It was autumn cold. The leaves were yellow and falling. How travel giddy can you get, you get that at autumn.
The excitement was on high pitch. Yes, Berlin!
Germany’s capital is home to the Berlin Wall that fell down on 1989, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the Berlin Dom, Checkpoint Charlie, the Pergamon Museum and well, Homeland’s Season 5. You can think of an emoticon for the last one but I won’t budge as a forever fan.
Taking a train and arriving in a hauptbahnhof (train station) in Germany is an experience in itself. It opened on May 2006 and transports at least 300,000 passengers per day. I have been to the stations (which are conveniently shortened to HBFs) in Cologne, Frankfurt (and the one at the airport), Freiburg, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Mannheim and Munich. The lucky 8th is Berlin.
This city has too much history in just one place. Exploring it for 5 days isn’t enough. Well, holidays aren’t always enough, are they?
Some of these tips you already know but it helps to be reminded one more time before you pack and go:
- Choose a place close to a train station. All the walking is punishing. By the time I got home at night, even if I did few coffee shop breaks, I can’t hardly lift my legs. The apartment in Charlottenburg was perfect. The place was also teeming with Asian restaurants I felt at home. It was at least 5 stations away by train but all the stations have their own must-visit spots (such as Bellevue that gets my vote for the nicest train station).
When you leave Berlin in a train for the next city, be early in your designated gleis (railway track). The trains stop quite quickly for few minutes and closes the door on time. You’ll have to wait for the next and if your ticket schedule is non-transferrable to the next train, then you’ll have to get another one.
- Bring your most comfortable shoes. I wish you luck! I brought two – a pair of street boots and one rubber shoes that I have alternately used. The shoes worked but my legs failed me. By day 5 my knees hurt I can hardly climb stairs, I began to be grateful whoever invented escalators and elevators that are available in most of the train and tram stations. Their escalators go both ways so it can take you down after they have taken people up.
- Wherever you come from and it’s your first time, go straight to the Information Centre right in front of the station. You cannot miss it. If you cannot speak in German then they’ll orient you properly. There’s also the Tourism Centre where you can get a week’s ticket that already covers train, tram and bus rides inside the city. You can also get your ticket for hop-on hop-off tour buses if you’re interested.
- Check for a free walking tour. There’s always one wherever you go. It’s a nice way to start the holiday. Sometimes you also get to help a group of students or volunteers who get by with the tips. I’ve always done this in countless cities I’ve been to from Africa to Europe. In Berlin, I once again found Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour and it was great I signed up for their other paid tours. Check them out as they are in 17 cities in Europe and in New York in the US.
- Do your homework before the trip. Nowadays it is easier to plan ahead with a lot of travel sites and Google helping you where the famous sites are located. Doing your top 6-10 list will help you shorten your travel time. Getting lost is not an awful thing in Berlin as wherever you end is always something unexpectedly fantastic. But that’s if you have enough time to lose. When I got lost finding a nice restaurant, I ended up finding that incredible Bellevue Train Station. Don’t forget the list plus the addresses. See mine below.
- Brandenburg Gate
- The Reichstag
- The Berlin Wall Memorial
- The Charlottenburg Palace
- Berlin Cathedral
- Holocaust Memorial
- Museum Island
- The Sunday Flea Market at the Mauer Park
- Checkpoint Charlie
- The Tiergarten
Our trip to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was a sobering experience. Political prisoners were kept as slave labourers from 1936 to 1945. It was there that the first crematory was built in 1940. Our tour guide Rob from Sandeman’s facilitated an interesting discussion of the camp, its history and the turbulence brought by the Nazi empire.
One more thing, if you’re staying at hotels, don’t leave your rooms a mess. I realised many of the rooms are cleaned up by hardworking immigrants and friendly locals. You’ll make their lives easier by keeping your room clean and tidy. Our holidays do not have to be a burden to others.
I’d say, Berlin is a city on history-overload. But I also like the eclectic openness, the warmth of people and its ongoing quest to have its own place among the world’s famous cities, trying to be ahead but not yet there. Not quite but watch out London and New York.
You do not need another word to convince me to go back. I left my heart in Berlin.
If you have enough time, plan for a relaxing tour where you do not hurry and cram the day so you see everything. The truth is, you will never see all of them unless you live there for a year. Enjoy and savor each moment. Don’t get too caught up with photo opportunities that you end up visiting the place but not really enjoying it. I appreciated Berlin because I’ve read it in so many history books. It felt like I was visiting a place I knew for a long time. Read about the place before you go. Every trip is a chance to educate yourself more about our beautiful world.
Next week: Let’s go to Munich’s Oktoberfest!