Tag Archives: Berlin

My (current) top 20 cities … or today would be a good day to be anywhere but here

It seems to be the time of year for making lists, so today I’ve had a go at one a few people have asked me about: my top cities. I didn’t manage a trip these summer holidays, so as I head back to work this week, here are all of the places I would have loved to sneak in a visit to.

A few disclaimers: if you ask me tomorrow, this list may well have changed; these are cities to visit rather than necessarily live in; the list is drawn from cities I have actually been to, so there are some world class cities missing (and South America is notably absent … I must rectify that asap!) Feel free to tell me what I need to add; and I have excluded cities from my home country, even though Sydney undoubtedly deserves to be on any such list.

20. Stockholm

Almost missing out due to high prices and lack of sunlight hours, Sweden’s capital has just scraped on to my list due to its colourful buildings, beautiful waterways, and royal and intellectual history. Next time I’d try to go in summer rather than winter for some longer days, although Scandinavia in the cold is beautifully pristine.

19.  Phnom Penh

Beating out Bangkok which feels a bit too showy, Cambodia’s capital offers sobering history, cultural resilience, incredibly friendly people, and all kinds of opportunities to learn from people seeking to rebuild and restore. While Siem Reap holds the famous temples, this is the Khmer city whose streets I would love to wander.

18. Montreal

It was a toss up here with Vancouver, but the French factor tipped the scales for me. A stunning cathedral, an impressive penguin habitat in the biodome, a solid history museum, and French-Canadian culture of all kinds make this city a delight. And of course a winter visit adds to the beautiful vibe: snow just makes everything prettier.

17. Berlin

After being disappointed with Frankfurt and Munich, Germany’s capital restored the country’s travel value in my eyes. So many layers of history, a people who honour and acknowledge the past well but still look to and celebrate the future, an incredible array of museums and streets made for walking and people watching combine to make this one of my favourites.

16. Krakow

Old world Poland’s walled city with its bustling square and serene castle, alongside a funky modern city which pays respect to its tragic 20th century history, Krakow was an unexpected treasure and one I’d highly recommend.

15. Cairo

The only African entry on my list (although if the list were places rather than cities that might be quite different!), Egypt’s capital is worth the price of admission for the pyramids alone. But more than that, it is a melting pot of ancient and modern history, home to delicious cuisine including possibly my favourite meal ever, and the location of one of the world’s greatest museum collections put together like a haphazard choose-your-own-adventure maze.

14. Barcelona

A more recent addition to my list, Sagrada Familia on its own makes the Catalonian capital worth a visit. Antonin Gaudi’s imprint all over the city is an invitation to wonder, from crazy buildings, to an incredible park, to the design of the pavements. Add to that pintxos, cava, and people who welcome you into their crazy traditions and celebrations, and this is a city of history, architecture, and party.

13. Tokyo

One of my first big international cities to explore, Japan’s capital is unlike anywhere else, with ancient religion alongside modern tech obsessions and everything in between. I have been obsessed with finding good okonomiyaki ever since.

12. Budapest

Most people seem to pick Prague, but while I truly loved the Czech city, it was nearby Hungary’s similar but less crowded capital that stole my heart. The fairytale castle. The striking parliament building. The solemn Jewish museums and synagogues. The hauntingly beautiful Shoes on the Danube memorial. The cakes. The bookshops. The bridges. I could go on …

11. Lisbon

One of the world’s hilliest cities, Portugal’s capital will give you a workout and an overload of historic beauty. Castle ruins overlooking colourful tiled buildings. Various delightful modes of transport including elevators and funiculars. A golden bridge to rival San Francisco’s and a Christ statue to rival Rio’s. And. The. Most. Amazing. Custard. Tarts.

10. Hanoi

It’s hard to choose between Vietnam’s two big cities, and Ho Chi Minh is definitely worth a visit. But for me, Hanoi’s more old world charm, slower pace, and natural spaces tipped the balance in its favour. The art and history museums provided insight and a different perspective into a culture quite different to my own.

9. Florence

Again, many might prefer Venice or Milan, but of these three stunning Italian cities, for me there is no question. I love the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio is beautiful despite being overhyped. I could spend days in the Uffizi Gallery and another one admiring Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Watching the sunset over the Duomo from high across the river after hearing Gregorian chants in an ancient church is but one of a multitude of standout memories I have from this incredible city.

8. Washington DC

I could probably make the US its own top cities list, and Chicago and San Francisco would rate very highly on it. But other than that one you just know is still to come, it is the combination of history, politics, culture, and nearly everything being free to visit that puts DC this high on my catalogue of must-visits. Having family live there for a few years means I’ve had the privilege of multiple visits, and there is always something new to discover. While American patriotism does not always resonate for us Aussies, it is fascinating to observe – from Arlington to the Capitol to the White House. And (apologies for bragging), meeting Bo Obama and hearing Barack speak were certainly icing on the cake.

7. London

This is one of a number of predictable entries near the top end of my list, but while finding lesser known gems is always amazing, there is a reason some places are perennially popular. The Clock. The Abbey. The Church. The Eye. The Tower. The Bridge. The Palace. The Theatre. The Hall. The Library. The Museum. I don’t even need to give their names for them to evoke the stories of history, culture, architecture. Sure, its probably got a lot to do with being from a former colony, and certainly the food isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be honest: any time I was given the opportunity to visit again, I’d jump at it.

6. Beijing

Shanghai was certainly up for consideration on this list, but of the two, it’s China’s capital that wins out for me. The Summer Palace. The Forbidden Palace. Tiananmen Square. The Great Hall of the People. The National Museum.  Plus perhaps one of the more surreal attractions I’ve visited, Mao’s mausoleum. The friendliness and stealthy photo snapping skills of the locals. The pride in both history and modern achievements. And of course who could forget the Great Wall.

5. Rome

From here on, ranking gets really difficult and contentious (as in, I’m even arguing with myself). No doubt this could be many people’s number one. The Eternal City. The Caput Mundi. Byron called it the city of the soul and Browning said everyone sooner or later comes by it. It wasn’t built in a day and all roads lead to it. It contains within it a whole other city/state. It touches on history that has shaped my culture and history that reflects my faith. I could wander its streets for days. I have. I hope to again.

4. Paris

The city of light; the city of love. The city of romance and beauty and charm. The city of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; the city of Montmartre and the Seine; the city of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. The Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Walking down the Champs-Élysées; eating crepes, macarons, eclairs, croissants. In my experience the stereotype is based in reality and the people are not always the friendliest, but they don’t need to be – they know we will all be back regardless of how they treat us.

3. Istanbul

The only city located on two continents. Where East meets West. No, its not Constantinople, at least not any more. The Ottoman Empire’s ancient capital and Turkey’s modern hub, it is currently one of the world’s five most populous cities (and the only one of those on my list). And they are people who embrace life, with the sights, sounds, and smells of this bustling city imprinted in my memory. From the Blue Mosque to the Spice Bazaar, and the underground Basilica cistern to the Hagia Sophia, there is a wealth of sites to discover. And the baklava is to die for.

2. New York

Predictable? Sure. Overrated? I don’t think so. I try not to be one to just go with what everyone else says, but in this case, I think they’re right. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. So nice they named it twice. I’ve had five visits and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I’d pretend to be a local and stay uptown near Central Park, catch the subway, walk the High Line. I’d embrace being a tourist and ice skate at Rockefeller Center, line up for the Empire State Building, and do the UN tour (again). I’d spend hours exploring the Met and the Library and the Natural History Museum. I’d get tickets for multiple Broadway shows and rectify one of the greatest blunders of my travels when we could have bought cheap tickets to a brand new sung and rapped musical about American history that had recently opened with its original cast in 2015* but chose to see Les Miserables again instead. I’d eat Korean and Italian and Thai and Indian and any other cuisine I stumbled upon. And I’d wander the streets looking up at all the familiar famous buildings, searching for hidden gardens, monuments, and waterfalls, and watching the world go by.

*Yes, it was Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

1. Jerusalem

I know this will not top everyone’s list, but its been my number one for a long time. I love history, I love the Bible, I love the Hebrew language, I love the Palestinian people, I love the coming together of cultures and perspectives and stories. I love staying inside the Old City and walking the streets early in the morning before anyone is around, and again later in the day when the place is buzzing with activity. I love seeing the newest archaeological discoveries, watching the layers of history peeled back and some of the secrets of ancient cultures revealed. I wrestle with the politics and I grieve with many of the people, and I long to see new ways forward to find peace and justice. I’ve loved taking people to see and experience this incredibly unique city and I’m keen to do so again. Who wants to come?

Museums, Memorials and lessons from remembering … or Today would be a good day to be in Berlin

I recently saw, and loved, the movie of my favourite book. One of the things I love about The Book Thief is that it caused me to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in 1930s Germany. I’m pretty sure when I was 10 years old I had not developed a capacity to critique my country or its government. What would it be like to grow up thinking Nazism was normal, and to then experience the realities and questions of that first hand?

The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall

While The Book Thief is set in Munich, a city which I have briefly visited, it was visiting Berlin that raised those same kinds of questions for me. I loved Berlin, and particularly the many layers of history. As I walked the streets of Berlin I often found myself wondering, what would it have been like to grow up here in the 1940s, or the 1980s, or even the 1700s?

The Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a good place to reflect on what it means to be human and to remember the ways that humans often treat (and mistreat) one another. I would love to return and spend more time in its museums and at its memorials.

The Neue Synagogue, one of the few to survive Kristallnacht
The Neue Synagogue, one of the few to survive Kristallnacht
What did I love about Berlin?

The Museums. Berlin has hundreds, so it was hard to choose which to visit. This list includes just some of my favourites.

The Art Gallery on Museum Island
The Art Gallery on Museum Island

Pergamon Museum. One of five museums on Museum Island, the ancient treasures here are amazing. In particular it was a thrill to see the huge altar from the Turkish city of Pergamum, and the Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon, which the Israelites would have seen when taken into exile in the 6th century BCE.

The Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon
The Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon

Jewish Museum. At the start of the 20th century, Berlin had one of the largest populations of Jews in the world. This museum celebrates their history and contribution to German society. It also has the Holocaust Tower, a dark and empty silo which is incredibly moving in its sense of emptiness and loss.

The intersection of the underground tunnels in the Jewish Museum
The intersection of the underground tunnels in the Jewish Museum

Topography of Terror. Built on the site of the former SS headquarters, this place is brutal in its frankness and brave in its honesty.

Some of the outdoor Topography of Terror's exhibits in front of a section of the Berlin Wall
Some of the Topography of Terror’s outdoor exhibits in front of a section of the Berlin Wall

DDR Museum. This fascinating museum in the former East provides a glimpse of what life was like in the GDR. From state arranged holidays to collective potty training, these were the realities for people my age who grew up here in the 1980s.

One way to tell if you are in former East or West Berlin ...
One way to tell if you are in former East or West Berlin …

Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. On Bernauer Straße is a preserved section of the Berlin wall including the border strip and watchtower. The Documentation Centre’s tower provides a good view of this, as well as exhibits about the wall’s history including those who died trying to cross it.

The Border Strip as it was from 1961-1989
The Border Strip as it was from 1961-1989

I also loved the many moving Memorials. Again, these are just a few that particularly struck me.

The Window of Remembrance, honouring 136 known victims of the Wall Regime
The Window of Remembrance, honouring 136 known victims of the Wall Regime

Memorial to the Murdered Jews. Opened in 2005, this has been somewhat controversial. There are exhibits underground, but above ground it consists of thousands of concrete slabs of varying sizes and heights, through which people wander and remember. I’m not sure any memorial could adequately convey what needs to be conveyed here, and so in some ways I like that it is minimalist and unconventional. But I didn’t find it as poignant as many of the other memorials.

Some of the 2,711 stelae
Some of the 2,711 stelae at the memorial

Book Burning Memorial. Set into the ground of the public square, Bebelplatz, this appears at first glance to be a simple glass window. Looking down into it, however, you see rows and rows of empty bookshelves – enough to hold the 20,000 books that were burned here in 1933.

"Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people." Heinrich Heine
“Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.” Heinrich Heine

Neue Wache Memorial to the victims of tyranny. The sculpture “Mother with her dead son,” in a shaft of light from the circular opening in the dome above, stands inside a former guardhouse that now serves as a war memorial. The contrast between walking down the busy main street with the usual noise of life and crowds, to stepping inside here where you could here a pin drop, was very affecting.

Käthe Kollwitz's heart-rending sculpture
Käthe Kollwitz’s heart-rending sculpture

Gleis 17. Berlin-Grunewald station today is a normal, everyday, suburban train station. But from 1941 to 1945, train after train left here packed full with people bound for concentration camps from which they would never return. Platform 17, no longer used, is a memorial to those who left from here, with dates, numbers of people, and destinations engraved along the length of the track. It is profoundly moving.

The hauntingly beautiful Platform 17
The hauntingly beautiful Platform 17
Just one date and one group of the 50,000 people deported from here
2/3/43 – 1758 Jews to Auschwitz – just one group on one date, out of so many
What did I learn from Berlin?
Leftover fabric stars in the Jewish museum
Leftover fabric stars in the Jewish museum

I think it is easy to grow up in a country that was on the “winning” side of the World Wars and simplistically imagine that we are so very different from “them,” or that it couldn’t happen here. Berlin reminded me of our common humanity, and particularly the challenges the church faces to respond to our all too common inhumanity.

The Berlin Cathedral
The Berlin Cathedral

Berliners have done a remarkable job of acknowledging their past history, including its mistakes and trials. I think we can all, whether as individuals or as nations, learn from that. It is a powerful thing to simply say sorry. No excuses, no justifications, no mitigations. Moving forward and embracing forgiveness are predicated on this. I love that the rebuilt dome of the Reichstag is made of glass, to symbolise openness and transparency.

The Reichstag
The Reichstag

I also appreciated the acknowledgement that some things don’t deserve remembrance. The site of Hitler’s bunker is an unadorned patch of car park and grass. Nothing to see there, and I think that too is a powerful message to send.

The former site of Hitler's Bunker
The former site of Hitler’s Bunker

At the Holocaust Memorial I was struck by children playing, and even a couple kissing, in the shadows between the blocks. A great reminder that life goes on, that “joy comes in the morning,” and that acknowledging the past doesn’t mean self-flagellation for the future, but living to the full today.

A young boy playing at the holocaust Memorial
A young boy playing at the holocaust Memorial

And finally, in Berlin I saw and experienced hope. On Bernauer Straße since the 1890s stood a church building, ironically called the Church of Reconciliation. When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, the church found its building stranded in the no-man’s land between the two parts of the city, inaccessible to everyone but the border guards, and it was eventually destroyed. After the Wall fell, the church wanted to find a way to both commemorate its past and look to its future. In 2000, the Chapel of Reconciliation was completed, just across the road from the Berlin Wall Memorial. It stands there today as an amazing symbol of perseverance and faithfulness. As the parish said in a 1985 speech when the old building was destroyed, “We can do something … we know that symbols have a silent power which can make the ‘impossible’ possible.”

The Reconciliation Chapel
The Reconciliation Chapel