When my Canadian cousins once asked what the most important city in Europe was to visit, my brother and I both said Berlin in unison. Apologies to Paris, London and EU HQ Brussels but the German capital’s influence on Europe, particularly the 20th Century, is substantial. A visit to Berlin is paramount if you want to understand Europe as a continent. So read on to see why I consider Berlin Europe’s unofficial capital.
Berlin’s history is integral to its identity. For the sake of brevity and for relevance to the sites listed below, Berlin’s history from the 18th century onwards will be outlined here.
Berlin was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia before Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck unified it with the remaining Germanic states in 1871. Berlin remained the capital of the new German Empire. Long before Bismarck’s rule, Berlin had been the epicentre of enlightenment thinking since Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786.
The end of World War I in 1918 saw the end of the German Empire and the beginning of a new democratic Germany with Berlin remaining as the capital. The new German constitution was formulated in the town of Weimar which is why Germany 1918 – 1933 is often called the Weimar Republic.
Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 marked the start of the Third Reich which ended in utter devastation in 1945, dividing not only Germany in two but Berlin as well. The Cold War had begun, with Berlin at its epicentre.
August 1961 saw the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall which sealed-off democratic West Berlin from the remainder of communist-controlled East Germany. Defection to the west was now virtually impossible. Some confusion over the relaxation of border crossings in a television press conference on 9th November 1989 effectively led to the end of the Wall. Berlin was free at last and on 3rd October 1990 the city once again became the capital of a unified Germany.
Berlin’s must-see visitor sites
- The Wall: Very little of the most infamous piece of grey concrete in history is still standing but the East Side Gallery near the Ostbahnhof railway station not only shows the dimensions of the barrier but showcases clever and thought-provoking murals by artists.
- Brandenburg Gate: The 18th century triumphal arch is now the iconic symbol of Berlin. It was here that US President Ronald Reagan gave his famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in 1987.
- Unter den Linden: Every city has their grand street and Unter den Linden is Berlin’s, having the added bonus of the Brandenburg Gate at its west end. The boulevard’s Hotel Adlon became the high society watering-hole of pre-WWII Berlin whilst its 21st century re-build continues the tradition in fine style.
- Reichstag: This 19th century construct, subject to an arson attack in 1933, is home to the German parliament, the Bundestag. It’s possible to access the building but tickets need to be booked well in advance.
- GDR Museum: This interactive museum shows what life was like behind the Wall of East Berlin and the Iron Curtain of East Germany. And yes, there’s a Trabant car on display which you can sit into.
- Holocaust Memorial: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate looks like a straightforward display of over two thousand concrete slabs but it is only when you walk through the display does the undulating floor create a sense of unease and claustrophobia.
- Topography of Terror: This aptly-named exhibition is an honest display of the persecution the institutions of Nazi and Cold War Germany inflicted not only on their own people but on the continent of Europe.
- Checkpoint Charlie: The most famous crossing point of the Berlin Wall connecting East Berlin with the American sector of West Berlin.
- Tiergarten: Continue through the Brandenburg Gate from Unter den Linden and you will arrive in Berlin’s answer to New York’s Central Park.
- Bebelplatz empty bookshelves: Bebelplatz is a public square surrounded by stunning regal-type buildings. However, the beauty of such architecture is swiftly counteracted by the stark empty bookshelves art installation by Israeli artist Micha Ullman. It consists of a glass window set into the ground allowing a view of subterranean empty bookshelves. The realisation that this was the site of the infamous book burning in 1933 leaves one utterly deflated. Beside the installation is a plaque with the following prophetic words from 1820 by German poet Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” As our dependence on the internet grows this is a reminder of the importance of books in society. Go visit it.
Other Berlin travel recommendations
Berlin’s nightlife is as legendary and as creative as its arts scene. The city’s long-time tolerant and liberal attitude has led Berlin to become one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world – Readers of my earlier work will know this from my Tolerance Tourism post on LGBT travel. Food-wise, a currywurst is a must. Its simplicity is its beauty – sausage with tomato ketchup and curry powder.
Berlin and I are good friends and an article I wrote some years ago on the city was published in The Irish Times. I’ve always been looking for an excuse to return to this utterly unique and fascinating city. With the introduction of a Ryanair route from my home airport of Kerry to Berlin Schönefeld the logistics of a visit have become easier. It also opens up my home county as a holiday destination for Berlin folk.
History aficionados will love Berlin. Artists and those in the creative industry will equally embrace the city. But given its significant role in European history everyone will identify with a part of Berlin. You simply cannot escape its past when walking the streets. Historical gravitas, stunning architecture, creative vibrancy and a friendly local population – Is it any wonder I bestow upon Berlin the title of Europe’s unofficial capital.
Berlin Travel Essentials
Built on the River Spree, Berlin is located in what was the old East Germany and is approximately 100km from the Polish border. The Berlin Airport website covers all Berlin airports. Currently, there are two airports in Berlin: Schönefeld (SXF) & Tegel (TXL). Both are set to close when Berlin Brandenburg (BER) opens, although this is not expected until 2020.
The Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Hbf / Main Railway Station) is one of Europe’s largest stations and is an excellent transit point to pretty much most of Europe. Berlin’s U-Bahn (underground rail) and S-Bahn (suburban rail) systems come recommended so for convenience try to stay near a U-Bahn or S-Bahn station if your accommodation is located outside the main city centre.
Getting from Schönefeld Airport to Berlin city centre: Schönefeld Airport is located south of Berlin in travel zone C. Train is the best option for travelling from Schönefeld Airport to Berlin city centre and you have a choice of two: The Berlin Airport Express (RE 7/ RB14) and S-Bahn 9.
You will need to purchase an ABC zone ticket and current prices can be found on Deutsche Bahn’s website. Tickets for both the RE7/RB14 and the S9 can be purchased at the ticket machines at Schönefeld Airport’s train station. Don’t forget to validate (date stamp) your ticket prior to boarding the train.
The Berlin Airport Express (RE 7/RB 14) leaves twice an hour and stops at Ostkreuz – Ostbahnhof – Alexanderplatz – Friedrichstraße (Friedrichstrasse) – Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The journey time from Schönefeld Airport to Berlin Hauptbahnhof using the Berlin Airport Express train is approximately 30 minutes.
S-Bahn 9 from Schönefeld Airport to Spandau runs approximately every 15 minutes and also stops at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Being an S-Bahn it makes more stops so the journey time varies from 45-55 minutes.
I highly recommend downloading this map of Berlin’s rail system.
If you are looking for further train options from Schönefeld Airport then I suggest searching on Deutsche Bahn’s website. Take note that Schönefeld Airport is known as Berlin-Schönefeld Flughafen on DB’s site and a Hauptbahnhof will be abbreviated to Hbf.
Recommended minimum stay in Berlin: 3 days to cover the main sites in the city centre only. Allow more days for day trips outside the city.
Take a look at my Germany Travel Tips post for further travel information and advice.
Journalist Matt Frei’s documentary about his home city of Berlin is the documentary to watch to get an insight into this extraordinary city and a crash-course into it’s extensive history.
The suffocating environment of Cold War Berlin is fictionalised in the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others. It tells the story of a Stasi agent (East Germany’s Secret Police) tasked with carrying out a surveillance operation to discredit a playwright. An astounding film, it works on every level from a technical, emotional and historical perspective.
The Deutschland 83 and 86 TV show revolves around decisions made in Berlin and is excellent for a little armchair travel prior to your visit.
Lonely Planet’s Berlin guide is difficult to beat as an all-round guide whilst the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Berlin is an excellent visual guide to Germany’s capital.
Such is Berlin’s depth of character as a city, it has equally inspired plenty of fiction writing. Two which stand out for me are John Le Carré’s espionage classic The Spy who came in from the cold, and Douglas Kennedy’s The Moment which uses Cold War Berlin as a backdrop to a story of self-discovery and romance.