Sunday, September 16, 2018

Longer Travels {Germany -- Berlin}

After we spent a few days in the Saxony region of Germany, we returned to Berlin for a packed two and a half days.  We turned our car back into the airport* and got our time in Berlin started!  Fair warning, we did all of this in two and a half days.  We wanted to see as much as possible so our days were long and busy but actually really amazing.

Some general tips for Berlin -- we flew into Tegel airport and while there isn't a train going to the airport, there is a direct bus that will take you to various main spots in the city.  We opted for a taxi as it was just easier with Serafina and all of our stuff (and cost only 20 that included a tip).  We stayed here and it was just a tad sketch but it worked for us -- the neighborhood was a really weird mix of run down/a little ghetto and super high end with designer stores but also amazing food and we felt perfectly safe.

Berlin is huge and has an extensive bus/tram/metro/train system and you will be using it to get around a lot or at least we did since we covered a ton of ground during our time in Berlin.**  We purchased a multi-day pass online prior to arriving.  We went with the Berlin Welcome Card and did the 72 hour card that included admission to all the museums on Museum Island.  You need to print the card at home and you need A4 size paper (European standard size)... although I am fairly certain the only part you need would print just fine on regular paper (8 1/2 x 11).  But the nice thing is that your card is truly 72 hours, you put in the time you want it to start and it expired exactly 72 hours later which worked in our favor and saved us money.  Most city cards like this claim to be 72 (or 48) hours but it really means that number of days and if you validate your card in the evening on day one, you just wasted a full day of your card, make sense?  Berlin also has a museum pass but it didn't make sense for us personally as most of what we wanted to see was free.

Also, if you want a cheaper version of a hop on/hop off bus, take the #100 bus throughout the city -- lucky for us we happened to be staying right by a stop for this bus so we took it frequently.  It went past a lot of the major sights in the city and was pretty fun to ride (especially the double decker ones).***
So what to do in Berlin --

The Berlin Zoo
The zoo was seriously amazing.  One of the best we have ever seen -- big and awesome and so much fun.  We met up with our friends from Spain who also happened to be in Berlin and our girls had a blast running around.  We spent hours at the zoo and still didn't even see all of it!  The girls found an amazing playground and hung out there for a good hour.  Seriously, go to the zoo just for this playground!  There were so many animals and so much to see, if you like zoos -- highly recommend this one.
Museumsinsel (Museum Island) and Berliner Dom
Five of Berlin's top museums are on this island -- housing many of Berlin's most famous artifacts.  The island also has the Berliner Dom (Cathedral) that is the slightly over the top cathedral built during Kaiser Wilhem's rule -- worth a look and a picture as you walk past it on your way to the museums.  Right now the whole museum area is going through a huge renovation so some museums are only partially opened and not all items are on display.  We bought tickets ahead of time (along with our Berlin Welcome Card) so it was nice to cut the line and go right in.  We went to two of the museums -- the Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) which houses artifacts from the ancient world.  We were all wowed by the Ishtar Gate -- gorgeous blue mostly reconstruction (some original tiles) of the gate Nebuchadnezzar II built to enter Babylon is 575 BC.  It was seriously impressive and because we went first thing in the morning we were there with very few people (... for about 5 minutes!).  Sadly the namesake of the museum -- the Pergamon Alter -- is closed during the renovations until 2019.  We also went to the Neues (New) Museum which really has nothing new in it... it houses the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, housed in a room by herself and no pictures allowed but seriously awesome to see.  Both of these museums were really great and while not insanely toddler friendly (both were pretty quiet), they each had really good access for those with a stroller.

Checkpoint Charlie
The main way for foreigners and diplomats to get between the two Berlins during the Berlin Wall era (and also famous for the stand off between US and Soviet tanks).  Nowadays the actual border crossing has a museum and is a slightly tacky/tourist trap including a mock-up of the original guard station including actors posing as American guards.  You can technically get your passport stamped here (for a fee) but we read it invalidates your passport...
Topographie des Terrors (Topography of Terror)
We hadn't planned on going to this museum but Serafina fell asleep in the stroller and we were nearby so we went... and wow.  The exact area of the museum was once the headquarters for the Gestapo and SS during WWII -- it focuses on how the Nazis came to power and carried out their awful plan.  This was well worth a visit (and free) but note that it was practically silent in the whole museum so if you take kids have them be sleeping or distracted.  There are no artifacts, it is pictures and very detailed descriptions that you read, but still so very powerful.  Outside there is also a good portion of the wall still intact so worth a walk by to at least see the wall.
DDR Museum
The DDR Museum is an interactive museum showing what life was like in East Germany but without the negative spin most people/museums give it.  This place was awesome!  Our little lady had SO.MUCH.FUN touching everything and playing with everything... there was a whole room dedicated to what a nursery school/kindergarten was like in East Germany and well, we hung out there for a good while.  Fair warning, I guess the East Germans were nudists (or liked to sunbathe nude) so there were some larger pictures and video of a lot of naked people with no censoring whatsoever.

Reichstag Building
The Reichstag Building is German's parliament building -- and completely worth going.  It was built in the 1890s, the German Republic was proclaimed here in 1918 but then the building almost burned down in 1933 and was barely used until 1999 when German parliament meet here again for the first time in 66 years.  The building now has a gorgeous class dome/cupola that the public can visit for free but reservations are absolutely required -- you can request a time slot reservation here (and it is a few step/day process: request three times slots, you will get an email, respond to the email, then you'll finally get another email with a letter/ticket).  Security is tight (makes sense, it is a functioning government building) so make sure you have ID and your ticket for everyone in your group.  Once on the top of the building, get the free audio guide which automatically narrates the view as you walk up the spiral ramp (yay for being stroller friendly) of the dome.  It is quite impressive and gives you a very cool view of the city as well as an awesome history lesson!

Brandenburger Tor (Brandonburg Gate) and Unter den Linden
One of Beriln's most famous landmarks -- a huge columned gateway at the end of a gorgeous tree lined street (Unter den Linden) and also at the former border of East and West Berlin.  The Brandenburger Tor was a symbol of Prussian Berlin but is more well known for for being the symbol of a divided Berlin and became the sight of great celebration when the wall fell in 1989.  Unter den Linden was the most elegant street in Prussian Berlin and today it is under a lot of construction to build a new tram/subway (something) line.
Denkmal für die Ermordeten Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe)
This Holocaust memorial was completed in 2005 and has 2,711 gravestone-like pillars rising in different heights, creating a maze over a large area that you can walk through.  The memorial itself is somber and definitely worth seeing, but to get an even bigger effect go underneath the memorial to the Informational Center (it's free) which delves into the victims of the Holocaust, mostly through pictures and written explanations.  It is moving and powerful and I did not leave with dry eyes.  And yes, we took Serafina.  We put on a high interest app/TV show on her tablet, put on her headphones and the large canopy on the stroller down so she couldn't see or hear anything and it worked for us.

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial)
The Berlin Wall ran right along Bernauer Strasse which now has a few exhibits remembering the wall and what life was like during the division of Berlin.  The Memorial has a welcome center, a good stretch of the wall still standing, a documentation center and more -- it spans a good couple of blocks of the street.  The documentation center is worth a visit because it is the last place that has the wall system (inner and outer wall) intact showing the no-man's-land death strip -- walk up to the top of the building to view over the wall.
Throughout the city there are random places that still have fragments of the wall standing and also on the ground there are stones/tiles marking where the wall once stood.  We never made it out to the East Side Gallery where more of the wall still stands and is decorated with famous works of art.  

Museum fürNaturkunde (Museum of Natural History)
This museum is really only worth a visit if you have kids and especially if you have kiddos who love dinosaurs -- the museum has the largest dinosaur skeleton ever assembled.  And currently has a huge skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex that just amazed our little lady. 
Berlin has plenty of gorgeous plazas/squares to walk through and most likely you will see many of them just as you are touring throughout the city.  Alexandarplaz was the commercial pride of East Berlin and nowadays this area is a transportation hub and known for its retro World Time Clock and Fernsehturm (TV Tower) -- we chose not to go up the tower but you can, just make sure you reserve a time slot/ticket in advance.  Potsdamer Platz is a huge commercial center and nearby is the Mall of Berlin that has a super extensive food court if you are looking for diverse fast food.  It also has a two-story slide that I do not recommend going down (it goes super fast and I lost a few layers of skin on my elbow).  Gendarmenmark is another cool square with two large and gorgeous churches but more importantly, it has Rausch Schokoladenhaus a super yummy chocolate shop which is a must for any chocolate lover -- to grab a treat and to see the amazing chocolate sculptures.  We also wandered through parts of Humbolt University (famous for being one of Europe's greatest universities) and saw the memorial to a notorious Nazi book burning in 1933.

Mall of Berlin
chocolate shop sculptures


Humbolt University 
So where to eat in Berlin -- well, Berlin has a lot of offer in the way of yummy and amazing food and has so many different options.  We usually had breakfast in our apartment, but there were plenty of bakeries that we often got pretzels at as a mid-morning snack.  We ate lunch at House of Small Wonder and holy cow was it good, it has an all day brunch menu that is American, European and Japanese fusion.  This beer garden had great beers and had a huge area for Serafina to run around.  We grabbed a beer and a bite to eat at the Stone Brewing Tap Room (a San Diego brewery for anyone looking for American style beers) -- the beer was good and the food was so-so.  We ate here for kebabs and it was also amazing, really good french fries that our kid inhaled.  Stavros Grill was amazing Greek food with the best tzatziki ever (they had an English menu but for sure no one spoke English here).  And finally we had great burgers at Upper Burger Grill and really good sweet potato fries.  We pretty much ate and drank our way through Berlin (and all of Germany). 
Berlin was so much more than Trevor and I ever expected.  I had been once -- a good twenty (or more) years before and didn't remember much...  This city was amazing, a perfect combination of things we love about other European cities.  And fairly toddler friends, everyone we encountered was extremely nice and helpful to us.  Berlin is easily now of our favorite cities -- and comes highly recommend by this blogger (and her family)!

*Berlin currently has two smaller airports rather than one big large international airport -- in fact the airports in other German cities are much larger.  But remember, Berlin was a divided city up until 1989, so the two airports make a little more sense.  Construction is underway for a large international Berlin airport but it has been delayed a few times...  For now, the two airports seem to work and both are just a quick 15-20 minute drive into the city.

**Berlin was the first larger city we have ever been to with a transportation system that did not require scanning your ticket upon entry or exit or both.  In fact we couldn't figure out how to validate our Berlin Welcome Card but maybe because it had dates/times on it, it was already validated.... So on our last day on our last metro ride, we had chatted about how we had never seen anyone checking tickets and then... of course we got stopped by guys in plain clothes checking tickets, but we were just fine!

***I just have to remember this adorable story -- we were riding the #100 bus with a group of German high schoolers.  Serafina and I were sitting on the top part of the bus and she was just a tad excited about seeing a bunch of the sights.  The high schoolers thought she was hilarious and had an absolute blast practicing their English with us, so much fun!


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