Berlin has a turbulent history, but has strived as a city to break through and is now a strong, influential and worldly city in the centre of Europe. Strap yourselves in, this is a lengthy post. Grab a cuppa or something a little stronger (it’ll make me funnier) and get comfy. I’m going to tell you about my favourite bits of Berlin and help you plan your trip there.
Initially, we only planned to only stay in Berlin for one week. As you may have read in a previous blog post, our visas were stolen and we were in the process of getting replacements when we were in Berlin. Due to the slow replacement process, we ended up being there for about a month. Although it was frustrating to wait, we did get to explore a hell of a lot of Berlin too and I loved it.
This wasn’t my first time in Berlin. I spent one very cold day in December 2010 while on a student exchange. My memories were freezing my
ass bottom off, being super impressed by the Brandenburg Gate and East Side Gallery and hanging out with my German sister, Jenny 😀
This trip was more of an in-depth discovery of the city.
As you may know, I love a good history lesson. And you just cannot talk about Berlin without at least mentioning the history. So settle in while I drop some cold hard knowledge, or skip below to the pretty pictures if you’d prefer.
Berlin was first established during the 13th century and quickly became a busy trading centre. Berlin slowly grew from there and became the capital of the Prussian Empire. The 16th century brought the thirty years war, it was one of the biggest European wars in terms of casualties. Leaving Berlin, like most of Europe, in ruins. In early 19th century, Napoleon marched his army through the Brandenburg Gate into Berlin, which he would occupy until the end of his reign. After Napoleon’s defeat, the powers of Europe reorganised the territories and Berlin was, once again, the capital of Prussia. After several attempts of unifying the German speaking states, Wilhelm I was the first emperor of the unified German-speaking states (except Austria) in 1871. Berlin grew rapidly in population after this and quickly became industrialised. This empire ruled until 1918.
After WWI, Berlin remained as the capital city but the governing system of Germany changed and became the Weimar Republic. As the great depression hit and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party began, Berlin was at the centre of it all. War broke out and Berlin was almost completely destroyed. Germany was then divided into four military occupation areas under the Allies; Great Britain, France, USA and the Soviet Union. Berlin lay inside the Soviet area and was also split into east (Soviet) and west (Great Britain, USA and France).
In the first decade of the split, citizens could move freely across the border in Berlin, many East Germans worked in the West and could go across as they pleased. This facilitated a mass migration of East Germans to move to the West taking their knowledge and trades with them. Three quarters of the immigration occurred at the East-West Berlin border. This caused huge problems for the Soviet run East Berlin/Germany, you can’t run a country if the population keep leaving. So, overnight on the 13th of August 1961, a temporary boundary was erected smack bang through the middle of Berlin and right around the edge of West Berlin. The guards and military were told to work in the middle of the night to block the East German population from escaping into the west. When met with no backlash from the allied powers particularly the USA, the wall was solidified. 6 vertical feet of concrete, a whole lot of barbed wire, watch towers and security right along the border, there was small chance for escape. Many tried, some successful, others weren’t.
In Berlin, foreigners were allowed to cross into West Berlin from East Germany along various checkpoints, but East Berliners weren’t allowed to cross into West Berlin through the central city wall. This wall divided the city of Berlin (and Germany) for almost three decades. Until the summer of 1989, uprisings and reformation protests were building, the borders from Hungary and Czechoslovakia were opening. East Germans holidaying in these areas now had legal way to go into the West. Pressure mounted on the East German government. On the evening of 9th November 1989, a press conference was held and it was announced that East Germans would be allowed free travel to the West….at once. There were absolute scenes as many Germans from the East walked, drove and jumped across the once restricting barrier. Many changes and developments were made to unify Germany, financially, socially and politically. The re-unification was made official on the 3rd of October 1990 as the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany).
Berlin (and Germany) rose from the ashes. Now Berlin stands as one of the coolest and most famous cities of Europe. It’s also made the very prestigious list as one of my favourite cities.
Potsdamer Platz was the busiest intersection in Europe in the ’20s and the heart of Berlin’s nightlife. During the division of Germany it was in no man’s land, now it’s home to the famous Sony Centre. Central, busy, lit up to the full at night it’s a great place to check out. Here, there is a display of the Berlin Wall, it’s ok but to be honest, it’s covered in chewing gum and is kinda gross, there are better places to see parts of the wall.
This a famous Eastern square. In the summer its a constant market of different souvenirs, street performers and food stalls. Great to lounge around in the evenings. It also has the World Clock that shows all the current times throughout the world and it’s around the corner from the TV tower.
Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)
This is one of my favourite ever landmarks. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it. I mentioned in our Europe awards post that I over-hyped it for James. But it IS super cool and it’s seen a lot of history. It’s the last of 18 gates that created the Berlin Customs Wall in the 18th century. The quadriga (chariot and 4 horses) that sits on top of the gate was stolen by Napoleon in the 19th century and taken back to Paris. Eventually the Prussians took the topper back, changed it to the goddess of Victory, and plopped her back on top of the gate. During the wall years, it was also in no man’s land between the East and West and is now a famous tourist spot in Pariser Platz.
Rotes Rathaus (Red town hall)
I reckon the name sounds better in German. This was the town hall for East Berlin. It is, like the name, red and town hall-y. It’s a beautiful big building not far from Alexander Platz and you are allowed inside. It’s nice for a quick wee nosy. There’s a large entrance chamber and interesting stained glass windows. It’s a quick stop while walking through the centre city.
Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral)
I must say this is hard to miss. It’s a massive green dome in the middle of Museum Insel (Museum Island), it’s gothic, has gold embellishments and looks pretty awesome. There is a large grassy area out the front to lounge in the sun (or maybe accidentally sit in your boyfriend’s gum, who irresponsibly placed it in the grass to dispose of later).
This park is central and just behind the Brandenburg Gate. It’s pretty cool, there are several memorials and statues throughout it including the Soviet War Memorial and the Victory Column for the Danish-Prussian War. On the far west side there is also a hidden Biergarten. Great for a walk around to get amongst some nature and could be even better on a bike.
Nicholaiviertel (Nicholas’ Quarter)
This area was founded in 1200, the trading centre of Berlin’s beginnings. The church and surrounding buildings have been reconstructed to show the history of this area. It’s just around the corner from Alexanderplatz. Cute for a wander.
Unter den Linden
The main road leading through the east part of the city. On the old Berlin Castle grounds (on the left of the Cathedral) the Humboldt Forum is being constructed, due to be finished next year, it’s at the heart of the Museum Island and will contain a museum, theatre and restaurants.
East Side Gallery
At 1.3km long, this is the longest part of the wall left standing. It is covered in peace and unity murals painted after the collapse of the wall. It’s pretty cool and is updated from time to time. Unfortunately, there is a bit of graffiti on it, which makes me a bit sad. The artwork and murals have great meanings and some plonkers come along and tag it, but still a great place to see the wall and the meanings are still relevant today.
This, in my opinion, is the best place to learn about the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) and its FREE (cheap Ash on the ball). Bernauer Strasse is a famous street for many escapes during the wall years. When the wall was constructed it was through an apartment building on this street. In the beginning people were jumping out the windows to escape into West Berlin. The residents were evicted and the building was boarded up and blocked off. It was split as a no man’s land, as you walk along the street there are markings on the ground of where tunnels had been dug, where the wall once was, where a church had stood. There is a lot of information and stories along the street, there are voice recordings of real people telling their stories in German and English. And at the end there is a museum with more stories and videos and recordings. If you go to the top of the museum there is a view of a set where they’ve staged a short area of what the street had once looked like, with a watchtower and no man’s land. It’s quite spooky but brings more understanding about the wall. Highly recommend this spot!
Flak tower at Humboldthain park
A critical hill in the war, it faces north and was an important spot for protecting Berlin. There is still the multi-levelled bunker used for shooting planes and protecting citizens. You are able to go inside it for about €10.
Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
This Memorial is just a stones throw from the Brandenburg Gate. It’s 2711 concrete squares, all of different heights and over undulating ground used as a memorial site for the murdered Jew of Europe during the Nazi regime. It dips down in the centre making the towers feel taller and more imposing. It’s very unique, effective and a must see.
You can’t go into Hitler’s bunker. But there is a carpark in the centre of town which is directly above the bunker where he spent his last weeks before committing suicide. There is no markings or signs to show where it was. It’s weird to be there, standing above it. We were shown it on a walking tour of the city, interesting to see it and be there, not absolutely necessary.
This is a replica checkpoint on the site of the famous Checkpoint Charlie. It was the checkpoint between the American and Russian sectors of Berlin. There was a famous 16-hour standoff between Russian and American tanks in 1961, no shots were fired and both sides eventually retreated. Here you can see the famous “You are now leaving/entering the American sector” sign, get photos with American and Russian “guards” and buy a piece of the wall (not sure how genuine these are). It’s a very touristy spot, full of people and over-priced souvenirs. It is good for a quick look for historical purposes but I wouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes there.
Deutsches Historisches Museum (German history museum)
This museum is worth a visit if you’ve got a few hours and are interested in German History. It takes you right back to the start. Through the Prussian emperors, Napoleon’s rule (even one of his hats is there), Holy Roman Empire, and World War I. There is a huge exhibit on WWII and the Cold War, very thorough. I recommend to history nerds like me, James had to hurry me up because I was very enthralled in the exhibits.
Museum Insel (Museum Island)
Literally an island in the middle of the Spree river with, you guessed it, museums. On the island, there is also the Berlin Cathedral and Humboldt Forum (the site of the old Berlin Palace). There is the Altes Museum (Old Museum), Neues Museum (New Museum), Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), Bode Museum and the Pergamon Museum. Worth a look, but be early, the lines can get super long.
Deutsches Spionage museum (German Spy Museum)
If you’re into gadgets and the history of spying and espionage then this museum is for you. There is information on the beginnings of spying and the development over the years with heaps of gadgets and spy stories. It’s pretty exciting to learn about it all in Berlin, as there was a lot of spying in WWII and through the Cold War. My favourite part of the museum was the tripwire area. You try to make it through a series of tripwires in a certain time, you feel like a secret agent and it’s super fun. I never made it all the way through :/
Some other museums of interest
The Jewish History Museum is very interesting and has a unique architecture while taking you through the history of Judaism. The Menschen Museum (People Museum) is full of cadavers and human body models teaching you about the human anatomy and physiology (I was totally amped on all the human body facts #physiolife).
Fernsehenturm (TV Tower)
This is hard to miss, massive tall tower with a ball on the top in the centre of town. Great for a view of Berlin. We did this on our last day in the city, it gave an awesome view of all the places we’d been. It would also be good to go up there on the first or second day in town to get your bearings of the city. I recommend getting there when it opens at 9 am to beat the rush and it costs about €8 each.
Reichstag (German Parliament building)
Amazing old building with a fancy modern glass dome on top. You can actually go inside the dome for free and get an awesome view of Berlin. We went in the evening and were up there for sunset., It was amazing to see the city light up before us. If you went during the day, I reckon you would be able to see further across the city. You just need to book your tickets in advance online or you can line up at a booth across the road from the building. You also get an audioguide, free of charge, that describes the buildings as you walk up and around the dome.
Mauer Park (Wall park)
Mauer Park is another place to see some of the remnants of the Berlin wall, running right through the middle of it. Every Sunday there is a big market at the park, where small independent brands and shops sell amazing unique goods, great food and drink, and also some good (and bad) second-hand clothes. There are musicians, street performer, magicians throughout the park and in the afternoon they start up some karaoke. It’s a great Sunday afternoon vibe with people barbequing all over the show and chillin’ out on the grass. On the wall, street artist paint murals every week, so it is an ever-changing art gallery. Some parts where the paint has been pulled off you can see how thick the layers of paint are. Unbelievable.
This is a large, abandoned airport, it covers a massive area, grass and concrete. It’s a cool place to chill out or have a picnic. This would also be a good place to tear around on bikes.
KaDeWe + United Buddy Bear Project
KaDeWe is a famous department store in Berlin, it’s massive! We went in for a look, accidentally got separated and spent about an hour trying to find each other. Just outside the store is a small square with a whole bunch of bears. This area is home to the United Buddy Bear project, with over 140 bears representing many different countries standing in a “peaceful” circle to show unity. We found the New Zealand one 😃 A very cool project.
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
We stumbled across this one accidentally. We went wandering around some western suburbs and found this church which was blown up in WWII and never fully repaired. There is a memorial on the bottom floor that you can visit. Among Berliners is nicknamed “der hohle Zahn” (the hollow tooth). Right next door there was a summer fest, steins, waffles, currywurst, a great wee place for an afternoon if you’re in Berlin in Summer.
Hackescher Markt (Hacke’s Market)
Located in central Berlin, this is a hub of transport and nightlife. There is a labyrinth of small creative shops and businesses interspersed with cute courtyards. A nice spot for a wander and a bite to eat.
Currywurst – Famously made in Berlin, a German bratwurst chopped up with curry powder and tomato sauce, it quickly became James’ favourite choice.
Berliner – named after the city, a Berliner is a type of doughnut.
Berliner bier – Standard decent German Beer.
German Language: if you’re German is dodgy, it’s ok most people speak English.
Transport: Berlin has good train and tram routes through central Berlin and a circular train around the edges. There are daily and weekly passes that can make your transport cheaper if you plan to use public transport more than three times a day. Central Berlin is reasonably accessible by foot. Pop on a good pair of walking shoes and you can walk between Alexander Platz, past the Cathedral, down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz.
Ash and the Bears of Berlin
Berlin’s symbol is a bear, all around the city there are plenty of different coloured and patterned fibreglass bears. Here are some of the ones I met!
I’ve tried to segment Berlin out into different areas of interest. It’s hard though, most of these sights and activities fit under more than one heading. I hope it’s given you a good idea of Berlin, its history and why it’s so great. I really enjoy writing this post, it took me back to the warmth of summer, which is much needed in this cool London autumn-winter crossover.
References and further information:
Goodbye Lenin (spoken in German)
Das Leben der Anderen (The lives of others) (spoken in German)
Bridge of Spies (spoken in English)
Das Leben der Anderen (The lives of others) (spoken in German)
Bridge of Spies (spoken in English)
Short video about Berlin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tQBWfrDJDw
Armchair History on Youtube has simple and easy to follow animated history lessons: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeUJFQ0D9qs6aVNyUt9fkeQ
History Channel Doco: The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall, lots of escape stories: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiSfHuiHQJQ
History Channel Doco: The History of the Berlin Wall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFVR8-ubRi4
Colour footage of Berlin in 1945: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5i9k7s9X_A
Amazing multi-media website about the Berlin Wall: https://www.the-berlin-wall.com/
History of Berlin, Lonely Planet: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/germany/berlin/history
History of Berlin: https://historyofberlin.weebly.com/berlin-during-wwi.html
United Buddy Bear: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Buddy_Bears
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Wilhelm_Memorial_Church
Berlin Palace: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Palace
Napoleon and the Brandenburg Gate: https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/what-did-napoleon-do-with-the-horses-on-the-brandenburg-gate-berlin/
Berlin Customs Wall: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Customs_Wall
German Empire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Empire