-zag, zinc-clad building covers more than 2,000 years of Jewish history—Roman-era to present-day—arranged in 14 different areas; an empty room commemorates the loss of Jewish culture. Available on site are both guided tours and a kosher cafe-restaurant. No less heart-wrenching is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Peter Eisenman’s hugely controversial 2,700 concrete stelae, arranged in a neat grid spread across a 200,000-sq.-ft. plot near the Brandenburger Tor. They are deliberately built at varying heights to give a sense of disorientation and confusion, but it’s the vast underground information center that really leaves you reeling.

An exceptional touring experience is Berlin Underground, taking a guided walk through the spooky underbelly of Berlin, making your way through bunkers and ancient tunnels. And under special interest touring, when planning travel for clients who bike, consider booking a guided tour—say the “Third Reich and Nazi Germany Bike Tour” or an “Evening Food Tour by Bike”—with Flat Tire Bike Tours; it’s a factual and fun way to get to know the city. They also have rental bikes so visitors can take a spin around the Tiergarten, once a private hunting ground and today a bucolic 500-acre park right in the middle of the city.

The food court at KaDeWe.
The food court at KaDeWe.

While there is no shortage of fine dining and hearty fast food stands in Berlin no snack bar in the world beats the amazing Food Hall of KaDeWe (a.k.a. Kaufhaus des Westens), the largest and one of the classiest department stores in continental Europe. While I didn’t count, the food choices are said to range from 1,800 cheeses and 2,000 cold meats to 1,400 breads and pastries. Note: Just debuting this year is the Mall of Berlin, the country’s largest shopping complex, fitted with space for 270 stores covering an area of 8.2 million sq. ft.

Jumping to the enriching subject of Berlin’s performing arts scene, no music-loving client should miss a night at the Philharmonie, home base of the world-famous Berliner Philharmonic. It’s an iconic venue, shaped something like a postmodern Chinese teahouse, clad in a honey-colored facade. We were lucky enough to hit a performance with the orchestra’s own Sir Simon Brattle conducting.

And just to end with a report on staying in Berlin…While the Regent Berlin may have won top Traveler’s Choice honors from TripAdvisor for 2014, the Hilton Berlin was perfect for us: Helpful staff, welcoming atmosphere, a great location on historic Gendarmenmarkt square—now aglow with the season’s Christmas market—comfortable room, nice not extraordinary decor, good bath—all of which we paid for at regular room rates but enjoyed and appreciated the upgrade to an Executive Room that comes with anything-you-want breakfasts and “welcome home” drinks after a long day of sightseeing. Inexplicably and irritatingly, WiFi in the room adds a daily surcharge of 25 euros. But going back to the positives, the Hilton Berlin offers several dining venues, from regional and international specialties at the Mark Brandenburg Restaurant to currywurst—the king of Berlin street food—served alfresco on the terrace of Dom Curry. For more information about Hilton International, call (800) 445-8667 or visit Double room rates start at $199.

The German National Tourist Board (GNTB) has turned the magic #25—the anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification at the heart of its international sales and marketing activities for 2014 and 2015. “25 years on from the fall of the Wall, we are presenting Destination Germany from 25 new perspectives. The campaign highlights cultural attractions and captivating landscapes in every region,” says Petra Hedorfer, chief executive officer of the GNTO.