One of my favourite ways to explore a city is by foot. When in an unfamiliar area, I love walking tours. It’s a great way to get to know the ins and outs of a city, as well as learn about the history of how it came to be! While there are many tour companies out there, Sandeman’s New Europe Tours are superb. I’ve actually done this tour twice now as Robin had only seen Berlin by bus, so it was time for him to see one of my favourite cities in my favourite way! If you’d rather explore the city at your leisure, this post will help you hit the main stops in Berlin. However, if you want the whole history lesson you’ll have to sign up for a tour yourself!
Be sure to rest up ahead of time though – your feet will appreciate it. I gladly took the night off, especially when this was the view from my Airbnb! Not only that, but I got it for a great deal… and you can too if you check out my tips!
Brandenburger Tor is a great place to start on your Berlin adventure. Built in the late 1700s, it was heavily damaged in WWII. When Berlin was divided, it served as one of the access points between East and West Berlin. You’ll see throughout the city where the wall surrounded West Germany as there’s a line of double bricks to illustrate where the wall stood 25 years ago.
From here you can see the top of the Reichstag, where German parliament met from 1894 to 1933, as well as currently since it moved back to Berlin from Bonn in 1999. One thing you’ll immediately notice is the glass dome that sits atop of the building. This dome also has a glass floor where visitors can view parliamentary meetings from above. It is meant to symbolize the power of the German people as they sit on top of the government – therefore, it is they who have the final say.
Next, visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews which was opened in 2004. The artist Peter Isanmann designed it in order to challenge the viewer. Speaking to the Jewish experience, you feel a sense of entrapment as you walk through the memorial. The pillars are almost like tombstones, however unnamed and unmarked. This represents the 2.5 million people who could not be identified. As well, it speaks to the identity of those who endured the Holocaust as they had their individual characteristics stripped from them, making them all the same even though each of them had their own story. There is also a museum beneath the memorial which goes into more detail about its symbolism as well as what the Jewish people endured. I still haven’t had a chance to experience it myself (maybe on my third visit?), but if you don’t have time I would still suggest taking a few minutes to walk through the memorial. This is definitely a stop that should not be missed.
Now your next destination may seem a little strange, but you’re going to head to a parking lot at the corner of In den Ministergärten and Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße. Beneath this parking lot lies Hitler’s Bunker. You’ll find no signage, no markers, nothing to commemorate it as the German people want to draw no attention to the horrors of Hitler’s actions. It was been sealed off by the Soviets after discovering a smouldering Hitler on its doorstep. He committed suicide with a cyanide capsule along with a gunshot to the temple, with the orders to cremate him afterwards and be returned to the bunker.
Continuing with the tangent of Nazi ideals, the next logical stop is the Detlev Rohwedder House. It was the former home of the Nazi Air Ministry. One of the few remaining examples of Nazi architecture in Berlin, it was meant to show power and control. The sheer size of the building is meant to intimidate, telling the German people that they will obey the people within these walls. With the German Democratic Republic (within the Soviet Occupation Zone) coming into power, a mural was painted on the side along Leipzigerstraße to depict the idea that Eastern Germans will be ‘one big happy family.’ The East Berliners didn’t agree with many of the ways the Soviets governed. They protested, with the government responding with force – causing over 300 deaths. This led to many Easterners fleeing to West Berlin, to which again the government responded with force.
On the night of August 13, 1961, in a mere four hours, the Berlin Wall appeared surrounding West Berlin. This destroyed East Berliners independence and freedom as they could no longer escape to the west. They became prisoners of their own city as many were divided from their jobs, their families, and their friends. The ‘iron curtain’ grew from there as two lines of walls were built with trip wires, spikes beneath the ground, and snipers within watch towers creating the death strip. Many were able to creatively escape across the barrier (such as Heinz Meixner’s famous convertible escape across Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin), but many also lost their lives trying to flee. But on November 9th, 1989, the wall fell reuniting the German people and Berlin is now celebrating its 25th year of being reunified once again.
A section of the wall has been turned into an informational monument called the Topographie des Terrors. Take time to explore the monument, as well as explore the in-depth museum close by. You’ll be taken aback by the complicated history surrounding the Berlin Wall and World War II. And the monument displays the information in such a way that will captivate you.
When you’ve had your fill of the Berlin Wall, head for Checkpoint Charlie. Here stood the heart of tension between capitalism and socialism within Berlin. A symbol of the Cold War, Soviet and American tanks faced each other during the Berlin Crisis of 1961.
Where will you find the Französischer Dom, the Deutscher Dom, Berlin’s Konzerthaus and your next stop? The Gendarmenmarkt! Built in 1701, 1708, and 1821 respectively, they were built while Berlin was the heart of the Prussian Empire. Therefore it wanted to show not only that it was accepting of all cultures and religious practices, but also a center for culture and the arts in order to solidify itself as a place of academia. Fun fact: the Deutscher Dom is slightly taller than the Französischer Dom to assert its dominance over the French. From every German I’ve talked to, they all very much enjoy doing this – even to this day!
Your final stop is in Bebelplatz, home to Humboldt Universität – the oldest university in Berlin. 44 Nobel Prize winners have come from the university, and they have had many famous professors including Einstein and the Grimm brothers. However, the square is more known for the famous book burning in May 1933 as Joseph Goebbels ordered the German Student Union to burn over 20,000 books that didn’t fit the Nazi regime. Don’t miss the monument on the floor, it’s easy to miss when you’re looking up at the architecture!
Although if this isn’t enough for you, make the trek to the Tiergarten. Here you’ll find the Siegessäule at the heart of it. Commemorating the Prussian victory in 1864, it’s a beautiful landmark which is open to tourists. Surrounding it is a beautiful park which is definitely worth a visit, especially if it’s to rest your feet in the middle of its lush green lawns while enjoying a beer or two!
Another place that I need to mention, but I’m sure you’ll know of if you’re heading to Berlin, is the East Side Gallery. This 1.3km section of the Berlin Wall features graffiti from various artists depicting a euphoric and hopeful time as it was established in 1990. The actual border for the wall would have been the river Spree located directly behind it, however the wall used is part of the section that closed the border to West Berlin, or the ‘hinterland mauer’. Unfortunately, some of the images have been graffitied over or vandalized with some of the original artists refusing to restore them, but my favourite section still remains intact since I saw it 3 years ago. I hope it’ll be in the same shape 3 years from now!
One more point of interest for those of you who – like me – are more of a fan of the alternative lifestyle, is just a 5-minute walk away from the Warschauer Straße Ubahn/Sbahn stop. Here you will find a collection of alternative art scattered across numerous buildings with beer gardens, clubs, and even markets in between. Whether day or night, there’s always something to see here so it’s definitely worth checking out! Sundays are especially good as there’s a market in Neue Heimat. I unfortunately didn’t make it until the tail end of the day since I was scoping out other markets, however I’ll be taking a peek when I return.
As I’m sure you can tell, Berlin is quite the multi-faceted city with its fair share of history scattered throughout. Since 1989, it has been trying to rebuild itself as an accepting and tolerant city. It is also a city of remembrance as they have constructed numerous memorials throughout it instead of sweeping the past ‘under the rug’ so to say. There is so much to see and do, so take it in step by step. Fly through Berlin and you never know what you’ll miss out on!