It has been the capital of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and finally, today, the Federal Republic of Germany. Each year more than 10 million visitors flock there from abroad, making it the most-visited city in Germany. People just can’t forget about Berlin.
Each of the city’s twelve districts has a unique personality, and this is what lends Berlin a small-town atmosphere quite contrary to its actual size. Over centuries, the city has expanded by engulfing surrounding villages and adding their cultures and populations to its numbers.
Once upon a city
At the end of the 12th century, Berlin was born of two merchant settlements on opposite sides of the Spree River: Berlin and Cölln (now called Mitte). In 1701, Friedrich III had himself crowned Friedrich I, King of Prussia, and Berlin became his royal residence. After about a decade of rule, King Friedrich I declared the unification of the five towns surrounding the original settlement: Berlin, Cölln, Friedrichswerder, Dorotheenstadt, and Friedrichsstadt. The population swelled from a little under 10,000 to 55,000.
Berlin became the capital of what we now think of as Germany in 1871. Soon after, the city enveloped still more surrounding towns as Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf, Lichtenberg, Spandau, Niederbarnim, and Teltow officially became part of the city. This conglomeration of towns roughly comprises the space known as Berlin today.
At the end of World War II much of the city had been reduced to ruins, and only half of the population remained. The Allies divided Berlin into four sectors and attempted to administer them jointly. Political differences between the sectors, however, eventually led to blockades and, when the border between East and West was closed by East German leader Walter Ulbricht in August 1961, the infamous Berlin Wall.
Once again united and the Berlin Wall now just a museum exhibit, the city is thriving. The bohemian, the business-oriented, and the curious are drawn to a reputation as magnetic as that of New York City and Paris. If you’ve only heard of one city in Germany, that city is probably Berlin.
Tourists visiting Berlin for the first time often feel overwhelmed. The city is brimming with enough “must-see” sights to fill entire guidebooks. Despite the destruction during World War II, Berlin still has a lengthy list of important historical sights-what you might call the tourists’ classics.
The Brandenburg Gate is often the first on any Berlin-travel itinerary. Once one of several majestic city gates and now the entrance to Unter den Linden, the columned structure is almost constantly surrounded by tourists snapping photos, the area made colorful by the street performers who come to entertain them. To the left of the gate, a Free Berlin City Tour guide might tell you, is the infamous hotel where Michael Jackson once dangled an infant from a balcony. There is very little, it seems, that hasn't happened in Berlin.
Just one block north of Brandenburg Gate, you’ll find the Reichstag, that is, the Germany parliamentary building. The Reichstag was opened at the end of the 19th century and housed the German parliament until a fire in 1933 severely damaged the structure. No serious reconstruction efforts were made until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when architect Norman Foster led the project to refurbish the building. In 1999 it opened its doors again, and the German parliament has continued to meet there ever since.
Checkpoint Charlie is another must-see for first timers in Berlin. Though tourism has commercialized the surrounding area, a replica border guardhouse stands on the spot where crossings between East and West Berlin were once regulated. A private museum called Haus am Checkpoint Charlie is located nearby.
Three historically significant must-sees may already sound like enough, but the list of sights continues: Museum Island, the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum, the TV Tower, Memorial Church on Kurfürstendamm, and Hackesche Höfe are just a few of the most memorable landmarks. And if you ask the locals instead of following the guidebooks’ recommendations, you’ll end up with another list of must-sees entirely. The lesson is clear: Berlin is not a city that can be seen in one day.
Beneath Berlin’s surface you’ll find another world - not just the daily lives of Berliners that play out away from the bustle of tourist attractions, but an extensive network of tunnels, train tracks, bunkers, catacombs, and bomb shelters that vein the city’s foundations.
Berliner Unterwelten is a non-profit organization that has spent years digging out, restoring, and researching Berlin’s underbelly. The project is funded by guided tours of subterranean Berlin offered daily. Tours cost around 10 to 20 Euros and are offered both in English and in German.
BVG, Berlin’s public transportation company, also offers a unique view of underground Berlin. Every two weeks on a Friday night, the company hands out hard hats and takes visitors on a tour of the subway tunnels in an open-roofed subway car. Though the tour is a steep 50 Euros per person, it is usually booked at least six months in advance.
Another favorite set of offbeat attractions are the city's flea markets. Of the dozens of flea markets that take place weekly in the city, the Mauerpark is one of the most well-visited. Goods both new and old are offered for sale by locals, and sometimes a unique karaoke performance will end up being the prize of the day.