Guten tag from Berlin. If you're interested in discovering this fascinating and relatively inexpensive city, then grab your walking shoes and don't forget your camera.
Airport to Hotel
I really had no idea what to expect from Berlin. I had never been there and didn't know much about it other than the fact that it was divided during the Cold War. Walking off the plane into the Tegel Airport Terminal, I was surprised by how small and old it was. But I later learned that it will be shut down in 2011 (along with Berlin's two other airports) to make room for the Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, which is being built now. When I walked outside, the sun was still beaming high in the sky and it was 5:30pm. (It doesn't get dark until around 10pm in the summer.) Getting a taxi was shockingly challenging. I thought the Germans were orderly people but here it was every man for himself. Maybe it was due to the heat; it was 85 degrees and everybody wanted to get into one of the cool, air-conditioned Mercedes. After a few attempts, I finally secured a ride for an elderly couple and then jumped in one myself. The drive to my downtown hotel took just 20 minutes and cost 15€ ($24 USD) without tip. I thought that was relatively cheap for Europe.
Like in any foreign city, the first thing I do when I arrive is hit the ATM and withdraw some money. You'll get the best exchange rate possible this way, as well as when you use credit cards for purchases. In fact, I rarely ever go to a currency exchange booth (I've only gone once in the past seven years) as they rip customers off. At press time, the exchange rate for the euro was not a bargain: 1€ equaled $1.58. That hurts but luckily, Berlin is regarded as one of Europe's most inexpensive cities.
Berlin: An Affordable City
For example, the latest available statistics show that the average price for a four- to five-star property in Berlin was 138€ in 2007. By comparison: London was 345€, Paris was 329€ and Rome clocked in at 203€. A three-star property costs an average of 67€ a night. For budget travelers, rates can go as low as 10€ per night and there are about 30 hostels with 14,000 beds. In total, Berlin has 93,000 available hotel beds in 615 hotels and guesthouses so there's no shortage of rooms. I'm sure these low prices factor in the fact that Berlin is the European Union's third most-visited tourist destination. Source: The Berlin Tourism Marketing website.
Berlin is located in northeastern Germany, 44 miles from the Polish border. There are sixteen states in Germany and Berlin is not only one of them, but it's also the capital. During the Cold War, the capital was moved to Bonn but in 1990, Berlin regained its status. Today, Berlin has twelve boroughs with a city population of 3.4 million. It's Germany's largest city and the most diverse as the metropolitan area is home to 5 million people from over 180 nations. People from Turkey comprise the largest foreign nationality group (113,779), followed by people from Poland (44,400), Serbia (23,370), Russia (14,615), Italy (14,446), United States (13,761), France (12,611), Vietnam (12,165), Croatia (11,029), Bosnia and Herzegovina (10,576), United Kingdom (9,797), Greece (9,749), Austria (8,813), Ukraine (8,709), Lebanon (7,691), Spain (6,637), the People's Republic of China (6,013), Bulgaria (6,621) and Thailand (5,878). I was surprised to learn that 60% of the population don't belong to a religious group. Twenty-three per cent (757,000) are Protestant, 9% Roman Catholic, 6% Muslim and just 0.4% (12,000) Jewish.
Before 1933, Berlin's Jewish community was over 170,000. I don't need to go into the history there because we all know what that bastard Hitler and his Nazi party did. An incredible place to learn about Jewish life in Germany from the Middle Ages on, especially the period during the reign of the Third Reich, is at the Jewish Museum. The newest wing is a remarkable high-concept building that opened in 2001. It's connected to the baroque Old Building. It's shaped like the Star of David and contains architectural "voids" to symbolize the Holocaust. If it weren't for the red dots on the ground, leading from one exhibit to another and eventually out the door, I would have gotten lost. Actually, finding the museum wasn't that easy as I walked from the train station and the signage wasn't that clear. But I must be one of the few to get lost since over 4 million people have visited the museum to date. My one regret besides not taking the elevator to the top (man, the stairs to begin the maze-like tour wiped me out), was not paying the extra 2€ for the audio tour. Judisches Museum is open daily from: 10am to 8pm, Mondays from 10am to 10pm. Closed: 9/30, 10/1, 10/9, and 12/24. Cost: 5€.
Steigenberger Hotel Berlin
On the peaceful drive from the airport to the hotel, I was delighted to see how green Berlin was; trees lined the streets and the rivers. I pulled up to the four-star, 386-room Steigenberger Hotel. A doorman was there to greet me and check-in didn't take more than two minutes. Judging from the clientele in the lobby, I would say that the hotel is popular with both leisure and business travelers. The elevator was quick, the service was good all around and most of the rooms have been remodeled. Mine was on the smaller side with twin beds that were a little too firm for my liking. The pillows were also bulky but other than these small complaints, the room was comfortable and quiet. The old style TV didn't fit in with the modern decor but I learned that that's because the flat screens are on backorder; there's apparently a shortage of them in Germany, according to a hotel employee. My favorite part of the hotel, other than the location and free breakfast buffet (all hotels in Berlin include it), was the bathroom. The shower, with a black granite floor, had fantastic water pressure and the toiletries were top-of-the-line. The rooms are built solid and the only outside noise I heard were the maids vacuuming the hallways at 8:30am. They made up for it by being so thorough. On top of that, the hotel offered free Internet but the signal was weak for me. I asked a guy carrying a laptop about it in the elevator and he said he had no problem. Next time, I'll ask for a room with a healthy signal. Steigenberger Hotel Berlin, Los-Angeles-Platz 1, 10789 Berlin, Germany, tel. +49 30 2127-0.
Berlin Weather: Although it was hot when I arrived, it quickly cooled down come nightfall. My advice is to dress in layers or bring a jacket because the temperature was constantly changing. It reminded me a lot of San Francisco as I kept putting on then taking off layers, depending on the sun. The warmest months are June, July and August.
As I mentioned, the location of the Steigenberger is fabulous. It's within a few blocks of two different rail stations and two blocks from Kurfürstendamm, the Champs-Élysées of Berlin. There are plenty of shops and restaurants for all budgets. It was here I first tried Berlin's famous currywurst, hot pork sausages cut into thin slices and seasoned with curry sauce and ketchup. The currywurst was invented shortly after World War II and most people eat it late night after partying but I had mine for lunch and paid 2.65€. Also on Kurfürstendamm is KaDeWe (website), a gigantic, 60,000-square-meter, six-level department store that opened in 1907. It turns out to be the second largest department store in Europe after Harrods. They boast 1,500 classic and designer perfumes but I didn't bother checking them out. Instead, I bought some marzipan gifts and walked the food halls on the two top floors. Their buffet is high quality, similar to Whole Foods but more expensive thanks to the exchange rate. This medium-sized plate cost me 10€ ($15.89 USD). I also tried one of Germany's most popular sodas, Bionade (website). Everyone raves about it but the ginger-orange flavor was so nasty that if I hadn't paid 2.95€ for it, I would have taken one sip and chucked it. I should mention that at the end of Kurfürstendamm and near the hotel is the famous Gedächtniskirche (church). That was my landmark to find my way back to the hotel.
I hope you don't misunderstand me: not all restaurants are expensive. Actually, it's quite the contrary, especially in the local neighborhoods. I had an incredible all-you-can-eat lunch buffet of typical German dishes at Restaurant Honigmond (served from 12-3pm) for just 6.70€. And that included dessert. This is where I learned that in the summer, locals and tourists alike mix light beer with raspberry or woodruff syrup (it's called Berliner Weisse). Restaurant Honigmond, Borsigstrasse 28, 10115 Berlin, tel. +49 30 284 45512.
Berlin Welcome Card
Another way to save money in Berlin is to get a Berlin Welcome Card (16.50€ for 48 hours, 21.50€ for 72 hours). The card offers free public transportation and half-price admission to more than 130 attractions. Just be sure to get the card stamped before using it for the first time. If you buy single-ride tickets, you will need to stamp it each time you use it because if a conductor checks it and it's not stamped, you will face a fine. I must have ridden the train a dozen times and they didn't check anyone's ticket that I could see -- so I could have traveled for free but it's not worth gamble. NOTE: Using the train(s) and the automated ticket machines is simple and safe. There's the S-Bahn, which is mostly over ground, the U-Bahn that's primarily underground and the Straßenbahn, a tram system that operates for the most part in the eastern part of the city. Oh, and there are plenty of buses and bike paths, too. I read that there are about 400,000 daily bike riders and judging from the bike rack at the beer garden -- I'm not surprised.
The Berlin Wall
I'm sure you will be happy to know that Berliners love Americans for our role in World War II, so it's one city where you will want people to know that you are American, though, like much of the world, they dislike our current government. I really wanted to learn more about the Berlin Wall. I'm fascinated by it, probably because my Uncle Jens talked about it when I was a kid. He told me about how he almost got shot when he walked too close. I didn't realize that West Berlin (the free city back then) was surrounded by East German territory. The wall was built in 1961 due to the tensions between east and west and Berlin was then completely separated. It was still possible for Westerners to pass from one city to the other but through strictly controlled checkpoints like the American-controlled Checkpoint Charlie. Today, Checkpoint Charlie is a huge tourist trap where tourists can get their pictures taken with dressed up American and Russian soldiers for 2€. Yes, I'm a sucker. It's in the heart of downtown Berlin and it's difficult to imagine that this spot once had U.S. and Soviet tanks facing off. As you know, the Berlin Wall came down unexpectedly in 1989 but they have bits and pieces throughout the city, basically as tourist attractions, and one part of town where there's a good 100 yards of it. So people don't forget, the whole wall is depicted by a cobblestone outline. It's crazy how they just built the wall with some of it blocking major streets and many parts of it just zigzagging.
There are all kinds of tours available of the wall and city from walking, biking, guided tours and even a Trabi Safari (more on this shortly). The newest tour is a GPS, self-guided walk the wall tour with numerous expert and eyewitness interviews, historical photos, film clips and audio recordings. They even offer an audio version to download to your MP3 player. I learned that the average height of the Berlin Wall was 11.8 feet; it was made of concrete and was only a few inches thick. At the top were round edges, making it difficult to grab hold of. Here's a picture. of the wall back in its heyday. The side with the graffiti is on the West and there were actually two walls; the land in between was called The Death Strip, which is shown in the picture. An estimated 940 people died trying to escape and more than 170 of those, died in the Death Strip by armed East German guards.
Trabi is short for Trabant, which was the most commonly used car in East Germany. These four-seater compact cars with smoky, two-stroke engines, came to be one of the more positive symbols of East Germany. It was the first car made of recycled goods (supplies were limited) and the body was Duroplast, a form of plastic containing resin strengthened by cotton or wool. They don't have a gas pump. Instead, the gas tank is in the hood above the engine. Cruising around in this tiny thing with the gear shift on the steering wheel (where the windshield wiper controls usually are), is a trip. The gears are like an H. First gear is down, second is up, third is over and up and fourth is down. Don't even ask about reverse, which luckily, I never needed to do. Each person can have their own car, unless someone doesn't want to drive. (Ahem, Holly.) Everyone follows the leader, who is guiding the way via walkie talkies. The walkie talkies aren't crystal clear and it was difficult (at least for me) to concentrate on not crashing and learn about the city and its history, all at the same time. Tours range from one to two hours and you will need a valid license in order to drive. For more information, log on to trabi-safari.de.
Another fantastic way to see the city in the summer is to take a river cruise. They have all kinds of boats available and varying tour lengths, like lunch and dinner cruises. I took the standard, hour-long cruise with my friend Kathleen who's a Berlin native but lives in Los Angeles. On my boat, the audio tour recording was in German so Kathleen translated the important stuff for me -- like how much beer costs. I wasn't even paying attention as the sights alone were all my A.D.D.-addled brain could handle. Afterwards, we stopped by the FIVB beach volleyball tournament, which takes place once a year. How many people can see the Hermosa Beach Open and the Berlin Open in consecutive weekends like I did? And then guess who we spotted? Our friend Misty May, along with a bunch of other Americans who we had watched a few days earlier. What a small world. Next to the volleyball stadium was a Sandsation (website) sand castle competition, which costs 6€ to get into and ends on August 17.
Obviously, there are many must sees in Berlin. The first is the Brandenburg Gate with its twelve Doric columns that was commissioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II as a sign of peace and built from 1788 to 1791. It's so much of an icon that it also appears on German euro coins (10 cent, 20 cent and 50 cent). Another is the Reichstag building, which was built in 1894 and used as the traditional seat of the German parliament. NOTE: The German word Reichstag refers to the building and Bundestag refers to the institution. The building was renovated in the 1950s and then again in the 1990s. It's free to get in but the line takes a good 40 minutes. I went around 8pm thinking the line would be shorter but nope. Good thing there was a guy selling pretzels for 2€ (2.50 for a cheese pretzel), because I was starving. Once through the airport-like security process, visitors are whisked up in a packed elevator to the top. The big attraction is The Reichstag glass dome. It has a 360-degree view of Berlin and the main hall of the parliament below. In the center is a mirrored cone that directs sunlight into the building. To get to the very top, there are two steel spiral ramps shaped like a double-helix.
Euro Cup 2008
We're going to end here for the week and end with part two of my trip to Berlin next week. But before we go, I should mention that fortunately for me, I just happened to be in Berlin during the Euro Cup. The Euro Cup is arguably the world's second biggest soccer (or football, as they call it) tournament in the world. The first is the World Cup and just like that one, this tournament happens every four years. Since they are both so popular, they're two years apart to give people something to live for. It's crazy how this city, the country, the continent, and really, so much of the world rally around these games. I'm not even a big soccer fan but you can't help but get caught up in the excitement. Every restaurant, beer garden, shop, gas station, square, even street corners showed the games on big screens. And since Berlin is so diverse, it wasn't just the German matches being aired. It was every game and no matter who won, there was always a rowdy street gathering with fans draping or waving their country's flag and honking their horns. Obviously, Germany (who lost to Spain in the finals), was the major focus but I would have to say, when the Turks won a game it was insane. I can't imagine what it was like in Turkey!
Note: his trip was sponsored by Visit Berlin.
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