Reggie Ho strolls through the heart of former East Berlin, enjoys a history lesson… and the best schnitzel he has ever had
BERLIN ZOOLOGISCHER GARTEN RAILWAY STATION
Once the premier transport hub of Western Berlin when the German city was still divided, this facility has lost much of its importance since the opening of new central station Berlin Hauptbahnhof in 2006. However, it remains a transport hub and many buses leave from here. This is also an interchange for the underground U-Bahn rapid transit and S-Bahn, which operates on viaducts. Resist the temptation to visit the Berlin Zoological Garden, the oldest (opened in 1844) and best known in the country, as four hours won’t be enough to cover even half of the 1,500 different species kept here. Instead, linger and feel the vibe: this is still where everything converges – the well-to-do spilling over from Kurfürstendamm, the city’s own Champs-Élysées, the tourists, the sex shops and the cheap and cheery fast-food venues. In front of McDonald’s is where many local agencies start their walking tours in English, including the very reliable Insider Tours (www.insidertour.com).
Hop onto the train and head east, and within half an hour you will arrive at Alexanderplatz, a big public square that was the showpiece of communist East Berlin. The place to visit here is The Fernsehturm (television tower), constructed between 1965 and 1969surreptitiously by a Finnish firm as East German architects simply did not have what it took to build something of this scale. It was originally 365 metres high, but a new antenna installed in the 1990s added three metres to it. The observation deck has all the usual touristy trimmings, including a bar and a restaurant. But the most amusing part of the experience is to observe the kitschy communist décor on your way up here. To visit the deck as a non-diner costs €11 (US$15) and entails a long wait (the ticket is marked with a recommended time for you to come back), but there is also the option of online advance booking or a VIP ticket for €19.50 (US$26), which allows you to go in anytime. If you don’t have time, even just a look at the lobby can give you a sense of time travel.
MUSEUM ISLAND (MUSEUMSINSEL)
Walk along Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse to the southwest and you will see a bridge crossing the Spree River to this island that is home to numerous museums, including five institutions built between 1824 and 1930 and illustrating the evolution of modern museum design over the course of the 20th century. These include neoclassical Altes Museum (Old Museum) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, one of the most important architects in German history, and the Neues Museum (New Museum), finished in 1859 according to plans by Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Schinkel. The latter had to be rebuilt under the guidance of English architect David Chipperfield after destruction during WWII, and it reopened in 2009 to include the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.
The others are Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), also by Stüler and using a blend of late-Classicism and early-Neorenaissance styles; The Bode Museum, originally opened in 1904 as Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum; and The Pergamon Museum, the final museum of the complex completed in 1930. It houses multiple reconstructed historically significant structures such as the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, and will continue to expand to become the central piece of this artistic district. The museum complex was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Touring all these museums would take weeks but just admiring the architecture alone is a pleasant way to spend an hour. www.smb.museum
FUHRERBUNKER (HITLER’S BUNKER)
Keep walking southwest on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse and you will find Unter den Linden, the tree-lined and storied boulevard that leads to Brandenburg Gate, arguably Germany’s most historic site that has witnessed wars, victory parades, the tears of a divided people and the joy of unification. But turn left onto Wilhelmstrasse instead, one block from the gate, and find its intersection with Vossstrasse, because this is also a historically significant place – except you won’t notice it unless someone tells you. You are standing on top of Adolf Hilter’s former underground bunker, which remained largely intact until it was destroyed after unification. This was where the Führer married Eva Braun shortly before committing suicide when the war was finally lost. The area has been redeveloped mostly for residential purposes, but for a long time this very spot presented a classic catch 22 for the government: it did not want to dig up the painful past but it couldn’t ignore it. So in 2006, a solution was reached to erect a small schematic plaque to mark the location. Some of the corridors of the bunker still exist today but are sealed off from the public.
RESTAURANT BAR FABISCH
After a rather heavy history lesson, you need a drink and something to eat. Take an eastbound tram to Hackescher Markt, where there are many great pubs and restaurants. But for some trendier options, stroll along Rosenthaler Strasse. At its intersection with Torstrasse, you will come across this modern German restaurant in The Circus Hotel. You can sit by the full-length windows, on the green patio or at one of the large wooden tables in the middle of the dining hall, and soak in the urbane environment while enjoying cocktails and some wholesome food. This place serves one of the best schnitzels I have ever tasted, with a crust made not just of batter but also an assortment of nuts and seeds. www.circus-berlin.de
PALACE OF TEARS
Continue north to the riverside and make a right on Reichstagufer to the Friedrichstrasse railway station, where you will find the Tränenpalast, meaning “Palace of Tears” in German. Don’t expect a grand and opulent building: this mundane cement-and-glass structure was an East German immigration facility for processing travellers coming from West Berlin to visit relatives. The name was inspired by the many occasions when people bode teary farewells, as visitors entered the door to catch a train back to the free world while their loved ones, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, watched from behind the window. Today, this structure has become a museum. www.traenenpalast.de
MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE
Stroll back north on Wilhelmstrasse to find Hannah-Arendt-Strasse and, making a left you will arrive at this very thought-provoking art installation, meant to remind people of the horror and hurt inflicted by prejudice and hatred. Also known as the Holocaust Memorial, it was inaugurated on May 10, 2005, 60 years after the end of WWII. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the structure covers 19,000 sqm and consists of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. Some say that walking among them, you will sense the terror of living under a tyrannical regime: nowhere feels safe and you never know what’s around the corner. The cost of construction was approximately €25 million (US$33.70 million).