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.
Germany’s historic parliament building — completed in 1894, burned in 1933, sad and lonely in a no-man’s land throughout the Cold War, and finally rebuilt and topped with a glittering glass cupola in 1999 — is a symbol of a proudly reunited nation. Its exterior and history are stirring, and it’s fascinating to climb up the twin ramps that spiral through its dome.
Because of security concerns, you’ll need to reserve online (free) to visit the dome; spots often book up several days in advance. After choosing your preferred date and time (you can request up to three different time slots), you’ll be sent an email link to a website where you’ll enter details for each person in your party. After completing this form, another email will confirm your request, and a final email will contain your reservation (with a letter you must print out and bring with you).;
The historic Brandenburg Gate (1791) was the grandest — and is the last survivor — of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall (this one led to the neighboring city of Brandenburg). The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin — and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. The gate sat unused, part of a sad circle dance called the Wall, for more than 25 years. Now postcards all over town show the ecstatic day — November 9, 1989 — when the world rejoiced at the sight of happy Berliners jamming the gate like flowers on a parade float.
Fassbender & Rausch claims to be Europe’s biggest chocolate store. After 150 years of chocolate-making, this family-owned business proudly displays its sweet delights — 250 different kinds — on a 55-foot-long buffet. Truffles are sold for about €0.75 each; it’s fun to compose a fancy little eight-piece box of your own for about €6. Upstairs is an elegant hot chocolate café with fine views. The window displays feature giant chocolate models of Berlin landmarks — Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and so on. If all this isn’t enough to entice you, I have three words: erupting chocolate volcano.
To spend an evening enjoying Europe’s largest revue theater, consider the long-running “Show Me” at the FriedrichstadtPalast. It’s a lavish visual spectacle, alternating between gentle, poetic interludes and vivid dance numbers.
This century-old church’s bombastic Wilhelmian architecture is a Protestant assertion of strength. It seems to proclaim, “A mighty fortress is our God.” This cathedral, while Protestant, is as ornate as if it were Catholic. With the emperor’s lead, this ornate style came into vogue, and anyone who wanted to be associated with the royal class built this way. The church is most impressive from the outside, and there’s no way to even peek inside without a pricey ticket.
Neue Wache (with Käthe Kollwitz memorial statue)
The emperor’s “New Guardhouse” (Neue Wache), dating from 1816, was converted by communist authorities in 1960 to a memorial to the victims of fascism; the structure was transformed again, after the Wall fell, into a national memorial. Inside, where a replica of the Käthe Kollwitz statue, Mother with Her Dead Son, is surrounded by thought-provoking silence. It marks the tombs of Germany’s unknown soldier and an unknown concentration camp victim. The inscription in front reads, “To the victims of war and tyranny.” The memorial, open to the sky, incorporates the elements — sunshine, rain, snow — falling on this modern-day pietà.
On the north side of the German Finance Ministry building (under the portico at the corner of Wilhelmstrasse and Leipziger Strasse) is a wonderful example of communist art. The mural, Max Lingner’s Aufbau der Republik (Building the Republic, 1953), is classic Socialist Realism. Its subtitle: “The importance of peace for the cultural development of humanity and the necessity of struggle to achieve this goal.” This was the communist ideal. For the reality, look at the ground in the courtyard in front of the mural to see an enlarged photograph from a 1953 uprising here against the communists…quite a contrast. Placards explain the events of 1953 in English.
Built (with Swedish know-how) in 1969 for the 20th anniversary of the communist government, East Berliners dubbed this tower the “Tele-Asparagus.” They joked that if it fell over, they’d have an elevator to the West. The tower has a fine view from halfway up, offering a handy city orientation and an interesting look at the flat, red-roofed sprawl of Berlin — including a peek inside the city’s many courtyards. The retro tower is quite trendy these days, so it can be crowded (your ticket comes with an assigned entry time). Consider a kitschy trip to the observation deck for the view and lunch in its revolving restaurant (mediocre food, horrible lounge music, reservations nevertheless smart for dinner).
Literally the “Painting Gallery,” 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. The North Wing starts with German paintings of the 13th to 16th century, including eight by Albrecht Dürer. Then come the Dutch and Flemish — Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brueghel, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Frans Hals, and Jan Vermeer. The wing finishes with German, English, and French 18th-century artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Antoine 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.
Hackesche Höfe, a block in front of the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station, at Rosenthaler Strasse 40, is a series of eight courtyards bunny-hopping through a wonderfully restored 1907 Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) building. Berlin’s apartments are organized like this — courtyard after courtyard leading off the main roads. This complex is full of trendy restaurants, theaters, and cinemas (playing movies in their original languages). Courtyard #5 is particularly charming, with a children’s park and an Ampelmann store. This courtyard system is a wonderful example of how to make huge city blocks livable. Two decades after the Cold War, this area has reached the final evolution of East Berlin’s urban restoration: total gentrification. These courtyards also offer a useful lesson for visitors: Much of Berlin’s charm hides off the street front.
Run by a German-Swedish couple, Pension Peters is sunny and central, with a cheery breakfast room and a super-friendly staff who go out of their way to help their guests. With its sleek Scandinavian decor and 33 renovated rooms, it’s a good choice.
This church was originally dedicated to the first emperor of Germany. Reliefs and mosaics show great events in the life of Germany’s favorite Kaiser, from his coronation in 1871 to his death in 1888. The church’s bombed-out ruins have been left standing as a poignant memorial to the destruction of Berlin in World War II.
EurAide is an English-speaking information desk with answers to your questions about train travel around Europe. It’s located on the first upper level in Berlin’s main station (Hauptbahnhof). 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.
OBW’s flagship introductory walk, Discover Berlin, offers a good overview in four hours. They offer a Third Reich walking tour; tours to Potsdam and Sachsenhausen; and themed walks on Jewish Life in Berlin, Cold War Berlin, and Queer Berlin.
This famous Cold War checkpoint was not named for a person, but for its checkpoint number — as in Alpha (#1, at the East–West German border, a hundred miles west of here), Bravo (#2, as you enter Berlin proper), and Charlie (#3, the best known because most foreigners passed through here). While the actual checkpoint has long since been dismantled, its former location is home to a fine museum and a mock-up of the original border crossing. The area has become a Cold War freak show and — as if celebrating the final victory of crass capitalism — is now one of Berlin’s worst tourist-trap zones. A McDonald’s stands defiantly overlooking the former haunt of East German border guards.
While the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors is long gone, its memory is preserved by one of Europe’s most cluttered museums. Today, while the drama is over and hunks of the Wall stand like trophies at its door, the museum survives as a living artifact of the Cold War days. The yellowed descriptions, which have scarcely changed since that time, tinge the museum with nostalgia. It’s dusty, disorganized, and overpriced, with lots of reading involved, but all that just adds to this museum’s borderline-kitschy charm. If you’re pressed for time, visit after dinner, when most other museums are closed.
East Side Gallery
The biggest remaining stretch of the Wall is now the “world’s longest outdoor art gallery.” The murals (classified as protected monuments) got a facelift in 2009, when the city invited the original artists back to re-create their work for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. This segment of the Wall makes a poignant walk. For a quick look, take the S-Bahn to the Ostbahnhof station (follow signs to Stralauerplatz exit; once outside, TV Tower will be to your right; go left and at next corner look to your right — the Wall is across the busy street). The gallery is slowly being consumed by developers. If you walk the entire length of the East Side Gallery, you’ll find a small Wall souvenir shop at the end and a bridge crossing the river to a subway station at Schlesisches Tor (in Kreuzberg).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
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, then divided first by the victorious Allies, and later 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. Now I’m straddling a line, which marks where the infamous Wall once stood. This turned this area into a desolate no‑man’s land for a generation. But today big business has moved in making this place once again 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 it was inaugurated in the 1890s, the emperor dismissed it as a “house for chatting.” But at the end of World War I, the new German Republic was declared from here. Later, in 1933, a mysterious fire gutted the building. This gave 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—or 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 with 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 an 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 ambience 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 just fine.
Rick: How many flavors do you have here?
Woman: Over two hundred.
Rick: Over two hundred. And what 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: Please I would like to have three.
And if tiramisu is not for you, there are lots of others to choose from: truffles with a creamy alcohol filling to truffles for teetotalers to pralines with marzipan.
Rick: OK, I’ll take it.
Woman: OK, have a nice day.
Rick: Danke schön. Bye bye.
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 Russia, Austria, and France — 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 [since closed] tempts its customers with Berlin’s most fabulous display of mouthwatering cakes. I’m having just a small slice of Champagne cake.
Germany ultimately united around Prussia, and the chain of events which followed brought this country more than its share of war 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 son and grandson, 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 American, British, and French 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 towards 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 all of 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, 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 German for 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 were consolidated here in Berlin’s grand Kulturforum.
Of its many sprawling galleries, the Gemäldegalerie is a must, with a top-notch 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 new-fangled 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 acceptably 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 1920s and the springboard for Marlene Dietrich, 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 it’s where many of my favorite hotels, , 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 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.
Christoph: You must be the Smithsons are you?
Christoph: I know it because you are the last ones. Okay, let’s go to the room.
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.
Christoph: Welcome to Berlin.
Smithson: Thank you.
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.
Sister: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Well America Jakob has a new girlfriend – he hasn’t met her…
Rick: Tell me about her. You said she’s complicated.
Jakob: Yeah. Yeah.
Christoph: And she knows to argue and this is nice for Jakob. He needs something like that.
Annika: They have been arguing eight years together in the same classes. After eight years now…
Christoph: Hating each other really.
After some friendly family teasing, the conversation moves on to German culture and politics…
Christoph: You speak German, you speak Swedish, you speak English, and you speak Italian, very well. But you speak four languages but are you are aware of the differences not only in the languages but also in the cultures. This is through education. Without this education, in general, you miss the whole point, and you get angry because you don’t understand and then you get nationalist or whatever.
Rick: Speaking of the cultural diversity, we were speaking about rap for instance. They say that music is international. This is true, but each country has its own rap, right. I mean you like German rap?
Jakob: I think that for example German rap is not so about, it’s not so political, as it perhaps is in America. Not so hard. It could be harsh but it’s more like — in the beginning it was, like they tried to make it, like to copy the American hip hop but then they discovered they were no, like, “yo, yo” and they didn’t have the same problems with the government and so on. Like here they are, there are also a lot of rap songs like about love and not the family, but about personal problems.
Rick: Olga, good night, guten Nacht. Say, “Auf Wiedersehen!”
Inevitably, the conversation returns to the latest family romance.
Sister: He’s so far away and I am here, I mean he’s really perfect, he’s really perfect and he’s so nice and nice to me and we can talk about everything. You know it’s really nice but it can’t work when he’s so far away so I have my friends here…
Rick: But you have to continue to be connected here.
Jakob: Is this a Rick Steves video 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 class 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 journalists and diplomats; therefore it enjoyed more freedom than the rest of Berlin. Later, throughout the Cold War, this was the main drag of West Berlin, intentionally pumped up to be a showcase for capitalism and democracy.
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 [no longer true] — 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 to other cities throughout Europe.
The handy EurAide desk in the station is a traveler’s best friend. English is the first language here.
Lee: So it’s the fastest — it’s really the fastest way to get to say, Ostbahnhof from here is to take one of the Regional Expresses, and your ticket is valid on that now.
And they seem to know your questions before you even ask them.
Lee: Hi, what can I do for you?
Rick: Yeah I am curious about learning about the Third Reich. What’s a good way to learn?
Lee: Berlin Walks offers a great tour of the Third Reich every day, except for Tuesdays and Fridays, at 10:00. Meet right outside in front of the train station.
Rick: Beautiful! Thanks a lot.
Lee: No problem.
Many travelers come to Berlin to see Hitler sites. But little remains.
Berlin Walks Guide: Okay this site is the site called the Topography of Terror, which is the remains of the SS and Gestapo buildings. So what I want to talk first about here is Hitler’s bunker and say there’s nothing really left to see, any part of the bunker has been destroyed because of a systematic deconstruction of the ceiling. Theoretically the floor plates are still there and some of the walls, but given the water table there’s nothing remaining at the bunker itself, and there’s no way of even knowing that the bunker is there unless you go on the tour.
Rick: So will they just leave this the way it is?
Berlin Walks Guide: This is going to be left exactly the way it is. The idea is like a concentration camp, they’re not going to fix it up or beautify it. They’ve done what they needed to uncover and they will just leave it in its ruinous state as a memorial to what happened here.
Here we are at our next stop. The building behind me is Göring’s Air Ministry. It was built in 1935–36, survived most war damage and is now the only really Nazi building left standing, and it is also a main government building today. This is the finance ministry in the new capital of Berlin. So I would say both the Nazis and the communists really liked the Neoclassical style. This is very apparent with the largeness, the imposing style of the Neoclassical style trying to show presence and power. This was the regime that was going to be here for at least a thousand years with the “thousand-year Reich.”
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 an 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 before the wall was built.
The Wall was about 100 miles around. It 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 even 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, 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.
Intentionally pumped up as a showcase for freedom and democracy and good living.