Berlin is not for the faint of heart. There is no shying away the grim and tumultuous history this city has faced in the past 100 years.
Having spent four years in Munich during the early 1980s, Berlin was a mysterious place to me as was former East Germany. We couldn’t travel there when I was a child, and there were stories about the horrible things that happened along the wall.
So this was my trip. I won’t call it a vacation because by day three, we were all emotionally drained by Nazis, concentration camps, and communism and so we had to seek out happier things, like the zoo, which is the oldest in Germany.
Where to Start?
As you’ll discover, my family always begins each city with a walking tour. The free ones are nice because you pay at the end based on how your tour guide did. The Sandeman’s tour in Berlin was a good one. Our guide was funny, informative, and even made a nice pit stop at a cafe halfway through which was a bonus for my kids–hot chocolate and a bathroom break. These tours give you a reasonable overview of the main city centers with history, culture, restaurant recommendations (if you want them), and local flair.
I cannot recommend enough starting each city with a walking tour. With many you’ll cover a few miles, which means kids will get some exercise for the day. I also have a personal goal of walking ten miles daily when we’re on vacation–that way the vacation food and drink are burned off.
You may even cover enough ground to check things like memorials, famous statues, or locations (like the Berlin book burning site/memorial) you might otherwise have to seek out off your list.
World War II, Hitler, and Nazis
It’s all here in Berlin, and if your teens are studying this in school then you have nicely added to their educational experience. An unexpected find for us was the German Historical Museum, which walks you through everything (and I mean everything) from the beginning of Germany. You could spend hours upon hours here. Everything is in English and German and I was surprised how interested the kids were. They didn’t like everything, but when kids are free up to 18 then I’m not bothered if they decide to bypass parts of history that are “boring.”
We had been told Sachsenhausen was a definite day trip to take, but since we had already stopped at a concentration camp on the way in, we were all too moved and thought another one might be too much for the crew. We stopped in Mittelbau-Dora in Nordhausen. This work camp, one of the later ones, is where they made the V-2 rocket. The tour was in German, and fortunately my husband was able to translate, but if you pass through here and can manage the German, I would recommend the stop. They will take you through the tunnels where workers from everywhere spent day and night building rockets. The camp has a fascinating, if evil, history. The Germans developed the V-2 rocket (the basic technology of which almost every subsequent space rocket and ICBM was based off of) up in Peenemunde in the north of Germany. But Peenemunde was vulnerable to allied bombing, so the Germans developed a subterranean slave labor camp under a huge hill. . .that’s Mittel-Dora. There’s still pieces of V-2s and gantry cranes you can see; crazy to think of building high-tech weapons in the dark and cold with slave labor.
During our walking tour, we briefly stopped at the Topography of Terror exhibit along the Berlin Wall. It is both an indoor and outdoor exhibit that will take you through some interesting perspectives into the Third Reich. I really wanted to loop back here. The boys were only mildly interested, but us girls went through and read most of the exhibit….do make sure you start at the correct spot. We went in reverse order and didn’t realize until halfway through. If you have teens interested in this period, I would allow for about an hour. It is free.
On day 3, we booked a tour with the Berlin Underground tours. They offer a variety of tours that take you through bunkers (with glow in the dark paint, toilets, bunks, ) and show you how people dug under the wall. You must book in advance, but I thought it really showed a different perspective to Berlin. One cautionary note–on all of our tours they provided a basic history of Nazi Germany which is great for people who haven’t learned it, but a bit repetitive for those who have read up.
The Wall and Communism
Lucky for us, we just happened to visit during the week of German Reunification Day. There was a three-day festival in front of the Brandenburg gate including a walkway with the name every city in Germany. Each state was represented with a different tent, and of course, Bavaria was the most popular with its mini Oktoberfest. We went before things really got going, and the rainy weather kept many away, which meant my kids got to climb the rock wall, throw a javelin, and learn the tango all without a queue.
Berlin has so many museums that you simply cannot get to them in a week so it’s important to pick and choose what’s important and realize that for teenagers (and adults, too) more than one a day may be one too many.
Before we got to Berlin, we watched two movies: Night Crossing and Busting the Berlin Wall. The former is from when I was kid and I remember it vividly. It’s by no means a cinematic masterpiece, but it tells the story well of one family using a hot air balloon to get from East to West Germany. The latter documentary does a wonderful job giving the history of the wall and how things changed over the course of several decades.
These movies made seeing the Wall come alive. To see places where you could throw a ball from one window a building to the other but couldn’t get there was more meaningful, I think, after seeing the movies. The East Side Gallery is definitely worth seeing. This 1.3 km stretch of the wall is decorated by various artists with many different political statements. Depending on your teens, you may get some interesting conversation going over what you do see there.
Ampelmann: A Berlin Icon
This is one story worth reading. As you walk through the streets of Berlin, you will a few different pedestrian signals. Don’t discount them. This little green man know as the Amplemann has become an icon for Berlin. He was originally designed for East Berlin traffic lights. You can see a difference in the street signs in West vs. East Berlin, for the most part. Once we figured out the dividing line for East vs. West Berlin, the kids had fun testing to see if the traffic lights were true to their correct “side.” That remained fun for about two days.
Rittersport: It’s Good to Be Square
Our family loves Rittersport. We were delighted to find out, from a previous visit to Berlin, that the Rittersport Museum and flagship store are in the heart of Berlin. Kids can make their own chocolate creations, shop at chocolate shop (don’t miss the 1 kilo bag of squares for around 8 Euros), and learn about the history of the brand. There is a lovely cafe with snacks and beverages. There is even an hour-long chocolate workshop available (but book ahead of time) for kids up to age 18 which they will translate into English, if needed. If you do the workshop, kids will make two bars of chocolate and decorate the wrapper, which are perfect for souvenirs or gifts.
Just a Barrel of Monkeys
After several days of communism and World War II, we all needed something a little “lighter” to round out the vacation. The Berlin Zoo is the oldest in Germany and situated in the central Tiergarten. I tend not to be a zoo person, but my kids love animals and for the price (love the family ticket deals), it was worth the trip. Even in the bad weather, there were plenty of places to duck in to see everything from elephants, pandas, gorillas, monkeys, foxes, polar bears, seals, rhinos. It was a full-on zoo in the middle of the city surrounded by office buildings, with a lovely place to stop for lunch or a snack.
Worst: Our flat in Berlin was pretty bad. We had been informed that it was nice, and in the fancy, hip area of town. That was dead wrong. We were only in the fancy, hip area based on official boundaries alone, the neighborhood was seedy, and we had to walk 15, 30 minutes to feel that we were in an area we actually wanted to be. Of all the places we have stayed, it has been by far the worst.
Unexpected: A pleasant surprise we discovered was the rather extensive festival branching off from the Brandenburg Gate celebrating German Unity Day. I got to climb a rock wall, and visit the cool booths set up by all kinds of organizations. They were ones set up by the military, Deutches Rotes Kreuz, dancing schools, parkour gyms, and more. This reminded me of a popular local festival from America, and I enjoyed experiencing a larger scale, German equivalent.