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A Day in Berlin: Self-Guided Walking Tour


Jet lag is one of the unavoidable side effects of taking a transatlantic flight. The best cure I’ve ever experienced was rappelling 150 feet down into an alpine canyon, missing the landing, and falling on my backside into a glacier-fed stream. The word bracing doesn’t begin to describe it and it woke me up from my bleary-eyed stupor. That I could banish jet lag so quickly is a success in my book.

You don’t have to take up extreme sports in order to beat your next time zone leap. My go-to method is walking outdoors. Not only will exposure to daylight and moonlight (or even clouds and rain) help you adjust, but moving at the speed of feet gives you time to gape and gawk like a good tourist should, really taking in the experience you paid good money to have in the first place. And if you punctuate your perambulatory progress with purposefully programmed provisions (i.e., meals and beverages at locally appropriate meal times), you’ll help to reset your inner clock and find yourself right as rain in no time.


That’s what I did on my recent trip to Berlin, which the German National Tourism Board cryptically calls “the city where anything is possible.” While I’ve been before, I decided to try out an ambitious but efficient walking tour that takes in many important sights and see where the day took me. It’s not everything you could do in a day, but it’s a good start. Pack a small bag with a full water bottle and appropriate gear for the weather, don your best walking shoes, and charge your smartphone so you don’t miss a picture. If you’re the particularly reflective type, bring a small journal to sketch in or to write down your thoughts. It’s going to be a physically active, emotionally challenging day. (Google Maps Directions: https://goo.gl/maps/Hnou1St2np14T3ag7 )


Reichstag

Originally built to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire in 1894, the Reichstag was partially destroyed by a fire in 1933 and fell into disuse after WWII. It wasn’t until after reunification in the 1990s that the building was properly restored and became, once again, the meeting place of the Bundestag or German Parliament. As part of the restoration, the original cupola was reconstructed as a glass dome that tourists can visit with a reservation. The dome offers excellent views of Berlin and also of parliament, which meets in the chambers below. Reservations are free, but the days do fill up, so make yours at least two weeks in advance.


Brandenburg Gate

A short walk brings you to this 18th-century monument, which originally replaced an old gate in the Berlin Customs Wall. While originally commissioned to represent peace by Frederick William II of Prussia, it’s since served as an important symbol for many, including the Nazis during World War II. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, its restoration symbolized unity and peace once again. Its central location on the west end of Pariser Platz makes it not only a popular place for tourist selfies but also a gathering place for celebrations and protests alike.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Another block’s stroll lands you at the edge of this paved, undulating, slab-filled lot, which attempts the impossible task of memorializing the six million victims of the Nazis. It opened to the public nearly 60 years after the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated, but was then and is now not without controversy. That’s to be expected when considering the breadth and depth of the horror and tragedy the memorial seeks to encompass - some decry it as too little while others say it’s too much. The memorial sits on a site whose buildings once housed the administrative center of Hitler’s death machine in a city that was once home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Walk among the avenues of stelae, pondering how humanity could have ever expressed itself in this horrific way, and do so with deep humility and respect.


Führerbunker

Across the street from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an unremarkable parking lot. Unremarkable, that is until you read the small informational sign at one corner that explains the location as the site of Hitler’s final residence at the end of WWII, a bunker built to protect him from unrelenting air raids by Allied forces on the city. After the war, the above-ground Chancellory buildings were destroyed and Soviet forces attempted to destroy the bunker as well in order to erase landmarks of the Nazis, but it proved difficult to wipe out. The site was near the Berlin Wall so it was left largely untouched until 1989, after which the area was redeveloped as housing and offices, partially to erase the Nazi history. The story is that the German government, not wanting the site to become a neo-Nazi shrine, deliberately kept the bunker’s location undisclosed.


Topography of Terror

The buildings on this site that housed the Gestapo and SS headquarters from 1933 to 1945 were largely destroyed by bombing during the war. What was left was demolished soon after the end of the war, but in the 1980s, the cellar was found, excavated, and turned into an outdoor, covered memorial and museum of Nazi repression. Plan to spend a bit of time here absorbing the stories of how ordinary people were monitored and terrorized by authorities, often turning on each other in the process. There are stories, too, of the German resistance. It’s difficult to imagine what living as an ordinary citizen must have been like at that time and place, but important to try. The Topography of Terror shows just how thin the veil can be between the rhetoric of repression and its expression as an organized culture.


Checkpoint Charlie

Head due east on Zimmerstraße a few blocks and you won’t be able to miss Checkpoint C, or, in the parlance of the NATO phonetic alphabet, Checkpoint Charlie. This was the best-known cold war crossing point of the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961 to stem the tide of defections from East Berlin to the West. In the years between WWII and the building of the wall, nearly 3.5 million people, many young and well-educated, fled East Germany through West Berlin, representing a major brain drain for the East. While the current guard house is a replica (the original is in the Allied Museum), Checkpoint Charlie is still very popular with tourists - you may have a hard time getting a picture of yourself without lots of other people in the background. Still, it’s an interesting place to stop and consider the plight of East Germans fleeing repression for the West.


Gendarmenmarkt

This broad square, historically an open market, features the fine architecture of the Berlin concert hall, flanked by the German and French Churches. In the middle of the square, you’ll find a statue of German poet, Friedrich Schiller. The buildings were all damaged or destroyed during WWII but have all been completely restored. This is a good place to sit at one of the open cafes for refreshment and to admire the ornate buildings before moving on.



Finishing Up


A walk to the northeast brings you to Museum Island, home to five major museums as well as the Berlin Cathedral and Lustgarten. If you’ve followed in my footsteps so far and you’re a museum fan, you may want to come back another day to tour these important edifices to art and history. For now, enjoy picturesque views of the cathedral and stroll through the shady Lustgarten to admire the fountains. Then, wander up Unter den Linden, a broad, famous avenue lined with Linden trees, past the German History Museum, the Opera House, and more souvenir shops than is probably healthy. At the end of Unter den Linden, you’ll find yourself back at Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate or you can opt to jump on a bus or U-Bahn at any point.


When touring a place like Berlin, it’s impossible to hit every site on your bucket list. Sure, you could take a whirlwind bus tour and snap pictures as you whizz by each location, but that adds insult (sitting on the bus) to injury (sitting on the plane ride over) while leaving you no wiser for your trouble. Better to stretch your legs and set out on two feet, simultaneously satisfying your curiosity while beating your jet lag. More importantly, a thoughtful tour of Berlin can be powerfully emotional, and a walking pace gives us time to reflect upon and process what we encounter along the way.


I know, I know - there’s so much more to discover in Berlin. I’ll write more about my favorite ways to learn about the places I travel to in future posts. In the meantime, what are your favorites? What should I do, see, and taste the next time I’m in “the city where anything can happen?” Let us know in the comments and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing!




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