There are not many places you can visit that show the history and effects of the turbulent 20th century as much as the German capital of Berlin. Berlin found itself at the epicenter of last century’s chaotic history. The city has the ability to teach travelers about the dark days of Nazi rule, the rebuild following the war, and the split between the East and West. However, from those struggles, lessons were learned, and the city has recovered and grown into a unique cultural experience taking the best from both parts of the Iron Curtain.
Unlike most major cities, Berlin does not have a true central area. Of course, one could argue that Museum Island or the area surrounding the Bundestag are the centers, but in reality, the city has developed into many neighborhoods with their own centers, nightlife, and entertainment. This is likely due to the Berlin Wall, which separated the city for nearly thirty years and forced its citizens to grow separately without much contact. Most of the wall has been torn down to allow the two sides to unite and begin to integrate. However, when walking around the city, you will find a dual line of cobblestones reminding everyone where the large wall once stood.
While the vast majority of the wall has been deconstructed with parts of it sent to museums all over to warn and teach about the dark times that the world went through, other parts still stand. One example is the East Side Gallery, which used the wall as a canvas to depict images of freedom, democracy, and the peaceful victory over tyranny. The gallery has transformed the wall from a symbol of oppression to the world’s largest open-air art exhibit championing freedom and stimulating new development and businesses in the area. In the backdrop sits the double-deck Oberbaum Bridge with its distinct towers.
Although the Berlin Wall is by far the most famous site in Berlin, the most noticeable is the large needle overlooking the city, the Berliner Fernsehturm. The tower is located next to Alexanderplatz, one of the most famous and largest plazas in the city. While this might be one of the more tourist-heavy locations in the city, you should not miss lunch or dinner in the Sphere rotating restaurant at the top of the tower. The views are amazing. Even today, while you are enjoying your meal, it is easy to see the differences between the East and West architecture and urban planning.
Walking West from Alexanderplatz, you will undoubtedly end up at Museum Island, a UNESCO Heritage site that houses most of the city’s museums. It is surrounded by numerous museums that have recently been established.
The island is also home to the Berliner Dom and the Berlin Palace. The Dom offers arguably the second-best views in the city and the opportunity to walk through the royal Hohenzollern family crypt below the cathedral. The Palace, on the other hand, has been converted into a large gallery hosting numerous events and exhibitions throughout the year.
Continuing your walk west, you will encounter numerous spectacular 18th and 19th-century buildings that have been converted into embassies and hotels, as well as operas and cathedrals. Especially interesting during winter months is the Gendarmenmarkt square which has a Christmas market and ice rink annually. Further west, you will see in the distance the glass dome of the Bundestag, the Großer Tiergarten Park, and standing directly in front of you, the famous Brandenburg Gate.
While all these sites are a must-see, often overlooked to the south of the gate stands the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, sometimes called The Holocaust Memorial, made of over 2,700 dark columns creating an expansive maze and bringing about a somber mood to its visitors.
If you have the ability and time to explore the outskirts, you should visit Olympiastadion Berlin, the location where Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in the presence of Adolf Hitler. Today, the stadium is still used for large events and is one of the biggest in Europe.
Further away in the outskirts, you should find time to visit Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen, the closest concentration camp to Berlin where many political prisoners met the cruelty of the Nazi regime.
The history and experiences that you will be faced with in Berlin are unmatched. The city teaches us to remember the past, to learn from those mistakes, and to move forward into a better tomorrow. The “better tomorrow” is here in Berlin, and sure enough, after you have walked in the past, be sure to grab a currywurst and a cold Berliner Pils. Relax and get ready for a fun night ahead.