How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Berlin

This is part one of a two-part series on Germany, and the first installment of' s "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" series. Click back on Thursday to read about Hamburg.

From ancient treasures to the still-visible scars of the Nazi regime and the Cold War to the friendly, laid-back nightlife scene, Berlin is a cross-section of vastly different eras of human history.

Berlin by Day

By day, Berlin is any anthropologist's or historian's dream city. There's no need to be embarrassed about being a tourist here — Berliners are rightfully proud of their city's glories, and it would almost be an insult not to slap on the fanny pack and act the gawking visitor for a day.

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The obvious place to start is in the neighborhood of Mitte, which is home to Museuminsel, or Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site that conveniently places an impressive clutch of some of the world's finest museums into a stately area about the size of a college campus.

The cock of the roost and first among the city's sights — both chronologically and priority-wise — is the Pergamon Museum. The museum covers a vast amount, and it would take a few days to see everything, whether or not you're being speeded on your way by the free audio guides available on entry.

Nearby is the Altes Museum. The Neues Museum is to be the ultimate home of the city's Egyptian Museum when it's finally repaired of World War II damage in 2007, but some of the collection's choicer artifacts are being displayed in the Altes Museum in the meantime.

And among them, there's no question that the one that draws in the crowds is the famous bust of Nefertiti, the queen of ancient Egypt during its doomed flirtation with monotheism in the 14th century B.C. It may not be swarmed by the adoring masses that flock to the Mona Lisa, but it's also more accessible and easier to see why some might consider it the ultimate standard of female beauty.

While wandering around Museuminsel, it's worth checking out the Berliner Dom, Kaiser Wilhelm II's Protestant answer to St. Peter's Basilica.

The way out of Museuminsel is over a bridge and to the famed boulevard Unter den Linden, which leads past the city's oldest university, Humboldt University, where such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Georg Hegel, Max Planck, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Otto von Bismarck and W.E.B. Du Bois studied or taught.

It's across the street from the Bebelplatz, the site of one of the Nazis' most notorious burnings of books by "degenerate" authors.

The monument to the tragedy is a glass window set into the ground, looking down on a library with enough shelves to house 20,000 books — the number of texts incinerated by Joseph Goebbels and his henchmen in 1933. All the shelves are empty.

Unter den Linden ends at the Brandenburg Gate, topped with a statue of four horses and the goddess of peace, bringing her gifts to the city of Berlin. Later, she would be decorated with an Iron Cross, and the Nazis would feature her prominently in their propaganda.

During the Cold War, the gate stood nearly directly on the boundary between East Berlin and West Berlin, and was inaccessible until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

On the west side of the gate is the Tiergarten, a former royal hunting ground that became the city park and home to the city zoo.

Just to the north along the Tiergarten is the Reichstag, home of the national parliament (known as the Bundestag). In 1933, the Reichstag's burning gave Adolf Hitler the pretext to seize absolute power.

The Reichstag is now topped by a massive glass dome that's open to the public. It looks down on the parliamentary chamber, allowing the German people to see what their elected representatives are up to.

Within sight of the Reichstag is a grid of square-shaped stone columns of varying heights and orientations, leading subtly deeper and deeper into the earth — you're isolated from the rest of the world before you know it. It's the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and it's an effective reminder that it's the "little" outrages that lead to national fragmentation and the loss of a sense of a greater humanity.

Nearby, around Potsdamer Platz, there's a surviving remnant of the most famous icon of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, still covered with graffiti and surprisingly less than imposing — until you remember the mines and tripwires, the regular armed East German patrols with orders to shoot to kill and the frequent radar sweeps to root out tunneling attempts.

Behind it is an ugly, utilitarian building that houses the current German Finance Ministry but was once the Reich Air Ministry under Hermann Goering and where the Soviets planned the creation of the East German puppet state.

After East Germany was founded, the building was decorated with a saccharine mural of smiling, blond East German farmers and factory workers celebrating their new Communist paradise.

Those sentiments were quickly belied by a demonstration by disgruntled workers in front of the building in the summer of 1953, which was followed by a large-scale uprising that was put down bloodily by Soviet tanks.

To the east, at the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse, you can explore a key location in countless spy flicks and the place where World War III almost began in October 1961, when American and Soviet tanks faced off against one another over a flap about diplomatic papers.

There's not much left of Checkpoint Charlie, which is now guarded over by a sidewalk cafe, but there's a memorial obelisk, and two oversized photos of an American and a Soviet soldier still square off on huge banners over the street.

Finally, the place that many History Channel addicts are most itching to see but is likely to disappoint: Hitler's underground bunker. The bunker, near the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Ebertstrasse, where der Fuehrer's colossal chancellery building once stood, was rediscovered, flooded with swamp water during construction of a block of depressingly ugly apartments for privileged Communist workers, then covered over again.

The site of the Fuehrer's last stand is now topped with a nondescript parking lot and an unofficial dog park.

Berlin by Night

Berlin by night's as exciting a Western city as they come, reinventing itself at a dizzying pace, combining the earnest open-mindedness of a newly powerful cultural center with the sophistication of a self-confident and storied metropolis.

It may also be the only place in Germany where the locals will cross the street without waiting for the green light.

West Berlin did plenty to keep itself busy while it was separated by that pesky Wall from the majority of the city's surviving cultural treasures — it got the Berlin Philharmonic, the money, rock 'n' roll music, gobs of unattractive but practical post-war architecture — but East Berlin's where it's at right now, by nearly universal agreement.

Cheap neighborhoods in the former Soviet sector such as Kreuzberg and Friedrichschain have attracted a vibrant and strong-willed community of young people, expatriates, students and artists who are fiercely protective of their neighborhood identities and are the mainstay of a friendly, laid-back nightlife scene.

Much of the action takes place in pirate bars — unregistered watering holes in homes or unoccupied buildings that have to be discovered by word of mouth.

A popular nightspot in Friedrichschain, for example, is a nominally abandoned movie theater. If you know a friend of a friend, you can crawl in through a window and watch first-run films while clinking beer or wine glasses with Berlin's fashionable set.

Places like these are constantly changing spaces, so it's important to ask around for the latest information.

It also helps that Berlin is considered the cheapest of the nation's big cities. A half-liter of beer will run a mere 2 or 3 euros in most places, and it's easy to feed an entire family lunch for under 3 euros — a real feat in a country that's generally pricey for American visitors armed with weak U.S. dollars.

Note that though the relative homogeneity of a country like Germany is bound to lead to the occasional well-meaning German making assumptions or asking direct questions that Americans might find a tad disconcerting, Berlin's a tolerant and safe city. Don't give undue weight to media hype over race-based attacks over recent years.

Kreuzberg, a sprawling area only a few minutes by public rail from the city center, is where a lively Turkish community has taken root, and is popular with Berliners for its inexpensive but tasty food and its many pubs. A great place to see the city's cultural and ethnic hodgepodge chowing down together is at the wildly popular Turkish restaurant Hasir (Oranienburgerstrasse 4-5), which frequently has a line out the door.

Various kebabs, lamb filets and eggplant dishes run between 8.50 and 11 euros, and are served with baskets of addictive flat bread.

Here, Berlin youths who never knew a divided city rub elbows with West German bankers, East German poets and entire Turkish families, feasting on platters of doner kebab (a dish made with mutton, or nowadays, beef or chicken) and washing it all down with half-liters of radler (lager mixed with lemon-lime soda or lemonade, an acquired taste).

New, nearby spin-offs from this original spot may help keep lines short at 10 p.m., when seemingly all of East Berlin has a craving for hummus, feta salad and doner.

A pub crawl of Kreuzberg offers a little bit of everything for everybody. Wiener Blut ("Viennese Blood") is a favorite of the post-collegiate crowd, with cozy circular booths, foosball, loud popular music and a lively orange-and-white color scheme peppered with eclectic bric-a-brac (Wienerstrasse 14).

Nearly next door, at Advena Cafe and Bar (Wienerstrasse 11), it's all about quiet dignity. Elegantly dressed groups of young men and women recline on couches surrounded by Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart movie posters.

Be warned, however: the so-called Hurricane (which is yellowish-green) would appall anyone who's ever been to New Orleans.

Things get a bit more Eastern and jaded at Bar 39 (Oranienburgerstrasse 39), lorded over by a painting of a woman enjoying a hookah. The bar has a piano, but it's more common to see a DJ spinning at night.

Finally, Hannibal (Wienerstrasse 69) is a large, quiet, gold-lit cafe-bar with big, comfy couches to collapse on before calling that taxi home.

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