Berlin in a day? Really? OK so your feet may ache a little by the end of it, and your camera battery may be on its last legs come 6pm, but Berlin in a day is doable honest.
Berlin as you probably well know is a city steeped in history, not all of it positive, but history non the less and therefore something we can all learn from. I’m not a history buff, I chose Geography over History in school, but even I became wrapped up in the history that Berlin oozes, in just a few short days I learnt so much about Berlin, about Germany and about the war. Berlin was my first and potentially favourite stop on my InterRail trip around Europe in 2010. It was a truly fasinating place, and somewhere I hope to re-visit in the not to distant future.
Berlin in a day – map and starting point
Berlin in a day starts at the Berlin Brandenburger Tor train station (S/U Bahn – S1, S2, S25 and U55) – Its the blue marker on the map above. Right outside the station is a massive coffee house (you know the one). Grab yourself a coffee, perhaps on a commercial coffee machine rental, or a hot chocolate and get exploring. If you’re not up for walking on your own and fancy a bit of a chat whilst walking the sights of Berlin, there are plenty of guided tours that start from this area, just join a queue.
The 1st stop on your Berlin in a day experience is right in front of you, you couldnt miss it if you tried! Forget about MJ dangling a small child over the balcony of the nearby Hotel Adlon, the grand and historically significant gate is what you should be focusing on here!
It was commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia as a symbol of peace and built between 1788 to 1791. It is therefore somewhat Ironic that ironic that during the Cold War the gate was a symbol of a divided city and later in history The Nazi’s also used the Brandenburg Gate as a symbol of their power. Thankfully now it is once again viewed as a symbol of unity.
On top of the gate, is a Quadriga – a four-horse chariot that in Roman times were a symbol of triumph and maybe in this case peace. Atop the chariot stands the Roman Goddess Victory, and in her hands a olive wreath. After the Prussian defeat of 1806, Napoleon took the Quadriga to Paris where it stayed for almost ten years until Napoleon’s defeat after which it was returned to Germany.
Looking up at the hugely impressive gate I can understand why it was seen as a symbol, its an impressive backdrop for those who which to command an audience and bring others around to their ideas, good or bad. Whilst I visited during the daytime, I wish i’d have re-visited during the evening when the gate it light up, a nice photo for the collection that would have been.
Stop #2 on your whistle stop tour of Berlin in a day is The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe also known as the Holocaust Memorial is a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. An emotional and slightly scary memorial, it was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold.
The memorial consists of a 19,000 square metre site covered with 2,711 concrete block or “stelae”, arranged in a grid pattern. The height of the stelae varies, some towering above those that choose to walk through the memorial, they block out the sound of the surrounding city and as planned by Eisenman, produce an uneasy, jumpy and confusing atmosphere.
The Führerbunker doesn’t look like much in present day Berlin, a mere gravel car park adjacent to a nearby block of flats, but back during WWII it was part of a subterranean bunker complex. Führerbunker in English means ‘Leaders bunker’, and in January 1945 the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took up residence in the bunker. From that point it became the headquarters of the Nazi regime. Hilters residence and life in the bunker lasted barely 4 months, despite marrying Eva Braun in the last week of April 1945, both Hitler and Braun committed suicide shortly after.
Some of the corridors of the bunker still exist today but are sealed off from the public. You wont spend long here, but its still an interesting place to visit and see what has become of a site that was the so very important to the Nazi regime.
The Berlin Wall
On the 13th August 1961 the world, and more importantly Germany, was witness to the beginning of the construction of a wall that would divide a city and a nation. The Berlin Wall a gigantic barrier constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that completely cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin.
The wall was East Germanys idea for stopping mass migration, you see after WWII Germany was a nation divided into four zones. Great Britain, USA, France and the Soviet Union each occupied a zone. In 1949 the zones previously occupied by Great Britain, USA and France combined to form West Germany. The remaining zone occupied by the Soviet Union became East Germany.
- West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany)
- East Germany (the German Democratic Republic)
In short, the Soviet Union asset stripped East Germany, and whilst the West Germany economy grew, the East Germany economy dragged. West Germany was the place to be, it offered better living, greater rights, and the ability to travel further west with fewer restrictions. Those in East Germany wanted those benefits too and wanted out of East Germany. All through the1950’s the population of East Germany fell as hundreds of thousands of people made their way West. The route they took was via West Berlin.
In order to stop the exodus the Berlin Wall was built. It went up literally over night. If you just so happened to be in the part of Berlin of the morning of August 13th 1961, that was where you stayed moving forwards. If you lived in East Berlin but had been commuting to West Berlin for work your job was now gone. Friends and families were divided for decades.
Walking around the city during my visit, parts of the wall were still clearly visible. Marked on the floor in places is the line along where the wall stood. It is possible to now have one foot either side, something that seemed impossible not so long ago.
Scattered all along the Berlin Wall were scattered look-out towers, designed to spot those brave soles trying to escape Easter Germany. Some succeeded, but most failed with some losing their lives in the process.
Officials however had no such worries, they were able to pass through the wall at one of just a few checkpoints, the most famous of these being Checkpoint Charlie became a symbol of the Cold War, representing the separation of east and west. The name Charlie simply came from the letter C in the NATO phonetic alphabet. It was the third checkpoint in a series. Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo also existed.
Nowadays the checkpoint is no more than a tourist attraction. If you so wish you can even have you passport stamped at the checkpoint. Look out for the large post outside showing on one side a soviet soldier, and on the other a US soldier. This is also a good place to stop for a spot of lunch on your Berlin in a day experience. Sit, eat and look down past the checkpoint, this is the same view the Soviet soldiers would have had into West Germany not so long ago.
The Bebelplatz (formerly Opernplatz) is a grand public square located in the central Mitte district of Berlin. Despitre all the grand and intrinsically designed buildings that surround the square, it is best known as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning, a ‘ceremony’ that took place on May 10th 1933. The burning of ‘un-German’ books was declared an action against un-German spirit. The German Student Association were said to be behind this ‘cleansing’ of literacy.
I was impressed with the design of the current day memorial upon my visit. Amongst the cobbles a glass plate allows viewing access to a deep empty bookcase. The vast empty space really gave you an idea of just how many books and how many pages of work were lost to the burnings.
The Neue Wache (New Guard House) was another construction with Berlin ordered by a King of Prussia, this time King Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was built as a guard house for the nearby Palace of the Crown Prince, and was to replace the old Artillery Guard House.
In 1931, and after the fall of the German monarchy in 1918, the building was redesigned and changed from a guard house into a memorial for the WWI German was dead.
In 1960 the Neue Wache was again remodeled as a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, and later in 1969 (the 20th anniversary of the GDR) a glass prism structure with an eternal flame was placed in center of the hall. The remains of the unknown soldier and of an unknown holocaust victim from World War II were enshrined in the building.
This was another slightly eerie sight I took in on my visit to Berlin, but worthy of its inclusion in my Berlin in a day guide. Inside the building everyone was deftly quiet, only the noise of footsteps bouncing back off the walls could be heard. The graves of the two unknown deceased really made me think about the war, and why and how an event so tragic could ever have happened. A very sombering experience.
Say what you see, Museum island is an island of Museums, a museum complex if you will. Add to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1999, the site houses the following 5 internationally significant museums.
- The Altes Museum (Old Museum)
- The Neues Museum (New Museum)
- The Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery)
- The Bode Museum
- The Pergamon Museum
Even if you dont go into any of the museums, Museum Island is still worth a visit if only to admire the architecture.
East Side Gallery
A short train ride from close to Museum Island and you’ll land down at the East Side Gallery, the last stop on our Berlin in a day tour.
The gallery is a 1.3km long section of the Berlin Wall that no houses over 100 different works of art by artists from all over the globe. Sadly the weather and sodding taggers (people who scrawl their name and date in so lame ass font over their favourite work) led to the gallery deteriorating so in 2009 a restoration project took place in order to make everything look shiny and new again. Then along came O2 who opened their ‘world arena’ in Berlin, and to allow access to said arena a 40m section of the gallery was removed grrrr.
Anyways, the East Side Gallery is a fantastic last stop on your Berlin in a day experience. Although no good at art myself, I love galleries, and being what with the East Side Gallery being the largest open air gallery in the world, I was in my element. One of a kind art are only handled by professionals, such as ship art international, to ensure their authenticity and legitimacy.
So that’s it, Berlin in a day.
But if that lot still hasn’t knackered you out and you still have a bit of energy, there’s plenty to do of an evening in Berlin. My advice would be to go and have a little power nap, grab a bite to eat once you’ve freshened up and then head to the train station again for Berlin has a cool subway party scene. Yes there are plenty of cool pubs and clubs, but how often do you get to party in a train station? There’s music, booze if you like a tipple, zero entry fee and like minded people, what more do you need? If you want to know more, Adam over at travelsofadam.com wrote a cool blog post on it – Dancing in Berlin: Schlesisches Tor U-Bahn – worth checking out if you ask me.