An aerial view of the historic centre of Berlin
Last weekend I showed a friend around Berlin on an impromptu first visit. We had wall-to-wall sunshine, managed to see most of the main sights and caught the Berlin feeling. It didn’t break the bank either. The 48 hour Berlin CityTourCard gave us unlimited travel on all the trains, buses and trams. A city map and several discount coupons are included in the price, so it’s a steal at €17.90. No need to take a sightseeing tour, just pick up the 100 bus and get a seat on the top deck at the front. Then you can decide what you want to see on the ground.
The Reichstag in the spring sunshine
On the first afternoon we headed for the Reichstag. The massive German parliament building stares across an open space. The huge words above the columns read: ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ – ‘For the German People’. Entrance is free, but you have to book ahead online or queue at the Visitor Centre. The best plan of all is to reserve a table at the restaurant on the roof of the Reichstag for breakfast or coffee and cake (lunch and dinner are quite pricey), then climb up inside the spectacular glass dome.
Reflections at the Sinti and Roma Memorial
Between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate we stood by the still waters at the Memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazi regime. From there it’s only a five minute walk to the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, the vast city park. This impressive monument is also a burial site for 2,000 of the 80,000 soldiers of the Red Army who were killed in the Battle for Berlin.
The Tiergarten Soviet War Memorial
The Brandenburg Gate itself never fails to impress, especially with the backdrop of a clear blue sky. It defies belief that such a huge national symbol was once blocked off on the western side by the Berlin Wall and that no one was allowed near it on other side. Now the whole area teems with happy tourists. This spring a viewing platform has been erected, reminiscent of the divided city and there’s also a photographic exhibition to mark the 70th Anniversary of the end of the war in May 1945.
The desperate scene at the Brandenburg Gate in May 1945
We strolled around Pariser Platz, taking in all the new architecture and then made our way past the British Embassy in Wilhelmstrasse to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Walking through the grey slabs of stone is an unnerving experience. Even more sobering is the underground exhibition documenting the personal stories of Jewish families lost in the Holocaust.
Disorientation among the stone slabs
Our next stop was the Panoramapunkt at Potsdamer Platz. Once the busiest square in Berlin, it was destroyed in the bombing and then became a wasteland by the Wall. Now it’s surrounded by a cluster of architect-designed high-rise buildings. The fastest lift in Europe whisks you in 20 seconds up to the viewing platform at the top of the Kollhoff Tower for a fantastic view across the city and a photographic exhibition of the history of Potsdamer Platz. Until 7pm you can linger in the café, sitting by huge floor to ceiling windows. We looked down on the spectacular roof of the Sony Centre magnifying the circus tent style of the Philharmonie concert hall where we had tickets for a concert that evening (see post 16th March)
The Panoramapunkt view towards the Brandenburg Gate
Day two started late. First stop was the stunning Hackesche Höfe, opposite S-Bahn Station Hackescher Markt. This is a heritage site consisting of eight communicating, restored courtyards filled with trendy designer shops. We took a coffee break at Oxymoron and sat outside admiring the stunning Art Nouveau façades – quite a contrast to the scruffy courtyards behind Haus Schwarzenberg just a few metres further down Rosenthaler Strasse. Here the buildings have been left in their post-war state and the walls are covered in graffiti. This unique space is run by an independent association and contains the Central cinema, the Cinema café bar, an artbook shop, various artist studios and a trio of small but interesting museums associated with Jewish Berlin.
Repainting the graffiti for the 20th Anniversary of Haus Schwarzenberg
This district of Berlin, often referred to as the ‘Scheunenviertel’ (barn quarter), lay outside the original city walls and between the wars much of it was a poor Jewish neighbourhood. We walked along pretty Sophienstrasse and through the churchyard of Sophienkirche into Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. The pock-marked building on the corner still bears the scars of war and on the other side of the street is the Missing House memorial, “an empty space dedicated to absence”. This marks the site of a building destroyed by the allied bombing and the walls on either side bear the names of all the families who lived there. Opposite is the heavily guarded Jewish High School and next to that the site of a former Jewish Old Peoples’ Home. Here the Jewish population of Berlin were rounded up and taken off to Grunewald station to be taken off to concentration camps. Behind the moving memorial is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, desecrated by the Nazis and now a quiet garden.
The Holocaust Memorial in Grosse Hamburger Strasse
There is so much more to explore on foot in this area, including the magnificent New Synagogue, but time was limited. And it was perfect weather for a boat trip on the Spree. We picked up a one hour tour at the Alte Börse pier behind Hackescher Markt, sat on deck in the sunshine listening to the English commentary and glided past scores of significant Berlin buildings. Along the banks of the Spree the riverside cafés were doing a roaring trade and at Strandbar Mitte the dance floor was already seeing some action.
Lunchtime dancing at the Strandbar Mitte
Once off the boat we headed over to ‘Museumsinsel’. This island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with five of the most significant museums in Berlin. Flanking the lawns and fountains of the Lustgarten, the Berliner Dom (cathedral) and the Altes Museum both exert a massive presence. They serenely await the completion of the reconstruction of the Berlin Stadtschloss (City Palace) on the other side of the road. In 2019 it will be re-born as the Humboldt Forum, a museum of world treasures.
The Berliner Dom – the TV Tower just in view behind it
We crossed the Spree again, admiring the statues that adorn the Schlossbrücke and the dusky pink Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum). A quick detour into the inner courtyard of this elegant building is a must if there isn’t time for a fuller visit.
The death masks in the courtyard of the History Museum
Our next stop was the Neue Wache (guardhouse) which contains the stark memorial to the Victims of War and Dictatorship. Standing on the pavement outside, once worn away by the goose-stepping of GDR guards, we looked up and down Berlin’s most famous avenue, Unter den Linden. Frederick the Great who was responsible for shaping the classical lines of 18th century Berlin, sits astride his horse in the middle of the traffic as if reviewing his achievements. A few hundred metres behind him, the Brandenburg Gate marks the entrance to his ‘Forum Fridericianum’, later referred to as ‘Athens of the Spree’.
Mime artists in 18th century costumes, outside the Neue Wache
Next the Neue Wache is the main building of the Humboldt University and opposite it is Bebelplatz, the square which saw the infamous Nazi ‘burning of the books’ in 1933. You have to look hard to find the memorial. It is a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookshelves large enough to hold the total of the 20,000 burnt books. A brass plaque next to it is engraved with the prophetic words of Heinrich Heine in 1821. In English they translate as: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”.
The empty bookshelves
On one side of Bebelplatz is the Law Faculty of the Humboldt University. This was once the library from where Nazi students threw books on to the bonfire below. On the other side is the Berlin Staatsoper (State Opera House) currently surrounded by cranes and undergoing total refurbishment. At the back of the square is a large Wilhelmine building. It started life as the headquarters of the Dresdner Bank in 1887 and after the war served as the State Bank of the GDR. Now it is the luxury Hotel de Rome. The Rooftop Terrace is the perfect place for a light lunch on a sunny day. The view is terrific. A great place to chill and reflect.
But there was more sightseeing to come that afternoon. It was only a five minute walk to Gendarmenmarkt, the most beautiful square in Berlin. I can clearly recall its bombed-out buildings in the 1970s communist capital of East Berlin. We passed a queue of ‘It people’ outside The Corner, a ‘luxury concept store’ frequented by celebrities and selling designer items at crazy prices. Sometimes capitalism doesn’t seem much better.
Bubbles floating across Gendarmenplatz
Our next destination was Checkpoint Charlie. Despite all the tourist paraphernalia this former border crossing point is a definite must. The outdoor exhibition gives the big picture and the Mauermuseum tells the whole story in detail, including all the ingenious escape attempts. We then followed the footprint of the Berlin Wall around to the Topographie des Terrrors, the site of the former Gestapo HQ. The exhibition here clearly documents how the Nazi terror machine worked its evil all over Europe by means an efficient and brutal bureaucracy. The Berlin Wall once ran down the middle of Niederkirchner Strasse – now it’s a starting point for a whole range of unusual Berlin tours.
Take your pick of Berlin Tours
Next to the Topographie des Terrors is the fabulous Martin Gropius Bau, which hosts international art and culture exhibitions. On the other side of the street, in East Berlin, is the former Air Ministry Building (once the largest building in Europe, and now the German Ministry of Finance) and the House of Representatives (once the seat of the Prussian Parliament). We turned the corner into the 21st century and were confronted once again with Manhatten-style Potsdamer Platz. Standing outside the Ritz Carlton Hotel was an Englishman dressed as a Beefeater. Every evening at 6pm, he officially opens the hotel’s Curtain Club, voted the best Berlin bar in 2015. After such an intense day of Berlin history we deserved a drink.
The opening of the Curtain Club – to the sound of Big Ben
Our last morning started with brunch in Prenzlauer Berg, a lively neighbourhood only four tram stops from Alexanderplatz on the M2. Market days are Thursdays and Saturdays by Kollwitzplatz , where crowds of local young families meet up at the playpark. This district of Berlin, originally built to house work-classing families at the end of the 19th century, is now considered very ‘schicki-micki’ (trendy). Property prices are high and it has one of the highest birth-rates in Germany. We sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed people-watching, as well as a particularly good Russian guitar duo. Everything in Prenzlauer Berg has upmarket bohemian style these days, including all the shops and cafés.
Brunch at Restauration 1900 on Kollwitzplatz
There were two hours left for some more sight-seeing and my friend had been become fascinated by the story of the Berlin Wall. So we set off on foot towards Bernauer Strasse, crossing Eberwaldstrasse en route. This is one of the prettiest streets on the edge of Prenzlauer Berg, once blocked off by the Wall at its western end. We turned left down Bernauer Strasse where the Wall once divided the residents on either side of the street. The grassy area which was once the ‘death strip’ has become part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, an outdoor exhibition which tells the incredible story of this part of Berlin and features a whole section of the original Berlin Wall together with a watchtower and the border installations. The recently-renovated Documentation Centre on the other side of the road has a viewing tower. There are also two floors of exhibition space with excellent photographs, film and audio material.
The reconstruction of the Berlin Wall on Bernauerstrasse
Many visitors to the Wall Memorial arrive at Nordbahnof S-Bahn station further down Bernauerstrasse, one of the ‘ghost stations’ during the Cold War. The Berlin Wall Memorial Visitors Centre is opposite the station and is the best place to pick up all the information you need about visiting the Memorial area and to buy books and postcards. Both the Documentation Centre and the Visitors Centre are closed on Mondays.
48 hours is an impossibly short time to visit any great city. But our two day ticket meant we could cover an amazing amount of ground. The verdict was: “So much history, such a relaxed atmosphere and so easy to get around”. The evenings were action-packed as well. Details to follow in the next Berlin Unwrapped post.