By Rick Steves
This building, the heart of German democracy, has a short but complicated and emotional history. When inaugurated in the 1890s, the last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, disdainfully called it the "house for chatting." It was from this Parliament building that the German Republic was proclaimed in 1918. In 1933 Hitler had this symbol of democracy burned, using the fire as a handy excuse to frame the Communists and grab power. As World War II was winding up, Stalin ordered Reichstag taken by May 1st (the workers' holiday). More than 1,500 Nazis made their last stand here — extending World War II by two days. On April 30, 1945 it fell to the Red Army. It was hardly used from 1933 to 1999. For its 101st birthday, in 1995, the Bulgarian artist Christo wrapped it in silvery-gold cloth. It was then wrapped again in scaffolding and rebuilt by British architect Lord Norman Foster into the new parliamentary home of the Bundestag (Germany's lower house, similar to the US House of Representatives). In April, 1999, the Bundestag was transferred back to the Reichstag from Bonn. To many Germans, the proud resurrection of the Reichstag symbolizes the end of a terrible chapter in German history.
The glass cupola rises 155 feet above the ground. Its two sloped ramps spiral 755 feet to the top for a grand view. Inside the dome, a cone of 360 mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber. Lit from inside at night, this gives Berlin a stirring new nightlight.
Above the door, surrounded by stone patches from World War II bomb damage, it says "Dem Deutschen Volke" ("To the German People"). The lobby, 90 feet high with a 60 foot tall German flag, is towering and open with glass doors showing the central chamber. The message: there will be no secrets in government. Look inside. The German eagle (a.k.a. the "fat hen") spreads its wings behind the podium. Notice the doors marked "yes," "no," or "abstain" — the Bundestag's traditional "sheep jump" way of counting votes (for critical and close votes, all 669 members leave and vote by walking through the door of their choice).
Ride the elevator to the base of the glass dome. Pick up the free audioguide, and take time to study the photos and read the circle of captions — an excellent exhibition telling the Reichstag story. Then study the architecture: Stylistically it's broken, new on old, like Germany's history. Notice the giant and unobtrusive sunscreen which moves around the dome as necessary with the sun. Winding up to the top you can survey the city as you hike. But for Germans, the best view is down — keeping a close eye on their government working below the dome.