BERLIN Travel Review: Exploring My Top 10 Experiences Via The 5 Senses
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
Want an alternative travel guide to Berlin? Take a tour of the German capital via the five senses with our Top 10 choice of immersive experiences. From tours underground, to cold beers 300 feet above the city - we take a different perspective on a Berlin city break.
Things To Feel:
1. Roaming In Freedom Across Berlin
After validating it with a satisfying clunk from the machine, I am keeping my fingers tight around the sharp edges of my ticket. I simply can’t escape an underlying nervousness that at anytime a stern officer could come onto our train and bark at me in German to see it.
Of course, the ticket inspectors on Germany’s public transport system are probably perfectly friendly to ticket holders and, like most people in Berlin, undoubtedly speak perfect English. Yet as someone who spends their life being distrustfully herded through the mechanical barriers on London’s underground and rail, the universal honesty system in Berlin takes a little psychological adjustment.
All across Berlin you can travel unimpeded across an efficient web of modern and clean transportation including rail, light rail, tram, bus and underground.
It’s an amazingly fluid system which transports you through layers of history from underground stations which sheltered wartime Germans, to the towering glass edifice of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof main station which represents the modern face of Berlin. Whether roaming around stations looking for an elusive ticket machine or gazing out of the windows as you travel, Berlin’s transport system will show you more of the real city than any sightseeing tour.
Not only that, but even if you are not a train spotter (or twelve years old) you might still find it hard to quell a little excitement on seeing the famous high speed ICE trains or getting to ride for a couple of stops in a double-decker train carriage.
2. Getting Hands On With East Germany
I am not proud to admit it, but I have a really short attention span for museums. There is just only so long I can stare at things and read the text. What I really want to do is smash the case and toss the items between my hands to get a proper feel of them. Then, and only then, am I likely to actually remember that this particular priceless vase is a unique item handcrafted by monks in 6th Century China.
It’s for this reason that I love Berlin’s DDR Museum. Admittedly there are no ancient antiques to throw around, but while it doesn’t shy away from the tyranny of the state (watching the live interrogation of a potential defector is particularly chilling), the hands-on exhibits excel at showing people living their everyday lives in the most unusual of circumstances. From East Germany’s sporting success, to daily life at school and state-supplied nudist holidays - it is a truly fleshed out account of DDR controlled Berlin.
3. Experience The Chill Of The Holocaust Memorial
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe consists of 2711 evenly spaced concrete slabs varying in height from 0.2m to 4.7m. Its presence within the heart of the city creates a curious atmosphere of reverence but also playful interaction. While a few people walk quietly and respectfully down the tight pathways of the memorial, children and teenagers play noisily between the slabs - using them for hiding and chasing.
As you walk downhill, the slabs get taller, shadows darker, noises more echoing, and the atmosphere more eerie.
The sun of a spring day never reaches down below the tops of the tallest slabs so the air temperature in the thin corridors noticeably chills as you get further towards the centre and further away from an easy escape to the street.
What starts off looking like a featureless field of concrete becomes an evocative and haunting memorial to one of history’s gravest atrocities.
Things to Taste:
4. A German Beer With A View
The Berlin Fernsehturm is a building which captures the futuristic optimism of a time past. A giant reflective metal sphere lanced through the centre by a towering spike - like a cocktail stick stuck through an olive. Inside, the retro decor and curving wooden walls have all the effortless chic of the late 60s.
If it wasn’t for all the tourists, it would be easy to imagine James Bond being led through the corridors to meet a super villain plotting to destroy Europe from his silver ball in the sky.
In that ball, 300 metres above Berlin, is a 360 degree viewing gallery which looks out across the whole of the city - from the regimented grids of apartment blocks in the east, to the haphazard mixing bowl of old and new architecture in the west.
A long curved bar sits along the inside of one section and this is where Bond would sit to order his Vodka Martini while our villain laid out his whole plan for world domination.
I however opt for a pint of German Erdinger beer. It is served chilled (of course) in a large glass which broadens towards the rim into a perfect 2cm white foamy top. I have no idea how many centuries of German brewing tradition is captured within the glass, but sitting on the polished bar it looks like it’s being shot for a commercial. I have no doubt that beer aficionados will tell me that this lager is not a ‘proper’ German beer. I am sure that in a taste test I would probably struggle to discern my German Erdinger from a Belgian Stella, French Kronenburg or Italian Peroni. However, thirsty from a day of sightseeing and perched on a tall bar stool with the whole of Berlin spread out below my feet, the clean crisp beer in this glass is probably the best I have ever tasted.
Things To Hear:
5. Stories From The Berlin Wall Memorial
The Berlin Wall Memorial does an outstanding job of weaving together the historical, social and cultural aspects of the Berlin Wall into an understandable narrative. However reading information off the large information displays is always likely to leave you a little detached from the lives which were torn apart by the east and west divide.
To connect visitors to the everyday stories from Berliners, the Berlin Wall Memorial has collected audio accounts from those who lived on either side of the divide.
These first hand accounts quickly close the gap of time and space and transform history into a reality which is barely a generation old.
With headphones on, there is nothing between you and these first hand stories. Whether in the subtle tremble of a voice or in the pauses of contemplation, these accounts will forever capture the emotions of personal lives transformed by the horrors of power and politics.
6. Covert Listening At The Spy Museum
In any other city, the Spy Museum would be a light-hearted and fun exploration of the work undertaken by world’s secret services. However in a city like Berlin where surveillance was one of the former government’s most powerful and brutal weapons, there is a scary reality behind some of the amusing and bizarre artifacts on show.
Through interactive displays, props and activities, the museum takes you through a history of spying - from ancient Greece (where spies would infiltrate the leadership of enemies) to the present day. However it is in the cold war era of disguised listening devices and covert assassinations that things really get interesting. While it is easy to smile at the listening devices with reels of tape, shoes with bugs in the heels, and poisoned-tipped umbrellas, the existence of these sinister and silent weapons were just the thing of rumours at the time.
A collection of artifacts which many would never have believed were real, never alone actively used.
While putting a big emphasis on entertainment, the Spy Museum makes sure it reminds you that a little paranoia probably brings you closer to the truth.
7. The Sounds Of The Sony Centre
The Sony Centre feels like the future brought forward to the present. As if you had haplessly walked onto a soundstage from Bladerunner. A huge circular entertainment complex held beneath an intricate tent-like glass roof which feels simultaneously both outdoors and indoors.
As you walk in towards the centre, lights, music, and screens all vie for attention around a full 360 degrees. If you take it all in at once then it becomes an assault on the senses, but pick your way through your surroundings and you will see offices, shops, restaurants, galleries, an IMAX and Legoland Discovery Centre all wrapped around a huge central atrium. This is the place to go in Berlin for entertainment, cocktails, and some next-level people watching.
Things to See:
8. Exploring The Berlin Underworld
Our guide provides us with a warning that the lights would soon go out. There are no windows in this small concrete room and the doorways only lead to a maze of short corridors and other dark windowless rooms. In fact, light and air were always in short supply when this wartime underground shelter was packed full of Berliners escaping from the British bombing raids. That’s Berliners who were considered ‘real’ Germans. Those who didn’t fit the Nazi Party’s definition were barred entry and left out on the streets with nowhere to go as explosives rained down on the city.
Our group is currently standing in the old emergency room within the shelter at the Gesundbrunnen underground station. This is the room where makeshift doctors would try their best to patch up wounds and firefighters would wait in anticipation for their next call. It’s a cold and unpleasant space and it’s not hard to imagine the fear and hopelessness of those forced to shelter here as bomb strikes rumbled the earth. No one knew how long they would last, how close they would get, and whether their house and possessions would still be there when they finally got out. If they got out.
When the lights turn off, a most extraordinary thing happens. The white washed walls around us start to glow.
And not just glow a little. The whole room becomes an illuminated cube where every face is easily visible in the soft light. This room still has the original layer of glow-in-the-dark paint used to provide twenty vital minutes of light should all other sources fail.
It is just one of the intriguing discoveries which comes to light during the English language tour of this bomb shelter by Berliner Unterwelten; a volunteer organisation opening up the buried underground past of Berlin. In every dark concrete room are artifacts and stories from wartime Germany - from Nazi propaganda, to rusted artifacts, guns and munitions. Surrounded by cold concrete with passing underground trains rumbling the ground and walls, this tour is an immersive jolt back in time.
9. Echos Of The Wall
As fascinating as the idea of a solid wall dividing a city is, what happens when that wall is removed? How does a city deal with the symbolic legacy of such a crude dividing line? - especially when that line itself is so intrinsically linked to the bloodshed of those trying to cross it.
All across Berlin you will encounter a plethora of ways in which artists, citizens and authorities have tried to remember the past without it casting too dark a shadow on the city’s present.
At the Berlin Wall Memorial park is a full restoration of the original Death Strip, yet it is obscured at street level and only visible from climbing a nearby viewing platform.
The surrounding park uses tightly spaced poles to mark the wall’s original path - making the location clear without any kind of physical barrier between the two sides. At East Side Gallery, 118 artists graffitied a 1.3km stretch of wall with messages of love, peace and unity. At Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous border between East and West, tourists congregate and pay to pose with smiling ‘American soldiers’ dressed in period custom. It is just around the corner from the Peter Fechter memorial, a solemn tribute to the young East German bricklayer who attempted to defect only to be gunned down and left to die at the foot of the wall.
Such echos of an uneasy past are all across Berlin and provide a one-of-a-kind insight into how a once divided city has tried to put itself back together.
Things To Smell:
10. The Smell Of 70 Million Currywurst
The French love of cheese or British love of fish and chips, is nothing compared to the Berliners love of Currywurst. Berlin is a truly multicultural city with every type of cuisine on offer, yet it is the distinctive scent of curried sausages that lingers on most street corners after dark. Like most national dishes, the love of Currywurst goes well beyond just taste.
Invented in Berlin in 1949, the Currywurst was a popular snack for the construction workers rebuilding a city which was 80% destroyed during the war.
The modern city of Berlin was literally built on Currywurst and beer.
The Deutsche Currywurst Museum (yes, it has its own museum) estimates that 70 million currywurst are eaten each year in Berlin. With the smell of sizzling meat, onion and spices drifting by the bars and through the streets every night, I am surprised the number is not higher.
Have you got some alternative experiences of Berlin? Add them to our list by posting a comment below.