Berlin is not an unpopular tourist destination. Music, art, political and economic dominance and a fascinating history attract more than six million tourists per year. The majority of those millions visit during the summer. My brother and I, thinking the cheap flights were worth the potentially frigid weather, decided to go in January. How bad could it really be? We’re from Wisconsin, after all, the land of German settlers and winters so cold they make you want to both cry and brag at the same time. Temperatures in Madison were ranging in the -20 to -40s Fahrenheit, and we were sure nothing could seem bad in comparison.
We were wrong. At a whopping 25 degrees, Berlin was significantly warmer, but below freezing is below freezing, and after a few minutes outside we were cold as ice. There was really nothing we could do about it though, as we were determined to see and do as much as possible in three days, and that required a lot of walking and plenty of outdoor activities. I’ve been told by some people, (ok, everyone who visits me), that I tire guests out and make them do too much, not taking into consideration their jet lag or the fact that not everyone enjoys walking as fast or as far as I do. Rick, if he felt the same, was a trooper and seemed even more cheerful than I did about the cold.
We layered up and set out, but first we had to navigate the transit system. The S-Bahn and U-Bahn in Berlin make up 25 colored lines and cover a combined 300.3 miles. It is the most comprehensive city transport system I have ever seen, and therefore the most overwhelming. While we did eventually pride ourselves on mastering the metro, (kind of), there was more than one moment of panic when we realized we were heading in the wrong direction. I admire the Germans for creating such an efficient, sprawling way of reaching almost any destination, especially in contrast to Rome where the metro neglects half of the entire city. Still, I couldn’t wrap my head around why two different trains going in the same direction left from opposite platforms. It was not intuitive. Usually, platforms on opposite sides signify opposite directions. This is not the case in Berlin, and I’m amazed they can keep it all straight. Then again, these are the people who brought us Einstein, cell theory, movable type, too many chemistry related inventions to list, and are currently running the European Union.
But I digress. If you can fall in love with a city at its worst, you know it must be incredible at its best. Though my feet were numb for three days straight and the city’s glorious gardens consisted mainly of snow-covered branches, I instantly adored it. In Berlin, history and Prussian era buildings mix with street art and a thriving underground scene to form a city where anyone can find their niche. Music and art have been at the forefront of German culture for ages, and that’s still the case. Modern art museums and some of the world’s best DJs are booming, while opera, classical music and more traditional art haven’t lost their following. I also loved how Berlin was diverse and international, yet maintained a distinct German feel. Rome is Italian in every way – the culture completely permeates the city and diversity is rare. But Berlin manages to hold onto its roots while letting others in. It has the highest Turkish population outside of Turkey, for example, (and therefore the best kabobs outside of Turkey too), and is known as a ‘city of immigration.’
So what did we do in Berlin? Well, first we found a Woolworth’s. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but we were thrilled. We didn’t think Woolworth’s actually existed outside of old movies or stories from our grandma. But there it was, in all its strange glory, and for a brief moment it was our favorite thing about Germany. Why? Because they sold a version of ‘Hot Hands,’ and we thought we could put them in our shoes and cheat the weather.
For the rest of the weekend we walked, and walked, and walked…and then went on a walking tour, which was actually fantastic. Our guide was funny, knowledgeable, and distracted us from our numb extremities. (It should be noted that by now we realized the hot pads were no match for the frozen pavement under our feet, and we actually thought they were making our toes colder). Best of all, the tour was free! We saw the main sights and learned much more than we would have exploring on our own. Berlin’s history is obviously fascinating, but being there added a realization and understanding of the past that I wasn’t expecting. Check out New Berlin Walking Tours for your own free, history packed sightseeing view of the city.
Our walking continued through the Tiergarten, which I’m sure is gorgeous in the summer but was still lovely and winter-wonderlandy in the snow. The sun set while we were walking down a long and deserted path, but the twinkle of city lights through the trees and the crunch of snow underfoot were peaceful, and we found ourselves finally warming up. To complete the thawing process, we stopped at the Ritter Sport café for an overdose of chocolate. Needless to say, everything was rich and delicious.
Other activities included the zoo, which is the only thing I would not recommend in the winter. The animals were cooped up inside, and it was extremely depressing. Of course, we didn’t expect them all to be out frolicking on ice, but the indoor conditions were appalling. The tigers and lions were in cages much too small, and their roars echoed painfully on the cement.
On a brighter note, the Pergamon museum is the perfect winter activity. It is by far one of the best museums I have ever visited. Among other things, it houses the Pergamon Altar, a masterpiece of Hellenistic art that takes up an entire wing of the museum and is etched with battles between giants and gods. And the Ishtar Gate, a bright blue Babylonian gate decorated with bulls, lions, and dragons, towers over visitors and gleams along an entire hallways. It’s stunning. But my favorite collection, and this will surprise no one who knows me, was the Islamic Art Collection. Ornate doors, rugs swirling with color, and ancient books from Iran, Jordan, Morocco, and all of my other favorite places fill the wing. The Aleppo Room, with walls coated in paintings and Arabian and Persian sayings, literally stopped me in my tracks. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful. Then there was the massive wall from ancient Jordan… I was in heaven.
Alas, aside from my love of the Middle East, it was never clearer that I am pale, blonde, and blue eyed than in Germany. Rick and I were practically locals, which we found funny, especially coming from Italy where I’m pegged as a tourist no matter what I do. Everyone spoke to us in German, and displayed actual shock when we couldn’t understand. “Oh!” They would cry in astonishment, then laugh. “But you look so German!” Maybe I should move…
To counter our miles of walking, we stuffed our faces with currywurst, bratwurst, a German version of macaroni and cheese, and other heavy (and heavenly) food you can’t find in Italy. The brats sold on the street were the tastiest, and so cheap! We even hiked way out of our way to find pretzels. (If you can’t make it to Munich for the real thing, Brezel Bar was fantastic).
Despite the cold, it was one of the best weekends of the winter, and I can’t wait to visit again! (But maybe this time I’ll go in July…)