Berlin: Resilient, Reunited & Reborn

Berlin is back, resuming its place as a great European capital. We climb the Reichstag's new glass dome, sway at a modern-day cabaret, and pop a few chocolates in the now thriving eastern sector. Along with Germany's finest art, complicated Berlin also has hidden remnants of its fascist and communist past. In a city that's rebounding and rebuilding, we crane our necks at Potsdamer Platz, Europe's newest Times Square.

Travel Details

The Reichstag

The parliament building — the heart of German democracy — has a short but complicated and emotional history. When it was inaugurated in the 1890s, the last emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, disdainfully called it the "house for chatting." It was from here that the German Republic was proclaimed in 1918. In 1933, this symbol of democracy nearly burned down. While the Nazis blamed a Communist plot, some believe that Hitler himself (who needed what we'd call today a "new Pearl Harbor ") planned the fire, using it as a handy excuse to frame the Communists and grab power. As World War II drew to a close, Stalin ordered his troops to take the Reichstag from the Nazis by May 1 (the workers' holiday). More than 1,500 Nazis (mostly French SS troops) 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 the building's 101st birthday in 1995, the Bulgarian-American artist Christo wrapped it in silvery-gold cloth. It was then wrapped again in scaffolding, rebuilt by British architect Lord Norman Foster, and turned into the new parliamentary home of the Bundestag (Germany's lower house). To many Germans, the proud resurrection of the Reichstag symbolizes the end of a terrible chapter in German history (wait in line to go up — good street musicians, metal detectors, no big luggage allowed, some hour-long English tours when parliament is not sitting, Platz der Republik 1, S- or U-Bahn: Friedrichstrasse or Brandenburger Tor, tel. 030/2273-2152).

The Gemäldegalerie

Germany's top collection of 13th-through 18th-century European paintings (more than 1,400 canvases) is beautifully displayed in a building that's a work of art in itself. Follow the excellent free audioguide. The North Wing starts with German paintings of the 13th to 16th centuries, including eight by Dürer. Then come the Dutch and Flemish — Jan Van Eyck, Brueghel, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals, and Vermeer. The wing finishes with German, English, and French 18th-century art, such as Gainsborough and Watteau. An octagonal hall at the end features an impressive stash of Rembrandts. The South Wing is saved for the Italians — Giotto, Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, and Caravaggio (S- or U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz, then walk along Potsdamer Platz; Matthäikirchplatz 4, tel. 030/266-2951).

Pension Peters

Kantstrasse 146
Tel. 030/3150-3944
Fax 030/312-3519


EurAide is an English-speaking information desk in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof with answers to your questions about train travel around Europe. It operates from a single counter in the underground shopping level Reisezentrum (follow signs to tracks 5–6). It's American-run, so communication is simple. This is an especially good place to make fast-train and couchette reservations for later in your trip. EurAide also gives out a helpful, free city map.

Original Berlin Walks

This is the most established operation, with the most serious tours aiming at a clientele with a longer attention span. They don't offer "free tours" or pub crawls, and their guides are professionals. I've enjoyed the help of O.B.W.'s high-quality, high-energy guides for many years, and routinely hire them when my tour groups are in town. I've always been impressed with the caliber of the guides that founder Nick Gay has assembled. There's no need to reserve ahead — just show up. All tours meet at the taxi stand in front of the Bahnhof Zoo, and start at 10:00 unless otherwise noted. The Discover Berlin and Jewish Life tours have a second departure point 30 minutes later opposite eastern Berlin's Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station, outside the Weihenstephaner Restaurant; if you're staying in the East, save time by showing up here.

Checkpoint Charlie

While the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors is long gone, its memory is preserved by one of Europe's most interesting, though cluttered, museums. During the Cold War, the House at Checkpoint Charlie stood defiantly — spitting distance from the border guards — showing off all the clever escapes over, under, and through the Wall. Today, while the drama is over and hunks of the Wall stand like victory scalps at its door, the museum still tells a gripping history of the Wall, recounts the many ingenious escape attempts (early years — with a cruder wall — saw more escapes), and includes plenty of video coverage of those heady days when people-power tore down the Wall. While dusty, disorganized, and slightly overpriced, with lots of reading, all of that just adds to its borderline-kitschy charm (U-6 to Kochstrasse or — better from Zoo — U-2 to Stadtmitte, Friedrichstrasse 43-45, tel. 030/253-7250). If you're pressed for time, this is a good after-dinner sight. With extra time, consider the "Hear We Go" audioguide about the Wall that takes you outside the museum. 


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves with more of the best of Europe. This time we're back in Berlin — the fastest-changing big city in Europe. If you haven't been here lately, you won't recognize the place.

After a turbulent 20th century — devastated in World War II, divided first by the victorious Allies, and then by its notorious Wall — united Berlin has resumed its place as the capital of Germany and one of Europe's great cities.

We'll climb the Reichstag dome and check out a modern-day cabaret. We see some of Germany's finest art and stroll the world's longest outdoor art gallery. Tucked behind its super office parks and palatial monuments to democracy are surprising bits of its fascist and communist past. For a taste of the new, we'll pop a few chocolates, make some local friends, and marvel at Potsdamer Platz.

This is Potsdamer Platz. Before World War II, it was the Times Square of Berlin — possibly the busiest square in Europe. I'm straddling a line which marks where the infamous Wall stood, making this square a desolate no man's land for a generation. And now big business has moved in, turning this area, once again, into a center of Berlin.

Potsdamer Platz is designed to create a holistic approach to life in the 21st century. A prime example of contemporary German design, it's intended to bring many of the things people need in a sophisticated urban environment together in one easily accessible place. Places to work, live, eat, and play — all integrated into a single complex — sit efficiently atop a massive public transportation hub.

And just a short walk from this people zone sits the capital building of Germany. A fitting symbol for the new Berlin is its rebuilt Reichstag — this country's parliament building and the symbolic heart of German democracy

The Reichstag has a short yet dramatic history. When inaugurated in the 1890s, the emperor dismissed the new parliament building as a "house for chatting." But at the end of World War I, the German Republic was proclaimed from here. Then, in 1933, a mysterious fire gutted the building, giving Hitler a convenient opportunity to blame the communists for the blaze in order to consolidate his hold on power.

As World War II drew to a close, about 1,500 Nazis made their last stand here — extending the war in Europe by two days. The motto, "To the German People," witnessed that Nazi last stand.

The building stood mostly empty through the Cold War. Now, with the parliament back in Berlin, the Reichstag welcomes the public.

The Reichstag is a great example of contemporary architecture that is both striking and meaningful within its environment. The building combines old and new, as does the reunited Berlin. While the original cupola was stone and steel, the new one is glass, symbolizing the need for transparency in government.

Inside, a walkway winds all the way to the top. A cone of mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber. The dome's giant screen provides shade, moving as necessary with the sun.

As you spiral up, survey the city. The big park is the Tiergarten, the "green lungs" of Berlin. Beyond that is the Teufelsberg — Devil's Hill — built of rubble from the bombed city after the war.

Tourists like the view out. But for Germans, the view that matters is in — keeping a close eye on their government at work. They appreciate the meaning of this see-through architecture.

Long before the birth of modern Germany in 1870, Prussia was the leading German state and a European superpower. Berlin — surrounded by a wall and 14 gates — was the Prussian capital. Brandenburg Gate is the only gate to survive and...well, this year, it's closed for restoration.

Be warned: many of the places you always wanted to see in Europe will be closed — or covered with scaffolding. Restoration is a big, ongoing job. At least the scaffolding often comes with an image of what you're missing — courtesy of a local business as an advertising stunt.

And with the gate's columns moved to the center, this one comes with a message — Berlin has come together.

Berlin is built around a historic axis. Five hundred years ago, this boulevard was just a carriageway connecting the emperor's palace (which was beyond the gate) with his hunting grounds — today's sprawling Tiergarten.

This park provides an escape from the city and a place for Berlin's colorful flea market. Each weekend you'll find over 200 stalls with great antiques, serious collectors who know what they're after, and a chance to enjoy the many faces of the city. And, if you like Soviet-era social realism painting, this guy takes credit cards.

On the other side of Brandenburg Gate, the axis became Unter den Linden and led to the emperor's palace. This leafy boulevard — named for its Linden trees — was the Champs-Elysées of Central Europe...until the Nazis came to town.

The good-life ambiance of old Berlin — gone for decades — is finally coming back to this rebuilt old center. Find it by venturing into shops — this chocolate shop will do....

Rick: How many flavors do you have here?

Woman: We have over two hundred different ones.

Rick: Which one is your favorite?

Woman: I like the tiramisu truffle very much. Do you want to try one?

Rick: I would love to try one. Oh, tiramisu. Do you say schmeckt gut?

Woman: Yes, schmeckt gut.

Rick: I would like to have three.

And if tiramisu is not for you, there're lots of others to choose from: truffles with a creamy alcohol filling to truffles for teetotalers to pralines with marzipan.

And just off Unter den Linden, the Friedrichstadtpalast — which claims to be Europe's grandest revue theater — packs them in almost nightly with lavish variety shows. Most of the crowds are Germans, but it's an act that transcends any language barrier.

With the reign of Frederick the Great in the 1700s, Berlin became the capital of a military superpower.

Frederick was part of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which ruled Prussia until the end of World War I. In order to compete with Austria, France, and Russia — which had lots more people — the Hohenzollerns turned Prussia into a virtual military boot camp.

Prussia raised Europe's largest army, Berlin became a military metropolis... and goose-stepping was in.

Frederick the Great looks out intently over the grand buildings which marked the core of his empire. A man of the Enlightenment, his vision was to create not just a military power, but a "new Rome." Under Frederick, Humboldt University was instituted as the leading German center of higher learning, where Marx and Lenin would study and Albert Einstein would teach. Today it continues to educate the history-makers of the future.

The Berlin Cathedral — like Prussia — is clearly Protestant. Under its brilliantly restored dome, the heroes of the Reformation — Luther, Calvin, and others — stand vigilant, fingers pointing to the scripture as if to guard their theology.

Another institution that has survived the ages is Frederick's state opera. And next door, the Opera Café tempts its customers with Berlin's most fabulous display of mouthwatering cakes. I'm having just a small slice of Champagne cake.

Germany was ultimately united around Prussia, and the chain of events that followed brought this country more than its share of wars and repression. This square is a military parade ground or a people's park. It goes back and forth — depending upon the tenor of the times.

This memorial — with the tombs of the unknown soldier and the unknown concentration camp victim — remembers all victims of war and tyranny. The statue of a mother with her dead son is by Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin artist who lived through both world wars, lost both her sons, and left the city poignant reminders of the reality of war.

With the defeat of Hitler at the end of World War II, Berlin was divided between the victorious allies. Eventually the French, British, and American sectors became West Berlin and the Russian sector became East Berlin. Like the Nazis, the communists used art as propaganda.

Social realism — the art of the communist era — actually went beyond censorship. Art was legitimate only if it actively promoted the state. Here we see a society delighted to work together toward the Marxist utopia — industrial workers, farm laborers, women, and children... all singing the same patriotic song.

The communists built Berlin's nearly 1,200-foot-tall TV Tower in the 1960s. Its purpose, along with better TV reception: to show the power of the atheistic state at a time when East German leaders were having the crosses removed from churches.

But when the sun beamed on their tower, which was the grandest spire in East Berlin, a huge cross reflected on the mirrored ball. Cynics called it "The Pope's Revenge."

This was a main drag of East Berlin. During the bitter closing days of World War II, the Soviet guns completely leveled these buildings.

When Stalin decided this street should be a showcase for East Berlin, he had it rebuilt with lavish Soviet aid and named it Stalin Boulevard.

Today this street, built in the bold Stalin Gothic style so common in Moscow back in the 1950s, has been restored, renamed for Karl Marx, and is actually becoming en vogue. It provides a rare look at Berlin's communist days.

With the aggressive westernization of Eastern Berlin, some feel a wave of nostalgia — nicknamed Ost algia (Ost is east) — for the old days of East Berlin.

Along with Karl Marx Boulevard, the East German pedestrian lights — a rare example of East German levity — have survived. The perky red and green men — called Ampelmännchen — were under threat of replacement by the far less jaunty Western signals. But by popular demand, the Ampelmännchen stride on.

During the Cold War, East and West Berlin maintained dueling museums. With unification, the top museum collections have been consolidated here in Berlin's grand Kulturforum.

Of its many sprawling galleries, the Gemäldegalerie is a must, with a topnotch collection of European paintings from the 13th through the 18th centuries — including a fine stash of Rembrandts. We'll focus just on the 16th century German art of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and Lucas Cranach.

In this portrait of a German mayor, Albrecht Dürer shows his mastery of detail — a forte of German artists. Dürer even paints the reflection of the windowpanes in this man's eyes.

Again in this Dürer portrait, you see the northern passion for detail — and a customer undoubtedly satisfied with a commission well done.

Like Dürer, Hans Holbein was also popular among city big shots and nobles for the fine and flattering portraits he painted.

Here, Holbein paints the Merchant George Gisze. This painting was actually a present for the merchant's fiancée. Because his business takes him far away, Gisze wants to give her a little something to remember what a fine catch he is. The painting is filled with symbolism: he's wealthy — notice the elegant clothing and even his newfangled pocket watch; he's well-educated and worldly — as indicated by the letters decorating the wall; and he's both pure and loyal — at least, that's what the flowers and the clear water indicate.

Another German painting in the mid-1500s, Lucas Cranach, was popular among noble patrons for his decent but still erotic art. Here, Venus and her son Cupid gaze out at the viewer. Venus seems to say: beware the power of love.

In his Fountain of Youth, Cranach paints a procession of old women being wheeled, carried, and coaxed into a pool and emerging young again, ready to embrace all the joys of life. Noblemen await, ready to whisk them off to a happily-ever-after banquet. Apparently the men manage to stay young simply through contact with these rejuvenated women.

Berlin feels more imposing than charming. Along with huge museums and towering architecture, its sprawling apartment complexes are immense, with courtyard after courtyard retreating in from the street front. Traditionally, the poorer you were, the deeper into the complex you lived.

But with the rebirth of a vibrant Berlin, some of these apartment blocks are becoming livelier than ever. Hackesche Höfe — with eight courtyards leading through a wonderfully restored 1907 Art Nouveau building — is full of sought-after apartments and stylish restaurants. It's a great place to enjoy a beer or go to the theater.

This dinner theater, one of many entertaining locals today, has a strong Berlin flavor reminiscent of the cabaret scene of the golden twenties. Berlin was home of the cabaret in the 20s and the springboard for Marlene Deitrich, who made one hit movie in German, headed for Hollywood, and never looked back.

In Berlin, I call Savignyplatz home. It's handy to the subway — which runs above ground through much of the city — and is where many of my favorite hotels, pensions, and restaurants are located. Many Western travelers still think of Berlin's "West End" as the heart of the city. While, with the unification of the city, it's no longer that, it's still a good place for a traveler to settle in.

For accommodations in Berlin, I recommend small places in huge buildings — like Pension Peters. Don't judge a small hotel by its entryway. They often hide cheery little places like this. Run by friendly Christoph Steiner and his family, it's a great value.

Of the hundreds of places I recommend in my guidebooks, it seems the very best — whether hotels, pensions, or restaurants — are family owned and operated.

And one of the most rewarding experiences in travel is a casual evening with local friends — like Christoph, his wife Annika, and their children.

Rick: Jakob has a new girlfriend. Tell me about her.

Christoph: After eight years of arguing in the same classes at school, now they are together.

After some friendly family teasing, the conversation moves to German culture and politics...

Christoph: You speak German, Swedish, English, and Italian, very well. You speak four languages and are aware of the differences in cultures as well. This is through education. Without this, in general, you miss the whole point, and you get angry because you don't understand.

Rick: Speaking of cultural diversity, we were speaking of rap. They say that music is international. This is true, but each country has its own rap, as well.

Jakob: I think that German rap is not as political, and not as hard as American rap. It used to be, but then they made their own style, which is often about love and personal problems.

Rick: Olga, good night, guten Nacht.

Inevitably, the conversation returns to the latest family romance.

Sister: He's so far away and I am here, he's so nice and we can talk about anything.

Rick: But you have to continue to be connected here, don't you?

Sister: Yes.

Jakob: What is this? Rick Steves or Sex, Lies, and Videotape?

A few blocks from Pension Peters is the West End's most famous landmark, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It was built in the late 1800s, originally as a memorial to Germany's first emperor. Bombed during World War II, its ruins have been left standing. It remains a memorial, but now to the horror of war.

With the rise of modern Germany, Berlin became a rich and important capital. Its new wealthy chose Kurfürstendamm as their street. In the 1920s, Ku'damm — as the street was nicknamed — was chic and fashionable.

During World War II, this was the home of the international community of diplomats and journalists, so it enjoyed more freedom than the rest of Berlin. And throughout the Cold War, this was the main drag of West Berlin, intentionally pumped up as a showcase of capitalism and freedom.

For generations, Ku'damm has been a popular place for people-watching and shopping. And nearby, this old subway station — with its elegant design — takes you back to a more genteel age.

And all this is just down the street from one of Berlin's main train stations. Most trains from Western Europe still arrive at the Zoo Bahnhof — named for the nearby and famous Berlin Zoo. The station is a rail hub, allowing you to travel easily to other parts of Germany as well as other cities throughout Europe.

The handy EurAide desk in the station is a traveler's best friend. English is the first language here. They seem to know your questions before you even ask them.

Lee: Hi, what can I do for you?

Rick: I am curious about learning about the Third Reich.

Lee: Berlin Walks offers a great tour. It's at 10:00 am every day except Tuesdays and Fridays. It meets outside the train station.

Many travelers come to Berlin to see Hitler sites. But little remains.

Berlin Walks Guide: This is called the site of the Topography of Terror. It is the remains of the SS and Gestapo buildings. I want to talk about Hitler's bunker. It is in ruins; only the floor plates and some walls remain, none of which you would know were there unless you were on the tour. Like the concentration camps, they won't do anything to beautify it. It is here as a memorial to what has happened. They will leave what is left of the building in its current state, only doing what is needed to uncover it. Next stop the air ministry of the Nazis. The only Nazi building, really, left standing. It is used for the finance ministry in today's Berlin government. Note the neoclassical style — it was liked by both the Nazis and the communists. The style is large and imposing, symbolizing power. It was the regime of a thousand years.

Just across the street is an icon from the next chapter in this city's story — the Berlin Wall. When the communist government fell in 1989, hordes of celebrators — nicknamed "wall-peckers" — nearly devoured the wall. Before it vanished entirely, this stretch was declared a historical monument. The East German government erected the Wall almost overnight in 1961 to stop the outward flow of people. Some 3 million East Germans had escaped to the west before the wall was built.

The Wall was about 100 miles around, came with an anti-tank ditch, a broad no man's land, and 300 lookout towers. In its 28 years, while many people died trying to cross it, there were over 5,000 successful escapes.

Checkpoint Charlie — the most famous border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors — stood about here. The place is marked by a replica checkpoint, a thought provoking post with a young American soldier facing East and, on the flipside, a young Russian soldier facing West, and a fascinating museum — The House at Checkpoint Charlie.

During the Cold War, this museum stood defiantly — spitting distance from the border guards — telling the story of the Wall and celebrating all the clever escapes over, under, and through it. Escapees would hide sandwiched between wind surfboards, buried in shopping carts, and crammed into tiny cars. This car, so small it wasn't generally checked, was redesigned to stow a person. It drove six people to freedom before finally being discovered. And this vehicle — lined with concrete and iron plates — simply blasted through.

There's a room dedicated to showing how tunnels were used, both for spying and for transporting people to freedom. The last room is the happy ending, the euphoric days in 1989 when people-power literally tore down the Wall.

Artists from around the world have turned the biggest remaining stretch of the Wall into "the world's longest outdoor art gallery." Called the East Side Gallery, it stretches nearly a mile and makes for a colorful stroll.

The attention given to Hitler, communism, and the Wall is intriguing for many. But for today's young Berliners, that's ancient history. Their world — a park rather than a military parade ground — has always been free, capitalistic, and democratic.

Reflecting on its past but energized by a promising future, today's Berlin is an old city with a new spirit. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Auf Wiedersehen.