Berlin is a city of modern buildings and culture. It also is easy to find places that allow you to look at Berlin’s history, especially of the last 100 years. Once you visit, you will likely find yourself mulling over this lively place that wears its past “on its sleeve” for all to see. I could easily name more than five favorites. If you have only a short time in Berlin, though, these are the top places I would recommend for your itinerary. And they are all within walking distance of each other (or a short bus or metro ride if you prefer).
The Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate towers above the center of Berlin. When you think of this city, this is likely the image that comes to mind. It dates from 1791 and was modeled on the Acropolis in Athens. In recent history, the gate was damaged during World War II, then caught in no man’s land when the Berlin Wall went up. The wall was literally a few feet behind the gate, blocking passage. For years the historic gate stood visible but abandoned. Now it’s repaired and open once again to the public. We walked back and forth between its pillars, just because we could. We passed by here every day of our Berlin stay, taking in the beauty and symbolism of this monument.
A plaque in the sidewalk marks the spot where U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech in June, 1987 demanding that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. Two years later, the world watched as the wall fell.
The Reichstag in Berlin is a fascinating pairing of the old and the modern, with layers of history, much like the city itself. Completed in 1894, it housed the government for decades. In 1933, a famous fire destroyed part of the building shortly after Hitler became Chancellor. He blamed others for the fire and closed the building, insisting this entitled him to grab more power for himself. Perhaps he actually engineered the fire? No one knows . . .
When Berlin was liberated in 1945, Russian troops rushed into the Reichstag, as it symbolized Germany. The building, damaged from WWII, wasn’t repaired by the Soviet occupiers. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Wall and the Communists left the city that the new, unified German government moved into the Reichstag and the interior of the building was modernized.
This painting in the library depicts Berlin’s tumultuous recent past. The view from the deck outside the library is of the River Spree. The seven white crosses are a memorial to unlucky Germans who thought that the river marked the line of the Berlin Wall here. East German soldiers knew the river here was actually in East Germany. So they shot those misguided seven. Notice there is a blank cross, too. We saw several unfinished types of these memorials in Berlin. Apparently so many people died trying to cross from East to West that names of the missing are still being added. The floor of the parliament boasts about 600 blue chairs and a huge Bundestag eagle presides over the room. If you look up, you’re looking up into the glass dome.Visible from far away in the city, the dome is a marvel of architecture and efficiency. Inside, as you wind up the circular structure, the views of Berlin are stunning. The lower end opens into parliament (no secrets allowed!) and the top end is open to the sky. The Berlin Wall Memorial
For about 28 years, the infamous Berlin Wall divided East and West Berlin. It fell in 1989, marking the end of East German oppression and making reunification of the city possible. Most of the Wall was knocked down right away, but a section along Bernauer Strasse was kept that today stands as a memorial to all who lost their lives trying to escape from the East. As the Wall went up virtually overnight, families and friends woke up to find themselves stuck and separated from each other. Escapes were prompted by families trying to reunite, as well as a desire for freedom.
The Berlin Wall is familiar to us and yet much more complicated than I understood before visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial. The line of the Wall, built in 1961, zigs and zags all over the city, rather than being anything like a straight line. The Wall was about 96 miles long. It surrounded West Berlin in an attempt to keep East Germans from migrating there. A guard tower still stands, and you can see “no man’s land” in between the two parallel sections of wall.
Where sections of the wall here are missing, iron bars delineate the path. The stepping stones mark the line of a tunnel that aided 57 people to escape. A tribute to an East German soldier who jumped to freedom hangs on a nearby building.
The Tiergarten in central Berlin is an oasis of greenery and ponds in the middle of modern buildings of glass and chrome. After visiting the Memorial Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, or the Reichstag, you may want to relax in the Tiergarten. We crisscrossed the Tiergarten often during our days in Berlin as we walked from place to place seeing the famous sights. And we enjoyed every foray into this quiet place of tree-lined paths. It’s refreshing to meander through here after a long day of seeing all the sights.
The 520 acres of the Tiergarten make up the oldest public park in Berlin. It’s been compared to Central Park in New York. The Tiergarten began as a royal hunting grounds, then in the late 1600s Friedrich III, Duke of Prussia, declared it open to everyone – a “park for the pleasure of the general population.” During WWII, bombs damaged the park. With so much of Berlin suffering after the war, people cut down the trees in their desperation for firewood. Most of the green growth in the Tiergarten today dates only from the 1950s.
The shadow of World War II and then Russian rule reaches even this peaceful place. The Beethoven-Hayden-Mozart Memorial celebrates these composers. It’s impressive and large. When you get close, you can observe the bullet holes still in the marble from the battles of WWII. The memorial was taken down in 2000, restored, and reinstalled in its place of honor among the tall trees.
The Soviet War Memorial commemorates the Russian soldiers who died liberating Berlin from the Nazis. The marble used to build it came from Hitler’s Chancellery. Two T34 tanks are on display, and a statue of a Soviet soldier rises into the air, standing guard over the memorial.
The Berlin Cathedral
The impressive Berlin Cathedral, with its magnificent dome, is a landmark in central Berlin. The church sits among the stately museums on Museum Island, with the Spree River flowing nearby. The Berlin Cathedral is the largest Protestant church in the area and is well worth a tour.
A church was first built on this site in the fifteenth century. This was the court church to the Hohenzollern dynasty, the Prussian rulers, and then the German Emperors. Due to fires and restorations that destroyed earlier churches, the baroque-style Berlin Cathedral on the island today dates from 1905. Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to build a cathedral to rival St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. And he did.