This is Berlin? The modern European city is like nothing you’ve seen in the movies
By Scott Nishimura
Here’s the first thing that struck my wife and me after we stepped off the train at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof station and into the center of this city’s vibrant Mitte district: Berlin looks nothing like what you see in the movies.
Popular films — even contemporary depictions — set during World War II, the Holocaust and the Cold War present this city in somber black and white. This is not to excuse Germany for its history; legions of critics argue the country all too swiftly tried to move on from it.
But the Berlin of today is full of color — modern, intelligently designed, youthful and busting with energy. Skip the chaos of London. Be a Berliner instead and hang out over coffee at a sidewalk cafe. Take a walk through the country’s instructive history at a couple of noteworthy museums. Buy a beer at a street stand and sip it while strolling (yes, this is permitted) through one of the lovely parks. Indulge yourself in the luxury cafes and boutiques at Kaufhaus des Westens (aka KaDeWe), reminiscent of London’s Harrods. Enjoy afternoon cocktails at the bustling Monkey Bar atop the 25-hour Hotel Bikini Berlin, which overlooks the city zoo.
You can rent a car service or hail a ride on your phone, but the city — owing to its block-to-block mixed-use density that generates a ton of activity but isn’t canyonlike and overwhelming — is uber-friendly for transit by bike or on foot. Trains, trams, and buses take you everywhere, including the airport. Stay in a central city district like Mitte and walk. We visited last summer — in mid-July at that — and temps in the mid-70s and low 80s made it easy to enjoy the city outdoors.
The city, which was decimated by Allied attacks during World War II, has been rebuilt over the decades since, including after the fall of the wall that separated East and West Germany, so it’s difficult to imagine Berlin as it stood. But there are places to see how it once was.
Topographie des Terrors
This indoor-outdoor museum, built on the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and Reich Security, retells stories of Nazi persecution through vignettes. It generates more than 1 million visitors annually. No onsite parking.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Germany’s Parliament authorized construction of this outdoor memorial, which opened in 2005. Designed by the New York architect Peter Eisenman, it allows visitors to walk a meandering path through 2,711 concrete slabs and columns of different dimensions, laid out on sloping, uneven floors. Critics have taken issue with the memorial’s lack of focal point and its absence of explicit commentary about persecution of the Jews, as well as the disruption to decorum by parents allowing their children to play hideand-seek amid the slabs.
One of Europe’s most iconic monuments, the Brandenburg Gate marks the end of the boulevard Unter den Linden. Archival footage of Nazi forces passing beneath the gate is a staple of documentaries, historical fiction and movies. Today, the landmark and boulevard are central to festivals and other gatherings. Grab a beer from a street vendor and walk up the boulevard to the adjacent, giant Tiergarten park.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
Berlin is known for its neighborhood and urban center cafes and holes-in-the-wall serving delicacies such as doner kebab. Not sure about eating at a dive? Like anywhere else, if it has a line of locals outside the door, it’s probably safe. Live like Berliners, shop the urban markets and bring edibles and imbibables back to your rented flat.
For the refined palate, the gourmet floor — die Sechste, or sixth floor — at KaDeWe features about 30 food spots, including 10 that are exclusive to the store. Favorites: Champagnerbar; Austernbar, serving a range of fresh oysters; Fischkutter; and the new Brauerei Hélène. Elsewhere at KaDeWe, pick up packaged teas, chocolates and other goodies for gifts or to enjoy on the trip home or in your hotel.