Planning the family summer holiday used to be my domain. Now the Teens are teens they want a say in the matter too. Berlin turned out to be the place that ticked most joint boxes. Next question, what to do in Berlin with Teens? Turns out that Berlin is just like a giant living History GCSE textbook, with both World War Two and the Cold War rearing their heads round every corner.
Table of Contents
WORLD WAR TWO BERLIN
So much has happened in Germany both before and after the Second World War but it is WW2 and its aftermath that dominates central Berlin. It is also key to the History GCSE curriculum, a subject dear to the heart of the Cultural Wednesday family this year.
We start with Anhalter Station because it begins with A and was right next door to our hotel. Now just a facade it was once the gateway to South Germany. It was at this station that Hitler first arrived in Germany. It was from Anhalter that 9,600 Jews left on 116 trains bound for Theresienstadt and thence to concentration camps. Allied bombing all but destroyed the station in 1943, since then the land has become a sports ground and concert venue with the facade left as a memorial to the transported Jews.
- Anhalter Station, Stresenmann Straße
- Open all the time
- Admission: Free
BERLIN STORY MUSEUM
Right next door to the Anhalter Station is the Berlin Story Museum housed in a World War II bunker. This is a privately owned museum with an extensive collection detailing the rise of the Third Reich and wartime Germany including a reconstruction of the Führer Bunker. Opinion is divided on the Berlin Story Museum in the Cultural Wednesday household, I found it a bit creepy but the Teens thought it was great. I found the same story to be told more objectively at the Topography of Terror.
- Berlin Story Museum, Schöneberger Straße 23a
- Open: Daily 10am – 7pm
- Admission: €6 Berlin Story, €12 Hitler, How could it happen?
TOPOGRAPHY OF TERROR
Topographic des Terrors, to give it its German name, is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition about the rise of Third Reich and terrors which it unleashed. The story of how a nation can go from a cultured civilised society to one which butchered large swathes of its citizen in the space of a few years is a chilling one. Immediately behind the largest chunk of Berlin Wall left in central Berlin, an outside display tells the awful story of Hitler’s rise via a time-line with text and pictures. In the centre of the plot that used to house the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS, a simple glass cube houses more evidence of book burnings, deportations and mass killings. Everything has both German and English titles.
- Topography of Terror, Neiderkirchner Straße
- Open daily: 10am – 8pm
- Admission free
Yes that is right, memorials not memorial. It wasn’t just the Jews that Hitler persecuted: homosexuals, Roma and assorted elderly, disabled, sick and other undesirables were systematically killed and all have memorials next to the Brandenburg Gate.
Biggest of all is the Jewish Holocaust Memorial. 2,711 concrete blocks fill a site that is three football pitches big. It has no one entrance or exit, you wander around at will. As you get into the middle you feel totally alone and then a toddler will zoom past on its scooter. Initially I was upset by the sight of people climbing on the blocks or running around but came to see normal life continuing in the midst of such horror is what the blocks are commemorating. Peter Eisenman has designed a powerful, thought provoking memorial.
- Holocaust Denkmal (Holocaust Memorial), Cora Berliner Straße
- Admission free
The Reichstag was the seat of German government from 1918 until it mysteriously burnt down in 1933. The fire allowed the Nazis to declare martial law and suspend democracy. During the years of East and West Berlin the Reichstag was stuck in no-man’s land, gently decaying and belonging to neither side. After reunification it was decided to make Berlin the capital of the reunited country and restore the Reichstag. Sir Norman Foster undertook the task, he crowned the building with a glass cupola. It is possible to tour the building and climb the cupola or just explore the dome on its own, either way you need a pre-booked ticket.
- Reichstag, Platz der Republik
- Open: daily 8am – midnight
- Admission: Free
- To book visit the Bundestag website
TOP TIP: MAKE SURE YOU ARE CARRYING YOUR PASSPORT AS YOU NEED IT TO GET IN
Way back when, when one of the Godmother’s worked in Berlin, it was Templehof airport that I arrived at. Templehof was built between 1936 and 1941 and was at the time the largest complex of buildings in Europe. After the war it became a symbol of freedom during the Berlin airlift when West Berlin was kept supplied with food and fuel via the airport, when East Germany tried to blockade West Berlin out of existence. Now planes no longer fly into Templehof but you can take tours of the building (in English) and the runways have become a giant park, perfect for exploring by bike or rollerblade.
- Templehof Field Open: Daily times change every month
- Templehof tours: Friday – Sunday 1.30pm
- Tours cost €15 adults, €7 children
COLD WAR BERLIN
After WW2, Berlin was divided into four sectors run by Great Britain, France, the USA and the USSR. After the Soviet Union tried to starve the other three sectors out of existence during the Berlin Blockade, residents of the Soviet sector began to leave in droves. To stop this mass exodus the Berlin Wall was built overnight on 13 August 1961. It remained in place until the collapse of communism on 9 November 1989.
The immediate reaction was to pull the hated wall down. Now some stretches have been preserved. One crumbling bit can be seen next to the Topography of Terror but a more substantial 2 km section can be seen alongside Bernauer Straße. The road was literally cut in half by the wall, there is a visitor centre with explanations about the wall and a viewing deck on top.
- Berlin Wall Memorial, Bernauersraße
- Take the S Bahn to Nordbahnhof
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Free
Checkpoint Charlie was an Allied military post and crossing point between East and West Berlin on Freiderich Straße. It became the best known crossing point and was the site of many spy swaps during the Cold War. When the wall fell, Checkpoint Charlie was demolished: what you see now is a reconstruction manned by actors who will let you have your photo taken with them for a fee.
What on earth was that? I asked as we whooshed along A2 autobahn headed for Berlin. Turns out that the steel bridge and surrounding concrete wasteland was Checkpoint Alpha the old border between East Germany and West Berlin. My investigations have failed to reveal any means of visiting Checkpoint Alpha other than by speeding along the motorway. Still I confess that I had no idea that Checkpoint Alpha existed until we sped past.
When the wall was in situ the Friederichstraße Bahnhof (Friedrich Straße Train Station) was the place where all foot passengers passed between East and West Berlin. The glass and concrete entrance hall gained the nickname of Tränenpalast or Palace of Tears. It is thought that eight million people passed through here never knowing when they would see their loved ones again. The building has been retained as a museum to those crossings, complete with an old customs point. I remember passing through these when entering communist Germany, Bulgaria and Russia many years ago, just one of the many things that convince the Teens that I should be a museum exhibit.
- Tränenpalast, Reichstaggufer 17
- Open: Tuesday – Friday 9am – 7pm, weekends 10am – 6pm
- Admission: Free
When I first visited Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate was marooned in no-man’s land. When the wall came down joyous young people from all over Berlin clambered up on to it. A concert was held under its arches celebrating reunification. Built in 1791 to mark the end of Thirty Years War, fifteen years later Napoleon marched triumphantly through it and took home the Quadriga (four horse chariot) that tops the arch. When Napoleon fell, the Quadriga was restored. Once again the Brandenburg Gate is at the the heart of Berlin. When we visited, it was getting ready to play host to the Christopher Street Day (Gay Pride) concert the next day.
TRAFFIC LIGHT SIGNALS
As you walk around Berlin you can tell whether you are in the old East or West by simply looking at the red and green men on the pedestrian crossings. If they look like the ones you find in the UK then you are in the old West. If they are a cross like red man or a jaunty green man then you are in the old East. These cheeky chappies are known as Ampelmännchen and are one of the few remnants of the old communist regime regarded with affection.
An island in the middle of the Spree river is devoted to museums. Spreeinsel and Museuminsel in German. Heaven for Cultural Wednesday. We only managed to visit two on this occasion but I long to return for a proper exploration.
The Neues Museum is worth the visit just for the building, it has been restored from extensive wartime damage by David Chipperfield mixing the old and new in a simply stunning way. We made a beeline because I wanted to see Nefertiti in her new home. When I last saw her she was in a room crowded with other artefacts but still shone, now she holds court in a room all to herself.
German Romanic painters are the kings of the Alte Nationalgalerie, they are joined by some sculpture.
If ancient Greek and Roman artefacts are your thing then the Altes Museum is for you.
The Pergamonmuseum is the biggest of all the Museuminsel museums and has the queues to match. I confess that one look at the long line, even for Berlin Card holders, made us choose the Alte Nationalgalerie. It is home to a substantial and incredible collection of Middle Eastern treasures including the massive Pergamon Altar.
So extensive was the wartime damage to the Bode that it was slated for demolition but wrecking ball swung else where and now its stunning interiors play host to one of Europe’s most impressive sculpture collections.
Is it bad to say that I prefer the outside of the Berliner Dom to the inside? Berliner Dom or Berlin Cathedral was built at the turn of the twentieth century as a Royal Church. There is the fascination of an overblown building built as the very dynasty that it celebrated was about to self destruct but it is probably just looked at from the outside during an ice-cream break on a visit with teens.
COOL STUFF TO DO IN BERLIN
Not everything that we did in Berlin was related to the GCSE History curriculum or a museum.
WINGS OF DESIRE MONUMENT
Berlin has a green heart, the Tiergarten is massive park slap bang in the middle of the city. It is the perfect place to mooch and cool down (we visited during the hottest temperatures that have ever been recorded in Germany). All paths lead to the Siegessäule or Victory monument to give it its proper name, but to those of us of a certain vintage it the place where angels meet in Wim Wenders’ film ‘Wings of Desire’. You can climb to the top of monument for great view out over Berlin. Be warned there is no lift! We were ready for a long cool drink once we returned to ground level.
- Siegessäule, Grosser Stern
- Open: Monday – Friday 9.30am – 6.30pm Weekends 9.30am – 7pm
- Admission: €3
OK I know its a train station, but what a train station. It is a twenty-first century station that has trains running on many different levels. The glass in its vast arched roof has photovoltaic cells embedded in it. As you are making way round Berlin on public transport try to have at least one interchange here to gawp at the building. (At this point you will not be shocked to learn that Newcastle upon Tyne Station featured heavily in my degree dissertation.)
DAY TRIPS FROM BERLIN
We could have easily spent a week in Berlin seeing all that there was to see. We really wanted to see the Olympic Park and swim in Wannsee but time ran out. We did however catch the train (changing at the Hauptbahnhof, of course) to Potsdam.
Potsdam was the home of the Imperial family. Frederick the Great created Park Sanssouci where he could live without cares. He didn’t stop with building just one palace and the park is dotted with imperial homes. Catch the train to ‘Potsdam Park Sanssouci’ take a look at the ornate buildings as you leave, this was the station the Kaiser left Germany for the final time after his abdication at the end of WWI. I will write a more detailed post about Potsdam later but the two highlights are the massive Neues Palais and the tiny but ornate Schloss Sanssouci, both masterpieces of Frederician Rococo, a phrase that was used so often in the audio guide that the Teens adopted it as the catch phrase of the holiday.
- Potsdam is within the Berlin transport zone C covered by a travel pass
- Take the S1 to Potsdam and then bus x15 from outside the station
- Or RE 1 train to Park Sanssouci and walk 200 yards
- Busses run from the back of Schloss Sanssouci to the train station
BERLIN BEER GARDENS
After our visit to Munich a few years ago we are firm converts to German beer gardens not to booze in but to eat.
BRLO is different to any other beer garden that we have visited, in that it brews its own beer and is housed in old shipping containers. Given the high temperatures when we visited we sat outside to eat our ribs and curry wurst. Best of all it was a short walk from our hotel!
- BRLO BRWHOUSE, Schöneberger Straße 16
CAFE AM NEUEN SEE
Cafe am Neuen See is far more traditional, long trestle tables nestle under shady trees on the banks of the Neuen See on the edge of the Tiergarten. In the winter there is a cosy indoors area complete with woodburners. A word to the wise ….. make sure you wear insect repellent, I didn’t and was still troubled by the bite over a week later!
- Cafe am Neuen See, Lichtensteinallee 2, 10787 Berlin, Germany
WHERE TO STAY IN BERLIN
Berlin is awash with brand new hotels. We chose to stay close to Potsdamer Platz walking distance away from many of the places we wanted to visit.
NOVOTEL SUITES POTSDAMMER PLATZ
We opted for a family room at the Novotel Suites Potsdammer Platz. The room was large enough for all of us and has a series of clever dividing panels that pulled into place giving privacy. We drove to Berlin from the UK and so the availability of a secure garage in the basement was also played a large part in our decision.
GETTING AROUND BERLIN
We might have had our car in Berlin but it stayed firmly in the garage until it was time to leave. Berlin has a fantastic network of trams, buses, underground (U Bahn) and overground trains (S Bahn) known as BVG. There are three zones A, B and C and variety of tickets. A day ticket for zones A and B is €7 and you can also get travel cards as part of the Berlin Welcome Card. It is also possible to rent bikes, I confess that even though we often cycle on holiday I would think twice about navigating Berlin with teens on two wheels.
BERLIN WELCOME CARD IS IT WORTH IT?
You can buy a Berlin Welcome card for various lengths of time that will also get you into a range of attractions for free. Prices start at €19.90 for 48 hours, zones A and B and not including the Museuminsel. We opted for a four day, three zone pass that included the Museuminsel that came in at €35.90. You can pre-order them online on the BVG website or buy at hotels and newsagents in Berlin. In all honesty we went to so few paid attractions and walked so many miles that it wasn’t a cost effective way of doing things. It did however mean that when we had walked far enough we could always jump on a train or a bus to get us back. The Berlin Welcome card is valid for one adult and up to three children under 14, had the Teens been a year younger they would have been excellent value. Maybe the lesson is to take your teens to Berlin before they get to 15!