Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Rubesh Guide to Berlin

So - our first ever school vacation. With Jad out of kindergarten for Fall Break, we decided to head up north to Berlin for a week. Berlin - a city of culture... of fantastic architecture... of fascinating history. Oh wait... we have KIDS. What I really meant was Berlin, the city of playgrounds... of kids' museums, of INDOOR BEACHES! Read on for the scoop on how to enjoy a week in Berlin, with kids in tow!

Legoland Discovery Center: OK - I have to admit - even I was excited about this place. If you've never played with legos... well, you've missed out! These tiny plastic construction blocks can be assembled into just about ANYTHING you can imagine! Fire breathing dragon? Check! Batman? Roger! Einstein? Why not? Legoland in Berlin is two levels of lego fun - featuring everything from life-sized statues to miniature versions of Berlin landmarks, and a ride through a medieval castle guarded by a dragon... all made out of our favorite mini plastic building blocks! Our favorites were the "4D" movie theater, the "Build and Test" zone - featuring a test track and earthquake generators, and face painting (OK - this one had nothing to do with legos... but it was fun!).

Location: Potsdamer Platz - the rear of the Sony Center, underneath the movie theater.
Entry Fee: 48 Euros for the family.
Tips & Tricks: The combo ticket gives you entrance to Sea Life (see below) for 5 Euros extra per person instead of the normal 16 € for adults and 11.50 € for kids.

Aquadom & Sea Life: A small, but very well done aquarium - taking you on an aquatic journey starting at the smallest creeks and winding its way through rivers, lakes, and eventually to the depths of the ocean. Along the way, meet the critters that live in these underwater worlds - up close and personal! Kyler's favorite was the hands-on splash pool where you could look and touch (and make a watery mess). My favorites were the walk-through shark tank and the glass elevator that slowly rises through 25 meters of tropical waters - filled with thousands of fish. That's about as close as you can get to diving without getting your feet wet!

Location: 10 minute walk from Alexanderplatz
Entry Fee: 5 Euros per person with a combo ticket at Legoland (Adults 16 €, Kids 11.50 € if you purchase these tickets alone).
Tips & Tricks: Don't forget the glass elevator "Aquadom" - which sits in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel next door. Exit Sea Life through the souvenir shop, walk across the alley and through the restaurant to the elevator. Show your Sea Life ticket for the ride.

Berlin Zoo: Prague has a great zoo. Berlin's is even better! It's not a huge place - but it boasts the largest number of species of any zoo in the world. Wagons are available to rent for 3 € at the Lion Gate (closest to the U-Bahn station), and are worth it for families with little feet trudging alongside them.

The animals held the kids' interest for a while. The petting zoo was a lot of fun. What really caught their attention, though, was the fabulous playground in the middle of the zoo. That alone would have been worth the price of admission. Nestled in the woods just across from the bear enclosure, surrounded by picnic tables, and adjacent to a restaurant with Hefeweizen on tap, the playground is the perfect place to camp out on a nice day and turn the kids loose (we just have to wait for Kyler to get old enough to turn loose!)

Location: Zoologischer Garten U-Bahn station
Entry Fee: Adults 12 € (18 € with Aquarium entrance), kids 5 and older 6 € (9 € with Aquarium)
Tips & Tricks: There must zoo maps available somewhere... however, we couldn't find them. You might want to print off a copy before you head over there.

Tropical Islands: Wanna escape a drab Berlin winter? Here's the idea. Take an abandoned blimp hangar. Build a Thai village. Create a beach with tons of imported sand. Fill two giant pools with water. Plant a tropical rainforest between the two... and hey presto - add a couple hundred deck chairs, you have the tropics in the middle of Europe!

While in the Middle East, we escaped the heat on the snowy slopes of Ski Dubai. Here in Europe, we do just the opposite... coming in out of the cold to the warmth of Berlin's Tropical Islands. This place is impressive - the top of the dome roof that houses Tropical Islands is 107 meters above the sand... with no internal supports. The larger of the two main pools has a "Truman Show" feel to it - with a huge mural of a blue sky forming a backdrop at the horizon. You can stay overnight in one of two campsites, or at the "Maharajah Lodge". Take a hot-air balloon ride - inside the dome! Watch shows, play minature golf, ride the highest waterslide in Europe, relax in a hot tub, or just kick back in the sand. The islands' Tropino Club play area for kids gives the Berlin Zoo's playground a real run for its money.

Want a day in the sun... no matter what the weather's like outside? The Tropical Islands hit the spot!

Location: Approximately 35 Km south of Berlin - just off E55/A13. Take exit 6 - Staakow towards Golßen (follow the signs to Tropical Islands).
Entry Fee: 25 € per adult, 19.50 € for kids. Yeah... it's not cheap. But it's the beach. In BERLIN!
Tips & Tricks: Get there early. Though the islands are open 24 hours a day (you can camp out on the beach), we hit a morning rush at about 10:00 AM, and waited in line about 1 1/2 hours to get in. If there is a line, enter the building through the left side of the double doors. That side splits into 4-5 individual lines inside the building. The folks on the right side all have to wait for one attendant. You'll be issued an electronic wristband, with which you'll be encouraged to charge up as much food, drink and other services as possible. You pay only when you exit... and if you're not careful, you'll be surprised by how fast things add up!

KinderCity: KinderCity is sneaky. It's two floors full of hands-on things for kids to play with. They'll be having so much fun playing that they may not realize that they're learning along the way! The place is organized into different "knowledge lanes" - each teaching kids about something different. There's a section about the human body and our senses, one about movement, a mini TV studio where you can dress up and take turns giving the weather forecast or running the control board, and more! Downstairs, the kiddos can play with water - building dams and seeing how balls navigate through the rivers they've created... before shooting the balls back up to the top again. Great fun!

And - while the kids are busy having fun (and surreptitiously learning)... the big kids can check out the fantastic Titanic exhibit. Plan to budget at least an hour on this fascinating walk through the history of the Titanic and its ill-fated maiden voyage, complete with artifacts from the ship, stories of the key players, and life-size replicas of some of the Titanic's staterooms. Recorded commentary in your language of choice is keyed to the different artifacts, photographs and models. The display houses the best scale model of the ship I've ever seen - with one side of the model cut away to reveal the inside of the ship. Fantastic stuff!

Location: KinderCity is a couple blocks away from the Alexanderplatz UBahn, on the top floor of the Alexa Shopping Mall.
Entry Fee: 9.50 € per kid (including a ride on the train or car track), 8.50 € for adults (I guess they figure the big kids don't play as much). A combo-ticket including the Titanic exhibit costs 10.90 €.
Tips & Tricks: The food court on the mall level just below KinderCity is a great (and inexpensive) place to fuel up before continuing your Berlin Adventure.

Berlin City-Circle Tour: There's no better way to see the city than from one of the many double-decker tour buses. The City-Circle bus route takes about 2 hours to cover its 15 stops around Berlin. You can hop on or off the bus as many times as you want throughout the day. With three tired kids, you don't do much hopping though... and the bus is a great place for a quick afternoon nap while Dad and Mom soak up the sights! Recorded commentary at each seat in a number of languages will let you know what you're seeing, and give you some of the history of the town.

Location: We hopped on at Alexanderplatz... though you can join the tour in progress at any of the 15 stops.
Entry Fee: 20 € per adult. Kids under 6 free.
Tips & Tricks: If you didn't have sleepy kids with you, this would be a great way to get to a couple of the major attractions we didn't get to see - the Reichstag, CheckPoint Charlie, etc. You could stretch the tour out to a full day - your ticket is good for 24 hours worth of hopping!

German Museum of Technology: We finished up our trip to Berlin with a day at this fabulous museum. Spectrum is a kid's museum - four floors of hands on displays - pulleys you can yank, lasers you can point, drums you can pound on, and even a house that makes you think you're going upside down! Even Kyler tried his hands (and feet) at most of the displays.

Down the block in a separate complex of buildings is the main museum. Train Locomotives inhabit a reconstructed engine house. Models of ships of all shapes and sizes, airplanes, rockets and more fill four floors in the new museum building. We just barely scratched the surface of this museum... I could have spent days exploring it! Unfortunately, the not-so hands on aspect of the main museum buildings (except for the hands on train engine that Engineers Jad and Danna loved "fixing") make it not quite as interesting for the little guys.

Location: Möckernbrücke is the closest U-Bahn station.
Entry Fee: 4.50 € per adult 2.50 € for kids gets you into both sites.
Tips & Tricks: Though most of the exhibits stand in their own right, almost all signage is in German. If you have the time to put into really exploring this place, pay the extra couple of Euro for the 90 minute audio-tour.