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Germany

Please don’t go to…Berlin

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That’s right. We said it. You really shouldn’t go to Berlin.

Why would you? The Germans themselves will tell you Berlin is dirty, crowded, infested with foreigners and low-life unemployed lazies leeching off the social system the rest of the country pays for.

BerlinAnd believe us, the locals don’t want you there either. Talk of neighborhood gentrification and skyrocketing rental prices is what you’ll hear them talk about.

The funny this is, if locals are having a conversation, it is most likely taking place in English, not German. ‘Locals’ are just the hodge podge mix of expats who got here before you from around the world. We heard English everywhere.

berlin love on berlin wallExpats and foreigners of all kinds have always felt at home in Berlin. After WWII, Turkish immigrants came to West Berlin as extra labor to help construct the wall, while East Berlin welcomed their fellow communist Vietnamese comrades to work. Today, those two communities are very large and integrated into Berlin’s fabric.

The German capital has always been a haven for creatives from across Europe and beyond. When the war ended, West Berliners were exempt from otherwise mandatory military service. This drew Social activists, pacifists, anarchists, musicians and artists in droves – the latter two even received state subsidies to support their projects. The post-war culture laid the groundwork for what has easily become the least German German city.

There is a state of controlled chaos in Berlin, yet it is a chaos so controlled it could only exist in Germany.

berlin wall
Remaining parts of the wall can be seen throughout the city

At first glance, or even after five weeks, it would appear that half the city is unemployed.

This is judging by the number of people sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes all afternoon long or spending the day grilling in the park or drinking wine well past sunset on riverbanks and other green spaces around town. Berlin is, in fact, one of the greenest cities we have ever spent time in.

berlin treptower parkAnd yet nothing ever seems to get out of control with all this free time and even more free space despite the fact that many locals walk around in some degree of altered state.

It is a mystery why things stay on such an even keel, especially since there is hardly ever a police officer in sight.

The German capital moved to Bonn after the war, leaving much of Berlin leveled. Lack of development and investment in the city throughout the following decades is what kept it so green. Upon re-unification, Berlin regained capital status in 1991, though offices only really moved back in 1999. Still today, many government officials work from offices in Bonn. This explains how in the capital of one of the world’s mightiest economies, you’d have to really search for someone wearing a suit.

Berlin Reichstag
The Reichstag, home of the German parliament, therefore a rare ‘buttoned up’ place in Berlin.

The lack of investment met with limited major industry is partially what has kept much of the population underemployed and created some of the characteristic Berlin grit. Now, this is grit by German standards, of course.

Compared to New York or Bangkok, Berlin is downright tidy. And with food, drinks and over cost of living expenses so low, we often did compare Berlin to Bangkok.

Our rent for five weeks was only $200 more than what we paid in Thailand and our average meal was $6 a plate.

Berlin Cheap Eats
Lunch is usually around €5. The special on the right includes soup, bread, rice, salad and a main course for €4.90.

So Berlin is green, and cheap, and populated with bon vivants. But there is a serious, sad side to the city that is impossible to overlook.

Every single cobblestone you stumble on is connected to history, starting quite literally, with the Stolpersteine, or ‘stumble stones’ – 5,000 gold plated memorial stones on sidewalks in front of homes of Jewish and other people who lost their lives in concentration camps. There are 38,000 of these now all around Europe, but Berlin is home to one of the largest concentrations of them.

berlin stolpersteine
‘Stolpersteine’ have the name of the person, when they were deported, and when and where they were killed.

Look closely at some buildings on either side of what was the Berlin Wall, and you’ll see plaques marking where escape tunnels were dug under the Wall over the years. There is a constant feeling in Berlin that you are somewhere that really matters, a major player in world history. Just imagine what the streets of the city have witnessed from the city’s founding in the 12th Century through to today.

Berlin wall plaques
The plaque on top marks where the wall was located, the one on the bottom left where a person was arrested in the attempt to escape over the wall, the one on the bottom right marks the successful escape of three men.

The Berlin Wall itself is an ever-present feature of the city. Individuals slabs are found throughout the city as memorials, but the largest concentration of remaining wall can be found at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining piece of the wall.

However, in true Berlin form, the East Side Gallery isn’t just a sad memorial of concrete slabs. Each individual slab is a canvas used to express and communicate message related to the wall, the war, hope, freedom, intercultural understanding or simply incredible graffiti art.

Berlin Wall MuralsThe heavy irony was not lost on us as we cycled back and forth between the east and west sides of Berlin everyday. We did so freely and yet, as a child in the former DDR, Dani would not have even been allowed into West Germany (she could have been shot for it) let alone would she have been cycling back and forth across it with her American girlfriend one day.

east side gallery dani and jessAnd did we ever cycle!

Berlin is such an amazing city for cycling, with countless miles of bike lanes that crisscross through neighborhoods and lead to lakes and parks far out of town, too.

We cycled 20km almost every day, past major sights like Alexandarplatz and the TV tower, through the Brandenburg Gate, along along the Wall, and through Checkpoint Charlie on our way to visit friends, test out as many international restaurants as possible or have drinks at beach bars or beer gardens.

Cycling fun in BerlinSome days we stayed in our own ‘hood, Kreuzberg, which is where Turkish immigrants stayed and settled. Today it is a bustling international area where rebel youth and Turkish grandmas co-exist, often lined up at the same shops for ethnic food, or shopping at the same Turkish market on Tuesdays and Fridays. We went here very week to stock up on fruit, veg, cheeses, breads and olives.

Maybachufer Market Berlin Kreuzberg
Maybachufer Turkish Market in Berlin Kreuzberg

Our other favorite neighborhood is Prenzlauer Berg.

This is one of those places locals love to have the gentrification conversation. Just go on a walk, and you’ll hear how ‘this was an abandoned building two years ago,’ ‘the buildings on this street were all an ugly gray until last year,’ or ‘Rents here have gone up so much since last year.’ We were just swooned by the tree-lined streets, imaginative cafes and weekly food and craft markets set up throughout P-Berg.

Berlin Prenzlauer BergEach neighborhood is distinct, with its own feel and a specific type of resident – older hippies and young families in Schöneberg, shopping in Ku’Damm, poor folk and punks in Neukölln…

Most noticeable though is how you immediately know that you have crossed from East to West Berlin – the architecture, the little green and red men on the traffic lights and the tram that exists only on the east side.

alexanderplatz at night
Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower: Iconic East Berlin. The TV Tower can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

Public transportation options abound in this city. The summer should strictly be for cycling, but in the winter, you can choose between that tram (east only) the elevated S-bahn network, the underground U-Bahn,buses, trains, taxis and there has even been a major boom in services similar to Zipcar. Over 10 companies allow you to rent cars by the hour or for the day – all for extremely low rates.

berlin subway station
Old-fashioned subway station in Berlin

So why do Germans think it is so awful?

Maybe it’s the party and club culture that takes place all night long? Clubs are open so late, you would think you are in Spain, not Germany. Some clubs never even close at all.

And let’s say that sounds appealing to you – good luck getting in. Berlin has been up-and-coming for long enough that there is a very careful curation of cool in most of them. Odds are, you’re not getting past the doorman.

Clubs post very specific signs such as ‘No American Hipsters Allowed’ out front to make sure you know where you’re not wanted.

berlin rockboot
Berlin’s Rockboot party boat

Don’t worry though – it’s not like there is nowhere else to hang out. This is a city where brunch is a meal celebrated seven days a week, and is available until 4pm so you don’t even have to get up before noon.

For more quintessential Berlin spots, there are three places that encapsulate the Berlin vibe.

The first is the Badeschiff.

There is no swimming allowed in the Spree river, so some creative types took an old wooden boat, hollowed it out and made it a pool. A pool, in a river, in the middle of the city and it’s surrounded by a beach and a bar. Entry is only 5 Euros to spend the day there, too.

badeschiff berlinThe second is Sunday Karaoke in Mauerpark, where thousands of people gather in amphitheater seating to listen to the few brave souls willing to get up and sing karaoke songs in front of the massive audience.

When you mess up, forget the words, or act awkward, the crowd doesn’t boo or hiss – they encourage you, applaud and cheer you on.

mauerpark karaoke berlinThe third is Tempelhof Airport, a pre-WWII airport closed for good in 2008.

Rather than develop this space with condos (though the fight for this was intense) the massive landspace was left as is and in 2010 officially became a city park. Today, thousands of Berliners sprawl in the fields, jog, cycle, skate or kite-board down the 5km landing strip, play mini-golf, pick vegetables at communal farm-shares or jam at concerts near the terminal buildings.

That locals would seize it and make it their own is not surprising. The fact that condo developers were kept at bay makes us think that some government officials might actually be throwing on their skinny jeans and kite-boarding, too, while their colleagues frequent the city’s opera houses or theaters, spend the night listening to the philharmonic, stroll through contemporary art museums or watch independent international films at art house cinemas.

tempelhofer freiheit berlinLet’s be clear that Berlin is as high brow as it is punk. Hell – you might even find a bar called High Brow Punk somewhere in Neukölln.

It is a city where Spanish hipsters rub elbows with pram-pushing yuppie mommies at Vietnamese restaurants, and the German busker on the corner might suddenly find himself singing a duet with the original British rockstar, out for a walk with his dog.

berlinThe city demands that you add your own flavor, not to conform to what’s already there. Speak your own language, build your own life, make it your own.

berlin kreuzberg turkish ladiesLook. If you go to Berlin, you’re going to change it. You’ll visit, pick your favorite neighborhood, and pay higher rent for an apartment for a month. Then you’ll start telling people all about how awesome Berlin is…then they’ll come, too.

It’ll be anarchy! Wait…Berlin thrives on anarchy.

berlin buildingsOkay, so you might come to Berlin.

And we can’t stop you.

We just hope that Berlin doesn’t lose the state of controlled chaos. We love it the way it is now, and the fact that we want to dissuade you makes us feel like locals already. Berlin’s not perfect. It’s gritty and green, international and easy-to-maneuver. It’s just right for our taste (except there could be an ocean…).

So if you do go to Berlin, which you really should, it’s such an awesome city – look out for us. We might just be there, too. We’ll meet in the afternoon for brunch…

berlin spree sunset

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Go Beyond… Munich: From Fairytale Castles to the Top of Germany

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To some, a visit to Munich might mean steins of beer, bratwurst and oom-pa-pa music, typical for the city’s largest and most famous party – Oktoberfest. Ask the locals, however and they will describe any number of aspects they love about Munich  – from the sprawling parks and world-class shopping to up-and-coming trendy artist neighborhoods.

There is one exciting part of Munich life that almost everyone can agree on – getting out of it.

The city’s proximity to the idyllic Alpine landscape means that the verdant foothills can be reached in less than an hour; the most extreme peaks of the Alps within two. We’re no mountain climbers and we certainly don’t ski, but, like us, everyone can enjoy the classic Bavarian villages, cheese factories, beer gardens, hiking and biking, and there is one mountain everyone is more than welcome to climb. So let’s start right at the top.

Driving into the Alps

Top of Germany – The Zugspitze

Just south of the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we drove our tiny Smart car along a road which snakes through a valley dotted by half-timbered houses and ends abruptly on the shore of an ice-blue lake, called the Eibsee. As we stared out over the sea and looked up, we spotted thousands of feet of reinforced steel cable which transport cable cars stuffed with people  2,962m or 9,718 ft up to the mountain in under ten minutes.

Zugspitze Germany

The Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany, actually sits on the Austrian/German border, and although the restaurant, beer garden and all the skiing is located on the Bavarian side, the viewing platform is split between the Bavarian side in Germany and Tyrol, Austria.

In fact, in addition to the Eibsee Cable Car, the top of the mountain can also be reached from Austrian side by the Tyrolean Zugspitze Cable Car. There is a third option to reach the top as well: The Bavarian Zugspitze Railway. The 45-minute train ride begins by chugging up and through the fresh pine forest before slicing its through the inside of the mountain. While I found it nerve-wracking to speed through three climate zones while zipping up the side of a glacier in a cable car, it was far better than the train ride back down through the dark 3-miles long tunnel, which is just a much slower, more claustrophobic method.

Bayrische Zugspitzbahn

No matter how you choose to reach the summit, make sure to dress warm, as the Zugspitze is also the meeting point of three glaciers. Whether you are skiing or just out enjoying the view of the Alps, even summer days at the top can be chilly. Of course, if you get cold, there are two restaurants, a beer garden and a Zugspitze Museum to keep you warm indoors.  While you are up at the top, make sure to get your picture taken with the Zugspitze Photostop Camera, and once you get home, you can download the picture from the website for free.

Eibsee & clouds

Out to Sea…Sternberger See

This lake, Germany’s fourth largest, sits just 27km (16 miles) outside of Munich, but its expansive blue waters dotted with sailboats, jet skis, and canoes make it feel worlds away from the bustle of the Bavarian capital. The lake is no hidden gem, but rather a popular escape for everyone from Munich socialites sipping wine in elegant lakeside restaurants (we’re pretty sure we spotted at least one German celebrity) to families hiking and biking their way around the lake’s well-paved perimeter path. We stopped off at several points along the lake by car, but the main town of Starnberg can also be reached by commuter train from Munich. Starnberg itself is an upmarket yet traditional Bavarian town with shops, restaurants and quaint homes lining narrow village roads.

Lake Starnberg dock

The Disneyland Castle – Schloss Neuschwanstein

That’s right…the famous Sleeping Beauty castle located in California’s Disneyland Park was based on this famous 19th century castle.  Neuschwanstein, which literally means ‘new swan stone’ in German, is a magnificent structure, perched neatly on hill overlooking the sprawling valley and village of Hohenschwangau near Füssen in southwest Bavaria.

Newschwanstein Castle

Commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria as his personal refuge, the reclusive king spent less than six months here in his still unfinished castle before he was captured and fell from power. The barely-lived in symbol of 19th century Romanticism was an extravagantly designed homage to classical composer Richard Wagner and also contains thousands of depictions of swans sewn into pillows, drawn into wallpaper and carved into wooden door handles and frames.

Since opening to the public immediately upon the King’s death in 1886, over 60 million people have visited the castle, making this one of Germany’s most popular tourist attractions. Ironically, the town below, where 1.3 million people per year line up for tickets, felt to us very similar to Disneyland, with traditionally-themed restaurants and hotels (with their costumed staff) lining village streets crowded with horse and carriages waiting to take visitors up to the castle, street performers and, by 10am, crowds of people heading up to visit the castle, which sees over 6,000 visitors pass through its gates each day in the summer.

Throne room Neuschwanstein

We would most certainly recommend taking part in the 35-minute guided tour of Neuschwanstein, which is the only way to see the inside of the castle, and a combo ticket will get you entry to Ludwig’s second castle, Schloss Hohenschwangau, located on the hill right next door. However, make sure to hike up and around Neuschwanstein, stopping for a picture along the Marienbrücke bridge, which affords spectacular views of the structure itself. On your way back down, opt for the path alongside the river (which flows under the bridge above). At times the path lays lazily along the wide river bank, while other times you are suspended over river rapids on steel steps bolted into the side of boulders. The path is perfectly safe, family-friendly and gets some hunger-inducing adrenaline flowing right before you arrive back in the town for lunch! If you have time, you can even hike to Austria from here. There are both long and short distance walking trails, and paths leading all the way round the Alpsee lake at the bottom of the hill.

Alpsee & Hohenschwangau view

The Allgau Alps

This mountainous region about 80km (50 miles) south west of Munich includes several traditionally Bavarian stop-offs plus fabulous hiking and biking opportunities for outdoor lovers,  but unless you’re up for a major round trip cycle, we’d suggest picking up a rental car in Munich for the day. We rented our tiny Smart car from Enterprise for just €16 ($22) per day.

Our first stop was Schloss Linderhof, the third and smallest of King Ludwig’s palaces and the only one he lived to see completed. The palace was inspired by the French palace of Versailles, and its gardens, which combine Baroque and Italian Renaissance styles, are considered one of the most beautiful creations in Europe. Close to the palace you find the village of Ettal, and its ornate 14th century Benedictine Ettal Abbey is also worth a visit.

Ettal abbey

The fresh air, sunny skies and great weather have made this part of Bavaria a popular health resort location, with Ettal located near the picturesque villages of Oberammergau and Unterammergau and countless spa towns found in this area of Southern Bavaria such as Bad Kohlgrub and Bad Tölz (don’t be fooled by their names ‘Bad’ means ‘spa’ or ‘bath’ in German). The rolling green landscape of these Alpine foothills also make for some of the best golf breaks in Germany. Egmating near Starnberg offers some of the most relaxing golf Europe has to offer, with stunning views over the Alps.

Church near Neuschwanstein

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