After our recent European travels, during which we visited three major cities – Berlin, Vienna, and Prague – inevitably I ranked them in order of (my) preference. If you read this blog with any regularity, you would have seen my quick recap post last month. I technically did not reveal which city was my favorite, but it was easy to figure out. So, no surprise that Prague officially was my favorite of the three cities. Coming in a very close second – and, I mean, a VERY close second – is Berlin. In some ways it even surpassed Prague. What did I love so much about Berlin, a city that had not even been on my radar until a few months ago? Well, I’ll tell you.
1. The vibe. Instantly, I felt comfortable in Berlin. Upon arrival, the airport was calm; we quickly and easily secured a taxi to transport us to our Wilmersdorf apartment. The traffic was light; no horns honking or insane scooters weaving in and out of cars crawling at a snail’s pace. Later that day, Lucia and I took a walk around the neighborhood while Mark took a nap (he suffered the worst jet lag). I felt completely safe walking in this brand new city with just my five-year-old daughter. We popped in and out of a couple of grocery stores (without buying anything because I did not have any coins with which to unlock a shopping cart) and were greeted with smiles by everyone we came across. During the days we spent in Berlin, at no time did I feel rushed or pressured to hurry from point A to point B. At all the sites we visited, there were no large crowds or people pushing their way to get to the front of the line, be it for admission to a museum or for the water closet. Also impressive are the clusters of tables and chairs set out in various parts of the city for public use. The tables aren’t bolted down; the chairs aren’t chained together. While we sat at one such table at Alexanderplatz, enjoying currywurst, bratwurst, and beer, I remember thinking that something like that would never last at home in Chicago. People would constantly be stealing or damaging the furniture. And any city in which I can walk up to a street vendor and order a beer to enjoy on the public way is a-ok in my book.
2. The green spaces. The impression I’d always had of Berlin is that it’s gritty and a bit rough around the edges. I had images in my head of gray, concrete buildings, and streams of pollutants billowing out of smokestacks. Was I ever wrong. As visitBerlin, the city’s official tourism office, states, “Berlin is green.” There are more than 2,500 parks and gardens in the city of 3.5 million, one of the most significant being Tiergarten. Compared to New York City’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park, Tiergarten started out as hunting grounds for the nobility and, over the centuries, has become “a pleasure park for the people”. The green tendencies reach the individual neighborhoods, as well. After a short time in Wilmersdorf, one word kept emerging as I described it to others: leafy. Wilmersdorf isn’t alone in that category; one-fifth of the city is covered with trees. Yep, Berlin is green.
3. The history. From its status as the capital of the German Empire to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin’s historical significance is undeniable. However, World War II left Berlin with more than 28.5 square kilometers of uninterrupted ruins. Buildings and sites dating back hundreds of years were demolished, yet there is historical evidence just about everywhere. The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent reunification stand as two of the most important historical events in Berlin’s recent history. Getting to see where the wall once stood, and even visiting parts of it that are still standing, are solidified as two of the most momentous experiences I’ve had during my years of travel. What made it even more meaningful is that I got to experience it with my daughter. It provided us an opportunity to talk with her, gently, about topics like war and even Communism. Later on when she learns about the Berlin Wall in school, she will have a real-life experience to relate to, (hopefully) increasing her interest in the subject matter and enhancing the effectiveness of the lesson.
4. The Metro. Learning to navigate the transit system in a new city can be daunting. Figuring out the different modes of transportation, where the stops are, and how/where to buy tickets seriously give me the shakes. In Berlin, it took us about a day to get our bearings and to figure out the U-Bahn stop closest to our apartment. Once we did, we were off and running. The transit maps were easy to read, the trains frequent and clean. Mark and I had the Berlin WelcomeCard that provided us unlimited public transit rides for seventy-two hours (Lucia got to ride for free since she is younger than 6). All we needed to do was validate our cards at a machine at one of the stations and carry it with us whenever riding public transportation. It saved us the hassle and the time of having to stop to buy tickets each time we rode the U-Bahn. We just walked into the station and boarded the next available train. It was awesome. It is important to validate the card on your very first ride and to carry it with you when riding public transportation. Transit officials board the trains and randomly check passengers’ tickets, which happened to us a few times. Get caught without a valid ticket and you’ll find yourself facing a hefty fine. I know some Berliners will disagree, since they deal with the Metro daily, but during our visit we found it to be convenient, efficient, clean, safe, and even enjoyable to ride.
5. The Turkish Market. To say Berlin is a diverse city is quite an understatement. Of its 3.5 million residents, 494,000 of them hold foreign passports. There is a large Turkish population in Berlin – approximately 200,000 Turks, making it the largest Turkish settlement outside of Turkey. Naturally, the Turks have brought their traditions and their food with them. In doing research prior to our trip, I’d read about the Turkish Market and learned that it takes place every Tuesday and Saturday. We arrived in Berlin on a Saturday so going on that day was out of the question (jet lag, remember?) but it was written boldly on our agenda for the following Tuesday. Since traveling to Istanbul a few years ago, Mark and I have developed an affinity for Turkish cuisine. We loved visiting the markets in Istanbul while we were there so we looked forward to seeing what Berlin’s Turkish Market had to offer. It was raining when we arrived in Kreuzberg, the neighborhood that is home to the market, so we found a restaurant, Aksu Ocakbasi Grillhaus, to have lunch and wait out the bad weather. We ordered tea, meze, kebap, and döner. I’m pretty sure we were momentarily transported back to Istanbul; that’s how authentic the food was. It was quite a moment, too, to witness Lucia’s first experience with a new cuisine and with Turkish tea. By the time we finished our Turkish dining extravaganza, the rain had stopped so we headed outside to check out the expansive market. As we browsed all the goodies, we came across other delicacies we had discovered and enjoyed in Turkey. We were still so full from our meal at Aksu Ocakbasi so we decided to get food at the market to have for dinner at our apartment later on. The sights and smells of the market were delightful, and we also enjoyed the upbeat crowd and street musicians along the canal. It turned out to be a sunny, beautiful day and quite an enjoyable way to spend our last full day in Berlin. And our Turkish dinner that night? Delicious.
I say this about a lot of places I travel to, but I really hope to return to Berlin soon. Actually, I think it’s already been decided that our family definitely will visit Berlin again. There’s still so much more we need to experience, and some favorites we would like to visit again.
My family and I received complimentary Berlin WelcomeCards from the lovely folks at visitBerlin. In no way was I swayed by this kind gesture to write positively about their wonderful city. All thoughts and opinions are my own.