The Many Faces of Berlin

Our new editor-at-large, Priscilla Alexander, is back from Berlin with tips and observations on this most dynamic German city. Here’s her report:

Since the “fall of the Wall,” I have traveled to Berlin, discovering new things with each visit. I admit my first visit came with some trepidation, not atypical of some Americans. I did have a strong, compelling curiosity to understand this city of many faces; some totally fascinating, others as horrific as the human psyche can imagine.Priscilla Alexander at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Brandenburg in full view.

Pictured: Priscilla Alexander at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Brandenburg in full view.

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Berlin today is a vibrant and energized international metropolis, destined to be the cultural center it was before the rise of National Socialism in Germany. As it builds for the future, Berlin continues with great sensitivity to openly acknowledge its history and confront past crimes with tangible reminders throughout the city.

To truly appreciate the experience, a guide is a must, if only for one day. Berlin is living history in the true sense of the word. What you learn and see is sometimes raw; it angers, it saddens, and strangely enough, it inspires.

 I’ve heard it said that Berlin has the most museums per capita in Europe. The cultural life is evidenced everywhere and the dynamic art scene is unbeatable. There are exciting private collections open to the public on a limited basis, and easily arranged by a guide ([Borros and Hoffmann], are two good ones). Most are free of charge or have a very modest entry fee.

Many museums are more remembrances and memorials to the Berlin era of destruction, such as the Topography of Terror, which is in the actual headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo during the Third Reich. Today it serves as an important statement of Nazi destruction and its aftermath. The Holocaust and Jewish museums are living remembrances and artistic masterpieces that acknowledge but seek to transcend the very reason they exist. To me, the small remembrances throughout the city are strikingly moving, like the Bus Stop Memorials or the small, inscribed brass “stumbling blocks” quietly incorporated in the sidewalks in front of houses of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis. These names are meant to be seen, to be walked on and to continue to survive in Berlin.

The luxury hotels we came to know and admire once the city was open for tourism again were in the former East Berlin. Favorites are the Hotel de Rome in a building that once was a majestic bank, and the residential Regent Berlin with its own garden location, or the lively Ritz-Carlton with its variety of dining options. Of course, the grand dame of all is The Adlon hotel, now part of the Kempinski group. Steps from the Brandenburg Gate and at the top of the famous boulevard Unter den Linden, this hotel is the history of Berlin. Any readers of German history, World War II novels or mysteries know how pivotal The Adlon is in every story on Berlin, and it continues to be a favorite in the international market.

With new interest in the West, one can choose the new Waldorf Astoria, a lovely hotel handsomely designed in the Art Deco style so important in pre-war Berlin. Another new addition in the West is Das Stue in the Diplomatic District, right in the Tiergarten and adjacent to the Berlin Zoo. Housed in what was the Royal Danish Embassy, this 79-room contemporary boutique hotel introduces a whole new experience to Berlin. Let us not forget, any hotel in West Berlin is close to the KaDeWe department store, one of the best shopping and dining experiences in all of Europe.The Brandenburg Gate by day.

Pictured: The Brandenburg Gate by day.

I leave you with one little story of why I cherish my time with a good guide. As we were driving through a part of former East Berlin, Stefan, our guide, heard me talking about the show Cabaret. He asked if I would like to see where Christopher Isherwood had lived and was inspired to write Good-bye to Berlin, which later was adapted to become the musical, Cabaret. What a delight to see the actual house (Frau Schneider really lived on the top floor of the house of “somewhat ill repute”). We then went a few steps further to the Kit Kat Club, where Sally Bowles performed and which is now a small health market.

Even this is part of the living history of Berlin, since the Kit Kat Club had been shortly closed by the Nazis, deemed as “degenerate,” and reopened briefly during the 1936 Berlin Olympics to show how the Nazis did not discriminate. This is an experience that will stay with me, and that only could have happened quite casually with a local guide. I have two companies I can highly recommend from professional and personal experience for any arrangements in Berlin. My latest guide, Stefan, came from Mosaic Journeys; another recommendation is The Culture Trip Germany.

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