I will post this on TA and on Fodors. I received great information from both boards and they seem to attract different readers. Forgive the duplication for those of you who read both. And thanks to everyone who posts such great info and patiently answers questions.
My adult daughter and I left our husbands (and her daughter) at home and traveled to Amsterdam and Berlin August 31 to Sept 8, 2012, to celebrate milestone birthdays. The city pair was a great choice. I had been to Amsterdam twice before – 40 years ago and 20 years ago. Neither of us had ever visited Berlin. When I had backpacked throughout Europe in 1972 Berlin was “off the beaten track.” No more!
In summation: Berlin lived up to its rave reviews. I strongly recommend a visit. Truly, one of the great cities.
LOGISTICS: KLM nonstop LAX/AMS, train to Berlin (2nd class, 6 ½ hours, comfortable and easy), TGL/AMS/LAX. We chose to spend 3 nights in AMS and 5 nights in Berlin which turned out to be just the right breakdown – but one could spend much more time in Berlin. Also, I found Berlin to be much cheaper than other European capitals. If you use ice cream as a gauge, we could easily find excellent ice cream cones for 1 euro – which is cheaper than the US (for this quality) and certainly cheaper than other European big cities. The food was fantastic everywhere. The availability of inexpensive but delicious Turkish street food for lunch helped with the budget as well.
WEATHER: We lucked out. Basically 68 degrees (F) every day, with about 10 minutes of drizzle on one overcast day – which was appropriately at the concentration camp. That said, I always had travel umbrella and light rain jacket with me. The long days of sunshine really expanded the time spent seeing sights.
PRE-PLANNING:: Read numerous trip reports on TA and Fodors and photocopied guidebook sections from the library. Purchased Rick Steves’ Berlin Snapshot which was helpful but not essential. Also purchased Borch map of Berlin as recommended on TA ($9.95 from Amazon) which was very helpful for planning and for use in Berlin until I dropped it at one of the museums. (Turns out that’s pretty common – when I went to the desk to see if it had been turned in, the helpful staff person gave me a choice of city maps dropped by others – although none as good as Borch. The free maps at hotels are sufficient for a short stay.)
I find that by reading novels I learn a lot about a place. I re-read Leon Uris’s “Armageddon” (recently re-issued) and found that it really held up. It had a great deal of easily digestible information about the end of World War 2 -- particularly the Berlin airlift, the division of Berlin and the atrocities committed by the Soviets. A new novel, “City of Women,” also gave a good perspective of life in Berlin during the war. I recommend reading some books on WW2 and the Holocaust before visiting Berlin. While unfortunately I didn’t get to Wannsee this trip, I do recommend renting “Conspiracy” to see a chilling depiction of the formulation of the Final Solution. “Lives of Others” is a great film (with subtitles) about life in East Germany and “The Counterfeiters” shows this operation at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp that is recommended to visit.
DO NOT FORGET TO BOOK REISCHTAG VISIT IN ADVANCE.
HOTEL: Stayed at Circus Hotel and it actually lived up to the hype – read the reviews. If you are not looking for luxury, by all means stay here. The only hesitation would be July/August without air-con. We had a regular double room (asked for courtyard so no noise) and left the window open -- it was fine for 90 euro. For a larger room, add 10 euro for a junior suite. I chose to put the extra money toward the convenience of breakfast at the hotel each day, although cheaper options are certainly available. My daughter had the full buffet each morning (8 euro) and I had the musseli buffet (4 euro). Both were filling and delicious and consumed in the lovely courtyard daily. The neighborhood and location are perfect. Even though the Rosenthaler Platz subway line doesn’t go everywhere (although easy to transfer), the nearby Hackesche Hofe subway station (7 minute walk) has many major lines.
TRANSPORTATION: From Hautbahnof, took taxi to hotel – about 12 euro. To TGL airport we took taxi, about 25 euro. Buses are available but we found taxis far better with luggage. While in Berlin we borrowed an unlimited AB subway pass from the Circus Hotel for discounted price of 4.5 euro per day. We kept this for the entire 5 days. While we may not have used it to its maximum every day, it was worth it just to have it. We walked most places, but were happy to get on bus/tram/S-bahn/U-bahn when we wanted and not hassle with tickets. No one ever checked our pass.
WHAT WE DID (my impressions and recommendations; see attraction reviews on TA for details).
Jewish Museum -- Because we arrived late afternoon on a Monday, perfect day to visit the Jewish Museum. It is a bit out of the way and open late on Mondays. Libeskind’s building is really worth seeing. It is an architectural marvel. A tram and subway and short walk from Circus Hotel were easier than they appeared and gave us great intro to the ease of transportation all over Berlin. This is NOT a Holocaust Museum, although I believe the downstairs section relating to the Holocaust is the most interesting part. The exhibit called, “Fallen Leaves,” is one of the most affecting memorials/tributes I have experienced. I suggest concentrating on the downstairs and then spend as much time as interest holds for the extensive exhibits on Jewish life. For those with a limited understanding of Judaism there are good explanations of rituals and practices. See the beautiful grounds in the back of the museum. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, especially for the parts relating to the Holocaust.
Kreuzberg neighborhood (dinner at Hasira) – from the Jewish Museum we wanted to have dinner in a fun neighborhood and this Turkish area (now gentrifying) was suggested. It was two short subway stops away and a fantastic area to walk around. Lots of art galleries, every kind of food – mixed in with Turkish specialty markets and shops. We picked a Turkish restaurant with outdoor seating - Hasir – and it turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. I LOVE Turkish food and IMHO this was every bit as good as Istanbul. Of course, it helps when it’s a beautiful warm night and there’s great people-watching from our sidewalk vantage point.
Hackesche Hofe – We ended up in this area of courtyards and a plaza almost every night. The ice cream place there is great, but closes by 10 p.m. or sometimes earlier. (fortunately, another ice cream place a block up from the Circus Hotel stays open later – hotel can direct you. Great ice cream, for .9 euro!) We didn’t eat in the restaurants here as it was a bit pricey, but wonderful to walk around and see the various courtyards.
Walking tour -- Berlin is a walking city – at least the tourist parts. Just as everyone else says, I highly recommend starting with a walking tour. There are so many companies, but we chose Brewer’s Best of Berlin for two reasons: 1) It is 6 hours rather than 4 hours (including some of the old Jewish quarter, starting at the stunning “New” synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse); and 2) they do a pick up at the Circus Hotel, making it really convenient. This was a great introduction to the city and the almost 7 hours flew by. We touched on all the main sites and this helped orient us and know where to return. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED to do a walking tour your first full day. We ended near Museum Island and easily walked back to our hotel.
For dinner, walked to a non-touristy neighborhood in Prenzlauer Berg and picked Vietnamese restaurant that looked good – many choices of restaurants everywhere. Sorry, didn’t note the name, but it was good! (ice cream for dessert near our hotel). I suggest trying a different neighborhood each night.
Reischtag -- We had pre-booked a visit to the dome of the Reischtag. You MUST do this in advance. We chose just the dome visit although the 1.5 hour tours are highly recommended by those who have taken them. There are many threads on TA about how to book tickets. The tram from The Circus Hotel took a bit longer than expected – we went to Hautbahanof and 10-12 minute walk from there to Reischtag. I would think there is a faster way by subway. Even though it was overcast that morning, this was a highlight of the trip. Don’t forget to bring your passport and the reservation check-in and security is very efficient. Walking through the dome is other-worldly. Be sure to walk outside for an even better view. COULDN’T BE MORE HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Following our visit to the Reischtag, we visited those sites we had seen on the walking tour and to which we wanted to return to spend more time.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – It’s a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate and from there is a cut-through a building to get to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I appreciated this outdoor memorial the second time more than the first. It is very controversial – decide for yourself. As we hadn’t gone to the below-ground exhibit the day before, we stood in a short security line and then visited this excellent exhibit that really gives a thorough overview of the Holocaust and the various communities affected. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED TO SEE THE SITE AND GO UNDERGROUND TO SEE THE EXHIBIT
Topography of Terror – We walked through the entire outdoor exhibit which gives a lot of explanation of the atrocities of the Third Reich – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED to take the time to walk along it. It’s free to go inside and there’s a LOT of information about the Third Reich. You can walk through as much or little as you like.
Lunch Near Checkpoint Charlie – stopped at one of the many outdoor restaurants set up. We had doner kebab the day before, so this time had Turkish Pizza. LOVE the Turkish fast food places.
Tranenpalast (Palace of Tears) – New museum not in all the guidebooks yet. It does give an idea of the heartbreak of the wall, but the English commentary was not great. It’s free, so definitely worth a short stop.
DDR Museum – I didn’t think it was worth the admission fee. I liked seeing the Trabi’s tooling along the street (there’s apparently a tour where you can drive a Trabi) and didn’t think there was that much interesting to see here.
Dinner - For a change of pace, we had Russian food at Gorki Park – again eating outside. It’s a block up from the Circus Hotel. Spinach bliny was excellent.
Buses 100 & 200 --We wanted to see some of the city lit up at night, so we took the infamous Bus 100 or 200 as far as the zoo station and the opposite one coming back. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a double decker for all of it and it’s so much better from up top. We hopped off at the Reischtag where a documentary about the Reischtag was being shown outdoors against the side of the Parliament buildings. This was thrilling to watch, as was seeing the Reischtag and area buildings lit up at night. This was fun and because of our transit pass taking these buses didn’t cost anything extra and was a nice way to spend the evening.
This may have been the only night we skipped ice cream and had giant cups of hot chocolate in one of the many cafes in courtyards around Hackesche Hofe.
This was our last full day in Berlin since we were going to Sachsenhausen concentration camp the next day.
Berlin Wall Memorial -- We decided to visit the Berlin Wall Memorial on Berliner Strasse. This turned out to be one of the surprise highlights. We walked from Circus Hotel – about 15-20 minutes – to the beginning of this outdoor exhibit/docu-center. We started at the opposite end of Nordbahnhof, as that’s where we wanted to end up. It’s hard to describe – but the outdoor exhibits and wall fragments give you a sense of what it was like along the “death strip” and you see actual significant wall fragments. My explanation is not doing it justice. And I think some of the exhibits are new enough that it is not explained well in the guidebooks. There is a small, free museum (with clean toilets) and you can walk up for a great view of Berlin. We were surprised that we spent a couple of hours wandering this stretch. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Potsdamer Platz and Panorama Punkt - Since the best way to get from Nordbahnhof to KaDeWe was to change trains in Potsdamer Platz, figured we’d take a quick trip out of the subway to see it. Sony Center really was thrilling to see. And Panorama Punkt is half the price of going to the top of the TV Tower (and no wait) and -- since it had been overcast when we were at the top of the Reischtag dome -- we thought it would be nice to have another view of Berlin. The panorama view has two levels. The first has an excellent exhibit about Berlin and then you climb one level higher for even more remarkable views. This was fun to do after we had seen much of the tourist area of Berlin as we could pick out landmarks. RECOMMENDED if it’s a clear day.
KaDeWe – We wanted to experience the food court at KaDeWe and it was a straight shot by subway from Potsdamer Platz, with the subway stop right outside the department store. It is BEAUTIFUL inside and we enjoyed walking around.. The 6th floor food court is amazing, but we’re sorry we ate there instead of the 7th floor buffet. I had assumed it was a fancy restaurant up top, but it was a fairly reasonably priced buffet under a glass-enclosed roof. So, of course we had dessert there of marzipan cheesecake and hot chocolate. Yummy. From there we walked to the Zoo station and an easy ride back to Hackesche Hofe.
Museum of Otto Weidt’s Workshop – This tiny museum is in one of the courtyards of Hackesche Hofe. You can see it in 15 minutes and it’s recommended as a very accessible way to experience one of the stories of the Holocaust. You see the workshop and the old sewing machines and learn the story about one man saving his blind Jewish employees.
Outdoor Market at Hackesche Hofe – I think this is held Thursdays and Saturdays. Lovely to walk around and see the handicraft and food stalls.
Wandered old Jewish quarter for dinner and ended up at Clarchens Ballhaus, which had been pointed out to us on the walking tour. It’s a 100-year old restaurant where they hold dance classes. The outdoor patio is large and lovely and we had GREAT pizza. Found out later, from an Italian, that this is considered the best pizza in Berlin.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp - We didn’t have time for everything and there are many choices for a day trip out of Berlin including Wannsee or Potsdam (actually, those could be done together as a day trip). We chose to visit Sachsenahausen because my daughter had never seen a camp. I had visited Dachau in 1972 and have been through the camps in Poland on two recent trips. Sachsenhausen is different because it has a varied history as a camp for political prisoners under the Germans and the Soviets, as well as a labor camp (and ultimately death camp) for Nazi victims. We took one of the many day trips offered by various companies and we chose Mosaic because it is non-profit and they only conduct trips to the camp. I’m sure all the companies do a great job and all are reviewed on TA. The departure from Alexanderplatz was also very convenient as it is one subway stop from Circus Hotel. As instructed, we upgraded our AB pass to an ABC (easy with help from a German-speaker as the machines are finicky and German only, 1.6 euro each way) and purchased sandwiches to take with us. The Circus Hotel packed sandwiches for us – about 4 euro each, very reasonable – or we could have purchased at any number of places at Alexanderplatz station. We had a very nice group of 8 and a reasonably good and very accommodating guide. The train ride was short, followed by a 20-minute walk. I am of two minds about going with a guide. Pros: Easy to get on the right train, hit all the main spots, good explanations and some of the guide’s perspective. Cons: there are some museum exhibits that would have been worth more time to see. There are audioguides that probably provide as good commentary as a guide. However, if I had it to do again I would still go with the guide for the live commentary and the convenience. It’s about a 6 hour day – an hour each way and about 4 hours on-site. Very interesting, very sad. VERY worthwhile.
Final Dinner at DuDu’s – an “in” Pan Asian restaurant ½ block from Circus Hotel and recommended by them. Another great meal outdoors (on communal picnic tables) and our dishes were what I’d call “nouveau Vietnamese.” But it was every bit as good as Vietnam. The sushi also looked great. This was the only place where we had a reservation. Loved it!
FINAL IMPRESSIONS – Great city. You can’t beat the combination of historical sites you find in any European city, with the added layers of World War 2, the Soviets, the Wall and the Holocaust. Add to this reasonable prices, GREAT food and the “edgy” vibe and you have a wonderful place to visit. And we didn’t’ even tackle the museums on Museum Island! I would recommend spending a week there. If I were to return (or if I had longer when I was there) I would go to Pergamom Museum, Potsdam, Templehof airfield, Olympic Stadium and Hohenschenhausen Prison.
Special thanks to my daughter for being a great traveler -- I guess i taught her well.
Please let me know if you have any questions.