Berlin Reichstag (Kevin Gessner)
Article Words : Neil Taylor | 01 May

Berlin: City guide

A quick guide to Berlin's highlights and not to be missed sites

Capital of a reunited Germany only since 1999, it has already earned its international credentials and no longer has to settle for being simply German: US musicals, Babylonian mosaics, French bakeries and Norman Foster creations are comfortably integrated into Schinkel’s buildings and Wagner’s operas. The city that needed a long period in rehab for some serious therapy is now confident enough to woo British architects, Italian designers and Polish restorers to join the multinational community.

But though Berlin has undergone a level of transformation rivalled only by Shanghai post-Mao, it has stuck to its principles. The capital of counter culture and inspiration for the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop has lost none of its cutting edge reputation. Eastern wastelands are now Ossi cool, where thousands of disused buildings have become glamorous squats for underground parties and galleries.

Berlin is the greenest of cities – visually and politically. The Grunewald (Green Wood) is a huge park to the south west of the city, while the Green Party is in the ruling coalition, protecting the proud statistic that Berlin has more trees than shops. Berliners are avid recyclers with drinkers returning bottles to shops and train users sorting rubbish into bins on platforms. But then recycling is just one of many trends that starts as radical, spreads elsewhere and then almost becomes conservative. Gays, cyclists and nudists came out in the 1920s; by the time art causes a stir in London or New York it’s conventional in Berlin. Take a look at the future here and see if you think it works.

Where to go, what to do

Mitte

The literal translation of Mitte is ‘middle’ but ‘heart’ is more appropriate. In the first half of the 20th century it was almost self-contained – all that mattered in German history, art, government and fun took place within its confines. It had a less certain role in East German times – when it was in East Berlin it was sorely missed, and no amount of building and renewal in the West could replace it.

After reunification, developers and the public sector moved in with a vengeance. Once again visitors come to see the Museumsinsel, the elegant town houses of the Nikolaiviertel and, above all, to enjoy passing through the Brandenburg Gate.

Highlights

Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor): Built in 1791, the happiest and saddest days of Berlin’s history have all been played out here. Napoleon seized the Quadriga (chariot) from the top of the gate in 1806 to humiliate the local population. In 1933, the Nazis organised a three-hour long torchlight parade through the gate, and their regime surrendered to the Russians around it in May 1945. In 1961 the East German Government built the Wall in front of the gate, which isolated it for 28 years until 9 November 1989, the day the border was reopened. The restored gate was unveiled again on 3 October 2002, the 12th anniversary of German reunification.

Gendarmenmarkt: This square became the centre of a French community around 1700 when Prussia gave refuge to 6,000 persecuted Huguenots. The Französischer Dom (French Cathedral) dates from this time, as does the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral), built to similar proportions.

Bebelplatz: This square will always be associated with the Burning of the Books that took place here in 1933. A sheet of glass in place of a paving stone commemorates this; beneath it are rows of empty bookshelves.

Museumsinsel (Museum Island): The statue-lined Palace Bridge leads to an array of museums housing art, sculpture and archaeology exhibits from throughout the ages worldwide.

Alexanderplatz: ‘Alex’ to the locals, this square has, in an architectural sense, stood still for over 30 years.

Tiergarten

The Reichstag used to stand out in bleak isolation in Berlin’s most changing area. It is now one of many government buildings along the Spree River. The Wall made the Potsdamer Platz equally desolate; it is now a new Manhattan of skyscrapers, cinemas and ethnically diverse cafés. Zoo Station used to be where East meets West; the Lehrter Bahnhof is now being converted from a backwater to a new central station for the whole city.
Tiergarten means ‘animal garden’, and this wide area of lakes, woods and paths is still a soothing antidote in the town centre.

Highlights:

Reichstag (Parliament): First opened in 1894, the exterior has been restored to much as it was, but Norman Foster’s new glass dome adds a very late-20th century look to it. Some Russian graffiti from May 1945 has been left.

Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart (Hamburg Station-Museum for the Present): Converted into an exhibition centre in the 1980s, Andy Warhol is the main foreign artist displayed here and Joseph Beuys the main German one.

Potsdamer Platz: Passing through the glass tower blocks which surround this complex, one does not expect a hint of Italy. The Renaissance sense of design, the arcades and the ochre tiles provide a leisurely respite to contrast with the frantic pace of life in the towering Sony Center and the Debis Haus.

Kulturforum: With Museumsinsel in East Berlin, West Berlin soon felt the need to have a centre of its own to compete. At Neue Nationalgalerie (Modern Art Gallery), late-19th and 20th century German art has its permanent resting place in the basement.

Prenzlauerberg

To those who knew the area at all before the Wall came down, it meant dissent – an unusual commodity in East Germany. Reminders of harsher times are the Jewish Cemetery, the statue of Käthe Kollwitz and several local museums and galleries.

Highlights

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial): Just a few segments of the wall are left in their original location. During 2002 part of the former Wall was rebuilt and this year a large museum will open giving full background to all the dramas here between 1961 and 1989.

Charlottenburg

When Berlin was divided, Charlottenburg was a showcase enjoying massive subsidies from the Bonn government. The Kurfürstendamm was a mile-long advert for capitalism; now it has to compete with Mitte and Prenzlauerberg. However, the area still has its name, taken from the palace, some of which has survived since 1700.

Highlights

The Story of Berlin museum: No visitor forgets their trample over the charred books avidly burnt in 1933 or the smashing glass from Kristallnacht (when thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed, 100 people died and thousands were arrested) five years later. The bomb shelter below the building is a complete underground town, cut off from the world above.

Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace): Queen Charlotte (1669-1705) was the wife of Friedrich I and the palace was built as her summer residence.

It was expanded after 1701 when Friedrich crowned himself King of Prussia, and subsequent kings spared little expense in enlarging this palace, which can be seen as a one-stop shop for two centuries of German architecture.

Kreuzberg

The sights in Kreuzberg are mainly ones for contemplation and sadness – detailing Nazi crimes at the Topographie des Terrors museum and seeing the results of allied bombing in the shell of Anhalter railway station. Others, such as the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum), now offer hope. Only the Deutsches Technikmuseum offers an escape from politics.

Day trips

Potsdam

It was Frederick the Great who converted this small textile centre into a unique display of ostentation and military power. Potsdam has always provided an escape from Berlin and in the 18th century Frederick, trying to be more French than the French, hoped to run a court there similar to the one established a century earlier in Versailles. For East Germans it was a ‘near abroad’ providing glimpses of a world they would never otherwise see. Now the escapes are daily; commuters unwilling to restrict themselves to a flat near their office buy the houses which Soviet officers had to give up on German reunification.

The French name Sans Souci, meaning carefree, which Frederick the Great chose for his palace, sums up much of what took place there.

Festivals

Karneval der Kulturen: a colourful carnival in Kreuzberg, celebrates Berlin’s ethnic diversity. There is a fun vibe with stalls and stages on the Saturday and a bright parade on the Sunday. (www.karneval-berlin.de, four days in May/June)

Christopher Street Day Parade: the most flamboyant gay and lesbian parade in Berlin, is always outrageous. (www.csd-berlin.de, mid-to late June)