Berlin over New Years
My husband works in an industry that has him traveling for work for really long stretches, generally six months or more at a time. I don't usually find his destinations very exciting... Hi Albuquerque and Atlanta. But he just got his first oversees job and I was so excited to finally have a fun place to visit. Now the flip side is it's impossible to see him for a long weekend and the time change is tricky for keeping in touch. But I like to see the positives... New Years in Berlin and Prague, Spring Break in Berlin and Paris. Ja, Ano, Oui!
I had not been to Germany since I was 10 years old and at that time we only went to Munich. I mostly remember flying down the Autobahn and eating a lot of weinerschnitzel. I was really looking forward to seeing where my husband was living, what his neighborhood was like, and putting a visual to our conversations. I was also really interested in delving into the complicated history in Berlin. We arrived in Berlin on the afternoon of New Years Eve... within a few hours things were blowing up left and right.
I kid you not, I have never, in all my days, seen and heard a commotion like what happened on the eve of 2020.
The kids and I wandered over to the local grocery store to get some treats for a little in-home celebration. The lines were long and there was a huge display of fireworks near the check out stand. Noted, but not really. By the time we started walking to dinner, people were out lighting those fireworks on every median, patch of park grass, and just right on the sidewalk where we were walking. It was slightly disorienting and maybe slightly dangerous, but never mind, we made it to dinner at Osteria 1 with all limbs in tact. Dinner was good, though not exceptional, and we were practically falling asleep in our pasta by the end. We took an Uber home and the driver admitted to a crazy fascination with fireworks in Berlin. At the stroke of midnight the explosions started in earnest. Our windows were rattling and I swear it felt like we were under siege. This went on... and on... and on. Miraculously we managed to go back to sleep, despite the jangled nerves.
The next morning, I saw spent firework casings on the sidewalk directly under our windows. Well, there and everywhere else that was a flat surface. 2020 was off to a banging start!
New Years Day
We knew most things would be closed on the holiday, so we set off for sights that weren't restricted to specific days or hours. Our first stop was the Holocaust Memorial, technically The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I had been wanting to see this in person for a long time and it was cold and dark and confining, and yet not as moving as I expected. It wasn't until a few days later that we went to the museum underneath the stelae (the concrete coffin-like structures), which provides an incredibly heart wrenching account of the Holocaust. I don't think you can feel the gravity of the horrors by just wandering through the above ground portion of the memorial, so I highly recommend spending at least an hour at the museum with an audio guide.
The Holocaust Memorial is a block from the Brandenburg Gate and the park in front of the Reichstag Building, both of which were recovering from the night before. The gate was blockaded with temporary structures, so we didn't get a full unobstructed view until a few days later. But we really enjoyed walking around the area and wandering down to the Spree River to see all of the government buildings from the outside. We kept walking and found ourselves on the other side of the river at the Boros Gallery, which has an incredible history. Unfortunately I didn't book a tour early enough, so I will have to check it out in the spring. We loved all the graffiti outside the gallery and seeing the giant bullet holes that remain in the building from the war.
We had a late lunch in the lobby of the Hotel Aldon. The original Hotel Adlon was one of the most famous hotels in Europe, but it was mostly destroyed in the war. The new building design was inspired by the original and we enjoyed the opulence and a break from the cold.
My husband does not run a tight ship when traveling, unlike me. I like to get up and get on the local time schedule immediately. He thoughtfully kept letting us sleep in and man, did we ever have a disastrous time with jet lag. Our days would start at 11am and then no one could sleep at night. This went on for days, until I took the kids to Prague for a few days and pulled it together.
Travel rule #1: don't sleep in, even if you're tired from the travel.
Another day of walking all over town. As a person who has lived in Los Angeles for over two decades, I find it incredibly exciting when I travel to a city where I can walk or take public transportation! We explored Mitte, the cool neighborhood in East Berlin. There are a lot of retail stores in the area and great little coffee shops (we loved The Barn) and cafes. From Mitte we carried on to the burgeoning cool scene in Prenzlauer Berg. We had an incredible Vietnamese vegan lunch at Cat Tuong, which was so good that the kids were asking to go back there throughout the remainder of our stay. But the real excitement was Paul's Boutique, a vintage/thrift store that my son found around the corner. The kids loved scouring the racks (a lot of racks in a very tiny space) for gems. They scored some cool things, from old Chuck Taylors to an old school Adidas sweatshirt.
After thrift shopping, we stopped by a modern art gallery, Konig Gallery, for a little dose of culture. It was a small exhibition and we enjoyed both the exhibit and the architecture of the space.
We needed a little more history after a day of shops and walking around neighborhoods, so we headed out to Tempelhof, which is a defunct airport with a lot of history spanning both World War II and the Cold War. We arrived with no real plan and it became obvious pretty quickly that without a tour we would- at best- be getting a few neat Instagram shots. As luck would have it, we stumbled into the right area at the right time- a tour in English was about to set off, so we quickly grabbed tickets and ran to catch up with the group. The tour was thorough... it was still going strong after 2+ hours when the kids and I decided we really got the gist of it and pulled an Irish exit. But truly it was incredibly interesting, as the airport was first constructed as a symbol of Nazi ideology and a space to hold spectacular air shows and other impressive feats of the regime. The airport later became a symbol of freedom as a gateway for people fleeing the Iron Curtain. The architecture is culturally significant and there are layers upon layers of information and history stored inside the massive structure.
After this tour, we went back to our apartment to de-thaw, eat leftovers for a late lunch, and basically lounge around in our long underwear for the rest of the day. Some days are just like that.
Saturday! We had my husband back from the clutches of work, so we set off for some good family fun, starting at BergWerk. This is an absolutely bizarre place... and totally awesome. It's a huge climbing, ropes course inside of a mall. At first glance, I was a little worried that we'd race through the course quickly and become bored after a short while. I was wrong! The course twists and turns and seems to go on forever. There is even a portion that dangles high above the mall food court. We spent a couple of hours here and loved it.
BergWerks is a good 30-40 minutes outside of town, so after we finished climbing we headed back to Berlin for some lunch at The Greens- Coffee and Plants, which is actually a little coffee shop and plant shop and is super cute. I think the food offerings are more plentiful during the week, but we managed to get a few of the remaining sandwiches and they were delicious. We followed up lunch with a spin through the beautiful contemporary art museum, Gropius Bau. The atrium had a lovely exhibition constructed of plants that had a live piano player inside. The juxtaposition of this modern event in the middle of the gorgeous Renaissance hall was mesmerizing.
My daughter had found a chocolate making workshop for us to do in the afternoon at Belyzium Artisan Chocolate. The course, which is a few hours, consists of the history of the company and how they source their chocolate from bean to bar. After that you put on protective gear and go into the kitchen where you get to experience the whole production process - from roasting the beans, to grinding, and on through making the chocolate bars. We got to make our own bars with their bar shaped molds and chocolate fountain. While your bar is cooling, you are whisked back into the shop to taste all of the different flavors and even the beer + chocolate collab that they have with a local brewer. This was a fun activity for a rainy and cold afternoon, though we all agree that we wouldn't mind a little more sugar in our artisanal dark chocolate.
We drove to Dessau to explore the epicenter of the Bauhaus movement. While you could easily spend days exploring the architectural gems of this area, we focused mainly on the Bauhaus Museum and the campus which is dominated by Walter Gropius' UNESCO World Cultural Heritage denoted building. If you are at all interested in architecture, art history, and/ or the modern art movement, then I would say this is absolutely worth the short trip outside of Berlin.
It took us about 1.5 hours to reach by car and the fun part is you can drive as fast as you want to get there.
If you're wondering if we would ever get to the Berlin Wall, then fear not. We made the most of our final day in Berlin! Well, as mentioned previously, my husband is not one for setting alarm clocks and we nearly missed our appointment at the Reichstag Building, which would have been devastating. Admission to the building is free, but you need to make an advance appointment and bring your email permission to enter and your passports (Hard copies! Thankfully the guards gave us a pass even with our digital copies probably because my husband had his actual passport with him. Another Reichstag Building crisis averted.) The viewing is centered around the Dome, which has a wonderful exhibit with photos and in-depth description of parliamentary history that you follow around in a complete circle before ascending the dome. The views from the top were a little distorted on our visit due to the rain, but I loved the architecture and the history of this building.
After a delicious and filling breakfast at Father Carpenter in Mitte, we went to immerse ourselves in Cold War history at the DDR Museum. This museum is amazing and we spent hours pouring through all of the information and interactive displays. It was by far the best way to truly understand what communism was like for people living in East Berlin. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
After we finished the museum, we headed straight for the Berlin Wall, as everything from the last seven days in Berlin led us to a very clear understanding of what that structure truly exemplified and also what the tearing down must have been like for people living in Germany in the late 80s.
While it is obviously impossible to truly know the horrors of the Holocaust or living life behind the Iron Curtain if you didn't experience it first hand, I think that the museums and landmarks of Berlin do an incredible job of keeping that history pertinent and palpable.
We finished our last day in Berlin with a late lunch at the famous currywurst stand Konnopke Imbiss, which the kids loved. And then we went for an ice skate at Erika Hess. It was a perfect last day. We are looking forward to going back in the spring to explore some more sights... and hopefully in slightly sunnier and warmer temperatures!
Dinners that we loved:
Cookies Cream- Next level extraordinary vegetarian food with a side of pompous attitude in Mitte.
Lon Men's Noodles- This little hole in the wall is bustling with activity and a steady stream of people waiting to eat these yummy noodle dishes in Charlottenburg.
893 Ryotei- Delicious Japanese behind an unassuming graffiti-covered facade in Charlottenburg.
Madame Ngo- Amazing pho- which is perfect for a cold night in Berlin in Charlottenburg.
Papa Pane di Sorrento- We stumbled upon this great pizza place on New Years night. It was packed with people and we quickly found out why- great service and incredible food in Prenzlauer Berg.
Schnitzelei- For when you want the classic German dish, but in an establishment that's a little more upscale than the traditional beer hall in Mitte.
Kanaan- Tasty vegan/vegetarian Middle Eastern food in an upbeat little restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg.