What makes sense after spending nearly two weeks in a small Southwestern German village where every neighbor knows one another and the largest employer is the chocolate factory? Head straight to one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan, historically rich and diverse cities of course!
There’s nothing like diving into a complete social 180. During this sabbatical and after 2 months of traveling, I’ve nearly forgotten how to socialize with other humans, my conversations even with the best of friends ending mid-sentence with awkward pauses and misinterpreted intentions. Of course, this meant that I was absolutely not prepared for just how cool and hip Berlin is.
When traveling, I like to get a sense for the tone of the city. London is sophisticated. Paris is unmatchably romantic. Sevilla is magical. Beijing is ambitious. Geneva is diplomatic. Edinburgh is enchanting. Berlin? Berlin is hip. In fact, I think Berlin is so hip that US hipsters from San Francisco and Brooklyn have still not caught on to the coolness of the place…it’s that hip. The still affordable city is littered with cafes, microbrews, museums of all kinds, strange and eclectic music, and of course, former East German power plants turned into posh, exclusive nightclubs that “ooo-nce” all night. Man buns, beards, ironic t-shirts, and bikes are seen on every corner, and I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a coffee roaster. Perhaps this is because until recently, Berlin’s population was still weighted heavily in the Western neighborhoods of the city. We’ve heard a friend joke that in the 1990s, there were more empty apartments than people on the Eastern side of Berlin. Even just a few years ago, it was possible to rent an entire three bedroom in Charlottenburg for less than 1000€/month, and so artists, musicians, and other creatives were able to afford and build small businesses in the city.
My Company and I spent just three and a half days in Berlin, far too short for a real visit given the size and diversity of the city. Within that time, I discovered schawarma (oh Arabic burrito, where have you been my whole life?), ate some of the best Sichuan food outside of China in Charlottenburg, visited half a dozen charming cafes with coffees from Tempelhof to Shoneberg to Friedrichshain that would best San Francisco (they had flat whites, after all), celebrated a wedding anniversary with a picnic in Britzer Garden, and visited some must-see historical museums in the city center of Mitte. It was here, walking through the old Gestapo HQ and along the fragments of the wall that I reached my second impression of the city: Berlin is deeply humane, fearlessly reminding every single resident and visitor the darkest corners of human history, even if it is the city’s own history.
Three days in Berlin is hardly enough to explore this sprawling, easy-going yet exciting city. If you must though, don’t shy away from the traditional touristy places like Museum Island or the historical spots in Mitte for the afternoon and retreat to delicious food, drinks, and if you so desire, nightclubs in the hipper areas of town like Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg. Or you can do reverse and start your day in Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg for coffee and breakfast at one of the many well-known cafes and then head to Mitte for museums. For shopping, head to Charlottenburg, and if you need some outdoors for relaxation, you can find one of the many large parks in the city for a retreat.
The Humanity in Honesty
I spent 2 afternoons wandering around Mitte and across Museum Island including a detailed tour of the Museum of Terror, where you can stand in one spot and see the old Gestapo HQ parallel to the remnants of the Berlin Wall all while reading detailed accounts of nightmares that occurred in that very spot.
You can start your walking tour from the Bahnhof of Berlin on Friederichstrasse and walk to the northern most point of Museum Island. On Museum Island, you can walk around the lawns and cafes of classical art or archaeology museums and find one or two to step into. It’s too overwhelming to do more. If you feel tired, you can stop for a coffee and pastry at Allegretto Gran Caffe, mostly for the view (the coffee was so-so and overpriced) and a break from the summer heat wave.
From there, you can walk across Mitte in the opposite direction toward Brandenburger Tor, the famous Berlin Gate that you’ll likely recognize from photos of Germany. Go south through the Gate and toward the Jewish Memorial, a striking piece from afar and even more striking when you walk through the structural art that makes you feel as if you were walking in between coffins of various heights, a homage holding the names of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Berlin makes it impossible to forget the past, even if it is not your own past. As you pass through the memorial, it is just as impossible to wonder what it would be like if this had been you – on both sides, the emotions of fear, guilt, anger and despair ebbing and flowing like the waves of the shadowed structures around you.
As you keep walking toward the direction of Check Point Charlie, keep an eye out for remnants of the wall, and you begin to realize as you see the different walk signal lights (the man with the hat was for East Germany; the man without the hat for the West), 1990 no longer feels so far away. Along these edges, the wall feels painfully smaller than my childhood memory – hearing about it from my parents – allows. Yet here it was that between 130-200 individuals died trying to cross what we now know as an imaginary border, and I could not help but look through the cracks to imagine what it was like to be on the wrong side.
If you keep walking, you’ll eventually come to the Memorial for the Wall and the Museum of Terror, sitting on the old Gestapo HQ that had been bombed away. The museum itself walks you through a history that begins after WWI and right up until the Nuremberg trials as you look through old photographs. There’s not an easy place to take a break. It’s as if the curators wanted you to experience the horror that the victims and perpetrators did, one event after another, events happening simultaneously and moving so fast that it would only be until after everything crashed down – the armistice held, the buildings obliterated and the millions of souls lost – that you could finally sit down, over a drink, a coffee or just water, and exhale to ask, “What in the name of humanity has happened to us?”
It is not an easy museum, and it isn’t meant to be. After the tour and before you head back via the U-Bahn at Check Point Charlie, sit down outside under a tree and have a drink at Martin-Gropius-Bau, another museum with a small biergarten next to the Museum of Terror. Here, you can can collect your thoughts and reflect as I did.
Berlin’s catharsis, three decades after the Wall fell and seven after the War, is a deep and honest immersion into its own past, like a painful psychotherapy that isn’t quite over. I have never seen this in any other capital city. Every capital I have been to focuses primarily on the victories and moral high ground of that nation’s values and reserves little (if anything at all) for the bloody past that conquering, imperialism and colonialism so often goes hand-in-hand with the victorious writers of history. Perhaps, then, in order to truly move on and learn from our pasts we should treat our own history as if we had lost a war, been the perpetrators, and sacrificed a piece of our humanity, the way the Berliners do. For we are all fundamentally made of the same materials – carbon, water, and a conscience of free will and spirit that is capable of both beautiful sacrifices and monstrous acts.
Food & Drink
For those of you who have been reading posts in this blog, you know that I like to spend a section on my favorite food and drinks. Yes, this is part of my obligation as a millennial (an older one, but still qualifying), but another reason for it is my deep belief that food represents – especially food passed down from generation to generation – the stuff that tells us about every day life not seen in museums or readable on the web. I also think that a city’s current food trends represent its diverse populace, whether it’s the immigrants who live there or the tourists they’re trying to cater to. In this way, I’m also curious about spotting Asian food during my travels, my own indirect and gluttonous way of understanding the Chinese diaspora. So without further ado, here’s a list of my favorite things (note: none of the links I post in this site are affiliate links. I just hope you can find and enjoy these places as much as I did!).
Shawarma. Shawarma and kebab in Berlin is unlike in any other country in Europe I have visited. I don’t know why, but the vegetable ingredients are fresher, the flavors are so much tastier and the meat less greasy or heavy. We went and had shawarma in a neighborhood in Templehof 3 times in 3 days and never got sick of it. I’d link it here but the place isn’t even on the map and doesn’t have a website. It is, however, crowded out the door and around the block with kebab lovers of all nationalities so the “follow-you-nose” method will work here.
Asian food. Thai and Chinese food seem to be oozing out of the city, and there’s some top notch places. Head to Tian Fu in Charlottenburg for some authentic and spicy Sichuan food (pictured below), to Tonsai Thai in Templehof or to Hangmee Exotiq in Friedrichshain for lunch (order the beef salad). After your lunch hang over, walk over to Tres Cabezas for some of Berlin’s finest coffee and buy a bag of freshly roasted coffee for home (or as a thank you to your host!).
Coffee. This one is hard since kebab and coffee seem to be the most popular type of food/drink businesses in Berlin. I’ll quickly list a few that I tried and enjoyed, but by no means is this a fair list (again there’s only so much coffee one can drink in 3 days). I, along with some of our Berlin friends, have at least vetted this list:
(1) Tres Cabezas for buying some beans for home and having a cup to enjoy there.
(2) Schiller Backstube in Schonebergon a Sunday if places are closed elsewhere and you’re craving some cake/pastry with your coffee. It’s in a cute neighborhood where you can speak broken German to friendly locals.
(3) Cafe Klangwerk is worth a visit just to see the inside as it is both a music shop and cafe. The food isn’t all too bad either. Quite frankly, I think it’s a brilliant business idea: offer coffee and some food along with your product and you will definitely increase your probability of a purchase.
(4) Mullerskind is a bakery in a park in Templehof and apparently offers some very authentic bagels along with good coffee. I didn’t have a chance to try the food, so if you go, please let me know!
Beer. Beer in Berlin is cheaper than water, and you’ll likely end up finding something between a pilsner, lager, kolsch, or cider though there’s many other options. Be prepared to pay premium for ales if you’re craving some US or British beers, but my suggestion on a sunny day is to find a nice outdoor plaza, drink a crisp lager, and enjoy the local brands Berlin has to offer.
Running, Exploration & Parks
During my travels this year, I try to exercise and run as much as possible as a resolution to my past, more athletic self.Given the short time in Berlin, I didn’t have a chance to explore many routes, though the city has extremely accessible parks for running and bike paths (see below). Of all the things I crammed into 3 days, the lack of hills for running or cycling is probably my only complaint. Berlin and its surroundings is a very flat city so if you’re looking for a place to do some serious climbing on the bike or to prepare for a mountainous trail run, you should head toward Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France or Spain.
Even though I crammed more touristing into Berlin compared to any other city so far on this trip, I never felt like a tourist. There were hardly any lines, the streets weren’t crowded (perhaps due to August holidays), and the openness of the city made me feel like I was returning as an old friend. My close friend C– whom I had the pleasure of seeing while I was there said, “Berlin is like the Portland of Germany; it’s just so livable.” She was right.
For years I had friends who encouraged me to visit Berlin (native Berliners, expats who moved there, or even other travelers), swearing that I’d love it if I went. For years, I had an excuse to go somewhere else. Now that I’ve visited, I concede that this metropolitan, diverse, and beautiful city that’s rapidly becoming a world tech tub is one that I could easily see myself living in.