TW: Rape, murder
YES, I’m saying that ironically. I know what it means. My German is better than that, I swear.
That aside, Berlin is a beautiful place and if you are in Europe you should 100% go there. It has something for everyone. If you like fashion, there are stores there that seem to stretch for miles, like the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus Des Westens, or Shopping Centre of the West), which covers 60,000 square metres.
If you like architecture, you have incredible buildings like the Reichstag, which mixes old and new. The main building is this imposing, classic edifice, but it has a nifty glass dome at the top that you can go up inside (we didn’t because the queue was a bajillion miles long). You have beautiful churches and colleges.
It goes without saying that you have the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate).
You have statues and sculptures of cranky academics.
At the more modern end up things, you have things like the Fernsehturm pictured at the top of this post, which towers above the rest of the city.
Architecture blends into history and culture. Berlin is littered with monuments to WWII. From Checkpoint Charlie…
…to the famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, there is no getting away from the fact that this was once the seat of Nazi power.
Even just walking through the park, there is this odd grey box that draws your attention. It isn’t until you get close and peek through the little window that you realise this is a memorial to the gay folk killed or imprisoned during the war.
The city also reflects the suffering of the ordinary German people after it fell to Allied forces.
This massive statue is of a Russian soldier. Built by the Soviets from materials taken from the ruins of the Reich Chancellery, it is intended to be a memorial to Soviet soldiers who fell against the Nazi forces. However, in the aftermath of the war, Berlin locals came to call it “The Tomb of the Unknown Rapist”, in reference to the vicious rapes, pillaging and killings conducted by the Soviet occupying forces against to citizens of Berlin in revenge for the damage done to Russia by the war. In Berlin alone it is estimated that 100,000 women were raped, many repeatedly, with the majority of rapes conducted by Soviet troops. Around 10,000 of these women died as a result.
One of the most poignant memorials, to my mind, is the series of tiny brass cobblestones scattered not just through Berlin, but through much of Europe. Each one is inscribed with the name of a Jewish person killed by the Nazi regime, and are located outside their former homes. Once you start noticing them, you can’t stop, and the sheer number of them is horrifying.
The pictures I’ve included above only include the tiniest part of Berlin, and are all within a relatively easy walk of each other. I haven’t even covered the River Spree, the beautiful Jewish quarter, or the horrors of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Out of respect, I did not take any photos inside Sachsenhausen, but I highly recommend visiting. Oddly, the most striking part for me was walking across the parade ground. When we first arrived it was cold, wet and miserable, but the weather turned whilst we were in the museum and when we were next on the parade ground it was blisteringly hot. It is a massive open space with no shelter and absolutely no escape from the elements, and miserable prisoners had to stand there for hours on end. This was happening a mere 35km from Berlin.
In terms of seeing the city, there are so many options. There are plenty of English-speaking guided tours as people from all over the world move to Berlin for its low cost of living and fall in love with its history. We did a walking tour of the WW2 sites of Berlin with an extremely knowledgeable English guide, and the next day took a tour with another Brit to Sachsenhausen. There are also cycling tours, driving tours, bus tours, and these really bizarre round three-wheel bike things that you pedal as a group.
Berlin is nice and flat, so it is relatively easy to get around in a wheelchair if you need, and there is a good underground rail system (although some stations don’t seem terribly wheelchair friendly). Although I was not suffering terribly badly from endometriosis when I went there as it was prior to my first disastrous surgery, I think that I would have been able to travel most places either in a wheelchair or on a bus or rickshaw relatively easily. It’s also one of the cheaper cities in Europe, so once you’ve worn the cost of getting there you’ll be able to make your remaining money stretch relatively far.
It’s super easy to eat vegan in Berlin, too.
If you are worried about the language barrier as an English speaker, don’t be. People in Berlin largely speak better English than most of us who speak nothing else, so hotels, restaurants and tours are likely to be very easy to navigate. If you aren’t too sure, just say, “Entschuldigung (ent-shool-di-gung), ich spreche kein Deutsche. Sprechen Sie Englisch?” This is the polite way of saying “sorry, I don’t speak any German. Do you speak English?” Other than that, as long as you know “Hilfe!” (help), you’ll be fine. If you fancy taking a few German classes before you go, you’ll fine the very basics relatively easy to pick up as there are a lot of similarities to English. German only really gets complicated when you start on grammar or the longer words that Germans love to make by smashing five or six other words together. Pronouncing German words is easy enough too. It’s not like French where you only pronounce three letters out of ten – in German, you say every letter.
All in all, I can’t recommend Berlin enough. It has this fascinating blend of old and new and it is soaked in history. There is this really wonderful sense of a city that is not shying away from the horrors of the past or trying to shift the blame of the holocaust elsewhere, but also learning from it and rising up into this great, inclusive, welcoming cultural centre and not being dominated or crushed by shame or blame. Other nations with slaughter or oppression in their past could take lessons. It’s a brilliant city and I can’t wait to go back one day.
Have you been to Berlin? Any hotspots I’ve missed that you think are a must-see for tourists? Any tips on navigating? Let me know in the comments!