|Gendarmenmarkt, the prettiest square in Berlin (photo: Visit Berlin)|
But the best reason to see Berlin by bicycle is because that’s how Berliners see it. This is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Europe and there are bicycles everywhere: riding side-by-side with cars and trolleys on the main thoroughfares, bouncing on the cobblestone backstreets of Mitte and zipping along on bike paths that line the Spree River – the heart and soul of Berlin.
There are great parks, wonderful tree-lined shopping boulevards, amazing architecture, and everywhere, history. This city is fixated on its history, and no wonder. The events that led to World War II in Europe all started in Berlin. By the time the war came back and ended in Berlin in April 1945, one seventh of the world had seen fighting, 60 million people were dead, 50 million injured, and 80,000 towns and cities had been destroyed.
Among the destroyed cities was Berlin. More bombs were dropped on Berlin than any other city in World War II. Some 612,000 homes and one fifth of all buildings were destroyed. An army of 900,000 Russian soldiers eventually took the city, but by that time, one million people had been killed in the Battle for Berlin, including 125,000 civilians. And the horror was not over a long shot. In the vast sea of rubble that had been a city, the conquering soldiers of the Russian army raped 110,000 Berlin women.
|Russians capture Berlin|
With the war’s end, Berlin’s nightmare kept going. Ahead were occupation and the Berlin Wall, which for 28 years ran a twisting 96-miles through the center of the city, cutting apart families and friends. No city can match a history like this, and there are museums, historic markers, and old bits of the wall, books and posters everywhere to remind you.
Orientation & Bike Rentals
One of the least expensive and easiest places to stay is by the Zoo and beautiful Tiergarten Park. The central train station used to be here, but a new station has made this area kind of a backwater – it’s still easy to get connections everywhere, but much cheaper to stay here. There is direct bus service or S-Bhan service from the airports for 2 Euros (booths at the airport with English speaking guides will sell you the tickets and tell you where to catch the bus or train).
|Brandenburger Tor (gate) credit: Visit Berlin|
Lots of inexpensive hotels are in the Zoo area along Kurfurstendamm (Ku’damm for short), which is one of Berlin’s main, tree-lined shopping boulevards. We booked the pleasant enough Hotel Boulevard am Kurfuerstendamm (with a rooftop bier garden) through Expedia for $65 Euros. http://hotel-boulevard-berlin.h-rzn.com/?lbl=ggl
Fat Tire Bike Tours also has an outlet at the Zoo station (and at Alexanderplatz). They rent big, comfortable cruiser bikes, useful for hopping tram lines. You can take one of their organized bike tours of the city or just rent a bike and go off on your own for 12 Euros a day. www.FatTireBikeTours.com/berlin
Around the Zoo: Walking Ku’damm
|Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church|
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church hovers over Ku’damm as a grim reminder of the War. The tower was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, but the ruins were left standing as a memorial. Photos in the museum show the sheer, utter destruction of Berlin, making it all the more unbelievable when you exit on to the same street now and see it filled with cafes and handsome people busy shopping and living well.
Biking Berlin from the Zoo
Hop on a bike at the zoo station and it’s a pleasant three-mile ride along the Spree to Schloss Charlottenburg. Built in 1695, this is one of the major palaces of Europe and a one-time home of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a name that will pop up all over Berlin. It was this Frederick who made the city one of the grandest on the Continent. There are better palaces in nearby Potsdam, but the grounds, gardens and lakes here are lovely to bike around.
|German History Museum|
Along the way are the impressive gates to Humboldt University (Albert Einstein was educated here) and the fantastic German History Museum, a must stop for anyone interested in the rise of Nazi Germany, World War II and the Berlin Wall. The museum covers all German history, so there are suits of armor and Napoleon’s hat (captured at one of one of the many Prussian battles with France) but the mesmerizing exhibits are on how the Nazis came to power. Not to be frivolous, but beer played a role. One of the great attractions of the big mass Nazi rallies was free beer and sausages. About a third of the exhibits have English translations, which is enough to follow the story.
|Alte Museum on Museum Island|
|Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site|
Berlin After Dark
|Mitte outdoor cafe|
Most people would see Berlin on a trip around Germany or on a triangle trip with Prague, Vienna or Budapest…all of which are easily accessible by train in a few hours. It certainly ranks with those cities in interest, especially if you’re fascinated by 20th Century history. Another option is to stop in Dresden, a mini-Prague-like city just two hours away, (halfway to Prague) that was also destroyed in World War II and has been rebuilt into amazing destination.
Berlin’s most popular day-trip is Potsdam (a half hour train trip: buy the A, B and C daily transit pass and you can travel there by train or slower tram). In the main station of Potsdam, exit towards the river, turn right and 200 yards down there is a bike rental shop. They’ll give you a map that guides you to one incredible 20 km bike ride past palaces, fountains, gardens and tree-lined lanes of Sanssouci. You’ll also bike to a wonderful pedestrian town of cafes and shops, on to the famous site where Truman, Stalin and Churchill decided the fate of Europe after WWII, over the “spy bridge” where East and West Germany often exchanged prisoners, and along a lakeshore to palaces turned into beirgardens.
|A palace in the great park of Sanssouci|
|Potsdam at twilight|
IF YOU GO: www.visitberlin.de/en