Port of Berlin
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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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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.
Good to Know
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.
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).
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.
The language is German, and many people speak at least some English. There should be no problem at the tourist locations.
Food and Drink
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.
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.