The Reichstag in Berlin
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A visit to Berlin is simply not to be missed no matter how long the trip is from a ship docked at Warnemunde (near Rostock). Since the wall was pulled down in 1989, the city has a new lease on life. It's no longer isolated in the middle of Communist East Germany. Now, it's the capital city of a new Germany. What had been such a contrast -- West Berlin vs. East Berlin -- has now been largely erased. In fact, the former East Berlin side is where you will want to spend most of your precious time. It was, and is again, the soul of the city that follows a band running east from the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag (Parliament) along Unter den Linden, the city's handsome boulevard, to Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral and Alexanderplatz. Several intriguing neighborhoods are just a few blocks to the north and south of this line.
Few monuments, apart from a couple of churches, are truly old. Berlin itself is not an ancient city like Rome, and so much of what was historic was largely destroyed during World War II. With many churches, government buildings and landmarks rebuilt in the original 18th and 19th century styles, the city again presents itself as monumental, well laid out and, happily, with a minimum of intrusive high-rise skyscrapers.
While 3.4 million Berliners live in an area nine times the size of Paris, sites that a visitor will want to see are confined to a relatively small, mostly walkable area. The first-timer may want to join a standard city tour to take in as much as possible in the limited amount of time available. That way you will get to see the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Hauptbahnhof (the spectacular new main railway station), Holocaust Memorial, Potsdam Platz, Unter den Linden, the German and French cathedrals facing Gendarmenmarkt, Museum Island, Berlin Cathedral, Nikolai Church, Checkpoint Charlie and a piece of the wall, Kaiser Wilhelm Church, and Charlottenburg Palace. That's not all, by any means, as other sights further afield and lots of neighborhoods are also worth exploring. If you are intrigued by Berlin the first time around, come back for a longer stay.
My first visit to Berlin came as a teenager, and I returned when the wall was being constructed in August 1961. The latter trip was not altogether smooth. While touring East Berlin to see the contrast with West Berlin, I was arrested by the Stasi and interrogated for the better part of the day. Falsely accused of taking illegal photographs and spying on the German Democratic Republic, I had to sign a confession; otherwise I would not have been released. The U.S. government had no diplomatic relations with the GDR and no one even knew I was in Berlin. Once I put my signature to the document, I was escorted to the S-Bahn and sent back across the border.
It was almost 40 years before I returned, and I found the new Berlin to be a very exciting city well beyond my own previous experience.
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Berlin Wall memorabilia is popular, and photographs, postcards, propaganda posters and even a piece of the 100-mile wall are available, especially at the Story of Berlin exhibit along Kurfurstendamm and the DDR (GDR) Museum Berlin, next to the Radisson Blu Hotel.
The language is German, and many people speak at least some English. There should be no problem at the tourist locations.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Germany uses the euro (for up to date conversion rates go to www.xe.com), and ATM machines are available throughout the city. Kiosks, small stores and some transportation may not accept credit cards, so you should have a stash of euros, which of course you can use in many other European countries as well.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships dock at Warnemunde, near Rostock, on the north German coast east of the Kiel Canal entrance and west of the Baltic Sea. It is 165 miles south to Berlin, a three-hour train ride or a slightly longer and decidedly less comfortable bus journey. While the DB (German Railway) runs regular trains every two hours, most requiring a change at Rostock, the cruise lines provide direct rail or bus transfers from the ship's side to central Berlin with either a convenient drop-off and pick-up point for independent sightseers or a connecting city tour.
If you are taking an Elbe River cruise that embarks here, be sure to stay in Berlin for at least three nights before or after the cruise.
Unter den Linden from the Brandenburg Gate to the Berlin Cathedral and the immediate blocks to the south provide a wonderful stroll through the heart of the elegantly reborn city. Duck into the Adlon Hotel for a coffee, or visit the pastry shop just down the same side of the street. Walk past the State Library, Humboldt University and State Opera House. Pause in the Lustgarten bordering the River Spree and gaze up at the magnificent Berlin Cathedral. It is hard to imagine that an Allied bomb long ago dropped through the dome and largely destroyed the interior. Likewise, it's amazing to think that decades after the Second World War, the German and French cathedrals were still in ruins and the lovely apartment buildings bordering the Gendarmenmarkt (main square) and the upscale shopping along Friederichstrasse did not exist as they once had before the Nazi monster arrived.
The city has one of the most comprehensive transit systems in Europe, including buses, trams, the U-Bahn (subway and mostly underground) and S-Bahn (above ground urban/suburban trains). Some of the elevated lines have terrific views such as the S5, S7, S9, and S75 that run through the heart of the city. Double-decker public buses 100 and 200 follow routes that are geared to the sightseer and charge no more than the regular fare.
One major plus is the bridge they gap between Unter den Linden and the former heart of West Berlin. Transportation routes are interconnected by good signposting, though some transfers require long walks up and down several levels. Buy tickets (machines have English translations) in the stations and on the platforms or directly from the bus driver. A day pass at 5.80 euros is a good buy because then there is no barrier to boarding any train or bus. Up to five people can travel on a group pass which is priced at less than what three would pay for single tickets. Be sure to have the ticket machine-validated with the date and time before you travel. In addition, the Berlin Welcome Card (for those on pre- or post-cruise trips) gives you unlimited travel and discounts to museums, attractions, city tours, boat trips and theaters for 48 hours (16.50 euros) or 72 hours (21.50 euros).
Watch Out For
Like any big city, Berlin has its dangers and the most prevalent crime is pick-pocketing. Assaults are unlikely in any of the high-traffic tourist areas. U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations all have red "SOS" buttons for summoning the stationmaster.
If you follow this suggested route, you will see most of the city's highlights, and given the time allowed, be able to duck into a few. Some visits warrant a half day, so you will want to come back again for a longer stay.
Potsdamer Platz is a good place to begin as it represents a reborn Berlin, many of the new structures are the work of Europe's most celebrated architects. Once a wasteland, with the Berlin Wall running through the center, it is again the site for company headquarters like DaimlerCity and the Sony Center. It's also a center for film and TV entertainment and boasts more than 100 shops, restaurants and bars, an amusement park and a small piece of the Berlin Wall embossed with graffiti and photographs.
Walking north, you can get briefly lost in amongst the 2,711 stelae that form a cemetery-like Holocaust Memorial and underground information center to the murdered Jews of Europe. Across Ebertstrasse is the Tiergarten, the vast urban park that stretches west from the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) to the Berlin Zoo.
Built in 1791, the triumphal gate now unites the two Berlins rather than forming part of the wall that divided the city. The gate faces Pariser Platz, the again-elegant square rimmed by handsome buildings housing the Adlon Hotel, British Embassy and the U.S. Embassy.
Continue beyond Brandenburg Tor to the Reichstag (Parliament again since 1999). Built in 1894, it burned in 1933, giving Adolf Hitler an excuse to seize power. During reconstruction, Sir Norman Foster added a glass dome, one of the city's most popular attractions. While the wonderful view reached by lift is free, the wait may extend to an hour, so unless you can be on hand when it opens at 8 a.m., you may not have enough time to pay a visit.
If you did not arrive in Berlin through the brand-new monumental Hauptbahnhof (main railway station), be sure to walk across the open parkland to have a look inside. The S-Bahn and Deutsche Bahn trains pass through the curved glass train shed at the upper level as well as at completely right angles below ground. In between are a huge range of shops, restaurants and snack concessions, as well as a city information center.
Go back to Unter den Linden along a River Spree promenade to Wilhelmstrasse, then turn right and proceed two blocks south. Follow Unter den Linden past the Russian Embassy to Friedrichstrasse and turn right again to explore the city's most stylish indoor shopping precincts at Friedrichstadt Passagen -- Galeries Lafayette and Quartier 206 and 205. Using glass, marble and wrought iron, they have a sophistication that evokes the early 20th century, despite their much more recent construction and design.
Just east, Gendarmenmarkt forms a handsome open square setting for the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral), Franzosischer Dom (French Cathedral) -- built for the French Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing France and finding refuge in Berlin -- and the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall).
Continue south past the Stadtmitte U-Bahn station to Checkpoint Charlie, once the most famous border crossing between the American Sector and the Soviet Sector. The exhibit space, Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, tells the story of the Berlin Wall's construction and the ingenious ways East Germans tried to escape to the West via tunnels and by clinging to the underside of cars and trucks.
Keep walking south another four blocks and turn left on Hoffmann Promenade to the Judisches (Jewish) Museum for a poignant history of German Jewish contributions prior to World War II. Daniel Libeskind's architectural plan is disorienting on purpose. Multimedia exhibits show film clips, listening stations and documents stashed in drawers.
Returning to Unter den Linden, continue east past the Old National Library and Humbolt University (left) where Marx and Engles studied and Einstein taught. The Old Royal Library and State Opera House are on the right. The River Spree now passes under Unter den Linden as the boulevard becomes Karl-Leibknecht-Strasse and curves left. Am Zeughaus houses the German Historical Museum, while the island dividing the two river channels is the site for Berlin's largest concentration of museums, a truly splendid complex.
The four museums are Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) for 19th-century European art, including French Impressionists; Pergamon Museum for classical, Near East and Middle Eastern (Islamic) art, including the Pergamon Altar (165 B.C.) and Ishtar Gate (6th century B.C.); Altes Museum for Egyptian, Greek and Roman art; and the recently reopened Bodes Museum for European sculpture from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. A day pass will give entry to all four, or visitors can buy tickets to each museum individually.
Backing onto the second channel, the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) looms neo-Renaissance large. Completed in 1905, it was the family church for the ruling Hohenzollerns, some of whom are buried in the crypt.
Cross the second bridge and you'll find the entrance to the DDR Museum (German Democratic Republic Museum) at the river edge promenade next to the Radisson SAS Hotel. This museum provides a claustrophobic look into the mostly drab everyday life in East Berlin before the wall was pulled down. Exhibits showcase a temperamental Trabi (mass produced car), life in concrete housing projects, household and kitchen wares, and even Stasi listening devices.
South of Karl-Leibknecht-Strasse, Nikolaiviertel (Nicholas Quarter) recreates Berlin's 13th-century founding site anchored by twin-spired Nikolaikirche (Nicholas Church), plus Marienkirche, the city's oldest church with a congregation, and the 1860 Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall). The cobbled streets come alive in the evening for those seeking traditional German-style restaurants plus a couple of ethnic interlopers.
Alexanderplatz, once largely a parade ground where Hitler held rallies, is now a major modern shopping center and complex transportation hub for trams, buses, and the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The Fernsehturm (TV tower) is the dominant (and Berlin's highest) structure and, at nearly 1,200 feet, its viewing platform draws long lines.
North of Alexanderplatz, Scheunenviertel is the historic Jewish quarter with the rebuilt Neue Synagoge recalling a thriving past. The quarter is set in a bustling present of restaurants, shopping and nightlife extending to Hackesche Hofe, where restored courtyards provide intriguing alcoves of street life and shopping.
Go shopping. Prime shopping districts include the Am Gendarmenmarkt (including Galeries Lafayette) and Friedrichstadt Passagen along Friedenstrasse, south of Unter den Linden. You can also try Hackesche Hofe for courtyard boutiques three blocks north of the Berlin Cathedral; the Kurfurstendamm, a tree-lined boulevard and the main shopping street in former West Berlin; and KaWaDe department store at Tauentziensstrasse 21 (Wittenburgplatz U-Bahn), southeast of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church in former West Berlin.
Been There, Done That
Many intriguing sights and attractions are scattered well west of the Brandenburg Gate on the far side of the Tiergarten and southeast of Alexanderplatz:
The area around Kurfurstendamm was once the heart of West Berlin and it remains a vibrant shopping center. The anchor is Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), located at the southwest edge of the Zoological Garden (also the S-Bahn and U-Bahn station stop) for the Berlin Zoo and Aquarium. The ruined tower (circa 1895) is a reminder of World War II and the Allied bombings, while the newish octagonal tower (1961) alongside it tells the church's story.
Walk west along the Ku'damm to No. 207-208, the Story of Berlin Museum, displaying the city's history from imperial days until now. When the Nazi-era exhibits begin, you are led down a long set of stairs into the underground for an effective portrayal of Berlin from the late 1920's on. One wall shows how Hitler's handwriting deteriorated as his mental and physical health declined. There are film clips showing the Berlin Blockade in 1948-49 and after 1961, West Berliners looking across the wall into East Berlin, and respective East and West living room styles from the 1960's.
Located northwest of the Ku'damm, Schloss Charlottenburg is a complex of baroque palaces, rebuilt after WWII, that served as the home for the royal Hohenzollern rulers. Touring them takes a whole day, while the gardens may be enjoyed free of charge and are often a stop on the bus tours.
The longest section of the Berlin Wall (nearly a mile) parallels the River Spree southeast of Alexanderplatz. Take the S-Bahn to Ostbahnhof and walk right one long block to the river. Walking its remaining length, you not only see some of the murals that were painted after 1989 but can also appreciate the wall's height, which prevented East Berliners from seeing into the West. Walk to the far end and cross the handsome brick arched and turreted Oberbaum Bridge. The U-Bahn station (elevated) on the far side will provide connections back to Alexanderplatz, Unter den Linden and Potsdamer Platz.
For a short, one-day stay a quick lunch snack can be had throughout the city. Two of the local favorites are currywurst, a wurst sandwich with curry sauce either between a bread roll or diced and set in a paper dish, and doner kebab, sliced meat brought to Berlin by the huge Turkish immigrant population. Such outlets can be found all over the city, and the most convenient pauses in a frenetic day would be at Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz and the Hauptbahnhof.
The stone arches under the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn house several restaurants, all with outdoor cafes open in good weather. Order the Wiener schnitzel at Barist -- the breaded meat will cover the entire plate. Sour Brandenburg pork with scalloped potatoes and red cabbage is another favorite.
The Nikolai Quarter facing the River Spree and southeast of Unter den Linden is a restored section of old Berlin with many restaurants, some with outdoor dining. Reinhard's is a classic German-style restaurant with dark paneling and mirrors, and very good German food. Venison medallions are wrapped in bacon and the three-part plate -- pork, steak and turkey -- comes with a different sauce for each.
Both Gendarmenmarkt and Potsdamer Platz have lots of eateries.
Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the former East Berlin -- especially along Unter den Linden -- regained its reputation for being the city center (stadt mitte). By staying here you can walk to almost all the principal sites and neighborhoods.
Adlon Hotel Kempinski (Unter den Linden 77) qualifies as the most famous hotel in Berlin, having been built at the site formerly occupied by the city's "Grand Hotel" -- the original Adlon. Rebuilt in 1997, it occupies a prime location adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate and just minutes on foot from the Reichstag and Holocaust Memorial. The rooms and service are tops, and the best rooms look out to the Brandenburg Gate. Its lobby cafe is a popular gathering place.
Radisson Blu Hotel (Karl-Liebnecht-Strasse 3) could not be better located on the eastern extension to Unter den Linden after it crosses the River Spree, opposite the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) and Museum Island (Museums-Issel). Trendy Hackescher Hofe is two blocks north. The moderately priced rooms have all the amenities expected from a Radisson hotel, and the lobby houses an 80-foot-high aquarium. Ask for a room facing the cathedral.
Derag Hotel Grosser Kurfurst Berlin (Neue Ross-Strasse 11) is a well-located, attractively priced boutique hotel adjacent to the Markisches Museum U-Bahn station and just 10 minutes on foot from the Nikolai Quarter (Nikolaiviertel), the old city center and many traditional German restaurants. Rooms are of moderate size, and the best views are over the adjacent canal.
Staying in Touch
Wireless access is available in many cafes with a food or drink purchase. Otherwise the best places are easyInternetcafe (Alexanderplatz at Rathausstrasse 5, above Dunkin' Donuts), Potsdamer Platz (Potsdamer Strasse 2, Sony Center, also above Dunkin' Donuts).
Most shore excursions use a private train that operates from the ship to one of Berlin's railway stations. The tours then switch to a sightseeing bus. Including transfers, total travel time is about 13 to 14 hours.
Berlin by Riverboat and Train: Travel to Berlin by chartered train, then transfer to a sightseeing bus for a tour to Kaiser Wilhelm Church and the Kurfurstendam (elegant boulevard), the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and a remnant of the Berlin Wall, the Protestant (French) Cathedral and Charlottenburg Palace. From there, you'll board a riverboat and cruise along the Spree past the Reichstag and Museum Island. A Champagne reception takes place at the Reichstag, and a pub lunch is included.
Berlin in a Nutshell: This tour arrives in Berlin by chartered train, then uses a sightseeing bus to pass most of the best-known sites. The sights include remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenberg Gate, Reichstag, Gendarmenmarkt and Charlottenburg Palace. The tour also provides entry into the neo-Baroque, neo-Renaissance Berlin Cathedral and Pergamon Museum.
Transfer to Berlin by Train: For independent travelers who are willing to do their own Berlin tour, this is the way to go. At a Berlin station, a bus will leave you off at the city center and collect you about five to six hours later for a return to the train.
For More Information
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--by Theodore W. Scull, a New York City-based travel writer with more than four years at sea on cruise ships, ocean liners, cargo ships, cruise ferries, barges and river boats.