By Rich Grant
The best way to see Berlin is by bicycle. For one thing, this city of 3.4 million people is huge – nine times the size of Paris – and, like any capital city, there are long distances to be covered between monuments and historic buildings.
But the best reason to see Berlin by bicycle is because that’s how Berliners see it. This is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Europe and there are bicycles everywhere: riding side-by-side with trolleys on the main thoroughfares, bouncing on the cobblestone backstreets of Mitte and zipping along paths lining the Spree River – the heart and soul of Berlin.
Most of the “must see” attractions are on or near the Spree, which meanders and twists west to east the entire width of Berlin. Use the Spree as your bicycle highway, and you can easily pedal the flat city from the Schloss Chalottenburg to Checkpoint Charlie, with stops at beer gardens along the way.
There are great parks, wonderful tree-lined shopping boulevards, amazing architecture, and everywhere, history. This city is fixated on its history, and no wonder. What other city has a history like this?
Look at its pre-World War II stone buildings – the few left standing – and you’ll see scars from machine gun bullets, tank shells and bombs. Every tourist postcard rack is filled with images of Berlin as a destroyed city and as it was during the next 28 years when a wall ran through the city, cutting apart friends and families.
It's hard to imagine those images when you look at Berlin today: a completely new, hip and chic city of cafes, restaurants and fashion.
Starting your tour
Fat Tire Bike Tours (www.FatTireBikeTours.com/berlin) rents big, comfortable cruiser bikes at the central Zoo Station on Kurfurstendamm. You can take one of their organized bike tours of the city or just go off on your own for 12 euros a day.
Kurfurstendamm was the main shopping street of West Berlin when the city was divided. Ironically, the shopping is now better in what was East Berlin, but Ku’damm (as locals call it) is a still a great strolling avenue. Visit The KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe, which has more than 2,000 employees. The 7th floor is devoted to every imaginable delicacy that can be eaten, including 1,800 different cheeses and 1,400 breads.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church hovers over Ku’damm as a grim reminder of the war (it was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, but the ruins were left standing as a memorial). Photos in the museum show the sheer, utter destruction of Berlin, making it all the more unbelievable when you exit on to the same street now and see it filled with cafes and handsome people busy shopping and living well.
Hop on your bike and it’s a pleasant three-mile ride along the Spree to Schloss Charlottenburg. Built in 1695, this is one of the major palaces of Europe and a one-time home of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a name that pops up all over Berlin. It was Frederick who made the city one of the grandest on the continent. At his palace, there are lovely grounds, gardens and lakes to bike around.
Back on the bike path, you can follow the Spree all the way to the Reichstag, the most important building in the city. Berlin’s capitol was built in 1894, destroyed in 1933 (its arson was used by Hitler to seize power), and rebuilt in the 1990s with an amazing new dome to become the official seat of the German parliament – the capitol of a reunified Germany. It’s about a 40-minute wait to get through security for a free tour, but well worth it. The outdoor view from the top of the Cupola takes in all of Berlin. Walking up and down the ramp inside the glass dome, where you can look straight down into the parliament, is one of the top Berlin experiences.
The area around the Reichstag is one of the best places to have a bike because you can zip between top attractions that would take hours to walk. Within a short ride you can be at the famous Brandenburger Tor (gate), the great symbol of Berlin that was right in the middle of the Berlin Wall.
The tree-lined Unter den Linden starts here. This is the most beautiful boulevard in the city. Combined with cross street Friedrichstrabe, it’s the Fifth Ave. of Berlin. There’s a bike lane, so it’s possible to zip along past cafes and impressive old buildings now filled with trendy shops.
Along the way are the impressive gates to Humboldt University (Albert Einstein was educated here) and the fantastic German History Museum filled with everything from suits of armor and Napoleon’s hat to mesmerizing exhibits of how the Nazis came to power.
Unter den Linden also leads to Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important collections of museums on the planet. Here is Pergamon Museum, known as one of world’s greatest collections of ancient art. Nearby is the imposing Berlin Cathedral, and along the river are docks full of cruise boats ready to take you sailing down the Spree.
Just over the bridge on the other side of the island is the attractive square of Hackescher Markt. It's the perfect place to stop for sausages, pretzels and a half-liter of bier at an outdoor cafe.
Heading back to the zoo, ride through the Tiergarten, one of the grand parks of Europe, filled with lakes, biergartens, miles of tree-covered bike trails, statues and monuments – all making a nice end to your bike ride across Berlin.
More info: Check out the Berlin tourism office's site at www.visitberlin.de/en.
A tip: Many tourists see Berlin on a triangle trip with Prague, Vienna or Budapest…all of which are easily accessible by train.
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