As we near the end of the review of our nine week, fourteen city summer vacation across Europe, our twelfth stop brought us to Berlin, Germany for a week of history, culture, food, and friends.
Berlin was everything I expected and then some. Great summertime weather, nice people, minimal crowds, easy transit, good food, all with low prices (for a major European capital city). I’d certainly rate Berlin a hidden gem on this basis. My naive hypothesis is that Berlin is still a city in transition following World War II devastation and the post-war sundering of Berlin into East and West halves by the former USSR and the western Allies.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited as one country shortly thereafter in 1990. In today’s Berlin there are ample reminders of the turbulent past century in the form of museums, memorials, and preserved segments of the Berlin Wall. Though it’s hard to imagine anything bad actually happened when you’re sitting in a placid city park or strolling down the quiet riverfront. Then you catch a glimpse of pockmarked walls and columns on old buildings and that makes you wonder if those were caused by bullets or an exploding shell that barely missed its mark.
I mention the history of Berlin to put it in context. But enough of that boring history stuff! Modern day Berlin is just another big city in Europe where residents go about their business and tourists visit museums and art galleries, see impressive buildings, and eat crazy food. So let’s get on with this trip report!
If you’re just tuning in to Root of Good, here’s a summary of our trip in Europe so far. We started our journey in early June, 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain. After Granada we visited Seville, Spain. From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.
Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves before we headed an hour north to the edge of Slovenia to Podkoren to explore the Soča Valley and river and the Julian Alps. After Podkoren we visited Salzburg, Austria with a side trip to Hallstatt and the Dachstein ice caves. Leaving Salzburg, we drove two hours west to Munich, Germany.
From Munich, we took a four hour bus to the northeast and crossed the border into the Czech Republic where we soon entered Prague. We took a train from Prague to Berlin where our story picks up today. By the time we got to Berlin, it was the very end of July and we were starting week eight of our trip across Europe.
Berlin is a really beautiful city full of classical and modern buildings, trees, plazas, and the River Spree. As the capital of Germany, it holds all the national government buildings along the River Spree.
World War II History
I have been fascinated with World War II history for a long time. Berlin is the biggest focal point for key points of interest for the Nazi regime and WW2 history more broadly.
The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was first constructed in 1961 to keep East Berliners from escaping into West Berlin. The end result was a destruction of family ties, economic interests, and transportation links between the two halves of the city.
As the Soviet Union came to an end, so did the East German support for the Wall. On November 9, 1989, it all came to an end when the East Germans were allowed to pass through the wall to American-aligned West Berlin.
Today, remnants of the Wall are scattered around Berlin. Some are somber reminders of the division of East and West while others have been re-purposed as playful artists’ canvases.
Lodging for a week in Berlin with Airbnb
In Berlin, we found a great centrally located three bedroom apartment with multiple transit routes, parks, restaurants, and a grocery store all just a couple of minutes away. We decided to pay up for a great location and plenty of space and still managed to pay only USD$100 per night for a one week reservation.
The landlord was a musician that also enjoys traveling the world and she rents out her apartment when she’s globetrotting. At the time of our stay, she was visiting Cuba. This presented a slight problem with communication when we found out the keys we picked up didn’t open the main exterior gate leading into the apartment building’s courtyard.
Eventually someone let us in the building and the keys to our actual apartment front door worked just fine. The landlord suggested we visit her friend two floors up and borrow a main gate key to use for the week. Another airbnb quirk resolved.
The other bit of oddity we encountered was the lack of a microwave in an otherwise very well appointed kitchen. We made do with old-fashioned food heating methods but decided we are big microwave fans in general. Especially with kids that take about two seconds to shift from completely satiated in the hunger department to OMG I’M STARVING RIGHT NOW; FEED MEEE I’M DYYYYYIIIIING!!
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Food in Berlin
Good cheap eats was the name of the game in Berlin. Grocery shopping was easy with the great prices of a Lidl grocery store a tram stop away, and the convenient but slightly higher prices at a Rewe grocery store a half block from our apartment.
We also ate out quite a bit.
We made use of the Too Good to Go app several times to buy surplus restaurant meals for USD$3-4 each. This led to big plates of sushi and egg rolls from a Chinese restaurant and copious amounts of vegetable curry and rice from the Indian place a few doors down from our Airbnb apartment.
With the Too Good to Go app (which only covers Europe as far as I know) you get a meal for a very low price but you don’t get to pick what it is. We picked up some random meals from an Italian restaurant and they turned out to be a decent chicken caesar salad. We were a little disappointed because we were expecting lasagna, spaghetti, pizza, or something else stereotypically Italian and not something healthy like a salad.
Mid-way through the week in Berlin, we discovered the Preussenpark or “Thai Park”. It’s a city park that serves as a street food market filled with dozens of Thai and other southeast Asian vendors selling their best homemade meals straight out of Bangkok, Saigon, and Phnom Penh. All the big plates of food were €5 (USD$6) while the smaller items like chicken skewers, spring rolls, and pork buns were €1 (USD$1.25) each. Our family of five ate pretty well for about USD$40. That’s not exactly cheap but we ate a ton (and it’s still about $6,000 cheaper than plane tickets to Thailand).
The food was delicious and authentic. It reminded us of our own home cooking and what grandma makes back in Raleigh.
Getting Around Berlin
Our apartment was in central Berlin in the “Mitte” district which I’m pretty sure means “middle” in German. It was a very convenient starting point for most of our tourist adventures during the week, and a pleasant place to take a stroll around the neighborhood hoping for some serendipitous discoveries.
A car isn’t required in most of Berlin unless you’re planning on heading into the countryside beyond where the trains can take you. We weren’t planning on leaving Berlin, so a one week transit pass for the family was an easy choice. It was around €60 or USD$72 for unlimited rides for the whole family for the week. The trams, trains, and subways were always perfectly on schedule (it’s Germany after all).
We took a Deutsche Bahn Eurocity express train from Prague to Berlin. Upon leaving Berlin after our one week stay, we took a DB Intercity Express train to Cologne with a brief stopover in Frankfurt.
Thoughts on Berlin
When we were planning our vacation in Europe, we quickly eliminated the most popular European capitals like Paris, London, and Rome from our itinerary. We’ve never been to any of those but have seen so much of them on film and television and other pop culture references that we feel like we’ve already visited.
Berlin, in contrast, rarely seems to get any coverage. I didn’t know much about modern Berlin.
After spending a week in the city, I figured out that I like it. I wouldn’t mind living in Berlin longer term. Everyone spoke English. It’s relatively clean and cheap. Transit is convenient and incredibly efficient. It’s a big city that doesn’t feel like it since it wasn’t that busy other than a couple of the biggest tourist sites.
My perception of Berlin was formed by various historical fiction novels set in Weimar Republic and WW2 era Berlin, plus a number of non-fiction WW2 books, tons of war documentaries, and several computer games centered around removing the Nazi scourge from the face of Europe. It’s hard to reconcile that turbulent and violent past with the hip, vibrant neighborhoods of central Berlin today. But that’s what happens when you travel – long held perceptions are disabused by modern reality.
What’s your favorite capital city or major city in the world? Does Berlin make the cut?
Check out the fourteen part summary of our nine week European family vacation:
- Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000
- Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal
- From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain
- Exploring La Alhambra and the Narrow Alleyways of Granada, Spain
- Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain
- Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy
- The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy
- Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia
- The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia
- Explore Austria: Salzburg, Hallstatt and the Dachstein Ice Cave
- A Week in Munich, Germany plus Neuschwanstein and Dachau
- Czech it out: Exploring Prague in a Week
- The Wall and The War: Exploring Berlin, Germany
- Koblenz, Germany, Eltz Castle, and the Mosel and Rhine Rivers
- Amsterdam’s Cheese Museum and Bike Parking Garages
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