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Central Europe

Few cities can rival Berlin for dramatic twentieth-century history. Largely destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II, Berlin was rebuilt, then quickly became the epicenter of the Cold War. Divided by a wall and terrorized by a brutal secret police, the city and country were emotionally reunified at the end of the century. Today Berlin isn’t the most beatiful city in Europe, but its gritty charm, fantastic restaurants, and incredible museums make it one of the most fun and interesting.

We arrived in the evening, just in time for a tasty dinner at Lutter & Wegner. We took a brief walk around the Gendarmenmarkt before returning to our hotel, the comfortable, fun, and slightly funky Hotel Luc.

On our first day in Germany, we took a train to Potsdam, about 35 minutes southwest of Berlin. Sanssouci in Potsdam was the summer home of Frederick the Great. King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, Frederick earned his honorific with military prowess, but his true passions were art and philosophy. The palace itself is small and comfortable, and it sits on a beautiful garden with Frederick’s colossal art gallery close by.

Sanssouci and its gardens Sanssouci and its gardens

Next we visited the Neues Palace. Also built by Frederick the Great, the New Palace commemorated Prussia’s success in the Seven Years’ War. Much larger and more imposing than Sanssouci, the New Palace’s purpose was to show off for important dignitaries. Its most impressive feature is a massive ballroom built to look like an underground grotto. The palace was seized by Russian soldiers during World War II, and some of their graffiti is still visible on the walls.

The Neues Palace's Grotto Hall The Neues Palace's Grotto Hall

Leaving the palace complex, we biked across town to Meierei brewery, an authentic German beer hall on the shores of the Jungfernsee (“Virgin Lake”). We drank some beers and ate sausages while enjoying the view. Then we pressed on to nearby Schloss Cecilienhof, the palace where the Potsdam Conference was held. After World War II ended in Europe, the world’s greatest powers—the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union—met to divide Europe and negotiate the peace. Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (and later Clement Attlee) spent two weeks there in July and August 1945 deciding the shape of the postwar world.

Returning to Berlin, we had a delicious dinner at Bar Raval, a Spanish tapas restaurant that also offers an excellent selection of Spanish wines.

The next day we explored Berlin. We spent the entire morning and some of the afternoon on a walking tour of the city. We visited Neue Wache, a neoclassical guardhouse constructed in the early 19th century. It’s now a World War II memorial, and its interior courtyard features a heartbreaking statue, Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with her Dead Son.

Our next stop was Bebelplatz, a square bounded by the Berlin State Opera and Humboldt University buildings. It was the site of a Nazi book burning in 1933. Continuing on, we reached Checkpoint Charlie; nothing remains of the original military outposts separating East and West Berlin, though there’s a reconstruction and numerous tourist attractions on the site. We followed the former path of the Berlin Wall to the site of the Gestapo headquarters, now a museum.

Then we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a moving but difficult-to-interpet collection of 2,711 concrete pillars. We also stopped at the former site of Adolf Hitler’s bunker (nothing remains, and the site is not marked). The tour concluded, and we strolled by the Reichstag, an impressive building topped by a massive glass dome. Then we took a break to grab beers at Brauerei Lemke, a fun spot with a larger and more creative selection than most German breweries.

Next we ascended Berliner Fernsehturm, Berlin’s TV tower and the tallest structure in the city. It’s monument to what the communists of the 1960s thought the future would look like. It’s ugly and a bit grimy, but it still has the best views in town. We circumnavigated the tower a couple of times, then got a drink at the restaurant upstairs from the viewing platform; the seating area is on a rotating platform that offers 360-degree views.

Berlin from the TV tower Berlin from the TV tower

We had a delicious Vietnamese dinner at Monsieur Vuong. After our meal, we stopped by Newton Bar, a watering hole often described as straight out of Mad Men. The vibe was cool, though the drinks were solid but not particularly interesting.

We spent much of the next day exploring Berlin’s remarkable collection of museums. We began at the Pergamon, a collection of historical artifacts from around the world, but mostly Europe and the Middle East. Named for the Pergamon Altar (a monumental Ancient Greek altar), the museum doesn’t currently display its eponymous artifact, which is off display for renovation. But the stunning Ishtar Gate of Babylon and entrance to the Roman market at Miletus, Turkey are still on view, as is the museum’s large collection of artifacts from the Muslim world.

The Ishtar Gate of Babylon The Ishtar Gate of Babylon

Our next stop was the Neues Museum, which contains Berlin’s collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The highlight is the famous bust of Nefertiti. Then we took a cruise along the Spree River. While Berlin isn’t as impressive from the water as many of Europe’s other major cities, it was fun way to see some of the sights. Then we had an excellent dinner at Lokal before returning to our hotel.

In the morning we took a train to Dresden. Almost completely destroyed in World War II, Dresden has been beautifully reconstructed. We started our day at the Green Vault, one of Europe’s finest collections of jewels and treasures. Each room contains a breathtaking collection, and the rooms themselves are remarkable.

Strolling through Dresden’s cobbled streets, we reached the Zwinger, a gorgeous palatial complex that houses several museums. The Old Masters Picture Gallery, a collection including works by Raphael, Correggio, and Vermeer. Another museum contains scientific instruments through the ages, like telescopes and thermometers. We climbed the steps to the top of Frauenkirche Dresden, an impressive Baroque Lutheran church that was mostly rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II.

Dresden from Frauenkirche Dresden Dresden from Frauenkirche Dresden

Grabbing dinner at Watzke am Goldenen Reiter, a delightfully authentic brewery and restaurant, before catching a train back to Berlin. On the way back to our hotel we stopped at Windhorst, an excellent cocktail bar with a wide selection of unique and delicious drinks and a friendly, welcoming vibe.

On our final day in Berlin, we stopped by the Alte Nationalgalerie. It may not be one of Europe’s great art museums, but the Alte Nationalgalerie boasts works by some of the Renaissance masters and great impressionists, as well as numerous works by German artists.

We also visited the Topography of Terror, the museum that now stands on the site of the Gestapo headquarters. It’s a fascinating exhibit about the Nazi Party’s rise to and maintenance of power, with a focus on the Nazis’ use of terror as a means of control.

Checking out of our hotel, we enjoyed a beer at Erdinger on the Gendarmenmarkt. Then we boarded an overnight train to Austria. Despite the cramped cabin, we slept well and woke up feeling mostly rested on the outskirts of Vienna. We transferred to another track, and an hour later we were disembarking in Bratislava.

The capital of Slovakia, Bratislava is a charming city. We strolled through the old town and up to the castle that overlooks the city. After taking in the views, we walked down to the water for lunch. Then we visited Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar, a traditional Bratislavan brewery. We also had a glass of local wine at Wine Not, a friendly wine bar on the main square, before taking the train back to Austria.

Bratislava from the castle Bratislava from the castle

A walking tour the next morning took us through many of Austria’s main sights: the Burggarten, Maria-Theresien-Platz, the outer castle gate, and Heldenplatz. We climbed the tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral for great views of the city. Then we toured the Imperial Treasury, an amazing collection of the precious artifacts that Austrian emperors collected over the centuries. We also stopped by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which contains ancient artifacts and art collected by the Habsburgs. One of the highlights was the Ancient Egyptian antiquities: several massive columns taken from Egypt are built into the room and are part of the building’s structural support.

Ancient Egyptian antiquities in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Ancient Egyptian antiquities in the Kunsthistorisches Museum

After a delectable dinner at Brasserie Palmenhaus, we returned to St. Stephen’s Cathedral to hear a string quarter play Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The cathedral’s lavish interior and outstanding acoustics made it a memorable experience.

Our second day in Vienna began with Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of Austria’s Habsburg rulers that’s a short subway ride outside the town center. The palace is massive and beautiful, and its rooms are impressively decorated in various—though mostly Rococo—styles. We also visited the carriage museum housed in a building on the grounds. And it’s well worth the hike up the hill behind the palace for an amazing view of the building with Vienna rising behind it.

Schönbrunn Palace with Vienna in the background Schönbrunn Palace with Vienna in the background

Returning to central Vienna, we explored the Albertina, an art museum whose highlights include numerous works by the old masters, as well as some by the great impressionists. Then we toured Vienna’s famous opera house, a gorgeous monument to opera and ballet.

Our final attraction of the day was the Belvedere, a complex with two beautiful Baroque palaces that double as art museums. As we the left the Belvedere, the skies turned and ominous gray and loosed a massive downpour. Soaked, we sprinted through the downpour to catch the tram back to the city center.

The Belvedere with a pre-storm rainbow in the background The Belvedere with a pre-storm rainbow in the background

Changing out of our wet clothes, we took car out to Weinhof Zimmermann, a winery nestled among the hills on the outskirts of Vienna. We enjoyed some tasty Austrian wines and traditional fare before finding our way back to our hotel.

In the morning we took a train to Melk, a town on the Danube River overlooked by a massive abbey. We took a tour of the abbey, ate lunch in town, then boarded a cruise along the river. After a little more than an hour on the boat, we disembarked at Spitz. We rented a pair of bikes and took an idyllic ride along the river, stopping at one of the many wineries along the beautiful Wachau Valley.

The Wachau Valley and Danube River The Wachau Valley and Danube River

Leaving Vienna, we took a train to Budapest and then another to the Hungarian hill town of Eger. We spent the following day exploring the charming town, its churches and squares, the main castle, and the 18th-century camera obscura.

The next morning we boarded a train back to Budapest. We toured Budapest’s stunning parliament building, then took an evening cruise along the Danube to absorb the incredible views as the sun set and the city came alight.

We saw more of Budapest’s sights the following day. Beginning at Hősök tere, one of the city’s central plazas, we drove up to Citadel Lookout for an amazing view of the city. We ate lunch at Central Market Hall, then explored Memento Park, now the home of monumens and statues from Hungary’s communist era.

Budapest from Citadel Lookout Budapest from Citadel Lookout

We proceeded to Matthias Church, and then the Hospital in the Rock, an amazing underground hospital complex that served as a military hospital during World War II and a fallout shelter during the Cold War. We ate dinner at Borbíróság, then spent the night visiting some of Budapest’s famous ruin pubs.

In the morning we visited the ornate Dohány Street Synagogue, still a functioning synagogue that also houses a museum and monument to the Hungarian Jews killed during World War II. Next we visited Széchenyi Thermal Bath, one of Budapest’s famous public pools and hot springs. Then Lauren, Walt, and I caught a flight to Munich.

Early the next morning, we left our hotel in Munich and drove to Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle built by Bavaria’s “Mad” King Ludwig II, and the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. The day was grim and rainy, but the views of the castle were still stunning.

Neuschwanstein Castle Neuschwanstein Castle

Continuing our tour of Bavaria, we visited Linderhof, another of Ludwig II’s ostentatious palaces with an ornate interior and beautiful grounds. Then we had a delicious lunch at Ludwig der Bayer Bräustüberl before returning to Munich.

In the evening we joined Oktoberfest for its opening night. It was the first post-COVID Oktoberfest, and it was crowded. There were lines outside all of the tents, so our party of four split up. Then Walt and I had one of the oddest experiences of our lives. Standing at the back of the line for the Hofbrau tent, one of the women working security roughly grabbed us, dragged us to the front and into the tent, found a table for us, and aggressively shoved festivalgoers down the benches to make room for us. We were in.

We told Lauren and Kelly where we were, and they managed to join us not too long after that. Hofbrau has a well-deserved reputation as the party tent, and we enjoyed a raucous evening of beers by the liter while everyone sang along to “Country Roads,” “Hey Jude,” and other classics.

The next day was dedicated to Oktoberfest. We slept in, then began at the Fischer-Vroni tent for lunch. Then we strolled through the fesitval, enjoying the rides, food and drink.

Oktoberfest Oktoberfest

In the morning we did a walking tour of Munich. We saw some of the city’s churches and squares. We also visited the English Garden, Munich’s massive central park. The park is beautiful, and one of the creeks flowing through it had swelled with the recent rain, creating a standing wave. A group of local surfers sat on the banks, taking turns riding the wave. In the afternoon, Walt and I rode out to the airport to catch our flights back to San Francisco.