Four Days In Berlin, Germany

by Keridwen Cornelius

Berlin’s risqué rep and cooler-by the-second culture scene are so talked about that a first-time visitor could arrive expecting a gentrifying Gomorrah – a cross between Cabaret and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The reality is refreshingly different. The German capital’s coolness is casual and unselfconscious. Its residents are multicultural, polylingual and well-informed. Its leafy streets and pastel buildings wear a patina of old Eastern Europe and a cologne of bohemianism. Though it isn’t the prettiest city, its flawed beauty grows on you, the way a lined face becomes more attractive for the history it holds. And Berlin has been creased by more character-building history than most cities.

Day 1: Menagerie of Museums

Base yourself in buzzing, central Mitte or quieter, leafier Prenzlauer Berg. Both are located in the former East Berlin. Both are packed with outdoor cafes and indie shops. And both are within walking distance of many sites, including Museum Island. This UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by the Spree River is home to the Berliner Dom, a Neo-Renaissance cathedral capped with verdigris cupolas. Tour the church, listen to an organ concert, or stroll the Lustgarten, where street performers sing or blow Brobdingnagian bubbles.

At the Alte Nationalgalerie, also on the island, rendezvous with international Impressionists and German Romantic landscape painters like Caspar David Friedrich. Next door, the justifiably popular Pergamon Museum connects visitors to the cradle of Western civilization with a jaw-dropping collection of ginormous antiquities. Walk like a Babylonian beneath the 46-foot-tall, cobalt blue Ishtar Gate, constructed circa 575 BCE. Marvel at the 100-foot-wide, marble Market Gate of Miletus.

If museum overload brings on Stendhal Syndrome, soothe your mind on a one-hour boat trip along the Spree with Berliner Wassertaxi. Then fortify yourself at Lebensmittel in Mitte, a gemütlich German restaurant decked out like a country grocery store.

Day 2: Pieces of Paris and Walls

With its pastel prewar buildings, cobblestoned streets and effervescent F&B scene, Prenzlauer Berg could – if you squint – be Paris’ doppelgänger. But then you spot the street art, the admittedly gritty parks, and the remnants of the world’s most notorious wall, and you could only be in Berlin. On Thursdays and Saturdays, follow the scent of fresh bread to the Kollwitzplatz farmers’ market. Sundays bring a flea market to the Mauerpark (“wall” park) and food trucks to the Kulturbrauerei (“culture brewery”). Tucked inside this restored 19th-century brewery is a museum dedicated to “Alltag in der DDR” – everyday life in socialist, Cold War-era East Germany. It’s a fascinating and free portal into an Orwellian otherworld. Surrounded by propaganda posters, leaf through an illustrated guestbook for factory-controlled holiday homes, peek at surveillance devices, and learn how families coped with empty store shelves through imaginative DIY.

To see how this isolationist state was perpetuated, walk past the Mauerpark’s graffitied strip of wall to the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße. Ponder slabs of wall that resemble overgrown gravestones, photographs of people killed seeking freedom, and the rusty metal bars’

resemblance to our own border barrier.

A short stroll away, hidden in another former 19th-century brewery, is a boho foodie gem called Katz Orange. If you can’t fathom how cauliflower could induce envy, indulge in their brown-buttered version with smoked potatoes while basking in the eclectic, Peruvian-leaning atmosphere.

Day 3: Transparent History

Germany aims to be transparent about its past and present – an ethic exemplified in the see-through dome of the Reichstag. Register in advance to visit this legislative building, then ascend symbolically above the politicians to gaze out over the city. You’re in modern West Berlin, where everything is busier and bigger – including your next stop.

For the last 200 years, major events marking war and peace have all swung through the Brandenburg Gate. Napoleon’s victory march, Hitler’s seizure of power, WWII bombings, protests against Germandivision and celebrations of reunification: This gate has seen it all. Stand where President Reagan stood and declare to the air, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.”

A short walk south is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a maze-like mass. Does this Holocaust memorial represent a graveyard of coffins? Dehumanization? A descent into a labyrinth of evil? You decide.

The transparency continues at Topography of Terror. This free indoor-outdoor museum is a massive mea culpa chronicling the history of Nazism. Housed in the former Gestapo HQ, the exhibits take you behind the scenes of the Third Reich’s propaganda, intimidation and malevolent machinations.

Day 4: Gardens and Galleries

The powerful story continues at the Jewish Museum, which commemorates not just the Holocaust but 2,000 years of Jewish people’s contributions to philosophy, science, art, literature and more. Everything about the museum – from the dramatic angular architecture to the immersive installations – is a lightning rod for deep thought.

It’s high time for good news, greenery and healthy gastronomy. You’ll find them all at nearby Prinzessinnengärten, where urban utopians have transformed a former wasteland into a community garden. Relax in a mini sylvan glen, sip house-brewed beer, and savor vegan food made from plants grown onsite. Then stroll the streets of Kreuzberg, a curious cultural combo of hipster creatives and conservative Turkish immigrants. If you’re here on a Tuesday or Friday, walk along the Landwehr canal to the Turkish Market, where you might sit waterside, nibbling baklava while a funky musician performs protest songs.

Finally, cross the Spree to East Side Gallery, the longest open-air gallery in the world. Artists have painted this 1.3-kilometer strip of the Berlin Wall with more than 100 murals – some dark, some hopeful, some kinda crazy. The clash of grim history and gritty, colorful, creative present perfectly captures Berlin.