Back to exploring the world from our UK-base! A fantastische weekend trip to Berlin to soak up the history and eat lots of vegan treats. A very cool and livable city.
Thursday 6 – Sunday 9 September 2018
Berlin has been on my ‘to visit’ list for a while. I’ve been told by so many people that it’s a great city, filled with history and fantastic for vegan food options. So when we were planning a weekend break, we decided to head to Deutschland and experience Berlin for ourselves.
Without meaning to, I booked a really funky hotel! The location was great and easy to get to from the airport. Using the very efficient public transport system, we reached the hotel in about 25 minutes by a bus and a few stops on the underground. We popped out of Weinmeisterstraße Station and headed in the direction of the hotel. We spotted the sign for the Weinmesiter Mitte-Berlin hotel then walked right past it. We missed the subtle door, which looks more like a fire exit, though covered in street art of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction, using selfie sticks.
Inside we were checked in by a very nice woman. She asked me to sign the documents and pulled a wooden flower out the desk to reveal a pen! Heading up to the 4th floor we noticed that the hallway where the stairs were was covered in street art. It was decorated one evening by a dozen Berlin-based urban artists as part of The Paint Club – the global urban art movement.
Our room was lovely, with a massive comfy bed. There was the ridiculous open-plan shower situation (which seems to have reached every corner of the world!) but it worked fine for us as long as we remembered to close the curtains when we came out the shower – as our room over looked some (very hipster looking) offices! One downside of the room was the lack of fridge, which would have been handy.
The hotel offers breakfast at an additional charge – either a simple pastry/coffee option in the lobby area (which was also very cool) or at the coffee shop next door. We decided against eating at the hotel so can’t comment on this. We took the lift up to the top floor one evening and discovered a rooftop bar area with hot tub, with views overlooking the TV tower.
All in all, a very nice, comfy and hipster hotel which I’d highly recommend. It’s adults only so no good if you’re travelling with kids.
Fat Tire Tours
After a leisurely first evening in Berlin, our first full day started at 10am at the Berlin TV Tower as we met for our Fat Tire Bike Tour. The company has various tour options, both by bike and Segway, and we had decided on the Third Reich and Nazi Germany tour. The tour promised to explain the circumstances in which a maniac like Hitler managed to rise to power. Since our trip to Auschwitz two years previously, I’d wondered just this (along with ‘how were SO many people SO evil at one time?’).
After signing in, we were pointed in the direction of our tour group of seven led by Kieran, our tour guide. Though Irish, Kieran has lived in Berlin for a few years and even has a couple of relevant degrees making him more than qualified to explain the history of the city to us. We were all assigned bikes and were on our way. Aside from a few busy junctions, the streets of Berlin are actually pretty quiet and there are numerous bike lanes which made cycling safe and easy (especially in comparison to bike tours I’ve done in Shanghai and Bangkok!).
We cycled to our first stop – Berlin Palace – where Kieran gave us some information on the political climate in Berlin following World War 1. The impact of the Depression on Germany and an ineffective government caused people to lose faith in democracy and look to extreme political parties – such as the Nazis.
Next up, we visited Humboldt Universitaet in Babelplatz. Babelplatz was the site of a Nazi book burning ceremony in May 1933, when Nazi youths burnt the writing of authors, journalists, philosophers and academics. There’s a quote in the square from Heinrich Heine, a German Jewish poet whose works were burnt. It translates to:
“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
An eerily prediction, written over 100 years before the Holocaust.
In the middle of the square, there is a sort of window in the ground, through which you can see a memorial below. The ‘spatial installation’ by Micha Ullman is of an empty library to commemorate the book burning. The bookshelves have space for around 20,000 books – the number that were burnt in 1933.
Not history related, but I was very interested to learn that Humboldt is one of the best universities in Germany and you can study a Masters there for free! There’s no tuition fees for German, EU or international students.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Onwards to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also known as the Holocaust Memorial). The memorial, designed by Peter Eisenman, was opened in 2005. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of various heights covering 19,000m2. Eisenman didn’t explain what his design was meant to represent and its abstractness leaves it open to interpretation. Kieren discussed some possible interpretations, such as the feeling of being lost or uncertain when walking around it as you could quickly become split up from those you are with.
During the construction of the memorial, it was revealed that the company who provided the anti-graffiti paint used – Degussa – had also supplied Zyklon B to Nazis during the Holocaust. Zyklon B was the chemical used in gas chambers to murder people in Nazi death camps. Slightly astoundingly, it was decided to progress the construction with Degussa. Wolfgang Thierse, chairman of the memorial foundation said. “We should not exclude parts of society and certain companies, even if their predecessors are linked with the crimes of the Nazis…. We have learned again that the past reaches into the present.”
I didn’t realise before Kieran told us that a lot of really well known companies worked with the Nazis. For example, Hugo Boss designed Nazi uniforms, Coco-Cola branded themselves pro-Nazi to increase sales and Volkswagon was actually created by the Nazis. I’ve always loved VW Beetles but just found out that they were designed in response to Hitler’s request for VW to design a ‘People’s Car’. Though I can understand that it is better to look forward and that the majority of companies that survived post WW2 had to work with the Nazis to do so, I find it quite twisted that the company that profited from murdering Jews later profited from building a memorial for the Jews that were murdered.
Under the memorial, there is an underground information centre. We didn’t get a chance to visit unfortunately but Kieran told us that there is a recording which has short biographies of each Jewish victim of the Holocaust. I love that this gives each victim a short period of time to be remembered and reminded me of the corridor of photographs of victims that I had seen in Auschwitz. I felt that I wanted to take time to look at each photograph to honour each person.
A very short cycle from the Holocaust Memorial and we reached the site of Führerbunker – Hitler’s underground air raid shelter. The actual site has nothing to see aside from an information board and is now a car park and some residential buildings. We spent quite a while here and Kieran told us about Hitler’s final days here as he realised that the situation was hopeless for the Nazis. After marrying Eva Braun in the bunker on 29 April 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide. Hitler declared that he would rather choose death than ‘fall into the hands of enemies’.
Josef Goebbels, who was also in the bunker with his family, was named his successor. That didn’t last long as the next day, Goebbels and his wife poisoned their children with cyanide before they committed suicide. The following day, Berlin surrendered and the Soviet Army occupied the city.
Although there isn’t much to see in this place – understandably, it hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction – it was quite mind-blowing to think we were standing in the place where this had all taken place.
Topography of Terror
Next up on our tour, we cycled to the Topography of Terror where we got our first glimpse of the actual Berlin Wall. Now a history museum, the Topography of Terror is built on the site where the Gestapo and SS headquarters were located. The museum is free and has indoor and outdoor exhibitions. We didn’t have time to go inside the museum but had a quick look at the outdoor exhibition which includes the largest existing section of outer wall (East Side Gallery is longer but is the inner section).
Soviet War Memorial
Apparently, there are a few Soviet War Memorial in Berlin and we visited one at Tiergarten. It is estimated that 80,000 Soviet soldiers died in 1945 when fighting to take Berlin. This memorial was completed in November 1945, only a few months after the Soviet Army occupied the city. Understandably, there has been some controversy over this memorial over the years.
There are some other memorials in Tiergarten, such as the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, which we didn’t have the chance to visit.
The Reichstag Building is home to the Bundestag, German’s national parliament. David and I visited again after the tour so I’ll come back to it in more detail later. Specifically relevant to the Third Reich and Nazi Germany tour though – on 2 May 1945, Yevgeny Khaldei (Red Army naval officer and photographer) climbed onto the roof of the Reichstag Building and took the photo ‘Raising a flag over the Reichstag’, which symbolised the victory of the USSR over Germany. Inside the building, you can still see Soviet graffiti on the walls, which has been preserved during the reconstruction.
As we started to make our way back to Berlin TV Tower there was still time to squeeze in a little more history. We made a brief stop at Reichsbahnbunker, a listed air-raid shelter in Berlin-Mitte. Though not underground, the walls are 3 meters thick and it could shelter up to 3,000 people.
After World War 2, the Red Army took over the building to hold prisoners of war. In 1949 it was used to store textiles and in 1957 it was used to store fruit due to its consistent temperature. In 1992 it was turned into a hardcore nightclub until a few raids closed it down. Since then it has housed some art collections and festivals. It is now privately owned by Christian Boros who converted the building into exhibition space and built a penthouse on the roof.
On the pavement outside of the bunker, Kieran pointed out a Stolpersteine to us. This translates to a stumbling stone and is a small concrete block with a brass plate on the top. This is part of an art project around Europe by Gunter Demnig that commemorates the victims who were deported and ‘exterminated’. The project has been running since 2015 and there are already around 70,000 Stolpersteine. The project has a website where you can request a Stolpersteine for someone who was killed.
Memorial to the Rosenstraße Protest
The final stop on our Fat Tires tour was the Memorial to the Rosenstraße Protest, the only mass public demonstration by Germans against deportation of the Jews. The protest was by the German wives of Jewish men after their husbands and children had been arrested by the Nazis.
About 200 mostly women partners and siblings held a non-violent demonstration outside the Rosenstraße community centre in the hope that it would stop their loved ones being deported to Auschwitz. A conundrum for the Nazis who didn’t want to be seen shooting German women in public. Days of protest later, on 7 March 1943, the women won and their men were freed.
In the small park on Rosenstraße, there is a memorial to the protest and also a concrete bench with a man sitting on it, to reflect on the years that Jews were forbidden to sit on park benches by the Nazis.
A Fat Tire full of history
Phew, that was a lot of history squeezed into a tour! We actually had a half hour break for a quick lunch too. I do enjoy a good tour when visiting a new city as it takes you to all the main sites plus some that you never would have found on your own. I’d highly recommend Fat Tires if you’re visiting Berlin – our tour guide, Kieran was fab and so knowledgeable and I learnt a lot. The Third Reich & Nazi Berlin Bike Tour that we did was advertised as four hours but I think it was about 4.5 hours in total. Kieran jokingly apologised a few times that he was spending so much time talking about places we visited but everyone in the tour group loved all the small details. I think if we’d had more time we would have also done their Berlin Wall Bike Tour which would have followed on nicely and giving us all the post-WW2/Cold War history. Thank you very much to Charles from Fat Tire Tours who invited us to join the tour as their guests.
The Fat Tire tour took us to a lot of the places that we wanted to visit, but we still had Saturday to explore. Starting off with Brandenburg Gate, which is a short walk from the Reichstag Building. When I think of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate is the first thing that comes into my mind.
Constructed in the late 1700’s, it was Berlin’s first Greek revival building. During the time that the Berlin Wall was up, the Brandenburg Gate was in an exclusion zone, which separated East from West Berlin, and inaccessible to people on both sides of the Wall. Ronald Reagan, US President, did a speech at the Brandenburg Gate on 12 June 1987 and said “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Having been a symbol of a divided city for almost 30 years, the Brandenburg Gate became a symbol of unity when the Wall came down.
The area around the Brandenburg Gate is now pedestrianised and the area is very busy with tourists. This was the only place in Berlin that I found crowded – in generally I found Berlin to be such a quiet city.
Checkpoint C, nicknamed ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ (using the NATO phonetic alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…), was the most famous crossing between East and West Germany. It was the only gateway where Allied diplomats, military personnel and foreign tourists were allowed to pass into East Germany. There isn’t actually much to see now aside from replica of the guard house, sandbags and a couple of ‘US guards’ with large American flags, asking for money to take your photograph with them. I’m not sure what I expected but it was little disappointing, though I suppose a must-visit when in Berlin. We went into a McDonald’s right beside it to use the toilet and noticed that they have a balcony with seating over-looking Checkpoint Charlie – surely one of the more interesting McD views in the world!
East Side Gallery
Always attracted to street art and colourful things, East Side Gallery was high up on my to-do list for Berlin. At 1.3km long, this is the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still standing and the longest open air gallery in the world. After the Wall came down, 118 artists from 21 countries began painting and the East Side Gallery was created.
The most well known painting is probably ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’ by Dmitri Vrubel. I didn’t realise but this is actually a reproduction of a photography taken in 1979 during the 30th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic. The photo is of Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet Union) and Erich Honecker (GDR) in a ‘fraternal kiss’. The socialist fraternal kiss is a special greeting between political leaders of Communist countries to show the ‘special relationship’ that exists between Socialist states.
We only visited one museum during our trip to Berlin. Usually David drags me to museums where we have to walk around reading things and I turn into a brat, yawning on a bench and asking if we can go eat yet. However, this one promised an immersive experience – buttons to push! And it is about everyday life in the former East Germany, which had been missing from our historical adventures so far. I find this post WW2 period of history so fascinating since our Nowa Huta tour outside of Krakow in 2016.
The DDR Museum is open 365 days a year (!) and entry costs €9.80 for adults. We were there for about 90 minutes and could have spent a lot longer but it was getting late and we were worried that restaurants would be closing for dinner. There is so much to see and read about life in East Germany with interactive exhibitions such as a Trabi car that you can ‘drive’ around the streets in and a replica apartment. I thought it was an excellent museum and would highly recommend visiting.
I have read that the DDR Museum can get very busy so my top tip would be to go late in the day. It is open 10am-8pm Sunday-Friday and stays open until 10pm on Saturday. We visited at 7.30pm on Saturday and it was quite quiet. We could happily play in the Trabi for a while without hogging it at about 9pm!
Dome of the Reichstag Building
Last, but in no way least of our Berlin exploring was a trip to the Dome of the Reichstag Building. We ended up visiting the Dome on the day we flew home, which was our third attempt at visiting.
Although it’s free to visit the Dome of the German Parliament’s Reichstag Building, you need to get a ticket in advance. This can be done online ahead of your trip by registering on the website, or on the day at a ticket office across the road. I’d got us tickets online for Friday but we couldn’t go at the planned time due to a tour. So on Saturday, we visited the ticket office in the morning hoping to get a ticket later that day…no luck. However, we were told that the next day was the German Bundestag’s Open Day! So we rocked up on Sunday, queued for 10 minutes and got in with the added bonus being handed a pretzel when we came out of the lift! Danke!
The Dome itself is beautiful with an environmentally friendly design including a huge sun shield, which tracks the movement of the sun. There’s fantastic 360° views of Berlin and an impressively efficient audio guide which tracks you walking around the climbing ramps to explain what buildings, monuments and parks you can see.
Definitely worth a visit if you’re going to Berlin. Make sure you book your tickets in advance as I think the Open Day is only once a year (we were very lucky!).
A vegan-friendly city
Berlin was named the 2nd most vegan-friendly city in the world (after London) by HappyCow earlier this year. Knowing this I, maybe naïvely, expected to be falling over vegan food options in the city. It wasn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped and we did have to do some research though there are tons of fantastic vegan options in Berlin. It’s also very well understood and it was such a nice change not to feel like a complete inconvenience when asking if something was vegan.
My top places that we ate are:
- SOY – Vietnamese cuisine and entirely vegan. What a treat to have an entire menu to choose from! We went here for dinner on Saturday night, it had a great atmosphere and the food was delicious. When we got the bill we were surprised at how reasonable the cost was.
- Momos – Organic veggie dumplings. I love dumplings and these were so good. Four of the six dumpling fillings, all the sides and dips are vegan. We went for a ‘Momos’ Experience’ with a selection of dumplings to share and some sides.
- Vöner – Vegan kebabs. Everything is vegan and the kebabs are MASSIVE. We could only eat half and took the other away with us for later. Very relaxed and would recommend for a casual lunch.
- Curry 61 – Curry wurst with a vegan option. David really wanted to track down vegan curry wurst and fries and was happy with this choice.
Overall, I would say that Berlin is an absolutely fantastic city for a weekend break. It has so much fastinating history, prices are reasonable (coming from the UK) and there’s loads of trendy places to eat and drink (with plenty of vegan options!). Walking about the city, the streets feel pretty quiet and very safe – and it was sunny and still high 20s early September which always helps!
If I was thinking of moving to another city in Europe, I would give Berlin some serious thought. Apparently a lot of business is done in English, especially in the new tech companies. In fact, I heard a lot of people talking in English as we walked about. Also, if I was thinking of going to uni, I’d do some intensive classes to brush up on my Higher German and try to get a free place at one of the universities in Berlin!