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Scott S. Smith

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The New Berlin on a Budget

Posted: 07/ 4/11 10:22 PM ET

Berlin recently overtook Paris as the number two most-visited European city, behind London. Business travelers have driven growth since 1990, when Berlin became the capital of a reunited Germany, but increasingly tourists are coming to see the cutting-edge architecture, hundreds of art galleries, sites of historic importance (including the remains of the Berlin Wall), and 175 museums, which have gathered the nation's best collections together.

Seemingly everything, from the metro system to museum signs, is know translated into English and a majority of the city's 3.4 million residents speak it well enough to provide directions and are eager to be helpful. The entire city has been re-engineered to be easy to navigate, making it one of the most visitor-friendly city in the world. (North Americans and many other foreign visitors don't even need visas to get in).

The New Berlin is also perfect for travelers on a budget, delivering more top culture per euro than just about anywhere else. Here are some suggestions based on my time in the cultural capital.

There are several keys to saving money. Most important is finding a good hotel at a value price and my wife and I made a mistake by aiming too low our first night, staying in a hostel, was far too noisy to sleep. The next day we went to one of the Berlin InfoStores for visitor services and in minutes we had a reservation at Hotel Ambiente, with a comfortable double-bed room in a quiet south-central neighborhood of antiques dealers near the metro for $118.

Another tactic is to forego eating at restaurants. German food is available in every major city everywhere, so giving it up was no sacrifice. The hotel provided a robust breakfast buffet, so we put dinner from the grocer in the refrigerator and carried healthy Clif Bars to sustain us through the day.

Finally, we each bought a 5-Day Welcome Card on the Berlin website, which allowed us unlimited metro and bus travel through out most of the city (A and B zones) for $40. Five days is the ideal amount of time to see its highlights on a first visit and the Card also provides 25-50 percent discounts off museums and activities.

The first way we used the Card was to take the City Circle Sightseeing tour, which cost us each $20. You can get on or off the big yellow buses (which come every 30 min. on a convenient route) anytime you want during the day you buy it. We chose to stay on and completed the circle in under two hours. This is a good way to get the big picture of how the city is laid out and see many of the highlights, like the Neo-Classical Brandenburg Gate that is a symbol of Berlin and the innovative post-reunification architecture (such as the main train station, which is made of glass).

We spent the rest of the day at the German History Museum, located like most important places you will want to visit in the central city and easily reached by metro. The state-of-the-art exhibition allows you to absorb two millennia of the Germany story, with side displays that put this in the broader European context of each period. Influential individuals, from Protestant reformer Martin Luther to philosophers like Kant are explored in an easily-understood way. The most fascinating section was about the rise of the Nazis, which includes films such as one of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels speaking at a rally where banned books are being burned.

On Wednesday morning we decided to get two important trips to the suburbs out of the way. The first was to Potsdam, south of the city (requiring a small additional metro fee), where the palaces of Frederick the Great, the 18th century Prussian military genius, are located. First we took a guided tour of Schloss Sanssouci, a magnificent Rococo masterpiece, and then went on our own quickly through the Neues Palais.

After that, we took the metro 20 miles north of Berlin to see Sachsenhausen, the only concentration camp within Germany proper, which was designed in 1936 to show visiting foreign dignitaries that prisoners were treated humanely. It served as the administrative headquarters for all prison camps and a training center for the infamous SS. Most of the 220,000 who were housed there were political prisoners, especially captured Soviet soldiers. About 70,000 died from illness, malnutrition, and the cold, while 30,000 were executed by a variety of means, including the gas chamber. Especially shocking were the displays on medical experiments.

We spent all day Thursday on the world-renowned Museum Island. Foremost among the museums is the Pergamon, named for the large reconstructed Greek temple altar from 170 B.C. Equally impressive are the reconstructed Assyrian palace, with its half-human winged guardians, and the enormous Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which one walks to through the original processional way of painted yellow lions on blue glazed bricks.

Next door is the Bode Museum, which houses European sculptures from the Middle Ages to 18th century and has an especially strong collection from the Byzantine Empire headquartered in Constantinople.

The Berliner Dom (cathedral) at the other end of the island is a good place to rest and admire the rich décor in the Baroque style, from the organ with 7,200 pipes to stained glass and mosaics depicting scenes from the New Testament. In the basement are the elaborate tombs of the Hohenzollern line of emperors.

Next to the Dom is the Altes Museum, designed like a Greek temple. It specializes in classical antiquities and is best-known for two sculptured heads: one of the Athenian statesman Pericles (the original was at the entrance to the Parthenon) and the other of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.

On Friday morning we walked around the former Nazi government district, including an outdoor display of period photos called "The Topography of Terror," before visiting the Mauermuseum, devoted to the history of the Berlin Wall, which one can see part of nearby. Particularly intriguing were the inventive methods that East Germans used to try to escape to the West, including specially-constructed suitcases and secret compartments in cars. This was also the location of Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway between East and West, which has been reconstructed.

A block away, at 80-90 Zimmerstrasse, is a large cluster of artist studios (there are said to be 25,000 working artists in Berlin) and we found the most interesting to be Naturemorte, which had some wonderful paintings.

In the afternoon and early evening we strolled through the nearby Hackescher Markt entertainment district, where we found lively crowds at outdoor restaurants, dance clubs, art galleries (we especially loved the "outsider" mixed media pieces at the Wilde Gallery, 7 Chauseestrasse), and quirky stores (custom-made corsets, Carnival costumes, dollhouses). No news of the recession had apparently been delivered to this neighborhood.

Museum junkies can find a wide variety of exhibits in the Jewish Museum, covering topics from Helmut Newton's photographs to the life of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. We picked three of the best for our last day.

The Gemaeldegalerie (Painting Gallery) has the works of the great European masters from the medieval period until the early 19th century, including Giotto, Raphael, Botticelli, Albrecht Durer, Breugel, and Vermeer. Grouped by period and country, nicely spaced and naturally lit, the selection is quite diverse and it's a pleasure to walk through the history of painting without it becoming overwhelming or duplicative, as at larger museums.

Famous for its unique, zinc-clad, serpentine building, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, The Jewish Museum has received acclaim as a world-class presentation of Jewish German history over the past two thousand years, using artifacts, paintings, dioramas, home movies, and multi-media to explore topics like what kosher means, the role of women in Judaism, early pogroms, what Judaism and Islam have in common, and the liberation of the death camps. Everyone, Jewish or not, should have this experience.

It would be easy to spend several weeks in Berlin and never suffer a minute of boredom. We'll be back to one of the world's most exciting and affordable great cities.