What to See and Do in the German Capital
Berlin is Germany’s capital and largest city in area and population. It is both a city and one of Germany’s 16 states (Bundesländer). Home to about 3.4 million residents (4.4 million in the Berlin/Brandenburg metro area), Berlin has a history of upheaval and rebirth like no other European capital city. Most recently, following 40 years as a divided city (28 of them with the Wall), Berlin has been undergoing yet another major transformation since German reunification in 1990.
Berlin is spread out across a vast area of some 344 square miles (892 km2). Although the city has an excellent public transit system, it can take an hour or more to go from one end of Berlin to another. It is best to divide and conquer by concentrating on certain zones or districts. (See below.)
As you travel around the city, you may be surprised by how green Berlin is — as in parks, forest, and other green zones. About 40 percent of the city’s total area is Grünfläche (“green space”) and water (rivers, lakes, canals). Two rivers, the Havel and the Spree (pron. shpray) flow through Berlin. In addition, two major canals, the Teltowkanal and the Landwehrkanal, help Berlin function as a port while offering scenic and recreational opportunities.
The German capital often feels more like a series of villages or towns than a huge metropolis. Yet, here you will find one of Europe’s most sophisticated, cosmopolitan cities — vibrant with art, history, and night-life. After so many years of isolation as a land island in the middle of East Germany, Berlin is now making up for lost time.
The cost of food and lodging in Berlin is usually lower than in other European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome. It’s also easy and inexpensive to get around using Berlin’s excellent BVG public transportation network of buses, street cars, S-Bahn (local rail) and U-Bahn (metro). The BVG website is also very helpful, with maps and schedules.
Flying to or from Berlin
Berlin is building a new airport, known as Berlin-Brandenburg International (IATA code: BER). BER was supposed to open on June 3, 2012, but the official opening was cancelled. The project that began in 2006 has been plagued by delays, and now no one knows when it will open. Berlin’s two existing airports, Tegel (TXL) and Schönefeld (SXF), remain in operation. For the latest airport information, see the Berlin Airports website (in English or German).
Brief Berlin History: Cölln
Among most European and German cities, Berlin is a youngster. The city only had 29,000 residents in 1700 (with one in five being of French origin). By 1850 the population of the Prussian capital had risen to only 428,000, at a time when Paris had 1.5 million and London 2.7 million residents.
Although Berlin and Cölln, the two tiny settlements that would later become Berlin, existed earlier, the first documented mention of Cölln is dated in the year 1237. Located roughly near today’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) in the center of Berlin, the two towns on each side of the Spree merged in 1307 to become Berlin-Cölln and later just plain Berlin (1432). After 1701, as the royal capital of Brandenburg-Prussia, Berlin gradually grew to become a major political, financial, and cultural center. In 1660, nearby Potsdam had been chosen as the site for a royal hunting residence. In 1745, Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Große, 1712-1786) had a new Rococo-style summer palace built there. Completed in 1747, today Sanssouci Palace and its surrounding park are a major tourist attraction.
With the construction of railways and canals in the 19th century, Berlin’s importance as an industrial and financial center grew. (To be continued…)
What to See in Berlin and Potsdam
Berlin has a lot to offer its visitors — so much in fact that it is best to plan ahead and focus on what you really want to see and experience in the German capital. Whether you have just a day or several weeks, “Berlin ist eine Reise wert!” (“Berlin is worth a trip!”)
Selected Berlin Attractions (Grouped by district)
Also see: Berlin at a Glance
MITTE | Between Tiergarten Park and Alexanderplatz
Literally, the “animal garden,” Berlin’s “Central Park” lies like a huge green patch right in the middle of the city. The park began as a hunting ground for Brandenburg’s royals. Landscaped as a park in 1830, Tiergarten Park is a nice place to stroll, relax and take a break from sightseeing. The park lends its name to the surrounding Tiergarten (TEER-gahr-ten) district of Berlin. There are several notable attractions in or near the park, including the Siegessäule (victory column) that offers a nice view of the city (if you’re willing to climb stairs; no elevater) and the Soviet War Memorial (located in what was the British Zone; the Soviet memorial in Treptower Park is bigger).
The Brandenburg Gate
The number one icon and landmark of Berlin is das Brandenburger Tor. Designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans for King Friedrich Wilhelm II and completed in 1791, the Brandenburg Gate and the Quadriga horse-and-chariot sculpture atop it have shared the fate of the city it stands in — in good times and bad. Napoleon took the Quadriga to Paris after his 1806 defeat of the Prussians, but it was returned in 1814 after Prussian forces marched into Paris. Badly scarred, the Gate survived the Second World War, only to be cut off by the Berlin Wall in 1961. Now open again, the oft restored Brandenburg Gate stands at the historic Pariser Platz site next to the brand new US Embassy that opened in July 2008.
Also see: Berlin Wall Timeline (1945-2011)
It is difficult to find a more historic building in Berlin than the German parliament — or one that better reflects today’s Germany. Originally completed in 1894, the Reichstag building was damaged by fire in 1933 and almost destroyed in World War II. Because of the division of Germany and Berlin, it did not become the seat of government for the German Bundestag until 1999. In 1993 Sir Norman Foster was commissioned to design a complete renovation that included a new glass dome, a modern version of the original cupola. Before construction began, the building became a huge art project by being wrapped in fabric by Christo. Since its opening in 1999, the Reichstag dome and its panoramic views of the city have been one of Berlin’s top attractions. Admission is free, but you have to make advance reservations (open 8:00 a.m.-midnight, last entry at 10:00 p.m.). (See photos.) More…
Unter den Linden
The Berlin avenue known as “under the linden trees” stretches between the Brandenburg Gate to the west and Museum Island and the Spree River to the east. Along the way, besides shops, hotels and cafés, you can see (going west): the Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge, see photo below), the Deutsches Historisches Museum (allow time for this excellent history museum), the Neue Wache (memorial to victims of facism), Humboldt University, the Bebelplatz square (site of 1933 Nazi book-burning memorial), the famous Hotel Adlon, and the new American Embassy near the Brandenburg Gate. The area around the intersection of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße is becoming Berlin’s new eastern shopping area.
Opened to the public in May 2005, Berlin’s Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas is a collection of 2,711 stelae that covers an entire city block along Behrenstraße, behind the US Embassy just south of the Brandenburg Gate. Don’t miss the easy-to-overlook underground information center and exhibit. (See the photo below.)
WEB > Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (official site, English or German; PDF flyers in many languages)
Over the centuries, Berlin has had a lot of French influences, and here you can see some tangible evidence. The Gendarmenmarkt square is only a few blocks south of Unter den Linden. At the square’s northern end (bordered by Französische Straße, French Street) stands the Französischer Dom (French Dome church, not a cathedral, despite the German word Dom), still in use today. In the same building is the Hugenottenmuseum (Huguenot Museum) which documents the arrival of the French Huguenot refugees in Berlin in the 17th century and their impact on the city. On the opposite side of the square is the Deutscher Dom (German Dome church). Between the two stands the Konzerthaus concert hall.
WEB > Französischer Dom (Berlin.de)
Museum Island lies at the eastern end of Unter den Linden (see below) and is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. On this aptly named island in the Spree, you will find five of Berlin’s top museums, including the Pergamon with its Greek altar and magnificent Ishtar Gate. The entire museum complex has been undergoing major renovation for many years and is scheduled to be completed in 2015. All five museums will then be interconnected: the Bode, the Pergamon, the Neues Museum (where Nefertiti has her new home!), the Alte Nationalgalerie, and the Altes Museum. But you don’t have to wait for 2015! See the links below for details.
WEB > Museum Island – SMB (about all the museums)
WEB > Master Plan Museuminsel (English)
The “Alex,” as Berliners call this square, is the former center of East Berlin. For a while after the Wall came down, the future of this historical urban area was uncertain. But two decades after the Wende (reunification), Alexanderplatz is thriving. New, modern shopping malls (Alexa), cinemas, restaurants, and other businesses have sprung up all around the TV tower (see below) and the train station. Alexanderplatz is also a major transit hub for the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, bus, and tram.
If nothing else, you can use the giant Alexanderplatz TV tower as a reliable guide to find your way around eastern Berlin. Built as an icon of socialism in 1969, the 1,200 ft (368 m) tall concrete structure features an observation deck and a revolving restaurant, each offering great views of the city. Another East Berlin landmark can be found not far from the TV tower on the other side of the S-Bahn station. The large revolving World Time Clock (Weltzeituhr) will tell you the current time in various cities around the globe.
Each of Berlin’s 12 districts has its own city hall (Bezirksamt/Rathaus), but the main city hall is only a few steps away from the TV tower. Completed in 1869, the “Red City Hall” is named for the red bricks of its walls. Badly damaged during the war, das Rote Rathaus was rebuilt and served as the East Berlin city hall, while the Schöneberg city hall (where JFK gave his “ich bin ein Berliner” speech) housed the West Berlin government offices. Today Berlin’s proudly gay mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has his office in the Rotes Rathaus.
The next sightseeing zone in Part 2 is the area around Berlin’s upscale shopping avenue, the Kurfürstendamm in former West Berlin. But there is much more to this area than shopping.
Next | Berlin City Guide – Part 2