BERLIN: Scratching the surface of Germany's enigmatic capital

A scene from Berlin's East Side Gallery

This is my fourth time being in Germany. I studied abroad for five months, made two 10-day/2-week trips to visit my boyfriend, and now I've been here since August. Given that I've spent a reasonable amount of time exploring Germany, people were always surprised to hear that I'd never been to Berlin.

"But that's the one place you HAVE to go!" they all said. It never made sense to people that I had been to so many random cities in Hessen, or that I had been up to the North Sea, but had still never been to Berlin -- clearly my priorities were not in order.

It wasn't that I had made a conscious choice to avoid Berlin. It was more that it never fit neatly into my travel plans, plus I never felt a lot of pressure to cross it off my list immediately. Many Americans travel Europe with the mindset that they have to see everything right now, because they don't know the next time they will be back. Me, I always knew that more trips to Germany were surely in my future, so why feel pressure to see everything at once?

When I found out I got a Fulbright grant to come to Germany and live there for a full year, I knew it was time for Berlin and me to finally get to know one another. I soon found out that Fulbright hosts a conference in Berlin every spring, so right off the bat I knew I'd be heading there this year.

But when my friend Jenna began to think about visiting me, our plans started to form around our birthdays -- hers on Dec. 31st, mine on January 1st. When asking yourself where to celebrate New Years in Germany, there is one very obvious answer, and so we decided to go for it: we would spend our birthdays together in Berlin, visiting Germany's capital city for the first time.

Because I already knew that I will be returning to Berlin for a whole week in March, I didn't put a lot of thought into planning this trip in terms of seeing all the sights or anything like that. This was more a chance to start to get a feel for Berlin, a chance to experience the city at a decidedly leisurely pace.

For accommodations, we rented an apartment via AirBnB. The flat was located in the Mitte district in Berlin (which literally just means "middle", so pretty centrally located). Not necessarily the hip or grittily urban part of Berlin, but a good location to branch out from.

Getting to Berlin proved to be a more difficult feat than we envisioned. Ride sharing is a popular way of getting around in Germany (as it is often much cheaper than train travel), so I decided to go that route. I found someone willing to drive the three of us (Jenna, my boyfriend and me) to Berlin from Würzburg, which is a town in northern Bavaria about 30 minutes from Fulda.

We left Fulda early in the morning on Dec. 30 and arrived in Würzburg around 7:30. Our ride was supposed to pick us up sometime around 8:30, so we just hung around the Bahnhof and got some food.

Come 8:30, no word from our would-be ride. This wasn't totally unsettling though, since traffic can sometimes be a factor and we had already confirmed the ride with him multiple times.

8:30 turned into 9. We sent a text, no response. We called -- no response.  As 9:30 came and went we realized we might need to come up with an alternate plan, because it looked like our ride had ditched us. Taking a high-speed train was out of the question (a one-way ticket would have cost 90 euros), and there weren't any alternate rides available at such a last minute.

So, we took advantage of one of DeutscheBahn's many special offers for people traveling in groups who aren't necessarily crunched for time. We purchased their Quer-durchs-Land Ticket, which, for 60 euros total (20 per person), gave us unlimited use of all regional trains in Germany for that day. We would not be getting to Berlin quickly, but it was a surer bet than our ride -- and cheaper too!

We spent the next 8 hours on increasingly crowded trains, since many other people were trying to get to Berlin for New Years as well. We took a train from Würzburg to Erfurt, Erfurt to Magdeburg and then Magdeburg to Berlin. We arrived in Berlin around 6 p.m., a mere four hours later than originally planned (luckily our host for the apartment was accommodating). We were thoroughly exhausted after such a long day of sitting on trains, so our only outing that night was to get some food and then head to bed.

The Berliner Dom with the Fernsehturm in the background.

The next day (New Years Eve), we did some proper sightseeing. We started around Alexanderplatz, checking out the shopping, the Fernsehturm and buildings like the Marienkirche and the Rotes Rathaus. We also walked around the Berliner Dom -- we wanted to go inside, but I had forgotten my student ID, and I didn't really want to pay full price (paying for a church is hard enough for me, since so many are free). We also walked toward the Museumsinsel, although we didn't go too deep into that since we wanted to see the museums another day.

Afterward, we headed out to see the East Side Gallery, the famous line of murals painted on a preserved section of the Wall. This was one thing I was excited to see, since I had heard a lot about it and seen many pictures. Basically, shortly after the fall of the Wall, Berlin commissioned numerous different artists to paint murals depicting various political themes, mostly centered around freedom and self-expression.

There were a lot of tourists to navigate around which made the experience a little less fun, since often there would be a bottleneck around one person trying to take a picture of a mural without someone walking in front of them. Still, I really liked looking at the different pieces -- there was much to think about and reflect on. It is a shame though that there is so much graffiti over the panels. I get that it would seem somewhat hypocritical to try to close off other individuals' self-expression, but seeing a large penis or the word "FAGGOT" spraypainted over what is otherwise a thoughtful piece of art just sort of ruins the mood. It's a shame people aren't more respectful of what is basically an open-air art museum.

We returned to our apartment in the early evening to rest and have some food. The plan for the night was to attend the celebration at the Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful neo-classical square home to one of Berlin's most popular Christmas markets. Most markets close on the 24th, but this particular one was open until the 31st, and it even had a special program just for New Years, complete with a fireworks show at midnight.

This seemed like the best option for us, because it wouldn't be as dreadfully crowded as the celebration at the Brandenburg Gate, but we would still get to celebrate amongst other people and with fireworks. Plus, Jenna would get to see an authentic German Christmas market, which is always an experience in and of itself.

Unfortunately, our plans were laid to waste when Jenna fell ill that evening as a result of some medication she was taking. We stayed in a while, hoping to wait it out, but as 9 p.m. rolled around and she was still couch-bound, it became clear this was not going be the night we hoped it would be -- particularly unfortunate since it was Jenna's birthday.

Eventually, my boyfriend and I went out by ourselves, wanting to at least experience a bit of Berlin over New Years. Hours before midnight, the city was already like a warzone, with fireworks exploding overhead every couple minutes. These were not the kind of fireworks I was used to from my childhood -- you know, the kind you set off in the street that spark and fizz a few feet up in the air before sputtering out of life. No, these were the kind that arced into the air right above you with a shrill whistle before exploding with a deafening bang that made you wonder if that noise was really just a firework. The whole thing was a little surreal.

The Weihnachtsmarkt at the Gendarmenmarkt.

Sven and I made our way to the Gendarmenmarkt to enjoy a couple hours of the atmosphere before midnight. The market itself was really well done, I thought. It looked very charming, and the booths all seemed to be selling high-quality wares, not trinkets and cheap souvenirs. There was also a live band playing cheesy cover songs, but overall the atmosphere was quite enjoyable.

As midnight drew nearer, we worked our way to the center of the market so we would have a view of the Konzerthaus, from whose roof the fireworks would be set off. We counted down (in German, of course) with the crowd, and then at midnight the fireworks began. The city lit up as all over fire works exploded in the sky, creating an exhilarating cacophony.

The market's show (set to a classical music soundtrack) lasted about ten minutes. Afterward, Sven and I had a couple more drinks before we decided to head home, not wanting to stay out terribly late since we had left Jenna behind.

The trip back was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The streets everywhere were covered debris and a thick cloud of smoke, as well as people continuing to set off fireworks. It felt a little dangerous at times, simply because it was so uncontrolled -- I didn't see police anywhere stopping people from lighting fireworks so close to other people, or in the middle of a street. The haze of smoke was enough that when I checked the weather app on my iPhone around 2 a.m., the forecast for Berlin didn't say cloudy or overcast -- it just said "Smoke."

We slept in a bit late on Wednesday, the first, but eventually roused ourselves with the intention of going to the Pergamon Museum that day, which is one of the premier antiquities museums in Berlin (home to many world-renowned museums). My parents went there a couple years ago and absolutely loved it.

But once we made our way to the museum, we were greeted with a decidedly unpleasant sight: lines. Lines everywhere. These were Disney World caliber lines, the ones that you know you'll be standing in for at least 45 minutes. After a quick conference, we decided it wasn't worth it to us -- we'd rather sightsee elsewhere.

Inside the main Hof at the Hackescher Höfe

Sven suggested we check out the Hackescher Markt area, specifically the Hackescher Höfe, something I didn't know anything about. This ended up being an interesting little slice of Berlin. It was a series of several courtyards (called Höfe) connected by passageways, and each courtyard (Hof) had a cluster of specialty shops. Not all of them were open on New Years, but it was still fun to explore them. One of our favorites was the Ampelmann Store, an entire shop dedicated to the little green man shown on many German crossing signs to tell pedestrians when they can walk.

After exploring the Höfe, we made our way down the Brandenburg Gate area, so we could see all the fuss there. This ended up not being as interesting as I had hoped, simply because it was New Years Day and most of the setup from the previous night's celebrations was still there. This meant we couldn't walk around the entire area, plus what we could see was somewhat obscured by equipment. We walked a little further to see the Reichstag, the German parliament building, before heading back to our apartment.

Our last day, I decided Jenna should have a chance to see a proper European-style palace, and there just so happens to be such a palace within Berlin. We headed out to the western Berlin district of Charlottenburg, home to Schloss Charlottenburg. The palace was first built at the very end of the 17th century and was a home to various Prussian rulers.

As palaces go, Charlottenburg was nothing particularly remarkable, but it was a nice change of pace from the grayness of Berlin. We didn't go inside the palace, just spent a couple hours strolling the expansive grounds and enjoying a relaxing day outside. I would definitely like to see the palace once more in the summer, when the gardens are in full bloom and the park much livelier.

A view of Schloss Charlottenburg through the reeds.


And that was my trip to Berlin. Anyone who has been there before knows there is a lot still to see and do. We didn't hit any of the major memorials or museums, didn't see Checkpoint Charlie, and really didn't see many of the neighborhoods outside of Mitte. But that's ok with me. Again, I don't see the need to rush these things when I know for sure I'm coming back in a couple months. Instead, I really enjoyed getting to see Berlin for the first time at a decidedly leisurely place. I'm just scratching the surface of this city, and I know I'm a long way away from really understanding it, but I have time to start to figure it out.