German Odyssey, Part 1: Berlin Portrait
By Monique Burns
Since the 25th anniversary of German Reunification in 2015, thousands of Americans have headed east to Berlin, Europe’s newest “Capital of Cool,” where hip cafés and contemporary galleries vie with masterpiece-filled museums and World War II historic sites. Two hours south is Dresden, the lesser-known, but equally fascinating, capital of the German state of Saxony. Razed to the ground in World War II, then hidden behind Soviet Russia’s Iron Curtain for nearly 50 years, Dresden has reemerged in all its baroque splendor.
Intriguing in its own right, Dresden is also the gateway south to Saxony’s countryside and the neighboring state of Thuringia. In Saxony, sample German wines at 18th-century Schloss Wackerbarth, admire porcelain at the world-famous MEISSEN Manufactory and see sculpted sandstone mountains high above the River Elbe in Saxon Switzerland. In Thuringia, stroll through historic Weimar and Eisenach, two graceful cities that influenced 16th-century theologian Martin Luther, commemorated during 2017 celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolution. Incredibly, Weimar and Eisenach also inspired writers and philosophers like Goethe, Schiller and Nietzsche, musicians like Bach, Liszt and Wagner, and artists and architects like Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Beyond Thuringia’s cities, in the equally inspiring countryside, are centuries-old castles and wineries along with contemporary attractions like the new high-tech Leuchtenburg Porcelain Worlds.
In a week, using Germany’s excellent network of trams, trains, buses and riverboats, you can take in the highlights of Berlin and Dresden, and visit many other sights in Saxony and Thuringia. Better yet, carve out 2-3 weeks to explore Germany’s eastern reaches. You’ll not only see remarkable cultural, historic and natural attractions, but have plenty of time to relax in one of Europe’s prettiest and most peaceful enclaves.
In Berlin for two or three days, choose a hotel in Mitte, the city’s most central district. Boutique Hotel i31, a sleek design hotel with spacious, well-appointed rooms, a sunny breakfast room, a fitness room and sauna, and a lush garden with a koi-and-goldfish pond, has rates so reasonable you won’t believe you’re in a major European capital. From Mitte, you can walk to many of Berlin’s major cultural and historic sites. Or buy a Berlin Welcome Card, good for unlimited rides on the city’s subway, bus and tram lines, plus discounts on museum admissions. If you’re visiting lots of museums, the Museum Pass Berlin offers three days of free admission to 50 museums.
Art lovers won’t want to miss Museum Island, afloat between the River Spree and the Kupfergraben Canal. The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses five renowned art institutions with masterpieces dating from antiquity to modern times. Among the many highlights: the bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Neues Museum. On Berlin’s west side near Potsdamer Platz, the Kulturforum, a complex of major cultural institutions, includes the 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie, designed by Mies van der Rohe to house modern works. If you’re into contemporary art and design, book a Go Art! Berlin tour with art historian and former gallery owner Miriam Bers. Along with ready-made walks like “Berliner Fashion & Design” and “Kiezkultur (Neighborhoods) & Street Art,” Miriam and business partner Stefano Gualdi design custom tours. My one-of-a-kind art adventure took me through the heart of Mitte, to the Barn District, or Scheunenviertel, a former Jewish neighborhood with some of Berlin’s best contemporary art galleries and design studios. On Mitte’s southern fringes, in Potsdamer Platz’s up-and-coming design district, well-regarded contemporary art galleries like Galerie Judin sit alongside hip design shops like Fiona Bennett, led by the eponymous hat designer who’s now a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.
Berlin has scores, if not hundreds, of museums and historic sites, many connected to the Holocaust, World War II and the Berlin Wall. Start your pilgrimage with a visit to the iconic Brandenburg Gate, if only to snap a selfie before the many-columned arch topped by the Quadriga, a horse-drawn chariot bearing Eirene, goddess of peace. Steps away is the Holocaust Memorial, or, more properly, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with four acres of cemetery-like concrete blocks and an underground museum. (Ironically, the memorial sits on the former site of Adolf Hitler’s Chancellery; a block away, a grassy lot marks the underground bunker where Hitler and mistress, Eva Braun, committed suicide.) Berlin’s thousand-year-old Jewish story is told in fascinating depth at the Jewish Museum Berlin in the Kreuzberg district, south of the Brandenburg Gate. Along with historical artifacts, paintings and sculpture, plus high-tech interactive exhibits, the museum is known for its stunning 1999 building addition, a zinc-clad zigzag designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind.
A few blocks away, the Berlinische Galerie’s permanent exhibit, “Art in Berlin 1880-1980,” displays colorful (and important) German Expressionist works by the likes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Otto Dix, many critiquing German life and politics during and between the two World Wars. From there, it’s a 10-minute walk northwest to the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, or Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Also known as the Mauermuseum, or Wall Museum, it has hundreds of exhibits about modern Berlin history, including the Communist takeover in East Germany, the Allied Forces’ famous Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall construction, and the landmark Berlin speeches of U.S. Presidents, from JFK’s 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 call to “Tear down this wall.”
Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum poring over exhibits that include Volkswagens and even smaller Italian-designed Isettas with special compartments to hide East German escapees. There’s even a motorized hang glider that one daring 24-year-old built to carry himself and his three-year old son over the wall to freedom on July 7, 1988. For the record, it’s currently estimated that some 1,000 people perished while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, but it’s also believed that as many as 5,000-8,000 succeeded.
With only 2-3 days in Berlin, you can only scratch the surface of the German capital, with its hundreds of cultural and historic sites, restaurants and nightlife venues. Promise to return, then head to Berlin Hauptbahnhof, or Central Station, and hop a train for the two-hour trip south to Dresden, capital of the German state of Saxony.
IF YOU GO
Berlin has excellent hotels in all categories. Right in the center-city, try this well-priced, amenity-filled hotel:
Boutique Hotel i31. Invalidenstrasse 31, Mitte, 10115 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-96-53-57-000 or 49-30-33-84-00-0. www.hotel-i31.de/en
While in Berlin, don’t miss:
Berlinische Galerie. Alte Jakobstrasse 124-128. 10969 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-789-02-600. www.berlinischegalerie.de/en
Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Friedrichstrasse 43-45, 10969 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-253-725-0. www.mauermuseum.de
Go Art! Berlin tours. Miriam Bers, Yorckstrasse 16, 10965 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-30873626 or (49) 72-312-0351. Art, design and food tours. http://goart-berlin.de
Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). Cora-Berliner-Strasse 1, 10117 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-26-39-43-36. www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en
Jewish Museum Berlin. Lindenstrasse 9-14, 10969 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-259-93-300. www.jmberlin.de
Kulturforum. Matthäikirchplatz, 10785 Berlin, Germany. Complex includes the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Gemäldegalerie. www.smb.museum/en
Museum Island. Bodestrasse 1-3, 10178 Berlin, Germany. (49) 30-266-42-42-42. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, housing five major art institutions. www.smb.museum/en