I arrived in Berlin solo on Saturday afternoon after traveling all night on a fully packed and airless 747, during which I remained awake and eagle eyed merely inches from my seat mate who was a ringer for Gary Coleman, but that’s neither here nor there.
I was a jet-lagged zombie on my first day in town, but had a short weekend to explore before my scheduled departure for Hamburg Sunday afternoon and wanted to make the most of it. As I was feebly showing myself the sights in Mitte near my hotel, I asked a couple of traveling Americans to take a photo for me, and they turned out to be those extra vigilant people who take enough shots that you’ll be sure to be happy with at least one, and who actually pay attention to lighting and framing (the best kind of people). They also told me about this free tour I really ought to pick up the next day at 11 a.m. from the Starbucks next to the Brandenburg Gate to make the best use of my short time in town. A fortuitous meeting, as it turns out!
Now, at this point in my life, I have enough ducats (euros, as the case may be) that I don’t necessarily have to select a tour just because it’s free, and I’m wary about anything alleged to be great that allegedly happens at Starbucks. But they seemed pretty sure.
The next day I took myself to the meeting point at 10:30, and sure enough easily found a large group gathering for the free Berlin tours offered in multiple languages. All that was asked was that you sign a sheet and tell them how you learned of the tour. I joined the English-speaking group and we got going.
For June, it was unseasonably chilly and raining (generally not my thing, but frankly completely fine and appropriate for a day of seeing sights with somber histories). I immediately met two British film editors, one living in town working on a Clooney movie and the other visiting her, and we spent the hours walking and talking together and I hardly felt solo.
The tour began with a stop and historic overview at the Brandenburg Gate (above), which by the way, is directly adjacent to the Adlon hotel, also known as the place where Micheal Jackson dangled the baby over the balcony. Our American tour guide was a great history buff, and an impassioned one at that.
We moved next to the Holocaust Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Hitler’s bunker, the relics of the Berlin Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie.
At some point we stopped at a coffee shop for a bathroom and caffeine break, also an obligatory chance to buy something — a little reciprocal kickback arrangement I find happens on basically every tour all over the world, no matter what you pay for it.
The tour then continued to the book-burning memorial at Bebelplatz and several other sights before wrapping up at the impressive Museum Island.
When everything concluded, I said goodbye to my editor friends. All told, it was a perfect opportunity to see all the high points of the city I had such a short time to explore.
If I have one piece of advice for first-time visitors to Berlin, it’s to check out this great tour, hardly undiscovered though none less excellent for it.
Afterward, I wasn’t going to necessarily go inside the Pergamon museum, but I had to evacuate my peppermint tea so badly that 14 euros would have been a bargain for the chance to do so. So glad I went inside: the Pergamon Altar is spectacular and alone worth the price of admission.
I inhaled a truly delicious Vietnamese lunch (oops, wrong local cuisine) on my way to catch the train to Hamburg. I lingered a little bit too long and found myself at the train station without enough time to print my pre-purchased ticket at the kiosk before boarding — but I knew someone would be waiting for me in Hamburg Central Station at the appointed time and didn’t want to risk missing her, so I boarded the train without a printed ticket minutes before it took off and figured I’d put on my best distressed damsel act (I do this not infrequently, so I know it tends to work — it even got me into Coachella once after traffic forced me to miss press ticket pickup) and pay a fine if need be.
Sure enough, the ticket taker came around, and I explained my story (“I couldn’t understand how to print my ticket,” not “I ran out of time to print my ticket because I didn’t budget time properly, which is not something you would appreciate, given your own cultural predisposition toward efficiency.”) She took my passport number and told me that I’d receive a 7 euro fine in the mail if the booking number I gave her was valid. (It was.) If not, it would be 152 euros. Of course, when you give someone your passport, you do feel a little like an international criminal. Haven’t you ever seen Locked Up Abroad?
But so it goes. A mere 7 euros — or even 150+ — is a small price to pay for a terrific Sunday well spent in rich Berlin.