08/08/2011 10:55 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2011

A Student's Guide to Backpacking: Berlin

Berlin had a busy century. The city saw the end of an empire, two World Wars, the rise and fall of "The Wall" and - more recently - great artistic migration and widespread gentrification. As if that wasn't enough, the city has another few hundred years' worth of sights and monuments to keep a traveler occupied.

Berlin Wall - When traveling to Berlin, many tourists expect to see a colossal remnant of what is still ominously referred to as "The Wall." The fact of the matter is that not much is left of the former Cold War icon. What remains today is known as the "Eastside Gallery". Heavily graffitied, the Eastside Gallery was kept to preserve some of the more notable street art of the time. Checkpoint Charlie, famous for a number of reasons, still exists today, but only in the form of a replica. To sum it up, I heard one observer describe the monument as "Disney-fied." In other words, what remains of the Berlin Wall is definitely worth seeing, but there are much more important attractions.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - Over one thousand concrete blocks cover a square near the Reichstag and, to the observer, every single column can mean something different. In keeping with the artists intentions, then, I will offer no interpretation here, but simply say that this Holocaust Memorial is worth a visit. Underneath the monument is a museum that provides an insider's look into the world of Jewish Europeans during the Holocaust. Featuring a room full of the last letters of many dead or missing individuals, the museum is deeply disturbing and shouldn't be taken lightly.

Berliner Dom - Due to its sheer size and appearance, Berliner Dom is more of a "can't miss" than a "must see" and - simply put - is one of the strangest cathedrals that anyone has ever put to foundation. As overly grandiose as it is, the Berliner Dom is gorgeous in its own right. The long-oxidized copper domes clash with the stained stone and gilded statues and one can sense that someone may have been trying to make up for something. The misguided architectural features are moderately endearing and the sheer size of the cathedral is impressive enough on its own.

Short on Time?
If you find yourself in Berlin without a lot of time to see the sights, "Sandeman's New Berlin" is a brilliant way to see the town. I'm normally the last person to recommend a guided tour but just about every backpacker that has been to Berlin will rave about Sandeman's. The guides are young, energetic and - interestingly - unpaid. This means that they rely on your tips for a living, something that makes them work extra hard to make the tour that much more interesting. Every guide knows their history and can provide a backstory to just about every landmark in the city. Sandeman's does host tours in dozens of other European cities in addition to Berlin, but the Berlin tour is far and away the most talked about and - whether or not you're short on time - I highly recommend this tour.

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