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Some Reflections from My Trip to Berlin

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2018

Berlin Trip 2018

Even for a city almost 800 years old, Berlin has seen more than its fair share of history, especially in the 20th century. Watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on television 29 years ago this month was one of my most memorable experiences as a teen. In 2001, my girlfriend and I visited Berlin, loved it, and wanted to return soon. But you know how that goes sometimes, and I didn’t make it back there for a visit until mid last month, when I spent the better part of a week exploring Germany’s largest city. Here are of my impressions from the trip.

Museum-going is one of my favorite things to do when travelling and Berlin has a bunch of great ones. And they’re not generally these behemoths like the Met or Louvre…they’re reasonably sized places you can knock out in a couple of hours. The recreation of the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon is one of my favorite things at any museum I’ve been to.

The public transportation in Berlin is great. One ticketing scheme covers buses, trams (in the old East Berlin), surface trains (S-Bahn), and subways (U-Bahn). I bought a weekly pass and used it to travel all over the city. One afternoon with no fixed agenda, I explored by randomly hopping on trams and trains and getting off when things started looking interesting…navigation by an arbitrary stupid goal.

Berlin Trip 2018

Yes, I had the currywurst. And a kartoffelpuffer (served with a massive dollop of delicious sour cream w/ herbs in it). I preferred the knackwurst I got from Konnopke’s Imbiß and the schnitzel from Scheers, which reminded me a bit of Crif Dogs (but for schnitzel). The guy at Konnopke’s made an “ick” face when I asked for ketchup with my knackwurst instead of mustard. *shrug*

According to Pedometer++, I walked 65 miles over a 7 day period in Berlin.

At the Neues Museum, I read a bit of Homer’s Iliad on a papyrus scroll from more than 2000 years ago. The kids and I have been reading Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey so that was a nice moment of connection across the centuries. (I also saw the bust of Nefertiti there.)

Berlin Trip 2018

My favorite thing about public transport in Berlin is that instead of having entry turnstiles and swiping your ticket when you get on the bus, you simply buy a ticket and get it stamped on the platform to validate it. That’s it. With my weekly pass, I had to stamp it once to “activate” it, but after that, I could just get on the tram or subway without worrying about it. I love this system…it eliminates so much infrastructure, makes it easier to use public transport, and doesn’t track you around the system like smartcards do. It also makes it easier to ride for free, although there are teams of ticket inspectors moving throughout the system checking for valid tickets. Fines of €60 on up are assessed & paid on the spot.

A team of three undercover ticket inspectors got onto a tram I was riding…they were young, dressed a bit like hooligans, and looked way more like they were gonna steal wallets than officially check tickets. After nonchalantly boarding, they announced themselves to the passengers, pulled out their badges, and worked very quickly, impatiently looking at tickets before the tram pulled into the next stop and scofflaws could escape.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an open-air memorial of more than 2700 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern. While I was there, I saw it being used as a bench, a picnic area, a playground, a hide-n-go-seek maze, a selfie background, a parkour apparatus, and as the backdrop for Instagram influencers…pretty much everything but thoughtful reflection about the murder of 6 million people. See also Yolocaust.

Everyone kept telling me that the city had changed so much since I’d been there, but one of the only differences I could detect was that in 2001, it was pretty easy to tell which parts of the city had been in East Berlin and which had been in West Berlin, just by looking at the buildings and streets. Now, aside from the presence of random Soviet monuments and the tram in the former East Berlin, I couldn’t really tell. After almost 30 years, Berlin finally seems like a single city again (at least to this outsider).

The Deutsches Technikmuseum (German Museum of Technology) is actually huge and completely amazing, especially the collection of trains and train cars housed in the massive buildings of a former railway company. The smell of grease and oil that hit me walking into the exhibition took me right back to when I was a kid, helping my dad fix cars in the garage. As I mentioned in this post, the exhibition included a freight car that was used for transporting Jews to concentration camps that you could walk inside of “and try to imagine, in some small way, you and your children cheek to jowl with 80 other people, on the way to be murdered”. An intense experience.

Berlin Trip 2018

The massive seven-story KaDeWe department store has an entire floor dedicated to food (in addition to the eatery on the top floor) and the butcher cases must have featured over 120 different kinds of sausage & wurst…it was unbelievable. I spent more than an hour wandering through and ended up having dinner, some scrambled eggs with a side of potatoes and onions — the menu had a disclaimer on the bottom of each page: “Of course our potatoes and onions are made with bacon!” Duh, this is Germany.

The permanent exhibition at the Topographie Des Terrors is a must-see presentation of how the Nazis persecuted, imprisoned, and murdered millions in the 30s and 40s. While sobering and completely gutting in parts, this was one of my favorite things I did in Berlin.

While not quite public transport, Berlin has a thriving bike share scene. I signed up for Mobike because they seemed to have the most inventory. As a bike-friendly city to begin with, there are lots of places on the streets to park these dockless bikes, although locals have complained about bike littering. This was my first time using a dockless bike, and like with WiFi on a laptop or pairing a Bluetooth speaker, the first time feels a little magical.

My favorite meal was at the restaurant in my hotel. That’s a bit of an odd thing to hear because we’re used to hotel restaurants being kind of a default mediocre. But the food at the Michelberger’s restaurant was delicious, surprising, and inventive. I had the burrata w/ pear & dukkah and the arctic char w/ smoked mashed potatoes & buttermilk. Just thinking about that meal is making me hungry!

Berlin Trip 2018

Berlin reclaimed Tempelhofer Field as a public park after the Tempelhof airport closed in 2008. I’d never walked on a large runway like that before…they’re huge! I was supposed to meet up with Felipe of Fotostrasse to take a more extensive tour of the area, but it was rainy and I was sick, so I only managed a quick solo visit. Next time!

I only posted a couple of pics from Berlin on Instagram, but I did post a bunch of Instagram Stories (collected here). And thanks to everyone on Twitter and Instagram who offered suggestions for my trip! I had a great time and I will definitely be back, hopefully before 17 more years have passed.