Berlin is a city in the midst of change. A blend of classic 19th-century architecture and 20th-century modernism with blocks of communist-era buildings, it is a mass of contradictions in both look and substance. You can focus on a heavy dose of World War II history, on the deep cultural roots or on the SoHo-like arts areas. You can eat everything from traditional German food to Asian fusion to beer and currywurst sausages. And you can find green parks in most neighborhoods, a respite from the fast urban pace, as well as a plethora of kid-friendly museums. Berlin has it all, and mixing it up is a fascinating way to balance out a visit.
Start your day on the Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard that crosses Berlin, on which stands the famous Brandenburg Gate. Impressive and spectacular, it is a good place from which to begin exploring the former East Berlin. Along the street running perpendicular to the main avenue, you can see the brick path that marks where the wall ran, dividing the city in two.
It is an easy walk from here to the Reichstag and its impressive dome. You must purchase your tickets in advance, and there are strict timed entries and security regulations. It is fascinating to see the history unfold around the spiral ramp and admire the grand view. Kids love the space, although they might take it in more quickly than the adults. Audioguides (highly recommended) are included with your entry tickets and are cued automatically as you walk around the dome.
From here, you can walk to the Holocaust Memorial of the Murdered Jews. Strolling among the stark sculptural slabs is free, but you’ll need to wait in line for tickets to enter the memorial. Since it includes recordings of children’s and families’ voices, my son thought this was the most moving of remembrances, and the one to which he related the most.
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Afterward, lunch is in order. It’s a short distance to Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s main squares, and a variety of dining spots in that area.
Take a quick hop on the U-Bahn subway to the German Technology Museum, which kids will love. There is a family-friendly multistory science section; another section featuring modern developments from cars to typewriters, with a number of interactive exhibits; and a separate building for aerospace, navigation, traffic and rail transport. You can while away the afternoon without effort, and it is a good break from the morning’s intense World War II background.
The surrounding neighborhood of Kreuzburg, formerly a gritty working-class area, has become the “in” spot for artists and street art. If you prefer fine art, don’t miss the wonderful Gemaldegalerie and its celebrated collection of Old Master paintings. When we were there, they were testing out a new interactive iPad guide, which my son adored.
If you have energy for one more stop, the Museum of Checkpoint Charlie is an interesting reference point for how people tried to escape from East Berlin — far more worthwhile than the tourist-mobbed booth itself, staffed by Germans dressed in American Army uniforms for a photo shoot. It is open late, and we stopped by after a restorative dinner.
Take the opposite direction today, heading to Museum Island and the five museums gathered there (only a handful of the many museums in Berlin). It’s home to the acclaimed Pergamon Museum, with three wings housing antiquities, a Middle East collection and a collection of Islamic art. Also on the island is the Altes Museum, which displays, among other things, Romantic landscape paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. We visited the Neue Museum and its famed Egyptian collection, a particular interest of my son’s, and benefited from a private tour I had arranged in advance.
TIP: If you plan to see more than one museum on the island in a single day, invest in a Museum Island Day Pass to avoid the ticket lines.
For a less emotionally wrenching introduction to German history and the Holocaust than the sites described for Day 1, try the interactive DDR Museum, on the other side of the river from Museum Island. It is an easy stroll from here to Hackescher Markt in the lively Mitte District. Packed with shops and business, plus restaurants tucked in quiet courtyards, this is a fun place to explore.
Next, walk to Prenzlauer Berg, another former upscale area now populated by artist types and families, and dotted with parks that come alive after kids get out of school. Or you could head in a different direction and check out the Computerspielemuseum (Computer Game Museum), which will probably entice tweens and teens.
It’s time to focus on West Berlin, starting with a detour through the Tiergarten. A wonderful park filled with monuments and a family-friendly beer garden, it is a peaceful oasis of green amid the urban mix. You can see the Victory Column monument on the way to a playground with a climbing castle and a section just for toddlers. If you simply want to drive through, the 100 bus traverses the park, but it can be a long and hot ride.
Alternatively, visit the marvelous Berlin Zoo and its beloved pandas. Pick up information at the ticket office for feeding times of the various animals, and time your animal visits around those events. Once you tear yourself away from the array of wildlife, stop by the KaDeWe department store, Berlin’s largest and best known. The expansive food hall on the 6th floor is a maze of gustatory delights, plus small cafes that each offer their own specialties.
For a final bit of history from a different time period, hop on the subway near the KaDeWe or the Zoo and head to Schloss Charlottenburg, located in a very upscale residential neighborhood on the western edge of Berlin. This palace gives insight into a Germany before World Wars I and II, when it was ruled by Prussian monarchs.
If you have an extra day or more, consider spending it in Potsdam, right next door to Berlin. See its wonderful Sanssouci Palace and Park; Cecilienhof Palace, where the World War II Potsdam Conference took place; the picturesque town center with its Dutch quarter; and, last but not least, Glienicke Bridge, a.k.a. the “Bridge of Spies,” where imprisoned secret agents were exchanged in the 1960s.
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