weekend family foray in Berlin

We now live an easy two-hour train ride from Berlin. We visited for 48 hours, as a warm up  adventure abroad. Well, it was going to be 48 hours, but then we took the train home (Polish hotel home, let me be clear) two stops in the wrong direction, navigated three local trains back to the Hauptbahnhoff and added a couple hours waiting to take our actual train. But whatever. Learning experience. That’s why this was a warm up. Berlin is an amazing city and we had the best time.

Berlin is super cool, steeped in history and culture, modern, accessible and friendly towards English speakers. For these reasons, I highly recommend it as a safe option for anyone who wants to adventure to a foreign country/city, but doesn’t want to go too far out of their comfort zone. Berlin is for everyone. We really covered a lot of ground…23 or so miles of ground, actually…on foot. We took a few local trains to get around, but for the most part we walked everywhere we went. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, walking is the best way to see a place.

If you are a parent and are wondering how you, too, can walk an *almost* marathon over the course of two days with kids in tow, I’ll tell you…with a high tolerance for whining. Kidding (mostly). Miles really impressed me with his ability to get around on his little legs. We had our trusty Ergo 360 carrier and a nifty new travel stroller we picked up and has been the best money we’ve spent recently. The baby took turns between carrier and stroller and the three-year old took turns between walking and riding. It worked. This stroller is a single, but also has the ability to lay flat, at which point, both boys can sit in and ride when everyone needs a break.

It was our first time in Berlin, so I’m in no way, shape, or form, a Berlin expert. But because we were Berlin newbies, I was overwhelmed with things to do and see! There’s just so much. I’m sure we could live there for years and not see everything the city holds. Similar to how I felt about living in D.C. If I was going back for the first time, I’d probably do it all over again exactly the same. We really hit a lot of high notes and got to see many of the historic parts of Berlin, as well as what Berlin has goin’ for it right now. I also feel like we were able to gain a good perspective of the layout of the city and what you might find in some of the neighborhoods. Trip planning can be an overwhelming process! So if (when!) you go to Berlin, here’s your ready-made and completely flexible itinerary.

We stayed… at Eurostars Hotel Berlin. Normally I wouldn’t even bother to name names and tell you the hotel we stayed at, because a lot of the time it doesn’t make a difference, just pick one that fits your style and budget and go. Which is what we did. But there were a few things I really liked about staying here in particular. One, we got off the train at the Central Station with our stroller and suitcase and realized it was less than a mile walk along the Spree River to the hotel. We had planned to cab, but decided to walk and were glad we did because it was a lovely walk and took us right past the Reichstag and immediately kind of oriented us. The hotel itself was clean and modern and provided a baby crib as well as a little baby toiletries kit with shampoo, wipes, and soap, which this mama appreciated. But most importantly, it was centrally located for easy exploring in any direction. Plus, situated right next to a train station that could take you anywhere in the city and also had a lot of little shops and restaurants for a quick bite in case of hanger and baby wipes in case you ran out.

First things first, we hopped on a local train to Zoo Berlin. I was impressed with the beautiful architecture and greenery of the zoo. The animal exhibits almost seemed secondary, for me, anyway. But don’t get me wrong! The animal exhibits were awesome! We saw pandas and a mama rhino with her baby, giraffes, elephants, an enormous porcupine, monkeys eating entire heads of Romaine lettuce. It started raining while we were there, but the shower passed and we actually enjoyed the downpour from under a giant umbrella with a beer and a coffee at the zoo cafe.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was right nearby, and I didn’t want to miss seeing it. The church was bombed in WWII and never restored. It stands today as an example and  reminder of the horrors of war.

We walked from the church through Berlin’s Tiergarten to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I would inadequately describe it, but I came across this description in an interesting article written by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, “In the shallow corner of the plaza, tourists sit and chat on bench-high stelae, children climb, all enjoy wide-open and thrillingly grand perspectives on the surroundings, including the Tiergarten to the west, and the installation takes on the cast of an austerely modern yet pleasantly welcoming park. But, upon entering the narrow alleys and plunging between higher and higher slabs, perspectives are sliced to a ribbon, other visitors are cut off from view, and an eerie claustrophobia sets in—even as some visitors (not just kids) play little games of hide-and-seek in the rectilinear maze. And the title, striking against the experience, creates sparks of metaphorical extrapolation: The Jews of Europe lived carefree, as in a park, until they wandered into frightening canyons of shadows from which the escape routes were narrow and distant.”

The Brandenburg Gate – built on the site of an original city gate- was right around the corner, and a block down from there is the Reichstag building- the meeting place of the German Parliament. We walked (of course we walked) around and under. The Reichstag building offers dome tours, but we learned these must be booked several months in advance. It’ll be on the list for next time! A local insider told us a way around that is to make a reservation at the restaurant on the Reichstag rooftop. I’ve seen a lot of historic places in my travels around the United States, but much less-so in Europe. It was impressive to see these structures I had previously only seen in history books and TV documentaries in real life, and imagine the historic moments that had occurred there.

We had a really nice morning and early afternoon the next day. A friend who lives locally took us to brunch at the *highly recommended* Father Carpenter. I’m normally a coffee- with-cream kinda girl, but the coffee here was so smooth I opted against and happily drank it black. And that was just the coffee. We enjoyed an en route walking tour of former east Berlin. We walked by the beautiful Berlin New Synagogue and learned that the neighborhood had been predominantly Jewish pre-WWII and had seen much terror on Kristallnacht. I’m always struck with the immense amount of history in European cities. As I enjoyed my eggs benny in Father Carpenter’s idyllic courtyard, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of horror and heartache this peaceful space might have known?

From there we strolled through the pretty, pretty pedestrian corridor of Sofienstraße connecting courtyard after courtyard of shops and cafes. We came out in to the sunny Monbijou Park with impressive views of the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), Museum Island across the river and hundreds of people lounging in lawn chairs, enjoying the sun and beverages at a number of restaurants along the way. There was a playground, and since one of us in the group is physically unable to pass a playground without a requisite swing, slide, bounce, run, jump and dig, we of course stopped.

*We did not, but from Monbijou Park, you could easily head over to further investigate the cathedral, or check out a museum across one of the bridges connecting the park to Museum Island.*

What we did next was visit Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror Museum. Checkpoint Charlie is a remaining symbol of the Cold War. A recreated Allied checkpoint, where an official checkpoint between the East and West Berlin once stood. It is situated in the middle of a busy street, flanked by a McDonald’s and a KFC. God bless America. If you’re feeling extra touristy you can stand with the “American soldier” and American flag in front of the post and have your picture taken.

The Topography of Terror Museum is situated around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie, on the site of the former Nazi SS Headquarters. It examines the terror and crimes committed by this organization throughout Europe. If you’re wondering how you can wander such an emotionally heavy museum with children in tow, I’ll tell you. Put your three year old in the stroller and give him unlimited access to your phone or iPad. Put the baby in the carrier and let him play with your earrings until they fall off and you lose them. You may opt for one of the many other museums in the city.

Zollpackhof Beergarten was a welcome and uplifting respite from the heavy heat and the emotionally heavy museum. If you walk straight out of the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff, take a right facing the river and you’ll run into it. We found a table next to the river, under the shade of huge trees with the added bonus equivalent of the parental jackpot…a playground. Miles made friends with the other kids playing, and we cooled off with German beers and simple, but excellent take away food. Win-win.

We really, really, really only skimmed the surface during our 48 hours in this beautiful, cool, and historic city. I’m already brimming with ideas for our return trip. While I’m happy to have oriented myself to Berlin and to have gotten to know it a bit, I also now have a lot more questions about its history than before.

As we strolled, ate, and explored, I kept wondering what happened here? What was life like? If you looked down while walking, there were sobering clues every so often, in the form of small brass plaques in the sidewalk. An art installation called “Stolperstein” or “stumbling stone”. They named a person who had lived there, the date they were born, the date they were detained, the prison camp they were taken to, and the date they perished. We walked past many of these, some in groups of two or three, sometimes a dozen. Some named an entire family. It was painful to look up at the building and picture the people who had lived and loved there, then met such a hateful, horrible fate. I have since learned, interestingly, but not surprisingly, that this is the exact idea behind the Stolperstein project; to make you pause, consider, and remember. It is impossible to visit Berlin and not be affected by its history. I think my main takeaway from the weekend in Berlin is just to love, people.

@exploremore.co

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