One of the problems with wandering around a city is that sometimes you really need context to understand what you’re looking at. This isn’t a problem if there are signs/plaques/tour guides around to explain things, but what if there isn’t? (dun dun dun!)
Take, for instance, Brandenburg Tor:
This is a gate (obviously), and used to be an entrance to the city way back in time, i.e. the 18th century. The chariot at the top has 4 horses that are being drawn by the goddess of victory.
Aaaaannnddd that’s pretty much all I got (or remember). But thanks to Wikipedia I can learn more fun facts, such as:
1) The gate is often used as a symbol of unity and peace. For example, during World War 2 the gate was damaged, and after the war the governments of East and West Berlin worked together to restore the gate. Can anyone say “teamwork”? How about “unity”?
2) While it didn’t serve as an actual gate for the Berlin Wall (it was close to one, though), this Gate was a symbol of freedom and unity after the Berlin Wall fell. People gathered at this location to watch the wall come down – and they gathered there again for the 20th anniversary. Plus, on December 22, 1989 the West German Chancellor walked through this gate and greeted the East German Chancellor, which is just all kinds of symbolic.
Now wouldn’t that information have made a walk through the gate much more interesting?
As another example, here’s something my Sister and I came across that we had no idea what the heck it was:
It’s a lot of blocks of different sizes, right in central Berlin. We walked through it, wondering what the heck it was. We looked for signs/information (admittedly we didn’t look very hard, but we still glanced), finding nothing. Finally, we came across something on another side that told us it was a Holocaust Memorial, and gave us a bit of information (but not a lot).
Now that I have access to the internet I can google the heck out of it:
1) It’s a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The sculpture itself doesn’t have anything that actually mentions this, although there is an underground information centre with the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims (which my sister and I did not find during our wanderings-through).
2) The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of differing height. It is supposed to represent “a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason” and is supposed to produce “an uneasy, confusing atmosphere” (Wikipedia). It is confusing (especially if you can’t figure out what it is), and when you start walking through it you notice how the slabs start to tower overhead, creating almost a claustrophobic atmosphere. Also, people have likened the slabs to tombstones.
Even though I managed to get a bit of the feeling the artist wanted to convey, I’d like to walk through this again knowing what it’s about.
You can take guided tours of the city (there are walking tours, bus tours, bicycle tours, even segway tours – just google it). It will cost you, but you’ll also get a well-informed tour guide. Or you can research things before hand so that you won’t have to rely on information plaques.
Or you can wander around, taking photos of everything and deciphering everything once you get back.
I’ll leave it up to you which one you’d prefer.