Naked Berlin: Six Select Tips
By Susan Farewell
When in Berlin, it’s tempting to ask everyone over the age of 24, “Where were you when the wall came down?” But skip that question and go straight to “What was your life like before and after that telltale year of 1989?” You’ll get a far better answer.
When you talk to a Berliner—be it a taxi driver, a hotel porter, or a fellow diner—right away, you find yourself at a level of intimacy you’d generally save for close friends and family members back home. But here, everyone feels the need to reveal their own naked truth, both about themselves and their city.
The next year and a half is an ideal time to experience this refreshingly reborn Berlin, even if you’ve been before. Correction: Especially if you’ve been before. Berliners are celebrating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s powerful “Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) speech during the Cold War. There are exhibits at the Berlin Wall Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie and The Kennedys museum through the fall of this year, the 50th anniversary of his assassination. This is all leading up to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which will be celebrated in 2014.
While there are scores of websites and plenty of guidebooks spelling out the details of the must-sees of Berlin, keep the following Farewell Travels’ Select Tips in mind.
• Get behind the wheel of a Trabi. When you first spot one of these symbols of the Communist regime chugging along the streets of Berlin, you can’t help but be intrigued. But to really appreciate the classic former East German cars, join a Trabi Safari. These nostalgic drive-yourself tours generally have about eight cars in a convoy rolling around to all the major landmarks—old and new. A guide in the lead car points out attractions along the way, which are radioed back to everyone following closely behind. Not sure you’re comfortable with the four-stroke and manual gearbox in the busy city? No problem. The lead car guides you there as well. “Turn the fuel valve to A, pull choke, throttle, start, first transition in, put blinkers and let come clutch - and off she goes…”
• Try your hand at graffiti. Considered the mecca of street art and graffiti, Berlin’s urban art scene needs no introduction. But rather than just snap pictures of it with your iPhone, take the time to learn about its origins and history, its various styles and techniques and the unwritten rules and codes of conduct between street art and graffiti. Alternative Berlin Tours has 3.5-4 hour tours that combine street art walking tours with street art/graffiti workshops. You’ll have a chance to do a bit of painting (on the walls of a huge abandoned bread factory) as well as a canvas piece to take home (now that’s a souvenir!).
• Eat your way around the city. Whether you’re a serious foodie or you just want to have some memorable meals in Berlin, we recommend taking one of the culinary tours offered by Berlinagente, a lifestyle tour agency that specializes in private tours. We recently did their Gastro-Rallye East tour, which focuses on the food scene of the historic quarter of Mitte of East Berlin. In just one evening, we visited four very different restaurants, having a separate course at each one. Our guide, Henrik Tidefjärd (founder of the company), kept us engaged and amused (as well as happily fed) from beginning to end. Between courses, we’d stroll along the cobbled streets, all the while Henrik filling us in on the city’s food and wine scene. Our biggest takeaway? Every city needs a Henrik!
• Don’t just assume you can visit the Dome of the Reichstag. While most of Berlin can be explored very serendipitously, in order to go up into the Dome and Roof Terrace of the Reichstag (home of the German parliament), you must register online in advance (or spend hours waiting in line to do so). The glass dome, which you ascend up into by climbing two steel spiraling ramps, was designed by architect Norman Foster and symbolizes the reunification of Germany. From it, you will find the most expansive views of Berlin. Online registration can be found here and is easy. And…it’s free.
• Smartest way to get there. I just called AirBerlin and got a human on the phone within 30 seconds. You can’t say this about many airlines...especially those that are known for being more affordable than others. AirBerlin has won the World Travel Award in “World’s Leading Budget Airlines” more than once. But it’s far from the no-frills quality you associate with many low-cost carriers. On every one of their flights one of us has taken (be it trans-Atlantic or within Europe), there’s never been a complaint. Germany’s second-largest airline has very high standards (both in terms of service and equipment—it has one of the youngest fleets in Europe, always on the cutting edge of technology) but at the same time, its fares are extremely value-oriented. Once you know your dates of travel, hop on AirBerlin.com and check out the fares to Berlin-Tegel Airport (TXL)—you’ll find they are routinely lower than most of the other carriers traveling from the US and between European cities.
And if you’re going next year, you might find yourself flying into a brand new airport. Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER) is replacing Tegel, though the opening date has not yet been confirmed. AirBerlin flies to five US destinations including New York, Chicago, Fort Myers, Los Angeles and Miami.
• Rail Trip! While you can easily spend weeks exploring Berlin, consider seeing another part of the former East Germany while there. Less than 2.5 hours by train northwest of the city, you’ll find Schwerin, a stunning little city which works beautifully for a two-night visit. Dating back to 1160, it’s every-inch photogenic with a mighty cathedral, half-timbered houses, medieval cobblestones and small alleys—all extensively restored. The biggest attraction of all,however, is the Schwerin Palace which shines over the city with golden turrets and towers on an island in one of Schwerin’s several lakes. It’s Old World Germany, just as you pictured it.
Contact us to help plan your trip to Berlin and beyond. We can handle all the details including air, hotels, restaurants, guided tour and train tickets.
Photo Credits: Photos by Susan Farewell with the exception of aircraft image courtesy of AirBerlin.