When I first travelled to Berlin, the city was divided between the East and the West with the wall separating the two sides of the City. You could however cross over the border by train – just one or two stations away, where you needed to present your passport under the watchful eye of East Germans carrying rifles.
Even on the train to Berlin, crossing through the corridor to West Berlin through East German territory saw Armed Guards with Alsatians searching carriages for possible runaways. I had a Eurail ticket at the time, which covered the travel across the corridor, but then when I left Berlin, I caught a train went through East Germany at night. The Guard demanded that I pay, but I promised not to look out the window at East Germany and with some extra help from other passengers, I managed to avoid paying. Still, East Germany was a scary space, with its Stasi Secret Police and atmosphere that gave out the feeling that you and everyone else were being watched.
In Berlin itself, there was a stark contrast between the two sides of the city – with East Berlin drab and buildings looking like they hadn’t been touched in years, almost as if time has stood still. East Germans would also approach you, looking furtively around to make sure no one was watching, asking if you had cigarettes, clothes or currency to exchange. There was definitely a strange atmosphere just being there. Many West Germans also had family on both sides of the Border – so they regularly crossed over the border bringing food with them and what they could to help their relatives there.
Next to the Wall on the West German side – was ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – a restricted border crossing point that had become and still is a Tourist Point – where it showed some of the ingenious ways that East Berliners had tried to cross the border without being shot.
Back in West Berlin the atmosphere was happy and Berlin at the time was very much a ‘Young City’ and as my Berlin friend told me, there was a tax concession given to people to come and work in Berlin, which resulted in a lot of younger people moving to West Berlin.
Before I came to Berlin, I thought West Berlin would be a city locked behind the Berlin Wall, but to my surprise it was more like a city state – with lots of greenery, parks and even a large lake. I even saw a rabbit running along beside the rail line. There was a real buzz about the city but in the centre of the City was the Kaiser Wilhelm Church on Breitscheidplatz, built between 1891 and 1895 but bombed by the British n 1943 during World War Two, its steeple smashed and then left broken in half as a symbol of war and its devastation. Next to it in 1961 they built a stark modern bell tower with concrete honeycomb sides with blue glass inserts – a place of solace. The broken Church was both a casualty of war, but also a living symbol of it.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Church is due to be restored because of its deteriorating condition but even now, 2017, these are still plans. Sadly in December 2016, the Brietscheidplatz (Plaza) was the scene of a Terrorist attack, when a truck was purposely driven into a Christmas Market here, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others.
The attack on the Christmas Market, like other similar Terrorist Attacks maybe a sign of the times but it also reflects the distorted, mindless stupidity of these people, thinking that their actions will lead to some kind of better world.
If Berlin can survive the sustained Bombing of the City in World War Two and survive years as a divided city, then the senseless murders of innocents in the Christmas Market will never stop Berliners from loving their city and living life.
WELCOME TO BERLIN – the one time Capital of Prussia and now Germany
The best way to see the main sights in Berlin is to get a Berlin Welcome Card – valid from 2 to 6 days and it includes Public Transport and free access and/or Euro discounts to some 200 sights, including Boat trips and Bicycle hire, Berlin Zoo, TV Tower and Museum Island.
There is a lot to see in Berlin, it is easy to get around and of course you will find good accommodation, restaurants and all the bars and shops that you find in a big city.
To get a ‘birds eye’ view of the City, the 368 metre high TV Tower is where you will get the best view from the Observation Deck or the Level 203 Bar. The TV Tower is located on Panoramastaβe.
Berlin’s Story is a history of Germany itself from the time of Prussia and the Kaisers, to its time as the headquarters of the Nazi Party and Hitler, to its division into East and West Berlin and then the smashing of the Berlin Wall in 1989, becoming once more the Capital of a United Germany.
Berlin is a great world city – said to have about 600 Galleries and over 150 different museums, with great parks, shopping and all the attractions that go together to create a world class city.
Just as outside Paris there is Versailles, just outside Berlin there is Potsdam – definitely a
BELOW WE OUTLINE JUST SOME OF THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS TO SEE IN BERLIN –
In the centre of Berlin -
The Reichstag -
Berlin on the Spree River that runs through Berlin is the Capital City of Germany where the German Reichstag is located, home to the German Parliament (Bundestag) right in the centre of the city in the area called ‘Mitte’.
The Reichstag building on the Platz der Republik was first designed and constructed in 1894 and was home to the German Parliament until 1933 when it was burned down. Hitler blamed Communists for this arson attack, promoting the idea that it was part of a Bolshevik Uprising that needed strict laws to stop it spreading. This allowed him to crush and arrest opposition members without reason or trial and to create his own press reporting and news coverage. The burning down of the Reichstag would be instrumental in creating reasons for the Nazi Party and Hitler to rule over Germany, and along with many other events led on to World War Two.
After the Reichstag was burned down, the Bundestag Parliament moved into the Kroll Opera House next door but in 1943 and again in 1945 it was bombed by British bombers which had nightly bombing raids over Berlin for more than 30 days. The City then came under attack from the East by the Russians in April/May 1945, with Hitler himself committing suicide in Berlin on the 30th April 1945. In May Russian Red Army soldiers even stood on the top of the ruins of the Reichstag to hoist a Russian flag on top, signalling that they had now conquered the City of Berlin and Germany.
When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, the Wall ran along the back of the Reichstag but that same year the Reichstag was renovated by West Germany but not used as a Parliament building. After the wall came down in 1989, a competition was held to seek a new design for the Building, but it was not until 1999 that the Glass Dome, designed by British Architect, Lord Norman Foster would be built. The building opened to the public with the Bundestag Parliament moving from Bonn to Berlin to re-occupy the Reichstag, symbolising the Unification of Germany.
Almost beside the Reichstag is the Parliament of Trees which has original parts of the Berlin Wall as sections within the line of trees. Look for it at the corner of Schiffbauer-Damm and Adele-Schieber-Krieger Staβe. The infamous ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ is some distance away – located on the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse.
The Brandenburg Gate – in Mitte, just to the west on the Pariser Platz
If you have been in Athens in Greece, you would have seen the Propylaea Gateway that leads to the Acropolis or in Rome you may have seen the Arch of Titus or Arch of Constantine, in Paris the Arc de Triomphe or in London the Wellington Arch.
These Grand Archways were built to celebrate victories and Triumphs in the cities where they are, and here in Berlin there is the Brandenburg Gate built between 1788 and 1791. It is a magnificent sight with its six Doric Columns and Quadriga statue with its Chariot and four Horses on top, creating a grand entranceway to the Unter den Linden Boulevard. There is a row of Linden trees in each side of the Boulevard that leads on to the Schlossbrücke Bridge over the River Spree, with a number of important buildings on each side. The leaves of the Linden Tree have healing properties, perhaps also symbolic of the healing that has taken place since the removal of the Berlin Wall and at night the Brandenburg Gate and the trees along the Unter den Linden Boulevard are lit up, creating a really nice atmosphere. At one time the 15th century Berlin City Palace was located at the end of the Unter den Linden, but this was bombed in World War Two and then the East Germans demolished it in 1950. It is now being rebuilt and the Humboldtforum Museum will be housed here. Construction is due to finish in late 2019. Also here are many buildings and places to see including Madame Tussauds and a German Car Museum.
When Napoleon defeated the Prussians in 1806 he and his army marched through the Brandenburg Gate and they took the Quadriga back to France with them, then when Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the Prussians occupied Paris, they rescued the Quadriga and brought it back to sit atop the Brandenburg gate once more. At the end of World War Two, there was also a Victory parade by Allied tanks and soldiers though the Brandenburg Gate too.
If you like the look of the Brandenburg Gate, also look to see the Propylaea in Munich, built in 1862 and the Roman built Porta Nigra in Trier, built in 180AD.
Also on Unter den Linden is the Deutsches Hostorisches Museum in the Zeughaus Building built in 1730 with a glass atrium extension designed by the world renowned architect, IM Pei. If you read the History section of this website and then visit the Museum, the museum will really come to life as you discover more of the 2000 year old history of Germany.
The Groβer Tiergarten – Park –
Right in the centre of the city, not far from the Brandenburg Gate there is the massive Tiergarten park and forest area covering around 210 hectares (500 acres) with the Victory Column (Siegessäule) with its Gold “Golden Lizzie” statue on top in the centre of the park and roadways radiating out from it. The Column was first built between 1864 and 1873 to commemorate Prussian Victory over Denmark in the Prussian-Denmark War, but in 1938-39 it was built to a new height of 67 metres on the orders of Hitler in preparation for his German Victory in World War Two. There is a spiral staircase that leads to the top of the Victory Statue – some 285 steps to the top. It may or may not be open, depending on security concerns.
Here in front of the Victory Column is where Barack Obama delivered one of his speeches in 2008 just before being elected as President of the USA that year.
The Tiergarten is crossed by the Strasse des 17 Jun – named after a Worker’s Revolt in 1953 in East Germany which was brutally put down. There is also a Soviet War Memorial here too, marked by two Russian Tanks and a Colonnade in honour of the 2000 Red Army Soldiers who died here in 1945.
To the south of the TierGarten is the Tierpark – an open zoo with a small electric train that will take you past the animals here. Close to the Tierpark is the Berlin Zoo that opened in 1844 and nearby too is an Aquarium.
Holocaust Memorial – Cora-Berliner Strasse 1.
It is unimaginable what it must have been like for Allied soldiers, many German soldiers and civilians too in World War Two to see and discover in the midst of celebrating the War’s end to find the horrors awaiting them in the German and Polish Concentration Camps. Six million Jews, Roma, Sinti, Homosexuals and others classed as undesirables by the Nazis would be found in mass graves and as piled bodies in these death camps. One of the telling signs of the death camps were the thousands of shoes stacked high, an indication of how many people had been starved, gassed or tortured in these camps.
Berlin was the centre of Hitler’s Third Reich and now Capital, and for many years there was deliberation as to whether to recognize the Holocaust or try to forget the dark days of the War and the mass genocide of Jews and others in the Concentration Camps.
It was only in 2005, sixty years after the war ended that the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas Memorial was officially opened. Here at the Holocaust Memorial there is a mass of 2711 concrete rectangular blocks of different sizes heights with no eyes to see, no voice to hear – a silent solitary memorial that leads on to the Room of Names – where the names become human and their stories unfold.
There is also a big Jewish Museum too in Berlin – the Jüdisches Museum that is spread out across
three buildings. It is located at Lindenstraβe 9-14 near U Bahn Station Hallesches Tor (U1, U6).
Having seen the Holocaust Memorial and Museums, you may want some light relief and I would suggest that the best place to find it is take a bicycle ride in the Tiergarten or find a café next to the River Spree. You could also head to the Potsdamer Platz (Square) where there is always something happening.
For many people there is something quite comforting to sit on a boat and watch the world drift by and in Berlin the Rivers Spree and Havel as well as lakes and canals are all here with River Cruises in the warmer months (roughly March to October). Cruises take you to see Berlin from the water, crossing under many of the 60 bridges that cross over the River Spree in Berlin. There are also cruises on the 7 Havel Lakes and to Potsdam.
There are many Museums in Berlin and also Art Galleries and these can be as different as the Trabi Museum (Zimmerstrasse 14-15) that showcases the little Trabi cars that were once the transport in East Germany and Berliner DDR Motorrad Museum in Rochsstrasse – which has scooters and mopeds to really big Museums with amazing historical material and antiquities to museums on Technology.
If you want to see a Galerie with all the great Masters from the 13th to 18th century, head to the Gemäldegalerie – on Matthäjkirch Platz – where you can see some 3000 paintings and works by such masters as Titian, Goya, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Raphael, Jan van Eyck, Rubens and many others.
For modern art – the biggest Gallery is the Neue National Galerie – located at Potsdamer Strasse 50 with works by Picasso, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and others
If you have a special interest check with the Tourist Bureau to see if there is a Museum dedicated to your particular interest.
The main big 5 museums are located on Museum Island in the Spree River which has amazing things to see and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right.
Here you will find –
- The Pergamon Museum – the big National Museum is full of Antiquities including a Museum of Islamic Art. An amazing collection.
- Bode Museum – in the great dome shaped building with sculptures, Byzantine Art, Greek and Roman coins, sculptures from the middle ages, Roman and Byzantine Art
- Nuemes Museum – Egyptian, the Bust of Nefertiti, antiquities from Troy, pre-history, an amazing Papyrus Collection, even the skull of a Neanderthal man
- Alte Nationalgalerie – modelled on the Acropolis, with 19th century art and impressionist paintings – Monet, Rodin, Cézanne, Renoir and more
- Altes Museum – ancient art from Rome, sculptures and gold treasury, Mosaics, this is the Museum of the Ancient World.
These Museums are all next to each other on the Museum Island, and you could easily spend a day here and not see it all. Just the architecture alone is impressive.
THE HOHENZOLLERN DYNASTY –
There were many Royal Family dynasties that ruled over different regions of Europe – the House of Habsburg, Savoy, Windsor, Bourbon and a number of others but in Prussia it was the House of Hohenzollern.
The family could trace its dynasty back to 1061 originating in the Swabian region of Germany, but had split into two branches over Religion – one half remaining Catholic and the other becoming Protestant. The first King of Prussia (a protestant) was in 1701 when the state of Prussia was established and the family would rule over Germany until 1918, when Germany was defeated in World War One and Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the neutral country of the Netherlands.
In Berlin there were once nine Palaces built for the Royal House of Hohenzollern and some still exist as follows –
- Babelsberg Palace – overlooks the Havel River on large parklands that stretch along this part of the River. It is currently being renovated, but you might sight it on a cruise on the Havel River near the Glienicke Bridge (known as a bridge crossing where Spies were exchanged between the West and East during the Cold War.
- Berliner Schloss - this is on the Museum Island and was demolished after World War Two by the East Germans. It is due to be reconstructed once sufficient funds have been sourced and may possibly open in 2019.
- Britz Palace – is set in a 300 year old park and is located at Alt-Britz73. You can see through the rooms in the Palace and get a feel for how the Hohenzollern family once lived here.
- Schlosspack Charlottenburg – This is the ONE to see. Baroque formal gardens, flower beds, fountains, ponds and the Palace itself with its apartments, ballrooms, sculptures and Golden Gallery.
- The other place to see Castles is in Potsdam – see below.
If you like to see gardens – there are many green spaces, including the Tiergarten, Britzer Garten and the Botanical Gardens -
One of the great gardens is Britzer Garten – is a 100 acre garden with both formal and informal gardens including lake areas with birds and other animals. There is a park train to take you through the gardens.
The Botanical Gardens (Botanischer Garten ) is located on Königin- Luise Strasse 6-8 (off Unter den Eichen)and has some 22,000 plant species. There is a great greenhouse too and a number of different garden types.
Berlin like all big cities has its shopping Malls with their name brands, department stores and Food Halls and one of the biggest ones is the LP 12 Mall of Berlin on Leipziger Platz 12.
Other places to head to for shopping are –
There are many other places to shop and on weekends there are also Flea Markets in and around the City. Just ask at your hotel for some directions to find them.
If your hotel or place you are staying in is in the centre of Berlin, you won’t need to go far to find bars and restaurants. Again the best way to find a good place is just to ask at your hotel or a local. Berlin is certainly an old city, but it also has a youthful fun side to it too.
Potsdam, a city with a population of around 160,000 people is located to the south-west of Berlin on the Havel River and you can get their by road, Rail, or boat from Berlin. It is roughly 30 kilometres away (18 miles), so not far and is surrounded by a number of lakes, rivers and forests, so very much a green city. Such is its uniqueness, it has been given UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Potsdam is probably best known as the city where the Potsdam Conference was held between July 17 and August 2nd, 1945 at the end of the World War Two, after Germany surrendered in Europe. Joseph Stalin from Russia, Winston Churchill (and then Clement Attlee) from Britain and Harry Truman from the USA as leaders of their countries met here in Potsdam in the Cecilienhof Palace to discuss the terms and conditions of Germany’s surrender. The consequences of the decisions made at this conference in the Potsdam Declaration would affect millions of people, with German Borders changed, Germans expelled from what became Polish territory and within a few years the creation of a the Eastern Soviet Bloc, with Potsdam becoming part of East Germany too. Potsdam during the War had also been bombed, one of the most damaging of the bombing raids being on April 14, 1945 when the old Town Hall and building on the Markt Square were largely destroyed. If you see the re-constructed Town Hall now, you will see the gold Statue of Atlas on top. He survived the bombing. There is a Museum of Potsdam inside the Old Town Hall now too.
While the Potsdam Declaration is in some ways recent history, even though it was 75 or so years ago, Potsdam’s real charm and character was created in the 1700’s by Frederick the Great (Friedrich de Groβe 1712-1786) and his architects and workers, where he sought to balance the built environment in harmony with the land – a concept that is very current in today’s thinking. When you look at the Parks, lakes and rivers – you see the beauty of nature, but equally when you look at great architectural buildings, you also see the beauty in what has been created by mankind.
The highlight of your visit to Potsdam will be seeing the Royal Palace and gardens of the Schloss Sanssourci – designed in1747 for Prussian King Frederick the Great and extended over the years by future Kaisers. The name itself is French – sans meaning without and sourci meaning care – as in ‘without cares and worries’.
The Schloss Sanssourci is a grand palace with concert hall, library, oval marble hall with gilded ceilings and other adornments with great arched windows, a dome rooftop, with the park outside containing a grand ‘folly’ trick to the eye, ruins, even a Dutch style windmill and a Gallery of great paintings, a remarkable Chinese Round House with a Barrel roofline, Neptune’s Grotto, statues, and at one end of the Gardens there is the New Palace that was built in the 1700’s and used as the Palace for Kaiser Wilhelm II until 1918, when he abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. There are many grand State rooms, bedroom apartments, frescoes, furnishings, banquet rooms and more - so a lot to see and it is easy to spend a day here seeing the whole complex of buildings, parks and gardens. Make sure you see the temple of Friendship and Ancient Temple created by Frederick the Great too.
One of the other great castles is the Belvedere Castle on the Pfingstberg. Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm IV had travelled to Rome in 1829 and then built this castle in 1850.
The ideal is to be able to see the Palaces without too many other people – so ideally arrive early in Potsdam to really get a feel for this fascinating part of German History and the times when the Royals controlled all of Prussia. There is so much to see that it is definitely best to plan to stay for a few days here, but many people will also come here as day-trippers.
Frederick the Great had an interesting life and perhaps his title says it all. It is worth researching more about him and his life and times as an ‘enlightened ruler’, but one of his rulings was to welcome people from different parts of Europe who were seeking religious freedom and in Potsdam you will find a Dutch quarter (Holländisches Viertel) of the City with red brick gable top houses the shape that typifies Dutch Buildings. Close to here too is the Nauener Tor – with its gateway and towers on each side.
There is also a Russian quarter too, Alexandrowka, with Russian style houses, Russian Orthodox Church, Temple of Pomona (the Goddess of Fruit Trees), this area dating back to the time of the friendship between Frederick Wilhelm III and Tsar Alexander. Belvedere Castle is here too
In Sanssourci Park, you will also see the Church of Peace (Friedskirche) built in 1844 next to the water with willow trees overhanging it. The Kaiser Friedrich Mausoleum is next to the Church and inside the Church in the Apse is a mosaic that dates back to 1108, that was brought here to Potsdam in 1834. There are a number of Evangelistic Churches in Potsdam, one of the most impressive being Saint Nicolas Church on Am Alten Markt, built between 1830 and 1837. It was severely damaged in World War Two, but has since been restored. Its classic Portico entrance and 77 metre high dome roof line with its circle of columns under the great dome are well worth seeing. Close to here too in the Havel River are the Botanical Gardens on Friendship Island on the River, with a café that has been here for 150 years and pathways, gardens and lawn areas including a large number of sculptures that add to the atmosphere.
When you see Potsdam you see elements of influences from France, China, Russia, Italy and Britain – just one example of British influence being the Schloss Cecilienhof with its half-timbered exterior and angled brickwork, reminiscent of an old Tudor house style in the Neuer Garten with its English style gardens. It seems strange that the Schloss Cecilienhof was built in this style during the First World War.
Potsdam is also a University and Scientific Research centre with the Albert Einstein Science Park involved in Astro Physics and many other scientific studies with some of the buildings dating back to as early as 1874. The Einstein Tower is here too, built in 1921 for research into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
The world’s oldest Film studio, Filmpark Babelsberg is located in a magnificent old Court Stables building on Breite Staβe. There is a film based Theme Park and the Great Refractor Telescope on Telegraphenberg Hill located here too.
Potsdam, like Berlin has its own Brandenburg Gate – located on Luisen Platz, built in 1770-71 by Frederick the Great. It has a grand central archway and smaller archways on each side of the main one. Each of the main sides of the Gateway has a different style as two different architects were used to design it. At the time Potsdam was a walled city, but the wall was demolished around 1900.
At another part of the old City Wall there is the Hunter’s Gate that dates back to 1733, less elaborate but also impressive.
There are over 150 buildings in Potsdam that could be described as classic, with river cruises during the summer months and also the City Canal with its walkways and cafes adding to the spectacle of the city. There are also markets and one market place, the Neuer Markt is a beautiful square with a long building beside the square that was home when it was built in 1790 to over 100 horses used for pulling the Royal Carriages along.
There are many beautiful Parks in Potsdam, but if you have time, head by Ferry to Peacock Island – where you can spend time in the Park where there are the gardens, walkways, fountains, peacocks and the ruins of a castle.
Being a relatively small city, it is easy to get around and there are many accommodation options, good food and places to just wander and get a feel for the city and its grandeur.
There are many lakes, wetlands, Alder forests and wilderness areas outside of Berlin and just one of these very special areas of wetlands is what is called ‘Spreewald’ about 100 kilometres south-east of Berlin. Here you will find around 200 canals with a total length of 1300 kilometres across an area of around 48,000 hectares. Spreewald has also been granted UNESCO World Heritage status due to its ‘Biosphere Reserve’ flora and fauna that can be found here.
This area is not just special due to the wetlands and canals, but also because this is the centre of the Sorbian Culture (Sorbs/Wends) a Slavic/German culture with its own traditions, craft, dress, building styles, cooking style and also language dating back centuries. One of its specialties is a Cucumber Sauce (Gherkins) and use of cucumbers. The main towns/cities here are Lübbenau, Lubben and Burg, but most Tourists coming to Spreewald will travel from Berlin on a day trip to go punting on the canals and through the locks in one of the many small wooden punt boats that are organised here. There are also paddle boards and canoes that you could hire too.
In Berlin, check with your hotel or the Tourist Office to find a tour that will take you to see Spreewald.
There are many smaller towns, villages, lakes and other areas surrounding Berlin and in summer these natural and manmade lakes become a nature paradise for boating, canoeing, swimming, hiking, biking and other outdoor activities.
I hope you enjoy seeing Berlin, Potsdam and this unique region of Germany.