Category Archives: berlin

Prague Part 1: The Worst Train Ride Ever

In America, where high speed rail is more of a pipe dream than anything else, I’m used to people gushing over the European rail system. And up until now, I had no complaints. I’ve enjoyed the train from Paris to Brussels, through Holland, and through Spain. But the train ride from Berlin to Prague was a rude awakening.

The standard comfortable train car has two rows of two seats each on either side of the train with an aisle down the middle. Comfort level may range from how cushy the seats are to how much legroom you have, but at a minimum, you only have one person next to you. The Berlin-Prague train featured mini compartments with SIX seats jammed together, with three seats facing the other three. Leg room was non-existent.

Oh my God. As soon as I saw our seats, my heart sank. I had high hopes for sleeping/doing work on the four and a half hour ride. Instead, we spent the ride smushed together with four strangers, thinking: Are we there yet? Are we there yet? ARE WE THERE YET?

Pictures from Seat 61

I blame myself for not researching the train ride more, though it never even occurred to me that any long-distance European train would be anything other than the standard two-by-two layout. Had I known what we were dealing with, I would have happily paid extra for first class seats and saved ourselves the four-and-a-half hours in train hell.

The moral of this story: Always check what kind of train you are getting.

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Berlin Part 8: Review – Hilton Berlin

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter
Berlin Part 6: Museum Island
Berlin Part 7: View From Above

I picked the Hilton Berlin for two reasons: 1) Location and 2) my Hilton diamond status.

The Positives:

  • Location: Centrally located in Mitte, we were walking distance to most major sites. Berlin is huge, but our location just south of Unter den Linden meant we could easily get to Potsdammer Platz, Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, the Jewish Quarter, the Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie, etc. all under 30 minutes. There is also a subway stop right at the corner.
  • Pretty Hotel: It’s a pretty hotel with nicely appointed rooms and modern interiors.


  • The lounge/breakfast: As a Diamond member, we had access to the Lounge which provided breakfast, snacks, drinks, and evening appetizers. We also were able to get breakfast in the main dining room (more tourists, but much bigger spread). Most importantly, I had ongoing access to free diet cokes throughout our stay.


  • Price: Berlin in general is fairly cheap. I booked five nights for 139,000 points in the off-season. That comes out to approximately 28,000 points a night for hotel in the middle of a major European city!
  • Wifi: Wifi worked well in the room (especially compared to our next hotel).

The Negatives:

  • Upgrade: As a diamond member, I have received some substantial upgrades in the past (I’m still dreaming about the suite in Barcelona). I pointed out that there were plenty of suites available in the hotel, but they argued that someone could still book those rooms over the course of our five night stay. They “upgraded” us to a room with a view of the Dom across the street. The room itself was fine, but the upgrade was disappointing.

As you can see, I was pretty happy with our stay at Hilton Berlin.


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Berlin Part 7: View From Above

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter
Berlin Part 6: Museum Island

After Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag is one of the most famous buildings in Berlin. It is also a symbol of Berlin as a city: The modern mixing with the old, one foot in the future and one foot into its tumultuous past.

The Reichstag was badly burned in 1933, and left to die on the ash heap of history during Communist control of East Berlin. With the reunification of Berlin, architect Norman Foster designed a gleaming domed rooftop for the home of the German government.

Tours of the dome are free, but require booking in advance online. We planned for an early morning visit, and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of blue sky that morning.


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Berlin Part 6: Museum Island

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget
Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter

While M museum hopped, managing to hit all five museums on Museum Island in two days, I wandered and took photos. I joined M for a trip to the top of Dom Berlin and found a great place to nap in the Bode Museum – but that’s about as much as my patience could stand.  Needless to say, M had a great time on the inside, and I had a great time on the outside.


The Dom Cathedral reflected in a puddle.

***IMG_3576The Dom Cathedral is certainly impressive.

**IMG_3615**IMG_3623**IMG_3636And the views of Berlin are awesome!

**IMG_3722**IMG_3731**IMG_3763**IMG_3764**IMG_3777**IMG_3833**IMG_3883**IMG_3972*IMG_3818***IMG_3964I stepped inside the Bode to meet up with M. The lobby is very beautiful. And the beanbags in the children’s room is extremely comfortable!


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Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget

We’ve gotten our vacation division of labor down to a science. M spends hours in museums. I spend hours doing anything but spend hours in museums. So far, it’s working outs splendidly for us.

That’s how I found myself wandering around Berlin’s Jewish quarter one evening. East of Museum Island on the other side of the Spree River, the neighborhood is a hodgepodge of hip restaurants and shops, important Jewish sites, small galleries and residential housing.

Today, this area is home to two Jewish synagogues, a couple of Jewish restaurants, the remains of the old Jewish cemetery, and the ever-present stumbling stones that remind us of the people who use to walk these streets.

As I walked down Rosenthaler Strauss, I popped into what Berlin calls Berliner Hinterhöfe” or backyards.” This one in particular – Hause Schwarzenberg –  is home to two small museums, one dedicated to Anne Frank and one to Otto Weidt – the owner of a workshop for the blind and deaf who fought to protect his Jewish workers. It is also filled with interesting street art.


Another “backyard” with awesome architecture.

**IMG_4035I made my way to the old Jewish cemetery. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the area was crowded with thousands of Jewish graves, but in 1943, it was destroyed by the Gestapo. Today, there are few relics and a gravestone memorializing Moses Mendelssohn  (it is not the original).

**IMG_4672**IMG_4681**IMG_4704***IMG_4742***IMG_4713Finally, I made my way to the New Synagogue. Built in 1865, it was largely destroyed during World War II. After the war, the community rebuilt the synagogue to look like the original. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tour the interior because it was closed for renovation.


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Berlin Part 4: Never Forget

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall

It’s impossible to go to Berlin and not contend with the gruesome history of the Third Reich. Berlin makes a valiant effort of telling that story and memorializing its victims. There are many important sites to see to make sure we “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust. Some are major tourists sites; others are less well known and barely noticeable. We didn’t get to all of them, but managed to spend time seeing a couple of important ones.

On our first day in Berlin, we visited the Topography of Terror on the site of the former Gestapo. You can walk along a piece of the Berlin Wall and the remains of the Gestapo’s external basement wall.


Once inside, the first floor hosts a detailed history of Hitler’s Third Reich, told primarily through photographs and text. Many of the photos are chilling.

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Another important site is the Jewish Museum of Berlin that tells the story of Jewish history in Germany throughout the centuries.

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Not far from Brandenburg Gate, you’ll find the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sobering construction designed by architect Peter Eisenman.

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Finally, we took the S-Bahn to the Grunewald subway stop to tour a little-visited memorial called Gleis 17 (Track 17). From 1941 through 1942, trains deporting Berlin Jews to Nazi concentration camps left from Track 17. Today, the abandoned track is adorned with simple plaques that commemorate the date and the number of Jews deported. It is an oddly beautiful and infuriating memorial.

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These sites were not enjoyable in the typical sense of the word. How can the constant reminder of the murder of six million Jews be “enjoyable”? Most of the time, I felt the anger rising in my blood and my thoughts. So many people who never got a chance, so many stories that will never be told, so many generations obliterated. It is supposed to be infuriating.



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Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin is…Complicated

Confession: I am obsessed with the Berlin Wall and Communist era history. I was intent on seeing as much of the Berlin Wall as possible – and M dutifully followed me around.

Berlin has many reminders of the Berlin Wall’s 28 year history. Throughout the city, there are plaques marking where the wall used to stand, as well as bits and pieces of the actual wall. There are a couple of key spots to really appreciate the wall and what it meant for Berlin.

(1) Potsdamer Platz: Today, Potsdamer Platz is a bustling area with modern skyscrapers, cinemas, museums, hotels, and restaurants. In 1989, when the wall came tumbling down though, Potsdamer Platz was a wasteland. For 28 years, it operated as a death strip where Soviet guards would shoot down desperate East Berliners trying to make the escape to freedom. Today, you can touch pieces of the wall, and read about its history while you gaze up at the closest thing Berlin has to a skyline.


M relaxing at a Starbucks in Potsdamer Platz


Slabs of the Berlin Wall covered in gum


A piece of the Berlin Wall covered in graffiti


A reflection of the old subway sign at Potsdamer Platz – a stop that was completely vacant during the split


A map of the wall and the remaining pieces

(2) Checkpoint Charlie: Checkpoint Charlie was the entry and exit point between East and West Berlin, used primarily by foreigners. Today, there is a mediocre museum and some replicas that are great for tourist pictures. While the museum is not particularly done well, it tells an important story abut the toll the wall took, the people who risked their lives to flee and help others flee, and the unrelenting hope for freedom. While Checkpoint Charlie was not the largest checkpoint, it became a symbol of the Cold War, serving as the site of a major showdown between America and the Soviet Union in October 1961.


An outdoor exhibit gives you a sense of what this spot used to look like


There are plenty of original wall pieces to marvel at


Pictures of the crossing


A replica of the original checkpoint for tourists to take pictures


The original sign that used to stand at Checkpoint Charlie can now be seen inside the museum


Thousands of Berliners watched as the original checkpoint booth is airlifted out of the spot where it sat for nearly 30 years


On September 9, 1948, 300,000 Berliners gathered to protest the division of the city


After WWII, the Soviets set up “special camps,” often repurposing the Nazi’s concentration camps, to house thousands of people who were indiscriminately arrested. Between 1945 and 1950, 43,000 detainees — out of approximately 123,000 — died in the camps. The German Red Cross organized a list of those people and you can now search through the binders at the museum


From June 24 1948 until May 12 1949, the Soviet Union blocked the Western allies access to West Berlin. In response, the allies organized the Berlin Airlift to bring food, medicine, and other supplies to the people of West Berlin. It was a massive undertaking that required building a brand new airport in only 90 days


A Cold War-era map of Berlin


The ground floor of the museum


This car shows how people used to carve out stowage space to hide East Berliners in the trunks of their cars as they crossed the East-West border


The many passport pages of John P. Ireland – an American studying in West Berlin who had the genius idea of modifying a Cadillac to hide East Berliners in the trunk. Ireland ferried 10 people to freedom, usually via Czechoslovakia and Hungary where the border checks were less aggressive than East Berlin


An example of what it was like to hide in a car in an effort escape to West Berlin


A replica of a hot air balloon constructed by electrician Peter Strelzyk. On September 1, 1979, two families launched themselves into the night sky, landing in West Berlin at 2:40 a.m. They hugged the police officers when they were told “You’re in the West.”

(2) Brandenburg Gate: There aren’t actually pieces of the wall at Brandenburng Gate because the Gate itself served as a dividing line between East and West Berlin. In the early years of the Cold War, Brandenburg Gate was a checkpoint between the two sides. After 1961, the Gate was closed and became a major site of pro-freedom protests on the West Berlin side. It was famously, the site of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin – requiring the Soviet-run GDR to put up curtains on the East Berlin side of the Gate so no one would catch a glimpse of JFK. On November 9, 1989, thousands of Berliners gathered at Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the wall.


(3) East Side Gallery: East Side Gallery is a 4,317-foot strip of the Berlin Wall located between the Berlin Ostbahnhof and Warschauer Strauss train stops. The gallery contains 105 paintings by artists in 1990 after the fall of the wall. Sadly, today, many of the paintings are covered in graffiti and required heavy restoration. Some were entirely repainted by the original artists.

IMG_4603IMG_4606IMG_4609The artist of this painting actually painted it three times as indicated by the date at the bottom.

IMG_4600.JPGIMG_4616IMG_4620IMG_4628This is my favorite piece of art from East Side Gallery.

IMG_9566IMG_9578IMG_9595This painting, entitled “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” is probably the most famous of the East Side Gallery paintings. Painted by Dmitri Vrubel, it reenacts a famous moment between Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and GDR head Erich Honecker in 1979.


(4) Topography of Terror: The Topography of Terror stands in the spot of Hitler’s Gestapo, which was razed to the ground after the war. Today, it is a free museum that retells the history of Nazi Germany from its rise to its fall. I’ll talk about the museum later, but outside the museum, you can walk a long a long strip of the Berlin Wall as well as small piece of the basement wall from the Gestapo building.


There are several other places to see remnants of the Berlin Wall including Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which we did not have time to get to. Seeing the Berlin Wall was on my to-do list for a long time, and I highly recommend at least one of these stops if you’re in Berlin.


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Berlin Part 2: Berlin is… Complicated

Berlin Part 1: Getting There

Berlin is… complicated. So it should come as no surprise that my feelings about Germany’s capitol city are similarly complicated.

The history of Berlin during the 20th century is a story of many things – much of it horrific. The century began with a jubilant rush to war that ended in bloodshed and devastation. The Weimer Republic then gave way to Hitler’s Third Reich and his bloody tentacles spread across Europe; the fall of Berlin saw half the city plunged into captivity under the Iron Curtain. Berlin in the 20th century is a story about the worst parts of humanity – a story that is deeply personal for me.

My maternal grandparents were one of the lucky few who managed to escape Poland in 1941 with visas for Curacao via Japan. They spent the war years in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto, while most of their relatives were slaughtered at Hitler’s hands.

It is hard to walk down the streets of Berlin and not feel angry. The city is teeming with history – for better and for worse. Everywhere you look, everywhere you walk, it smacks you across your face. It is not subtle, but intentional.

Germany does not whitewash the past. It embraces it in all of its horribleness. Some of the history is horrific; some euphoric; some sobering. Berlin is a city that murdered six million Jews; a city that brought down Communism; a city that insisted its way to freedom; a city that is a living breathing cautionary tale; a city that rose from the ashes of hatred into a modern international metropolis. We can’t change the horrible things that happened, but we can internalize them, witness them, learn from them.


A sign marking the spot of Hitler’s bunker


A piece of the Berlin Wall outside the Topography of Terror museum

Berlin is also ugly. And that is part of its complicated history. Bombed to a pulp during World War II, Berlin was then cruelly ripped in half – the east governed by the Soviet Union and the west by the Allied powers. Now, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is united, but the reminders of its destruction and subsequent separation are everywhere. It is a city cobbled together with the pieces of mismatched lego sets – soaring modern buildings, next to monolithic Soviet-style boxes, next to restored baroque museums, next to plaques that remind visitors of the buildings that once were.


Example of ugly Communist-style architecture


The former and famous Checkpoint Charlie – an entry-exit point between East and West Berlin


A marker indicating where the Berlin Wall used to stand. You can find these all around the city


A piece of the Berlin Wall


Brandenburg Gate was rebuilt after World War II. It stood as a dividing line between East and West Berlin

Reminders of the city’s ugly past are ubiquitous: Stolperstein (literally stumbling stones) mark the spots where murdered Jews used to live; graffitied pieces of the Berlin Wall decorate bustling streets; memorials to countless victims dot the sprawling city; and the cheerful ampelmannchen adorn the city’s traffic lights – one of the few lighthearted remnants of Communist East Berlin.


Stumbling stones remind us of the Jews who were wiped out


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenman


A piece of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz – a bustling area that used to be a wasteland and a death strip under Communist rule


Berlin’s famous ampelmannchen – traffic men


An external basement wall of Hitler’s Gestapo – all that remains outside the Topography of Terror museum

Throughout our four and half days in Berlin, I found myself at once furious, sad, hopeful, joyous, tickled, and provoked. Not all trips are like that, but some trips should be.

Berlin is not for everyone. It is not wrapped up in a nice package with the flourish of a pretty bow. It requires unpacking the corse layers, giving in to the anger, celebrating the heroes who fought for freedom, hoping that the Jenga pices of this historical city make us better as human beings and as a society.



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Berlin Part 1: Getting There

We flew United business class from Washington D.C. to Dublin, and then economy Aer Lingus from Dublin to Berlin. There are no direct flights from D.C. to Berlin, and while there are better business class options – flying United cost 57,500 miles versus the pricier 70,000 mils required for United partners.

First, the United lounge in Dulles airport. Dulles is not slated to get a new Polaris lounge until 2018 or 2019. The current version is not the best lounge, but also not the worst. Comfortable, free wifi, plentiful snacks… it’s hard to complain.


United’s Boeing 757-200 doesn’t have the fancy new Polaris hard product that some planes do, but at least we didn’t get stuck with United’s terrible 2-4-2 business class configuration. With a 2-2  configuration, the seats were perfect for traveling couples like us, with lie-flat seats and plenty of space to get comfy.

The service was friendly and accommodating. The new Saks Fifth Avenue blankets and pillows worked great (though I’m not exactly picky), and we managed to sleep for a couple of hours.


Once in Dublin, we settled into the Dublin Airport Executive Lounge thanks to our Priority Pass card. I was exhausted so I curled up into a ball and fell asleep. But first, I took some pictures.


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What’s Next: Central Europe

The traveling circus is off to Europe again in two weeks, making this our third trip to Europe this year. Not that I’m complaining.

This trip began like a lot of our trips: me playing around on the computer, randomly looking up flights, and saying “Hey babe, you want to go to Berlin?”

Basically, there was a ton of United award availability to central Europe and we had replenished our points accounts since Amsterdam. So Berlin, Prague, and Vienna – here we come.

How did we do it?

Flights: I splurged on business class tickets to Berlin in the hopes that we will arrive well-rested and can hit the ground running (fingers crossed). We will fly United Polaris (sadly not the fancy new United hard product) to Berlin with a stopover in Dublin. There are no direct flights from D.C. to Berlin, and flying United requires less miles than United partners like, say, Austrian Air. Total IAD – TXL for two people: 115,000 United miles and $16.80.

On the way back, we’ll be flying economy from Vienna to D.C. for 30,000 United miles each. Business class would have been nice, but at 70,000 miles per person it was too much. At least, the flight is non-stop. Total VIE – IAD for two people: 60,000 United miles and $178.32.

Hotel – Berlin: Picking hotel rooms is my favorite part of traveling. I know, some people like the sightseeing, the food…whatever. I love the hotel analysis. It takes all kinds, right? Since I have diamond status at Hilton, my heart always gravitates there, and I had racked up a ton of points thanks to work travel. Berlin was easy. The Hilton Berlin is smack in the middle of the city, with easy access to major sites. I booked five nights, taking advantage of Hilton’s five for the price of four deal. Total Hilton Berlin for five nights: 161,000 Hilton points.

UPDATE: I occasionally check on my already-booked hotels to see if prices have gone down. Lucky me, the Hilton Berlin was going for 139,000 points for the same five nights. I chatted Hilton and they immediately redeposited 22,000 points into my account!

Hilton Map

The Hilton Berlin is the red icon, just a few blocks south of Berlin’s main drag, Unter den Linden.

Hotel – Prague: I had a free IHG night I needed to use before it expired in November so it made the Intercontinental Prague an easy pick. It’s not the best value for my free night, but it’s better than not using it all. In the end, because prices were relatively cheap, I paid for two nights with cash, one night with points, and one night with a free night award. Total Intercontinental Prague for four nights: 40,000 IHG points and $302.56.

intercontinental map

The Intercontinental Prague in the city’s old town. Super excited about the location and the proximity to the Jewish sites.

Hotel Vienna: This was a tough one. Vienna hotel pries are more western Europe than eastern Europe, and we were fresh out of Hilton points. It came down to Starwood vs. Marriott. Starwood offered a slightly better location, but my gold status with Marriott gives us more bang for our buck. So I transferred a bunch of SPG points to Marriott at a 1:3 ratio and booked the Vienna Marriott, where we got five nights for the price of four. Total Vienna Marriott for five nights: 160,000 Marriott points.

Marriott Map

Most of the key attractions in Vienna are located inside or around the ring. The Marriott is directly on the ring road. Looking forward to the lounge here.

Trains: We booked two trains from Berlin to Prague and from Prague to Vienna. Thanks to Seat 61 (the best website for anyone attempting train travel), I was able to find cheap prices on the Czech Republic train site. Total Berlin – Prague for two people: $65.63. Total Prague – Vienna for two people: $53.72.

So that’s how you do two weeks in central Europe on the cheap without slumming it.

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