Bringing the past into the present in Berlin

Last updated: Jun 4th, 2024

Last week our Educational Tour Consultant, Emma, and Tour Co-ordinator, Cath, ventured out of the Rayburn Tours’ office to accompany South Hampstead High girls on their action-packed History tour to Berlin.

As a keen history fan and an avid travel writer, Emma has penned down her experiences and ponderings from the trip. 

Berlin is fascinating place to visit and having only been once previously (more years ago than I care to remember), I jumped at the chance when I was asked if I would accompany South Hampstead High School for Girls on their planned trip over the half-term break.

After a very civilised 7.30am check in at the airport, we met the group (a group of 30 plus teenage girls are easy to spot thankfully!) in the departure lounge for our flight over to the German capital.

Whistle-stop tour

On arrival, we headed straight for our accommodation before meeting our tour guide for a 3 hour walking tour of the city. Blue skies and sunshine met us as we set off to explore this great city that has a somewhat chequered past.

In a very short space of time we had seen the lofty TV Tower, Reichstag building, symbolic Checkpoint Charlie, Bebelplatz square, iconic Brandenburg Gate, remnants of the infamous Berlin Wall and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to name but a few of our stops!

Our guide JJ, from Insider Tours, was fantastic and gave us much to consider during our walk. One of the stand-out moments for me was an art installation being finished at the Konzerthaus by Ai WeiWei. The columns of the building have been shrouded in 14,000 life vests recovered from refugees reaching the Greek island of Lesbos.

The image returned to me on a number of occasions throughout the trip and has made me consider my own thoughts about the current migrant crisis we hear so much about in the news.

Thought-provoking events

On our first full day in the city, we had so much to do. We started off just outside the city at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Today a museum and memorial site, at the time of the Nazi regime the concentration camp was one of the most notorious concentration camps where 105,000 Jews lost their lives.

The memorial site as it stands now has many thought-provoking moments and, as always, lots of interesting discussions could be heard between members of the group, whilst confronting the reality of one of the darkest moments in human history.

Next, we changed era and headed over to the Stasi Museum, based in the former headquarters of GDR Ministry for State Security. A fascinating research and memorial centre concerning the political system of the former East Germany, it provided an insight into what life was like in East Berlin during the Cold War.

The final stop took us back to the Second World War and the Holocaust with time around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a vast site in Berlin centre covered with over 2,700 concrete slabs to honour and remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

We then went to the visitor centre underneath the installation, which displays the names of 3 million Holocaust victims. In my opinion, this is one of the most poignant visits. The exhibit is very well thought out and really brings into focus the individuals persecuted by the National Socialist Party.

Taking cover…

Day three started with a visit to the underground bunkers used by civilians during the air raids. Unlike our own tube system in London, which was used during similar bombing missions, we learnt that this wasn’t feasible in Berlin as they weren’t deep enough to withstand any blasts (it turns out neither were these bunkers, but propaganda was used to encourage civilians to use them anyway!).

We then moved on to the Topography of Terror, which contains documents illustrating the terror and crimes of the SS and police during the ‘Third Reich.’

The last time I visited, the information boards were out in the open, but since then a new building has been constructed on the site of the former Gestapo, SS and SA headquarters.

It goes without saying that the information held within this exhibition is difficult to process. Our thoughts really turned towards how it is possible for such a civilised nation to turn so quickly into a state that is so difficult to comprehend.

Celebrity-spotting in modern day Berlin

We then had the chance to experience modern day Berlin. After browsing the souvenir shops, tucking in for lunch and enjoying some celebrity-spotting in the Potsdamer Platz area (sadly none were seen attending the Berlin Film festival, although rumour had it George Clooney was in town!), we felt suitably refreshed to head over to the Jewish Museum.

The Jewish Museum is the most visited museum in Berlin, known for its unique, ‘zig-zag’ architecture, whilst inside it illustrates the story of German-speaking Jews right back from 1750 to the present day.

As evening approached, we headed for the Hard Rock Café on the Kurfürstendamm before visiting the Reichstag and its beautiful glass dome for views over the city. After this it was very much time for bed. An interesting day to say the least!

Berlin… a fascinating city

Our final day and time to squeeze in as much as possible before our return to the UK.

First stop was the Wannsee Villa in its beautiful surroundings, where on 20th January 1942 a decision was made between high officials from the Nazi Ministries and the SS to organise the deportation and murder of European Jews in the occupied areas of Poland and Eastern Europe.

It is hard to imagine that the task of making all necessary arrangements to implement the solution to the Jewish question took just 90 minutes.

No trip to Berlin would be complete without visiting Alexanderplatz, a bustling square with lots of great places to eat and of course shop! It’s probably one of the most recognizable areas of the city and seen in many films.

Final stop of the trip was the Bernauer Strasse Wall Memorial. The exhibition centre show a couple of films regarding the wall, its construction, its impact on the population and of course its removal in 1989 – our last time to reflect on Berlin and its history.

Looking back, it’s amazing how much we managed to fit in to just four days. It’s always tricky to ensure as many possible learning objectives are met, but to also show visitors what a vibrant and changing city Berlin is.

My fascination with the city continues and I can’t wait to return!

If Emma’s inspired you to find out more about a tour to Berlin, take a look at our Berlin page or give our team a call on 01332 347 828.