In a state of near ruins after World War II, Berlin suffered a tumultuous and dark period resulting in what is now a burgeoning city coming into its own after years of direct international influence.
Home to 3.5 million and sprawling some eight times the size of Paris, Berlin can pose an intimidating task for wary visitors. A thorough and straightforward public transportation system aids in sightseeing while saving feet from long hours and demanding streets.
Various tours operate in and around Berlin, including the ever-popular, hop-on-hop-off bus tours. Combining convenience and ease, these busses can be found in many major cities throughout Europe and offer all-day tickets picking up and dropping off visitors at major attractions. Live or recorded messages give a detailed history and understanding of the surrounding area. Opt for live guides and open air double-decker busses if given the chance, tickets often run from ¤10 to ¤20 a person depending on the city and level of service.
A long history as a trading empire and home to Prussian royalty is overshadowed by Berlin's recent history. For 28 years, the Berlin Wall separated East and West. During that time, 192 people were killed trying to cross the border while Communist rule infringed upon basic human rights within Soviet-controlled East Germany.
Today, Check Point Charlie, a notable border crossing of the Berlin Wall, is trivialized through flamboyant tourist traps. Germans in surplus American and Soviet uniforms pose for pictures with guests while street hawkers sale passport stamps from the former divided city. A poignant timeline of the political and personal trials of the past is on display just beyond the reconstructed checkpoint, but for a good view of repurposed wall, walk along the East Side Gallery, a mile of artwork from international artists covering the largest remaining portion of the wall.
Far from the grief caused by a divided Germany lies an impressive collection of museums large enough to fill the treasury of an entire country, all found on a single island. In the middle of the Spree River is found a congregation of internationally acclaimed museums. The island is such an assemblage of historical works that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
Stop by the Pergamon Museum to see an ancient altar from modern day Turkey, transported and reassembled at the turn of the 20th century. Or drop by the Old National Gallery to see a brilliant collection of German and European masterpieces, including Rodin's original Thinker -- much smaller than the 1902 original cast seen in Paris.
Although many sites are spread throughout the sprawling distance of Berlin, some of the city's biggest attractions are found at one end of the Tiergarten, a massive city park once used as hunting grounds for Prussian Kings. Here, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag hold down the seat of governmental affairs.
Next to the Brandenburg Gate is the remarkable Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Opened in 2005, the memorial consists of 2,711 concrete pillars of varying height on rolling terrain creating a maze of stone rising like trees out of the ground. Below the monument is an underground museum not to be missed. This moving depiction of unimaginable horrors goes to great lengths to connect names and faces with the 6 million Jews who were murdered. One exhibit describes events and conditions through personal words taken from journal entries, postcards and letters.
From Berlin, a multitude of German cities and towns can be reached within a couple hours. One of these is Cologne, or Köln, home to an impressive cathedral and a mighty river. Drawing visitors is often the wide Rhine River, which offers river cruises lasting a couple hours, all day or even multiple day sailings. Those with a rail pass valid in Germany can board the KD German Rhine Line here and take a day trip up stream.
After heading up the river for five hours, the village of Linz appears along the shore. Linz is a popular excursion for visitors and locals alike with quaint narrow streets and half-timbered houses. Smaller communities such as those found along the river were for the most part in tact after the war, which cannot be said for Germany's larger cities. After an hour and a half, the river boat returns and guests climb back onboard for another relaxing journey back to Cologne.
Also in Cologne is the dangerously tempting Chocolate Museum. For any chocoholic, this museum will surely delight the senses. An enlightening surprise, the presentation is extremely thorough beginning with cultivation and production, including a greenhouse rainforest climate-controlled to sustain the growth of cocoa trees and other tropic plants. Walking through the muggy air will quickly work up a sweat and an appetite.
Exhibits continue with market and futures information, consumption rates by country and finally the production of finished products. At this stage, Lindt Chocolate sponsors a live production line where chocolatiers make chocolate bars and chocolate truffles before your very eyes. Also, here you will find a delightful sample of rich, velvety milk chocolate flowing from an endless fountain.
The tour continues with a history of cocoa use in ancient civilizations and chocolate's evolution after being brought back to Europe by explorers. As with all museums, you must exit through the gift shop, but for once, the experience is joyful as every chocolate confection imaginable -- and some unexplainable -- is displayed before you.
Germany holds an array of treasures found in history, culture and landscape. Its people are a pleasure, the countryside is breathtaking and the cuisine is delightful. For all of the trauma endured in recent history, this country has rebounded beautifully with plenty to offer the curious traveler.
Matt Shinall is the business reporter for The Daily Tribune News.