Berlin is not for the faint of heart. There is no shying away from 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 and the former East Germany felt mysterious to me. I couldn’t travel there as a child, and we heard stories about the horrible things that happened along the wall.
Now back in Germany, Berlin moved to the top of my “must-see” list. During our kids’ fall break, we drove the five hours to Berlin. This trip, less of a vacation than others, was emotionally draining with Nazi history, concentration camps, and communism. By day three, we sought out happier things, like parks, the zoo, and mini golf.
Where to Start? A Walking Tour
When we travel, we always begin each city with a walking tour. With most you’ll cover a few miles, which means kids will get some exercise for the day. The free ones are nice because we pay at the end based on our tour guide. The Sandeman’s tour in Berlin is a good one. (We also took one in Paris, Scotland, and Barcelona.) Funny and informative, our guide covered most of downtown Berlin, and even made a nice stop halfway through at a cafe for hot chocolate and a bathroom break. These tours give provide a good overview of the main city centers with history, culture, restaurant recommendations, and local flair.
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.
Germany Historical Museum
If your teens are studying World War II 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 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.”
Topography of Terror
During our walking tour, we briefly stopped at the Topography of Terror exhibit along the Berlin Wall on Niederkirchnerstraße – which marked the border between the districts of Mitte (East Berlin) and Kreuzberg (West Berlin). Both an indoor and outdoor exhibit, it walks through some interesting perspectives into the Third Reich. After the tour, I really wanted to loop back here. The boys were only mildly interested, but us girls went through and read most of the exhibit. 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 the third day, we booked a tour with the Berlin Underground. They offer a variety of tours through bunkers (with glow in the dark paint, toilets, bunks) and show you how people dug under the wall, a different perspective on Berlin that’s great for older kids.
Tickets can only be purchased through their ticket office, and I recommend booking in advance by an hour or so. The location, not located in the main city, is across the street from a nice park and the Humbolthain Flak Tower. A note for history buffs: Our tour (the Dark Worlds) provided a basic history of Nazi Germany, great for people who haven’t learned it, but may be a bit repetitive for those who are well versed in this area.
The walking tour guide recommended Sachsenhausen as day trip, but since we had already stopped at a concentration camp on the way to Berlin, we passed.
We stopped in Mittelbau-Dora in Nordhausen. The labors from this work camp, one of the later ones, made the V-2 rocket. The tour, only in German, takes 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.
The Wall and Communism
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.
Lucky for us, we just happened to visit during the week of German Reunification Day, including a three-day festival in front of the Brandenburg gate with a path naming 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.
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
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, and 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. The store houses a lovely cafe with snacks and beverages, and an opportunity for an hour-long chocolate workshop (but book ahead of time) for kids up to age 18. 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 cold and rainy weather, we ducked in to see everything from elephants, pandas, gorillas, monkeys, foxes, polar bears, seals, rhinos. A full-on zoo in the middle of the city surrounded by office buildings, is 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.
All other photos ©Linda Kerr, TravelTeening