City Guide

Four Hours in Berlin 2007

31 Jul 2007 by Mark Caswell

No visit to Germany’s capital city Berlin would be complete without delving into the history of its infamous wall. Mark Caswell walks the line, and takes in some of the city’s well-known and often sobering sites

Berlin

1. Checkpoint Charlie

Start your walking tour on the corner of Zimmerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse, at the most famous of the Berlin Wall’s border crossings. Nicknamed Checkpoint Charlie by the Western Allies, this was the point where foreigners and Allied Forces would cross between East and West Berlin, and the scene of various successful (and fatally unsuccessful) attempts by East Berliners to escape to freedom in the west. The original iconic wooden shed on the American side of the checkpoint was removed in the 1980s, to be replaced by a larger metal building (now on display at the Allied Museum), but a replica was erected after reunification. A museum commemorating the crossing’s history is also located on Friedrichstrasse. Museum opening hours 9am-10pm daily, visit checkpointcharlie.org.

2. The Wall

Almost all of the Berlin Wall was demolished in the months leading up to Germany’s reunification in 1990, but a symbolic line of pebbles tracing its path still cuts through Berlin as a reminder of its significance. The 28-mile wall started life as a barbed-wire fence, gradually being strengthened to a concrete border during the 1960s – for a look at one of the few surviving pieces, follow the line west along Niederkirchenstrasse towards Potsdamer Platz. Here you’ll find a 200m stretch of the wall, part of the Topography of Terror, an outdoor collection of noticeboards detailing significant moments in the history of the Nazis, from the Gestapo to the Final Solution. Open 10am-6pm Tuesday to Sunday, English audio guides available. Visit topographie.de.

3. Holocaust Memorial

Follow the pebbles round through Potsdamer Platz and along Ebertstrasse until you reach the Holocaust Memorial (or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). Designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, it was inspired by the Jewish graveyard in Prague, and is an endless wave of 2,700 dark stone blocks of varying heights, built on undulating ground and separated by narrow walkways. Visitors can enter and exit the memorial at any of its alleyways, and as the ground subsides and the pillars get taller towards the centre, the effect is one of increasing claustrophobic isolation. There is an underground information centre at one corner of the memorial (open 10am-8pm Tuesday to Sunday). Visit holocaustmahnmal.de.

4. Reichstag

Back onto the wall’s path, head up towards the imposing Reichstag, seat of the German parliament before the Second World War and since reunification. The wall passes behind the back of the building and off through the River Spree, placing the bomb-damaged Reichstag in West Berlin and under Allied power during the Cold War. Since reunification the Neoclassical building has seen a glass viewing dome or cupola added courtesy of Sir Norman Foster, and has even been wrapped in paper by Bulgarian artist Christo. The viewing deck is open daily 8am-10pm and is free to enter, but expect long queues – to bypass the masses make a reservation at the Kafer Im Reichstag restaurant. Visit reichstag.de.

5. Brandenburg Gate

Retrace your steps along the wall and you’ll arrive at the Brandenburg Gate (in former East Berlin). Built in 1791, the 65ft-high gate was modelled on the Propylaea, the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens, and it remained unscathed throughout the Second World War while much of the surrounding Pariser Platz was destroyed. President Reagan delivered his famous “Tear down this wall” speech here in 1987, a plea that was heard by many on the other side. There is a Room of Silence in one pillar of the gate where visitors can sit and reflect (open daily 11am-6pm).

6. Unter den Linden

Walking through the Brandenburg Gate and into the former East Berlin you will arrive at the beginning of Unter den Linden. Literally translating as “Under the lime trees”, this thoroughfare remains one of the city’s most important streets, with universities, art galleries and shops lining its sides. Note the Hotel Adlon Kempinski on your right as you walk up the street – probably Berlin’s most famous hotel and the scene of Michael Jackson’s infamous baby-dangling scandal. Try to imagine this elegant and leafy boulevard during the Second World War, when the 250-year-old lime trees were pulled up by Hitler and replaced by stark propaganda poles and flags. Passing the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (state library) you’ll come to the Humboldt University, founded in 1810 and attended by such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. If you continue up to the end of Unter den Linden and across the River Spree you’ll arrive at Museum Island, with enough exhibitions and collections to fill four hours on its own (including the monumental Near Eastern antiquities on display at the famous Pergamon Museum). Visit museen-berlin.de.

7. Bebelplatz

Opposite the Humboldt University is a square which gained notoriety on May 10, 1933, when Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the burning of around 20,000 books by “ungerman authors” including HG Wells, Ernest Hemingway and Karl Marx. Look for the glass pane in the middle of the square, under which is housed the Empty Library, a row of bookcases commemorating the book-burning. The square is flanked by Berlin’s State Opera House and St Hedwig’s Cathedral (the city’s oldest Roman Catholic cathedral), as well as the newest addition to Berlin’s luxury Hotel scene – Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Rome.

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