I arrived in Berlin around five in the evening, stepped off the train and instantly remembered how overwhelmingly large the Hauptbahnhof is. So many levels, so many signs. It’s not so difficult to navigate, really, but compared with the sweet simplicity of Mannheim, it took a minute.
I headed through the crowds, glancing at the fast food shops as I always do and followed the signs towards my bus stop.
Next scheduled bus? Unknown. What? Okay, check some apps (both BVG and Google Maps). Nope, no scheduled buses. Alright, let me check alternate options like the U-Bahn. Nope.
That’s when I took a few steps out into the square towards the river. Police. Lots of them. But, no one was running and screaming; everything was calm. The sky was dark. The air had a cool crispiness; not enough to sting, but it was colder than expected.
Without any public transport, I decided to walk to my hostel; it was only a few kilometres away. Along the way, I asked one of the policemen what was happening; simply a political demonstration, nothing to worry about.
The walk was faster than I thought, though I ambled through Berlin enjoying life in the city rather than speeding through the streets. Though, I will say I was irked that I wasn’t making use of the public transport included in my Berlin Welcome Card.
Arriving at Wombat’s City Hostel, I checked in, made a bed in my room, tucked a Tupperware in the fridge in the kitchen and then headed up to the rooftop bar to enjoy the free welcome drink all guests get at this hostel.
Now, obviously, the point of the free drink (in my case, red wine) is to prompt you to drink more and make new friends at the hostel bar. Apart from the free wine and taking in the view, I had zero intention of hanging at the bar.
One of the key reasons for choosing this particular hostel was its relative proximity to the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie and with a late Friday night closing time, that’s where I was headed.
I’m not going to lie; even though I fully, consciously admit to being a history nerd, it felt a little strange peeling out of the hostel to enjoy a Friday night museum.
And, let’s be clear, this is a serious, information-heavy museum – even if you’re interested in the material.
But, if you are, Friday night is probably the best time to visit The Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie. It was very quiet, so it was possible to engage with everything I wanted to – without pushing my way past people.
Plus, it’s ridiculously easy to access from just about anywhere in the city, so you shouldn’t have to change trains.
While there is a McDonald’s across the street is you find yourself famished, I spotted a grocery store just a block away, picked up a few extra bits and headed back to the hostel.
After eating and enjoying a glass of wine (never leave this in the hostel kitchen – always tuck it into your locker), I felt compelled to do the dishes before heading to bed. Yes, that’s strange; dishes are always something that can wait until morning.
On Saturday morning, I rose early, made some coffee and headed over to the DD Museum with extreme anticipation. And, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Truthfully, I could have planned my entire weekend around this single testament to life in the DDR.
When I think back now, it seems strange that I didn’t lament having a mere weekend in Berlin. I could have chosen to study German here, but opted for Mannheim for my short course. I just can’t believe I didn’t have any strange regrets while in Berlin for not having made this my temporary home.
Still, I know without a doubt, that this is one of just a few museums I must return to. It’s so rich and vivid, and truly well done.
At the time, however, I knew I didn’t have all day – and headed out for a quick look across the river at St. Nicholas’ Church – and then back to the hostel.
Well, I was on a money-saving mission as much as anything else. (That should explain the hostel option over an AirBNB, which is truly my go-to choice.) And, I headed back to make myself another coffee and some lunch before heading off again.
It’s true, I did think about stopping at any of the multitudes of vegan restaurants. But it would have taken just as much time – and cost so much more.
It was Saturday afternoon, and I had a belly full of cheap dorm-style food when I headed over to the Stasi Museum.
I know it sounds a little strange, but this was a magical moment for me.
Yes, yes, this was the headquarters of terror for many, many people. For others, it was a job they fully believed in. I can’t really take sides. At the root of communism is the ideal of a better life for everyone. That it was poorly implemented with heavy hands and an almost impossible level of social espionage doesn’t take away the fact that there must have been many people walking these halls that truly believed they were doing something positive for humanity.
I suppose that’s part of my fascination with this side of history.
In any case, I wandered around the building in a dream state. And, if I could have toured the grounds and buildings in their entirety, I would have jumped at the chance to do so. Maybe some day. Instead, I jumped at the chance to visit the prison which held the victims of poorly executed ideals.
When I arrived in Berlin, I had no idea I was would have the chance to visit Hohenschönhausen Memorial. In a way, I’m rather glad I didn’t know. Perhaps I would have taken the easy route and arrived for a tour in English. It just wouldn’t have been the same.
The stories I learned here stick with me. And, it was ever so eerie walking away from the prison in the cold, dark night.
As I walked away from the Memorial, I was so overwhelmed with excitement that I called home to gush over the experience. At the same time, my steps were like lead, like trying to run in a dream.
I know this isn’t the spot for everyone. If you don’t have a strong handle on the history, it’ll be difficult to understand this place fully. As for me? I’m definitely heading back – for many tours; I have so many questions – and I need a chance to peruse the books in the gift shop. Yes, you get those any every museum and memorial.
I headed back to the hostel for supper – and to clean the kitchen. Really, who are these youthful backpackers without a care in the world? I’m only half kidding; I’ve always cleaned up after myself in communal kitchens, but I miss those carefree days of travelling.
I drank a little wine and went to bed. It was later than I wanted – and certainly later than I needed; I had felt the whisper of a cold during the day and it was beginning to hit home.
The next morning, I knew I was in for tough times; a cold was definitely coming. I booked a late checkout at the hostel, so I could return for a nap if it became bad and headed out the door.
I was oddly cheered when I stumbled on this theatre. The entire weekend was dripping with East Berlin, and my clear obsession with its history and ideology.
But, for months I’d watched and rewatched Babylon Berlin. I could quote it. I knew the songs, danced the dance. To see this, however little it was the focus of my stay, was heart-warming in a strange, personal way.
Still, I was feeling a little rough and was hoping desperately to make it through two more museums before heading to the train station, so it was all a lot of hustle and go.
The cold greyness of my Sunday in Berlin suited the mood and material entirely. I tried to appreciate it as I approached the Wall Museum at East Side Gallery, because, to be honest, I didn’t know what this museum could add. I was taking a chance that I would learn something new.
In retrospect, I probably should have given this museum a miss. That’s not because it’s bad; in fact, I strongly recommend that most people (meaning those that haven’t spent a few years swimming in divided Germany’s history) make a point of stopping here. Me, I didn’t learn anything new and earth-shattering, and I probably should have slept off the impending cold instead.
Still, I walked away from the museum rather pleased with myself, and feeling a little better than I did when I woke. So, I headed back to the hostel, packed up my bags and was off to my final stop on my Berlin museum weekend.
A little more light-hearted than… well, everything else I visited in Berlin during this weekend, the German Spy Museum was busy. I totally understand that, but I was carrying everything with me and desperately need to tuck my bags into a locker and just see what there was to see.
Instead, I stood in a queue. It wasn’t long, but it seemed to take ages. Indeed, it must have as I had time to compare the discount offered by the museum for liking their Facebook page versus the Berlin Welcome Card discount. Truthfully, I can’t tell you the answer. I don’t know if I went with the Welcome Card because it was cheaper or because I was lazy.
But, it’s worth doing the math if you plan to visit. And, if you can, make this one of the stops you do in the middle of the week, in the middle of the school year; this place is hopping on weekends and public holidays.
What I missed in my short Berlin weekend
In the end, the only thing I really counted on and missed was ambling through Treptower Park. If I had felt better, I would have given the Spy Museum a miss once I reorganised my schedule to accommodate the visit to Hohenschönhausen Memorial.
Still, as I left the Spy Museum and headed to the Hauptbahnhof making full use of public transport this time around, I couldn’t regret anything. This was one of the most fulfilling weekends of my life – and it was just me, a seriously low budget and a slew of history museums.
As I arrived at the station, I stood in an exhausting queue at the train station pharmacy (a first for me) to get my hands on some cold meds. Then I treated myself to Subway, which I ate, with a mix of self-pity and accomplishment on the platform as I waited for my train. And that’s when my cold hit with full force.
I alternately sipped coffee and water for the entire 5-hour train ride, hauled myself back to my Mannheim home with hidden strength – and collapsed in front of the television to watch a little Deutschland 83 as I fell asleep on the couch.
And, yes, I’d do it all again – even if I knew the cold was coming.