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berlin wall graffitiIt took two trips for me to find the beauty in Berlin.

On my first visit, my husband and I made it our mission to see as many 20th-century historical sights as we could in our limited time in Germany‘s capital. We took a World War II walking tour, strolled along the graffiti-laden remnants of the Wall at the East Side Gallery, checked out Checkpoint Charlie and read every solemn panel at the Topography of Terror.

By the time we got to the Jewish Museum Berlin, one of the largest and most moving collections of its kind, we were wiped out. The city’s bleak past had crushed us with its enormity, to the point where I couldn’t wait to leave.

When a conference called me back to Berlin this year, I vowed to give the city another chance. While you can’t ignore the horrors of the Nazi and Cold War eras, Berlin has so much more to offer travelers, particularly those interested in art (and those on a limited budget; Berlin is a bargain among European capitals). Plus I had read that the city’s culinary reputation was on an upswing.

To save money, friends and I rented a two-bedroom apartment through Airbnb on the Ku’damm, the main boulevard of the former Western portion of the city. We knew the neighborhood of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf was upscale, but we didn’t realize how much until our taxi deposited us at a building opposite Gucci.

Although not as trendy as Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg neighborhoods, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf still offered plenty to do and see within walking distance. The city’s public transportation system is reliable and covers most of the city (the Berlin WelcomeCard makes getting around even easier), and most Berliners speak enough English for non-German-speakers to get by.

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On this visit, I made it to Museum Island, the center of Berlin’s State Museums complex that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the five buildings in the middle of the Spree, I chose the Pergamon Museum, primarily so I could see the famous Pergamon Altar, an acropolis that dates back to the first half of the second century. While it was indeed impressive, I was more blown away by the Ishtar Gate, part of the ancient city of Babylon that’s been reassembled. As with any ancient treasure, it’s debatable whether it belongs in Berlin — the British Museum in London faces similar ethical issues — but for now, it’s the pinnacle of German archaeology.

After viewing ancient masterpieces, I went more modern with my next museum. Helmut Newton is one of Germany’s more famous — and notorious — photographers, and I remember his sexy photos of celebs like Madonna from the 1980’s. Many of his more ambitious works are permanently housed at the Helmut Newton Foundation, which also hosts regular exhibitions. (If you go, leave your Victorian sensibilities at the door; his photos can be explicit in nature.)

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On my first Berlin visit, I tried — and disliked — currywurst, the city’s most popular street food (while others love the combination of curry and ketchup, it didn’t sit right with me). Berlin’s culinary reputation has grown in the subsequent years, however, and the city now has 13 restaurants with Michelin stars. While I didn’t have the budget or the wherewithal to make reservations at a place like Fischers Fritz, I did experience a better class of cuisine with a stop at KaDeWe, a department store food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London. We found plenty of delicacies — think cheeses, pates and Rieslings — to fill our apartment refrigerator.

Eager to prove that Berlin boasts international cuisine, a local friend took me to 3 Minutes Sur Mer, a French restaurant in the newly trendy Torstrasse district. On the menu were escargot, fish and other brasserie-style dishes that defied the German stereotype of heavy food. Between that and the emphasis that I saw on local and organic produce, Berlin seems to be shedding its stodgy reputation — good news for foodies.

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I left Berlin with a lighter spirit and a better appreciation for the city’s comeback. A thriving tech scene means that the more young people from across the E.U. are setting up shop here — and I’m eager to go back and see how a vibrant 21st century uplifts a place that’s had more than its share of tragedy.

— written by Chris Gray Faust

berlin Brandenburg gateTwenty-two years ago tomorrow, the first step was taken towards a united Germany (and an Iron Curtain-less Eastern Europe) when the two Germany’s signed a treaty to unite East and West. While the Iron Curtain didn’t actually come down that day, it certainly sustained a major chip.

Thinking back on it, I’m reminded of my own trip behind the Iron Curtain when I was 16 years old. I’m struck by how far away those countries seemed.

In some cases (like Berlin and Warsaw), the actual hours and minutes it takes to get there have shortened, as nonstop flights to these cities are now available from many U.S. cities. But in all cases, the feeling of distance traveled has shrunk significantly.

Nowadays, when you arrive at the airport in Budapest (or Warsaw or Prague), it doesn’t seem all that different from the airport you departed from. There are arrival, transfer and departure signs in the local language and English; plenty of people are smiling at you; and everyone is welcoming you to their country. Chances are you’ll whiz through security and immigration and be on your sightseeing way in no time.

Berlin Travel Guide

Head out onto the streets of Budapest and Warsaw, and you could be in any major European city. Even Prague, with its charming medieval architecture, is so overrun with expatriates from the U.S. and England that you never feel you’ve traveled too far from home.

But 22 years ago, it wasn’t like that at all. Back then those destinations were sooo far from home – not because of the physical distance but because of how far away from the familiar they were.

Until I went to Budapest at age 16 (back in 1986), I had never seen soldiers walking around with automatic weapons before. I’d seen it on the evening news, sure. But not in places that tourists go.

As a teenager I was used to going through an airport basically unremarked by security. But in Budapest my luggage was checked thoroughly. For what, I’m not sure. We were told ahead of time that blue jeans were a hot commodity in Eastern Europe, so maybe these guys (who were probably only a few years older than me) were hoping to score a pair of jeans or a Walkman!

Once in Budapest, the faraway-ness of it all intensified. There were soldiers everywhere. People walked quickly, with their heads down, and never smiled our way. But the most foreign (and scariest) moment of all occurred when a girl in my group accidentally took a photograph of a police car and two policemen while snapping a picture of an immense building. They immediately came towards us, demanded her camera and then exposed the film.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

Never before had any of us ever been subjected to anything like this. To say we were farther from home than just 10 hours or so would have been an understatement. Truly, we had traveled to another world.

Did you ever travel behind the Iron Curtain? How “far away” was it for you?

— written by Dori Saltzman