My boyfriend's father lives in Hamburg with his wife and 4 children. My boyfriend will go to Germany about a week and half before I do. When I arrive, I'll get to meet the family (yay!) and then we are off! I have a little more than a week to see Germany. Obviously, we'll start in Hamburg and spend a day or two there. Then, we are heading to Amsterdam for a day!! (We're SO close~it'd be a shame not to see it!) The rest of our trip is focused on the Rhine region with a quick visit to Berlin.
See + Do
First things first: Marijuana is not fully legal in the Netherlands, although possession and consumption of small amounts are tolerated—a prime example of the Dutch personality trait called gedoogbeleid, or turning a blind eye. Amsterdammers are also realists, who recognize that—as with prostitution, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage—people are going to smoke pot anyway, so they might as well do it safely. Coffeeshops (as marijuana cafés are called) are permitted to sell up to five grams of the stuff to each customer. There are also "smart drugs" shops, which dispense magic mushrooms and the like. There are as many types of coffeeshops as there are visitors to Amsterdam, from fancy and literate to down and dirty. One classic is Dampkring—you saw it in Ocean's Twelve—near the University of Amsterdam. The painted and sculpted central column, like a giant toadstool, is hallucinatory even if you don’t smoke (29 Handboogstraat; 31-20-638-0705; www.dedampkring.nl). Don't want to toke up with the college kids? Siberië looks out on a handsome canal in central Amsterdam and could pass for an East Village café were it not for its mind-altering wares. Show up on the right night and you might find DJs spinning or get your horoscope read (11 Brouwersgracht; 31-20-623-5909; www.siberie.net). If it's all about the pot, go to tiny, straightforward Grey Area, a frequent winner of the Cannabis Cup (Oude Leliestraat; 31-20-420-4301; www.greyarea.nl). When buying any variety of marijuana, make sure that you ask its properties and be prepared for the effect—if the menu doesn't give you a solid description, the staff will be happy to. And remember, a coffeeshop is emphatically not a coffee house (koffiehuis in Dutch). The latter serves a concoction called coffee; don't even think about lighting up in one.
See + Do
Anne Frank House, Netherlands
Amsterdam 1016 GV, Netherlands
Tel: 31 20 556 7105
Even if you've heard the story of Anne Frank time and again, a visit to the house is a must. You'll be surprised at how emotional a walk through the secret annex can be, imagining how the Franks and their friends lived their lives and catching a glimpse of the diary. The Anne Frank House is the city's most popular attraction, with more than 950,000 visitors annually. To avoid crowds, visit first thing in the morning or inquire about advance tickets purchased off-site. To learn more about the 400-year-long story of the Jews in Amsterdam, head across Amsterdam Centrum to the Jewish Historical Museum. The building is an act of reclamation in itself; its glass-and-steel structure combines four restored synagogues in the heart of Amsterdam's original Jewish quarter (1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat; 31-20-531-0310; www.jhm.nl).
Open daily 9 am to 7 pm.
See + Do
A tangle of streets in the bohemian St. Pauli district down by the riverbank, the Reeperbahn is notorious throughout Europe as one of the Continent's biggest red-light districts. The area is fascinating—unsavory, but nonetheless safe. Prostitution is regulated, and the streets are always full. The "upscale" Herbertstrasse is gated to admit men only and features scantily clad ladies beckoning from storefront windows, a civilized spectacle compared with the scene on the streets closer to the river, where the come-ons are much more aggressive. The Grosse Freiheit packs more sleaze into its two blocks than do most cities: It's the home of anything-goes shows, though the posters and decor seem to date from a simpler age of shock and are almost kitschy today.
See + Do
A mini-railroad connects this quartet of parks—the Grosse and Kleine Wallanlagen parks, the Planten un Blomen flower garden, and the Alter Botanischer Garten—all of which are meticulously well-kept. Within this complex, you'll find ice-skating and roller-skating rinks, restaurants, and gorgeous greenhouses. Planten un Blomen is at its most beautiful on summer evenings. Stroll through the tranquil Japanese Garden (the largest one in Europe) toward the small lake and watch a color light show brighten its waters (49-40-428-232-125; www.plantenunblomen.hamburg.de).
Sharon Stonewall Bar, Germany
Berlin 10115, Germany
Tel: 49 30 240 85502
This small pink bar with retro wallpaper and black leather couches projects icons of gay Hollywood on the wall: Silent companions to your evening are films starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and, inevitably, Sharon Stone and Liza Minnelli. Your hosts are low-key expats from Melbourne; although they run a Girl Savoir Vivre disco party for lesbians and their friends on Friday nights, every other evening here is all about schwullesbische (gay/lesbian lounging). The bar sits on a quiet street, but running parallel is the busy drag of Oranienburgerstrasse, known for its crumbling arts venue, Tacheles, and its ladies of the night.
White Trash Fast Food, Germany
Tel: 49 30 5034 8668
The newest incarnation of this ultrapopular restaurant/bar/club/live-music venue (it also operates the tattoo salon next door) is by far the biggest and best: In a former Irish pub, a cowboy-hatted American expat known only as "Wally" serves up delicious burgers and other downmarket Yank fare starting early in the night. Later, live, predominantly rock music by emerging musical acts (or local DJ sets) are on offer in the grottolike basement, and the always-packed main space fills to the gills with Berlin's art, fashion, and celebrity crowds. Despite the Irish touches and the odd Chinese trinkets dragged along as decoration from a previous location, the place has a strangely gunslinging, saloon-type feel as well as a low-key dress code. Ladies beware: In the wee hours, White Trash can live up to its name by becoming a bit of a meat market.
Berlin 14050, Germany
Tel: 49 30 448 5688
Berlin's oldest biergarten (it dates to 1837) seems like it could seat half of Berlin: It encompasses nearly an acre of blond-wood tables and benches. Its neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, once teemed with Marxists and East German noncomformists; now, families and trendy hipsters gather beneath the soaring chestnut trees to eat and drink. Prater serves up light, dark, and wheat beers; lightweights can try the local concoction known as a Radler (a cloying mix of beer and Sprite). The kitchen hut has the most diverse offerings of any Berlin beer garden, from grilled wursts and German-style ravioli (known as Maultaschen) to corn on the cob and Mediterranean olives. There's a rustic indoor restaurant, too—but really, who comes to a biergarten to sit inside?
See + Do
Eastern Berlin, Germany
Remnants of the Berlin Wall are few and far between these days, and most locals are happy about that. Nostalgia for the former German Democratic Republic, dubbed "Ostalgie," did linger for several years in the 1990s, and whether people considered it amusing or pathetic, the fact that films like Good Bye Lenin! can now freely comment on it is a sure sign it's over. Some interest remains in collecting iconic East German paraphernalia such as Communist logos, and books like Anna Funder's Stasiland (Granta) have been best-sellers. But however innocent these souvenirs might seem, they'll remind many here of the dark side of the not-so-long-ago Communist police state. Think twice before parading around East Berlin wearing an East German border patrol hat.
One of the final remnants of the Communist state, the Palast der Republik (Schlossplatz), is now an enormous hole in the ground. The destruction of the Palast, the parliamentary chamber of the East German government, was the subject of an odd pitched battle between conservationists and traditionalists, who pointed out that the former Hohenzollern Castle had been dynamited to make room for the Palast. Plans are now afoot to rebuild the Royal Palace and use it as a museum and library.
From Schlossplatz, walk east toward Alexanderplatz, which was rebuilt in a Communist style in the 1960s by Erich Honecker, who hoped the development would symbolize the modernity of the socialist state. In the center of the square, ascend the almost 1,200-foot-high Fernsehturm, or Television Tower, and linger in the revolving restaurant or on the observation deck for panoramic views. Next, go underground: In the Alexanderplatz U-Bahn station, there's M. Koos-Ostprodukte, a shop that stocks kitschy Communist-era products, including cosmetics, wines, and candy (49-30-242-5791).
Heading east away from Alexanderplatz, you'll come to Karl-Marx-Allee. The Communists' answer to the Champs-Élysées, it's a wide, impressive boulevard built entirely in the Stalinist neoclassical style and lined with apartment buildings. In the Café Sibylle, named after East Germany's popular women's magazine, there's an exhibition about the history of the avenue, which was known as Stalinallee until 1961 (72 Karl-Marx-Allee; 49-30-2935-2203). Alternatively, you can peruse the stacks of the Karl Marx Buchhandlung for copies of the Communist Manifesto and more (78 Karl-Marx-Allee; 49-30-293-3370). Turn right at the Frankfurter Tor and walk down Warschauer Strasse until you get to the Spree River. Then turn right onto Mühlenstrasse, where you will find the East Side Gallery, one of the largest remaining segments of the Berlin Wall and now a graffiti-art open-air museum of sorts. Further east, the former headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, has been turned into a museum called the Forschungs-und Gedenkstätte Normannenstrasse (103 Ruschestrasse; 49-30-553-6854; www.stasimuseum.de).
See + Do
Government Quarter/Tiergarten, Germany
Tiergarten, Berlin's version of Central Park, is also the name of the neighborhood that includes the Regierungsquartier (Government Quarter). Per square mile, Tiergarten has more powerhouse architecture than anywhere else in Berlin, and that's really saying something. The highlight is Sir Norman Foster's revamped Reichstag, reunified Germany's parliament building, which was completed in 1999. Its distinctive glass dome has become one of Berlin's most iconic structures and is worth a visit for both the close-up view of history (you can still spot Soviet-era graffiti on the roof) and the panoramic views of Berlin. Entrance lines are long, but you can skip them by making a reservation for breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the rooftop restaurant, Käfer (49-30-2262-990).
From the Reichstag, walk south along Ebertstrasse—look for the line of cobblestones indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood—past the Brandenburg Gate, where Ronald Reagan gave his famous "Tear down this wall" speech in 1987. One block further, on the southern side of the U.S. Embassy, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005. The 4.7-acre, open-air site consists of large concrete slabs of varying heights arranged in a grid. Walking between the pillars, with the ground sloping up and down, evokes a chilling—and unforgettable—sense of disorientation and isolation. Eisenman's memorial has been criticized by some for referring only to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Across the street is a smaller memorial to gays and lesbians murdered by the Nazis, which opened in 2008.
South of the Tiergarten, Potsdamer Platz, for a time Europe's largest construction site, has risen up in a barren wasteland once traversed by the Wall. Despite (or because of) buildings designed by Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, Helmut Jahn, and Hans Kollhoff, the completed development has received mixed reviews. Potsdamer Platz is marked on its western side by the State Library, whose airy, multileveled interior featured prominently in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, as well as Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall, an early-1960s extravaganza designed around the acoustic requirements of the orchestra, resulting in a tentlike structure clad in a studded golden skin. On the other hand, it doesn't get any more minimal than Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, a slab of black steel atop slender black columns, framing a glassed-in, light-flooded display space that features rotating art exhibitions.
See + Do
When the Wall went up, Charlottenburg became the commercial heart of West Berlin, as it remains today. The Lehrter Bahnhof is the point of entry for many first-time visitors to Berlin. Behind it is the Helmut Newton Stiftung, a museum exhibiting the body of work donated to the city by native son and photographer Helmut Newton (2 Jebensstrasse; 49-30-3186-4856; www.helmut-newton-stiftung.org). Much of the area—especially along the main shopping drag, the Kurfürstendamm —was heavily damaged during WWII and rather unimaginatively rebuilt in the 1950s, and is now unabashedly commercial. The KaDeWe department store (the largest department store in continental Europe) remains a monument to consumer capitalism. Further west toward Savignyplatz, where there's a sophisticated enclave of cafés and bars, the situation improves, giving a glimpse of prewar Berlin. Just southeast of the Zoo on Breitscheidplatz, the burnt-out remains of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, which was bombed during the war and left unreconstructed as a monument, is a reminder of the ill fate of a totalitarian state.
Hamburg 20359, Germany
Tel: 49 40 309 930
A designer-duds crowd fills the multi-leveled space at the East hotel, in an unassuming street right off the main drag of the Reeperbahn. Designed to within an inch of its life, East has huge, suggestively shaped design elements protruding everywhere and a Clockwork Orange –style "milk bar" with what appears to be a ceiling full of teats hanging overhead, and an open dining area located one dramatic staircase below. Cocktails are the main trade here; try the East Beauty (saki, plum liqueur, aloe vera, "special East syrup," and pineapple).
See + Do
Tierpark Hagenbeck, Germany
Hamburg 22527, Germany
Tel: 49 40 530 033 0
Founded in 1848, this sprawling zoo was the first to introduce moated—rather than gated—animal exhibits, and is now home to over 360 species. It boasts a tropical aquarium, a large playground, and pony and elephant rides. Bring along fresh fruits and vegetables to feed the elephants and giraffes, and share any snack you've got on hand with the goats in the petting zoo. The Tierpark is also a botanical garden—so avid gardeners can scope out the scenery while making the rounds.