Day 1 2/17/17
Our first weekend trip! Here comes a long post… Booking the Berlin trip was a little spontaneous because we found some cheap Ryanair flights. Being our first complete weekend trip, planning this one was a bit more stressful than others to come (see left). None of us had Berlin on our bucket lists, but left wanting more! I will definitely go back to Berlin when I have a week to spare.
We left quite early and walked to the train station while it was still dark outside to catch a train to the Pisa airport. The train ride there was gloomy because it was a regional train that went through a sort of shanty town. From the Pisa Centrale station we had to catch the “people mover” aka a shuttle to the airport. They crammed about 2x the comfortable amount of people into that bus so we got familiar with the rest of the riders.
During check-in we were all really nervous about our luggage. We have all heard horror stories of people paying fees for having luggage too big and that the budget airlines are super strict. For this reason, we all decided to leave our suitcases at home and backpack it. While it was easier traveling with less stuff, we could have definitely gotten away with our small rollers and duffle bags – they didn’t even look at them!
Pisa airport was a lot smaller than I expected it to be… similar to Bloomington airport from home. So, it took us no time to get to our gate to wait with a warm croissant. Ryanair really wasn’t terrible – they had painted the seats a horrible yellow color and that was the worst part. I was able to sleep most of the short flight squished next to two other sleepy strangers.
We touched down in a cold and wet Schönefeld airport (SXF) just outside of Berlin. From here, there was a short walk to the train station under a covered walkway. We had to wait in a long line to get a train ticket at a kiosk – an ABC ticket can get you to most places in Berlin for 3.40 euros once you validate it. There was a nice man standing outside of one of the trains who spoke English and made sure we were going to the right place. 30 minutes later we got off at Friedrichstraße in Berlin.
Friedrichstraße was one of the main streets in Berlin that we stayed on but could not pronounce at all. Really, none of us could speak a single word of German. Thankfully, most things were in English just as they are in Florence. On first impression, I liked the modern feel of Berlin. Everything was so spread out and the sidewalks were wide enough for more than one person to walk on. I have finally gotten used to walking in the streets of Florence, but walking on a nice wide sidewalk felt nice. It was modern, but at the same time very historical. There was a mix of architecture like I’ve never seen before.
We managed to find our hostel using an old fashion map – the heart of gold hostel. It had a very hipster chill feel to it. There was a bar and reception area downstairs and a hippie with a man bun helped us check in and get keys. Luckily, we had been upgraded to a private room – we were supposed to be in a mixed dorm with two other people. Overall, the hostel was very nice except for the bathrooms. Somehow, there were more men’s bathrooms than women’s and they were small and dirty. Later, we would find that the shower is similar to a public bathroom sink where you need to push a button to make the water come out for 10 seconds…it was a little rough.
Currywurst and Wondering
After dropping off our backpacks at the hostel, we were on the hunt for some German food! By this time it was around 3pm and we hadn’t eaten since the airport croissant. We walked a long ways and asked a couple people where there was a good place to eat. The German people we talked to kind of laughed that we wanted to find good food in the main downtown area – apparently it was too touristy to find any good German food so we should just give up. We ended up walking back towards the hostel and getting pretzels and currywurst from the train station. Currywurst is a Berlin specialty and it is basically a bratwurst with curry powder and lots of ketchup. Roommates weren’t huge fans, but I didn’t think it was terrible.
From currywurst, we wandered towards Alexanderplatz trying to find a place that was open late enough for us to go to. We hadn’t planned very well…most museums closed at 5pm. We did find a DDR museum open until 8pm so we hit it! The DDR museum was an interactive museum about post WWII life in German during the Deutsche Democratic Republic (DDR). I was blown away by everything I learned there! I never learned about divided Germany in school and this museum did a great job of making you feel like you were really there.
After the DDR museum we walked by the Radisson hotel that had a huge aquarium with an elevator going through it! We chickened out a little bit, but stopped inside to take some pictures of it while getting strange looks from the reception area.
The Pub – Food!
By this time, it is dark and we are on the hunt for food yet again. After a few failed attempts to read a German menu, we found a restaurant/bar tucked away in a corner called “The Pub”, very creative. Their icon was a pug though and I liked that. This was the type of place where there is a beer tap at each table and you can serve yourselves and order food from an iPad. The beers were a lager and was pretty good. We ordered burgers, salads, fries and fish/chips which really hit the spot after our afternoon currywurst. Unfortunately, the bar was poorly lit so we have no documentation of the awesome atmosphere here – the walls were covered with murals and pictures of pugs in strange outfits and it was filled with attractive German people.
We walked home to our hostel and were completely exhausted from travel (and from me and Molly being sick). But, when we got to the hostel it was filled with people at the bar! We decided to rally and grab a quick drink at the bar. This is where the bartender accidentally gave me a tequila tonic instead of a vodka tonic – tragic.
Day 2 2/18/17
After such a great experience with free walking tours in Venice last weekend, I signed us up for a general Berlin free walking tour with a company called Sandeman’s. We met the tour guides at Bradenburg gate in front of a Starbucks. Sidenote – another thing we were all amazed at was the amount of American chains were in Berlin. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Subway, they had everything!
Our tour guide, Sam, was awesome from the start. He is a history PhD student at Humboldt University but he is from London – so listening to him talk all day was captivating. We started the tour with the Bradenburg gate with Victory and her horses on top of it that were stolen by France temporarily. Next, we addressed the nice hotel in the same platz where Michael Jackson Lion Kinged his son out of – funny side fact.
The group moved quickly to keep up with Sam’s fast pace and we went to the site of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe site. We did not spend long here because he doesn’t like bringing groups through and thought it deserved some individual attention and reflection. There is a museum that is free and takes about an hour to get through.
Something that we kept talking about was how war affected Germany – it was an interesting perspective because in school we only focused on how war affected America. Germany was in huuuuuge debt for the first world war and they finally paid all of it off in October of 2010. Sam also mentioned the power of the USA several times – when America sneezes, Europe gets a cold.
We walked by an old parking lot that used to have bunkers under it. This is where Hitler killed himself. Across the street is where he had his guard drag is body and burn it in the street. You would never know that there was any significance to this normal looking street corner.
Here is the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus it is one of the best remaining examples of Nazi architecture because most others were destroyed. This is where the DDR was officially formed. It is quite ugly and Berlin wanted to knock it down, but it was too expensive to demolish – so now it is the tax office and everyone still hates it. Picture featuring our tour guide who looks like John Lennon and seems proud of it.
Next, we walked by the Berlin wall – or what was left of it. There’s a fence around it now because people would come from all over and chip off a piece of it to keep. You can see bricks in the street where it used to be too.
Another big tourist attraction in Berlin is Checkpoint Charlie even though it has been taken down and rebuilt so it is fake. It was the main checkpoint between the east and west sides of Berlin. On this side, there is an American soldier keeping watch over the Soviet side.
Gendarmenmarkt is a square with two very similar churches. One was built for the many French immigrants, and the other for Germans (the German one was built slightly bigger)
After the tour, we had a short window of time before an organized tour of the Ottobock center in Berlin – something Molly’s dad had set up for us. On the way there, we saw a big crowd of people waiting for FC Bayern Munich to come out of their hotel! We stayed and waited for about 15 minutes and were only able to see a couple of the trainers carrying bags out before having to leave. Now a little low on time, we opted for Subway sandwiches across the street from Ottobock.
Ottobock is not a place that most people would visit on their short trip to Berlin, but it was still really cool! It is a center for medical technology and prosthetics. Ottobock is on the cutting edge for prosthetics and even supplies the Paralympics. I learned a lot about body movement and how technology tries to replicate that. The exhibit there was really interactive and we had a nice guide who showed us the best parts and took pictures of us on the roof with the Homonculus!
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was really amazing! The memorial consisted of 2,711 slabs of stone that are differing heights arranged on a slope. From the distance they are all about the same height, but once you walk through them they are much taller than you. The museum part of the memorial is free, so after waiting in a short line and going through security we were able to spend about an hour here.
We snuck by the Bradenburg gate to get a cheesy jumping picture of course. We did have to hurry back to the hostel to drop some stuff off before going on our beer tour! This tour was run by the same company as the free walking tour in the morning and we were hoping our new guide was as awesome as Sam was!
We met our new guide (Jason) and group for a fun three hours. He started with a brief history of beer – beer is what may have saved mankind! People of all ages drank beer, even the pregnant women and the children. Beer saved mankind because the fermentation process sterilized it and beer was safer to drink than the water. Jason told us a lot of other cool facts but I forget them all (oops).
Our first stop was Weihenstephaner, the oldest still existing brewery in the world. The group walked through the restaurant (which smelled amazing) and down to the basement in a private room. We tried a Helles, a Pils (Pilsner) and a Hefeweißbier Dunkel (yeast white dark beer). The Helles was light and nicely balanced – clean feeling and simple. The Pils is not a German beer, but it is where the Helles is based off of. The Pils has hops added and was a little flowery and bitter, very smooth. The last beer, the dunkel, was a dark beer that everyone was nervous to try but ended up being the favorite! It was sweet and had hints of coffee and chocolate. Before drinking each beer, Jason told us that it was very important to “prost” with everyone at our table – prost basically means cheers but legend has it if you don’t properly prost everyone at your table you get 7 years of bad sex.
On the 15 minute walk to the next bar, we did something very “Berliner”. There are convenience shops that I forget the name of that are the only businesses allowed to be open 24 hours. Berliners take advantage of this and the lack of open container laws and pick up 1 euro beers – Sternburg Export aka Sternies – and walk around town drinking them. And that’s just what we did!
Jason warned us to not throw away our beer bottles when we were done. It is a unofficial rule in Berlin that you should leave your bottles on the street for the homeless to collect and then turn in for money. Our entire group left our bottles lined up on the street – after an hour in the second brewery they had disappeared.
The second brewery was called Brauhaus Lemke am Alex and it is right next to The Pub where we ate the night before. At this place, we only tried one beer but we got some delicious pretzels! The beer was a Hefeweizen which is an unfiltered wheat beer. At this stop, we learned some tricks to be super pretentious about beer drinking: look at the color and murkiness first. Then to bring out the flavors when you drink it, take a sip of it and when the beer is still in your mouth, breath in through your mouth and out through your nose and then swallow it. This weird technique actually worked if you didn’t choke on your beer first. We were able to sense the banana-y flavor of this beer (because of all the ester). We also learned about the Reinheitsgebot – or the German Beer Purity Law that said beers could only contain three ingredients: water, hops, and barley. It was a safety regulation but also had something to do with the barley and wheat market.
By the time we made it to the third bar/brewery, things get a little fuzzy and we had become best friends with everyone in our group. I don’t remember where the third place was, but we were herded into a dark basement and sampled three different beers. The first was an India pale ale from London that was high in alcohol, hops, and hipster credit. Second, an American pale ale with different hops. The last beer was special because it came from a brewery in either Norway or Copenhagen where they only make beers in small batches and each batch is unique. Sadly, it was my favorite one and I will never be able to have it again!
For a quick second with our new friends at this last bar, we were thinking about trying out a Berlin club. But as soon as we walked out of the basement we realized how tired and hungry we were. With some really cool Indian people from London, we all went to get doner kebap and falafel. I traded contact info with the London people so I could get some travel tips later! After the amazingly salty food, we parted ways and walked back to the hostel.
Final thoughts: I really love Berlin! Someone told me that Berlin is the best because it stays up later than New York, has more artists than Paris and more hipsters than London – I definitely see the truth in this now! I feel like it would be a great city to live in. There is lots of history of course, but it is still very modern and progressive. I really liked the feel and energy of the city – the people are awesome and friendly. The hardest part would be learning German… that was the biggest struggle. Definitely going back someday soon!