Getting Touristy in Western Mitte

At some point, every new resident needs to bite the bullet and become a tourist in their city.
For us, this meant venturing out to the western edge of Mitte to see some of Berlin’s most iconic landmarks.  After nearly two months of living in Berlin we were becoming a little embarrassed by our lack of sightseeing within the city.  I am guilty of always thinking that we should save some of the sights to see when we have friends in town, but it probably makes more sense to see them first ourselves and decide which ones are really worth sharing.
Another reason why we haven’t done much sightseeing is due to Berlin’s size and lack of a real ‘tourist center’.  Most of the famous sights are scattered throughout the city, making sightseeing in Berlin quite the excursion.  However, the area in the west of Mitte between Potsdamer Platz  and Moabit has quite a few attractions in close quarters, which makes it a good jumping off point for tourists, tour buses, tour boats, tour bikes…you get the idea.

We started our tour at the Hauptbahnhof to gawk at the immense building and crowds before walking south toward the Tiergarten area.  Berlin continues to amaze me with its neighborhood diversity.  Western Mitte is very city-like – it has large modern buildings and government offices but also has many historical monuments and parks scattered throughout.  It really makes the more Eastern/Southern neighborhoods that I usually explore feel like the ‘burbs.

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A short walk away from the train station you can find the impressive Reichstag building (where the German parliament meets) which presents a really cool blend of old & new architecture.  The original structure opened in 1894 but underwent significant reconstruction after a fire in 1933, and the large glass dome finished construction in 1999.  You can actually walk in a spiral around the dome but it requires prior registration, so we’ll have to save that for another trip.
The Brandenburg Gate is also nearby, just outside the entrance to the immense Tiergarten park.  The gate is one of the most recognizable sights in Berlin.  It is featured prominently on most tourism ads/guides and the outline is emblazoned on every U-Bahn train window.  It stands in a big plaza flanked by foreign embassies and fancy-shmancy hotels, and even on a cold and windy day there were hundreds of tourists snapping pictures.

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After taking obligatory tourist pictures at the gate, and getting a pressed penny for our collection, we strolled through the wooded grounds of the Tiergarten.  The park is the second largest in Germany (520 acres) and is home to monuments, statues, a rose garden, an English garden, and the palace that houses the German president.  As the name suggests (literal translation = animal + garden) there are also lots of squirrels, birds, and fish to see!  I think Berlin’s parks are one of my favorite features of the city.  It it nice to be able to get lost in the woods and escape the concrete jungle for a while.

Big city life has been pretty interesting thus far – I’ve never lived somewhere that was so new to me.  To be fair, I have only lived in 3 cities and two of them were quite small, but still, the amount of stuff in Berlin is incredible.  Living outside of Washington DC was occasionally cool but it didn’t offer me the same opportunity for discovery because I had already been there so many times growing up.  I had already exhausted the Smithsonian and the other aspects of the city I pretty much despised (how many bland government buildings and $8 beers can a person tolerate?).
Needless to say, I am very happy that Berlin has so much character and even lifelong residents say they discover something new in the city every day.  I’m sure that if we live here long enough the newness will wear away and Berlin will lose some of its lustre, but a city of 3.5 million people will never be boring.
So, even though it takes a little effort to haul ourselves across the city looking for tourist attractions, it is always worth our while.

Click the link below to see more photos!

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Where the Wild Things Are

I was missing home a little this past weekend.  
It is cherry blossom season in D.C. and all of the pics on Instagram of the pretty trees has made me nostalgic.  When we went to the cherry blossom festival last year there were hardly any blossoms on the trees (thanks to bad storms) and we had to go back a few weeks later to get the full effect.  Despite the lack of blossoms, we had a great time with friends chillin’ at the marina in Southeast, drinking $14 Corona-rita’s (yay D.C.), and eating kebabs.  Who would have thought that a year later we would be eating kebabs in Germany?  Generally speaking, I don’t miss home too much yet but occasionally something triggers a little homesickness.  Usually this feeling is linked to events we won’t be able to attend – graduations, weddings, concerts, holidays, etc.  To cure it, I try to remember all of the things we can do because we’re here!

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I haven’t seen any cherry blossoms here in Berlin but there are plenty of little surprises to discover in the city.  Recently Alex and I were exploring our new neighborhood and decided to check out Volkspark Hasenheide, a large park nearby.  It is definitely one of my new favorite spots!  The park has 50 acres of open spaces and forested areas and is home to an open-air theater, mini-golf, dog parks, playgrounds, a rose garden, and my favorite feature: a small zoo!
The term ‘zoo’ might be a bit of an exaggeration for the small enclosures which mostly feature barnyard animals, but either way it was such a cool thing to find in a park!  And it doesn’t cost a penny – or rather, a Euro cent.
After perusing the zoo we took advantage of the warm(er) weather by relaxing in one Hasenheide’s many open fields.  The park was bustling with picknickers, cyclists, slackliners attempting to cross the valley.  I am really looking forward to spending lazy weekend days hanging in the park when the weather warms up and summer finally arrives.

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Special places like Hasenheide help to curb the homesickness that comes with expatriating.  It is important to remember that, while you may be missing things back home, there is always something new and exciting to do/see in your new home.  You just need to go out and find it!

To see more photos from Hasenheide park, click the link below!

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The Wall

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The Berlin Wall, known here as the Berliner Mauer, is Berlin’s most famously infamous landmark.  The stories about it’s construction and enforcement are shocking but what is most incredible is the way Berlin has changed since the Wall fell in 1989.  Everyone here says that Berliners aren’t like other Germans; they don’t talk like other Germans, they don’t act like other Germans, and they don’t want to be like other Germans.  Everything that I’ve read about the city suggests that the after-effects of Communism are a big part of what makes Berlin special.  If we, as new wannabe Berliners, want to understand the city as it is now we need to understand what made it this way.  Luckily, we happened to be out at brunch with a group of Alex’s coworkers the weekend before last and they offered to give us a little tour of the area where the Berlin Wall once stood.

We began our history tour by heading over to Bernauer Strasse to walk the line of bricks that marks the path of the first incarnation of the Berlin Wall.  Bernauer Str. itself was split in half between West and East Berlin such that former across-the-street neighbors were suddenly on different sides of the country overnight.  The GDR used the front walls of the houses on one side of Bernauer Str. to create some of the first wall and eventually the rest of the house would be destroyed.  When they began constructing another parallel wall, any houses, businesses, churches, etc. that were in the way were demolished.  The space in between the two sides of the Wall was known as the Death Strip and was covered with sand or gravel to show the footprints of anyone who attempted to leave the East.  Along Bernauer Str. there are large pictures on the sides of the buildings that show the Wall and GDR citizens successfully, and unsuccessfully, crossing to the West side.

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Nearby, a city block of the Wall has been preserved to give a little insight into what it was like to live on the West side and look over at the East.  From an observation tower across the street you get an aerial view of the two parallel walls and the Death Strip in between.

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The next weekend we made our way over to the East Side Gallery to see another preserved portion of the Wall.  Instituted in 1990, the Gallery serves as a memorial of sorts that features 105 paintings that depict the artists hopes for a better future in Berlin.  Near the middle there is a break in the wall that opens to a park on the river Spree and is home to a memorial for peace in Korea.

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When the Wall came down life in Berlin changed dramatically and in the past 25 years the city has evolved into a place that would probably drive the GDR up a wall (pun intended).  It is a city characterized by young, free-thinking, creative, and ambitious inhabitants who are anything but conformists.

Too see more pictures from the Wall & our weekend adventures, click below!

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Exploring Charlottenburg

We chose the beautiful neighborhood of Charlottenburg here in Berlin for our first big sightseeing excursion last weekend.  The architecture and feel of Charlottenburg are very different from Kreuzberg (where we have been staying) which made for a really exciting day!  Here’s a little background on this sophisticated neighborhood:

Charlottenburg was established as an independent town in 1705 and became a burough of Berlin in 1920.  It lies on the western edge of the “inner city” and is most famous for Schloss Charlottenburg – known to us English speakers as the Charlottenburg Palace.  The palace was built in 1695 for Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the Queen Consort of Prussia & her husband, Frederick I the King of Prussia.  In 1806 the palace was inhabited for a time by Napoleon while his army lived in the nearby town and with this came an influx of the wealthy Bourgeoisie, causing Charlottenburg’s population increased dramatically and be called “the richest town in Prussia.”  After WWII and during the Cold War, the Kurfürstendamm area of Charlottenburg became the commercial centre of West-Berlin, with many restaurants, bars & shops.
Today, it remains the most popular shopping district in Berlin.  The famous Kurfürstendamm avenue is lined with retail shops – ranging from the luxurious (Hermes, Gucci & Prada) to the European clothing staples like H&M and Disigual.  Some of the other popular sights to see in Charlottenburg are the Town Hall, the Charlottenburg Gate, the beautiful Theater des Westens, as well as many museums.

The main reason why I wanted to visit Charlottenburg was to see how “the other half lived”; by this I mean former West vs. East Berlin.  The moment we came up from the U-Bahn station (Berlin’s metro system) the stark difference between Charlottenburg and the less affluent Kreuzberg was shocking!  The bland box-like buildings that line the streets in Kreuzberg (which was part of West Berlin but lied near the Eastern border) pale in comparison to the bright and ornate white-washed buildings in Charlottenburg.  And, of course, the palace is stunning.

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We decided to save going on a tour of the palace’s interior for another day.  It was just too sunny & warm to be indoors!  So instead we took a long walk around the exterior of the huge building and wandered through the palace grounds.  The gardens were so picturesque – their expansive flower beds were lined with newly planted flowers & topiaries.  Hundreds of people were there (including a bride and groom!) enjoying the sunshine and relaxing by the pond in the back of the gardens.  Paths line the grounds (mental note to go running there someday) and lead to small bridges and more paths.  I couldn’t tell quite how large the grounds were but they seemed gigantic!

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After spending a while wandering around the garden we decided to head over to Kurfürstendamm and see the shops.  Wow.  It’s almost like going to NYC or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.  Adding to the luxurious feel of Charlottenburg are large mirrored modern buildings that are interspersed with the old architecture of the former town.  We walked for what seemed like forever past hundreds of clothing stores and a few of Charlottenburg’s famous shopping malls before giving into our aching feet and hopping on the U-Bahn to go home.

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Although we really enjoyed exploring Charlottenburg I’m not sure that we would want to live there.  It’s a little too “big city” for us – too many cars, too many tourists, etc.  But it will be an awesome place to bring family & friends!  So come visit us and we’ll take you there *hint, hint*.

Here are some more misc. photos from Charlottenburg:

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