Berlin. The coolest place in the world. Seriously. The coolest. I am lucky enough to have two seriously cool friends who live there, so for a break from Kyrgyzstan, I spent 4 days in Berlin Germany, eating, drinking, touring, and relaxing. What is there to do in Berlin, Germany? SO MUCH!
The Best Things to do in Berlin Germany
I had heard mutterings about how cool Berlin was from friends and other travellers, but I had not set foot on the European continent since high school. I have always proclaimed it too expensive and me too ‘frugal’ (read skinflinty), so Europe was always a place I would go ‘later’, when I had some cash.
But I had been in the Peace Corps for a year at this point, and the draw to a Western City, where my friends Jeremy and Mark live, where you can eat cheese and drinking in public is legal, made me reconsider. It’s amazing how cheese and beer can make me reconsider things. And my friends, of course, my friends too… But oh the food! Caution, there will be a lot of food talk in this blog, a clear sign that I was not in Kyrgyzstan any more.
My wonderful friend Morgan told me that she was going to visit, so I immediately jumped onto Skyscanner to check out my options to join the party! 15 minutes later, my flights from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul to Berlin were bought and I was on my way.
I arrived in Berlin and was immediately welcomed by the infamous German efficiency. Customs was literally at the end of the walkway tunnel, as was the luggage carousel, and then there was Mark waiting to me, croissant in hand. Less than 50 metres from my plane seat and I was there! And eating! Well played Berlin.
Being cool guys, Mark and Jer live in a cool part of Berlin, the Neukolin neighbourhood, though it became quickly apparent that Berlin is all around pretty cool. Even in my jetlagged exhaustion I could see what a gorgeous city Berlin is, with green spaces, trees, clean streets, and very cool people. Have I mentioned how cool it all is?
Mark and I went shopping that first afternoon, where I was in slight culture shock, going into huge stores with shiny things, actual price tags, and gadgets, oh the gadgets. I was not in Kyrgyzstan any more! We rode the light rail and the buses, I figured out what the Euro currency meant to my bank account figures, and we finished the day with Indian food at Indian Dhaba Mitra, and I ate so much. So much It was so good. And there was red fruity beer! Berlin, you’re blowing my mind. There are so many great palces to eat in Berlin and this was just the beginning. I was going to gain weight and I was not afraid.
Labour Day Festival in Gorlitzer Park, Berlin
With Morgan arriving late that night, we were all set the next day to celebrate Labour Day, May 1, Berlin style. Which meant that we walked around town for a while, and then ended up at Gorlitzer Park in the Kreuzberg district with thousands of other people lying around on the grass, drinking beer, munching on snacks and generally relaxing. Which is an interesting contradiction to the term Labour Day. But hey, I dig irony!
It was while sitting around surrounded by thousands that we started to understand: Berlin is full of people not from Berlin. The city has become a landing pad for young people from all over the globe who saw what I saw, that the city was welcoming to all kinds of people, where creativity flourishes and the vibe is chill, young and very hip. Disclosure: I am definitely not cool enough to live in Berlin. I have never been that cool of a person, and would have to buy a lot more black clothing to fit in. Or become a gay man. The black clothing is probably easier.
The Labour Day Festival in Berlin is huge, and while it’s centre is at the park, the streets of the Kreuzberg District are packed with people, food stalls, and stages set up with electronic and metal bands thrashing around. It is also an almost yearly tradition that eventually people get idiotic and start to riot. Which doesn’t make sense to me, you just got a day off of work, rejoice! And you live in Berlin, where you have running water and your toilets are inside the house, again, rejoice! But alas, logic has no place in a mob, so with this knowledge of impending doom, people do not park their cars in a certain area of the city, there is a heavy police presence, and we made sure that we were well clear of it early enough to not be caught holding a Molotov Cocktail. I feel like I would get kicked out of the Peace Corps for that. Among other things.
The weekend following Labor Day was a hopping time in Berlin. Everything was busy as there were people who had flooded the city for the festival/fiasco. We decided to skip the Berlin public transport and rented bicycles. Mark, who had lived in Berlin as a student, gave us the best free bicycle tour for tourists and check out all of the great things to do in Berlin!
Berlin City Tour on Bicycles
We biked through different neighbourhoods, past sections of the Berlin Wall, through the Brandenburg Gate, around Potszdamer Plaza, past the parking lot that sits atop Hitler’s Bunker, past the Reichstag building, and along the canal. Morgan and I are both graffiti/street art paparazzi, so there was a large amount of stopping for photos of the amazing Berlin street art that is just everywhere and on everything. Berlin is very bike friendly, there are bike lanes along the sidewalks and walking people actually stay off of them. Plus the city is flat, so this girl wasn’t too sweaty by the end of the day.
Visiting the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall
By the time we arrived at the East Side Gallery, we were alright with walking our bikes for a while to take in the amazing art on the wall as well as the Berlin Wall itself. The Berlin Wall, as most people will know, was up from 1961 to 1989 and divided the city in two, with West Berlin (part of the Federal Republic of Germany, supported by the Western capitalist Allies) encircled by East Berlin (German Democratic Republic, and part of the socialist Soviet Union). When the wall went up, many families were split, Berliners could all of sudden not access their workplaces, and migration between East and West Berlin ended completely. The art on the East Side Gallery depicts separation, isolation, and war as well as peace, empathy, community, and world citizenship. The idea that this wall split an entire people for over 25 years is a stark reality of very recent history, and is now a moving testament to those years and the turmoil such division causes.
Holocaust Memorial in Berlin Germany
Another highlight from Mark’s bike tour was the Holocaust Memorial. Set not too far from Potsdamer Plaza and Hitler’s Bunker is a big square with hundreds of rectangular concrete pylons, all of different height, in rows and rows. Mark says that the architect/artist who designed it never did give a full explanation, so people really are left to take from the monument what they will. The ground gradually descends, and as you walk into the middle of the structure, the air gets colder and still, there is little direct light, and you quickly lose the group of people you came with. You catch glimpses of people passing pylons down the row from you or can hear a voice here of there, but the illusion that you are alone and somewhat lost was very apparent to me, and the sense that you were walled in, disconnected from the outside world was not comforting.
On the less depressing side, we visited this incredible street art exhibit, HACKESCHER MARKT which is an alley-way that has been devoted to murals, graffiti and street art of all kinds. A walk through there resulted in mucho photo taking. At one point I was looking at something and glanced over to a woman looking at me, winking. Umm…alright!
With all of that biking, we it was time for more food, so we dug into deep bowls of Japanese ramen, and I was again reminded of the majesty of flavor! I was also drinking cold Cokes and these semi-alcoholic lemon beers that are delish! And the great news of the day, none of us, even Morgan, fell off those bikes! Injury and humiliation free!
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
On one of my days in Berlin, I visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, about 45 minutes out of downtown Berlin, which is now a memorial open visitors. Not only was this a functioning labor camp from 1936-1960 (first under the Nazis and then the Soviets) but was actually the headquarters for the entire Concentration Camp Network. I had never visited a concentration camp before, and was expecting an emotional day, and it absolutely was.
While Sachsenhausen was not one of the massive death camps that have become infamous, it was nonetheless a place where thousands of men were held for all kinds of reasons, in inhumane conditions, and where many people lost their lives. I went on a guided tour to be able to gain the whole story, but there were also many museum exhibits on the grounds, as well as an audio tour if you did not want to do the guide thing. I was very glad I made the trip to the memorial, and I believe that Germany is doing a good job in not hiding it’s dark history while commemorating the many people who were victims to that history. I went with the Berlin Walks tour, so as a group we all headed from Brandenburg Gate to the Memorial together on transit, had a guided tour of the site and then returned to the city.
By the end of my week I had figured out…
Things about Berlin:
Berlin is the coolest city ever
Berlin dwellers are the coolest people ever
There is much many things to do and see in Berlin, and to be experienced in Germany in general.
I do not know any German language. Nein.
You don’t really need German language in Berlin,
Biking on flat smooth ground makes a person happy.
My friends make me VERY happy
A week of eating Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, German, Italian, McDonalds (as if that is a kind of cuisine) and Turkish food, as well as drinking good beer and wine, makes you gain 5 pounds. Easy. Drinking and eating in Berlin was worth the trip in and of itself!
Berlin is the coolest city ever. Did I say that already?
Speaking of those 5 pounds, I had no problem with them. I knew upon re-arrival in Kyrgyzstan I would lose them easy, I walk a ton in Osh. Three days after getting back from Berlin I went out hiking and sprained my right ankle. Cast on, crutches up, those 5 pounds stayed put a lot longer then intended.
Huge thank you to my hosts, Jeremy and Mark, and just a general shout out to Morgan for a great shopping and fastfood eating day. I bought jeans without holes in the inner thighs, whoop!
Berlin, I will see you again you amazing city you…Auf Wiedersehen (I know that word from the Sound of Music…)
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