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September 27, 2011

Getting to Know Berlin, Germany

by Anne Paddock
Berlin is the capital of Germany and the largest city in the country with nearly 3.5 million residents. Located in northeastern Germany, Berlin is truly unique and not just another city among cities.  Nearly destroyed by bombing during World War II and then divided by the Cold War until the Berlin Wall came down twenty-two years ago, Berlin appears to be a series of parts that make a whole but not like New York City where there are seamless changes from one neighborhood to the next.  No, Berlin is a city that seems to have been broken apart and put back together again and that is part of its charm. 

Berlin is divided into 12 districts (as illustrated to the right) with sub-districts or neighborhoods in each district.  Most visitors stay in the central area of Berlin which includes 3 districts:Mitte (the most central), Charlottenburg Wilmersdorf, and Friedrichshain Kreuzberg.

Writing about Berlin is as much of a challenge as writing about any major city: how to choose what to see and do in a city that has as many options as there are streets is difficult. The information below will provide an overview of a variety of key sites to explore, all within walking distance from each other in the central districts of Berlin:
  1. Potsdamer Platz
  2. Berlin Philharmonic
  3. Tiergarten Park
  4. Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
  5. Checkpoint Charlie and The Berlin Wall Museum
  6. The Jewish Museum
Potsdamer Platz
The first time I went to Berlin, I was astounded at the modern skyscrapers in the central part of the city in a neighborhood known as Potsdamer Platz. Friends told me to expect to feel like I was in Chicago with the contemporary architecture but vast amounts of vacant land were ladled with cranes and construction equipment. The architecture screamed “modern” and a new city seemed to be erupting out of the ground of an old city.

canstockphoto13835693Potsdamer Platz was desolate for nearly 30 years when the Berlin Wall physically divided the area in two but was now being developed with the reunification of the city. Located in the south part of the Mitte district, Potsdamer Platz was targeted by developers and government officials who quickly capitalized on the opportunity to use the vacant land in the center of the city to bring Berlin into the 21st century.

Berlin Philharmonic
The Berlin Philharmonic is housed in a building called the “Philharmonie” which is located in an area of cultural buildings collectively referred to as “Kulturforum” a few blocks from Potsdamer Platz in a neighborhood known as Tiergarten in the district of Mitte. The original Philharmonie was built about 50 years ago while the chamber music hall was added 30 years ago – both look like yellow tents from afar reminiscent of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The main building can seat more than 2,400 people in ascending seats surrounding the center while the chamber music hall can seat nearly 1,200.

canstockphoto14121192Considered one of the best orchestras in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic has 128 world-class musicians that are a delight to see and listen to.  We took our daughter who promptly fell asleep during the concert and when she starting snoring, we had to wake her because there is nary a cough, whisper, or sneeze while the musicians are playing. Accordingly, no one leaves their seat before the concert reaches intermission or is over.

The Philharmonie has an excellent website in English with a detailed calendar of upcoming concerts. Tickets can be purchased on-line or in person at the on-site ticket office.

The Berliner Philharmonie
10785 Berlin-Tiergarten
00 49 (0) 30 254 880

Tiergarten Park
Tiergarten Park is the largest park in Berlin with more than 500 acres and 14 miles (23 kilometers) of paths to walk, run, and cycle.  In addition, there are waterways, memorials, playgrounds, and even a place to rent a boat during the warm months. The park is located in the central district of Mitte, with the CharlottenburgWilmersdorf district forming the south-western boundary and reaching east close to the district of  FriedrichshainKreuzberg to form the southeast border (see the green area in the center – Mitte – of the district map above). The extensive pathway system provides an alternative to the city streets when crossing central Berlin through this rectangular shaped park.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

A westerly walk from Potsdamer Platz through Tiergarten Park and then south pass the Berlin Zoo brings the walker to the sight of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which is shocking and impossible to stop staring at as time appears to have stood still.

canstockphoto2198618The church was badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943 and again in 1945 but the Berliners did not want to tear it down, despite building a new modern church next to the ruined church, in 1961. Referred to as “the hole in the tooth,” the remnants of the church with clocks that appear to have stopped working when the bomb hit (but no one could verify this for me) gives a sense of what the war was like. It’s one thing to read about a war, it’s quite another to see the effects of an air raid up close.

The church and memorial are open daily and there are free 30 minute tours throughout the day (see the official website below for the complete tour schedule).

Kaiser-Wilhelm GedachtnisKirche Berlin
10789 Berlin – Charlottenburg
49 (0) 30 218 50 23

Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall Museum

Moving east on the southern border of the Mitte district and the northern border of the FriedrichshainKreuzberg district, is where Checkpoint Charlie is located and now also includes the Berlin Wall Museum.

This is a significant site and well worth seeing because Checkpoint Charlie (along with the Berlin Wall) signifies the Soviet answer to the 2.5 million East Germans that fled to the western side of Berlin between 1949 and 1961. The vast migration caused the Soviets to build the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie was designated as the only crossing for foreigners or members of the allied forces until it was dismantled in 1989 and 1990.

The Berlin Wall Museum (which is also referred to as the Checkpoint Charlie Museum) is called the “Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie” and displays the photos, documents, and equipment used for escapes from East Berlin to West Berlin.  In addition, the stories of those that tried to escape and those that succeeded are told in film, pictures, and exhibits.

The museum does not display the exhibits in a sophisticated way on large walls with special lighting far from the viewer; the exhibits are displayed to be seen up close to illustrate the extreme risks that people took to escape in cars, submarines, and by foot. The museum has a website: that provides information on hours and pricing. This is a museum very much worth going to because the exhibits provide the visitor with a better understanding of how Berlin evolved through the 20th century.

Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie
FriedrichstraBe 43-45
D-10969 Berlin – Kreuzberg
00 49 (0) 30 253 72 50

Open every day from 9:00 -10:00

The Jewish Museum
In the same neighborhood (Kreuzberg) a few blocks southwest is The Jewish Museum which is one of my daughter’s all time favorite museums.  The Jewish Museum consists of two buildings that are connected:  the old U-shaped building (below, right) which is where the entrance, shop, and restaurant are located; and the new building (below, left) which is an impressive piece of architecture designed by Daniel Libeskind who was inspired by a broken, dismantled Star of David in his design.

1230709988578Plan to spend the day here, especially if children are along as this place is one of the most engaging museums for kids we’ve ever visited.  The new building is divided into four levels with the tour (self guided or with a guide) starting in the lower level, which is devoted to the Holocaust.  Some of the exhibits are too strong for young children but are appropriate for older children who have studied the Holocaust in school.  The tour then continues to Level 2 and works downwards to Level 1 and then to the ground level.  Levels 2 and 1 provide a history of Judaism and through each historical section, children are engaged in every room through exhibits and computers.

My daughter particularly loved the Pomegranate Tree which is a “tree” several floors tall in an atrium that has a winding staircase through the tree to the top.  Children are given a paper pomegranate and asked to write about what emancipation means to them and then hang their pomegranate anywhere on the tree, with the most popular spot the top of the tree.

Children are also introduced to historical figures that contributed to industries including cartoons, fashion, movies, and physics. There are coloring stationspillowed sofas on the floor to watch cartoons (someone who really knows kids thought of this exhibit), and computers that ask kids questions in every room. My daughter was particularly affected by a question in which she was asked “Do you know anyone that doesn’t like someone because a person is Jewish?” My daughter truthfully answered no. After she answered, the computer tallied the day’s answers and told her that 72% of the people answered no but that 28% answered yes. The 28% struck my daughter as hard to comprehend – that someone would not like a person because that person is Jewish; a simple question and surprising collective answer really made my daughter think and ask questions about race and religion.

The Jewish Museum
LindenstraBe 9-14
10969 Berlin – Kreuzberg
00 49 (0) 30 259 93 30

The museum is open on Mondays from 10:00-10:00 and Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00-8:00. Closed on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Christmas Eve.

And, finally some helpful hints:
  • In dialing Germany, the country code is 49 and the Berlin city code is 30. If dialing from outside the country, dial 0 11 49 30 and the remainder of the numbers. If dialing from within Germany, dial 0 30 and the remainder of the numbers.
  • In winter, the sun rises late and sets early (sometimes by 4:00 pm) so maximize the daylight hours by getting out.
  • Most museums and stores stay open late on Thursdays.
  • Most stores close late Saturday afternoon and are closed on Sunday.
  • Tax and tipping is already included in a restaurant bill but most people leave 5-10%with the server, not on the table.
  • The German trains are on time and precise.
  • There are no additional taxes on purchases as the VAT is already included.
Stay tuned for Getting to Know Berlin, Part 2…….

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