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Unter den Linden: Berlin’s Main Drag Comes Back to Life

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany
The iconic Brandenburg Gate is the last survivor of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall.
Ampelmann signal in front of wall mural, Berlin, Germany
The Ost-algic “Ampelmännchen” assures Berliners that it’s okay to move ahead.
By Rick Steves

As Berlin has come back together, its historic heart is revitalized and pulsing with vibrant life. And once again, Unter den Linden leads into the historic heart of the city. Before the war, Unter den Linden was one of Europe's grand boulevards. In the '20s, when Berlin was famous for its anything goes love of life, this was the cabaret drag, a springboard to stardom for young and vampy entertainers like Marlene Dietrich. Named centuries ago for its thousand linden trees, this was the most elegant street of Prussian Berlin before Hitler, and the main drag of East Berlin after. Hitler replaced the venerable trees — many 250 years old — with Nazi flags. Popular discontent actually drove the dictator to replant the trees. Today, Unter den Linden is no longer a depressing Cold War cul-de-sac, and its pre-Hitler strolling café ambience is returning.

The western end of Unter den Linden is anchored by the Brandenburg Gate. This colossal Neoclassical arch, built in 1791, is the last survivor of 14 gates in Berlin's old city wall (this one led to the city of Brandenburg). The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin...and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. It's crowned by a majestic four-horse chariot with the Goddess of Peace at the reins. Napoleon took this statue to the Louvre in Paris in 1806. When the Prussians got it back, she was renamed the Goddess of Victory.

The gate sat unused, part of a sad circle dance called the Wall that dragged on for 28 years. Now postcards all over town show the ecstatic day — November 9, 1989 — when the world enjoyed the sight of happy Berliners jamming the gate like flowers on a parade float. Around the gate, information boards show how much this area has changed throughout the 20th century.

Just east of the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz ("Paris Square") was once filled with important government buildings — all bombed to smithereens in World War II. For decades, it was an unrecognizable, deserted no-man's-land — cut off from both East and West by the Wall. But now it's rebuilt, and the banks, hotels, and embassies that were here before the bombing have reclaimed their original places...with a few new additions: a palace of coffee (Starbucks) and the US Embassy, which moved back here in 2008. This new embassy has been controversial: For safety's sake, Uncle Sam wanted more of a security zone around the building, but the Germans wanted to keep Pariser Platz a welcoming people zone. The compromise: The extra security the US wanted is actually built into the structure. The building is pretty low-key; easy-on-the-eyes barriers keep potential car bombs at a distance, and its front door is on the side farthest from the Brandenburg Gate. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, consisting of more than 2,700 gravestone-like pillars, was completed in 2005 and stands behind the new embassy. An underground information center studies the Nazi system of extermination, while humanizing the victims with vivid personal accounts.

But reminders of Berlin's recent tumult can still be found if you know where to look. The Unter den Linden S-bahn station is one of Berlin's former "ghost subway stations." During the Cold War, most underground trains were simply blocked at the border. But a few Western lines looped through the East. To make a little hard Western cash, the Eastern government rented the use of these tracks to the West but the stations (which happened to be in East Berlin) were strictly off-limits. For 28 years they were unused as Western trains slowly passed through. Tourists rode this line for the eerie thrill of seeing dimly lit East German (DDR) soldiers standing guard amidst lots of cobwebs as their train creaked slowly through these forbidden bits of underground East Berlin. Literally within days of the fall of the Wall, the ghost stations were reopened and today they are a time warp, with the dreary old green tiles and original signage.

The Russian Embassy was the first big postwar building project in East Berlin. It's built in the powerful, simplified, Neoclassical style Stalin liked. While not as important now as it was a few years ago, it's immense as ever. It flies the Russian white, red, and blue, and a hammer-and-sickle motif still decorates the window frames.

But it's getting hard to find reminders of the Communist times. The West lost no time in consuming the East; consequently, some are feeling a wave of nostalgia — or Ost-algia — for the old days of East Berlin.

One symbol of that era has been given a reprieve. Along Unter den Linden and in much of the former East, the DDR-style pedestrian lights are evidence that someone had a sense of humor back then. The perky red-and-green men — Ampelmännchen — were under threat of replacement by the far less jaunty Western signs. But, after a 10-year court battle, the wildly popular DDR signals were kept after all.

The centerpiece of Unter den Linden is a large equestrian statue of Frederick the Great. Ruling his country like a boot camp from 1740 to 1786, Frederick III established Prussia as a military power and envisioned turning Berlin into "a new Rome." Even today, sitting atop his horse, the statue of Frederick oversees grand remains of that vision: The German State Opera, the round Catholic St. Hedwig's Church — built to placate the subjects of Catholic lands Frederick added to his empire (suffering from a cheesy DDR-government-renovated interior), and Humboldt University. Marx and Lenin (not the brothers or the sisters) studied here, as did Grimm (both brothers), and more than two dozen Nobel Prize winners. Einstein, who was Jewish, taught here until taking a spot at Princeton in 1932 (smart guy).

The Neue Wache, a Greek temple-like building, was the emperor's "New Guardhouse," from 1816. When the Wall fell, this memorial to the victims of fascism was transformed into a new national memorial. Inside, a replica of the Käthe Kollwitz statue, Mother with Her Dead Son, is surrounded by thought-provoking silence. This marks the tombs of Germany's unknown soldier and the unknown concentration camp victim. The inscription in front reads, "To the victims of war and tyranny."

Unter den Linden then crosses Berlin's Museum Island, home of Germany's first museums and today famous for five great ones: the Pergamon Museum (classical antiquities), the Neues Museum (housing the Egyptian Collection, with the bust of Queen Nefertiti), the Old National Gallery (19th-century German Romantic paintings), the Bode Musum (European statuary and paintings through the ages, coins, and Byzantine art), and the Altes Museum (Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art).

For 300 years, the island's big, central square, the Lustgarten, has flip-flopped between being a military parade ground and a people-friendly park, depending upon the political tenor of the time. In 1999, it was made into a park again and now — especially on a sunny summer afternoon — it's a festival of peace and prosperity. All indications are the Lustgarten will stay a park and Unter den Linden will continue to flower.