World Facts Index > Germany > Berlin

A city that defies simple definition, Berlin is many things to many people. For some it is Europe's political powerhouse, for others a hedonistic party paradise. Epitome of Cold War division yet epicentre of unification, capital of Germany yet the least "German" of all German cities, Berlin is sophisticated yet down-to-earth, a city of colourful courtyards and grey high-rises, of teutonic efficiency and wacky haphazardness, of rigidity and tolerance, home to artists, bohemians and tens of thousands of gays and lesbians, but also to politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.

Berlin is a city of contrasts and contradictions, full of excitement and forever evolving. Perhaps the latter point is the most poignant. The old and new German capital is in a constant state of flux, always becoming something without having ever been. This phenomenon has accelerated since the fall of the Wall and efforts are now concentrated upon turning Berlin into an international metropolis, the new "capital of Europe". For the past decade, Berlin has been undergoing a major rebuilding process which is visible in the new cityscape around Potsdamer Platz and the Eastern city centre. But there is also a rebuilding process which is taking place less visibly - in the hearts and minds of Berliners.

The city is made up of 23 different districts, each with its own unique character. The following summary will help to give you an overview of this fascinating city and provide you with a guide to what you can do in each particular district and what you can expect to find there.

Let's begin in Mitte, Berlin's most central district which literally means "the middle". The site of the first settlement in the Middle Ages, Mitte contains some of the city's oldest buildings like Marienkirche and Nikolaikirche in the Nikolaiviertel, as well as many of Berlin's grandest buildings, which are strung out like pearls along the magnificent boulevard Unter den Linden. Stretching from Museum Island (with the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Pergamon Museum) past the imposing Berliner Dom and the lovely fountains and evergreens of the Lustgarten, past the splendid Crown Prince's Palace, Humboldt University and the State Opera House, the historic boulevard is crowned by the emblem of the old and new capital - the Brandenburg Gate.

Although it contains many of Berlin's architectural showpieces, Mitte is also an urban mishmash full of holes, imperfections and blemishes. The site of the former Royal Palace (pulled down in the 1950's) is now a rather bleak open space, dominated on one side by one of Germany's most controversial buildings, the Palast der Republik. Along with the TV Tower on Alexanderplatz, the former East German parliament is one of the city-centre's few remaining symbols of the GDR era. Just a decade ago, Mitte was scattered with grey concrete socialist high-rises. Many of these have now been replaced by capitalist temples of consumerism, such as the post-modern Volkswagen showroom on Unter den Linden or the futuristic glass department store Galeries Lafayette on Friedrichstraße. Other buildings, like Hotel Adlon on Pariser Platz, have been rebuilt in the classic style of the early 1900's.

A stone's throw north of the river Spree, the face of Mitte changes once again. This is the Mitte of bars, restaurants, cafés and clubs - the heart of Berlin's nightlife. It is also the district of alternative galleries and artistic experimentation. In the years after the fall of the Wall, a unique sub-culture sprung up in the area around Hackescher Markt and Oranienburger Straße. Art collectives and squatters moved into the empty, run-down buildings and brought new, alternative impulses to the area, symbolised today by the Tacheles culture centre or the Acud theatre. A decade later, this spontaneous, makeshift charm is gradually disappearing, but that's another story.

Let's stay east of the former border, although nowadays it's almost impossible to see where the Wall used to be, due to the major construction work taking place on both sides. The district to the north-east of Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, used to be the centre of alternative culture and political resistance in the GDR. But it has since been flooded by well-off West Germans, keen to settle in the charming turn-of-the-century houses around Kollwitzplatz. As in Mitte, alternative culture is now becoming more and more "establishment" - in the Kulturbrauerei for example - which is now home to a multi-screen cinema complex. Since Chancellor Schröder took US President Clinton out to dinner here, accompanied by the world's press, Prenzlauer Berg is no longer an insider tip. Nevertheless, Prenzlauer Berg still has some of Berlin's best bars, restaurants and clubs and is a great place to go out in the evening.

Friedrichshain, the district to the south of Prenzlauer Berg, has now taken over the mantle as the only remaining source of indigenous, alternative Berlin culture. A bit run-down in places, this was the last area to be cleared of squatters and is still the focal point for Berlin's left-wing anarchist scene. Architecturally speaking, Friedrichshain is an intriguing mixture of concrete socialist high-rises, monumental Stalin-era mammoths (along Karl-Marx-Allee) and stylish, late-nineteenth century town houses. The area around Simon-Dach-Straße is heaving with alternative bars, cafés and clubs and is a popular spot with students.

Crossing the river Spree at Oberbaumbrücke bridge, we reach the legendary Kreuzberg district. Situated next to the Wall in former West Berlin, Kreuzberg became infamous during the 1960's and 1970's as the centre of West Germany's anarchist scene - a haven for squatters, hippies, punks and left-wing intellectuals. Although any remaining anarchists have long since fled to neighbouring Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg is still the venue for violent demonstrations every 1st May - inevitably accompanied by pitched battles with the police. A safer bet is to visit the annual Carnival of Cultures, Germany's biggest multi-cultural street festival which takes place here every summer. Kreuzberg is home to many immigrants, including some 200,000 Turks. Some of this oriental flair can be savoured in the area around Kottbusser Tor and Oranienstraße, which also has numerous alternative bars and cafés.

Heading up Friedrichstraße, past the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof station and the Martin Gropius Building, we leave Kreuzberg and enter the Tiergarten district at Potsdamer Platz. For many years a huge construction site, Potsdamer Platz is now almost complete. Boasting an enormous shopping centre (the Arkaden) and entertainment complexes such as the Cinemaxx and Imax cinemas, a casino and musical theatre, Potsdamer Platz is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. The real highlight of the district, however, is the sublime Tiergarten park, a refuge for nature-lovers, joggers and sunbathers. Full of ponds, grottos and dotted with sculptures, Tiergarten park is crowned in the middle by the golden Siegessäule victory monument. Once a year the peace is broken, as millions of young people descend on Tiergarten for the Love Parade, a hedonistic feast of music and dance for techno fans from all over the world.

The north side of the park is the new heart of political power. Lined up one after the other are the newly-constructed ministries, the monumental Reichstag parliamentary building and the equally monumental Chancellor's Office. Only the palatial Schloss Bellevue, seat of the German President, exudes some of the calm of the surrounding park.

Schöneberg, a scenic nineteenth century bourgeois quarter, is a popular place to go for an afternoon coffee, an evening cocktail or a bit of night-time partying. The cafés and bars around Winterfeldtplatz are always full, particularly after the market on Saturday afternoons. On the other hand, the streets around Nollendorfplatz and Motzstraße - home to Berlin's gay scene - are at their busiest (and most colourful) in the early morning hours.

It's now high time to discover Berlin's "second" city-centre, the triangle between Ernst-Reuter-Platz, Wittenbergplatz and Adenauerplatz which makes up the centre of Western Berlin. Most of this area, which had its heyday back in the Golden Twenties, lies in the Charlottenburg district. It's main artery is Kurfürstendamm, affectionately known by Berliners as "Ku'damm". This used to be one of Europe's finest and most elegant boulevards until it was reduced to rubble during the Second World War. It regained some of its flair in the seventies and eighties and is still a good place to see and be seen, but it seems to be losing out in the popularity contest with Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße in Eastern Berlin, which now attract more attention and more investment.

The Memorial Church on Breitscheidplatz, however, is still brimming with camera-wielding tourists. Ku'damm's side-streets still bristle with theatres and hotels - such as the Kempinski, Savoy or Steigenberger - and with boutiques, sushi bars and art galleries. The area around Savignyplatz is a great place to go for a bite to eat or for a late-night cocktail, and the food hall on the top floor of KaDeWe department store is a feast for the senses - but whoops! - we're now back in Schöneberg again!

Charlottenburg's crowning glory (literally) is Charlottenburg Palace, which has some fantastic museums at the front (the Egyptian Museum, Bröhan Museum and the Berggruen Collection) as well as the idyllic Schlosspark royal gardens at the back - a popular place for a Sunday afternoon stroll. The Funkturm Tower, a smaller copy of the Eiffel Tower, rises up over the Charlottenburg Exhibition Centre and the Intenational Congress Centre and offers great views over Western Berlin.

Well, we've now covered the inner-city - so what do the remaining districts have to offer?

The south-west of the city is the place where wealthy Berliners live. Largely spared during the War, there are plenty of lovely villas in Gruewald, part of the Wilmersdorf district and around Dahlem in Zehlendorf, which is also home to Berlin's Free University. The area around Lake Wannsee is a particularly popular spot with Berlin's high-society - perfect for mooring the yacht at the bottom of the garden!

Steglitz is friendly, green and clean and has two major attractions: The spectacular Botanical Gardens and the wonderful shopping facilities around Schloßstraße.

More down-to-earth are the working-class districts of Wedding in the north and Neukölln in the south, which is sometimes referred to as the "Berlin Bronx". Although they both have a reputation as ghettos for the poor, unemployed and otherwise down-and-out, they are not as bad as they are made out to be. In fact, they are lively places with an earthy proletarian flair, a place to meet "real" Berliners.

The Eastern districts, on the other hand, can't escape from the shadow of communist East Germany, even though the fall of the Wall has changed these areas beyond belief. Most of the grey concrete towers in places like Lichtenberg, Weißensee, Treptow, Hohenschönhausen or Marzahn have been repainted in friendly pastel colours and now boast the largest entertainment complexes and the most modern shopping malls in the region. There's plenty to discover here, such as the world's second biggest Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee or the monumental Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park.

Talking of parks, Berlin is a city full of green oases, like Volkspark Friedrichshain and Humboldthain, Hasenheide and Jungfernheide, Rehberge and Britzer Gardens. Many parks were kept intact for West Berliners, who couldn't leave the city during the Wall-years and needed to have lakes and parks within city limits. Berlin's many rivers and canals - such as the beautiful Landwehrkanal - are flanked on both sides by broad parks and run through the city like ribbons of green and blue.

History of Berlin

Berlin is in pretty good shape - despite, not because of its 800 year history.

It all started in the aptly named "Mitte" (=centre) when, in 1300, the two thriving trading towns of Berlin and Coelln on the river Spree, joined forces. All but destroyed by the Thirty Years War, the young city invited its first immigrants to make up for the loss in population: French Protestants, persecuted in their home country and looking for religious freedom, were a welcome addition to the work force. Their influence lasts, for example in the French Cathedral or the Berlin dialect, which still calls a sidewalk a "Trottoir".

It fell on the Prussian king, Frederick William I, the famous "soldier king", to develop the city further, and in 1709, by merging more surrounding towns, he made Berlin his main residence. His son Frederick the Great strengthened Prussia's role as a major (military) player on the European map. At this time, his court became a cradle of Enlightenment, frequently visited by the philosopher Voltaire. This appreciation of the humanities would pave the way for centuries to come - the classicist architect Schinkel, whose sophisticated Schauspielhaus and Altes Museum and the fact that Berlin boasts three opera houses is a testament to this fact (Deutsche Oper Berlin, Deutsche Staatsoper, Komische Oper.)

The Napoleonic occupation in 1806 was met with fervent patriotism and a liberal reform movement. However, the bourgeois revolution of 1848 was short-lived and William I became emperor of the (second) German Reich in 1871, with Berlin as its capital.

Berlin was booming during those "Founding Years": new industrial giant Siemens built a modern subway that transported 30 million people every year. Scientists like Robert Koch were at the forefront of research and development, as were Gerhard Hauptmann and Wassily Kandinsky in the arts.

All this was cut short by the First World War. Berlin was the focus of the 1918/19 (failed) revolution, and went on to become the capital of the first fragile democracy, the Weimar Republic, in the 1920's. It assumed the status of glamorous European capital of arts and entertainment, while at the same time being a poorhouse. At this time, artists like Brecht, Gropius, and Feininger forged out a legacy that has left a lasting impression, not simply confined to the city of Berlin.

Berlin remained the capital during the "Third Reich". Hitler even envisioned it as "Germania", the capital of his coming global empire, and started to leave his megalomanic mark on the architecture and the infrastructure of the city. Berlin suffered under Nazi rule, especially the persecuted left-wing movements and the vast Jewish community. More than 60,000 Berlin Jews, nearly half of the community, didn't survive the Holocaust. Thousands more fled the country. Jewish cultural life is only now beginning to experience a revival (Scheuenviertel).

1945: Berlin lies in rubble, its population halved - the city is divided by the USA, Britain, France and the USSR. All too soon it becomes the focus and symbol of Cold War animosities (and the preferred location for spy movies). While the GDR proclaimed East Berlin its capital, the Western parts remained officially under Allied supervision until 1990. On both sides of The Wall --erected in 1961 to stop East Berliners from fleeing-- Berlin continued to spearhead reform movements, be it the alternative anti-nuclear and anti-war groups in the West or opposition to the one-party regime in the East. Thirty-five years later, during his visit to Berlin in 1998, US President Bill Clinton would make a point of echoing John F. Kennedy'ns words, spoken at the wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").

The fall of The Wall in 1989 wasn't entirely unexpected. With their "Ostpolitik", level-headed politicians on both sides had been working towards a cautious reconciliation since the 70's. But hardly anybody had expected the fundamental division to dissolve any time soon. An entire generation had grown up with the knowing Berlin as a divided city.

It was the "peaceful revolution" of the East German people that made reunification possible (see Alexanderplatz). Ten years later, unification is still a work in progress. Berlin is once again the capital of a democratic state, which now carries the title the "Berlin Republic" with hope for the future (Reichstag).


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