|Where's Marcela? Berlin, Germany|
The best of Berlin
A whirlwind tour of Germany's dynamic capital city might just take your breath away.
By Marcela Swenson
Berlin is a city with a storied history, one that has changed dramatically over the years and continues to do so since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This past June, I spent three days exploring Germany's dynamic capital with friends, seeing all that we could in the short time we had. My adventure began with a 10-hour flight on KLM from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, then a short flight to Berlin. I shook off the jetlag and was soon ready to hit the ground running.
THE ELLINGTON HOTEL
After a 20-euro cab ride from the airport, I checked into The Ellington Hotel (named after The Duke, himself), centrally located off of Tauentzienstrasse, Berlin's equivalent to the Champs-Élysées. The hotel was trendy in that, we're-trying-to-look-like-we're-not-trying, minimalist, sterile kind of way. Rooms come complete with a plasma TV, down comforter and other accoutrements you'd expect to find in a swanky hotel. Regrettably absent, however, were a top sheet (I need one to sleep comfortably), a clock, an iron and free Internet; it's five euro for the first hour, one euro for each additional hour. All in all, not bad for the price, which ranges from 98 to 398 euro per night, depending on the type of room you're in. But beware the wake-up call system; my call to rise-and-shine typically arrived 30 minutes late! The Ellington Hotel, Nürnberger Strasse 50-55.
Our first group excursion was a gastro tour: appetizers, main course and dessert all at different restaurants. Henrik, our "personal adventure guide," took us to our first destination, W Der Imbiss. This tiny eatery is a favorite among locals for its Indian-inspired meals, all made with fresh, healthy ingredients, but which taste just good enough to be bad for you. On top of that, it's quick and cheap, with the most expensive menu item priced at a whopping eight euro. We watched the chef roll out the dough for our naan pizza (1.50 to 5 euro), bake it on the wall of a tandoori oven, then cover it with an avocado sauce, sun dried tomatoes, olives, walnuts and garden greens. You would think we hadn't eaten in years; the pizza was devoured in minutes, accompanied by "oohs," "ahhs," and "oh mys" of approval. This was seriously good stuff. But the delights of W der Imbiss don't stop there; the potable items were equally mind-blowing. The crowd favorite was Apple High (3 euro), an apple juice and seaweed concoction (yes, seaweed) that looked like frothy, dark green sewer water, but tasted like two parts apple juice, one part grape juice, and three parts liquid heaven. Reluctantly, we had to press on to the next restaurant, but I'm certain everyone left thinking the same thing; how great life would be if there was a W der Imbiss and all of its culinary treasures in their hometown. Honestly, the appetizer was an impossible act to follow and nothing on my plate the rest of night could hold a candle to it, so I won't even waste your time by making you read about them. Simply put, if you're in Berlin, go to W der Imbiss and eat nowhere else the entire time you're there. To do anything else would be criminal. W Der Imbiss, Kastanienallee 49.
DANCE HALL NIGHTS
After completing the grub crawl, Henrik led us on a walking tour of Berlin's nightlife and made a stop at the Clärchens Ballhaus, one of three original dance halls in Berlin to survive both World Wars. Greeted by a swing version of Oasis' Wonderwall, I knew instantly that this place had a unique blend of old and new that I'd never experienced in the United States. There's a little something for everyone at Clärchen's; if old-school dancing is your thing, live bands perform for a packed crowd on Saturdays. Tango, cha-cha and swing dance classes are offered throughout the week but if you're not quite ready to show off your budding dancing skills in front of the seasoned pros (or if you just want the dance floor all to yourself), weekdays are more low key with fewer dancing couples to intimidate. And for the spectators, the charming beer garden in the back is the perfect place for people watching and drinking under the stars. Clärchens Ballhaus, Augustrasse 24.
BERLIN'S TECHNO UNDERGROUND
After thoroughly cutting the rug in a brilliant dancing display set to Big Spender, we left the ‘50s behind and continued on to Tresor, the birthplace of Berlin's underground techno scene. Located in an old department store, it's everything Hollywood would have you believe a German night club should be: a glorified warehouse filled with little more than fog, strobe lights, pulsing music and girls with Mohawks. Tresor is split into two different areas, one above ground, one below. Below ground, in what used to be the department store's vault, it was considerably cooler (perhaps less hot is more accurate), providing a welcome respite from the humid Berlin night.
Loud and crowded, the room above ground was mostly defined by the never-ending flash of strobe lights, which nearly drove our entire group crazy. Despite being completely sober, we felt like we were on hallucinogenic drugs. In the same way that looking at the sun leaves a white spot in your eyes for several seconds after you close them, the repeated flash of bright light left several simultaneous white spots in our vision. As a result, it would appear that one person's head was on another person's body or that one person was in two places at one time. We could only take so much of this craziness, so we finally bid Henrick adieu to seek out our beds, just as dawn crept in. Tresor, Köpenicker Str. 70.
SIGHTSEEING TOURS AND THE JEWISH MUSEUM
I spent my second day getting some much-needed rest before venturing through Berlin on my own. Swallowing my pride, I succumbed to the very touristy hop on/hop off City Circle Sightseeing double-decker bus. For 20 euro a day, you can see the major Berlin landmarks while getting some history along the way using personal headphones. It takes two hours to tour the 15 stops, but I only stayed on for five stops until I arrived at The Jewish Museum. From an aerial view it looks like a lightning bolt that bends into a question mark; the architecture is as much the attraction as what it holds inside. Although parts of the museum are dedicated to The Holocaust, the focus is German-Jewish history from the end of the Roman age to the present. I recommend seeing three special "spaces", all of which are tributes to the Holocaust: the Memory Void, where thousands of steel disks piled on top of each other echo through the void as you walk on them, the Garden of Exile, with tilted columns designed to disorient you as you walk between them and the Holocaust Tower, an empty, cavernous space designed to communicate feelings of hopelessness and disconnect from the outside world. The Jewish Museum, Lindenstrasse 9-14. Admission is 5 euro, 2.50 for students.
KARAOKE, BERLIN STYLE
Pouring rain dictated that our last night in Berlin would have to be spent indoors and what's the greatest indoor activity of all time? Karaoke! Karaoke-Cheers, the only karaoke bar we could find open on a Thursday night, has a three-euro cover charge and a one-drink minimum. In fact, the middle-aged Asian woman who welcomed us at the door insisted upon us ordering and paying immediately ... and we could see why: we were the only patrons and probably the only paying customers all night. While there was a limited song selection (no Meatloaf, no Cher, no Sly and the Family Stone), we made do, singing song after song after song. For me, a karaoke fanatic, this empty bar with only the DJ's friends to occasionally interrupt our amateur concert with sad Japanese songs, was a dream come true. We ended on a high note with a rendition of It's Raining Men and cabbed it back to the hotel, satisfied with our well-spent time and money. Karaoke-Cheers: Wilmersdorfer Strasse 76.
BIKING THE BERLIN WALL
It's our final day in Berlin and we did what in hindsight, I wish I had done on my first: see Berlin by bike. Faster than walking and more intimate than driving, biking is the perfect way to see the diversity of Berlin. We acquired both our bikes and our guide, George, at Berlin on Bike located at the Kulturbrauerei, (translation: the Culture Brewery), where some of Berlin's artsy youth can be found. Because it's impossible to visit Berlin without seeing the epic Berlin Wall that divided the city for 30 years, the first half of our tour was dedicated to viewing pieces of the wall left standing. We saw a replica of the "death strip" (the space between the two walls separating the East from the West) and one of the two remaining military guard towers.
With the history lesson out of the way, George led us through a variety of neighborhoods to witness the beauty of Berlin, past the capital's parliament buildings, into an artist's haven, along the Spree River and finally back to the Kulturbrauerei. I can't say enough great things about this tour and about bike tours in general. This is the ideal way to get your bearings in a foreign city and see what it has to offer. As a result, I've made a personal vow to take a bike tour in new cities I visit in future. www.berlinonbike.de, Knaackstrasse 97, 17 euro for tour and bike rental.
DINNER IN A DEPARTMENT STORE
New York has Barney's. England has Harrod's. Berlin has Ka De We and this behemoth of a department store is the largest department store in all of Europe. Under normal circumstances, I would never dream of entering this shopper's paradise on my budget, but the famed gourmet department on the seventh floor proved too enticing to resist. As varied and drool-inducing as an upscale Vegas buffet, this was a food court the likes of which I'd never seen before. But as delicious as everything looked, I must admit it lacked a certain oomph ... except for the strawberries and cream, which were about as perfect as a dessert could ever get. Prices were reasonable and probably the only affordable thing in the entire building. Bellies full and sweet tooth satiated, we gathered our belongings at The Ellington, boarded our train to Amsterdam at the Hauptbahnhof, and bid farewell to Berlin. Having seen only a glimpse of what this city has to offer, I know I will return to witness its continued evolution. Ka De We, Tauentzienstrasse 21-24.
Marcela Swenson's Bio:
I have a hard time staying in one place for too long. My international travels began when I went to Colombia at 2 months old and I've been obsessed with traveling the world since. Sometime during high school I decided I wanted to travel the world for a living. So far I've only gotten the traveling part down, now I'm just waiting for someone to pay me. So far I've been to 18 countries, traveling mostly on a frayed shoestring budget. When I'm traveling you can find me in streets, alleyways, or on front stoops with my beloved iBook, searching for a free wireless signal (I haven't paid for Internet access in over a year, both abroad and at home). When I'm home I can be found hosting karaoke at numerous bars around Los Angeles.
Amsterdam! Stay tuned.
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Note: This trip was sponsored by Eurail & The Berlin Tourism Board.
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