Berlin Musings & Travel Tips

Berlin Musings & Travel Tips
After another week of thinking about Berlin, it’s more than clear there was no way we could do the city justice with a fast in-and-out trip. Living in Paris has so many advantages including being the ideal jumping-off place from which to travel. If you’re a travel junkie and find it enriching, it’s heaven. Don’t get me wrong: I had no illusions or delusions we were going to see and do it all. Berlin is approximately eight times the size of Paris. There are plenty of neighborhoods here in Paris with which I only have a nodding acquaintance. I’ve designated specific days when I pretend I’m a tourist, with the conviction there’s no place like home. And, I want and need to explore it, especially if I’m going to maintain my being considered a Paris expert. People who go to a place of any size, spend a day sightseeing and think they’ve seen it amaze me. That’s one reason to steer clear of tours where travelers are whisked from here to there with an agenda like “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Brussels… or maybe Berlin?” How about seeing the city? How about seeing what’s in between this city and the next? You probably read the “three days here and three days there” articles as do I. If you have unlimited energy, an infallible sense of direction, don’t get confused or take the wrong bus or subway, perhaps you can do and see what’s on the must-see list. That’s simply not the way I travel since I like to wander and invariably do, since I was born without the sense of direction gene and find myself exploring whether or not I’d planned to do so. OK, here are some suggestions, which does not mean we did them–we certainly did not get to all of them! For a 360-degree overview of the city, the Visit Berlin Tourist Office suggests you go here. It is a TV Tower 680 feet high (270 meters) where you can get an stunning overview of the city; you can see many of its tourist attractions from here, including the Reichstag (Parliament building), the Brandenburg Gate and the Main Railway Station, as well as the Olympic Stadium, the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and the Potsdam Square (Potsdamer Platz). This makes sense. We didn’t go. Instead, because of a recommendation, we ate at Solar, located at the summit of a high-rise building. Our source assured us it’s a local hangout where we wouldn’t encounter tourists. She was right. The food was more than decent, portions were huge and could be split and the prices were moderate especially compared to Paris. As guaranteed, the view was incredible and the decibel level could blow out people’s eardrums.  Décor-wise (all-black and glass), it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s the type of place you either love or hate, and you know darn well there’s a whole lot of shaking going on after midnight. We went to Checkpoint Charlie (and yes, there’s a kind of cheesy feeling that comes from being besieged by people being able to buy a piece of the Berlin Wall) and other relics of the Soviet era. We walked through The Brandenburg Gate and studied the exteriors of Museum row. I’m embarrassed to admit we didn’t go to the Jewish Museum. You need to dedicate three days to do it justice. But, contrary to what you may think, this is not a to-do-and-what-to see article. It’s more about the very superficial conclusions I came to. If you’re looking for tourism information, the Berlin Tourist Office has a first-rate site. My way of learning is to interview people and ask lots of (often, too many) questions. One of the pluses of living in Paris is I know I can and will return to Berlin. And, sooner than later. I grilled Toma Haines, the Antiques Diva, a Bonjour Paris contributor, who lives in Berlin and commutes to Paris. She shared her insights and said, “I can’t emphasize strongly enough is that Berlin is a poor city. It was flattened in WWII, isolated by the Wall, and it’s never recovered. In 2004, Klaus Wowereit, the mayor, said in an interview, “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”) Beginning with the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 2009, investors have been building non-stop, so construction is always visible. I love the quote from Jack Lang, former French minister of culture, when he talked about Berlin’s growth and how quickly it’s changing. “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin.” Of course, Lang missed Baron Haussmann. “Literally every week a new store opens up, a new building is being built… fueling the economy with the hope it will pay off. People, especially Americans, are investing in Berlin, but you have to think long-term to make it worth your money,” Toma said. Some things I learned: Even though Berlin and Paris are so close (by plane), it’s an eight-hour drive and an overnight (12 hour-long) train trip between the two capital cities. Think BIG. Streets are wide, stores are big and the city feels quasi empty. Don’t expect people to speak English. It’s a plus if they do if they’re of a certain age. Younger Germans will, but they’re not necessarily the ones who are manning information booths in the train or subway stations. Use transport maps, or a smart-phone application if you have one. Many Germans steer clear of making eye contact. I hate generalizations, but that tends to be the norm if you’re passing by and through. If they know you, it’s something else. Waiters are professional and appear to do their jobs well. But, they’re not as friendly as those in the U.S. nor as professional as waiters in France. Tips are not included. Supposedly, 5% (more or less) of the check is the norm. Taxi drivers don’t necessarily speak English.  Be sure to have the…

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Karen is the original founder and former president of Bonjour Paris. Follow her musings on Substack.