Spring Break: Berlin

So I’m finally getting to the Spring Break blog posts.

Brace yourself, there’s going to be seven. It feels like I’ve barely spent any time at all in Milan during the month of April, and with all of the traveling I’ve fallen pretty far behind with the blogging. I had gotten back to Milan from Florence on Sunday night, and Monday morning I had an International Relations midterm. That was my only midterm, and I proceeded to have the next three weeks off of class – the rest of exam week, Holy week, and then the week of Bocconi’s official Spring Break. After the midterm I got myself to the airport for my first solo-flight of the semester to Berlin, Germany.

At the start of the semester I had absolutely no intention of going to Germany. I’d already been to Munich and Germans have the stereotype of being so stiff and uptight I figured there were plenty of places in Europe that would be way more enjoyable. However, when you’re trying to plan three weeks of travel with a bunch of people with different schedules, you end up with a few free days on the front end and a friend who really wants to go to Berlin.

Jill had been to Berlin before so her knowledge of the city and the fact that she wanted to go there again so badly totally cast aside any of my doubts. She met me at the gate when I landed, and we somehow managed to take the right combination of public transportation systems to the Airbnb we were staying at. This was the first time I had stayed at an Airbnb and let me tell you it was AWESOME. We were staying in the spare bedroom of this really cool Polish couple that had the cutest apartment, and even though Kinga was super pregnant they were still really helpful with making sure we were taken care of (Stanislaw makes really good cappuccinos!) and giving us recommendations for restaurants.

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Berlin is huge, definitely the biggest city I’ll end up going to all semester. There was a lot to see and do (and eat!) but Jill is awesome and came up with a great itinerary to fill our two days. The plan was to do most of the necessary touristy things on the first day, so we started at the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial). The memorial has a section of the original wall along with a visitor center and observation tower.

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Then we walked to the Plenarbereich Reichstagsgebäude (Reichstag buildingwhich is the home of the German parliament. We would have loved to have gone inside, but in order to get a reservation you need to either book months in advance (which obviously wouldn’t have been possible for us) or wait in an incredibly long line (which we didn’t have time for). Ah well. I’m sure the view from the glass dome is amazing, so it’ll definitely be on my bucket list for the next time I’m in Berlin.

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A short distance away is the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate), which is Berlin’s most recognizable landmark. I’d seen the Brandenburg Gate in so many history classes, whether it’s a painting of Napoleon, photos of Nazi processions, or footage of JFK’s and Reagan’s famous speeches, it was really cool to see such an iconic landmark in person.

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Close by was the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. More on that later since the museum underneath was closed and we had to come back later. Instead we headed over to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin. It’s basically just a tourist trap now, but once again it was cool to actually see something I had learned about in history class.

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At this point we were really hungry, so we went to Mustafa’s Gemuese Kebab which is considered the best kebab place in all of Berlin. We didn’t get there until 2pm, but there was still a long line! Everyone always raves about the kebabs in central Europe, and let me tell you they aren’t lying. The stand was a little out of the way, but the long walk was definitely worth it because the döner kebabs are incredible! Just look at how happy I look 🙂

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Now fueled with the heavenly goodness that is a Mustafa’s kebab, we were ready to take on the Topography of Terror. The Topography of Terror is a museum that documents the Nazi regime’s institutions and crimes, built on the ruins of the Gestapo and SS headquarters. When learning about the Nazi regime we’re used to hearing about the victims, so it was interesting to learn about the perpetrators for once. While it was definitely educational, overall it was pretty dark and disturbing.

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After all of that heavy stuff we needed a pick me up. Well, chocolate to the rescue! We headed over to Ritter Sport Bunte Schokowelt (Ritter Sport Colourful Chocoworld), which is basically a Ritter Sport flagship store. We may have gone a little overboard, but when it’s a German brand and you’re in Germany, and there’s so many delicious flavors, and there’s Ritter Sport cake, and there’s a make-your-own chocolate bar station, do you really blame us? While we were waiting for our chocolate bars to be made we had time to explore the exhibit explaining the brand’s history and the chocolate making process, so at least I can say it was a little educational.

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As you can imagine we had kind of ruined our appetites at this point (no regrets), so we decided to walk around a bit so we could see Berlin lit up at night. We went back to the area around Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, and eventually decided to find a German pub to eat some legit German food: sausages (good), meatball (questionable), lard bread (horrifying – I thought the lard would be baked into the bread, but instead it’s spread on top – yuck), apple strudel (wonderful!).

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The next morning we had breakfast near our Airbnb, thanks to a recommendation from our wonderful hosts. Our Airbnb was in a sort of “hipster” neighborhood, so there were plenty of cute cafes to have breakfast each morning. It’s true Italy has great coffee but they don’t really do breakfast unless it’s a croissant or some ham and cheese slices, so when Jill and I saw a legit breakfast menu that included eggs we were thrilled!

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Since we had already covered most of the historical/touristy stuff the day before, we decided to switch things up a bit and start off Day 2 with the Alternative Berlin Tour, an “authentic local experience of Berlin’s famous underground subcultures, alternative lifestyles and street art and graffiti scenes.” Our tour guide looked like Kenneth Branagh if he was a drug dealer (he was also British so this is actually a really accurate comparison), but we actually learned a lot of interesting things. We got to see some really unique, quirky neighborhoods and learn about everything from graffiti gangs to train bombing and surfing.

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The tour ended at the East Side Gallery, a long stretch of the Berlin wall that has become an open air gallery. One side is covered in murals (“My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” is probably the most recognizable), and the other is a graffiti free-for-all. It’s a really cool expression of how hopeful Germany was when it was reunified.

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After all of that walking we were really hungry again (you’ll notice this is a common theme), so we went and got currywurst from Konnopke’s Imbiss, the best currywurst stand in Berlin. Currywurst is classic German fast-food, consisting of a bratwurst covered in ketchup and curry powder. Sounds gross, but I swear it’s fantastic! Like I said we were really hungry, so we also made a stop at a Portuguese bakery that our Airbnb hosts had recommended. Since it’s Portuguese, we of course had to get a pastel de nata! And even though it’s not Portuguese, we’ve been told cheesecake is apparently the next “big thing” (Berlin is cool so they would know) so of course we had to get that too!

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Now amped up on a sugar high, we set off to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe again so we could go to the exhibit underneath. That buzz went away quickly because this obviously was not a very happy place. The museum is dark and solemn, and it packs a powerful punch. Overall I think Berlin does a pretty good job of taking responsibility for the horrific actions taken by Nazi Germany. Not a perfect job, but at least these kinds of things are visible and free and open to the public so that they’re never forgotten.

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At that point it was starting to get dark, so we made our way towards the The Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower), passing monuments like the Gendarmenmarkt (a square holding the Konzerthaus and French and German cathedrals) and Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). Though they were damaged during WWII, Berlin has tons of these kinds of buildings, especially in the city center along the Spree River, that have been restored and are absolutely beautiful when they’re lit up at night. That’s why we weren’t worried about saving our trip up the TV tower until the evening, so that we could see everywhere that we’d been the last couple of days illuminated before us. Berlin is so flat and spread out that the view from up there was incredible!

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The rest of our time in Berlin revolved around (big surprise) food. We had dinner at this awesome vegan place just around the corner from our Airbnb (yet another fantastic recommendation), and breakfast the next morning was at a another adorable cafe a few blocks away. After breakfast Jill and I parted ways as she headed off to Prague and I went back to the Airbnb for another cappuccino and then off to the airport to catch my flight to Madrid. Jill was an awesome travel partner, and I’m glad we were able to get so much closer the couple of days we were in Berlin. Not that I don’t like traveling with a big group of my friends, but traveling with only one other person can be so much easier!

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Like I said at the beginning, I had pretty low expectations about Berlin going in so I was shocked by how much I loved the city. Berlin is so so unique and quirky and fun (not to mention the food scene is top notch), I definitely plan on going back there some day. So glad Jill convinced me to go, and so glad I was able to start off my spring break on such a positive note!