I went to Berlin to watch a concert…
… a K-Pop concert.
When my 30s started, it became obvious to me that my life could be divided into clear cut segments. Every three to four years corresponded to a specific past life. There was yoga past life, writer past life, and there was K-Pop past life. Yep.
Eight years ago, my friends and I were massively into K-Pop. The "movement" (those who've actually gone and read my books will get this reference… maybe) was only just starting at that time, and we were heavily into BIGBANG, a five-member group borne out of Seoul known for their hip-hop stylings (LOL), tightly produced tracks, and global appeal.
Cutting to the chase, one of BIGBANG's members, G-Dragon or Kwon Ji Yong had a world tour scheduled right about the time I was in Europe. I'd already made plans to stay with my fellow VIP (aka, BIGBANG fan) Yanina in Geneva and we thought it would be fun to go see a show. I mean WHY NOT.
I'd never been to Germany so this was my excuse to slip an extra city into my already packed itinerary. So it's basically this concert that spurred this entire "surprise" leg of my trip… and it's how I ended up flying in and out of airports in just a matter of days—taking the train from Milan to Geneva, then flying the next day from Geneva to Frankfurt to Berlin, then flying again a couple of days later from Berlin to Munich and back to Geneva… only to leave Geneva again for the UK after a day. (I was EXHAUSTED.)
Yanina and I found an Airbnb in Friedrichshain—the neighborhood right where the Mercedes-Benz Arena (the concert's venue) was located. It was about a 20-minute walk from the Ostkreuz station—not the easiest walk, I must admit. The first time we tried navigating our way from the train to our Airbnb, I was a little wary of the sketchy-looking highway and the under-the-bridge situation. Once we got to our place and figured out exactly which part of the train tracks to cross (YES), we discovered that the neighborhood was quite the gem.
Near a Lidl (Yanina's favorite supermarket that had an exceptional variety of German yogurt—apple strudel!) and a school with a football field, our apartment was located in a brand spanking new development situated along a pretty cobblestone path.
Our host and her boyfriend were super sweet—it was such a delight to come home to this artfully decorated foyer. Everything was spic, span and I loved how we had a whole shelf in the refrigerator all to ourselves!
Berlin is a super progressive city and its youth + art culture is pretty strong all around. I'm not a big clubber plus Yanina had to do a lot of work while we were on our trip so it wasn't like we were partying all night every night… That said, there wasn't a night that we didn't bump into groups of people ready to hit the clubs on our evening commute. (Everyone was also very friendly, btw—it was so easy to approach anyone for help when it came to directions, etc.)
After a super packed bus ride from the Tegel airport into the city, we decided to park our bags at the Hauptbanhof station (IT WAS HUGE!) and do a quick Hop On, Hop Off trip to kill time.
What I learned from our round trip on the bus? Berlin had some impressive architecture to showcase. The Haus der Kulturen der Werlt (House of World Cultures) was one of my mid-century favorites.
Haus der Kulturen der Werlt
John Foster-Dulles-Allee 10
The Berlin Zoo was also pretty cool. I like how the building is scaled against the rest of the city—it may be 35 hectares big (and the most species-rich zoo in the world), but it neither looks massive or overwhelming.
I'm by no means a war expert, but the constant and repeated mention of Checkpoint Charlie at least prodded me to do more research on the Cold War and exactly what happened between West and East Berlin (this was the crossing point between the two). The crosswalk by Checkpoint Charlie can be packed with tourists so it's tough to get a really good shot.
Yanina's last time in Berlin was during a school trip, so her memory of the city was centered on its museums. We headed to the Pergamon Museum the day after the concert to check out its collection of Eastern antiquities.
Once you get through the ticket booth and make your way into the main museum, you're greeted immediately by the Ishtar Gate. This goes back to 575 BC. Mind-boggling. 😮😮😮
I'd caught a glimpse of more Eastern art in my day trip to Venice, but because I'd stayed for the most part in Florence and Milan, my entire trip up to this point was mainly a tour of Western architecture. Through this afternoon visit to the Pergamon, I was able to catch a glimpse of the ancient east.
The museum makes it a point to teach onlookers about the scale of these old walls. I loved the use of color in the bricks + the artwork—just imagine entering the city proper guided by these walls! So pretty. And intimidating. Another exhibit that caught my eye was the collection of historical Islamic texts. My inner nerd was v v happy.
The Alhambra Dome was also a sight to behold—totally gave me "Game of Thrones" vibes.
The Pergamon is just one of the many museums situated in Museum Island. I would have probably hit more if I had more time (pictured above is the Altes Museum), but I think we picked the right one to see, considering we only had one afternoon.
We spent our last afternoon and evening in Berlin just walking around the city. We caught word that Motte was a pretty cool spot to wander around in, but we were too lazy to get away from the perimeter of the Cathedral. We hung around in coffee shops, had some currywurst (the sausage + curry + potato snack is everywhere in the city and I finally gave in to the scent of fries in the air), and took walks until it was time to head back for dinner.
Art really does abound in this city and we were happy to walk by this gem ("Three Girls One Boy") while walking from the currywurst spot to a nearby café.
It's impossible to visit Berlin for the first time and not catch a glimpse of the Berlin Cathedral. One, it's HUGE. Two, it's smack in the middle of the city center. We wanted to venture inside but the doors were closed by the time we got there. The exterior still makes the trip worth it. I love the patina on the dome and all the statues that surround this impressive piece of architecture.
Germany's history is pretty colorful (to put things lightly), and part of the essentials in a first-time trip to Berlin are its many prominent institutional buildings. The park in front of the Reichstag gives you a pretty good view of this super impressive structure. It's also where I had my first pretzel. Built in the 1890s and functional up until the early 1930s, the Reichstag suffered major damages after being set on fire.
Platz der Republik 1
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear "Brandenburg" are the concertos by Bach (classical music helps when you're stuck in traffic), but I suppose more historically significant is the Brandenburg gate itself—one of Germany's best known monuments. Built in the late 1700s, it also figured prominently in the city's division.
As a little sidebar to all the BIG and massively historical monuments Berlin had to offer, I really enjoyed seeing random Photoautomat booths scattered around the city. Yanina and I were on our way to check out a portion of the Berlin Wall when we came across this sunshine yellow outpost. The revival of the instant photo booth is a fun trend I spotted in both Berlin in Paris. I like how they have an ATM built into this one.
The real reason Yanina and I walked past the photo booth (and got our photos taken, naturally) was the Topography of Terror—a beautifully designed exhibition featuring parts of the Berlin Wall and parts of the Secret State Police, SS and Reich Main Security Office headquarters.
It was quite a sobering experience to walk through this location (and right before our concert too). We didn't do any research about the place—we only discovered it because we'd asked a stranger if we could find the wall anywhere near us and this museum turned out to be just a 10-minute walk away.
I was in grade school when the Wall was torn down so I have a few memories of the entire thing happening. It felt important to visit this place.
A few cities later, toward the end of on my trip, I actually met a pair of German grandmothers who told me about how the war and the division between East and West had brought them together as friends. Amazing how making friends with strangers can put all these little historical facts and tidbits from my trip into context.
Topography of Terror
The few days I spent in Berlin were probably the most mixed of mixed bags I'd ever had on a trip before. From K-Pop to art to antiquities to war to all the Vietnamese food Yanina and I ate in our neighborhood (random, but delicious), I had a little bit of everything in this city.
I was so grateful to have been able to expand my itinerary to include Germany—which I realize now is such a HUGE country.
I found Berlin a little intimidating—maybe because of the language barrier (how do you even begin to pronounce everything), because of all the stately architecture that surrounded us, and because of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (their train system, pictured above) that we eventually, sort of, kind of hacked. Somewhat.
That said, I would love to go back to look deeper into the city's modern art movement and to explore more underground spots. Fingers crossed a next time comes around soon!
PS: We passed Munich on our way back to Berlin and I was incredibly impressed by the airport. I think I'm putting this on my next cities to visit list. I can't wait :)