BERLIN — I had read the buzz about Berlin: young and dynamic, art lovers’ heaven, awesome new architecture, cutting-edge trendy. On a recent trip in Germany, I altered my itinerary to see the capital for myself.
With only a day and a half to visit, I hoped to squeeze in as much as possible. But where to start? I’m generally tour-bus-averse, a.k.a. a travel snob, but that seemed the best way to get an overview of a city of 3.5 million people.
I arrived in the morning, too early to check into my room at Swissotel Berlin, though they agreed to hold my bags. The concierge recommended City Circle Sightseeing, a hop-on, hop-off bus that visits 20 city landmarks and provides earphone translations. I bought a ticket at the hotel, walked around the corner, and easily found the bright yellow double-decker bus.
My plan was to disembark at a few stops on the 2½-hour route for a quick look-see, and return later — on my own — to ones that sparked my interest.
After 40 minutes of sightseeing, passing KaDeWe (said to be Europe’s largest department store), the Berliner Philharmonie (concert hall), the Neue Nationalgalerie (modern art), the glass and steel towers of Potsdamer Platz and the Jewish Museum, I alighted at Checkpoint Charlie.
This famed Cold War crossing point between East and West Berlin is highly touristic, with a museum that chronicles the history of the wall. On the street, vendors hawked souvenirs .
Waiting for the next bus, I perused nearby food trucks and couldn’t resist Check Point Curry, partly for its name, and partly for its currywurst — grilled pork sausage slathered with stewed tomatoes and curry — a specialty of the city.
Alongside the Spree River, the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery is a 4,200-foot-long section of wall that is covered with murals. I hopped off the bus and walked past image after image while reflecting on the celebratory mood in 1989, after the wall was breached, when hundreds of artists created this sometimes highly political graffiti art. As I reached the end, what affected me as much as the paintings was that the wall, when viewed from the side, is so slim — no more than a hand’s width wide.
The tour crossed from West to East and back again. (A subtle red brick line crisscrosses the city, marking where the wall stood.) We passed the reconstructed Reichstag, sporting a glass dome designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, and though I could see people walking interior ramps I was more intrigued by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, designed by the architect Peter Eisenman.
The memorial consists of more than 2,700 gray concrete slabs arranged in a grid. The height of each is different, and set on the undulating ground, the slabs create narrow passageways where one loses sight of the city. I couldn’t help but link their shapes to those in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a somber thought.
Later I hustled to find the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, an octagonal concrete and glass brick structure and tower built in 1961, adjacent to the remains of the original neo-Romanesque church destroyed by Allied bombing. Stepping inside the worship room was like entering another temperate zone, not only because of the cool air but also because of the ethereal light coming through more than 22,000 panes of thick blue glass produced in Chartres, France.
Farther down the street, mannequins of Andy Warhol stared from the windows of KaDeWe. I wasn’t shopping for fashion in this elegant, more than hundred-year-old department store. I headed straight to the sixth floor, a vast food emporium. Imagine marble floors and gleaming display cases, but instead of jewelry and handbags there are rows of fresh and prepared foods, with entire sections dedicated to meat, seafood, fresh baked bread, pastries, caviar, wine and champagne, and even areas representing entire countries such as American food (Pop Tarts and Quaker Oats) and Thailand. You can dine in or take out. One could easily spend an hour there, as I did, lost while ogling the Veuve Clicquot Bar and the Chocolate Bar.
In the evening, I checked into my hotel and dined in-house at Restaurant 44. My guidebook described the menu as “French creative” but I’d say its culinary arc is wider with international influences and flavors.
Morning rain dampened my plans to bike through the nearby Tiergarten, an enormous urban park reminiscent of Central Park. Instead, I used the rail line to travel across town.
Hackesche Höfe, a series of restored Art Nouveau buildings with eight interconnecting courtyards, is a lively area of street-level bars, restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques. It was a perfect way to spend half a day perusing work by local designers. I found softer-than-soft leather shoes (Trippen), handmade Jugendstil tiles (Golem Kollektion), women’s fashions (Simon Seidel), a design and art store and gallery (Gestalten Space), leather bags (Jost), and fanciful hats (Coy).
In a city that offers a plethora of museums, including five world-class institutions on Museum Island, I had time to see one. After a quick lunch at a Turkish food truck, I headed to Hamburger Bahnhof, a contemporary art museum in a restored mid-19th-century train station. I power walked through two of the eight large exhibition spaces, and emerged blurry-eyed into sunshine and heat.
Before catching the bus to Dresden, I had one last destination. A friend who shares my passion for swimming had suggested a spa with steam, sauna, and a pool with city views. At Therman Am Europa Center, I rode the lift four flights, paid for entry and a towel, and changed into my suit. Stairs led up to an indoor pool curving along a glass wall looking out on a terrace and, beyond that, office towers. I stepped outside where two men swam laps in a semi-circular channel. As I donned my cap and goggles, it dawned on me that every person — swimming in the pool, lounging on chaises, heading toward the steam room — was naked. I was the only person in a bathing suit.
Not one who enjoys standing out in a crowd, I removed my suit, casually tossed it on my towel, and slipped into the water. As I began the backstroke, the sun rounded the building, blasting me with warmth, and the six o’clock Angelus bells rang out across town. It was as close to perfect as travel gets. Oh, Berlin. I’d say the hype is right.