A First Impression of Berlin
I got into Berlin at 8am local time after sleeping virtually the entire flight. I was fairly well rested, which was good, because I probably walked a mile trying to figure out where the express bus left the airport. My search was in vain however, and I ended up shelling out for a taxi ride from the airport into the city. I figured out the U-Bahn system pretty quickly, although I was thrown off by the "honor system" that German public transport works on. Everyone is required to have a ticket, but there is no system to collect or swipe tickets (like in London or DC) so it is really up to the integrity of the German population to sustain their transit system. Apparently there are plainclothed transit people on the trains sometimes to check for tickets randomly, but I was told by the hostel workers that this rarely happened.
The hostel I am staying at is called Wombats. It is an enormous hostel that is part of a chain, and it is one of the nicest places I have ever stayed. The rooms are clean and the sheets are free, and my room of six beds has its own bathroom w/ sink and shower. Overall, Wombats is a great hostel, made even better by the attitudes of the employees. They really don't seem to nickle and dime you that much, most things are either free or require a deposit which you can then get back (combination locks, umbrellas, towels, etc.)
I am staying with some extraordinarily interesting people. I really lucked out and got a room full of people who are all around my age, and who are all outgoing and interesting. There is a British guy who used to work as a war coorespondant and custom writer, a guy from Suffolk University (Boston) and his girlfriend, and a striking pair of ladies from Australia and Brazil.
Remnants of the War
Impressions of the City
I took a walking tour today through most of Mitte, the touristy district with the majority of the well known attractions. The guide was knowledgable and the tour was free but some of the sights were pretty uninteresting. The problem with Berlin is that nearly everything of historical or asthetic value was destroyed by allied bombers during the second world war. Something like 70% of the city was reduced to rubble and then rebuilt by communists. Walking through East Berlin one can see dozens of ways in which poured concrete can be used to make a variety of ugly and uninspired buildings.
Of course, there are also pretty amazing parts of Berlin, but it takes a little bit of looking to find them. The appeal of Berlin to me is in its grittiness and its seedier sides. The tourist streets are pretty awful (more on that tomorrow) but the working class neighborhoods are great, and if you walk around the Northeast of the city you will find dozens of great little cafes where you can sit and people watch over a few pints of Berlin pilsner.
The Russian embassy is one of the nicest looking buildings in MItte. It is sorrounded by a fence and several imposing looking guards, guess the Russians aren't taking any chances with those shifty Krauts anymore. Other than the embassy though, there isn't too much that I would go back to Mitte for. It was nice to see the Brandenburg Gate, and the TV tower, and all the WW2 buildings of significance, but it almost wasn't worth fighting through the throngs of tourists to do so. There were probably a half dozen of the worst street performers I have ever seen plying their trade outside the Brandenburg Gate, and as many people hawking their own tours (don't pay for a tour, just do the free one!) There was a Kennedy Museum for some bizarre reason, and a Madame Tousadds (the wax place), and all the food near the tourist sites is double the price and half the portions. Go on the free tour, and then spend the rest of your time in Berlin elsewhere. Unless you REALLY like museums, there is no need to spend more than a day in the city center.