big german cities


In late February we enjoyed a short but lively weekend in Koeln, the capital of North-Rhineland Westphalia— the German state that borders Belgium and the Netherlands.

The first thing to come to mind is the famed neo-gothic Cologne Cathedral. It is the landmark of the Köln skyline and most visible point within the city, which by comparison is much less ornate. Many of the buildings in Köln are emblematic of Germany’s post-war modern reconstruction; It is one of the oldest cities in the country but bares the resemblance of a 20th C. city.

For many visitors (including us) Köln’s draw is simply the promise of a good time. And partly the intent to drink Kölsch, the local brew.


Above: Thousands of ‘love locks’ on the Hohenzollern Bridge.  We spotted some goodies.

Before we visited, Köln had just held their biggest party of the year: Fasching Karneval. Chatter about the event was a partial catalyst for our trip to the city.  In this popular European tradition there are parties, performances and televised entertainment shows.  And similar to Mardi Gras, the cities hold parades and people wear bright costumes. Fasching marks the first signs of Spring and the coming of Lent.  In mid-February, Köln was the place to be!

Most of our weekend was spent in the Innenstadt— a central, compact area of sights surrounded by the Grüngürtel, the city’s belt of park space. The area has shopping, museums and great nightlife.   Köln also had some of the tastiest food we have eaten in the whole country. We headed to Bastian’s for a Café-style breakfast that included their delicious landbrot (sourdough wheat bread), and later we detoured to Bay Area Burrito Company for our first real (‘good’) burrito in a year!

Koeln was full of nice surprises!

Below: Dropped Cone (2001) in Neumarkt Galerie is a recent work of Claes Oldenberg, also known for Spoonbridge and Cherry (1988) at the Walker Art Museum Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis!



Kölsch is a regional variety of beer — Making Köln somewhat of a destination for those who want to drink Kölsch ‘vom Fass’, fresh off the tap.  It is Germany’s only all-barley pale ale (though nothing like an American pale ale) and is poured in a small, narrow .2l glass called a Stangen which fares well for bar-hopping and warm summer patios.

One of our favorite spots was the beer hall at Früh am Dom, one of the bigger names in Kölsch brewing.   A Saturday night at Früh was as lively as a Bavarian brew house, minus the lederhosen. The servers keep their trays filled and are happy to tally your coaster each time they swap out an empty glass.

You can read about a New Yorker’s entrancement with Kölsch here or try one of a handful of  Kolsch-style beers that are brewed in the USA, this summer.

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Kölner Dom

The Cologne cathedral was more beautiful than I imagined. For many travelers it is the reason they have come to Köln.   Any doubts about it’s impressive scale were dissolved within a moment.  It is an incredible, monumental structure that fills an entire city block.  The cavernous interior felt bright and peaceful and we left Köln contemplating a new appreciation of this space.

The cathedral is centrally located, and we found ourselves passing it each day.  It is just a few steps from the train station and is the first thing to greet you when you arrive. In the early afternoon we saw the interior transformed as sunlight passed through the stained glass windows. As the above photo shows, at that moment we were surrounded by a mirage of pastel reflections.

Like many churches of this period, construction was ongoing.  The cathedral was fully built 600 years after the first mortar was laid (1248 – 1880), and became the tallest building in the world for 12 years.   The floors are covered with incredible mosaics and the space attracts religious pilgrims who have come to see  the [stated] remains of the biblical Three Wise Men in a golden casket. We also climbed the 500 steps of the spire to reach a viewing platform that overlooks the city.



On the same crisp February afternoon we visited Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Archbishopric of Cologne.  Cologne began as a Roman colony in the Germanic lands and is one of the three oldest cities in Germany.

The museum is a modern, rectangular space built over the ruins of the Gothic church of St Kolumba (origin, 980 A.D.),  with areas of the excavation integrated into the museum.  The museum holds a collection of religious relics, multi-media and contemporary artwork.

It is the newest museum space in the city and was designed by Peter Zumthor, a Swiss Architect. The building has garnered praise for it’s elemental use of light and space (mainly glass and stone) along with a seamless integration of modern design with antiquity.

An unexpected room within the museum was the second floor Leseraum ‘reading room’,  a quiet space.  The room is covered with wood veneer and was a warm, sunlit oasis within the stone interior. The space was especially nice in the diffused winter light.


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Belgisches Viertel

One of our favorite areas of the city, and the best area for nightlife was the Belgisches Viertel ‘Belgian Quarter’, a neighborhood of trendy shops and bars.  Based on a recommendation, we ended the night at Sixpac which was described as a ‘hipster bar’. A hipster bar in Köln had the feel of most places in Minneapolis-St Paul, so we felt right at home!


We may not have visited Köln if it had not been for two back-to-back recommendations that we would miss a sizable part of Germany if we missed Köln.  It is Germany’s 4th largest city and absolutely one of our favorites so far!




Kölsch, A Summer Beer Worth the Fuss New York Times

Germany’s postwar buildings: eyesores or worthy of protection?

Carnival in Franconia: Veitshoechheim 2013 Broadcast  YouTube 
(reminds me of this—->  Lawrence Welk : Adios, Au Revior, Aufwedersian)


In Berlin

A few weeks ago Germany celebrated 25-years of reunification— In Berlin the event was commemorated with the release of  8,000 illuminated balloons which marked an invisible line where the wall once stood.  In 2001, two neighborhoods in what was formerly East Berlin were renamed Mitte and this is the new center of Germany’s capital city. 

We were pretty excited to see weekend spar (sale) train fares to Berlin in late October, so we left from Würzburg early on a Friday morning just as the bakeries were opening. We stopped for butter-hörnchen (a german version of the croissant) and kaffee across the street from our apartment to keep us warm for our 20 minute walk to the train station. One benefit of leaving so early was that we arrived in Berlin before noon!

The Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament, is steps away from the train station– as is the Holocaust Memorial {a maze of stone columns that covers an entire city block, the sensory experience within this space was like nothing I have ever experienced} — to the Brandenberg Gate {the symbol of democratic reunification} — and stopped for lunch in Potsdamer Platz  on our walk  to Hotel Berlin at the southern edge of Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park.

Starstruck at the Bauhaus Archive

We spent Friday afternoon at the Bauhaus Archiv, a three-room gallery that catalogues the beginnings of Germany’s famous design school. The school was founded by Walter Gropius with the intent to use design theory to improve mass-produced products (pre-Ikea). Mies van der Rohe, the third director, moved Bauhaus to Berlin in 1932 (it closed a year later). The introductory courses were taught by already recognized masters— among them: Laszlo Maholy Nagy, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky.

Our visit had one heck of a surprise! We heard Stairway to Heaven playing around the corner and saw a small group of spectators watching an interview being filmed about the making of a Led Zeppelin album. I was deep into my audio guide on the early career of Laszlo Maholy Nagy when Derek motioned me over. We listened–because the interview was in English— still unsure of who was featured.

We had moved on to the next gallery when we saw the mysterious person walking toward us. The camera panned as he turned in our direction. I felt a light breeze and the smell of tangerines (get it? 🙂 and the legendary Jimmy Page floated right by us!!

He has been promoting his newly written autobiography: Jimmy Page / by Jimmy Page.  I was still curious about the interview, so I emailed the archive last week (It was featured in a national arts and culture program on Das Erste 1 on 10/26.) Here is a partial transcript from the interview (in German) where he discusses his time in art school and the impact that Bauhaus had upon him.  You can translate it here.

We wrapped up at the Bauhaus Archive and took the UBahn across the city where we checked out Zeha Berlin {purveyor of soviet-era style footwear}, and warmed up around the corner at one of the sweet cafés on Prezlauner Allee: Betty n’ Caty.  Then we spent a couple of hours browsing books at  Pro QM, an awesome bookshop that specializes in architecture, design, economic critique, pop culture, and social theory.




The next morning we went to Kreuzberg. Berlin is known for having a good supply of international food (and nightlife) and many sites are located within this alternative neighborhood.  While researching Berlin I began to realize that for me food was trumping most of the other sights. I had been following this Instagram feed for weeks, so I was eager to head toward Roamers– a tiny cafe near the edge of the neighborhood.  One look in the steamy, crowded window and we realized it wasn’t gonna happen!  We ended up nearby at an Aussie cafe: Melbourne Canteen eating Berlin-style curry-sauced eggs benedict (a complete rarity in german breakfast) and stopped for a cappuccino from an Aussie barista at 19 grams on our way to the East Side Gallery. We found that there was plenty of english spoken in Berlin.


East Side Gallery

Most of the 96-mile Berlin wall was dismantled by residents after November 9, 1989. The East Side Gallery was quickly preserved as a monument and later established as an art gallery, it is the most complete section (1.3km) in the city.


The gallery murals are ever-changing with vandalism and graffiti. The East Side Gallery was completely restored in 2009., though few of the original artists were willing to recreate their 1990 artwork. The mural below is easily the most iconic and was painted (twice) by Dmitri Vrubel. The image was created from a photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker.  The words read God! help me stay alive / Among this deadly love.

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We stopped for Crepes at Hackesher Hofe market and walked toward Museum Isle.



Many of Berlin’s museums are densely located on Museumsinsel (the perfect place to be on a very chilly October afternoon). Derek picked the Pergamon museum, which was very cool and contains a full-size replica of the Babylonian Gate of Ishtar (used for ceremonial processions), and buckets of other antiquities excavated by German archeologists in the early 1900s. The second floor is the Museum of Islamic Art and Textiles.

Below is the Berlin Dom, with the famous GDR Fernsehturm (tv tower) in the background.

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There is so much to see and do in Berlin, we loved kicking around there for a couple of days!


We read In the Garden of  Beasts, the suspenseful story of the US Ambassador and his family living in Berlin 1933-1937. (Thank you for this recommendation, Evie!)

Berliners Create Grocery Store with Zero Packaging

Buying East German-Style Sneakers at Zeha Berlin New York Times

Angela’s Assets: How Angela Merkel Has Led Germany to New Prominence Vanity Fair

Better photos: Follow Berlinstagram  (on Instagram)

And Finally, Zep Fans:  this tweet


Free and Hanseatic Hamburg (!)

We’ve been enjoying a few days of warm fall weather and it is nice to revisit some of these summer weekends. Our visit to Hamburg and Bremen was in early August, two Hanseatic shipping cities in the north.  Both cities were autonomous until about the 20th C. when they were governed by a guild of powerful merchants– which may help explain the official name, Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. There is a ton happening in Hamburg, we only saw a slice of it, it is very edgy and fun!

It is the #2 largest port in Europe (Rotterdam is #1)

Hamburg is a Stadtstaaten– It is a city and a state

  • It is the #2 largest city in Germany 
  • It is the news & media capitol of Germany
  • Prostitution is legal on the Reeperbahn
  • Everybody visits Miniatur Wunderland
  • Fritz Kola, My second favorite german beverage is made there


Here we go! 36 hours in Hamburg

We settled in for a 7-hr ride via Meinfernbus, a long distance travel bus with awesome low fares. The bus stopped in four other cities along the way and a dinner break at a rest stop Burger King. In Hamburg, we checked in with the night porter at our hotel and went out.  We were headed to an area that promised at least one all-night kitchen— Sternschanze . We visited this neighborhood once and it was scattered with cool shops, apartments, fun bars, and Hamburgers! (in this case, locals)


Altstadt (Old City)

We pushed an early start the next morning. Most of the activity we found in the Altstadt was in the square of Hamburg’s Rathaus (City Hall).



Neustadt (New City)

We stepped into a coffeehouse in the Neustadt for a recharge. I ordered an espresso and started to shift my bag for loose coin. The barista responded “you should enjoy first”, meaning that we should pay when we were ready to leave. I am accustomed to a certain pace when it comes to prepared food.  Here I’ve noticed that people will sit at the same cafe with a single kaffee and Stück Kuchen in the middle of the afternoon like they have nowhere to be for days. I am starting to come around to this sort of thinking.  I tried to sip my espresso as slowly as I could. We motioned that we were ready to bezahlen and headed toward the S-Bahn to spend the rest of the day in St Pauli.



St Pauli:  Reeperbahn, Port of Hamburg, Elbtunnel, Stadtstrand


The most infamous part of St Pauli, and perhaps all of Hamburg, is the Reeperbahn; where street prostitution is legal at certain times of the day. Most of the action is on GrosseFreiheit (freedom street), and one sidestreet —- Herbertstrasse, which restricts boys under 18 and all women. Everybody is sorta curious about the red light districts in Europe, right? This district is fairly regulated. The Reeperbahn is mostly bars and [strip]clubs and felt somewhat like an amusement park— we didn’t see anyone standing in windows like we did in Amsterdam, and nothing as swanky as the Moulin Rouge.

There is a lot more to St Pauli than the Reeperbahn. One of Hamburg’s city soccer clubs, FC St Pauli, in the bundesliga 2, has a loyal following. A couple of years ago they published a set of left-leaning principles focused on social responsibility and attracted even more fans.  We made a quick stop at the team store to browse the goods and pick up some souvenirs.





Port of Hamburg

We left the Reeperbahn and walked toward the Elbe. The city is about 70 miles from the North Sea but a confluence of river channels make it an ideal transport hub. One cool way to get around in Hamburg is by water taxi! You can buy a single ticket for 1.50€ which works for subway, bus, or boat.

Below the Elbe is an old narrow tunnel (Alte Elbtunnel) that was constructed below the water table of the river in 1911. It is modern thoroughfare for tourists, bikes, pedestrians — and, wedding photography! Derek willingly/unwillingly took this picture of me holding my FritzKola at the entrance.  Afterwards we ate fish sandwiches along the wharf, we tried the northern staple, a Bismarck– pickled herring on brotchen (a bun).  This is as close as we got (not very close at all) to the original hamburger, or frikadelle.


Summer in the City (Beaches)

I cannot believe that I haven’t mentioned the city beaches yet!  What better place to relax than on the water.   Germans live along rivers.  What’s missing.  SAND! Sand is missing.  The cities in Germany have the most ingenious outdoor summer bars– Stadtstrand, white sand city beaches. 🙂






The iconic red brick warehouses of the Hamburg skyline are in the Spiecherstadt.  The warehouses are along a network of canals that allowed shipping vessels to unload and store goods before distribution.  Interesting (to me), the signage in this area is in deutsch and chinese. This is also home to the:

Miniature Museum.

The top recommendation from every source we encountered was that everyone must visit the miniature museum.  Initially were were on the fence, take it or leave it, but after seeing the crazy line out the door we thought ‘there must be something good in there’.  Well, well– we soon learned that you just can’t go on a whim. People reserve tickets days in advance, it is quite popular and they admit maybe only 100 patrons/hour. They were booked until 10pm!  At the end of the day we just couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of Miniatur Wunderland.  We came back at 10:30pm, and we got in! We were not alone. It is open until midnight – this is a bigtime operation!!!



One room told the story of Berlin over 1500 years– this replica shows the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


A high level of detail conveys not only landscape and architecture, but also a civic element: scenes of protest, leisure, festivals (Oktoberfest!) family life and a lot of commerce.  Multimedia and automation are integrated too– planes take off and land, the lights dim and brighten (day/night), and trains are on the move.  They had a temporary installation where they asked the leaders of Germany’s numerous political parties to describe their ideal community– then the key principles were translated in miniature scenes. Really cool!


And, we bought a car.

Not a full size car.

This is the model that Derek drives everyday, a VW Passat wagon.  Until next month when the lease is up.  After that it will be just a little piece of history and a toybox model. Crossing our fingers for another station wagon.

On to Bremen—-