Planning a trip to Berlin

Berlin as a city is one gigantic party.

You can geek-out on ancient artifacts, rave all night in the clubs (you don't have to wait for the annual Love Parade), and marvel at an urban fabric that reads like a visual textbook of 20th century architecture, from the geometry of the Bauhaus to the whimsical swoops and shiny surfaces of post-millennial skyscrapers.

Ever-changing Berlin

It's been little more than a decade since the warring halves of one of Europe's greatest cities came roaring out of the Cold War with a remarkable zeal to set aside their differences and forge their metropolis anew beyond the tatters of the Iron Curtain.

As the construction cranes swoop and I-beam skeletons of new skyscrapers skittle their way into the sky, the city below pulses with life. Berlin is one of the world's foremost cities both for museums and for nightlife, a cornucopia of culture both high- and lowbrow, and an experience not to be missed.

It's almost impossible to get a handle on it all, even if you ride 1,100 feet to the top of the second tallest structure in Europe, the Fernsehturm TV tower on Alexanderplatz, and gaze out over the ever-changing panorama of a city which positively sparkles and crackles with life.

Berlin is huge, and it sprawls, plus it had nearly 45 years after World War II in which to develop two separate, well, separate everythings as East Berlin and West Berlin evolved side-by-side as if they were two different cities.

It was a ridiculous and, ultimately, untenable situation, as if the parents of a pair of conjoined twins divorced and insisted that they each get custody of just one child to raise separately.

When the Iron Curtain was lifted and the Wall brought down, the two came back together in a thunderclap of activity to forge ahead towards the 21st century.

Revolution, evolution, and atonement

On November 9, 1989, that graffiti-covered rift across the heart and psyche of the city called the Berlin Wall came tumbling down as the thawing of the Cold War allowed East and West Germany to reunite.

Over the past two decades, the reunified Berlin has poured somewhere beyond $120 billion into stitching its broken halves back together, filling on the gaping wound of no-man's land that once ran down its center, and revamping the entire urban structure into a metropolis worthy of being called a world capital.

The skyline is constantly throwing up new buildings and is as much marked by dozens of giant swinging construction cranes as by skyscrapers. (I do hope someone's thought to film this growth periodically from some fixed point, like those nature shows of flowers growing and blooming all speeded up.) So much of Berlin remain in a frenzy of construction, a beehive of building, that it lends a patina of excitement to the entire city.

Still, at the center of it all, sits the blackened, broken-tooth profile of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, a 1895 neo-Romanesque church that was pointedly never restored or refinished after its semi-destruction in the final days of World War II (though in 1961, a stout modern church built in a web work of glass was added at its base). Part of the top of the ruinous older church's spire was sheared away, and a structural crack meanders through a mosaic on the ceiling inside as a heinous scar that that cuts right across the figure of Jesus.

Berlin as a city, and Germany as a country, goes to great pains to atone for its mid 20th-century sins, with the strongest anti-hate crime laws of any country and a zeal for memorials and earnest attempt to take the "never forget" maxim seriously.

The massive Judisches Museum, a gigantic and weirdly angular building whose shiny steel skin is scarred by deep cuts, opened in 1999 (with a full-scale rearrangement in 2001) to become the largest museum dedicated to Jewish culture in Europe. It not only details the history of European Judaism and Jewish life, but pulls no punches when describing and documenting the horrors committed by the Nazis, the Holocaust and concentration camps, and what Jewish life has been like in Germany since World War II.

Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, next to the preserved U.S. guard station between East and West Berlin, tells the story of a city divided, of the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, and of the Berlin Wall and the thousands of enterprising East Berliners who risked their lives to get across it or to help others do so—and to the 255 who died trying.

The Berlin Wall itself—what bits were grabbed or sold as souvenirs or packaged off as official, somber gifts to foreign nations and major corporations—still stands in surprising stretches left here and there about the city, especially on the outskirts. You can see a few panels sitting off to the side of the rail tracks from certain S-Bahn trains, or you can head to the memorial at Bernauer Strasse and Ackerstrasse, where a memorial is made up of sections of wall interspersed with giant stainless steel mirrors.

Despite all the modernization and memorialization, the changes and the construction sites, the Berlin of yesteryear is far from vanished. It still echoes strongly in the sumptuous 18th century Scloss Charlottenburg palace on the eastern edge of town, and in the Nikaolaiviertel, the historic core of Berlin just east of the Museuminsel hard against the west bank of the Spree. This venerable neighborhood was pretty much destroyed in 1944 but carefully rebuilt in the 1980s to its pre-War medieval and baroque appearance, complete with ancient taverns and gas lamps lining the narrow streets.

Berlin out of doors

Berlin is a city that, more so than most European capitals, is marked by plenty of parks and open spaces—heck, one of the main boulevards is appropriately named simply "Unter den Linden," Under the Linden Trees, and in winter there's an ice skating rink set up along it.

Unter den Linden ends at the Brandenburg Gate, long the ominous symbol of the city's division, a physical node in the Iron Curtain, and a symbol of the great divide of ideologies within one people. Thoroughly cleaned and restored over the past two years, this grand neoclassical gateway topped by an iconic horse-drawn chariot emerged from under the restoration scaffolding in October to reclaim its status as centerpiece of the city, a focus of celebrations, and a triumphal marker leading into a square mile of greenery called the Tiergarten. This tree-shaded, grassy green lung graces the very heart of Berlin with 14 miles of paths, rowboats plying small lakes, and a noble 19th century Victory Column rising at the center, where a golden angel watches over the city from on high.

The Ku'damm is downtown Berlin's bustling main commercial artery. (Ku'damm is the popular abbreviation of this central street's full name, Kurfürstendamm, which just goes to show, even the Germans sometimes find words in their language too long and unwieldy.)

Also great fun: The Berlin Zoo (more properly, if less famously, known as the Kurfürstendamm Zoologischer Garten), and the adjacent Tiergarten, Berlin's lovely and long central park.

Museum madness

Fringing the lovely Tiergarten park is a series of truly worthy museums, including the Bauhaus-Archiv for 20th century architecture and design buffs; the Kunstgewerbemuseum of decorative arts from the Middle Ages to today; and the new home of the excellent Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) with its works by such Old Masters as Dürer, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Breughel, and Bosch.

Berlin is in fact a city of powerhouse museums. Another great concentration of galleries is on the Museuminsel, an island in the Spree River slathered with haughty Neoclassical buildings which house a series of grand museums. The Altes Museum boasts Greek and Roman antiquities, the Alte Nationalgalerie works from the late 18th century up through those popular Impressionists (Monet, Cézanne, Manet, van Gogh).

But the best is the Pergamon Museum, the only place on Earth where you have the chance to see the remains of two of the famed Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in one spot.

One of them, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, may be themselves long-gone, but in this museum you can still walk through Babylon's 7th century BC Ischta Gate and the long processional corridor of an entryway which once led into that ancient city. The whole shebang is reconstructed inside the museum using the same blue and gold glazed tiles depicting a march of lions on either side of you. Rather than one gate leading into ancient Babylon there were two, connected by this lengthy open-air passage. The idea was not only to impress and cow all visitors entering the great city, but also to funnel any invading army into a veritable death trap where it was easy for archers, stationed way up atop the corridor's walls, to defend their city.

The second ancient wonder, rather more intact, is the one that lent the museum its name: The Altar to Zeus at Pergamon (in modern-day Turkey), built around 180 to 160 BC, and most likely not dedicated to Zeus, despite its name. The display of this massive altar is actually sort of inside out. The altar itself was a large, square building raised up high and faced by near life-sized relief panels all around the outside. These reliefs wrapped around the front and up the sides of the monumental staircase, where the panels' carved figures artfully spill out of their friezes to kneel or step onto the stairs themselves. In this reconstruction, though, the staircase with its 3D sculptures sits in the center of the room, but the panels which once wrapped around the outside of the altar are now mounted on the insides of the room's walls all around you.

The Stasi Museum is installed in the former East German State Police headquarters. The displays of various bugging devices, secret files, and strategies—including the office where Erich Mielke once kept his Big Brother eye (and ear—most phone lines were tapped, most offices bugged) on what seems to have been just about every citizen of East Berlin—all go to show how Stasi went way beyond surveillance to the point of pathological paranoia.


Once you get to Berlin, you might want to invest in the Berlin WelcomeCard. This is a three-day transport pass for buses and trains which also covers Potsdam, the lovely baroque city just 15 miles southwest of Berlin. It includes a book of vouchers good for up to 50% off many sights (though not some of the major ones) and activities than range from Deutsche Guggenheim to the Gay Museum to the Berlin Zoo. It costs €18, and it's good for one adult accompanied by up to three kids under age 14.

There's also the SchauLust Museen is a museums pass, also good for three days, that includes the Staatliche Museen complex (Pergamon Museum, Egyptian Museum, Gemäldegalerie Painting Gallery, etc.) among others (but no transportation) and costs just €10. Both passes will pay for themselves quickly, and are available at tourist offices.

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.