The capital of Germany has always been on our travel list and we finally managed to get there. We wanted to see Berlin not only because it is a city with a rich and tumultuous history, significant monuments and many historical events that have decided in one way or another the fate of this part of the world, but also for the basic idea that it is the heart of the most important country on the continent, the one that, it can be said, leads the European Union.
If in Vienna we saw the former “capital” of the Romanian regions of Transylvania, Banat and Bucovina from a century ago, we can now say that we have visited the present capital of… Europe.
How to get to Berlin?
The flight lasts almost 2 hours from Cluj to Berlin, and Wizzair prices for this destination are surprisingly low if we compare them to other Western capitals and big cities. It may also be because Germany is considered (unjustly, we say) a less touristy country than others in Europe, which the Germans are trying to remedy through intense promotion.
We landed on the Schönefeld airport which is located in the southern part of the city and has rather bad reviews, but we found it quite decent.
Maybe we have other standards and we don’t rise to German perfectionism. But it should be noted that a new mega-airport, called the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, is being built next to it since 2006 and it was due to be completed in 2011, but is not ready to operate flights yet. So Germans have delays too! However, the construction is finalized, just a few final touches remain to be done.
How to get from the airport to the city?
From Schönefeld Airport you can get most easily to the center of Berlin by metropolitan train. It’s very modern and efficient, it’s so silent that it feels like it’s floating. And when you get to the main train station, you find yourself in a place that seems to be cut off from the modernization plans of an important city.
All public transport in Berlin is well organized and we strongly recommend it, there is no point in complicating your visit with rental cars or taxis if you don’t have to go outside the city.
Many bus lines also connect the city to the airport. All the information about trains, buses, prices and destinations are available on the airport website.
Where to stay in Berlin?
We stayed in a very nice apartment in a new building, right next to Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the city.
We found it on Airbnb and paid for it about half of the average hotel price. There are a few advantages when choosing to stay in an apartment instead of a hotel: you can feel what it’s like to be a resident of the city, you have more space than in a hotel room, you have a kitchen that allows you to cook your own meals, you are saving quite a bit, since the prices of the restaurants are rather high, you pay less for accommodation and others, depending on what you like. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, register here and you will get a discount starting from $40 for your first stay.
But don’t get us wrong, we love hotels too, but this time an apartment was a better option for us, you’ll see later why. 🙂 If you want to stay at a hotel or hostel, we recommend tracking the booking.com website for discounts and special offers, which are quite common. If you use this link* when making the reservation, you will receive back on your credit card 10% of the value of the accommodation after the trip.
(*Please note that you can only use this link once to get the reward!)
Save money with Berlin Welcome Card
As in any major city in Europe, there are discount cards for tourists. We chose the Berlin Welcome Card, which was kindly offered to us by Visit Berlin and with which we had free public transport (including from the airport), so we moved easily and quickly between the city’s main sights. The card holders also get discounts for over 200 sights and venues in the city, guided tours and a free city map of points of interest in printed and digital formats.
So, armed with the discount card, curiosity, thirst for exploration, determination and good cheer, we went to explore the city.
This year two major themes for Berlin are being promoted: 30 years after the fall of the wall and 100 years since the emergence of the Bauhaus architectural style. We had the opportunity to see both of them during our stay there.
Only a small part of the wall is still up today, just a few fragments for touristic purposes, but especially to keep alive the memory of those who have suffered from political decisions and to be careful not to repeat the tragic moments in history.
We were impressed by what we saw at Potsdamer Platz, where the tourist is surprised to find a few meters of the former communist wall in the midst of a modern square with skyscrapers.
In fact, after the destructions of 1945, for half a century here was an almost virgin land in the middle of the city, along the wall. It was only after the reunification of Germany that it was demolished and today, as a symbol of freedom, you can stay on both sides of the former wall, wherever you choose.
Since then, hundreds of modern buildings have been built, and now the area has a high-tech metropolis feeling to it, but this does not bury the horrors of the past – they remain forever in the history of the place, for the memory and honor of the fallen.
Bauhaus style is very visible in the Berlin architecture, and the views about it are divided. Some appreciate its simplicity and modernism, others consider it lacking in elegance, too sober and austere.
However, it is certainly defining for Berlin, where many of the historical buildings designed in classic architectural styles have been destroyed, and only some of them were rebuilt, most of them being replaced by modern buildings with simple and efficient lines.
Whatever your opinion, it is worth visiting the German capital to truly appreciate what this cultural-artistic paradigm means.
We have tried to make the most of what the city has to offer and have endeavored to visit as many sights as we could:
Deutscher Bundestag – Parliament of Germany
The old building of the German Parliament, called the Reichstag until 1945 and closed until the reunification, now houses the federal legislature and adopted a semi-modernist style.
While the front columns still bear the scars left by the Russian weapons, a glass dome rose up on the roof, where visitors can climb to see the city from above.
The roof of the dome is open, so you can lay on a bench and contemplate the sky.
The entry to the German Parliament is free of charge, you only need to make a reservation in advance – see all the details here. Usually there are guided tours and the possibility to attend a parliamentary session, but on the day we were there, all available spots were already taken, but the visit of the roof dome was a very nice experience.
If you’ve been following us for some time, you know we like zoos. We have already been to many and we will go to many others in the future. Berlin has two, one that is big and one that is very big, so it was hard to resist the temptation… even if it was rainy and not too warm outside.
We went to the one that is just big, because it is older and more famous. It is right at the end of the huge park that starts at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of the city.
The other Zoo was built in the eastern part of the city during the communist era, because the comrades just couldn’t be inferior to their western capitalist counterparts. We’ll get to it next time, do not worry! 🙂
Berlin Zoo dates back to 1844 and is the most visited zoological garden in Europe. It covers 35 hectares and houses over 20.200 animals of 1380 species.
There is also a very cool aquarium here, though a bit small for today’s standards, but placed in a historic building and well maintained.
We managed to see almost the entire zoo until we had to get out because it was closing time, which has already become a habit at the zoos we visit. 😊
Panda bears were delightful, veeery lazy and greedy, bamboo was planted all around their Chinese-style cottage and around the garden. By the way, they are the only Panda bears in Germany.
We admired the elephants (who didn’t seem to care that we were impressed by them), the polar bears (the only ones happy with the weather), the many monkey species (very intelligent) and obviously the giraffes (which are simply irresistible).
Maisha, the black rhino baby was born at the zoo in Berlin on September 22, 2018, right on World Rhino Day and is one of the stars here!
As with any modern zoo, living and walking spaces for animals are generous, so they would feel as comfortable as possible and choose whether to spend time outside or inside.
We didn’t get to see any felines this time, because all cats hide when rain comes, and our efforts to see them through the hiding places have been useless.
We appreciated the fact that the locals had no problem with the rain and the Zoo was full of visitors, many came with children, despite the chilly weather, something we’ve never seen in Romania.
Another good thing we noticed is that Berliners did not hesitate to build a bridge over the river when they needed to increase the space of the park as it became too small for all the animals.
The Berlin Zoo is very clean, well-organized and has all the explanations in English (which is true for the entire city, very tourist-friendly). Our advice is to come here to reconnect with nature and to be completely relaxed, surrounded by the simplicity and innocence of these beautiful souls.
Madame Tussauds – The Wax Figure Museum
Berlin’s Wax Museum is right in the center of the city and has an interesting collection of German, American and universal characters.
Madame Tussauds Berlin is a fun and interactive place where you can take pictures with your favorite stars, make a video of you singing or get a wax reproduction of your own hand.
We have also visited the Wax Figure Museum in Vienna and will probably go to other cities where this attraction exists, because we like how well the wax statues are made and we always find amusement sources specific to the place.
Little Big City
Located in Alexanderplatz, in the same building as the TV tower that is emblematic for the city, this museum of miniatures is a real delight!
Little Big City Berlin brings together the whole history of the city, from its foundation to the present day, through small replicas of major monuments and events made by skilled craftsmen.
Although we are not children anymore, the scenes from the past were so accurately reproduced and so interesting, that if we weren’t in a hurry, we would’ve “lost” there a big part of the day. Some exhibits are interactive and show machines and historical characters on the move.
We especially liked that we could admire the miniatures of some of the important monuments we saw in town, and had the opportunity to learn more about their history.
We recommend to purchase a combined ticket to this objective + Madame Tussauds to get a discount.
The old national gallery is set in an impressive two centuries old building on the “Museum Island” of the Spree River.
Alte Nationalgalerie includes many medieval and modern art works, true masterpieces of German and European painting.
There are many contemporary art galleries in Berlin, but our tastes are more on the classic side, so the exhibits here were a joy for our eyes, even if we don’t have a great deal of competence on aesthetic analysis.
Within a very short walking distance from the National Gallery is the Pergamonmuseum, a space devoted to old civilizations around the globe.
The building was partially closed for renovation when we visited, but we could still see a large number of exhibitions. The creators of this museum managed to reproduce on a small scale some essential places for universal history, such as a Roman city or a Babylonian market.
Inside, the feeling is as if you were teleported thousands of years ago, at these extraordinary points from which human civilization really began, and the sensation is fantastic, you can better understand the lives of those people, and you can appreciate the differences to our world of today.
There are archaeological vestiges dating back thousands of years, jewelry collections, carpets, clothes and coins from all over the Middle East.
We were also impressed by the exhibit dedicated to Syria, depicting the irrecoverable damage caused by war and religious fundamentalism.
Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité
Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité is a fascinating place. The building has been operating as a hospital for more than 300 years, and a medical campus is now spread around it.
Besides the construction itself, which carries with it traces of a tumultuous past, there is a lot of information about how medicine evolved during this period, medical instruments from the last centuries as well as many organ samples, parasites, diseases and skeletons, preserved over time, plus wax figures that medical students practiced on. Several popular medical cases and how they have been resolved are also described. For those who are passionate about medicine this place is a must-see, but it can be visited by those who are just curious too, they might have a very interesting experience.
We were so impressed by the museum that we also started to watch the German TV Show Charité, which tells the story of people, famous doctors and events from this place.
German Museum of Technology
We don’t know how much you like technology, but since you are reading these words on a blog, you might have something to do with it. Well, we sometimes go to technical museums, but many of them are small and boring. The one in Berlin is very different. The Deutsches Technikmuseum is huge, it has several buildings with very large spaces, some of them housing dozens of trains and ships, and others having airplanes hanging from the ceiling.
Everything is on a large scale, all expositions are exhaustive and you can see here all stages of the evolution of each type of technology in detail.
It’s a place where you can stay for all the opening hours and come back the next day, too. Whether you are geeky or not, this museum is a mandatory stop if you want to better understand how our world today works.
We liked this museum a lot and highly recommend it!
This museum of German cinema shows its evolution from the end of the 19th century to the present day.
Even if we are not familiar with many of the characters presented, as the museum features specific cultural references, it is interesting to study the gradual progress of recording equipment and decors.
The museum is housed in an ultra-modern building (Sony Center), a combination of a mall, multiplex, and office spaces.
Traumatic events of the past: the Nazi period and the Second World War
It’s hard to come to Berlin and ignore the WW2 subject. The city was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War. This was also the place from where the Nazi regime conquered much of Europe and from where the holocaust was coordinated. Bullet traces, although repaired, can still be seen on many of the old buildings in the city that are still standing.
Today’s German society has reconciled with the past, and the city has numerous museums, statues and memorial centers dedicated to the victims of the war. At most of them the entrance is free of charge. We only had time to visit a few, but found them very educational.
Topography of Terror is an information point about World War II. You won’t find many artifacts here, there are mostly pictures and information about how the rise of Nazism and then the terror in all German space was possible.
The building is the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the Hitler-era secret police that was torturing and killing the undesirables of the regime.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, is a statue complex in the center of the city, dedicated to millions of Jews who were killed during the Holocaust.
You will find here hundreds of rectangular stones of different heights, among which you can walk and contemplate the human tragedy of those times.
Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt is a small museum in the former building of a brush manufactory, where most workers were blind.
The owner of the workshop hired Jewish residents to save them from deportation, and even hid some of them in a secret room when the Nazi authorities were looking for them.
East and West: Berlin during the Cold War
In addition to the remaining portions of the wall, the differences between the East and the West are still visible today in some parts of the city. The apartment buildings in the former communist eastern area of the city resemble the design of the ones in Romania, but they have been renovated in the meantime as opposed to our country, and many constructions from that period were demolished altogether and replaced by modern steel and glass buildings.
We had the opportunity to visit the DDR Museum, a place dedicated to the former German Democratic Republic that was under Moscow’s influence.
Here you can see objects used in everyday life by the Germans who were captured against their will in the eastern part of the country, propaganda elements and even a model apartment specific to the epoch.
Although Westerners are surprised by the austerity of those facilities, we can only say that East Germany was considerably more developed than our communist country at that time.
Do not miss the Trabant simulator – you can drive this historic car on the streets of Communist Germany. The “trabi car” is a real leitmotif throughout the city, it is present in many places and has become an attraction for visitors.
Another sight illustrative for the period is Checkpoint Charlie, a police control point for the east-west passage, but there’s not much to see there, it’s just a booth in the middle of a circulated street. The historical symbol is much stronger than the construction itself.
Unfortunately, we were unable to climb into the GDR television tower (in German: Berliner Fernsehturm), although it was very close to our apartment. We hope to visit it in the future though.
It is 368 meters high (including the antenna) and was built to show the glory of socialism and to facilitate the broadcasting of propaganda through the audiovisual channels.
Shortly after its construction, the Communist authorities began to worry, because it was very easy to see the difference in development between East and West from that height…
ITB – the World’s Leading Travel Trade Show
If we had surrendered to our enthusiasm and booked accommodation in Berlin a few months before traveling when we first looked for it, we could’ve avoided the shock we had 2 weeks before departure, when we looked again and saw that a very limited number of options was left and the prices have almost doubled. We totally ignored the fact that on some normal days in March, with no holidays in the calendar and way off-season, there was a big event in the city – the largest tourism fair in Germany (and one of the largest in the world)! It was probably a divine sign, from the gods of tourism, to teach us a lesson. 🙂
The event is called ITB (Internationale Tourismus-Börse) and, obviously, since we tell people that we are the most important travel bloggers in Transylvania, we had to ask for an accreditation and see this marvel. 🙂 We never went to such a big international trade show before, so we were only accustomed to the modest travel fairs in our country. We initially thought we would see everything in a few hours and get bored quickly. But we were very-very wrong!
It took us two days and we didn’t really manage to spend as much time as we wanted at every stand. The space is huge – 25 halls, some on 2 or 3 floors, in a huge complex of buildings in the west part of the city, the Messe Berlin area.
Almost all countries around the globe had a presence here, some on a few square meters, others with large, elaborate arrangements.
In addition, there were hundreds of travel agencies, transport companies, IT companies focused on tourism, insurance companies, state institutions that promote tourism and so on.
For someone passionate about travel, it was like an amusement park: you can find here all possible wonders of the world, you get into a fascinating environment that can make you pack your bags and go on every continent without thinking to return soon.
We did almost everything that was to be done there: tasted all sorts of local goodies from different countries, attended a traditional wedding, watched shows with traditional music and dancing, participated in contests (but didn’t win anything, haha), talked with many exhibitors about the beautiful places they represented and now our travel list has become even longer, ate too many sweets and collected way too many leaflets, because everything was so interesting! So yes, they’ve convinced us, we want to go everywhere and we will!
If you are interested in this type of experience, we recommend ITB, it’s a great event and it can make you a travel fan even if you weren’t one before. Plus, you will have the opportunity to discover a lot of beautiful places and cultures you didn’t know much about. Next year’s edition is on March 4-8, 2020, book your accommodation in advance!
What else is there to see in Berlin?
We didn’t get to see everything we wanted. We can only say that we liked the fact that Berlin has many parks and green spaces, but since it was rainy we saw little of them.
Long walks along the Spree River are delightful. You will find there nice terraces to enjoy German beer, lovely streets with a few old houses that have been preserved in the city center, souvenir shops and much more.
We admired small, old churches, perfectly maintained, as well as imposing cathedrals such as the Berlin Cathedral (in German: Berliner Dom).
We also entered shopping centers, where we noted that most of the brands are also present on the Romanian market. Prices at the supermarkets are almost the same as ours, it is not an expensive city from this point of view.
In the Alexanderplatz area where our apartment was, there are a lot of fine stores with good prices if you’re into shopping. There are also several tourist attractions that we have already told you about and this “world clock” (in German: Weltzeituhr), which shows the time for 148 cities around the globe and is popular with tourists.
The streets around the famous Brandenburg Gate are very nice for long walks, the square by the gate is always crowded with tourists taking pictures at any hour and sometimes there are protesters expressing opinions on various subjects.
This area is a mixture of old and new, with beautiful historical buildings, all in a very good condition, but also new buildings with simpler forms, but well integrated into the landscape.
There are many embassies, state institutions, cultural centers, museums and memorials, bank and corporation headquarters, luxury hotels and pretentious restaurants.
However, the impression left by this part of the city and by Berlin in general is – although it’s a very rich capital – not ostentatious at all, its wealth is not openly displayed like in some parts of southern or eastern Europe, but is kept inside, used with good taste and maximum efficiency. We appreciate this character of Germans and believe that Berlin can be given as an example of a modern European city.
The German capital is a somewhat strange city, much more modern than you would expect. The reasons are tragic: the destructions of the war and the Soviet domination. But those tragic events presented the opportunity to build an ultra-modern city, full of futuristic buildings – on some streets it feels like you’re walking in the future. Few old buildings survived intact, and some were rebuilt from scratch after the initial plans.
Expect to find everywhere in the city, on the streets, in hotels, restaurants, cafes, shops – all over the place(!) – Bears and Trabants, which became symbols of the German capital.
Some say Berlin is totally different from the rest of Germany. And they are somewhat right: the city is very modern, everything seems to be built recently and there are still numerous construction sites everywhere. Everything is very clean, efficient and techy. Most people we met spoke English.
The city is a digital metropolis with few old elements, with a cosmopolitan population, a global economic center and an European center of IT, full of young people, hipsters and ecologists, concerts and parties, demonstrations and intense urban life.
Berlin is a “global city” which is super cool, but on the other hand it doesn’t quite have the specific charm of an old German city with small houses and gothic churches. You can rarely find these here, isolated, hidden among the skyscrapers.
The best thing about Berlin is that anyone who visits the city will find something interesting, something to learn, something to admire, something to love.
We liked Berlin and we will come back. If at the beginning 7 days seemed like a lot of time to visit and explore, we now wonder why we stayed so little, because there was a lot to be seen and experienced. Next time, we’ll come during warmer weather.