Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

An Eastern Germany Odyssey, Part One: Berlin Portrait

Story and Photos by Monique Burns.

Feature Image: Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, symbol of a peaceful, reunited Germany, might be touristy, but it exerts a powerful psychic draw on locals and visitors alike. (Photo: Dietmar Scherf -Courtesy of the German National Tourist Board )

In the decade since the 25th anniversary of German Reunification in 2015, tens of thousands of Americans have headed east to Berlin, Europe’s undeniable “Capital of Cool” where hip cafés and contemporary galleries vie for attention with masterpiece-filled museums and World War II historic sites. Two hours south lies Dresden, the equally fascinating and art-filled capital of the German state of Saxony. Razed to the ground in World War II, then hidden behind Soviet Russia’s Iron Curtain for nearly 50 years, Dresden has reemerged in all its baroque splendor. As an added bonus, Dresden is the gateway to Saxony’s countryside, to “Saxon Switzerland, “whose ruggedly sculpted sandstone mountains draw nature lovers, painters and photographers, and hikers, from experienced mountaineers to nature-loving trekkers like me.

Just south, the neighboring state of Thuringia is home to historic Weimar and Eisenach, cities that influenced none other than 16th-century Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, writers and philosophers Goethe, Schiller and Nietzsche, musicians Bach, Liszt and Wagner, and artists and architects Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.


Berlin art, Germany
A mural at a Berlin U-Bahn station captures the city’s upbeat zeitgeist—Make Art, Not War—after centuries of unrest followed by decades of Communist rule that finally ended in 1989.

For a week, using Germany’s excellent network of  trains, buses, trams and riverboats, I took in the highlights of Berlin and Dresden, and visited scores of sights in Saxony and Thuringia, including a centuries-old winery and the storied Meissen porcelain manufactory and museum. My eastern German odyssey was sweet but short. If I did it all over again, I’d carve out 2-3 weeks to explore Germany’s eastern reaches. Not only would I see remarkable cultural, historic and natural sights, but I’d have plenty of time to relax in one of Europe’s prettiest and most peaceful enclaves.

I started my weeklong visit with a three-day stay in Berlin. There I checked into Boutique Hotel 131, a sleek design hotel in the central Mitte district with spacious, well-appointed rooms, a sunny breakfast room, a fitness room and sauna, and a lush garden with a koi and goldfish pond. Besides its central location and many amenities, Boutique Hotel 131 has rates so reasonable you won’t believe you’re in a major European capital. Not surprisingly, one survey has shown that Berlin’s hotels are cheaper than those in Paris or London!

From Mitte, you can walk to many of Berlin’s major cultural and historic sites. But if you need to move quickly around the city or just get off your feet for a while, buy a Berlin Welcome Card, good for unlimited rides on the city’s subway, bus and tram lines, plus discounts on museum admissions. Speaking of museums, you won’t go wrong with the Museum Pass Berlin, offering three days of free admission to over 30 museums.

German street art, Berlin, Germany
In Berlin’s central Mitte district, colorful street art recalls JFK’s famous Berlin speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” in June 1963 as well as the notorious Berlin Wall, finally torn down in 1989.

An inveterate animal lover—and something of a big kid at heart—I couldn’t pass up a quick stop at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, the city’s natural history museum, only a five-minute walk from my hotel. Among the 30 million specimens are the skeleton of Tristan Otto, a 66-million-year-old dinosaur imported from Montana, and, closer to home, Berlin’s famous taxidermied polar bear Knut, who once lumbered through the Berlin Zoo and remains, even in death, one of the city’s most-beloved icons.

Art lovers won’t want to miss Museum Island, afloat between the River Spree and the Kupfergraben Canal. The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses five renowned art institutions with masterpieces dating from antiquity to modern times. In the Neues Museum, I threaded my way through the crowd surrounding one exhibit to find myself standing, aghast with wonder, before the stunning bust of Queen Nefertiti, her colorful crown looking as brilliant as it must have the day it was crafted some 700 years ago.

Near Potsdamer Platz, on Berlin’s west side, the Kulturforum, a complex of a dozen major cultural institutions, includes the Gemäldegalerie, where I once caught a splendid Botticelli exhibit, and the 1968 Neue Nationalgalerie, designed to house modern works by German-American architect Mies van der Rohe.

Dome of the Neue Synagoge, Barn District, Berlin, Germany
Rising above Berlin’s Barn District, formerly known as the Scheunenviertel, is the gold-ribbed dome of the Moorish Revival-style Neue Synagoge where Albert Einstein once gave a violin concert.

If you’re into contemporary art and design, book a GoArt! Berlin tour with art historian and former gallery owner Miriam Bers. Along with ready-made Art Tours + Studio Visits, Architecture + Design Tours, and Fashion + Lifestyle Tours, Miriam and business partner Stefano Gualdi design custom tours. My one-of-a-kind GoArt! adventure took me through the heart of Mitte to the former Jewish neighborhood known as the Barn District, or Scheunenviertel. Here you’ll find historic sites like the Neue Synagoge where Albert Einstein once gave a violin concert and where a German policeman later stood up to a crowd threatening the landmark during the Nazis’ infamous Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938.

Here, too, you’ll find some of Berlin’s best contemporary art galleries and design studios. On Mitte’s southern fringes, in Potsdamer Platz’s up-and-coming design district, Miriam and I toured well-regarded contemporary art galleries like Galerie Judin and hip design shops like Fiona Bennett, led by the eponymous hat designer who’s a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Isabel Vollrath, Fashion Designer, Berlin, Germany
In the Barn District, where design studios and art galleries stand cheek-by-jowl, designer Isabel Vollrath shows off one of her many innovations, a stylish jacket fashioned from an orange tarp.

Berlin has scores, if not hundreds, of museums and historic sites, many connected to the Holocaust, World War II and the Berlin Wall. From my hotel, it was a short walk to Unter den Linden, Berlin’s famous boulevard lined with linden trees, which leads to the iconic Brandenburg Gate. Commissioned by Frederick William II of Prussia, designed by Carl Gotthard von Langhans and installed in 1793, the neoclassical Brandenburg Gate was built as a triumphal arch with a dozen Doric columns and a pediment topped by a quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses.

But unlike most triumphal arches, the Brandenburg Gate was actually built to celebrate peace. In fact, it was originally called the Friedenstor, or Peace Gate. That’s Eirene, Greek goddess of peace, up there in the chariot. Alas, the Brandenburg Gate has seen more war than peace. After defeating the Prussians in 1806, Napoleon strode triumphantly under the arch, then carried the quadriga off to Paris. When it returned in 1814, the Prussians gave Eirene a more martial appearance, adding the Iron Cross and Prussian eagle to her lance.

Berlin rock music scene, Germany
Berlin’s eclectic music scene ranges from venerable classical works by the
likes of Bach and Beethoven to electrifying rock by the likes of the Volbeat heavy-metal band shown at Berlin’s summer Citadel Music Festival. (Photo: Markus Felix)

Touristy it might be, but the Brandenburg Gate is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Not surprisingly, it’s the site of a tourist office, where you can pick up maps and buy the aforementioned Berlin Welcome Card and Museum Pass Berlin. But, far beyond that, the Brandenburg Gate exerts a powerful psychic draw owing to its symbolism as an international icon of freedom. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Brandenburg Gate has been the backdrop for all kinds of local and national celebrations, but especially those marking German Reunification, the decades-long process of knitting East and West Germany back together. Once again, Berlin is a major European capital as well as the capital of a united Germany.

On an ordinary weekday afternoon, I reached the surrounding Pariser Platz after a seven-hour flight from the U.S. and found the square filled with happy tourists snapping photos and posing for selfies. Joining the jubilant throng, my jet lag quickly faded. I felt uplifted just being there. Stepping through the Brandenburg Gate, I found the Holocaust Memorial only a few steps away. Formally known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it sits, ironically enough, on the former site of Adolf Hitler’s Chancellery and only a block away from the notorious underground bunker where Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun committed suicide, now covered indecorously by a tawdry parking lot.

With 2,711 concrete blocks stretching over more than four acres, the Holocaust Memorial, honoring all six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust, is reminiscent of a cemetery. But Jewish-American architect and Yale professor Peter David Eisenman says he actually wanted to evoke an orderly system out of touch with humanity. For me, watching visitors disappear and reappear between the tall stones, the Holocaust Memorial will always be about the tragic loss and bold reemergence of Berlin’s—and Europe’s—Jewish community. In 1933, Berlin’s Jewish community numbered 160,000,  one-third of all Jews in Germany. By 1945, only 8,000 Jews were left in Berlin. Today, more than 50,000 Jews call Berlin home, and that number is growing as Jews relocate here from around the world.

Berlin’s thousand-year-old Jewish story is told in fascinating detail at the Jewish Museum Berlin in the Kreuzberg district, south of the Brandenburg Gate. Along with historical artifacts, paintings and sculpture, plus high-tech interactive exhibits, the museum is known for its stunning 1999 building addition, a zinc-clad zigzag designed by Jewish-American architect and Cooper Union professor Daniel Libeskind.

Berlin, Jewish Museum, Kreuzberg, Juedisches Museum (Photo: Günter Schneider)
Jewish Museum Berlin’s contemporary wing, a zinc-clad zigzag by Jewish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, houses part of a huge collection detailing a thousand years of Jewish life in Berlin. (Photo: Günter Schneider, Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, Berlin)

A few blocks away is the Berlinische Galerie, perhaps Berlin’s preeminent showcase of modern art, architecture and photography from 1870 to the present. At the permanent exhibit, “Art in Berlin 1880-1980,” I found myself happily admiring some of my favorite artworks, starkly colorful German Expressionist paintings by the likes of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Otto Dix, many critiquing German life and politics during and between the two World Wars.

From the Berlinische Gallery, I continued 10 minutes northwest to the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, or Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Also known as the Mauermuseum, or Wall Museum, it has hundreds of exhibits chronicling modern Berlin history, including the Communist takeover in East Germany, the Allied Forces’ famous Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall construction, and the landmark Berlin speeches of U.S. Presidents, from JFK’s 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech to Ronald Reagan’s 1987 call to “Tear down this wall.”

Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Berlin, Germany
The Checkpoint Charlie Museum displays the specially built Volkswagen that ex-cabbie Kurt Wordel used in the 1960s to smuggle 55 people beyond the Berlin Wall from East Germany to freedom.

Plan to spend at least two hours at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, conveniently open late every day. I actually spent more than three hours there one evening until the docents finally ushered me, politely but firmly, out the door. Fascinated by the history of Berlin told through a multitude of objects ranging from tiny matchboxes to full-size automobiles, I pored over exhibits that include Volkswagens and even smaller Italian-designed Isettas with special compartments to hide East German escapees. I marveled at the motorized hang glider that one daring 24-year-old built to carry himself and his three-year-old son over the Berlin Wall to freedom on July 7, 1988. For the record, it’s currently estimated that some 1,000 people perished while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall. But it’s also believed that as many as 5,000-8,000 succeeded.

With only three days in Berlin, I only scratched the surface of the German capital, with its hundreds of cultural and historic sites, restaurants and nightlife venues. Promising to return, I packed my carry-on, headed to Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, or Central Station, and hopped a train for the two-hour trip south to Dresden, capital of the German state of Saxony.

IF YOU GO:  Germany’s national flag carrier, Lufthansa flies direct to Berlin from many U.S. gateways.  For train travel from Berlin to Dresden, Thuringia and other points southeast, purchase the German Rail Pass.  For transportation and free museum admission, consider buying the Berlin Welcome Card or Museum Pass Berlin. The following links to attractions, in order of appearance in the article, might be helpful: Boutique Hotel i31, Museum für NaturkundeMuseum Island, Kulturforum, GoArt! Berlin, Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum Berlin, Berlinische Galerie, Checkpoint Charlie MuseumFor more information, log on to Visit Berlin and Germany Travel.

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