EXPLORING EAST & MIDDLE GERMANY

 

A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase.  Includes Places to Stay in proximity.

ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

40 years East Germany slept under a mantle of secrecy. Then, in November 1989, the stunning word spread throughout the world: “The Wall” had been torn down. In October 1990, the reunification became official, and the doors to East Germany opened. After years of neglect, more and more buildings are being cleaned of their grime and others freshly painted. Best yet, entrepreneurialism is blossoming-wonderful new places to stay are opening every day. In this itinerary we have handpicked East Germany’s most historic towns (Eisenach, Erfurt, Weimar, Meissen, Dresden, Potsdam, and Berlin). For good measure we have added Swiss Saxony (Sächsische Schweiz) with its intriguing rock formations, and the Spreewald, where you can glide through a maze of waterways on a canoe-like wooden boat.

Recommended Pacing: If you are coming from the direction of Munich, consider the suggested side trip to Waldsassen, which is described in the following two paragraphs. Otherwise, your first sightseeing stop will be in Eisenach, where (if you have the leisure of time) you can spend the night at Hotel auf der Wartburg, next to Wartburg castle. If you are pressed for time, just stop in Eisenach for a few hours to see Wartburg castle and Bach’s birthplace, and then head directly on to Weimar. We recommend two nights in Weimar to allow one full day to visit the homes of some of the world’s greatest musical geniuses; three nights in Dresden to give you time to see its incredible museums plus take side trips to Meissen and Swiss Saxony; one night in the Spreewald (Lübbenau or Burg) to allow time to explore its intriguing maze of narrow waterways; and two nights in Potsdam or Berlin (three if you do extensive sightseeing in Berlin). The above pacing will give you a good overview of the cities and sights of east Germany.

If you are approaching east Germany from the south on the A7 from Munich, we cannot resist suggesting that you make a detour en route at Waldsassen, conveniently close to the A93 and thus not much out of your way. This small town, snuggled right on the border of the Czech Republic, is not well known, but has a beautiful church (Stiftsbasilika) and, next to it, an incredible library (Bibliothek), which is so spectacular that it is worth making a special effort to see. As you drive into Waldsassen, follow signs to the Stiftsbasilika, located in the heart of town. The façade of the church looks rather sedate with square twin towers, topped by onion-like domes, framing the entrance. Inside the church (whose origin dates back to the 12th century), the mood changes completely. The interior is like an opulent wedding cake. Its white walls and ceiling are richly adorned with Baroquestuccowork and its ceiling is highlighted by fine frescos. Also, notice the beautiful woodcarvings throughout the church, especially those on the choir stalls.

Although the Stiftsbasilika is very interesting, if you have time to see only one sight in Waldsassen, choose the Bibliothek, which is located near the church-you can see many splendid churches throughout Germany, but this library is one of a kind. Buy your ticket on the ground level and then take the staircase up to the library. Before you enter you are given a pair of giant slippers to put on over your shoes to protect the delicate inlaid floor. The library has a balcony that wraps around the upper level of the room. What is so astounding is not so much the beautifully bound, antique books that line the walls from floor to ceiling, but the artwork-the wood carvings, all done by local artists, are remarkable. The room is totally made of wood, and every inch is carved-from the shelves to the balustrades. Most extraordinary of all are the ten, life-size statues supporting the upper gallery, which depict with humor the ten guilds responsible for the production of a book-from the man who brings rags for the cloth to the smug bookseller who sells the finished product. You cannot help smiling and being enchanted by the craftsmanship and humor of this elaborate library. (10-11:30 am and 2-4:45 pm, closed Monday mornings.)

If you don’t stop in Waldsassen, your first destination is Eisenach, located on the edge of the vast stretches of the Thuringia Forest. Take exit 40 from the A4, go into Eisenach, and follow the well-signposted route to your destination, Wartburg, one of Europe’s finest Romanesque castles, perched atop a wooded hill southwest of town. After driving through Eisenach, you will see a “Wartburg” sign indicating a narrow road to the right that weaves up through a thick forest to the parking lot, from which it is a ten-minute walk up the hill to the castle. Note: If you have reservations to spend the night at the Hotel auf der Wartburg, you can bypass the barrier at the parking lot, drive up the pedestrian walkway to the hotel, leave your luggage, and then park your car at the hotel parking area.

To visit the castle, buy your entrance ticket, cross the moat, go under the portcullis, and into the courtyard to stand in line to purchase a second ticket for the guided tour of the castle (buy a guidebook in English to help you understand this German-only tour). It was Wartburg that inspired Ludwig II to build his fanciful Bavarian castles and Richard Wagner to write his opera Tannhäuser. The restored castle is largely Romanesque but furnishings, artwork, and tapestries are original pieces from the medieval to the Baroqueeras of this castle.

One of the most interesting rooms in the castle is the Elisabeth Gallery where six large frescoed murals depict the tale of Elisabeth, a Hungarian princess who came to live at the castle in 1211. She died at the tender age of 24, but became a legend due to her work with the peasants-nursing those who were ill and helping the destitute.

Princess Elisabeth’s good deeds are even more remarkable, considering that most of the nobility during this era considered the peasants a lowly class, not worthy of attention. Another room in the castle, the Elisabeth Room, has a gorgeous mosaic, consisting of more than a million pieces of glass, mother-of-pearl, and gold leaf, which also tells the story of this compassionate princess who was adored by her people.

After leaving the tour, return to the courtyard and take a few minutes to visit the few simple rooms where Martin Luther hid after being excommunicated in 1521. The walls are decorated with Lucas Cranach’s portraits of Luther and his wife. Luther spent his time here translating the New Testament into German-it was Luther’s preaching and writing in German that established German as an important language. (8:30 am-4:30 pm, April to October; 9 am-3:30 pm, November to March.)

Fortunately, Eisenach’s other interesting place to visit, Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthplace, Bachhaus, is easy to find. After leaving Wartburg, drive back toward Eisenach. Just a few minutes before entering the main part of town, turn left on a street signposted Bachhaus and follow the road to a tree-shaded square with a statue of Bach set in a tiny park. Facing the statue is a cheerful, mustard-yellow house where Johann Sebastian Bach lived as a boy. The tour of Bach’s home is not structured: follow the well-marked signs throughout the house, which is furnished in much the same style as it was when Bach was a child. The tour ends at the chamber music room where every 20 minutes a program of Bach’s music, both live and taped, is cleverly woven together with a presentation about his life and work. To sit in this lovely, small music chamber dappled with sunlight filtering in from the garden while listening to Bach’s music is indeed magical. After the demonstration, you may choose to walk through the flower-filled garden to another section of the house in which Bach memorabilia and sheet music are displayed. (1:30-4:30 pm, Mondays; 9 am-4 pm, Tuesdays through Fridays; 9 am-noon and 1:30-4:30 pm, Saturdays and Sundays.)

Leaving Eisenach, return to the A4 and continue east. It is only about 45 kilometers to exit 46, the turnoff for the road that heads north to the old university town of Erfurt. Don’t be discouraged by the sprawling, unsightly suburbs because the heart of the historic town is extremely colorful. Head straight to the town center and park in any of the designated areas in the vast Domplatz. From there, climb the monumental staircase leading up to the triple-spired Dom (cathedral). Be sure to notice its stunning entrance adorned with fine statues. Inside, look for the beautifully carved choir stalls, the exquisitely detailed stained-glass windows (1370-1420) around the altar, and the 12th-century masterpiece in the south transept, the Wolfram, a candelabrum in the shape of a man. The Dom also contains the tomb of the Count of Gleichen and his wives-yes, wives. According to legend, while on a crusade the count was captured, and only because the beautiful daughter of the sultan fell in love with him was he released with the stipulation he marry her. The wife at home, relieved to have her husband back, accepted the arrangement, and the two women lived happily ever after as sisters.

Adjacent to the Dom is the triple-spired Severikirche (church of the Augustinian monks), built between 1280 and 1400. Inside look for the splendidly carved, pink sandstone sarcophagus of Saint Severus, located in the southernmost nave.

Walk back down the enormous flight of steps to the Domplatz, crowded with market stalls on Wednesdays. Lining this huge plaza are gaily painted 17th- and 18th-century houses.

Cross the Domplatz and follow the narrow, pedestrian-only street, Markstrasse, in the direction of the Krämerbrücke. In a few minutes you come to the Fischmarkt Platz where you find more picturesque buildings, including the attractive Gildehaus restaurant. You might want to have lunch here or else be tempted to snack on one of the tantalizing grilled bratwurst sold by street vendors.

From the Fischmarkt Platz continue on foot to the amazing Krämerbrücke (Kramer Bridge). You hardly realize that you are crossing over the river because the narrow bridge (lined by little shops and galleries housed in quaint, two-story, half-timbered buildings) looks like just a continuation of the street.

After seeing Krämerbrücke, retrace your steps to the Domplatz to pick up your car. Return to the A4, continue east, and take exit 49 to Weimar. The traffic crawls through the sprawling suburbs but take heart, since after you park your car you are treated to an extremely picturesque city. As you near the town center, follow signposts for the Hotel Elephant-this route brings you to the pedestrian Marktplatz, where you find the tourist information office and the Hotel Elephant (you can drive into the square to drop your luggage if you are staying at the hotel). Weimar‘s status as a cultural capital led to Germany’s democrats putting the town’s name on the new republic in 1919. Over the years the town’s princes nurtured those with artistic and musical talents, including Lucas Cranach, Franz Liszt, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Similarly, the court nurtured Germany’s leading writers: Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, and Herder. Goethe spent over 50 years here. He moved into Goethehaus in 1782 and lived here until his death in 1832 (from the market square take Frauentorstrasse to Frauenplan). His home is, by and large, the way it was when he lived here: you see the study where he worked, manuscripts and all, and his bedroom with the armchair in which he died. (9 am-4 pm, closed Mondays.) Goethe frequently dined in the adjacent Zum Weissen Schwan and housed his overflow of visitors here. The Swan has two delightful, cozy dining rooms, an excellent choice for an up-market place to eat.

A few streets away lies the Schillerhaus, Schillerstrasse 12, where Schiller came to live for three years prior to Goethe’s death. It was here that he wrote Wilhelm Tell. Behind the house an interesting museum depicts the writer’s life and work. (9 am-4 pm, closed Mondays.) Goethe and Schiller were great friends and a large statue of them together stands outside the Deutsches Nationaltheater on Theaterplatz.

The exterior of the Stadtschloss (castle) has been restored, and the wing facing the park is now open as an art gallery that houses, among other things, an important collection of paintings by Lucas Cranach. (9 am-5 pm, closed Mondays.) Cross the river Ilm (on the bridge behind the museum) and stroll though the woodlands and lawns, following the river to Goethe’s Gartenhaus (garden house) which he received as a present from August the Strong in 1776. He liked it so much that he lived there till 1782 and it always remained his favorite retreat. The country-simple furnishings in the garden house are very different from the ornate decor in his later home. (closed Mondays.)

On a sadder note, just 11 kilometers northwest of Weimar lies Buchenwald. Drive through the woodlands to the buildings at the end of the road, where you find a bookshop and an auditorium where a film is shown. Narrated in German, this jerky, old-fashioned movie is somehow more poignant than if it were a slick, commercial production (don’t worry-although it is in German, you can’t miss the story line). The images generated by this concentration camp are horrific, but a part of history that should never be forgotten. The camp installations are gone and a monument pays tribute to the 65,000 victims who died here. (8:45 am-4:45 pm, closed Mondays.)

Depending upon road conditions, it is about a two- to three-hour drive from Weimar to Dresden, a distance of 200 kilometers. The drive takes you through pretty, rolling farmland, pasture, forest, and low-lying hills. Dresden, a large, sprawling city, is not as well signposted as you would wish, so it is handy to have a city map in hand to navigate to the Altstadt (old city). Follow signs to the heart of the old city center.

Dresden, the city with a great past, is well on its way to a great future. The famous skyline of palace domes and majestic church steeples on a bend of the Elbe River was razed by Allied bombers on February 13, 1945, and it is only since reunification that the city has experienced a rebirth. Many buildings have been cleaned, renovated, and restored to their former glory. An example of painstaking renovation is Taschenbergpalais (the Taschenberg Palace), a magnificent home commissioned in 1706 by August the Strong for his mistress, the Countess Cosel. Today, behind a painstakingly restored façade, the palace has been converted into an elegant, splendidly located hotel, the Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais.

Begin your Dresden sightseeing at the Catholic cathedral, Hofkirche, whose lacy spire faces Augustusbrücke. Just beside the cathedral is the Brühlsche Terrace, praised as the “balcony of Europe”-only members of the nobility were allowed to enjoy this riverside view until 1814, when the broad flight of stairs was built to allow everyone to enjoy it. If you wish to know why the city’s hero, August the Strong, was given his name, study the cast-iron railing of the terrace and find what is supposedly his thumb mark-a bit hard to believe since the rail was installed ten years after his death! Facing onto Brühlsche Terrace, which overlooks the river is the Albertinum, an old arsenal that was converted into a museum in the 19th century. Inside, you will find the New Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Neuer Meister), a museum of 19th- and 20th-century painters, and the Green Vault Collection (Grünes Gewölbe). Of the two, be sure not to miss the Green Vault Collection with its breathtaking precious gems and treasures that belonged to the incredibly rich kings of Saxony. (10 am-6 pm, closed Thursdays.)

After visiting the Albertinum, descend from the terrace in front and go back one block from the river to Auguststrasse, then follow the Parade of Princes (Fürstenzug), a mural made up of 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles. The mural, which depicts a procession of 35 kings and princes on horseback, accompanied by their knights, stretches for almost a block on the wall of the building that used to house the stables. Nearby, you will see the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Its reconstruction took many years to complete. Originally the church was to be left in ruins as a sad testimonial to the war, but this plan changed and the building that was once considered the most beautiful Protestant church in Europe has risen from the ashes. Next, turn behind the Residenzschloss (castle) and walk behind the Catholic cathedral to the beautiful Semperoper (Semper Opera House), where statues on the façade portray Shakespeare and Sophocles, and Goethe and Schiller flank the entrance.

Saving the very best for last, enter Dresden’s greatest treasure, the Zwinger Palace, where you will concentrate much of your sightseeing. Just to walk into the enormous courtyard, which seems the size of multiple football fields, is awesome. Surrounding this lovely garden courtyard is the palace, which contains a mind-boggling assortment of museums. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Gallery), full of magnificent paintings by Canaletto, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and many other famous artists, is world renowned. (10 am-6 pm, closed Mondays.) Your gallery ticket gives you entrance to the adjacent Rüstkammer Museum with its displays of ancient military hardware. (10 am-6 pm, closed Mondays.) The Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Museum-entrance on Sophienstrasse) houses an important collection of Meissen, Japanese, and Chinese porcelain. (10 am-6 pm, closed Thursdays.) The Wallpavillion houses the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon (Salon of Mathematics and Physics) with its collection of mathematical and measuring instruments (it has lots of barometers, thermometers, and clocks). (9:30 am-5 pm, closed Thursdays.)

The Elbe River runs through the heart of Dresden and makes for a fun excursion that doesn’t take much energy. Steamer trips depart from the Terrassenufer, underneath the Brühlsche Terrasse. A 90-minute boat trip takes you upstream to Loschwitz and Blasewitz where the boat turns around and returns you to the city center. (Operates April to mid-November.) A longer trip takes you upstream past the Elbe palaces of Albrechtsburg, Lingner, and Eckberg to Pillnitz Palace, where you can leave the steamer and visit the park and palace before returning to the city center two hours later. (Operates all year, reduced rate program October to April. Sächsische Dampfschiffahrts, Hertha-Lindner-Str. 10, 01067 Dresden, tel: (0351) 866090, fax: (0351) 8660988, www.saechsische-dampfschiffahrt.de.) There are also steamer trips to Meissen, but because this is quite a long river trip, it is usually best to take a boat one way and the train the other to give you ample time for sightseeing. At the Terrassenufer boat dock in Dresden, or at the Dresden tourist office, you can pick up a schedule that shows the dates and departure times for all the various steamers.

There are two side excursions from Dresden that we highly recommend. The first is to the 1,000-year-old town of Meissen, which is only a 25-kilometer drive north from Dresden following the Elbe River. (Note: If time is short, you could stop in Meissen on the day you leave Dresden, heading north toward Berlin.) The second side trip is to Swiss Saxony, an intriguing, lovely area south of Dresden. Both places can be visited by car, on a package tour from Dresden, or in the summertime by boat. Details of both suggested side excursions follow.

Our first suggested side excursion is to Meissen, a historic town on a knoll overlooking the Elbe River with a splendid cathedral and medieval castle. However, its main claim to fame is the production of fine porcelain, which has been known the world over for many generations. (Some of you might remember your grandmother speak of the “Dresden” doll that she played with as a child-made of porcelain with a finely painted face.) To reach the porcelain factory, follow the sign of the crossed blue swords (the hallmark of Dresden china) through the old town at the base of the castle, which leads you directly to the Staatliche Porzellanmanufaktur (porcelain factory) at 9 Leninstrasse. Parking is limited and there are a great many buses. Upon entering the building, buy two tickets, one for the museum and one for the work demonstration. While the tour through the work area is in several languages, it is helpful to have the English booklet describing the making of this world-famous china which dates back to 1708, when Johann Friedrich Böttger, working for August the Strong, discovered the secret of making “white gold” (porcelain china). August founded an isolated factory at Albrechtsburg castle, keeping the workers almost prisoners to protect the secret. In 1865 the factory was transferred to its present site. After the tour, visit the museum in the same building. Here you see incredible examples of Meissen china dramatically displayed in the regal setting of these lovely old rooms. Most of the pieces you see date from the 1700s and are extremely ornate: clocks, figurines, dinnerware, candelabra, statuettes-almost anything you can name has been duplicated in this fine white china. The style might not be your taste-much is a bit flamboyant, to be sure-but you cannot help appreciating the incredible craftsmanship involved in the making of each piece of art. A shop sells china and there is a pleasant little café just by the front door. (8:30 am-3:30 pm, closed Mondays.) The understandable popularity of the china factory means that Meissen’s other tourist attractions are, unfortunately, often overlooked: the Dom (cathedral) and Albrechtsburg Castle, high above the town and visible from afar, are masterpieces of Gothic architecture. (1-6 pm, Mondays to Saturdays; 10 am-3 pm, Sundays.)

Our second suggested excursion from Dresden is to Swiss Saxony (Sächsische Schweiz). Contrary to its name, this region that stretches southeast from Dresden to the border of the Czech Republic does not look at all like Switzerland, but is beautiful and fascinating in its own right. To see all the places we mention, you will need to get an early start. If you are driving, go to the Albert Platz and take Bautzner Strasse (also marked road number 6), following signs to Pillnitz, which is located on the Elbe River about 15 kilometers southeast of Dresden.

Pillnitz is worth a brief stop to visit its castle, which has two parts: the Bergpalais, which has a museum displaying decorative art, and the Wasserpalais, which houses a museum of arts and crafts. (Bergpalais: May to November, 9:30 am-5:30 pm, closed Mondays. Wasserpalais: May to November, 9:30 am-5:30 pm, closed Tuesdays.) Don’t miss the reproduction of a Chinese pavilion in Pillnitz’s English-style gardens. Note: In summer, it is popular to visit Pillnitz on a steamer trip from Dresden.

After visiting Pillnitz, continue east following signs to Hohnstein. Before Hohnstein, there is a turnoff to the right to Bastei. The road leads to a park where an intriguing wonder of nature magically appears. The road to Bastei seems to be over a relatively flat plateau, but after you park your car, the landscape changes incredibly. What looked like flat terrain suddenly changes to a mysterious area with giant outcrops of reddish rock jutting into the sky. There is a small fee to follow the narrow footpath that twists above deep canyons to a stunning arched stone bridge, which spans the soaring rock formations and ends up at a strategic viewpoint. From here, there is a sweeping view that embraces the River Elbe as it loops through the lush valley, more than 200 meters below your perch.

From Bastei, follow signs toward Bad Schandau. The road leads gently down to the Elbe at which point you cross the bridge and follow signs on 172 in the direction of Dresden.

Soon you come to the town of Königstein. After leaving the town, continue on 172 as it climbs the hill, then turn left at a sign for Königstein Fortress. Drive your car as far as possible and you end up at a parking area. From there you can either walk or take a shuttle tram to the base of the fortress that looms high above, crowning the hilltop. Buy your ticket and take the elevator (built into the rocks) that ascends to the dramatic portal. From there, you walk farther up the well-worn road to the summit.

The fortress is actually a walled town built on the top of a flat mountain. Many of the old buildings are open to view, but they are not of remarkable interest. What is really special is to walk the perimeter of the castle walls, which drop straight down to the valley far below. Poke into a few of the museums along the way as the mood suits you.

If you haven’t had lunch, or even if you have, stop for refreshment at the simple snack stand that is tucked along the top of the wall-the view is incredible. (9 am-8 pm May to September; 9 am-6 pm October, 9 am-5 pm, November to April.) After seeing the fortress, return to 172 and follow the road all the way back to Dresden.

Leaving Dresden, follow the signs to autobahn A13 heading north toward Cottbus and Berlin. The road is well maintained and the countryside quite flat so, unless there is a lot of traffic, it is an easy drive. You pass large farms of cultivated fields and drive through some pretty pastoral countryside. Watch your map carefully: when highway A13 joins the A15 to Berlin, you turn right on A15 toward Cottbus and then almost immediately after take exit 2 and follow signs to Lübbenau , which offers the largest selection of departures for the boat excursions that explore the water alleys of the Spreewald. Follow the road into town (signposted Häfen with a little boat and waves) and continue to the boat landing (you cannot miss it-there is a small plaza where many boats are tied up along docks lining the River Spree). As you walk along the docks you see a large selection of boats, each with a sign posted with the price and the length of the trip offered. Tours last from two to six hours and boats leave when they are full of passengers.

The Spreewald is an enormous maze where the Spree divides into tiny fingers, creating a lacy pattern of canal-like waterways, which wind lazily in every direction under a canopy of trees. For many centuries the Spreewald has been home to the Sorbs who have their own language and folk customs. Along the banks of the river the Sorbs have built small houses which vary in style but which are all simple wooden structures with high-pitched roofs crowned on each corner with a carved snake wearing a crown.

You can experience the magic of this area only by taking one of the boat excursions. First choose your boat: the two-hour tour is excellent, giving you a good sample of the area and also time to stop at Lehde, a Sorb village where you can have a cup of tea and visit the museum made up of a cluster of typical wooden homes furnished with old, country-style furniture. Each canoe is almost identical: a blackened wooden shell-sort of a cross between an Indian dugout canoe and a Venetian gondola. Benches are set in rows down the length of the canoe and your “gondolier” stands at the back and poles you through the shallow waters. As the boat left the dock, I was reminded of the jungle cruise at Disneyland. The boats pass under many humped bridges from which paths disappear mysteriously into the forest. Your gondolier makes a “pickle stop,” for the Spreewald is famous for its pickles and merchants sell these spicy wares along the riverbanks. As the canoe glides through the water you are surrounded by constant activity: boats pass piled high with hay or carrying laughing children on their way to school or the postman delivering his mail-all attesting to the fact that there are few roads into this world of yesteryear.

When it is time to leave the Spreewald, get an early start because we suggest you stop along the way in Potsdam. It is an easy drive of about 125 kilometers along the well-marked autobahn A13 to Berlin, but instead of continuing directly on to the center of the city, we suggest you loop to the southwest of Berlin on A10 and take the turnoff north to Potsdam. Not only do we recommend a charming place to stay here, the Schlosshotel Cecilienhof (more details further on), but Potsdam also offers one of Germany’s star attractions: the palaces and gardens of Sanssouci.

Frederick II chose Potsdam instead of Berlin as his permanent residence because he wanted a place where he could escape the pressures of being a ruler, and pursue his interests in philosophy and the arts without care-sans souci. He had the Sanssouci Palace built to his own design between 1745 and 1747, but this was just the beginning of an entire series of palaces set in vast, landscaped grounds. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes because it is almost a half-hour’s walk between some of the buildings.

Map in hand, explore the tantalizing paths (strategically highlighted with sculptures) which weave through forests and glens as they connect one palace to another. If you have the stamina, you can easily spend a full day exploring the gardens and palaces. Important stops are: Sanssouci Palace with its elaborate rooms in the rococo style, which you can tour with a German-speaking guide; the even larger Neues Palais (New Palace), where you don felt overshoes-do not miss the grotto made from shells and semi-precious stones; the Orangerie, an enormous building used to grow plants and house guests in sumptuous apartments; the Grosse Bildergalerie (Art Gallery), an ornate gallery displaying paintings by Caravaggio, Reni, Rubens, Van Dyck, and others; and the Chinesisches Teehaus (Chinese Tea House), a fanciful pavilion with gilded palms for columns and an ornate green-and-gold pagoda-style roof-Chinese porcelain is displayed inside. Other attractions include Neptune’s Grotto, the Obelisk Portal, the Trellis Pavilion, the Dragon House, the Sicilian Gardens, Charlottenhof Palace, the Temple of Friendship-and on and on.

There is a staggering amount to see and do. Obtain a map and guidebook (in English) from the information booth beside the car park and set off to explore. Even if you do not tour the interiors, just walking through the vast, parklike grounds makes this a very worthwhile visit. The Sanssouci Palace is a real highlight: tickets go on sale at 9 am and tours are often sold out by early afternoon, so buy your ticket as soon you arrive and visit the other sights before returning at your allotted time. (Sanssouci: 9 am-5 pm mid-May to mid-October; to 4 pm in February, March, and late October; to 3 pm November to January, closed 1st and 3rd Mondays. Neues Palais: same hours as palace but closed Fridays. Grosse Bildergalerie: 9 am-noon, 12:45 pm-5 pm, mid-May to mid-October.)

Your other stop in Potsdam is at the Schlosshotel Cecilienhof. Looking for all the world like an English country manor, the Schlosshotel Cecilienhof was built by Kaiser Wilhelm in 1916, and became the royal residence of the Crown Prince Hohenzollern. The mansion, which is now both a delightful hotel and a museum, is surrounded by a large park graced with lakes, trees, green lawns, and forest. The manor house is especially important because it was here that Churchill, Truman, and Stalin met in 1945 to work out the details for the Potsdam Treaty, which proposed the economic and political destiny for the defeated Germany. Although a fire destroyed some of the rooms of historical interest, you can still see where the various delegates lived and worked while they planned the treaty, and there are many interesting photographs depicting the historical event. The parklike grounds surrounding Cecilienhof are also open to the public, but it is only a lucky few who stay on to spend the night in the lovely hotel rooms occupying several of the wings. (9 am-5 pm, closed 2nd and 4th Mondays.)

In sharp contrast to Potsdam, Berlin is dynamic and vigorous. Europe’s largest city can be somewhat overwhelming in size for those who have been touring the countryside, but while the major sights are quite spread out, the public transportation system enables you to get around easily. If you are staying in Potsdam, you can take a train into Berlin.

Your first stop in Berlin should be one of the tourist offices. One is at the Europa Center on Budapester Strasse 45, and another is at the Brandenburg Gate (south wing) at Pariser Platz. Here you can pick up maps of the city and the public transportation system, get data on what special events are going on in the city, and obtain information on sightseeing tours ranging from 90 minutes to half a day (the tours leave from the adjacent Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). Your hotel should also have a lot of information and be able to answer many of your questions.

Berlin is a city of water and parks – one third of the real estate is dedicated to open space for the residents and visitors to enjoy. The only street that is not tree lined is Frederickstram and it is only because it was too narrow!

We do not suggest driving in Berlin-it is not easy to find your way around (even with a good map) and parking is difficult. However, there are several other ways to see the main sights. If money doesn’t matter, the concierge at your hotel can arrange for a private guide with car and driver; or you can take a taxi from point to point; or take a package tour. But, more adventuresome, less expensive, and lots of fun, is to take public transportation. If this is your choice, buy a 24-hour transportation pass, which is available from a self-service machine at all the subway stations (the machine is a bit tricky, but there are basic instructions in English on how to use it). This pass is an excellent value and allows you to hop on and off buses and subway trains to your heart’s content within a 24-hour period.

A good place to start your sightseeing by public transport is outside the Bahnhof Zoo (Zoo station) at the BVG transportation kiosk, where you can purchase your 24-hour transportation pass and pick up maps before boarding the number 100 bus in front of the Zoo station (runs every 10 minutes). The bus proceeds down the Kurfürstendammstrasse (before the tunnel), passing on the right the Europa Center, a modern building with a large Mercedes sign on top, Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) whose burnt, blackened, bombed-out shell stands as a memorial to the dead of two world wars, and on the left the two majestic stone elephants that guard the entrance to the Berlin Zoo. An artist was commissioned to create the kneeling elephants but when looking closely at their impossible position, it is clear that the artist had never personally seen a live elephant! Established in 1847, the zoo is the oldest in Europe. The Tiergarten (east) and the Berlin Zoo (west), which for many years were divided by the wall, are once again neighbors. A dramatic statue of a broken chain symbolizes east and west. As the bus turns left into Tiergarten (Berlin’s premier parkonce the hunting grounds for royalty), the 67-meter-high Siegessaül (a huge column surmounted by a statue of Victory) comes into view. Immediately on the left comes Schloss Bellevue, official residence of the President of the Republic (if the flag’s flying, he’s at home). The arch-shaped building on your left is the Kongresshalle (House of Culture) with a sculpture by Henry Moore floating on its lake. Approaching the Reichstag, notice its bullet-riddled, patched-up façade. The German parliament met here for the first time in 1990, marking the end of almost four decades of political separation. (10 am-5 pm, closed Mondays.) Just round the corner you go under the 200-year-old Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor) whose majestic columns support the goddess of peace upon her horse-drawn chariot. During the years when Berlin was divided, the Brandenburg Gate became a symbol of oppression instead of the symbol of peace that it was originally conceived to be. At one time Berlin had sixteen gates, but today only the Brandenburg Gate remains. A cobbled path traces the line through the city as a reminder of where the Berlin Wall once stood and divided the city.

Just one block south of Brandenburg Gate, visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a 4.7-acre outdoor memorial designed by Peter Eisenman that opened in 2005. A series of grey boxes of different sizes and heights seem to undulate on a cobblestone foundation-the intended effect was to emulate waves to symbolize that time and life never stand still and we must go on. Hitler’s many bunkers were connected by tunnels and it is poignant to know that the museum is located where Hitler’s bunker once stood.

Continuing on up Unter den Linden, the famous avenue “under the lime trees,” you pass the much-photographed statue of Frederick the Great high atop his horse. Behind the statue is Humboldt University, which was attended by Marx and Lenin and next to it sits a Greek temple-like façade, a memorial for the Germans who died in the world wars.

Cross the river onto “Museum Island” and alight to tour the Pergamon Museum, a highlight of any visit to Berlin. The second neoclassical building, which contains the Pergamon Museum, is named for its most prized possession, the enormous Pergamon Altar. This beautifully preserved altar, dating from the 2nd century B.C., was brought from the west coast of Turkey and erected in an enormous hall. Pay the small extra cost for the half-hour tape-recorded tour that gives you a real perspective on this masterpiece of Hellenistic art. Almost as impressive is the adjacent Babylonian Processional Street where lions stride along the street’s walls to the soaring blue-and-ochre tiles of the Ishtar Gate (604-562 B.C.). (10 am-5 pm, closed Mondays.) The Bode Museum at the north end of the island is also worth a visit. It was closed for many years, but reopened in 2006 and features a fine collection of sculptures and Byzantine artifacts.

Leaving the Pergamon to the right, turn left before the railway lines on Georgestrasse for the short walk to the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station, where you take the U6 in the direction of Alt Mariendorf beyond Stadtmitte to Kochstrasse. A vast office complex now occupies the site of Checkpoint Charlie, but the adjacent Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie is an unsophisticated yet poignant museum that tells the story of the wall with its many ingenious escape attempts, and shows the struggle for freedom throughout the world. Exhibitions, photos, and videos take you up and down stairs and through 15 little rooms to conclude in the Checkpoint Charlie Café. Some of the displays seem a bit slanted toward political propaganda, but then how can you ever overemphasize oppression? (9 am-10 pm, daily.)

Berlin was divided into four zones: British, French, Soviet and American. The cross-over points were referred to as A, B and C. The American cross-over point “C” was nicknamed “Charlie”. Today on one side of the military hut facing what was the Soviet side is a photo of a Soviet soldier and on the American side is a photo of an American soldier who it turns out was actually a band member.

When viewing the wall, remember that it was not only the wall that prevented escape, but also the ground between the barbed wire wall and the west side, an area referred to as “No Man’s Land,” which was guarded by watch towers and trenches. From the time when it was erected on August 13, 1961, 400 people are known to have died in attempt to escape. The last victim tragically died in March, 1989, the year the wall came down.

During the excavation of areas of Berlin demolished by bombing, a prison of the SS was uncovered, the Topographie des Terror, where Hitler tortured prisoners. It now remains as a permanent outdoor exhibit. Its address is now referenced as Niederkirchnerstrasse, named for a resistance fighter. Under an angled roof, the old stone prison walls back onto one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. It is also located across the street from what were once Goering’s headquarters at Vince Albrecht #8-the most feared address in Berlin. Ironically the wall is now walled to prevent people from chipping away pieces of it as a souvenir. There are three sections of the wall left standing in Berlin. Another one to visit would be the one termed as “East Side Gallery” where artists from all over the world have painted scenes to memorialize the division.

Stroll down Stauffenberstrasse and peek into the courtyard of number 13. You will see the statue of a man in handcuffs that represents all the young, courageous soldiers who swore to fight evil. It was here on July 20-on the eve of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler-that Stauffenberger, one of the key people involved, was murdered.

Back in the underground, take the U6 towards Alt Mariendorf for one stop to Hallesches where you change to the U1 (in the direction of Ruhleben) across town to Sophie Charlotte Platz. A ten-minute walk up Schlossstrasse brings you to Charlottenburg Palace. At number 70 Schlossstrasse (opposite the palace) visit Ägyptisches Museum (Egyptian Museum), worth a visit if for no other reason than to gaze into the eyes of Nefertiti, an incredible bust over 3,000 years old yet depicting a woman as beautiful as any modern movie star. (10 am-5 pm, closed Mondays.) Across the street from the Ägyptisches Museum is the fabulous Picasso Museum, a private collection of Pablo Picasso’s works, which opened in 1997. (9 am-5 pm, Tuesday through Friday; 10 am-5 pm Saturday and Sunday, closed Mondays.)

Berlin has 12 different Boroughs (or cities within the city), one of which is Charlottesburg with its beautiful Charlottenburg Palace. This Borough was named by King Frederic I whose beloved wife, Sofie Charlotte, tragically died at the age of 38. The king was heart broken by her death and named the city for her.

Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) is one of those palaces that is more impressive outside than in. Rather than taking the guided tour (in German), go around the building and stroll along the inviting paths that lead you through elaborate, sculptured gardens to woodlands and lakes. If you want to take a peek inside, visit the Galerie der Romantik in the Knöbelsdorf wing, a gallery containing works by 19th-century Romantic painters. (10 am-5 pm, closed Mondays.) Across from the entry gates of the palace are two identical buildings that once served as staff quarters of the palace, one of which is now referred to as Museum Berggruen- Picasso Museum which houses an incredible private collection of Picasso. The museum is named after Heinz Berggruen, who as a young man immigrated to San Francisco to escape Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. However, he always missed his homeland and dreamed of someday returning. The first leg of his journey “home” took him to Paris where he befriended Picasso and began purchasing his works. He finally returned to Berlin and donated his entire art collection at the time of his death at 92 in 2007.

Leaving the palace, take the number 109 bus, which runs from just beside the palace down Kaiser Frederich Strasse and along the Kurfürstendamm (nicknamed Ku’Damm), Berlin’s main shopping street, a boulevard lined with chic boutiques, outdoor cafés, and grand hotels, and returns you to your starting point, the Bahnhof Zoo.

One of Berlin’s highlights, the Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie), takes too long to see to try to squeeze it into the previous self-guided tour. Our suggestion would be to combine a visit to this vast museum with a stroll through Berlin’s beautiful park, the Tiergarten, which is within easy walking distance. The Kulturforum is a large complex housing several museums, but the one that you must not miss is the stunning Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie), which opened in 1998. This museum (with a seemingly endless number of large, well-lit rooms) houses an incredible collection of art. The enormous number of over 2,700 paintings (many of them on huge canvases) will boggle your mind. The exhibit includes works of art from the German painters of the 13th to 16th centuries, Dutch painters of the 15th and 16th centuries, Flemish painters of the 17th century, English, French, and German painters of the 18th century, miniatures of the 16th to 19th centuries, and Italian painters of the 16th to 19th centuries. So many famous names appear that you almost become numb to what genius you are seeing: Rembrandt, Fouquet, Gainsborough, Rubens, Reynolds, Van Dyck, and Botticelli-to mention just a few. (10 am-6 pm, Tuesday through Friday; 11 am-6 pm, Saturday and Sunday, closed Mondays; public transportation: Potsdamer Platz.)

The former Prussian Courthouse now houses The Jewish Museum which not only addresses the holocaust but also the contribution of the Jewish people to the world throughout history. The museum has an extension into a metal building that is symbolically designed in the shape of the broken Star of David. Everyone who works in the museum wears a scarf that depicts the image.

If you have the luxury of time to linger in Berlin, another pleasurable outing is to enjoy Berlin leisurely by boat. The Spree River loops through the center of the city, and in the summer, various boat companies offer tours. Ask at the tourist office for further details.

If you are traveling with little ones, don’t miss Berlin’s Teddy Bear Museum, located at 206 Kurfürstendamm. Here you will see not only some of the earliest “Teddy” bears (named after Teddy Roosevelt), but also your other childhood friends such as Paddington and Winnie the Pooh.

It would be a shame to leave Berlin without experiencing Europe’s biggest department store, Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) (U-Bahn 1 Wittenburgplatz). With over 2,400 employees, KaDeWe is similar to Harrods in London and offers a vast array of goods for sale from souvenirs to sweaters. Choose from 1,800 kinds of cheese in the food hall or just take the glass elevator to the self-service café with its impressive views. (9:30 am-6:30 pm, Saturdays until 2 pm; Thursdays until 8 pm, closed Sundays.)

From Berlin you can go northwest to Hamburg to follow Schleswig Holstein-the Land Between the Seas, or southwest to Quedlinburg to join Highlights of the Harz Mountains

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