What Berlin Taught Me (besides Cold War trivia)

Brandenburg Gate Berlin

Kaitlyn and me at the Brandenburg Gate.

I kicked off my Easter Break vacation with three days in the German capital, where I oddly enough did NOT fall as in love with the city as everyone seems to tell me is inevitable. I’m sure three days doesn’t do it justice. I’m also sure that I am not hip enough to set foot there.

East Side Gallery Berlin

(But I can try to pretend I am)

It’s undeniable that Berlin deserves its many fans. I really loved learning about the history of the city—we took a fantastic free walking tour that took us to the major sites and explained in depth many fascinating insights about WWII and Communism. To hear about Hitler’s final days while standing on the ground covering his bunker makes connections that college level World History courses cannot. Learning about the peaceful collapse of the Berlin Wall while two feet from the real deal is education unparalleled. I appreciated the rest of the sights, including tourist traps like Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate, but also the East Side Gallery and the DDR Museum (an interactive look into life under Stasi control). Strolling around the river and Tiergarten was a relaxing and scenic break from the big city atmosphere, and I can see why people say they love it in Berlin. Not to mention that the German capital is so diverse that I could satisfy every food craving I’ve had in Spain since September.

Tiergarten Berlin

In the Tiergarten

But you know what? What I really took away from Berlin is that I’m happy in Bilbao.

Berlin, to me, was a nice city, rich in history, but very little difference from any other big city in the U.S. Because it was almost completely bombed in WWII, very little of the typical “European charm” remains. It has remnants, of course, and it’s not every day in the U.S. that you can walk down a street and stumble upon a massive late-Renaissance/Baroque structure, like you can with the Berlin Cathedral in the Mitte district. But between its hot war destruction and its Cold War construction in severe Soviet style, Berlin is not Europe’s beauty queen. It gets its personality from the people that make it up, but the city in itself seemed like just that to me—a big city.

For months I’ve been back and forth about whether to stay in Spain another year or move back to the States. I’ve run through 20,000 scenarios in my mind, all involving me moving to one city or another—San Francisco was always the dream, but now with Google rents, I even tossed around Austin and Chicago, two places I’ve never been. While I like Bilbao, I haven’t stopped to fully appreciate my life here, and have instead been idealizing a hypothetical life back home (which, my internal therapist of a self has come to realize, has a name: “homesickness.”) I’ve been dreaming about big-city American life, even though I’ve always grown up in a 13,000 person suburb and went to college in a secluded little paradise of a student ghetto. I’ve been taking for granted my Bilbao existence and have put Starbucks venti coffees and New York skyscrapers on a pedestal.

I’d forgotten what big cities were actually like.

And then it hit me in Berlin: Swarms of people, wide streets, high-rises, 45-minute metro rides just to cross town, and a prevalence of American food chains aren’t really my thing. They are for many, and maybe one day they will be for me, but right now I’d like to keep my neighbor count to below 500,000.

And my God, I need me some cobblestone streets.


Entering the American sector at Checkpoint Charlie, and immediately greeted by a McDonald’s.

So I liked Berlin for its fascinating history; its vibrant culture; its blonde Deutsch lads and cute cafés. But I loved it for convincing me that it’s OK if I don’t rush back to the U.S. just quite yet. Bilbao may not be the grandest or most diverse and hell, I can’t get a latte bigger than my fist here.

But that’s fine by me for now.

Holocaust Memorial Berlin

The Holocaust Memorial

Have you ever found a city that doesn’t quite live up to its hype? Does traveling usually spark personal insights for you? And most importantly, DID I MISS SOMETHING IN BERLIN? SHOULD I RETURN TO DO IT JUSTICE?? 

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  • Perhaps your mindset during your time in Berlin had something to do with how you felt about the city. If so, that’s ok. Now that you’ve decided to stay in Bilbao, maybe you can return to Berlin later on and give it another chance. During my time in Berlin, I was pretty carefree: no preoccupying thoughts and no itinerary; I was free to enjoy the city as I pleased. I love what you wrote about making the historical connections in real life that no college-level course can, and that real-life experiences provide unparalleled educational opportunities. These are the exact reasons I travel with my kids; it’s for their benefit.

  • Maya

    I really enjoyed reading your perspective! I have heard so many people say that Berlin is so amazing and everyone falls in love with it, so it´s nice to hear another side to it. Your feelings towards Berlin are how I feel about the entire country of Uruguay haha

  • The older we get, the less enamored we are of cities. Like you say, they are too much the same in our shrinking world. Your experiences sound amazing, though. Love the insights you bring to your writing and travels.