Berlin, more than anywhere else in Europe, has borne witness to the momentous events of history. While the intrigue of the past remains, this revitalised German city is an effortless place to visit
Our hotel stood where the line of the Wall once was, two streets away from Checkpoint Charlie. Each day, we walked along the old boundary that was the embodiment of the Cold War. Though a little away from the hub of the city centre, the location of our hotel – the Courtyard Marriott – had the advantage of stirring a person's imagination. What was it like living in one of those streets that, overnight, was so cruelly split? What must it have been like for people who had jobs in West Berlin but all of a sudden lived in what became East Berlin?
The Wall Museum hosts a few of the original cars, among other things, that were used to smuggle people in tiny compartments, all squashed up for the duration of the escape. Some were successful, others not. Along from Checkpoint Charlie is where the Gestapo headquarters once stood. The original building has been flattened and a new architecturally-designed building is being erected in its place, which is going to represent the "open wound" that Germany still has.
Talking of architecturally designed buildings, there is nowhere quite like the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The architect's parents were Polish Jews who were taken from their homes by Russian soldiers 1939. They actually met while being imprisoned in a labour camp in Russia. After being released at the end of the war, they emigrated to America where their son was born. He became a musician but in later life turned to architecture. Therefore, he came at architecture from an unusual angle – and unusual is his testament to the former Jews of Berlin. I would recommend setting aside a full day to visit this awe-inspiring building. There is a lovely café with a garden where you can take a break, wander around, reflect. It's an absolute must for anyone interested in the subject.
We found that, during our four-day visit, there was so much to see and experience but we didn't have enough time to do many of them. Berlin is a beautiful city with lovely wide roads sporting lots of very healthy looking bronzed cyclists. Queues are a rarity. The transport system is faultless – clean, efficient and nobody checking tickets! Apparently, the fine for not having a ticket is substantial and it simply isn't worth the risk of travelling without one.
For visitors to Berlin, the Berlin Card (which you can buy online before you go) is a must. It gives you free transport throughout the city and discounts for the museums and trips. To get the most from it, ensure your flight arrival time is before 9pm in the evening; it is necessary to activate your card before use, and one place where you can do this is the airport. If you do this, you will get free transport into the city.
Eating out in Berlin did not prove to be expensive. The Oranianburger area is good for choice. There are lots of Vietnamese, Thai and Italian restaurants. Indian restaurants appear to be harder to find as it would seem there are not many Indians in Berlin – which makes sense, because India was a British colony. We found a lovely, very authentic-feeling Italian restaurant at the east end of Leipziger very close to our hotel. It was called the Ristorante Fontana Di Trevi and they served excellent pasta dishes for €5- 9 with delicious house red wine.
What we found quite striking about Berlin is how things are organised to make life as easy as possible for everyone. We did not see many fancy or over-the-top hotels or restaurants like you might see in Paris or London. However, you do not see the opposite either – no greasy spoon cafés or dodgy-looking cheap hotels… and absolutely no litter or garbage to be seen anywhere. Therefore, everything is of a good standard and you really get the feeling that everyone is getting what they need without having to struggle and fight for it.
The hotel staff at the Courtyard Marriot were extremely friendly and welcoming. The hotel has a shop where you can buy snacks and drinks at reasonable prices. The hotel rooms have empty fridges – no expensive mini bars here – so you feel encouraged to take in your own food, which is ideal if you are travelling with children. Each room has a safe deposit box which does not cost any extra. You just punch in a four-digit number and it locks, keeping your valuables safe while you are out. There is a pull-out washing line in each bathroom, so you do not feel obliged to get your clothes laundered.
My partner and I cannot wait to return to Berlin, as there is still so much to see and do. We were very impressed by the city and what it has to offer the visitor – but even more so by the people.