Discovering Berlin with kids
There are not many cities that make you feel energized as you walk through their streets. Berlin does this to me, and much more. I have explored it in three very different moments over the last two decades. My first trip was as a young backpacker in 1992. The wall was mostly still up and East and West still had a very disjointed transportation system. I went back for work in 1999 and found the wall gone and a city in the midst of a renaissance, though I did not have much time to take it all in between one conference room and the next. This past Christmas I was once again headed to Berlin, this time with the family.
I did not know what to expect from Berlin, but, oddly, I had butterflies in my stomach from the anticipation. The same exact feeling I had as a teenager and flying to Rome for the summer holidays knowing that I would soon see that cute girl I had a crush on from my previous visit. I can’t quite tell you why, but I have always had a thing for Berlin.
We survived the flight with the kids with only on incident of OJ spilling all over the youngest. Luckily he was sitting with his aunt so she got most of the sobbing and whining. The ride to our hotel was uneventful, but gave us a glimpse of that incredible mix of architecture that makes me love Berlin so much. The Novotel itself is what travelling families should always hope to find and stay in. The courteous staff was always helpful and helped get off on the right foot with a little gift for each of our boys at check in.
The first order of business was to head out to one of the many Christmas markets that dot the city during the holiday season. We settled on Alexanderplatz and started to walk over enjoying the Ampelmann traffic lights which were the first Ostalgie (a play on the words for East – Ost – and nostalgia – nostalgie; said of objects and symbols of the Cold War) mementos the kids encountered and gave us the opportunity to attempt an explanation of a divided Berlin, more or less successfully. The Christmas market was packed as was to be expected on Christmas Day. We spent most our time browsing the stands and eating. Memorable for me was the cored baked apple slathered in butter and vanilla sauce with a hefty sprinkling of almond shavings and cinnamon, accompanied (as the locals taught us) with glühwine (mulled wine). The kids in the meantime took full advantage of the presence of their aunt and uncle to ride the giant ferris wheel and take numerous whirls on the carousel while eating all of the gingerbread they could get their hands on.
The next order of business was, of course, planning dinner. On our way over to Alexanderplatz earlier in the day we had walked by Nikolaikirche and into Zur Gerichtslaube restaurant to ask if they had a spot for lunch, but that was asking a bit much considering it was Christmas Day. We were determined to have at least one meal in what looked like a very cozy and local restaurant. Arriving “late” by German standards we found a table and sat down to a delicious meal of blood sausages, roasted pork, liverwurst and all the trimmings: sauerkraut, potato pancakes, red cabbage and leek-bacon-dumplings. The evening ended with a nightcap at the hotel while the kids played in the lobby that is well equipped to entertain the kids for hours!
The main mission of the trip to Berlin was to bring the kids to LEGOLAND Discovery Centre. Our second day started early with a trip to the Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz where our kids realized their dream of running rampant through a world of Lego this and Lego that. Although, the center itself is not very big, the exploration center at the end is just fantastic. How to labs on building and creating, “earthquake” tests, ninja training and so much more kept the kids (and admittedly the adults) enthralled for half of the day. The kid’s favorite part was the race and stunt center for Lego cars they got to build and test themselves.
It was very hard to leave, but we could not stay the entire day inside and so we had a quick lunch at the Lindenbräu brewery where we ordered every type of sausage we could find on the menu, of course. The brewpub itself has some great views of the impressive Sony Center that was built after the fall of the Berlin wall and completed in 2000. We reenergized and got ready for our afternoon walk that started at Potsdamer Platz where we showed the kids a few pieces of the Berlin wall and then headed towards the Brandenburg Gate. On our way we passed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that was constructed after my last visit to the capital. We decided that our kids are too young to fully grasp the magnitude and scale of the Holocaust so the discussion has been saved for a later date when they can fully understand what happened. I observed this incredible memorial and could not help but appreciate its austerity and at the same time watch my kids run through the maze-like structure making it ring out with joy and laughter as they chased each other and played hide-and–go-seek. At first I tried to hush them and keep them from running around, but at the same time the contrast of innocent joy and devastating sadness was not lost on me and I could not discourage them from bringing hope to such an important reminder of what atrocities the human race is capable of committing.
I had not been back to the Brandenburg gate in many years and as they assembled the stage for the upcoming New Year’s Eve celebrations I looked around to see how much Berlin has changed over the last decades. I love the vibe this city exudes, there is something electric about it and there is only one other city that I know that is so vibrant: NYC. The other part of Berlin that I have fallen in love with is the mix of architecture. I am not an architect and so my observations are of a personal aesthetic nature, but I think most people will agree that there is quite an eclectic representation of design and architecture in Berlin ranging from baroque to Bauhaus. In this sense I am reminded of Chicago that is another of my favorites in terms of architectural mélange.
Returning to our hotel we meandered down Friedrichstraße and then cut through Gendarmenmarkt since we had not had our fill of Christmas Markets. The show they were putting on when we arrived was a wonderful Cage Aux Folles-like reenactment of Swan Lake and Cinderella which was great fun for the kids and allowed me to sneak off with my brother- and sister-in-law to a stand they had discovered the year before where a gentlemen make letterpress business cards as you waited. The day had tuckered everyone out and so we headed back to the hotel for some R&R and we helped the kids write about their adventures in their journals.
The Berlin Zoo and Aquarium were next on our must-see-with the kids and we got to the famous Chinese Gates early to see as much of it as possible before the kids conked out on us. The zoo is extensive and allows you to see a wonderful range of animals. The housing itself was quite particular and most of it was clearly inspired by the regions of the world that each animal represents. We also were finally able to taste the famous Currywurst for lunch and the kids then took full advantage of the enormous playground in the middle of the zoo. The aquarium was also a treat. The shark tank, of course, was the most popular with the kids, as was the reptile exhibit with its snakes and crocodiles.
The kids were, as expected, exhausted, but luckily they still had some energy to walk through the Tier Garten and back to Potsdamer Platz where we caught one of the Christmas shows in the atrium of the Sony Center before taking the U-bahn back to the hotel.
Our last full day came to a close with a very intimate dinner at Ephraim’s that was sumptuous, filling and quite satisfying. Throughout the dinner our waitress was very kind and attentive, but our communication was difficult and tortuous. I tried English and then my basic German, but to no avail. Despite the language barrier (and not only apparently) we were able to order and get everything we asked for so some way or other we communicated.
Our last morning in Berlin started with a classic breakfast of “Berliner” and coffee as we walked the Museum District that is under heavy construction and renovation along Unter der Linden, an impressive boulevard leading from Alexanderplatz to the Brandenburg Gate. We did not have time to check any of the exhibits, but the kids were still able to get their work out running around in front of the various museums and along the broad sidewalks. We then found ourselves in one of the most marvelous bookstores I have ever seen (with the exception of Powell’s in Portland which I suspect cannot be beat!): Dussman. I confess that the amount of stationery in the bookstore probably skews my view to “extremely favorable”. The kid’s section with it window seating and a mix of stark modern and cozy classic make it hard to leave.
Unfortunately, it was time to leave and very reluctantly we caught a cab to the airport. We promised ourselves that next time will be for a bit longer because there is so much to see in Berlin that more time is needed.