Yes, it might be nice to be a jelly doughnut. Or a chocolate beignet; you know, the ones they sell in the cafeteria we eat at after class…Whether a pastry or a person from Berlin, I would be exceptionally proud to be from this historical city. It possesses a rich culture and sense of pride not seen in many parts of Europe. I was fortunate to spend four days here, and they have been some of the best four days of the summer!
Today was the last Organic Chemistry II lecture for the semester, which means the summer is halfway over. Time really does fly. After lecture concluded, we hopped onto a train to take us to the airport. Our two flights today were with Swiss International Airlines, and they were some of the nicest flights I’ve ever taken (second only to Virgin Atlantic, but that fan-girl session is for another time). Not only did we receive quality Swiss chocolate with each flight, our first flight was only half full! We even received free drinks and dinner on our second flight, despite that the flight was only one hour in duration.
Once landed in Berlin, we made our way to our hostel, ONE80° Hostel Berlin, which is adjacent to Alexanderplatz. The staff was friendly and the rooms were clean; however, the hostel was the starting point for a bar crawl, so the lobby was usually packed full of inebriated tourists. Not exactly the quiet greeting we expected, but our bedrooms were quiet so I have no complaints.
We’ve set an official tradition: on the first night in a new city, we go out for kebabs. Each city seems to have their own variation of kebab, so it’s fun to see a new take on classic European street food. I didn’t think that I would have the best kebab of my life in the Alexanderplatz train station, but I did. The pita-like pocket was nestled with kebab meat, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, pickled cabbage, and two sauces: the traditional tzatziki-like white sauce and a sweet mustard-based sauce. Man, was that delicious.
In an attempt to beat the crowds, we set out early after a quick breakfast at the hostel. First on our list was to explore Alexanderplatz, which is mostly a large shopping mall with a train station. On the western side, there is a world clock and St. Mary’s Church. Photography isn’t allowed inside the church, but the architecture inside the church was beautiful.
A short walk away from St. Mary’s Church is Berliner Dom, located on “Museum Island,” or Spree Island (a small section of land in the Spree River). Built in 1465, it is the largest church in Berlin and home to the Protestant church of Germany. The church suffered moderate damage during World War II, and the dome had to be restored during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, you can hike up to the top of the dome for a lovely view of Berlin
After strolling across Museum Island and admiring the aesthetically-pleasing architecture, we were ready to make the hike over to Checkpoint Charlie. During the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie served as one of the few points of entry between East and West Berlin. The small hut that once housed Germany guards now lies in the middle of an intersection, complete with a Starbucks and McDonald’s! Despite the apparent commercialism, the crossroads maintains a slice of historical modesty with a marker of the late Berlin Wall across the sidewalk and the sign marking the end of the United States sector.
Ready for some tasty cuisine, we try one of the dishes for which Berlin is most known: currywurst! Essentially, currywurst is a Bratwurst cooked with a homemade, ketchup-like sauce, curry spices, and usually served with fries. It sounds a bit odd at first, but it was absolutely delicious. There’s a reason I ate it twice while in the city!
Now, you can’t go to Germany and not try German chocolate. Well, at least we couldn’t.
Fassebender & Rausch is the largest chocolaterie in the world, and conveniently for us, is located five minutes away from Checkpoint Charlie! The store was enormous, and they had some of Berlin’s famous landmarks made from chocolate (including the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, and more). Interestingly enough, all of the dishes served in their restaurant include cocoa in some form (yes, even dishes you wouldn’t think to be sweet)! After making some delicious purchases, we headed back to the hostel to drop off our things and take a quick afternoon rest.
The last attraction for the day was the East Side Gallery. Here, there is a 1,316 meter stretch of the Berlin Wall on exhibition. These segments of the Wall are painted with murals, many of which are politically-charged for the time (although some have been updated to challenge today’s U.S. politics, but I won’t open that can of worms here). There is a very interesting dichotomy between each side of the wall: it is very easy to tell which side faces east and west. Nonetheless, it serves as a permanent reminder of Berlin’s tumultuous history, and that walls simply don’t work (or make people very, very upset).
Before heading to the hostel, we stopped into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is well-rated for its schnitzel (a German dish, consisting of thinly-pounded pan-fried chicken). Of course, it was exceptionally delicious. As my friend Caroline put it, the schnitzel has the perfect balance of chicken, breading, and frying. The breading was thin enough to not overpower the chicken, yet present enough for that satisfying crunch. The crunch was provided by the frying, but it wasn’t greasy at all. Mmmmm. Maybe I’ll have to go back and get some more!
Today was another early start, as we made our way to the heart of Berlin. Along the way, we passed through the Brandenburg Gate. Once an entryway for the royals of Prussia, this was also the sight of many marches and rallies for the Third Reich. The gate stands tall in front of Tiergarten, the largest park in Berlin.
Going through the gate and to the left, we found the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial consists of 2711 large, grey slabs of concrete, known as the Field of Stelae. Walking through the Field of Stelae brought us to the entrance of the Memorial’s visitor center and museum. It showcased the tragic mistreatment of Jews (along with other minority groups), horrifying testimonies of those who endured the Holocaust, and a video archive where guests can view interviews with survivors. It was a heavy way to start the morning, but I was glad to have paid my respects and humbled to learn more about this dark moment in history.
To lighten the mood, we headed in the opposite direction (figuratively and literally) toward the Reichstag. This building is home to the German Parliament, and is a symbol of German democracy. We couldn’t secure a reservation to go up in the glass dome or rooftop garden, but the building was still a great sight. We even bought some tasty soft pretzels to enjoy along the way.
The next half hour was spent walking through Tiergarten, making our way toward the Victory Column. Much like the Arc de Triomphe, there is a museum inside the landmark detailing its history (along with a laborious spiral staircase to climb. To make matters worse, the staircase became narrower with the column and held both directions of traffic. Ugh). Despite the way up, the view from the top of the column was breathtaking.
As we made our way back out of Tiergarten and toward the hostel, we stopped for more currywurst and at Fassebender & Rausch. The chocolate was THAT good!
For the evening, we made reservations at Hofbräu München, an authentic Bavarian biergarten. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a dining hall filled with 300 people, a live band, and a lot of beer. Feeling adventurous, I ordered pork knuckle with potato dumplings and homemade coleslaw, accompanied with one of the lighter beers on tap. There was enough meat for two to three people; but it was delicious, so I made a valiant effort to finish it. (Yes, the endeavor failed. I’m not sure if I even made it halfway through.) Dessert consisted of fresh Berlin ice cream, which was some of the best ice cream I’ve ever devoured. The cherries and cream flavor was delicious beyond description.
For our last morning and afternoon in Berlin, we journeyed on a river boat tour of the Spree River. It provided us with more history and culture about Berlin, and we were able to see many of the old and new bridges and buildings that line the shores.
Once the boat tour concluded, we made our way down to the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic. This ensemble is often deemed one of the best in the entire world. Although tickets were outside of our price range to acquire, it was a treat just to see their performance hall.
After another stop for ice cream (there was a LOT of that on this trip), we were off to the airport to return home. Our flight was framed with a sunset, fading in the distance as we headed west.
The weekend passed by in the blink of an eye, and I’m a bit sad that the trip is over. Fear not, though, since there are still four more weeks left of my grand adventure. Tune in next week as I recall my trips to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and to Annecy, France!
Photos from Berlin can be found here.