Why are we in Berlin?
Our children greeted us enthusiastically at the airport on our first time in Berlin. However, we initially wondered why we were there, apart from visiting our family.
After a few days, we came to appreciate this historic city. We visited the major attractions, made some quirky finds and had a number of enjoyable experiences.
Initial impressions of Berlin
At first we saw Berlin as 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 are within close proximity of a train or tram ride. Ian found a beer could be bought for 90 cents at the corner store. He was most impressed.
Getting around Berlin
Most Berliners cycle around the city. The streets are full of 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 navigating the system confidently by the end of the week.
Berlin is also very flat. This makes it easy to walk around the city and see many historic and quirky sites around the city.
East meets West
The Berlin Wall may be long gone. However the modernised “west ” still contrasts starkly with the more dilapidated “East”, where post war development was bypassed. Major construction works across the city promise a period of renewal.
We enjoy a “whistle stop tour” of the major attractions on foot when we arrive in any new city. This gives you a good orientation to decide what you would like to explore further.
Our first stop was a well needed coffee and our first baked pretzel . Our daughter then took us in tow for an energetic walking tour of the city she loves.
More than 70 years on, many of the buildings still bear wartime bullet holes and battle scars. There are still empty spaces where buildings were flattened during bombing raids.
The site Berlin City Palace stood for nearly 500 years was undergoing major reconstruction. Although relatively undamaged during the War, the East German government demolished the building in 1951. A new cultural centre was being built, 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.
The Berliner Dom is located on Museum Island, in Mitte. It suffered significant damage during World War II and was closed until post-reunification restoration works in 1993.
You can enjoy a self guided tour for a small entry fee, or take advantage of scheduled guided tours. Inside you will be amazed by the awe inspiring architecture. These include the magnificent Christian Dauel baptismal font, Guido Reni’s Petrus mosaic and the 7000 pipe organ, the largest in Berlin.
Kaiser Whilhelm I laid the foundation stone for he seat of German Parliament in 1884, despite concerns that the dome of the building may be higher than the city castle.
The Reichstag opened in 1894 and 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. British Architect Norman Foster redesigned the new building from 1994-99. His aim was to provide a modern parliament building, while retaining the integrity of the original historic building.
The Reichstag building is within walking distance of the iconic Brandenburg Gate. The building has an accessible glass dome on the roof, 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. There is also a cafe and restaurant where you can enjoy a meal.
“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 1933 Nazi book burnings.. 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 as 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.
A 368 metre high TV tower looms over Berlin in Alexanderplatz, formerly the main commercial hub of East Berlin.
The tower was 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.
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 are 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. The memorial spans one kilometre through the centre of Berlin, describing 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.
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 this includes the popular Anne Frank exhibition.
“Stumbling stones” in the pavement.
The three story stone apartment buildings once formed part of the old Jewish quarter. Many residents were imprisoned and subsequently murdered.
Cobblestones in the footpath have been replaced with brass memorial “stumbling stones. They bear the names birth and death dates of the former residents These provide a silent, poignant reminder of the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.
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 display. 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. This was the scene of one of the most important events in modern history.
It was once 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. Wisteria draped archways lead 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. It now provides 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. We enjoyed a strawberry cocktail along the way one afternoon.
Buddy Bears the bears.
Bears were a unique feature we found in Berlin. 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. The exhibition travels the world promoting “peace, international understanding and tolerance among the nations, cultures and religions of the world”.
The “Ampleman is another icon you will find everywhere. 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.