CONTRIBUTED BY MERIL CHICKINI
Every long weekend is another opportunity to discover more Germany and make everlasting memories. How about a trip to Berlin? Berlin, the capital and largest city in Germany, has so much to offer: history, tons of sightseeing, food for every taste, shopping and just the feel of a big city. You have different options on how to get there: drive, take the train or go with MWR and relax or take a nap on the bus.
We are a family of 4 with 2 small kids, so driving is the easiest for us. You can load your car with the stroller, extra set of clothes (and everything else you might need for a weekend trip) and snacks for the road. Although autobahns are usually fast and easy way to get from A to B they do get busy during the weekends and after most people get off work. Unless you want to be stuck in traffic start driving early and plan to get to the city around 9-10. Most people will already be at work and driving won’t be as bad.
If you drive a bigger car and you are not quite comfortable driving and/or parking in a big city then train might be the way to go. We drive a Dodge Nitro and have managed, but it hasn’t been always fun. Parking spots are tiny and unfortunately most people don’t seem to be too considerate to others. There’s been plenty of times when we have come back to our car just to climb in from one side because somebody parked way too close and outside the lines. When you do end up driving try to pick a hotel that is close to city center so you can leave the car in the hotel garage (safe but usually more expensive than parking on the street but worth it in my opinion). You can either walk everywhere or use the Hop on – Hop off bus.
It’s good to start looking for the hotel as soon as you have confirmed the dates for your trip. I like to use different websites to check reviews, pictures and prices and also see if there’s any specials going on. My favorites are booking.com, expedia.com and tripadvisor.com for pictures and reviews. Don’t forget to go on the hotel’s website because sometimes they have special offers. In the last few years our family has discovered Novotel. You can find one in every bigger city in Europe. They are mostly 3* or 4* hotels that are not too expensive and almost always located in the city center. They also take VAT forms.
In Berlin you can find 3 Novotels. Two of them are in the city center and walking distance from all the major spots and one is 10 minutes from the city center. We stayed in the one that is 5 minute walk from the Berlin Zoo and about 15 minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate. Depending on the weather it can be really nice walk through Tiergarten to Brandenburg Gate with all the beautiful monuments and statues lining the way.
Brandenburg Gate is even bigger and cooler looking in real life. If you walk through it you will end up on Pariser Platz. During the last years of World War II all the buildings around the platz had been destroyed in the air raids and heavy artillery bombardment and Brandenburg Gate was the only thing standing. Before World War II it was the grandest square in Berlin flanked by the French and American embassies and Hotel Adlon (set for many movies e.g. Unknown with Liam Neeson and choice of hotel for many celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Jackson, Angelina Jolie etc).
Brandenburg Gate is always surrounded by tourists and Pariser Platz is usually very busy as well so make sure to keep an eye on your things. Another tourist favorite is Reichstag, the traditional seat of German Parliament. I honestly thought that it wasn’t worth seeing until we got there and I was impressed. There’s almost always a line to get in but usually it moves fast. There’s another entrance for disabled visitors or visitors with small kids on the left side of the building.
Reichstag is the only parliament building in the world with a public restaurant. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy the view and drink some good coffee. Käfer even opens for breakfast so what would be better than starting your tour of Berlin with cup of cappuccino and some pretzels. If you are planning to go there for dinner I would try to call and make a reservation because it tends to get busier as the day goes.
As a tourist we tend to look up and point our cameras to monuments, statues and even cool looking buildings but when walking in Berlin you should look down. You will see white and yellow markings on the sidewalks and streets that show you were the wall used to be or point you in the right direction.
Last year Germany marked the 50th anniversary of East Germany beginning the erection of the Berlin Wall. We have all seen the Berlin Wall from TV or on the pages of history books and I wasn’t expecting such a deep impact on me that actually being there and seeing the huge difference between the two sides had on me… even now, more than 50 years later, there’s a huge difference between East and West. It was somewhat depressing to see the wall and all the different checkpoints and read all the signs with history of the wall and imagine how many lives were affected by this.
Checkpoint Charlie is one of the best known checkpoints and I would try to visit it as early as possible because this place gets crowded and busy fast. They have 2 soldiers standing there: one in Russian uniform and one in American. You can take pictures with them or just take pictures of the checkpoint.
Right next to it is the Checkpoint Charlie Museum with display of photos and different documents of successful escapes and vehicles used for it.
If you still have time left and you manage to get a reservation you should visit the TV Tower and have dinner in the restaurant Sphere that makes one turn about its own axis every half an hour to an hour. Talk about great way to get a tour of Berlin! We always try to go to a zoo no matter where we are and Berlin Zoo is our favorite. I guess we are not the only ones who love it because it is the most visited zoo in Europe. They are open all year long and I would take the whole day for it because it’s big and the aquarium is included in the price. Prepare to get there in the morning because lines are long and take time. Even at 10 in the morning there was already a line and it took 15 minutes to get our tickets.
If you love to shop or are interested in fashion then Berlin is the best place for it with big department stores and high end boutiques. No matter if you are planning to buy yourself a new Chanel or Louis Vuitton bag I would still go to one of the biggest and oldest (biggest in Germany and second biggest in Europe after Harrods in Britain) department stores KaDeWe.
If you are interested in history in more depth and want to visit museums then you should go to Museum Island, a complex of 5 significant museums. I would take at least a day or two to go through these museums and not just rush through.
Like I said Berlin is a big city that has a lot to offer and one weekend might not be enough time to see everything but it will give you an idea what it’s all about and I’m sure you will want to go back. Don’t forget to eat pretzels, try local bratwurst and beer during your visit and just enjoy your time in Berlin!