No trip to Germany is complete without some time in Berlin, and so off Robin and I went for an extended weekend visit! We arrived fairly late on Friday so we stayed in at our awesome rooftop Airbnb and rested up for our walking tour Saturday!
In many of the major European cities, Sandeman’s New Europe Tours has free walking tours to help get you learn about and get familiarized with the city. I did this walking tour previously 3 years ago, but Robin had only done a city bus tour (yuck!) before, so I insisted on doing it again. Don’t let the crazy crowds fool you, the tour is awesome and you learn a lot about the city’s history. Of course in a city like Berlin you could spend years and still not know everything, but it’s a great start in my opinion!
Our tour guide was the wonderful Lizzy who was extremely bubbly and energetic. If you have a chance to have her, take it because she has studied German history and is a fountain of information. Ask her any question you want and she’ll have an answer! We began at Brandenburger Tor which was built in the late 1700s, but it needed some repairs as 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, 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.
Our next stop was 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. Here there is also a museum beneath the memorial which goes into more detail about it as well as what the Jewish people had to endure. 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.
Afterwards we made our way to the site of Hitler’s Bunker, which 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. For years there has only been a parking lot on the site in order to ensure he is not glorified or commemorated in any way.
Continuing with the theme of Nazi ideals, our next stop was the Detlev Rohwedder House as 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 ideal that Eastern Germans will be ‘one big happy family.’ The East Berliners didn’t agree with many of the ways the Soviets governed and protested, with the government responding with force that caused 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 the 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.
NOTE: A section of the wall has been turned into an informational monument called the Topographie des Terrors, which is definitely worth a second look. Unfortunately we didn’t get a huge chance to really see the monument, but it was awesome to take a moment with a section of the Berlin Wall which has been somewhat preserved.
The tour continues through Checkpoint Charlie, the heart of the tension between capitalism and socialism within Berlin, and on to the Gendarmenmarkt. Here stands the Französischer Dom, the Deutscher Dom, and Berlin’s Konzerthaus, built in 1701, 1708, and 1821 respectively. When they were built, 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.
The tour ends 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.
NOTE: I barely touched everything that Lizzy talked about, which is why these tours are so awesome! I highly suggest looking up Sandeman’s New Europe Tours, or if they don’t have a tour where you’re heading then just Google for some free walking tours. They’re hands down the best tours I’ve done, and I can’t say enough how awesome they are at getting you acquainted with a city! Your tour guides also have great insight as to places to eat and drink or just other general things to do!
When I took the tour three years ago, there was a stop at the Tiergarten which features 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 its 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 life style, 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. The main thing I have to say is, if you can manage to spend a decent amount of time there – do it! Four nights and five days wasn’t nearly enough, but that just means I’ll have to come back! See you again (hopefully sooner rather than later) Berlin!