“Poor but sexy” is how hipster Berlin mayor, Klaus Wowereit, proudly describes his city. Its poverty stems back to World War II devastation when bombs razed 92 percent of buildings and provoked serious debate about leaving the city in ruins and starting afresh nearby. Decades of rebuilding have since almost totally rejuvenated Berlin, but have also left it broke.
Its sexiness dates back even further to the debauched 1920s, but began to take on its present-day form during the Cold War when a military service loophole and the huge West German arts scene subsidies attracted hippies, punks, gays and lesbians, artists and musicians. Subsequent waves of economic immigrants from Greece, Italy and Turkey; those linked to the occupying American, British and French forces; and the current crop of adventurous urbanites from all over the developed world, have all made Berlin Germany’s most cosmopolitan city by far.
This multiculturalism is readily reflected in the excellent variety of cuisines on offer in the city’s restaurants, cafés and bars, but the “poor and sexy” combination has also created a vibrant place where cutting-edge designs and offbeat concepts have plenty of room to breathe, with both elements especially evident in Berlin’s legendary, nonstop nightlife, and energetic contemporary arts scene.
By day, however, it’s the city’s remarkable museums, memorials, historic sights and modern buildings that tend to capture the imagination of even those with little interest in history or architecture. The city’s medley of architectural styles range from its reconstructed sixteenth-century core, the Nikolaiviertel, and a grand nineteenth-century Neoclassical imperial showpiece quarter, all the way through to neighbourhoods that were mainly crafted during, and by, the conflicting ambitions and philosophies of the Cold War. Then, when the German government decided to move back to Berlin, it both brought with it, and stimulated, a whole host of contemporary building projects.
Berlin’s Mitte district – literally “centre” – is huge, cosmopolitan, varied and packed with enough attractions and parks to keep you busy for days. The city’s most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, is here, as is its parliament and main train station, but what really sticks out on any Berlin map is the Tiergarten, a giant central park. At its southeastern corner, lie the world-class art museums of the Kulturforum and the thrusting modern skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz – Berlin’s Piccadilly Circus or Times Square.
Northwest of here along the city’s premier boulevard Unter den Linden, Neoclassical Berlin asserts itself in districts built during the city’s time as Prussian capital. Here Museum Island incorporates Berlin’s most magnificent museums, while further east again lies the GDR’s 1960s socialist showpiece quarter, centred around the broad concrete plaza of Alexanderplatz and the distinctive Fernsehturm TV tower. The only real break from the area’s modernity is the Nikolaiviertel, a tiny rebuilt version of old Berlin, and the Spandauer Vorstadt, an old Jewish quarter, with fascinating reminders of those days, though today better known for its fairly touristy restaurants, bars and nightlife, and a loosely-defined fashion district full of stylish urbanwear boutiques.
Though cut off by the Wall for thirty years, the eastern part of the city – the Mitte district – has always been the capital’s real centre. This is the city’s main sightseeing and shopping hub and home to many of the best places to visit in Berlin. Head here for visual inspiration on things to do in Berlin.
Most visitors begin their exploration on the city’s premier boulevard Unter den Linden, starting at the most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, then moving over to the adjacent seat of Germany’s parliament, the Reichstag. Unter den Linden’s most important intersection is with Friedrichstrasse, which cuts north–south.
At its eastern end Unter den Linden is lined by stately Neoclassical buildings and terminates on the shores of Museum Island, home to eastern Berlin’s leading museums, but its natural extension on the other side of the island is Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, which leads to a distinctively GDR-era part of the city around Alexanderplatz, the eastern city’s main commercial and transport hub.
Northwest from here, the Spandauer Vorstadt was once the heart of the city’s Jewish community, and has some fascinating reminders of those days, though today it’s best known for the restaurants, bars, boutiques and nightlife around the Hackescher Markt.
Back at the Brandenburg Gate, a walk south along the edge of the gigantic Tiergarten park takes you to the swish modern Potsdamer Platz, a bustling entertainment quarter that stands on what was for decades a barren field straddling the death-strip of the Berlin Wall.
Huddled beside Potsdamer Platz is the Kulturforum, an agglomeration of cultural institutions that includes several high-profile art museums. Also fringing the park are Berlin’s diplomatic and government quarters, where you’ll find some of the city’s most innovative architecture, including the formidable Hauptbahnhof.
The western end of the Tiergarten park is given over to a zoo, which is also the name of the main transport hub at this end of town. This is the gateway to City West, West Berlin’s old centre and is best known for its shopping boulevards, particularly the upmarket Kurfürstendamm.
Schöneberg and Kreuzberg, the two residential districts immediately south of the centre, are home to much of Berlin’s most vibrant nightlife. The former is smart and is popular as a gay area, while Kreuzberg is generally grungy and edgy.
Beyond Kreuzberg’s eastern fringes, and back in what used to be East Berlin is Friedrichshain which offers some unusual architectural leftovers from the Eastern Bloc of the 1950s, while to the north Prenzlauer Berg is one of the few places in which the atmosphere of prewar Berlin has been preserved – complete with cobbled streets and ornate facades.
Berlin’s eastern suburbs are typified by a sprawl of prewar tenements punctuated by high-rise developments and heavy industry, though the lakes, woodland and small towns and villages dotted around Köpenick offer a genuine break from the city.
The leafy western suburbs are even more renowned for their woodland (the Grunewald) and lakes (the Havel), with more besides: attractions include the baroque Schloss Charlottenburg, with its adjacent art museums; the impressive 1930s Olympic Stadium; the Dahlem museum complex, which displays everything from German folk art to Polynesian huts; and the medieval town of Spandau.
Further out, foremost among possible places to visit on day-trips are Potsdam, location of Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci palace, and the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin in Oranienburg.
During East Berlin’s forty-year existence, while Unter den Linden was allowed to represent Berlin’s glorious past, the area northeast of the Spreeinsel as far as major transport hub Alexanderplatz, was meant to represent the glories of a modern socialist capital city. It’s easily located thanks to its gigantic Fernsehturm, or TV Tower, and there’s almost no trace of an earlier history. Postwar rebuilding projects saw whole streets and neighbourhoods vanish under vast and dreary concrete plazas and buildings housing missable shops and cafés. Exceptions include two large prewar buildings, the Rotes Rathaus, seat of Berlin’s administration, and the Marienkirche, Berlin’s oldest church.
Looming over the Berlin skyline like a giant olive on a cocktail stick, the Fernsehturm (Television Tower) is Western Europe’s highest structure. This 365-metre-high transmitter was built during the isolationist 1960s, when East Berlin was largely inaccessible to West Germans, and was intended as a highly visible symbol of the GDR’s permanence. Having outlasted the regime that conceived it, the Fernsehturm has become iconic, and though few would champion its architecture, it does have a certain retro appeal. The tower provides tremendous views (40km on clear days) from the observation platform and the Tele-café. There are usually long queues to go up – early evening is your best bet.
At the northern tip of the Spreeinsel lies a museum quarter known as Museumsinsel (Museum Island), which was added during the nineteenth century by the Hohenzollerns and which really took off when German explorers and archeologists returned with bounty from the Middle East. Despite war losses and Soviet looting, some of the world’s finest museums reside here and they are becoming ever greater, thanks to a large-scale reorganization and remodelling that’s due for completion in 2015. Some sections will be temporarily closed as part of this process in the meantime. Covering any more than one of these museums in any depth in a day is a real challenge, so choose carefully before you set out – note too that you have to book a time to visit the Pergamon and Neues Museum at their ticket desks, so arrive early to ensure you can go at the time you want.
Overlooking the lawns of the Lustgarten, a former parade ground, lies one of Berlin’s most striking Neoclassical buildings: Schinkel’s impressive Altes Museum with its 87-metre-high facade and Ionic colonnade. As host to the city’s classical antiquities collection, this is the place for fans of ancient Greek and Roman pottery and sculpture. Many are small works but nonetheless captivating, such as The Praying Boy, a lithe and delicate bronze sculpture from Rhodes dating back to 300 BC. The Vase of Euphronios, decorated with athletes in preparation, is among one of the finest surviving Greek vases in the world.
After decades on the move around Berlin, the city’s impressive Egyptian Collection moved back into its original home in the Neues Museum in 2009. Built in 1855, the museum was badly damaged in the war then extensively rebuilt and remodelled under British architect David Chipperfield. He took pains to preserve as many original features as possible, including fluted stone columns and battered faux-Egyptian ceiling frescoes, as well as adding a few tasteful features – like the huge central staircase – to replace irreparably damaged parts of the building.
The museum’s greatest prize is the 3300-year-old Bust of Queen Nefertiti, a treasure that’s become a city symbol. There’s no questioning its beauty – the queen has a perfect bone structure and gracefully sculpted lips – and the history of the piece is equally interesting. Created around 1350 BC, the bust probably never left the studio in Akhenaten in which it was created, acting as a mere model for other portraits of the queen (explaining why the left eye was never drawn in). When the studio was deserted, the bust was left, to be discovered some three thousand years later in 1912.
A bit of a comedown after all the Egyptian excitement below is the Early and Prehistory Collection in the museum attic, encompassing a mainly underwhelming collection of archeological discoveries from around Berlin.
Tucked just behind the Neues Museum, the Neoclassical Alte Nationalgalerie is a grandiose interpretation of a Corinthian temple that houses a museum of European art that’s particularly strong on nineteenth-century German Romantics, like Liebermann, though it also has great works by Cézanne, Rodin, Monet and Degas.
The largest of the Museum Island museums, the massive Pergamonmuseum was built in the early twentieth century in the style of a Babylonian temple, primarily to house the city’s vast Middle-Eastern treasures. Highlights include the Pergamon Altar – a huge structure dedicated to Zeus and Athena, dating from 180 to 160 BC, and depicting a furious battle between the gods and the giants – as well as the enormous, deep-blue-tiled Ishtar Gate, a sixth-century-BC processional way from Babylon. The collection also numbers hundreds of other fascinating smaller items from as far back as 2000 BC.
The stocky, neo-Baroque Bode-Museum at the northern tip of Museum Island suffered such heavy World War II damage that it was scheduled for demolition, until Berliners protested in the streets. Subsequent waves of renovation have resulted in opulent interiors that form a seamless backdrop for one of Europe’s most impressive sculpture collections, which spans the third to the nineteenth centuries. A particular strength is the early Italian Renaissance, though the German collection is equally authoritative. Also in the building is a solid collection of Byzantine art, notably early Christian religious items; ornamental Roman sarcophagi and several intricate mosaics and ivory carvings; and around half a million coins of the city’s Numismatic Collection.
A huge swathe of peaceful green parkland smack in the middle of Berlin, the Tiergarten was originally designed by Peter Lenné as a hunting ground for Elector Friedrich III, but now provides a great antidote to city noise and bustle. Bus #100 between Bahnhof Zoo and Alexanderplatz crosses the park, but it’s best appreciated on foot or by bike. At least wander along the Landwehrkanal, and the pretty little group of ponds of the grand-sounding Neuer See. In summer the popular beer garden here, Café am Neuen See, rents out boats by the hour.
Approached by great boulevards at the centre of the Tiergarten, is the eye-catching Siegessäule (Victory Column). Topped with a gilded Winged Victory, the column celebrates Prussia’s military victories. The mosaics at the column’s base show the unification of the German peoples and incidents from the Franco-Prussian War. The four bronze reliefs beside depict the main wars and the victorious marching of the troops into Berlin. The Siegessäule’s summit offers a good view of the surroundings, but is 285 stairs distant.
The Kulturforum, literally “culture-forum”, is an umbrella term that covers several art museums and cultural venues in the southeast corner of the Tiergarten park, which could easily fill a day of your time.
Many of the Kulturforum buildings were designed in the 1960s by Hans Scharoun, including the honey-coloured Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic, with its complicated floor-plan and top-notch acoustics and views, regardless of your seat. Daily tours explore the interior of the building.
Over the road from the Philharmonie, the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Applied Arts) holds an encyclopedic but seldom dull collection of European arts and crafts from the Middle Ages on. Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo pieces (wonderful silver and ceramics), along with Jugendstil, Art Deco and Bauhaus objects are all present, as are sumptuous pieces from the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance collections. Highlights are Lüneburg’s municipal silver and an eighth-century purse-shaped reliquary that belonged to Duke Widikund, leader of the Saxon resistance to Charlemagne.
With its stupendous collection of early European paintings, the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) is the real jewel of the Kulturforum. Highlights include German work from the Middle Ages and Renaissance such as the large Wurzach Altar of 1437, from the workshop of the great Ulm sculptor Hans Multscher; landscapes by Albrecht Altdorfer; and several superbly observed portraits by Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger. The gallery’s Netherlandish section includes fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works by Jan van Eyck, Jan Gossaert, Quentin Massys and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose Netherlandish Proverbs is an amusing, if opaque, illustration of over a hundred sixteenth-century proverbs.
The later Dutch and Flemish collections, with their large portraits of Van Dyck and fleshy canvases of Rubens, are another strong point. But the major highlights are several paintings by Rembrandt: though The Man in the Golden Helmet has been proved to be the work of his studio rather than the artist himself, this does little to detract from the portrait’s elegance and power. Finally, the Italian section spanning the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, has impressive paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Poussin, Claude and Canaletto.
Sharing its main entrance with the Gemäldegalerie, the Kupferstichkabinett (Engraving Cabinet) holds an extensive collection of European medieval and Renaissance prints, drawings and engravings. The collection includes Botticelli’s exquisite drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy.
At the southeast corner of the Kulturforum, and by far its finest building, is the Neue Nationalgalerie. Designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1965, the building comprises a severe glass box, its ceiling seemingly almost suspended above the ground. The gallery divides between the permanent collection, featuring works from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, including pieces by Braque, Gris and Picasso, and temporary exhibits, often of contemporary art.
The Brandenburg Gate looms over the ornamental gardens of Pariser Platz, from which the grand leafy boulevard Unter den Linden, or “beneath the lime trees”, runs east. The trees line its central island and the first saplings were planted by Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector, in the seventeenth century, to mark the route from his palace to the hunting grounds in the Tiergarten. It gradually became the main thoroughfare of Imperial Berlin and site of many foreign embassies, yet after the war and until 1989 the western extremity of Unter den Linden led nowhere and, lined by infrequently visited embassies, the street had a strangely empty and decorative feel. Today the boulevard bustles with shops and cafés, though their presence is relatively muted.
Heavily laden with historical association, the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor), modelled on the entrance of Athens’ Acropolis, was built as a city-gate-cum-triumphal-arch in 1791 and soon became a symbol of German solidarity. In 1806 Napoleon marched under the arch and took home the Quadriga, the horse-drawn chariot that tops the gate. It was returned a few years later, and the revolutionaries of 1848 and 1918 met under its form, as did the Nazis with their torch-lit marches. The Berlin Wall placed the Gate in the East in a heavily guarded death-strip, and the opening of the border here just before Christmas 1989 symbolically re-created the historic east–west axis of the city.
Directly behind the Brandenburg Gate a line of cobbles marks the course of the Berlin Wall where for 28 years it separated the Gate from the other great emblem of national unity, the Reichstag – the seat of Germany’s parliament. The solid Neoclassical building was built for a sham parliament answerable only to the Kaiser, in 1918, but is more famous for being set alight in 1933, allowing the Nazis to impose martial law, suspend democracy and establish a totalitarian regime. In a show trial, an itinerant ex-communist Dutch bricklayer, Marius van der Lubbe, was successfully charged with arson and executed, but it’s more likely that the Nazis started the fire themselves.
Equally famously, the Reichstag became a symbol of the Allied victory at the end of World War II, when soldiers raised the Soviet flag on its roof – even though heavy fighting still raged below. Evidence of this fighting is still visible as scores of patched bullet holes around some windows. Then, in 1999, the reunified German parliament moved back in after extensive renovations and the addition of a flashy cupola by British architect Sir Norman Foster. A circular ramp spirals up the inside to a viewing deck with stunning 360-degree views of the city, which 15 million visitors have since enjoyed. Sadly, security concerns have now shut this to all but pre-booked groups and visitors with reservations for Käfer Dachgarten, its gourmet rooftop restaurant.
Beside the Brandenburg Gate, the dignified and surreal Jewish Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in May 2006 after twenty-three years of planning, debate and building work. It’s the work of New York architect Peter Eisenman, who was inspired by the densely clustered gravestones in Prague’s Jewish graveyard. The entire site – about the size of three football pitches – is covered with 2711 tightly spaced, oblong, dark grey pillars of varying heights.
With no single entrance, visitors have to pick their own way through the maze to the centre where the blocks are well above head height and intended to convey a sense of gloom, isolation and solitude. The underground information centre in the southeast corner of the monument, carefully relates the harrowing life stories of selected Jewish victims of the Holocaust; its audio tour is largely unnecessary.
Over the road from the Holocaust Memorial, the fringes of the Tiergarten park hold another concrete oblong: a Gay Holocaust Memorial, which remembers the 54,000 people convicted of homosexual acts under the Nazis, of whom an estimated eight thousand died in concentration camps. Inaugurated by Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit in 2008, the four-metre-high monument mimics those commemorating Jewish victims, but leans differently and contains a window behind which a looped film of two men kissing plays.
The skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz, which soar beside the Kulturforum, represent Berlin at its most thrustingly commercial and cosmopolitan. Said to have been the busiest square in prewar Europe, Potsdamer Platz was once surrounded by stores, bars and clubs, and pulsed with life day and night. The war left it severely battered, though immediately afterwards it regained some vitality as a black market centre at the junction of the Soviet, American and British sectors. This ended with the coming of the Wall: all the buildings on the eastern side were razed to give the GDR’s border guards a clear field of fire, while the West put no real money into restoring its battered survivors. For years western tourists could gaze at the East from a viewing platform here, and ponder the sight of prewar tramlines disappearing under the Wall. The Wall’s dismantling then produced a premier lot, which was quickly carved up by multinationals who frantically built bold architectural forms for obligatory shopping malls with restaurants, cafés, a theatre, and a film multiplex with 3D cinema. Its tallest building – the red-brick skyscraper that’s a nod to the Chicago school of architecture – has on its top floor Panorama Punkt, an outdoor viewing deck with views to rival the Fernsehturm.
The bravely twenty-first-century glass cylinder of the Helmut Jahn-designed Sony Center is the most eye-catching building on Potsdamer Platz. Several glass-sheathed buildings surround an airy, circular courtyard, sheltered by a conical glass rotunda, creating a huge atrium. In one building the Filmmuseum Berlin provides a superb introduction to the history of German cinema and television using a bevy of clips, reconstructions and artefacts, many relating to Marlene Dietrich.
Fanning out immediately east of Mitte, the residential working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg fared relatively well in the war, being fought over street by street, leaving many of its turn-of-the-twentieth-century tenement blocks battle-scarred but intact, and preserving the leafy cobbled streets and intersections which typified prewar Berlin. This sense of history helped make Prenzlauer Berg a bohemian centre even during the GDR days when large numbers of artists and young people seeking an alternative lifestyle chose to live here. After the Wende these pleasant corners with low rents were quickly seized on as ripe for gentrification and settled by some of the best restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs in the city.
Opposite S-Bahn Nordbahnhof, on Bernauer Strasse, is the first of two buildings dedicated to the Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer), which contains a bookshop and screens an introductory film. Bernauer Strasse was literally bisected by the Wall; before the Wall was built you could enter or exit the Soviet Zone just by going through the door of one of the buildings, which is why, on August 13, 1961, some citizens, who woke up to find themselves on the wrong side of the newly established “national border”, leapt out of windows to get to the West. Over the years, the facades of these buildings were cemented up and incorporated into the partition itself, until they were knocked down and replaced by the Wall proper in 1979. A short section of Wall as it once was – both walls and a death-strip between – remain preserved at the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ackerstrasse.
Down the road from the Berlin Wall Memorial, the Wall Documentation Centre keeps the story of the Wall alive using photos, sound recordings and information terminals, and has a useful viewing tower that you can climb to contemplate the barrier and the way in which it once divided the city.
Directly south of Mitte, the district of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain loosely divides into the more middle-class and white West Kreuzberg, mostly of interest for its museums, including the impressive Jewish Museum; unkempt, bohemian and heavily Turkish East Kreuzberg, great for wandering between café-bars, art galleries and clothes shops along its main drag Oranienstrasse; and Friedrichshain, a modern and fairly bland part of former East Berlin, whose low rents and central location have attracted Berlin’s most happening bar and nightlife scene.
The rather sedate, predominantly white and middle-class district of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf is inner-city Berlin at its most affluent and restrained. However, Charlottenburg has its own gathering of fairly high-profile attractions, particularly the Baroque Schloss Charlottenburg – Berlin’s pocket Versailles with its opulent chambers, wanderable gardens, and several excellent nearby museums – along with the iconic 1930s Olympic Stadium.
Immediately southwest of Mitte, City West is West Berlin’s old centre and still a neighbourhood where shopping streets showcase Cold War building projects between rows of department stores. Berlin’s zoo populates the western fringes of the Tiergarten park and lends its name to Bahnhof Zoo opposite, the main transport hub of the neighborhood which technically straddles the districts of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Schöneberg.
Once a separate entity, Schöneberg was swallowed up by Greater Berlin in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the 1920s and early 1930s it had become the centre for Berlin’s sizeable gay community: there were around forty gay bars on and near to the road and rail intersection Nollendorfplatz alone, and gay life in the city was open, fashionable and well organized, with its own newspapers and community associations. Local theatres were filled with plays exploring gay themes; homosexuality in the Prussian army was little short of institutionalized; and gay bars, nightclubs and brothels proudly advertised themselves – there were even gay working men’s clubs.
A block away, at Nollendorfstrasse 17, stands the building in which Christopher Isherwood lived during his years in prewar Berlin. Under the Third Reich, however, homosexuality was brutally outlawed: gays and lesbians were rounded up and taken to concentration camps and often murdered. A red-granite triangle at Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station commemorates this. Though the neigbourhood was blown to pieces during the war, Schöneberg’s gay village has proved more robust, and its attendant nightlife still first class.
The crescent-shaped area north of the River Spree between Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz and known as the Spandauer Vorstadt emerged after the Wende as one of the most intriguing parts of unified Berlin. A wave of artists’ squats, workshops and galleries sprang up here in the early 1990s, and some still survive. But today the district’s appeal is based on its history as Berlin’s affluent prewar Jewish quarter and as a booming, if fairly touristy, shopping, restaurant and nightlife quarter, with fashionable boutiques, ethnic restaurants and stylish bars. The S-Bahn station and convivial square, Hackescher Markt, provides the main focus, along with the main drag Oranienburger Strasse. At its western end lies Berlin’s nebulous theatre district, where Bertolt Brecht lived and worked, while just beyond the northern fringes of the district, the Berlin Wall Memorial preserves the only remaining and entirely preserved section of the Berlin Wall.
Exploring Berlin’s suburbs completes a picture of the city, but is not always attractive, as this is where many of the city’s blandest Cold War building projects have survived. Particularly in the east, old socialist silo-like apartment blocks and soulless shopping precincts appear more desperate-looking in comparison to flashy new post-Wende buildings.
However, the sprawling working-class district of Lichtenberg, a mid-1970s model neighbourhood just southeast of Friedrichshain, is home to two sights of vital importance to anyone with an interest in oppression in the GDR, particularly by its secret police, the Stasi. Their headquarters at Normannenstrasse and prison at Hohenschönhausen are both preserved as haunting monuments.
Further on to the west of Lichtenberg, the Gardens of the World in Marzahn make a great day trip for those looking for a nature oasis. 10 international gardens allow for walks from Korea to Japan on to Italy and England. The adjacent cable car and many play grounds make this an ideal getaway for families.
All the other particularly worthwhile suburban destinations are on Berlin’s rural fringes, particularly Grunewald forest and adjacent Wannsee lake in the southwestern corner of the city, which is famed for its summertime bathing beaches but sadly also as the location of the Wannsee Villa, where a Nazi conference initiated the Holocaust.
Lying in the heart of Europe, Berlin’s climate is continental: winters are bitingly cold, summers hot. April is the earliest in the year you should go for decent weather: any earlier and you’ll need winter clothing, earmuffs and a decent pair of waterproof shoes; that said, the city (especially the eastern part) has a particular poignancy when it snows.
The best time to visit Berlin is in May; June and July can be wearingly hot, though the famed Berlin air (Berliner Luft – there’s a song about its vitality) keeps things bearable.
Berlin has plenty of hotels, pensions, hostels, private rooms and apartments for short-term rent, and even campsites, but it’s best to book at least a couple of weeks in advance. For quick results, try the BTM reservation service (030 25 00 25, berlin-tourist-information.de) who specialize in hotels and pensions. They do have private rooms on their books, but there’s a better selection via local accommodation agencies where private rooms start at €20 per night. Try Bed & Breakfast in Berlin (030 44 05 05 82, bed-and-breakfast-berlin.de), Citybed (030 23 62 36 30, citybed.de) and Zimmervermittlung 24 (030 56 55 51 11, zimmervermittlung24.com).
Berlin has all the restaurants, cafés and bars you’d expect from a major European capital, with virtually every imaginable type of food represented; indeed, national food generally takes a back seat to Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Indian and Italian specialities. In line with Berlin’s rolling nightlife timetable, you can pretty much eat and drink around the clock. The majority of restaurants will happily serve until at least 11pm, and it’s not hard to find somewhere in most neighbourhoods. Eating at Berlin’s restaurants is by international standards inexpensive: main courses start at around €7, and drinks aren’t hiked up much in bars. For most restaurants you can just walk in, though on weekend nights or at expensive places, booking is recommended.
Multistorey department stores rule Berlin, but many small and quirky specialist shops have survived or emerged in neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg, while ethnic foods and “alternative” businesses thrive in Kreuzberg, along Oranienstrasse and Bergmannstrasse. If you like browsing and foraging you’ll find a second home in the city’s many flea markets – good places to find Eastern Bloc relics.
Since the days of the Weimar Republic, and even through the lean postwar years, Berlin has had some of the best – and steamiest – nightlife in Europe, an image fuelled by the drawings of George Grosz and films like Cabaret. Today’s big draws are its world-class techno clubs, growing out of the local scene, and colonizing abandoned buildings around the former East–West border. Berlin also has a wide range of other clubs: from slick hangouts for the trendy to raucous dives, and incorporating live music of just about every sort. To find out what’s on check the listings magazines Tip (wtip-berlin.de) and Zitty (wzitty.de), available at any newsstand. Club opening hours are very open ended – they rarely get going before midnight and some stay open beyond 6am. With the U- & S-Bahn running nonstop on Fri and Sat nights – and restarting from about 4am on other nights, getting home or jumping between areas of town could hardly be easier. And don’t worry too much about dress code as the prevalence of a shabby-chic aesthetic mean you can get into most places with little effort.
Berlin’s gay and lesbian scene is world class, making it a magnet for gay men and women from all over Germany and Europe. This has been the case since the 1920s, when Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden were both drawn here to escape the fear of harassment and legal persecution in the rest of Europe. Weimar Berlin’s gay scene in the 1920s and early 1930s was prodigious before it was outlawed and persecuted in the Third Reich. This is a distant memory today: the charismatic city mayor, Klaus Wowereit, nicknamed “Wowi”, is openly gay and it’s not uncommon to see glitzy transvestites dancing on tables at even conservative bashes. The monthly gay magazine Siegessäule (siegessaeule.de) has listings of events and is free from most gay bars and venues, while monthly publication Blattgold (www.blattgold-berlin.de) lists lesbian groups and events and is available from feminist meeting places and bookshops. The best time to explore the hurly-burly is during the annual month-long Pride Festival, centred on the Christopher Street Day parade (csd-berlin.de) at the end of June.
Though 1920s and 1930s Berlin was famed for its rich and intense satirical and political cabaret scene, the Nazis quickly suppressed it and the scene has barely recovered. Most of today’s shows are either semi-clad titillation or drag shows, though a few places are increasingly worth trying even if many make their money with high bar prices. Berlin’s greatest strength today is probably its vibrant fringe arts scene, which brims with experimental work. To find out what’s on check the listings magazines Tip (tip-berlin.de) and Zitty (zitty.de), available at any newsstand, and the free magazine 030 (berlin030.de), distributed in bars and cafés.
The incredibly prolific architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841) was one of the most influential German architects of the nineteenth century. Nearly every town in Brandenburg has a building that Schinkel had, at the very least, some involvement in, and a lasting testimony to his importance is the fact that even today the distinctively Neoclassical heart of Berlin is defined by his work. His first ever design, the Pomonatempel in Potsdam, was completed while he was still a 19-year-old student in Berlin, but his architectural career did not take off immediately, as he first worked as a landscape artist and theatre-set designer. Towards the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century he began submitting architectural designs for great public works, and, in 1810, he secured a job with the administration of Prussian buildings. Between 1815 and 1830 he designed some of his most renowned buildings, including the Grecian-style Neue Wache, the elegant Schauspielhaus, and the Altes Museum. Later in his career Schinkel experimented with other architectural forms, a phase marked by the Bauakademie.
As heart of the Prussian kingdom, cultural centre of the Weimar Republic, headquarters of Hitler’s Third Reich and a key frontline flashpoint in the Cold War, Berlin has long been a weather vane of European and even world history. Its story began in the twelfth century when violent settlement of Slavic regions by Germanic tribes in the Dark Ages led to the creation of the margravate of Brandenburg in 1157.
Berlin slowly rose to become the capital of this marshy frontier territory and from 1415 Brandenburg became the possession of the Hohenzollern dynasty, who embraced Protestantism in 1538. Brandenburg merged with Prussia in 1618, then became entangled in the Thirty Years’ War, which left the whole region devastated and depopulated.
Rebirth was slow, but gathered momentum on the back of Prussia’s social tolerance – towards Huguenots and Jews in particular – which helped produce rapid industrialization throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With increasing economic power came military might and ambitions, which sparked two centuries of martial adventures and horse-trading diplomacy, bringing about German unity and the creation of a second German Reich in 1871.
Within two centuries Berlin had gone from also-ran provincial town to Germany’s capital, but these drastic changes would be matched the following century by its demolition in World War II and subsequent division in the Cold War. Brandenburg was radically transformed too, losing all its territory east of the Oder and falling under the sway of communism.
Then, in November 1989, the world’s media converged on the Brandenburg Gate to watch Berliners chipping away at the Berlin Wall and witness the extraordinary scenes of the border opening for good. This triggered a series of events which saw Germany’s federal government re-established in the city, sparking a pace of urban change unrivalled in the developed world.
East Germany’s infamous Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service), or Stasi, monitored everything in the GDR. It ensured the security of the country’s borders, carried out surveillance on foreign diplomats, business people and journalists, and monitored domestic and foreign media. It was, however, in the surveillance of East Germany’s own population that the organization truly excelled. Very little happened in the GDR without the Stasi knowing about it: files were kept on millions of innocent citizens and insidious operations were orchestrated against dissidents, real and imagined. By the Wende the Stasi had a budget of £1 billion and 91,000 full-time employees and 180,000 informers within the East German population, figures brought into context by the punier, albeit more ruthless, 7000-strong Nazi Gestapo.
At the beginning of 1991 former citizens of the GDR were given the right to see their Stasi files. Tens of thousands took the opportunity to find out what the organization had recorded about them, and, more importantly, who had provided the information; many a friendship and not a few marriages came to an end as a result. The process of unravelling truths from the archives also provided material for many a story, including Timothy Garton Ash’s book, The File: A Personal History and the film, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Not all documents survived though: many were briskly shredded as the GDR regime collapsed, resulting in an unenviable task for one government organization which spent literally years piecing them together to bring people to justice, thankfully with some success.
After the war, Berlin’s administration was split between Britain, France, the US and the USSR. Each sector was to exist peacefully with its neighbours under a unified city council. But antagonism between the Soviet and other sectors was high. Only three years after the war, Soviet forces closed the land-access corridors to the city from West Germany in what became known as the Berlin Blockade: it was successfully overcome by a massive airlift of food and supplies that lasted nearly a year. This, followed by the 1953 uprising, large-scale cross-border emigration (between 1949 and 1961, the year the Wall was built, over three million East Germans – almost a fifth of the population – fled to West Germany) and innumerable “incidents”, led to the building of what the GDR called an “an antifascist protection barrier”.
The Wall was erected overnight on August 13, 1961, when, at 2am, forty thousand East German soldiers, policemen and workers’ militia went into action closing U- and S-Bahn lines and stringing barbed wire across streets leading into West Berlin to cordon off the Soviet sector. The Wall followed its boundaries implacably, cutting through houses, across squares and rivers, with its own cool illogicality. Many Berliners were rudely evicted from their homes, while others had their doors and windows blocked by bales of barbed wire. Suddenly the British, American and French sectors of the city were corralled some 200km inside the GDR.
Most people in West and East Berlin were taken by surprise. Crowds gathered and extra border guards were sent to prevent trouble. A tiny number – including a few border guards – managed to find holes in the new barrier and flee west. But within a few days the barbed wire and makeshift barricades were reinforced with bricks and mortar. Additionally, West Berliners were no longer allowed into East Berlin. From 1961 onwards the GDR strengthened the Wall making it almost impenetrable – in effect two walls separated by a Sperrgebiet (forbidden zone), dotted with watchtowers and patrolled by soldiers and dogs. It was also known as the Todesstreifen (death strip), as border troops were under instructions to shoot anyone attempting to scale the Wall: any guard suspected of deliberately missing was court-martialled, and his family could expect severe harassment from the authorities. Over the years, over two hundred people were killed trying to cross the Wall.
An oddity of the Wall was that it was built a few metres inside GDR territory; so the West Berlin authorities had little control over the graffiti that covered it. The Wall was an ever-changing mixture of colours and slogans. Late in 1989 the East German government, spurred by Gorbachev’s glasnost and a tense domestic climate, realized it could stay stable no longer. To an initially disbelieving and then jubilant Europe, travel restrictions for GDR citizens were lifted on November 9, 1989 – effectively, the Wall ceased to matter, and pictures of Berliners, East and West, hacking away at the detested symbol filled newspapers and TV bulletins around the world.
Today, it’s only possible to tell exactly where the Wall ran by the simple row of cobbles placed along much of its former course. Few significant stretches remain, the sections devoted to the East Side Gallery and the Berlin Wall Memorial being the most notable.