By Rick Steves
Before reunification, before communism, and before Hitler, Berlin was a grandiose imperial capital, a city built to impress world leaders and intimidate would-be enemies. Berlin's compelling 20th-century history often overshadows its imperial past, but the best part of strolling its central avenue, Unter den Linden, is the chance to appreciate Berlin's 18th- and 19th-century glory.
Unter den Linden was the heart of imperial Germany. During Berlin's golden age in the late 1800s, this was one of Europe's most elegant boulevards — the Champs-Elysées of Berlin, a city of nearly two million people. It was lined with linden trees, so as you promenaded down, you'd be walking unter den Linden.
The street got its start in the 15th century as a way to connect the royal palace (on what's now Museum Island) with the king's hunting grounds (today's big Tiergarten Park). Over the centuries, aristocrats moved into this area so their palaces could be close to their king's. Many of the grandest landmarks along this street are thanks to Frederick the Great, who ruled from 1740 to 1786, and put his kingdom (Prussia) and his capital (Berlin) on the map.
In the 1920s, when Berlin was famous for its anything-goes love of life, this was a nightlife hotspot and a springboard to stardom for young and vampy entertainers like Marlene Dietrich, who famously sang of the street's appeal. In the Nazi era, the venerable linden trees — many 250 years old — were either cut down during the construction of a streetcar tunnel or, later in the war, used for firewood. New ones were planted in the '50s, when Unter den Linden had become the main street of communist East Berlin. And as Berlin came back together in the '90s, this street at its historic heart was slowly revitalized. Today it puslses with vibrant life once again.
The western end of Unter den Linden is anchored by the Brandenburg Gate. This massive classical-looking monument is the last survivor of the 14 original gates in Berlin's old city wall. (This one led to the neighboring city of Brandenburg.) For more than a century it was just another of the city's stately Prussian landmarks. But when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the gate found itself stranded in the no-man's-land between East and West — and soon became famous worldwide as the symbol of Berlin — both of its Cold War division and its reunification.
For nearly three decades, this landmark stood tantalizingly close to both East and West, but was off-limits to all. Then came November 9, 1989, when the world rejoiced at the sight of happy Berliners celebrating atop the suddenly irrelevant wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which they adorned with flowers, as if it were a parade float. Six weeks later, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl led a triumphant procession through the gate to shake hands with his (soon-to-be-defunct) East German counterpart — the literal opening of a big gateway that marked the symbolic closing of a terrible era.
Just east of the Brandenburg Gate, at the top of the boulevard, is Pariser Platz ("Paris Square"), named for the Prussians' victory over Napoleon in 1813. It's long been filled with important government buildings, but most of the ones standing today are fairly new. Their predecessors, all bombed to smithereens in World War II, weren't replaced until Berlin was once again the capital of a united Germany. (As part of divided Berlin's no-man's-land the square had sat unrecognizable and utterly deserted.)
Not far down Unter den Linden is the biggest embassy in Berlin — in Europe, even — built just after the war to make it clear who was now in charge no: the Soviet Union. Of course, the Stalinst building is now the Russian Embassy (these days a site of frequent protests), but keen-eyed strollers will notice the hammer-and-sickle motif still decorating the window frames.
The intersection with Friedrichstrasse, roughly halfway along Unter den Linden's half-mile stretch, should be one of its most interesting. It's long been the city's central crossroads, and Friedrichstrasse was the heart of Berlin's libertine cabaret scene in the Roaring Twenties. But now it's home to supersized department stores and big-time hotels, making the middle blocks of Unter den Linden pretty darn dull. (Fortunately, Berlin's finest square, Gendarmenmarkt, is a short detour away.)
The centerpiece of Unter den Linden is a large equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, proudly gazing out at the grand remains of his vision to turn Berlin into a world-class city. Just ahead of his right arm lies Bebelplatz, the square he built to show off Prussian ideals: education, the arts, improvement of the individual, and a tolerance for different groups — provided they're committed to the betterment of society. It's home to the Berlin State Opera, the former state library, and St. Hedwig's Church — the first Catholic church in Berlin since the Reformation, built to encourage integration of the Catholics from lands Frederick had added to his empire. To Frederick's left is Humboldt University, one of Europe's greatest. Marx and Engels both studied here, as did the Brothers Grimm and more than two dozen Nobel Prize winners, and Einstein taught here until fleeing Germany in 1932.
The rest of Unter den Linden is lined with more Neoclassical buildings designed to represent Frederick's strong, united, rising Prussian state.
The Neue Wache, originally a fancy barracks for the bodyguards assigned to the royal palace just ahead, has been used as a national memorial by the last several German regimes. Today it's dedicated to "the victims of war and tyranny," containing two tombs: Germany's unknown soldier and an unknown concentration camp victim.
The oldest building on the boulevard, from the early 1700s, originally housed the royal arsenal; today it's home to the excellent German History Museum.
Technically, Unter den Linden ends here, where the Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge) connects it to an island in the Spree River. But Museum Island is really the boulevard's grand finale. It's Berlin's historic birthplace and for centuries the site of the ruler's castle and residence — from Brandenburg dukes and Hohenzollern prince-electors, to the kings of Prussia and the kaisers of the German Empire. At its peak, under Prussian rulers (1701–1918), it was a splendid and sprawling Baroque palace. After World War I, the last Prussian ruler was deposed, and the palace was gutted in a 1945 air raid. In 1950, the East Germans erected in its place the Palace of the Republic — a massive, blocky parliament building that was demolished in the early 2000s. For years this entire city block was a vacant lot, but Germany has rebuilt a palace on the site, called the Humboldt Forum. This mammoth construction is intended to be a new landmark for Berlin, with various museums and other cultural attractions.
For most visitors, the island is even more notable as the home of Germany's first museums, which are today five of Germany's finest: the Pergamon Museum (classical antiquities), the Neues Museum (Egyptian, prehistoric, and classical antiquities), the Old National Gallery (German Romantic painting), the Bode Museum (Byzantine art and mosaics), and the Altes Museum (more classical antiquities).
The museums, and the impressively domed Berlin Cathedral, cluster around the Lustgarten — a big square that's flip-flopped between being a military parade ground and a people-friendly park, depending upon the political tenor of the time. Since 1999 it's become a park again and now — especially on sunny summer afternoons — it's a festival of peace and prosperity in a Berlin not so different from the grand one Frederick first envisioned.