Monday, May 28, 2007

Karyn's Picks and Pans: Berlin

Here is a handy thing if you are ever planning to travel to Berlin. I review where we stayed, where we ate, and what we did. It helps to know my experiences with these things, right? After all, people wouldn't have need to read travel writing if it didn't help them plan their vacations.

- BaxPax Downtown Hostel/Hotel: This is a fairly new hostel that opened about a year ago and is ideally located in the Mitte, convenient to Friederichstrasse (a major public transportation station), and very close to the Spree River. Also very close to the Museum Island, where Berlin's major museums are located, and right around the corner from Unter den Linden and Orienenburgerstrasse…two major tourist areas. We had a quad room with a private bathroom. The toilet was actually in a little closet out in the hallway, which wasn't terribly convenient at night, but at least it was our private toilet. We had a shower located in the room. The quad room had a bunk bed and two singles. It was spacious and clean, but very spare and basic. Three nights cost us about $78 per person, and the service was very friendly. It was surprisingly quiet too, for as many people that were staying there. Sheets and towels cost extra (3,50 euros for the whole stay), and we had to pay a 5 euro deposit on each key card that we needed. Breakfast was an additional 4,50. It was buffet style (cereal, breads, meats, cheeses, salad, tea, coffee, juice), but since we didn't really eat much of it, I thought we could've gotten a better breakfast deal somewhere else…Berlin has about a million Dunkin' Donuts, for example. Anyway, if you want to travel cheap, this is certainly a place to consider.

- Our first night there, we ate at a German pub called Anna Koschke. I'm not quite sure where it is, except it was some side street off Orienenburgerstrasse. It's a local dive anyway, and probably not comfortable for people who don't know their way around a German menu. I liked it. They had few choices, but the girls and I ate meatballs with potato salad and pickles, and ordered a side of garlic bread. Sue had ham and asparagus baked with cheese, and a starter of potato soup with sausage, which she really loved. The food was cheap and incredibly generous and the service was excellent. There was only one guy working there, but he spoke great English and he told us about the history of the pub. We walked out of there totally stuffed, but my cousins got a great introduction to German food, which can sometimes be a scary thing for those who are not into breaded and fried things. (in German only)

* Unter den Linden - walk down this amazing street, where at one end, you are greeted with a view of Brandenburg Gate. At the other, you get to see the magnificent Berlin Dom, Opera Palace, and Humboldt University.

* Reichstag - go after dark to see views of Berlin from the glass cupola on top. Admission is free, but you will have to wait in a long line and go through security (it is the German Parliament building, after all). It's open until 10pm, but we were there just before 10 and they were letting in people later than that. Anyway, it's incredible…just don't look straight down if you have vertigo (which I do).

* Berlin Zoo - always worth seeing. Got to see Knut's first show of the day…from a distance though. And the crowds were insane. But we still got a pretty good look at him from where we were. Behold:

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I also got a very close-up look at their one remaining Giant Panda (the other one died recently), and we had a funny encounter with a King Vulture that still makes me giggle every time I think about it. He just stood there for several minutes with his wings outstretched, and he kept turning around…like he was modeling for photographs. Lori and I were in hysterics watching this.

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Berlin Zoo is the best zoo I have ever been to. The grounds are beautiful, with lovely gardens and sculptures. The buildings are unique and don't look like typical zoo buildings.

* Charlottenburg Palace - I have to admit, I was very disappointed with this. Lance and I tried to see the palace on our first trip to Berlin, and we were unable to. The insides are just fancy wallpapered and furnished rooms. It might be interesting if you've never seen a palace before. But since we have, I thought it was pretty boring…I've seen far better. The outside is nice and the gardens are worth a look. On your way there from the subway station, watch out for angry old men on bicycles…or just don't walk on the bike path.

* Maredo Restaurant - This is a German chain restaurant that you'll see in several major cities. It's Tex-Mex, I suppose, and a steakhouse. I've found tacos and quesadillas and the like to be quite disappointing in every one of these types of restaurants I've encountered in Europe (not Maredo, specifically, but any Mexican restaurant), so I stuck to a basic grilled chicken with fries and sangria. Adequate and not too expensive…not mind-blowing. The service was good, and the restaurant seems to be fairly popular. We ate at the one at Potsdamer Platz, but I saw another one at Unter den Linden. We all had the chicken fuego, which was tender and juicy…but again, nothing special.

* Wintergarten Cabaret - Very very much a tourist trap, but so incredibly awesome! The show we saw, Rizoma, is only playing for a limited time, but it was very similar to what I've seen in Cirque du Soleil. And the soundtrack for the show was AWESOME. Dude, a contortionist performed to Portishead. You can't get much cooler than that. They had a photographer there to take our picture when we came in…the souvenir photo was 5 euros. It was a great photo, so I bought it. They do offer food there, but it's seriously overpriced. The drinks are also incredibly expensive. But order something while you're there, even if it's just a beer and nachos or something. The food looked really good, but I'm glad we ate elsewhere before the show. We were given postcards of the show during intermission, which we could send to anyone anywhere in the world at their expense. I sent one to myself, with a reminder to remember that evening always. Also, we wore jeans, but most people there will be dressed up. But even if you come as you are, they are incredibly friendly and warm to you. Cabaret is a huge part of Berlin's history, so it's really one of those things you have to do to get the whole Berlin experience. My cousins said this was probably their favorite thing about Berlin (aside from the Pergamon Museum...more on that later).

* East Side Gallery - If you're going to see any part of the Berlin Wall, this would be the part to see. It's a bit out of the way, but it's the longest and most artistic part of the wall. The art is really amazing. As for the other wall-related sites…skip them. Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist trap and totally not worth your time. If you decide to go, skip the museum and just check out the bustling crowds on the outside. It's mildly interesting. There is also the Topographie des Terrors exhibit - about the Nazi movement in Berlin - but my cousins seemed rather bored. I had already seen it once, so I wasn't that interested. It's mostly in German, anyway.

* Pomme de Terre (Arkaden, Potzdamer Platz) - AVOID THIS PLACE LIKE THE PLAGUE! It's in the shopping mall in Potsdamer Platz, so it's a typical food court type of place, except they, theoretically, are supposed to be full-service. I say theoretically, because we sat at our table…and waited…and waited…and waited. We were ignored. And the woman who was seated after us was nearly done eating by the time they even came to take our order (we didn't leave because Sue was engrossed in journal writing once we sat down, and far be it from me to interrupt that). This place specializes in German potato pancakes, but you can also get boiled potatoes or baked potatoes with various toppings. The food was okay. But because of the rotten service, you want to stay away. My three travel companions got their food finally…and they had entirely forgotten mine. So they were nearly done eating by the time I even got my food. And then they forgot to give us the check! We put money on the table and left. It should not take 2 hours to eat at a place that's supposedly fast food. Our service was so bad that a nice woman who had been dining alone grabbed the waitress's attention and chewed her out on our behalf. If you want potato pancakes, find somewhere else to go. Far and away, the worst (non)service we got on this trip.

* Berliner Dom - Very pretty on the inside, but I was more interested in the sarcophagi - particularly those of Sophie Charlotte (of Charlottenburg Palace fame) and her husband. The crypt is nice and creepy.

* Operncafe - I wrote about this place in my Berlin travel guide (for, and since we were waiting for 6 pm to roll around in order to get into the museums for free, I thought we should try it, since it was very close to Museum Island (you'll find it at the Opera Palace, across the street from Humboldt University). This café's claim to fame is its cake buffet. Germans have "kaffee und kuchen" - coffee and cake - think of it kind of like the late afternoon British tea. Operncafe has at least 100 kinds of cakes. If your brain doesn't explode from all the choices, you tell your selection to the waiter, who will then serve you. All four of us had something different, but we tasted each other's cakes. I had the Sacher Torte (chocolate cake with a layer of apricot filling), which was everyone's favorite. The cakes don't taste quite as sweet as they look, but they are still delicious, and the atmosphere of the café is great…it's very elegant (except for the 80's pop that was playing, which seemed contradictory to the ambience…we were in an opera palace, after all).

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket Mmmmmmmmm...cake!

* Museum Island - If you want to see the museums here, wait until after 6 pm on Thursdays, when admission is free. We went to two: the Alte Nationalgalerie, which my artist aunt and former art major cousin didn't particularly like (sorry, German painters), and the Pergamon Museum. If you see no other museum in Berlin, you MUST SEE THIS ONE! We were blown away by the sheer size and scale of the exhibits in there. It's Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern antiquities that have nothing to do with German culture, but there is no other place on earth where you can see this stuff. I hear the Bode Museum is also very good, but we were done once we left the Pergamon...we just wanted to find a place to eat dinner and then go back to the hostel to relax.

* Fuoco - This Italian place on Orienenburgerstrasse was just picked at random. We were in the mood for pizza, so we went to the first place we could find that had it. I was surprised how long it took us to find an Italian restaurant...there were so many Indian and Thai places on that street. Anyway, I liked it. They brought out some munchies with our olives and I think bread (don't quote me on that...we ate at SO MANY places). The prices were good. The food was pretty typical of any Italian place you go to here in Germany. The service was nice. What I really liked were the cushy black leather seats we sank into at our tables...perfectly relaxing after such a long day. What really impressed Sue, I guess, were the Turkish water pipes that people kept smoking there. They had hookahs on the menu, with various flavors of tobacco, and we seemed to be the only ones not smoking one. The restaurant filled up with the aroma of weirdly scented tobaccos, but it was actually more tolerable than cigarette smoke. Anyway, I liked the ambience of the was really warm and dark.

Okay, more later. Subsequent posts will be shorter, because the rest of our trips were only day trips.

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