The Wall and The War: Exploring Berlin, Germany

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.

 

Exploring Berlin

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.

The City Hall

 

Oberbaum Bridge

 

Neptunbrunnen Fountain

 

Museum Island by the River Spree

 

Berlin Cathedral

 

 

Taking a stroll down the riverfront

 

Offices lining the river

 

Alexanderplatz fountain

 

Friedhof Sophien II cemetery near our apartment

 

The Reichstag building housing the German Bundestag (Parliament). I’ve invaded and captured this building several times in different WW2-themed video games.

 

Right behind the Reichstag, they project an evening show on the building across the water relating the history of the Reichstag and Germany from WW2 through the Cold War to modern day.

 

The German Chancellery housing the executive branch of government.  The equivalent of the US White House

 

An incredible plaza inside the Sony Center near Potsdamer Platz

 

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.

A monument befitting the man. This unadorned patchy grass area marks the spot where Adolf Hitler’s life ended in his underground bunker. They removed the bunker long ago.  Today the site is used as a parking lot for mid-rise apartment buildings.

 

The holocaust memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Approximately six million were killed by the Nazi regime. There are roughly 3,000 concrete blocks in the memorial (which reminds me of coffins). That means each concrete block represents about 2,000 victims. The memorial covers an entire city block.

 

The Moltke Bridge over the River Spree in downtown Berlin. It was one of the few bridges that survived the Allied bombing and invasion of Berlin.  The cranes in the background and the new Berlin Central Station are unintentionally symbolic reminders of rebuilding and reconstruction.

 

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.

 

A portion of the Wall at the Berlin Wall Memorial. The guard tower watches over a “no man’s land” between multiple layers of fences and concrete walls.

 

Where the wall used to be

 

Checkpoint Charlie was the main gateway between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. The McDonald’s and KFC signage on either side of the street mean “the Cold War is over / Welcome to Capitalism comrades”.

 

Much better use for the wall in my opinion.

 

I’m not glad they built it, but I’m glad they preserved a section of it and painted it.

 

The Brandenburg Gate served as a gateway between East and West Berlin until the construction of the Wall.

 

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!!

 

Oh, no microwave? How quaint you Europeans are! The dishwasher more than made up for it.

 

Our funky hip little living room crash pad for our week in Berlin. There’s a Buddha in the corner so you know you’re gonna have a great stay.

 

A nice sized dining room. Perfect for inviting friends over when you’re in Berlin and they’re in Berlin.

 

Friends! We met up with fellow FIREees Kristy and Bryce from Millennial Revolution blog fame.  We ate homemade doner kebabs and drank a LOT of beer (when in Germany…).

 

A block from the apartment – one of several neighborhood playgrounds.

 

It was a little on the creepy side. Check this dude out.

If you want to enjoy the personal connection that comes with Airbnb rentals while saving a lot of money, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

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.

Vegetable curry and rice times four. We were hoping for a variety of dishes. Though this was good enough to try the restaurant a second time (when we got vegetable curry again).

 

Not the best sushi given the high rice:meat ratio but about par for what you would expect for Chinese restaurant takeout.  At least the price was right with the Too Good to Go app.

 

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.

Are we in Bangkok or Berlin? Sawadee, y’all.

 

Killer pad thai for $6.

 

Pork buns for a euro each.

 

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.

World class train station: The Berlin Central Station (“Hauptbahnhof”).

 

The transportation nerd in me loved the central train station with it’s 16 platforms on two different levels plus several floors of restaurants, stores, and lounges in between.

 

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:

 

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42 comments

    1. It’s not delivered but we were fortunate to have the Indian place literally a 20 second walk from the apartment and the Italian and Chinese places were 2-3 tram stops down and on our way home from one of the subway lines. But yeah, it’s basically food roulette or secret santa style. Never know what you’re gonna get. Only real disappointment was the Indian place only giving us veggie curry and nothing different, and the caesar salad not being something that didn’t involve lettuce 🙂

  1. Once I hit FIRE I’m definitely going to revisit these posts to learn the secrets to long, amazing, and frugal European vacations. This looks awesome and I can’t wait to take my family one of these days. Thanks for sharing!

    1. What, no microwave? What’s the story behind that? Small kitchen or you just don’t use it? And how do you reheat stuff? Like if you wanted to heat up leftovers?

  2. What an amazing trip. Thanks for sharing. I was 8 the last time I was in Germany, so I don’t remember too much about it other than looking through pictures. My wife and I will have to plan a trip to explore!

    1. I have some fond memories of a big trip out west to Colorado, Vegas, California, etc as a kid of 10-11 I think. Hoping to revisit those places as an adult at some point since I’ve never been since I was a kid (other than Vegas and Hoover dam a few years ago).

  3. Two years ago my wife and a friend and I all spent a couple weeks training around Europe… and stupidly only allocated 36 hours for Berlin. We’re going back in August for at least ten days. That city is a delight. Thanks for the tips on Too Good to Go and Preussenpark; we’ll definitely make good use of those!

    1. We initially planned a much faster paced trip through Europe – the kind where you only have 36 hrs in some cities. Then we decided, nope, we could always come back a second time and hit all the places we missed on this trip. Enjoy Berlin. 10 days is perfect to see most things but not get bored. And plenty of time to eat at Preussenpark more than once 🙂

  4. Berlin looks like a great city Justin. This was last year you went, right?

    My favorite *international* city has to be either Kyoto or Osaka. Kyoto has the beautiful sites and culture, and Osaka has all the wonderful food. The best part? They’re only a 45 minute train ride apart.

    1. Japan is definitely towards the top of my travel-to list. How long would you recommend if you really wanted to enjoy both cities? Any reason you prefer those two over a city like Tokyo?

    2. Yes, we visited in basically the first week of August, 2017. Probably the nicest time of year weather-wise in Berlin and the tourist crowds weren’t bad at all.

      Osaka and Kyoto huh? I’m hoping we have a chance to get to Japan some day! I have the same question about Tokyo as JT by the way. I figure I’ll have to spend at least some time in the big city too.

  5. I work with a guy who goes to Berlin every single year. Apparently its nightlife is second-to-none.
    Not the sort of holiday you guys were experiencing, though!!!

    1. Ha ha, probably a very different kind of trip than the one we took 🙂 I think the latest I was out in Berlin was an 11 pm run to the grocery store for beer with Kristy and Bryce from Millennial Revolution.

  6. I went to Germany twice in the past year, but didn’t make it to Berlin. I hope to get back there again next year, and after reading this, will definitely check out Berlin. Looks like you guys had a great time!

    1. When planning the German leg of our trip I struggled SO much with all the different cool regions and cities within Germany. I had 10 different places on my list to visit but we could only visit 3 (plus some day trips to other cities). I’m very glad we visited Berlin as one of those 3!

  7. So after living vicariously through this series, I’m trying to decide which location (or two) would be best to spend a more extended time period at (A month?) with four young kid (Think 5 and under). Suggestions?

    1. 5 and under? Stay home and relax! 😉

      The rivers and lakes in Slovenia were cool. Nice and relaxing tons of stuff to see in the outdoors. Berlin would be another good option too, especially if you’re going in summer. Weather is nice in both places and Berlin has a lot of green space and parks. Berlin has great transit and it’s free for kids if you buy the adult pass.

      Southern Europe gets rather hot in summertime but our kids did okay overall (the youngest was 5 at the time). Though if you want outdoor water-related activities the weather is good for that. The lakes and rivers in Slovenia were FREEZING even in the middle of July when we were there.

      1. Haha, that is most certainly the strategy for most of the year. I just can’t shake the desire to spend some time “Relaxing” somewhere else for a while 🙂

        Freezing rivers and lakes year round?? What kind of witchcraft is this… Sounds like Slovenia might be a nice (budget) travel location to spend a slow-paced month. Those perks in Berlin sound pretty promising as well though! Certainly seems like it would be a great home base for day trips.

        The best vacation we’ve ever taken (from a pace perspective) was a week we spent in San Antonio. Chill activities in the morning/evening and naps in the afternoon!

        1. Slovenia was incredibly beautiful. But yeah the water was 45-55F in the places we visited in the Alps. Definitely a great budget location if you’re into the Alps vs. the much more expensive Italian, Austrian, and especially Swiss sections of the Alps. Still as beautiful though.

      1. Just got back and had a FABULOUS trip! You are absolutely right about the great food prices in Berlin. In fact, almost everything was way so much cheaper than other European cities we have visited. We packed 4-5 sights in each day (not including all the random memorials and statues we happened by) for 3.5 days. We could have used at least three more days…so much to see and do in this one city. Thanks again for your post. It definitely helped me identify quickly the parking lot to go to for the Fuhrerbunker.

        1. Awesome! Great to hear the post was useful in your exploration of Berlin. I was really surprised at how affordable it was compared to the stereotype of “big city Europe = super expensive”. And wow – 3.5 days and 4-5 sights each day. That’s incredibly busy by our pace! I think we only saw half that much stuff in the 7 days we were there!

  8. Berlin looks like a really cool city now. I am glad Germany has turned into a peaceful country again with all of its rich culture and history.

  9. Thanks for bringing back fond memories of Berlin. We really enjoyed it, and we briefly considered living there. What ended up putting that idea away was the high rent. They have this warm and cold pricing. Say you see an apartment and it says 600 euro. There is an added warm price which can bring the rent to 900 euro or more. Berlin is great for youngsters who can share apartments to bring the rent down, but we are way past that, and partying 🙂 . Also, English is widely spoken in the touristy areas, but move outside that, and you’re screwed. They either won’t or can’t speak English. Glad you guys had fun! It’s a nice place to visit. P.S.. Love the new site look. It rocks!

    1. I got the sense that the rent there was “average” but not really “cheap”, but then again we were only looking at short term rentals. What does the “warm” price include to make it go up? The building maintenance fees and utilities for the common boiler for heating?

      Your comment on the English not being widely spoken outside tourist areas is interesting. I guess we didn’t get far enough out to experience that. We spent a week out in the suburbs of Munich and everyone spoke perfect English there. Maybe east Germany around Berlin is different since the folks over 50 or so didn’t grow up learning English in school (Russian being a popular 2nd language I imagine). We never got out of Berlin while in East Germany so that might explain why we encountered English speakers everywhere.

      1. Yeah..all the building maintenance from what we could deduce…maybe taxes too, it was almost always the same price as the cold price. The realtors are gods there. They just stand around while people rush around and try to make a good impression because they have all the power. We got lost a lot 🙂 and discovered that English was indeed not spoken everywhere…plus a blogger friend and her hubby took us places outside of the city. Great city though.

  10. I studied abroad in Berlin in college. My host mother and some of my friend’s host parents didn’t have microwaves either.

    1. Maybe that’s a relic of East Germany. I imagine microwaves were a luxury so maybe people just got used to life without one. And the smaller kitchens in general (vs the US kitchens that are often huge!) means you have to economize on what appliances you have on the countertop.

  11. Something that I read which really struck me as interesting – the Berlin Wall has now been “down” for longer than it was “up”.

    Anyway, Did a Europe trip a couple of years ago with the family (7 of us), and we actually hit London and Paris, and then did Muenster in Germany. I think London and Paris were worth it – so much to see and do there in terms of history, culture, etc. Muenster was a nice change and a really neat city also

    1. I guess we are right at that point in time where the wall has been gone longer than it was up. Interesting observation!

      We’ll definitely visit London and Paris at some point. It just didn’t make it to the top of the list this time around. Eventually we’ll do western Europe and probably do a combo of Paris/London plus several other cities while in that part of the world.

  12. “Sawadee, y’all.” Imma use that the next time I’m in Thailand.

    I’ll always look back fondly on our time in Berlin. Especially that horrible horrible “America apple pie”. Was it really worth 3 Euros as a bad joke? Not really. Still, I regret nothing 😛

    1. LOL @ the apple pie. Hey, now we all know just how bad the German version of American apple pie really is. Too bad they didn’t make some kind of German streudel or pasty and call it apple pie. Would have been delicious! 🙂 Though the “extra spicy hot authentic Mexican salsa” that tasted like sweet chili spring roll sauce (duck sauce) was a worse cultural food translation (if you remember that sauce 🙂 ).

  13. could you please share the link of the airbnb place you booked?. Planning to go next spring, but I cannot find anything for 100 USD, with all the hidden fees. Thank you

    1. Sure, here’s the place. I think the host only rents it out a few weeks (or maybe 1-2 months) per year and looking at the schedule, they only have 3 days available in the next year. She only rents when she is gone on vacation herself. We looked 6 months out and happened to find her apartment available. Also, with the USD/EUR exchange rate getting worse, you’ll pay about 10% more right now versus what we paid to book back in January 2017.

  14. Hi Justin, coming late to this. Had to read it as I lived in Berlin for six years in the 90s, and still live in Germany today, only now in Bavaria. My guess about the curious case of the missing microwave would be that… it’s not THAT unusual for Germans to think that they are harmful, either random rays escaping from the machine and zapping people, or the process destroying the vitamins and nutrients in food. (Germans have their health quirks — they are fanatics about keeping their kidneys warm and my husband has warned me that reheated spinach is ‘pure poison’) I do have a microwave, but rarely use it (even though I grew up with a microwave in the States and even had one in my dorm room in college).
    So funny about that Too Good to Go app — couldn’t wait to tell my kids about it, and they BOTH already had it downloaded on their phones (although they’ve apparently never used it) — huh, who knew. I’m glad you enjoyed beautiful Berlin! I was there as a tourist long ago, and vowed to live there someday — I did, married a Berliner, and had two kids there 🙂 dreams come true.

    1. Americans have some crazy bizarre health ideas, too. Germany has no monopoly on crazy! These particular airbnb hosts did seem a little bit more organic/bio/crunchy than the average berliner so that might be it. It could also be dismissed as simply the fact of life with limited shelf space (they had a nice coffee grinder, coffee machine, dishwasher etc after all).

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