Checkpoint Charlie mural of Berlin's East Side Gallery

Berlin, The Gritty City

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A couple of weeks ago, my friends Rana and Dorota proposed our first road trip together to Poland from Fribourg, Switzerland. The plan was to stop in Frankfurt and do some sightseeing in Berlin along the way. Both of these friends are spontaneous, flexible, and have an insatiable love of traveling, so I was excited to not only go on a girls’ trip, but finally see more of Europe!

Bummer for Trav that he had to stay home to work, but our dog Touille stayed to keep him company.

Rana made arrangements for us to stay with a friend of hers in Frankfurt for the first night of our trip, and Dorota lined up a place to stay in Berlin the following night. After that, we planned to continue on to Poland to stay with Dorota’s family for a few days.

Besides tentative sleeping arrangements, we didn’t have much of an itinerary, so when Dorota came down with a nasty bug right before the trip, we delayed leaving Fribourg for a day to give her a chance to rest. Unfortunately, it meant we weren’t able to spend a night in Frankfurt with Rana’s friends, but it was nice that we could simply delay leaving Fribourg without having to worry about changing reservations or rescheduling bookings. And that still left us with a full day for sightseeing in Berlin.

Let the road trip to Berlin begin!

Though Dorota clearly still was not feeling well the day we left, she insisted we not cancel our trip. I admired her stubborn willingness to spend 9 hours in the car driving straight through from Fribourg to Berlin.  

Of course, our 1300+ kilometer journey was also more exciting because it was my first time flying driving on the Autobahn.

Our speedometer at 170 kmph on the German Autobahn

About 60% of Germany’s autobahns (freeways) have unrestricted speed limits.

Arriving in Berlin shortly before midnight, Dorota and I chatted with her friends for a couple of hours and hungrily devoured bowls of superb homemade duck and buckwheat soup that they heated for us.

Exhausted, we finally rolled up in our sleeping bags on their living room couches and crashed.

Navigating the Berlin Airport

Up again a few hours later, we thanked her friends and zipped on over to the Berlin Airport where we planned to pick up Rana before 8 am. With Dorota navigating and me driving, we found ourselves at the airport right on time – unheard of for me – but with no idea where to meet Rana.

Why are airports so blasted confusing?

While I made a pass at the upper level, Dorota called Rana to figure out where she was.

I felt like we were in a Three Stooges scene as I wove back and forth across lanes, the German traffic signs hopelessly lost on me. Finally, I looped back around to take another pass at the Arrivals. Taking the wrong turn and again ending up on the upper level, we rounded the corner and saw Rana, waving her arms directly ahead of us.

We stopped right in traffic just long enough for her to jump into the back seat.

It could not have worked out more beautifully if we’d synchronized our finely tuned Swiss watches!

With our trio complete, we had the rest of the day for sightseeing in Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city with a population of nearly 3.5 million. In the EU, only London is larger.

Still with no real plan, we headed toward the city center and found a parking place to ditch the car for the entire day.

Miraculous price? €2.50.

It was the first of many moments when one of us raved about how much cheaper it was than Switzerland.

In short order, we spotted a sign with a giant “U” indicating an underground station for the city’s U-Bahn subway system.

Travel Tip: All-day U-Bahn passes only cost €6.90.  

Girls' trip to Berlin from Switzerland
These two faces together spell trouble – and fun!

My first impressions of sightseeing in Berlin aren’t good.

Rana and Dorota somehow made sense of the complicated schedule which read like hieroglyphics to me. After a confusing series of brief train rides, we stepped off into the very heart of Berlin.

For months, I’d heard Rana rave about Berlin – about its art, its energy, that she can’t get enough of the city.

That morning, I wasn’t feelin’ it.

I was unimpressed by the seemingly endless multi-lane roads flanked by grey concrete walls we followed forever within the city boundaries.

I didn’t like the cold architecture of solid rows of towering apartment complexes, unbroken by gardens or trees or anything to arrest the monotony. And when we stepped out of the car park, all I could see was grey, grey, and more grey, made worse by the grey, cloudy skies.

But Rana’s enthusiasm was infectious, and she proceeded to lead us on a tour that allowed glimpses of the vibrant thrum of energy and creativity seething just below the surface of this gritty city.

Canvas Art

My heart starts to warm toward Berlin.

Walking along the Oranienstraße, I realized that in many places, the unbroken stream of graffiti masks the crumbling facade of a brick wall or rotting wood underneath.  

We briefly stopped for breakfast at Pfeiffers, where I thoroughly enjoyed a blissfully large caffè mocca and croissant.

Exiting the café, I took a closer look at the graffiti and slowly realized that mixed in with the mundane tagging and everyday proclamations of love were some truly unique expressions of art. Clever doodles, colorful cartoons, and a plethora of political statements were sprayed in different languages.

Some I understood, some I didn’t, but the more I looked, the more I wanted to see. Every gate, door, and wall had something to say. The city is a giant outdoor art museum. 

My heart began to warm toward Berlin.

ROA Street Art

Travel Tip: This mural by famous Belgian artist ROA is on a building along the Oranienstraße in Berlin.

Oberbaum Bridge

Another brief hop on the U-Bahn took us right to the famous Oberbaum Bridge, which spans the Spree River.

The lower level of the double-deck bridge carries car traffic while the upper section allows for passage of a U-Bahn train line. The bridge is a symbolic pathway between two neighborhoods that were once separated by the Berlin Wall.

Oberbaum Bridge while sightseeing in Berlin, Germany
Oberbaum Bridge is one of the more scenic attractions to visit along the Spree River in Berlin.

East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall

Just past the northwest corner of the bridge is one end of the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. The site spans 1.3 kilometers and exists as the largest open-air museum in the world.  

In 1990 after the official demolition had begun on much of the Wall, artists were commissioned to paint 105 panels along this stretch. It remains as a memorial to freedom and a reminder of a dark period in the city’s history.

Dmitri Vrubel’s painting – My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love (also referred to as The Kiss) – is one of the most famous in the East Side Gallery. Reproduced from the original photograph taken by Régis Bossu, the painting shows the widely publicized kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker in 1979.

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We wandered along the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall, admiring the commissioned art panels, which at times are partially obscured behind a healthy accumulation of graffiti.

I felt sympathy for the artists who painted the original pieces and cringed a bit at the disrespect shown in layers of newer tagging.

Yet I couldn’t help but appreciate the more recent graffiti for the freedom it represents. Right up until 1989, a person could be shot just for approaching the Russian-controlled eastern side of the Wall.

East Side Gallery mural while sightseeing in Berlin
Murals along the East Side Gallery stretch for 1.3 km through Berlin.

One of the murals along the East Side Gallery shows Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous crossing in the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany.

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My Favorite Mural in Berlin

My favorite discovery of the entire day of sightseeing in Berlin ended up being a complete surprise.

This fantastic mural is at the very northwest end of the East Side Gallery and isn’t part of the official Gallery. It’s a separate mural by German artists Sokar Uno and Juliah.

It’s fabulous!

DUNKIN’ DONUTS!!!

While passing through the train station to catch another train, we found a Dunkin’ Donuts and couldn’t resist the sweet, sweet temptation.  

Mama finally has a chance to get her sweet on!

Whether you’re an American expat in Europe or just have a sweet tooth, Dunkin’ Donuts is a must while you’re sightseeing in Berlin.

Re-fueling at Dunkin' Donuts while sightseeing in Berlin
Switzerland doesn’t offer many options for bakeries or pastry shops with sweets as sugary as Dunkin’ Donuts.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Dorota and Rana next led me to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast field of nearly 3000 grey concrete slabs. Arranged in concise rows on a pitched slope, they meet at a sunken center. An underground building beneath the memorial houses the names of all known Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

We rested for a bit near the monument.

Though it was a bright, sunny day, I found the design of the memorial less welcoming than a cemetery, which to me, it distinctly resembles.

Dorota pointed out that she felt this was appropriate, considering what it symbolizes.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
The memorial is the work of an American architect, Peter Eisenman. It took 17 years to create.

She also explained that the slabs were sprayed with a special coating to protect against graffiti, a necessary precaution considering that the site has been repeatedly vandalized with images of swastikas.

She also touched on some of the controversy surrounding the memorial.

A German chemical company, Degussa, was hired to provide the anti-graffiti coating for the concrete. Members of the Jewish community demanded that the contract be granted to a different company after a Swiss newspaper posted several articles connecting Degussa with one of its subsidiaries, Degesch. Degesch supplied the Zyklon B gas used in gas chambers during World War II.

Because the company had already provided services for the foundation which would costs millions to replace, the contract was honored. Degussa completed the work.

Stelae in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Some of the stelae in the memorial are as tall as 4.7 meters, or just over 15 feet.

Overall, the abstract austerity of the memorial left me feeling emotionless and conflicted. Though the coldness of the memorial clearly is intentional, it fails to humanize the staggering loss of Jewish life.

Clearly this is just my opinion. The memorial is one of the most popular attractions in Berlin, and many rave about it. If you visit, we’re curious to hear your thoughts on it.

Brandenburg Gate

These feelings were still with me when we arrived a block or two later at the Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s most renowned landmarks dating from the 1700s.

Another friend in Switzerland, Oriane, had recommended I visit Brandenburg Gate, and I was excited to see the massive historical site she had described.

Brandenburg Gate, one of the best places to see in Berlin
The Brandenburg Gate once marked the entrance to the boulevard leading to the palace of the Prussian monarchs.

The gate witnessed Napoleon’s victorious procession in 1806.

It hosted a parade in celebration of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

It survived bombings during World War II.

It served as one of the checkpoints of the Berlin Wall.

And it’s been witness to countless speeches calling for and celebrating freedom.

Canvas Art

The Reichstag Building

Practically across the street from the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag, which houses Germany’s parliament.

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma

The last historical site we visited, and the most impactful for me, was the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma – not for any personal significance, but for the sheer power of its design.

At the center of the dark pool is a triangular stone, much like the badges worn by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. A fresh flower is placed on the stone each day.

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma in Berlin
A reflecting pool marks the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma in Berlin.

Santino Spinelli’s poem, Auschwitz, is faintly visible beneath the surface of the water around the perimeter. It’s enough to give any visitor chills.

Gaunt face
dead eyes
cold lips
quiet
a broken heart
out of breath
without words
no tears

Saying Goodbye to Berlin

As night began to fall, I realized we would have to make our way back to the car soon to continue our journey. We still had a 3-4 hour drive ahead of us before we made it to our next destination – Dorota’s mom’s house in Pruszowice, Poland.

Cool street vibe in Berlin, Germany
Every side street and doorway is yet another canvas for the artists of Berlin.

Rana led us off a narrow side street through an even narrower doorway into one more hidden art enclave.

We poked around for a bit, admiring the quirky outdoor light fixtures, colorful cafés, and a giant wall painting of a monkey taking our photo. I stood staring up at the chimp’s oddly creepy grin and realized I didn’t want to leave.

In the space of a single day, I had fallen in love – just a little bit – with Berlin.

Looking for more cool things to do while sightseeing in Berlin?

Know Before You Go
  • All-day tickets for the Berlin U-Bahn cost €6.90.
  • All of the monuments and attractions we visited while sightseeing in Berlin on this trip are FREE.
  • As of December 2016, the brick wall on which the street mural by Sokar Uno and Juliah was painted has been demolished.
  • Visitors can tour the interior of the Reichstag building, which is particularly popular for its rooftop glass dome with views of the city. Admission is FREE but does require advance registration.
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