Berlin is a city of contradictions. It’s not beautiful in the way Prague is – it’s intriguing. The city is very old, but most of the buildings look as if they were constructed a few decades ago, and the few old buildings that do remain are pockmarked with bullet holes from World War II and tattooed with graffiti. Modern architecture melds with buildings constructed centuries ago; a city that looks toward the future, but does not let itself forget the past.
Just five hours from Prague by train, getting to Germany’s capital city is fairly simple. About nine trains depart every day from Holešovice, the earliest leaving before 4:00am and the last train leaves the station around 6:30pm. Tickets cost a little more than CZK 1,400 roundtrip, with group discounts available.
I hopped on the 6:30am train from Prague, which was fairly empty and had room to spare. As the sun rose over the empty fields, glistening off the snow and illuminating vacant factories, remnants of a communist East Germany, the train sped forward, bringing me to my destination before noon.
The arrival time was near perfect. With just enough time to check-in, I was able to make one of the free guided tours offered by the city of Berlin. The knowledgeable guides led me on a two hour guided tour hitting all the big sites: the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Tiergarten, the Victory Column, the Holocaust Memorial, Reichstag, Hitler’s Bunker, and the former headquarters of the Luftwafa. After a few hours in the frigid February temperatures, a hot meal and warm drink were a much needed break. For less expensive fare, delicious Turkish Döner stands or an indoor cafeteria in Breitscheidplatz fit the bill, or for more traditional meals of hearty schnitzel and sausage, the several German restaurants around the city center like Alpenstueck and Hackescher Hof provide the typical tourist experience.
Berlin, famous for its hip nightlife, puts a whole new spin on its traditional beer-drinking culture with a city-wide, English-language, pub crawl. For EUR 12, I began my evening in Oranienburger Straße, in the Mitte district of the city. In the early evening, the pub crawl snaked through three bars and two clubs, ending at Matrix, one of the city’s hottest clubs early the next morning. The focal point of Matrix is the massive dancefloor in the center of the club. DJs mix pop, hip hop, and techno beats until the early morning and the crowd doesn’t begin to thin out until well after 4:00am.
On Saturday, I decided to try breakfast at one of Berlin’s many cafés in the more ethnic outer areas of the Mitte district, where restaurants and shops of all varieties of nationalities line the street and the interior decor of building ranges from chic minimalism to gaudy kitsch. At Café am Sefenderplatz, the delicious hot coffee and fresh breakfast sandwiches made waking up even easier.
After a quick nosh, I decided to visit some of the sites I missed on the tour in the northern and eastern parts of the city. One of the best ways to cram the city’s main attractions in one day is to start at the Alexanderplatz public transportation hub, conveniently located near the TV Tower and Neptune’s Fountain. From there, a stroll along Karl Liebknecht-Straße led me to the Berliner Dom, the Lustgarten, and Museum Island: home to the Old National Gallery, the Pergamon Museum (housing Middle Eastern and prehistoric art), the Neues Museum (full of ancient Egyptian and early historical artifacts), and the recently renovated Bode Museum.
Across the river Spree, Karl Liebknecht-Straße turned into Berlin’s most famous boulevard: Unter den Linden. Along the street, check out Bebelplatz, where young Nazis burned thousands of books; Humboldt University; and the National Library; before ending at the Brandenburg Gate. Around the corner, the underground Holocaust Museum, located beneath the controversial Holocaust Memorial, demands a visit. The cost should not be a detriment to admission, as the museum is free.
For dinner at the end of the day, I chose a Cajun inspired restaurant called Louisiana Kid on Alte Schönhauser Straße, one of several unique, moderately-priced, and ethnic restaurants that line the street.
That night, I decided to sample the best of Berlin’s nightlife and hit up Watergate, one of the hippest clubs in the city. Planted along the Spree, the views from the lower floors are absolutely stunning and the first-class DJs keep the party lasting all night.
On Sunday morning, I had just enough time to visit the Reichstag. Getting there early, around 10:00am allowed me to beat the crowds and a visit to the glass domed roof provided stunning views of the city – a perfect image to leave with.
By the time I clambered back down from the top, I had just enough time to make the 2:30pm train back to Prague. The main train station in Berlin, Hauptbahnhof, is relatively close to the city center and a relatively inexpensive taxi ride.
The train snaked back to Prague, passing through the German countryside to Dresden and then onto the Czech Republic. The sun began setting ever lower, turning the sky from a pale blue to vibrant orange tinged with pink, glittering off the creeks and rivers in the rocky valleys. As the train pulled into Holešovice at 7:30pm, the sun sunk beneath the horizon, bathing Prague in a royal blue and setting on the end of a wonderful weekend.