Why are we in Berlin?
Arriving in Berlin for the first time, to be honest, I initially wondered why we were there. Apart from visiting our children for the first time of course, who had met us enthusiastically at the airport.
A few days in Berlin gave us a brief glimpse of what the city has to offer. Not only did we visit the major tourist attractions, but also made a few quirky finds and had some enjoyable experiences.
Initial impressions of Berlin
Our initial impression was of a bleak, cold, rundown city still bearing the battle scars of two world wars. Parts of the city seemed like stepping into a 1930’s time-warp which had failed to keep pace with the modern world. A dilapidated, graffitied city desperately in need of an upgrade.
However a few days exploration unveiled the rich, sometimes dark, history of a city reunified less than 30 years ago. The vibrant, friendly culture of a city that constantly buzzes with activity.
There are so many things to do in Berlin. All within close proximity of a train or tram ride. Ian was most impressed by the fact that a beer could easily be had for 90 cents at the corner store.
Getting around Berlin
Cycling is the preferred means of transport for most Berliners, with designated bike lanes and parking bays.
Trams run through the eastern part of the the city, with an excellent underground train system. Despite our lack of German, were were confident of navigating the system by the end of the week.
Berlin is also very flat, so it is easy to walk around the city and take in many of the many historic and quirky sites around the city.
East meets West
The Berlin Wall may be long gone. However the stark contrast between the more modernised “west” and the more dilapidated “East”, where post war development was bypassed, still exists today.
Major construction works across the city promise a period of renewal. When arriving in any new city, a “whistle stop tour” of the major attractions (preferably on foot), gives you both an orientation and a shortlist of attractions you would like to explore further.
Our first stop after arrival was a well needed coffee and our first baked pretzel , before our daughter took us in tow for an energetic walking tour of the city she loves.
Walking through the precinct along the River Spree, we sere amazed that more than 70 years on, many of the buildings still bore wartime bullet holes and battle scars. Empty spaces still exist where buildings were flattened during bombing raids.
Major construction work was underway where Berlin City Palace stood for nearly 500 years. Although relatively undamaged during the War, the East German government demolished the building in 1951. A new cultural centre is now under construction, with the exterior facade replicating the original palace.
The Berliner Dom, Berlin’s largest cathedral was originally built in 1465 as a parish church on the Spree River. It underwent ongoing extension and improvement until it was finally completed in 1905 under the rule of the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.
Located on Museum Island, Mitte in what was the GDR, the Berliner Dom suffered significant damage during World War II and was closed until post-reunification restoration works in 1993.
For a small entry fee you can enjoy a self guided tour, or take advantage of scheduled guided tours. Inside you will be amazed by the awe inspiring architecture, from the magnificent Christian Dauel baptismal font, the Petrus mosaic by Guido Reni and the 7000 pipe organ, the largest in Berlin.
The seat of German Parliament, the foundation stone of the Reichstag building was laid by Kaiser Whilhelm I in 1884, despite concerns that the dome of the building may be higher than the city castle.
Opened in 1894, the building was home to the Imperial Diet until destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1933.
Post-reunification, the building once again became the seat of German Parliament, with redesign undertaken from 1994-99 under British Architect Norman Foster, to provide a modern parliament building, whilst retaining the integrity of the original historic building.
Within walking distance of the iconic Brandenburg Gate, the building provides an accessible glass dome, replicating the original dome, which has become a major Berlin landmark.
Pre-booked tours can take you to the top of the dome, where you enjoy panoramic views over Berlin.
“Whenever books are burned, men also, in the end are burned” Heinrich Heine
“Bebelplatz” is surrounded by historic 18th century buildings, built during the reign of King Frederick the Great.
The Old Royal Library (1780), State Opera (1743) and St Hedwigskirche (1783) flank the plaza. Across the road stands the Humbolt University built in 1810.
This square was also the site of the infamous Nazi book burnings in 1933. Artist Michal Ullman’s underground installation “Empty Library” is located in the centre of the Plaza.
The glass cover reveals the empty bookshelves standing as a stark memorial to the event. Coincidentally, it was many of Karl Marx’s books which were burnt in Bebelplatz.
The larger than life size Marx-Engels memorial statues were one of the next items on our itinerary.
The Brandenburg Gate, is flanked by foreign embassies in Pariser Platz. During its history, it has symbolised power of the Ruling monarchs, the division of Berlin and today stands a symbol of freedom.
Built on the site of an 18th century city gate, today cyclists and horse carriages, cars and pedestrians jostle for a photo opportunity with this iconic Berlin landmark.
Towering over Berlin in Alexanderplatz, formerly the main commercial hub of East Berlin, is a 368 metre high TV tower.
Built in 1969 to demonstrate the engineering prowress of the GDR, it remains the tallest structure in Berlin. For a small charge you can travel to the top of the dome to take in the views over the city.
Here you will also find the famous “World Clock”, which tells the current time in every major city of the world.
World Clock in Alexanderplatz Berlin
Beyond Alexanderplatz we discovered the Neptune Fountain. The Soviets removed the fountain from its original location in Schlossplatz when the City Palace was demolished in 1951.
Remnants of the Berlin Wall can be found all over the city as a stark reminder of the once divided city.
The Berlin Wall memorial in Bernauer Strasse needs a morning’s visit on its own.
This is an interactive display providing an insight into the lives of those ‘beyond the wall” during the cold war years.
Spanning one kilometre through the centre of Berlin, the memorial describes escape attempts made during the history of the Wall.
Vertical metal rods mark out the original outer wall, constructed from August 1961. An interactive memorial provides a graphic history of “the Wall”, from its hasty construction to its eventual deconstruction in 1989.
East Side Gallery
Walking around to the East side, a similar remnant of the wall along the Spree River now serves as a modern art gallery.
Artists were commissioned to paint murals along the remaining one kilometre stretch of the wall. The East Side Gallery depicts life in cold war East Berlin and celebrates reunification.
Stepping into the narrow courtyard of Haus Schwarzenberg on Rosenthaler Strass provides a wonderful sample of the city’s street art culture.
There are three exhibitions featuring the assistance efforts ordinary Berliners provided Jews during the Third Reich, including the Anne Frank exhibition.
The three story stone apartment buildings once formed part of the old Jewish quarter. Many residents were imprisoned and subsequently murdered.
Walking through the old Jewish quarter today, cobblestones in the footpath have been replaced with brass memorial “stumbling stones. These provide a silent, poignant reminder of the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.
Situated outside the homes of Jewish prisoners, the plaques bear the names, birth and death dates. Often whole families, children included were taken to certain death. A constant, stark reminder of the horrors of the holocaust.
On Cora-Berliner Strasse, over 2500 vertical concrete sarcophaghi are situated in a maze-like, undulating formation as a memorial to the thousands of murdered European Jews.
There is a subterranean information centre providing further displays, however we ran out of time to visit during this trip.
On the corner of Inden Ministegarten and GurtrudKolmar Strasse stands a fairly innocuous car park, scene of one of the most important events in modern history.
Here is the site of Hitler’s infamous bunker, where he committed suicide in the wake of advancing Allied forces in 1945.
Soviets sealed off and blew up the site in 1947, however a story board remains to mark the somewhat infamous history of the site.
Humbolthian Park, is one of the oldest parks in Berlin and also houses a hidden historic treasure. Here we meandered through the formal gardens, with spring in full bloom, the wisteria draped archways leading to adjacent “garden rooms”.
We were fortunate to visit on a weekday morning, when we had the gardens pretty much to ourselves, save for the odd squirrel scurrying along the pathways.
On a weekend the gardens will be full of Berliners taking full advantage of the sprawling parkland.
We met an unexpected surprise after climbing the somewhat steep hill at the rear of the park. An abandoned WWII bunker, designated as a safe spot for local residents during Allied air raids, now providing spectacular views across the city.
Cruise along the Spree River
A cruise along the Spree River is a relaxing way to see Berlin from the water. You can opt for either a luncheon cruise, or simply take a one way cruise from Charlottenberg, enjoying a strawberry cocktail along the way.
One unique feature we found during our visits to Berlin were the bears.
The heraldic symbol of Berlin was everywhere. Life size bears, vibrantly painted bears. Upright bears, bears on all fours. Touristy bears and cultural bears. Bears were certainly a Berlin landmark.
Buddy Bears began with an artistic exhibition in Berlin in 2001, with the idea of bringing art into the streets. This eventually developed into the circle of United Buddy Bears in 2002, an exhibition which travels the world promoting “peace, international understanding and tolerance among the nations, cultures and religions of the world”.
Another icon you will find everywhere is the “Ampelman”. Originally found on East German pedestrian lights, the green walking man has become somewhat of a trademark in Berlin.
It is not possible to fully appreciate all the historic and cultural treasures Berlin has to offer in one day.
However a brief glimpse on a walking tour gave us the opportunity to earmark the attractions we wanted to explore further on another day.