To become a responsible traveller you must fully immerse yourself in the local and national cultural history of your destination, or at least pretend to show a little interest… I don’t think you can ever really know a place before you have learnt about its past, present and hopes for the future. This is why I think it is a necessity to visit the local museums.
Until I began to travel I never realised how lucky I was to be a Londoner. Free and unlimited access to more museums and art galleries than I could count had led to me having an over-indulged-spoilt-child attitude to all things culturally aware. ‘Oh the British Museum again!’ I had gotten used to being able to pop in and out as I pleased, musing over a Monet at the Tate on my lunch break or checking out some creepy taxidermy when I happened to be walking past the National History Museum. The buildings and their contents charmed and humbled me but, like many Londoners, I took it all for granted.
Now in Berlin and faced with- wait for it- ENTRANCE FEES (dun, dun, dunnn), I was beginning to panic that I’d leave the city as ignorant to its complicated past as I’d arrived. Luckily this wasn’t the case as you can’t hide a freebie from this budget traveller for long! Here are my top tips for squeezing as much history out of Berlin as possible:
– Skip the pricey Checkpoint Charlie Museum. At €12.50 per adult, it does not seem to justify such a hefty price tag. Instead, head down the road to the free outdoor ‘Black Box’ exhibition. Granted it isn’t much of a display but its walls are covered with the fascinating stories of those who attempted to escape over the wall.
– Further along from Checkpoint Charlie is the free Strasi Museum. Small and simple, this museum is a little gem, documenting the personal stories of those persecuted under the oppressive communist state. Many of those featured in the museum are still alive and living peacefully in Berlin. It makes you wonder how many more stories like these are carried along Berlin’s streets. Plug in a free audio-guide to get a more in-depth experience.
– The next stop along from the Strasi Museum is Topographie des Terrors. Also free, this simplistic, slick glass building stands on the site of the former Nazi SS Headquarters which were destroyed after World War II. A poignant reminder of Nazi history flanked by an impressive stretch of the original Berlin Wall, the longest stretch of its kind under museum ownership. This museum is very word-heavy but it is well worth reading as much as you can in order to delve deeper into the horror of Nazi Germany.
– Possibly the best freebie in Berlin is the visit up to the top of the domed Reichstag building. Designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, this parliamentary building is an impressive mix of old and new. Marvel at panoramic views of the city (try not to freak out like I did- it’s high!) whilst your audio-guide points out the highlights of the skyline. I’d recommend going at night for the great views over the glittering cityscape. Book in advance here.
– Museumsinsel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is priced at such. Entrance into its museums and galleries isn’t cheap, if you are desperate for a look around then buy the combined ticket for €18 but be prepared to queue. For budget travellers, a wander around the majestic cluster of buildings should suffice.
– As an avid advocate for free walking tours it would be mad to leave them off the list here. The best way to see a city is through the eyes of a local. A walking tour is a great introduction to a city and most major cities run them for free. Check out my experience of Berlin’s free alternative walking tour here.
So don’t be scared off by admission fees and free your inner culture vulture!