Berlin is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever visited. It has a fascinating, infamous history, from the seat of the Prussian empire to Hitler’s headquarters to its divided decades during the Cold War. Fittingly, it has over 200 museums chronicling this history (as well as less serious topics like the Currywurst Museum). However, it is also the most hipster place I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to Portland. My first Sunday in the city, I stumbled onto a giant flea market rounded off with the most intense karaoke I had ever seen. A popular food stall called Burgermeister sells burgers underneath an overpass in a defunct men’s restroom, just a few blocks from the East Side Gallery. You get the idea.
Currywurst – it tastes better than it looks! – and the karaoke pit of Mauerpark
In Santo Domingo and Abidjan, after a few days I was itching to finish my work in the city so I could explore more far-flung parts of the country. However, I think I could spend months in Berlin and never get bored. Below are some photos of just a few of the many amazing places I was lucky enough to visit while I was there.
Old meets new: the Berliner Dome and the Fernsehtrum (a TV tower)
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Brandenburg Gate
The East Side Gallery, the largest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall, is now covered with street artists’ work
The Berlin Botanical Gardens
Sauchsenhausen Concentration Camp was the site of many horrors: after the Nazis’s defeat, it was converted into a Soviet special camp, where 12,000 more people died in indiscriminate Soviet detention.
I rented a bike one day to get around the city, and it was a revelatory experience. I bike everywhere in D.C. and it inevitably involves a lot of swerving through traffic and hitting car fenders — but Berlin’s bike lanes are AMAZING.
The vast Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park commemorates the thousands of Soviets who died fighting the Third Reich, and was built during the Soviet occupation of East Berlin. After reunification, the city agreed to undertake its upkeep to remember the critical role of the Soviets in fighting fascism.
I took a day trip to Potsdam, which was the residence of the Prussian kings until 1918. Unlike in Berlin, most of its historical sites escaped the bombing campaigns of WWII and remain in their original form. The incredible Sanssouci Park holds all of the kings’ old palaces and gardens, including the terraced gardens of Frederick the Great’s summer palace and both the Old and New Palaces. If you’re ever afraid you’re extra, don’t worry, you’re not as extra as Frederick the Great — in the Neues Palace he built an entire room out of seashells.
In its constant quest for reinvention, Berlin has turned a defunct American air base into the most boring park in the world. Apparently it’s quite popular with Berliners, who fly kites and ride bikes along the airstrip.
My absolute favorite stop in Berlin was Teufelsberg. I think it may take the cake as the strangest place I’ve ever been. Berlin was located right in the heart of the German Democratic Republic, so the Berlin Wall didn’t just divide the city in half: it walled off all four sides of West Berlin, creating a tiny West-German administered oasis in the heart of the GDR. As such, East Berlin forbid West Berlin from removing any of the tons of rubble left over in the city from the Allied Forces’ bombing campaign at the end of the war. The city piled the rubble into an 80-meter high mound, Teufelsberg, which has since grown over with forest. Berlin is incredibly flat, so Teufelsberg is just about its only hill.
The U.S. NSA built one of its largest “Listening Stations” on top of the hill in an attempt to intercept Soviet radio transmissions. Apparently “listening stations” in the 1960s were towers topped with giant cloth-covered domes that look a bit like the golf ball centerpiece at Epcot. Since the fall of the wall, the listening station was abandoned by the U.S. and became a magnet for street artists and drifters. The whole complex is covered in incredible street art, as well as a host of bizarre objects and makeshift former homes. I climbed to the top of the tallest tower, where the creepiest of echoes followed every movement. To top it all off, Berlin has transformed even this deeply strange complex into a hipster destination. When I visited, live music accompanied a group yoga session on the roof of the main complex.
Although I was sad to leave, my bank account is relieved. Germany was the shortest stop on my itinerary for the simple reason that I knew it would be the most expensive, and indeed, Latvia is a sweet relief – here a hostel only costs about $5 a night!